18 August 2017

How to Melbourne Fringe 2017

How to Fringe 2017
Melbourne Fringe
14 September – 1 October
melbournefringe.com.au 

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
malthousetheatre.com.au

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
fortyfivedownstairs
to 13 August
fortyfivedownstairs.com


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
malthousetheatre.com.au

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
darebinarts.com.au
littleonestheatre.com.au

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
fortyfivedownstairs
to 30 July
fortyfivedownstairs.com

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
mtc.com.au

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
thebutterflyclub.com

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.

14 July 2017

Mini review: Paris

Paris - A Rock Odyssey (A tribute to Jon English)
Music Theatre Melbourne in association with Stella Entertainment
13 July 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
to 15 July 2017
melbournerecital.com.au

Paris. Jordon Mahar, Brian Mannix, Jack Oriley

With only four performances, the concert version of Paris at Melbourne Recital Centre runs until Saturday. As a tribute to the late Jon English, it's made with the kind of love that proves what an experience Paris could, and should, have been.

When the recording of Jon English and David Mackay's rock opera Paris was released in 1990, there was hope of a full-scale show. When English released the amateur rights in the 2000s, there were some small scale productions, and it remains popular with schools, but it may never be seen as it was envisioned.

Telling the story of the Trojan War (Troy and the giant horse) around the love story of Paris and Helen, it requires a huge cast and a design that can encompass a bloody war, raging oceans and a giant horse. Who doesn't want to see that!

Musically and structurally, it's also a product of the 1980s and – like many of the shows we loved at the time – its story cliches, lyric rhymes and 80's-tv-soundtrack chords struggle to sit with contemporary expectations of music theatre.

But none of that matters, especially if you remember the 1980s as well as most of the audience did.
And none of which make this concert version anything less than wonderful.

With a large chorus and a knock-em-dead cast including Mattthew Manahan (Paris), Madeleine Featherby (Helen), Kerrie Anne Greenland (Cassandra) and Mark Dickinson (Menelaus), it's easy to see the show that was in English's mind when he wrote it.

Throw in some some bonus 80s and 90s rock casting with John Waters (Ulysses), Tim Freedman (Agamemnon) and a scene stealing Brian Mannix (Sinon) and it's even easier to imagine a time when hair was big, grunge and electronica were new, and the words 'rock' and 'opera' still belonged together.

Musically, it still packs a punch (I'm surprised at how much I'm still singing today) and dramatically, it finds the emotion, dilemma and tension that take it from 'we know this one' to 'what's-going-to-happen?'.

Maybe, it shouldn't be the show that never happened? It needs some development and to be brought into now, but it could be amazing.

And if you still miss Jon English, you don't need me to tell you to go.

13 July 2017

Mini review: Do Not Collect $200

Do Not Collect $200
11 July 2017
24 Moons Bar
to 14 July
Facebook event page


Do Not Collect $200 opened on Tuesday night and there's already a black market developing to get hold of sold-out tickets. Capitalism, you always find a way...

Developed from an original idea by Harley Hefford, Do Not Collect $200 is a live and immersive  game of Monopoly.

And it's so much fun!

In the darkness of the 24 Moons club in Northcote, groups sit around tables with modified Monopoly boards and play like they play on a holiday – do we ever play Monopoly when we're not on a holiday? Roll the dice, move your piece (a lolly; don't eat it) and hope to land well.

There are physical chance cards that can send you to the bank for a bonus, but the properties you buy are tickets to interactive performances and experiences created by the team of over 30, including SM favourites like Isabel Angus and James Jackson. 

The one-on-one and small-group experiences are about our relationships to money and a reminder that this game was originally made to criticise and question capitalism – until players embraced the greed.

You might score and buy a trip to the exculsive Club 2050 (the blue Mayfair square) or get sent to Centrelink. Both are recommend, but there are so many I missed and it's easy to want to go back to experience it all.

The game is designed to take away any concerns about playing with strangers (yay for rules) but what takes it to a level of awesome is the app – developed by Adam Whiteside –  that manages the experience.

Players download the app (that's easy to access on a website) to their phones and are given a personal code on entry. The app manages your banking (the rent flows in) and when you physically land on a square on the board, you click the corresponding square on the app and follow the instructions. You can buy or rent  or are sent to the likes of Relationship Counselling or Jail. When it's your turn to go to an experience, the app gives you a message complete with directions to the performance space.

The app is brilliant is ready to be used for what could easily become an ongoing event with new experiences in new places.

And unlike the official game rules, there are opportunities to break the system and do some good.

Meanwhile, keep an eye one the Facebook page for news about tickets and hold onto any that you have.

12 July 2017

Guest review: Pisca

Melbourne Cabaret Festival
Pisca
2 July 2017
Chapel Off Chapelmelbournecabaret.com
to 2 July

Guest reviewer: Jack Beeby

Picsa

Cameron Taylor is Pisca, a hapless gosling with a golden voice who has been charming the pants off Chapel Off Chapel as part of this year’s Melbourne Cabaret Festival shows in development series.

Pisca is the whimsical tale of a freshly hatched baby bird (Taylor) who, suddenly finding themself alone and must navigate a brand new and unfamiliar world. On their adventures, they discover the strange world of night time, revel in the colourful brilliance of spring, learn to fend for and feed themself, attempt (with varying success) to make friends, and evade the persistent looming threat of an unseen hunter.

Though Pisca is largely mute, save for an occasional plaintive quack, at the turn of a beat they croon and warble their way through a thoughtful selection of pop songs and jazz standards that lend a contemporary relatability to the narrative.

The relatively straightforward plot is nicely embellished with a few well-chosen and wittily executed side narratives, including the backstory of Pisca’s ill-fated parents (told through some less-than-conventional sock puppetry) and Pisca’s very physical encounter with a mightily formidable drop of water.

Stripped of spoken text, Taylor’s use of clowning and physical comedy is well crafted and captivating to behold. Their talent for conveying story without verbal language is strong and Pisca’s central character quickly impresses on the audience and proves to be heart-wrenchingly endearing.

Throughout the show, Taylor extends a number of gentle invitations for audience participation, from warbling a rendition of The Beatles’s "Black Bird", from the seating bank in pitch darkness, to literally fishing an audience member from the crowd and preparing them to be cooked and eaten.

The show’s design (also by Taylor) situates us in the simplistically evocative and playful world of storybook nostalgia. The set pieces – a nest, a tree and an awful lot of flowers – are largely used as conceptual signposts, and most of the actual world building is done through Taylor’s thoughtful gesture and clever lighting.

Almost every element is perfectly blended to create a whimsical world of simplistic beauty and charm. Taylor’s command and subversion of theatrical convention, along with the creation of a character that I’m sure will prove timelessly endearing, make Pisca a gorgeously entertaining show.

11 July 2017

Review: The Rapture

The Rapture
Finucane & Smith
1 July 2017
fortyfivedownstairs
to 15 July
fortyfivedownstairs.com

Moira Finucane


The Rapture is a new work by Finucane & Smith – do I need to say more – and a community of artists who continue to create space where art offers hope and audiences dance.

It’s mostly a solo work by Moira Finucane; solo that’s only possible with the support and contribution of many, including a Mama Alto, Clare St Clare, Shirley Cattunar and Miss Chief on the stage, and music by Darrin Verhagen and Ben Keene. And Jackie Smith.

In the hazy underground of fortyfivedownstairs, there’s a catwalk that rejects any thought that imperfect isn’t exquisite. Here, Moira channels every god and devil that’s ever been worshipped or dismissed as she explores the love and despair that makes humans search for more than what we think we are. Then in a blink, she’s the person maybe only seen at home when no one is looking. Never assume that the divine are more than human.

Here naked means nothing more than naked and cheap tomato sauce from the supermarket is as much art as the hand-sewn costumes and original music created from hours of frustration and joy.

Moira’s performance is uncensored – no, that’s not the right word. So much of what we see in theatre is created for others: for subscribers, critics, ticket buyers, boards, bosses and funding bodies. And if it fails to thrill, the “fors” are blamed for not getting it or daring to be bored or disconnected.

Moira’s performance is self-indulgent – that’s not it either. Self indulgence on a stage doesn’t welcome an audience and brings little more than pleasure to the self-pleasuring artist.

Self indulgence and self censorship are for self. This work is deeply personal, but if it were all for herself, it wouldn’t connect and there wouldn’t a growing community of audiences (all over the world, now) who know they are as much a part of the experience as the artists who create it.

The Rapture comes from the very personal and reaches to places that are unknown but familiar. Even if you haven’t been in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and swung between despair and ecstasy at the human capacity to grieve and to treasure, you know what it’s like to think what you’d give up if you had to. Even if you can’t see structural oppression, even if you cringe at imperfection, even if you don't love polar bears, there's a place where thought falls away and we connect – even if you have no idea why.

We know when we're struggling and we usually know why. The Rapture gives us no excuse not to hope. It doesn't get much better than that.




04 July 2017

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along
Watch This
30 June 2017
The Lawler, Southbank Theatre
to 15 July
watchthis.net.au

Nelson Gardner, Nicole Melloy & Lyall Brooks. Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Jodie Hutchinson

My review is on themusic.com.au

27 June 2017

Review: Model Citizens

Model Citizens
Circus Oz
22 June 2017
The Big Top in Birrarung Marr
to 16 July
circusoz.com

Model citizens. Circus Oz. Photo by Rob Blackburn

I always leave a Circus Oz show feeling happy, remembering that the world is full of amazing people and knowing that I have to remember this when the boring dickheads seem to be in control.

Model Citizens is Artistic Director Rob Tannion's first major show with the company. He's taken everything that's loved about the company's ratbag attitude and rejection of social conformity and sent it spinning to a new level of theatricality and artistic cohesion. 

With a mostly-new troupe of simply amazing performers, this new work questions the idea and rules of being an Australian. Are we role models or all-the-same models that look and think like we're told to? What are the rules of getting through each day?

Some of the content is obvious – like a pink mohawk being questioned by the blue and white majority – but perhaps we need to be reminded that everyone is welcome here and we can do with some help in letting anyone who doesn't feel welcome know that we're trying to change the attitudes of the boring dickheads.

Michael Baxter's design (and Laurel Frank's costumes; Laurel is a founding member of the circus) distorts perspective. With a magnificent colour palette of 1950's blue, the design re-works and re-imagines traditional circus apparatus to look like oversized and distorted household objects – like the irons and safety pins that all belong in model homes.

Highlights include a glorious multiple slack-rope with violin routine, a credit card balance stack, and group aerial work that never ceases to amaze. And what show isn't made better with a song about a Weber barbie?

The Circus Oz world is a pretty amazing place to visit. Here anyone can be as strong and/or as pretty as they like, everyone is welcome and live music always makes everything better. Every rule about the world outside of the big top is questioned but once you're in, it's a place where support is met with support and everyone can fly because they trust and welcome everyone else.

Maybe the rules aren't that complicated after all.

24 June 2017

Guest review: The Very Worst of The Tiger Lillies

The Very Worst of The Tiger Lillies
Memo Music Hall
18 June 2017
tigerlillies.com
one night stand

Guest reviewer: Jack Beeby 

SM: I had a holiday (Japan is simply the best and I discovered Takarazuka Revue, who have ruined music theatre for me as much as Tokyo trains have ruined public transport), and Jack Beeby saw The Tiger Lillies while they were in town for one night. I remember how much I loved them the first time I saw them (and still do) and was a teeny bit jealous.

The Tiger Lillies


JB: The Tiger Lillies, international peddlers of peril, returned to Australia for the briefest of tours, including a one-night stop at St Kilda’s Memo Music Hall, to showcase the most sordid morsels of their 28-year canon in The Very Worst of The Tigerlillies.

For those who are yet to be indoctrinated into the band’s modest yet impassioned throng of followers, The Tigerlillies (in their current incarnation) are Adrian Stout, Jonas Golland and Martyn Jacques. Together they wrangle an impressive array of instruments, including a double bass, saw, guitar, theremin (Stout), customised drum kit (Golland), home-made electric ukulele, piano, and a sparkly green piano accordion (Jacques). Fuelled by Balkan-inspired time signatures and fiercely shrill vocals, these musical miscreants dispense a unique brand of grotesque punk cabaret, which has earned them a global cult following.

Through their songs, The Tiger Lillies almost exclusively conjure stories of human suffering and vice, often laced with macabre cautionary morals and told with visceral imagery that is most definitely not for the weak of stomach. Although the sadistic content and unflinchingly vivid depiction of these tales will certainly prove to be confronting for some, the group’s thoughtful composition, musical skill and theatrical delivery imbues each piece with an artistry that is wholly captivating.

The first act of The Very Worst solidly situates itself in the bygone world of ill-fated European carnivals, of ethically-barren sailors and transients, opium dens and brothels. Within this landscape, the group spin tales of desperation and devilry, of victims of extreme abuse and the perpetrators of horrific crimes. The content of this first act does not vary an awful lot. The pervasive energy of the set is slow and subdued and, while each story is its own work of narrative art, words like ‘corpse’, ‘whore’, ‘pimp’, ‘beat’ and ‘drugs’ are recycled from song to song with an almost tiresome regularity. With so much content to draw on from their 28-year catalogue, I found the lack of texture in this first set a little disappointing.

When the band return for the second act, we are treated to a selection of their more high-energy morality fables about religion, mortality and the bleak disaster of the human experience – songs that showcase the aggressive nihilistic passion and fierce musical punch for which they are so beloved and notorious.

Together, the three band members are a gaunt and gruesome visual spectacle. Their uniform of white grease paint and conventionally gentlemanly attire casts them as a chorus of grotesque phantoms, who find playful nuance in their strong individual characterisation – Stout is seedy and skeletal as he lurches over his upright bass; Golland is endearingly mournful as the group’s pallid percussionist; and Jacques is some kind of demonic clown, unleashing a howling falsetto that somehow manages to take over his entire elastic face.

While overall the energy of this performance seems a little more subdued than those of bygone decades, The Tiger Lillies’ deft musical skill and masterful talent for rich and evocative storytelling remains one of contemporary cabaret’s most wicked delights.

PS from SM: I still want "Getting Old" played at my funeral.

27 May 2017

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
StageArt
20 May 2017
Chapel off Chapel
to 10 June
stageart.com.au

Spring Awakening. Photo by Belinda Strodder
Melbourne’s had the opportunity to see two adaptions of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Spring Awakening this month. Stage Art’s production of the 2006 musical – which won eight Tonys, including Best Musical – is the better known and opened at Chapel off Chapel on the weekend that Daniel Lammin’s powerful Awakening closed its second season to critical love and full houses at fortyfivedownstairs.

The original play, sub-titled "A children's tragedy", was censored and banned for its confrontation of teenage sex, sexual ignorance, rape, abortion, abuse, suicide, depression and the failure of adults to educate and love the children in their care. It’s still performed because it still feels far too like now.

With its indie rock sound track, the musical, by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, continues to develop a near cult following as it strips away the pretence of happy-ending music theatre. It talks as much to teenagers, who recognise a world where they are denied knowledge and power, as to the adults who let this happen.

Immediately striking for those familiar with the music is director Robbie Carmellotti’s change “from nineties rock to a modern music festival sound”. While letting the singers shine, it brings a new and more gentle perspective to the show and removes some of the anger and desperation of its expected rock.

Already less angry, the tone is set early with an inconsistent mix of humour and unearned emotional outpourings that tell the audience what should be felt rather than showing characters who feel. Hanschen doesn’t need to be high camp to like men, but, at least, the Hogan’s Heroes “I see nu-think” accents are more ridiculous than offensive.

There's humour in Spring Awakening, but the content is serious and too many laughs come from the melodrama of extreme emotion or from laughing at issues of sexual ignorance, violence and depression.

After Awakening, I have to discuss the end of Act 1 where teenagers Wendla and Melchior have unplanned sex in a barn and its dramaturgical choices range from rape to loving sex. The musical's book leaves room for interpretation; however, it also establishes that the 14-year-old girl knows nothing about sex and the 14-year-old boy thinks he knows everything about sex. Consent isn't possible – even if the characters think it’s romance. Awakening confronted with rape. It ripped the hearts of its audience by continuing to explore the aftermath from both points of view and reflected on every teen-rape story that includes “but he’s such a good young man”, “what about his reputation?” and “what did she expect to happen?”.

This sex is played as seduction, supported by the cast surrounding the couple with fairy lights. Act 2 opens where Act 1 ends, except she's naked; he's not. The teenage child with no experience or knowledge of sex is presented as a sexualised (implied post-orgasm) adult with all the control and power that accompany that knowledge and experience. In case there's any doubt, she lovingly holds his hand when she sings about guilt and confusion. Which makes for a much easier resolution for the hero Melchior.

Many choose to create a less-confronting Spring Awakening, but the choice to be safe supports the very issues that this powerful piece of theatre is trying to change.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

24 May 2017

Review: Minnie and Liraz

Minnie and Liraz
Melbourne Theatre Company
22 May 2017
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 24 June
mtc.com.au

Minnie & Liraz. Virginia Gay, Rhys McConnochie, Nancye Hayes. Photo by Jeff Busby

One of the many things I love about Lally Katz's writing is that it really doesn't matter when a new show doesn't quite hit the mark. Often new writing needs to get on a stage and be seen before it really finds what it's meant to be and Minnie and Liraz, MTC, needs some time on (and off) the stage to find its stride.

The 90-something Cohens, Minnie (Nancye Hayes) and Morris (Rhys McConnochie), have been married for 70ish years and are living in an expensive, bland and peach-coloured retirement home in Caulfield (that doesn't feel like Caulfield). When Minnie's bridge partner dies, Liraz (Sue Jones) is  determined to take her place. The Cohens don't like aggressively loud Liraz, but she does have a single 36-year-old grandson (Peter Paltos) who might be perfect for their single 38-year-old granddaughter (Virginia Gay) – grandchildren would be worth the price of Liraz in the family. And for a lot of the night, the story plays out how it's expected to – but this is a Lally Katz play, so it's easy to reject the peach-coloured view of the world before getting too comfortable.

Katz writes from her life and the Cohens are based on her own grandparents and, perhaps, her own experience of finding someone who's your-kind-of-awesome in your late 30s. At her best, Katz's characters are created from such a place of love and understanding that it's impossible to see them as fiction.

Minnie and Liraz is at its most delightful when it explores character. With loving and detailed performances and direction (Anne-Louise Sarks) that focus on character, the love for these people  drive it far more than its story.

However, as the romance trajectory and the death of at least one oldies is inevitable, the plot and climax feel forced – no matter how funny – and there's a lot of awkward exposition that bring us back to watching the construct of the play rather than being in the world with these people. Much of the exposition is through Norma (Georgina Naidu). She's the staff member who knows her residents too well but always feels like the outsider or a convenience, like her running a memoir class that lets Morris tells the story that  tells everything about him but doesn't sit in the narrative.

Minnie and Liraz often feels as peachy safe as its decor and design. But does anybody really like peach? Lets hope we get the chance to see the much darker and tighter work that it will become.


23 May 2017

Review: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady
Opera Australia and John Frost
16 May 2017
Regent Theatre
to 27 July
myfairladymusical.com.au

My Fair Lady. Photo by Belinda Strodder

"Words, words, words!
I'm so sick of words
I get words all day through."

This was always my favourite song from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Even with misguided teen romance-goggles, I appreciated Eliza's frustration with being told what to do, think and say. Show her! Show me! Show us!

Which is hard to do in a theatre that doesn't let most of the audience connect with the show.

Opera Australia and John Frost have re-creacted the original 60-year-old iconic Broadway production. To bring some relevance (and bonus music-theatre nerd squee points), it was directed by Dame Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle.

And it is a glorious re-creation of a magnificent production. Those Cecil Beaton costumes! That Oliver Smith set! The Ascott Opening Race!

Based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion, the story of the flower seller Eliza being taught how to be a "lady" by the pompous Professor Henry Higgins is well known. And as long as those romance-goggles don't interfere with the idea of the very young woman falling for the much older man who treats her like scum and really doesn't respect or like the women in his life, it's an insightful reflection of the gender, class and social power that, sadly, rings as true today as it did 100 years ago.

What makes this production more than a re-creation is that contemporary opinions have shaped the performances.

Robyn Nevin as Mrs Higgins, Henry's mother, and Deirdre Rubenstein as Mrs Pearce, Henry's housekeeper, bring strength and power to the women who know how their social positions are controlled by others. Reg Livermore's Alfred Doolittle and Tony Llewellyn-Jones's Colonel Pickering balance of clowning with the understanding of men who are beginning to lose their social power with age.

Charles Edwards (my Downton Abbey fan-heart smiled) lets Henry see his own absurdity, even if he refuses to budge. Edwards performance is excellent, but it is strange that there isn't a middle aged, English-speaking actor in Australia who would have been just as terrific.

Which leaves Anna O'Byrne as Eliza. She's wonderful. She ensures that Eliza's choice to go to Higgins is far more than an attempt to escape poverty, and lets her heart break when she realises that her education may have left her with less than what she started with.

But if you're sitting anywhere other than the first  rows of this huge theatre, it's difficult to appreciate what makes this more than a re-creation. It wasn't designed or directed for the Regent Theatre. It's visually magnificent and grand but its emotional power relies on performances and people. Even with such strong performances, I don't know how  Eliza feels in the final scene – I was too far away; even in good seats – which is the moment that makes or breaks a contemporary My Fair Lady.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

20 May 2017

I'm scared to review: Wild Bore

Wild Bore
Malthouse Theatre
18 May 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 4 June
malthousetheatre.com.au


Wild Bore. Zoe Coombs Marr. Photo by Tim Grey


Wild Bore. noun
1. Those who talk out of their arse, dribble shit and don't understand dramaturgical intent.
2. Theatre reviewer.

It's also Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott's response to critical responses to their own work, and that of others. Opening to a critical contingent of two at Malthouse on Thursday, its verbatim(ish) mash-up of memorable reviews is as much a celebration of arts writing as it is a hilarious damnation of us who write those so-wanted-but-so-hated reviews.

Readers of reviews and critical writing in Melbourne will recognise some of the quoted voices.

But I'm not cunty enough to have been quoted.*

I don't know how I feel about that.

It's really nice to be quoted.

There are plenty of theatre makers who think I'm a bitch. I've seen the letters about my ignorance and know about the quest to get me banned. Most of these criticisms of the critic have been over writing about women's voices, women's points-of-view and how women are presented on stages.

I should have said feminist (bitch).

Wild Bore is mostly about people who write about women with a gaze that makes women feel so fucking special.

It's why these performers continue to make theatre that also encourages critical responses that use less-quotable words like gender, privilege, diversity and gaze. And why that writing can get a bit sweary because we're fucking over having to explain why we're fucking over it.

Remember when Jane Montgomery Griffiths wrote a response to reviews on ArtsHub that questioned a gender bias in reviews about her interpretation of Antigone (Malthouse, 2015)? Grab a snack and go deep into the comments – some are in the show – and know that the ones that were going on in a not-so-public sphere were funnier, smarter and bitchier. Some of us do censor our public voices.

Wild Bore. Ursula Martinez Photo by Tim Grey

This work – which they've been developing in their three home continents while performing their own shows – naturally focuses on the negative reviews and the failure (perceived or willful) of the writers to understand (or accept) the intent of the works.

With their best cheeks forward – the talking-out-of-the-arse imagery is clear –, each discuss reviews of their work that didn't get chosen for their pull quote of adoring adjectives or appropriate number of stars. Having seen the shows discussed, it was confronting to hear only the negative voices.

As artists and creators, do you really listen to those voices? Are the positive, researched, sat-up-until-4am-trying-to-get-the-words-right, you-made-me-feel-and-care reviews dismissed by the negative?

Of course, it makes far better theatre to use the negative voices – and the Wild Bore performances as described by the reviews may be worth the pain of those bad reviews. But it highlights why the bad bad reviews are encouraged, and why the responsibility of a reviewer's voice isn't necessarily considered.

Negative, bitchy reviews with memorable metaphors get read. They get shared. They get clicks. They encourage engagement and conversation. And so writers are encouraged, and often paid, to write more reviews like that.

It's awesome to be read.

It's brilliant to get paid to write.

Arts writers are writers. WE LOVE BEING READ.

Verbose metaphors get read.

Can anyone who read Byron Bache's corn-in-the-poo quote ever forget it? The show (The Crucible, MTC 2013) may have been forgotten, but not that quote. It got him regular paid work; the dream of most arts writers. But despite him continuing with some excellent writing and critical comment, he might only be remembered as the corn-in-the-poo quote critic. Arts writers understand irony.

Those gloriously hideous reviews are read.

They not only get read more than the positive ones, they get a bloody wonderful feminist theatre show made out of them.

 And, shhh, Krishna Istha.


Wild Bore. Adrienne Truscott & Zoe Coombs Marr. Photo by Tim Grey

*Or nice enough to be in nice quotes on the web page.

Time to Talk with The Guardian, 23 May after the 7 pm performance, Van Badham joins the cast to talk about their encounters with critics.

Monash Meets Malthouse, 27 May at 5 pm at  Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Alison Croggon, Cameron Woodhead, Richard Watts and Fleur Kilpatrick join the cast to discuss artists responding to critics.

The reviews

Maxim Boon: themusic.com.au

Alison Croggon: The Monthly

Cameron Woodhead: The Age

Rose Johnstone: Time Out

Keith Gow: keithgow.com

Kate Herbert: Herald Sun

16 May 2017

Review: Spencer

Spencer
Lab Kelpie
12 May 2017
Chapel off Chapel
to 28 May
abkelpie.com


Spencer. Lyall Brooks, Jamieson Caldwell, Fiona Harris, Jane Clifton. Photo by Pier Carthew

Independent company Lab Kelpie (Adam Fawcett and Lyall Brooks) have been quietly finding their space in Melbourne's theatre community with Fat Pig, Super Girly, Elergy and A Prudent Man. Discussing concerns, especially about the social power, and presenting characters that are too often ignored on our stages, they continue to bring us some of the most exciting new writing around.

Following the success of Katy Warner's one-act A Prudent Man at the 2016 Melbourne Fringe (performed by Brooks, heading to New York in November and back in Melbourne the same week), Spencer is her new full-length work. If this production – cast, design, direction, Lyall's undies – doesn't get picked up by bigger stages and/or tours the country, there's something wrong.

Going back to the family home makes the most grown-up of us behave with the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old wanting to play with a tired puppy.

Scott (Jameison Caldwell) is the younger brother of Ben (Brooks) and Jules (Fiona Harris). In his 20s, he still lives at home with his mum Marilyn (Jane Clifton), but he's the most successful in the family because he plays professional AFL. Ben's always there to offer advice, even if his own footy career didn't work out, and because he's had to move back in the family home. They are soon joined by 30-something big sister Jules who needs her old room again. Still, everyone is excited because Scott's two-year-old son, Spencer, is visiting for the first time. He may not have been around for his first couple of years, but he's family and is already considered more family than their father Ian (Roger Oakley) who hasn't seen his adult children since they were children.

Warner has captured an authentic and loving Australian suburban voice. It's confronting – we don't sound like that! Yes we do – and so familiar that it's easy to find the awkward comfort of laughing at ourselves.

Warner's characters are written from the inside out. They are so easy to laugh at, but they are always recognisably real and the reasons for their decisions and behaviour are always painfully clear.

This emotional undercurrent is supported with Sharon Davis's tight direction that lets the rhythm build and fall naturally and ensures a consistent tone that never lets the performances or the script fall into a world where we're laughing at them and not at ourselves.

And there's a lot of laughing – it's squeak-out-loud hilarious. With timing that reads the audience perfectly, each performer brings a touch of clown but they all start with the heart and humanity of their characters. They do and say the most horrible things, and we still love them like family.

Bryn Cullen's costumes of K-Mart chic uggies, too-bright colours and clothes-we-only-wear-around-the-house add to the comedy without feeling unnatural. As does the design (Cullen and Rob Sowinski) of faux-wood panels with cheaply-framed family photos, furniture and a stereo that were new (or off the side of the road) in the 1990s, and a green vinyl kitchen chair (that I want) that's slightly exaggerated and full of visual surprises. It shows us everything about this family and still feels like we've all lived there.

Even though we may not know Marilyn, Ian, Jules, Ben and Scott, they are our families. They are the frustration and  resentment, the in-jokes that aren't funny to anyone else – Coco Pops are now ruined –, the behaviour that's only accepted if you share a bond that can't be broken, and the love that makes all the bad feel worse and still forgives everything.

Warner's script should be published and this production left me feel as good as watching The Castle or Kath and Kim. It's hilarious and it hurts in all the right places because it's us.


PS. I only tweeted about A Prudent Man and Super Girly: they were both ace.

14 May 2017

Review: Awakening

Awakening
MUST
and fortyfivedownstairs
11 May 2017
fortyfivedownstairs
to 21 May
fortyfivedownstairs.com


MUST, Awakening. Photo by Theresa Harrison

Spoiler alert: the last paragraph discusses the ending. 

MUST's production of Awakening was one of my favourite shows in 2016.  It gave me a fist-size ball of pain under my heart but ultimately left me so happy that young theatre makers are confronting the bullshit that surrounds them and are showing us that we can and will overcome the trauma and pain that threaten to define us. Thankfully, fortyfivedownstairs also saw what a remarkable work it was and have given it a second season.

Written and directed by Daniel Lammin, it’s a response to Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Spring Awakening. The story is often sub-titled "A children's tragedy" and was censored and banned for many years as it confronts sex, masturbation, rape, abortion, abuse, depression, suicide, religious hypocrisy and adults’ failure to educate, love and look after the children in their care. It's also known because of the Tony-winning 2006 musical adaption (Stage Art's production begins on 19 May).

Lammin has removed some characters and, with a cast of six, focuses on the stories of 14-year-old Wendla and Melchior. Sharing the roles – the three women play Wendla and the three men play Melchior – takes away the easy-to-distance focus of one character's decisions and lets us see, and feel, far more complex points of view.

It also lets us get closer to the cast: Nicola Dupree, Samantha Hafey-Bagg, Eamonn Johnson, James Malcher, Sam Porter and Imogen Walsh. Each had moments that broke my heart and each find the emotional truth in all the characters they play, often showing a side of the story that's easy to reject or forget, or too painful to confront.

The first half remains in the 1890s and while it reaches to now with music and experience, its story of sexual repression is so infuriatingly familiar that it's impossible to dismiss the fear that we're not getting better as a society.

After the gut-punch anger of Act 1, the second half does bring the story into now and confronts our complicity of living in a world that still allows children and teenagers to be so hurt.

Lammin and his cast were developing the piece when Safe Schools was being attacked last year. I don't have the words to describe the unthinkable selfish ignorance of anyone who wants to shame a child, and to see children being shamed by our government, media, schools and community leaders is the shame my generation of adults will have to live with. It's almost a follow up to Hannah Gadsby's astonishing Nanette at MICF. It's easy to talk about protecting children, but these are the children and they are still hurting and being hurt in ways that are unacceptable.

While the last scenes are relentless in their pain and their search for hope and explanation, the story doesn't end with shame and anger. The original ending is easy to predict because young men still take their own lives and it's a standard story move to remove a young woman who is raped and inconveniences everyone around her.

This Awakening rejects that and changes Wendla's story. It gives her power and strength and everything that is taken away from her in the emotive and too-often-repeated story.

It still left me with a ball of pain under my heart, but as long as we keep telling stories like this, we will overcome the ignorance and we will get better as a society.

13 May 2017

Review: Cabaret

Cabaret
David M Hawkins
1 May 2017
The Athenaeum
to 27 May
cometothecabaret.com.au



David M Hawkins's production of Cabaret may be as pretty as Sally Bowles's green nail polish, but the only person who loved the green was Sally* and we know her manicure was cheap and chipped.

After a mixed reaction to the Sydney season (now referred to as the preview season), Hawkins brought in director Gale Edwards to sort out the Melbourne run. With Paul Capsis as the Emcee, Kate Fitzpatrick as Fraulein Schneider and Chelsea Gibb as Sally, hopes were high.

Based on a short story Christopher Isherwood wrote in Berlin in the 1930s, Cabaret is seen through the eyes of American Clifford Bradshaw who arrives in Berlin and meets English cabaret singer Sally. The stage version surprises those who expect the 1972 film adaption by Bob Fosse, but the different characters and songs are always a welcome surprise.

Set in and around the seedy Kit Kat Klub as the truth of the Nazi's power is being realised, any new Cabaret defines itself with its design. And while the stage design with a wooden floor with footlights suggests a trip to Weimar Berlin – and is gorgeously accentuated by the plush velvet and fading decadence of the nineteenth-century Athenaeum theatre – the costume design doesn't declare a time or place. Spotlessly clean and very sequinny (and, oddly, not sexy), they don't seem to have been developed from or for character and stress that the approaching hell, that we know this world is about to descend into, is a facade that's as authentic as a Cabaret-themed dinner party.

The likes of a giant Hitler mask, some slick swastikas and goose-stepping chorey (which might be trying to be a nod to Fosse) remove the strength of the work's moral ambiguity and the direction doesn't let the dramatic tension of the loss of hope lead the story.

The direction seems focussed on scenes rather than the bigger picture and story. Choices like bringing Cliff into Kit Kat Klub numbers take away his strength as the observer who can see that it's about to collapse and that he has to leave. Making Jewish shop keeper Herr Shultz the Jewish gorilla in "If you could see her" takes away any hope for his fate. And giving Sally an "I will listen" line in Frauline Schneider's "What would you do" diminishes the older woman's desperate plea to find any way to let herself marry and be happy – let alone that Sally's story is that she doesn't listen.

Capsis is, of course, the ideal choice as the Emcee, but his role on the stage is confusing. Neither benevolent or indulgent, he's left side stage as observer more than a participant. Gibb lets Sally's fear and vulnerability show but, like Capsis, is restricted by the production that doesn't seem to want to be more than pretty. I'd love to see them both – and the rest of the cast – in a different production.

And enough has already been said about the technical difficulties on opening night.

* and me; I still wear emerald green nail polish thanks to Liza.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

23 April 2017

Review: Joan

Joan
The Rabble
22 April 2017
Theatre Works
to 30 April
theatreworks.org.au

Dana Miltins. Joan. Photo by David Paterson

Damn you, The Rabble. Just when I think I can’t love you any more, you go and make Joan.

I felt burnt alive and risen from the ashes.

Joan. Joan D’Arc. Saint Joan.

A young woman. Whispered to by saints. Virgin. Sinner. God’s holy soldier.

She became a hero, a saint, an aspiration for young women that they too can be strong and be destroyed. She’s a great audition pieces in the play by a man written three years after she was canonised.

She was burnt alive. She was 19.

Starting with a darkness that only Emma Valente’s lighting and Kate Davis’s design can find, shapes – women? a woman? young women? – move into light or are found in the darkness. It could be the holy light above or a light to run from. With projections in front of and behind the stage, it hints of a black and white movie but is nothing like a black and white movie as the sound of breath and bodies falling to their knees asks if their kneeling is choice.

After light, they move through explorations of body, fire and voice. And to make such mesmerising imagery sound so clinical, intelligent and “artistic” is unfair.

Founded by Valente and Davis, The Rabble’s process starts with design and develops through improvisation. Text and texts are vital to their process but is one of the last things on the stage. We watch more than we hear, and when the women are finally given voices, their words are fiercer, brighter and more blistering that the fire – that fire! –  that came before.

It’s hard to think when watching this work. It’s seems so clear but every moment is filled with ideas and discussions that are too complex to be reduced to words.

Luisa Hastings Edge, Emily Milledge, Dana Miltins and Nikki Sheils are Joan. Each is extraordinary and together they confront the expectations of Joan and her story, and question why pain, strength and faith are considered virtues for a woman, let alone a child.

At times, it’s like getting into Joan's soul and feeling with her. But it’s more confrontational when we’re distanced and see ourselves judging her as a Saint or Sinner and putting both on a pedestal that burns with the bundles of wooden faggots stacked around her.

The Rabble create astonishing independent theatre with an independent budget. I'm thrilled to be able to see them in small rooms, but it's beyond my understanding why festivals around the world aren't begging for work like this to be in their programs.

22 April 2017

Review: Richard III

Richard 3
Bell Shakespeare
21 April 2017
Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
to 7 May
bellshakespeare.com.au

Richard 3. Kate Mulvany & Meredith Penman. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Being in the depths of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I was calling Richard 3, by Bell Shakespeare, Chick Dick 3 because Kate Mulvany plays Richard. But no more throw away jokes about having seen a lot of Dicks because this production’s found so much that’s new, relevant and fascinating.

Yes it’s ANOTHER work about white men and power and what they do attain and keep power. But Peter Evans direction and Mulvany’s dramaturgy have shaped it to give the women a presence that’s rare in this story. Having the cast always on the stage, the constant gaze of the women ­– who are often no more than wife, mother, womb or irrelevant – is always felt.

And they know they live in a world where Richard knows that his power over them is unquestioned.

Anna Cordingley’s design of too-shiny golds with brown and orange brocades could be a Toorak mansion or an inner city restricted-entry club, but left me feeling like we were in London in the 1930s and Edward VIII was about to abdicate and change the power dynamic in his society because the woman he loved was considered scum.

It’s a production that explores gender, but Mulvany’s gender is irrelevant from the moment she turns around on the stage and we see Richard. In a black suit with short hair and dark eyebrows, he’s small and looks younger than he is. His scoliosis (and hers) is a constant source of pain that he tries to dismiss as irrelevant but he can’t sit or move without being forced to feel his difference.

With his soliloquies, Richard brings the audience into his confidence and makes us complicit in his choices. He keeps us in his gaze when no one else on stage is aware they are being watched. He needs us to know that he chose to be the villain, but every interaction shows us that his villainy comes from far more than his conscious choice.

It’s impossible to stop watching him and Mulvany’s remarkable and powerful performance keeps us with Richard so we see the world through his pain and anger. She makes us care about this man whose behaviour is abhorrent.

So yeah, see Kate’s Dick.


This review is on AussieTheatre.com.

20 April 2017

Gush: Nanette

MICF
Nanette
Hannah Gadsby
5 April 2017 
Melbourne Town Hall
to 23 April
comedyfestival.com.au


Hannah Gadsby

It's been strange not writing a lot this festival. Working is good, sleeping is good and not getting festival flu is a bonus. But even though tweets are terrific and Age reviews are cool for sharing the love and getting some thoughts into the world, there are so many shows that deserve more than a star rating or a quotable.

So I've been having more in-person conversations this year. Remember when IRL was a thing? I've been giving it a go. Sure, it stops me sitting at my computer in my undies eating toast and telling the cat that she's beautiful, but maybe there's a plus side to that.

For one thing, it takes away the sarcasm and anger filter of the internet and lets me have conversations with people I like.

The show I've heard talked about, and talked about, the most – every day – this comedy festival is Hannah Gadsby's Nanette.

I have said stuff about about Hannah before but this year she's making us talk to each other – about things that matter.

The word "genius" is being thrown around a lot. But fuck that. Genius implies that it's somehow easy to create and perform; that it doesn't take countless hours to get one minute right; that it doesn't hurt to create work like this.

Nanette broke me.

Broke me in ways that make me want it to tour for years so that the world can see it, but more in ways that make me want it to never have to be performed again.

As a piece of writing, it pulls stand-up comedy to shreds.

Hannah does stand-up. She understands the power of laughter and how it can connect and liberate us.

And how it can hurt and break us.

Think of a time when someone made fun of you and laughed at you. Does it still hurt?

She exposes the innate creepiness about being in a room laughing at people or letting people laugh at you – and the comfort we find in that laughter.

By discussing how to create and break tension, she's steps ahead of her audience. The build from the gently annoying powdered-coffee barista Nanette to Hannah's mum's story coming full circle to tension that can't be broken is so structurally powerful that the only thing that stopped my writer brain from orgasming was every emotion trying to cope.

With her 'trademark' self-deprecating humour (writers, don't use those words), Hannah invites people to laugh at her, and Nanette questions the nature of doing this. Laughter can be so connecting and loving, but what's the cost?

She talks about understanding the power of shame, especially childhood shame. How it can be stronger than our own understanding and how it fights love without us noticing.

Her bigger story is about living in a society that lets people tells us that the Safe Schools program is indoctrination; how we are surrounded by grown up humans who support the shaming of children.

And how women are still shamed for thinking and speaking and simply being, let alone for being their authentic selves. She tells a short story about her being perceived as a straight white man and the change in attitude when that perception changed. The payoff was a perfect observational joke, but it comes from truth that sucks.

No wonder we filter our connections to the world with sarcasm and anger.

Hannah's story is so personal that it's not my place to share it, but by being so personal she lets everyone find the personal connection that's usually lost when a story is made safe for everyone.

Reviewers are often dismissed for being personal. I've heard that I'm an ignorant cunt for writing about something as bland as looking for a female point of view on the stage. (I don't read comments after a "she had her period" was LIKED by people who had asked me to write about them.) Last year, a festival artist told her audience how she didn't like my 4.5 star review because I mentioned how old I was. "It's all about the reviewer," she said. And still used my quotable.

And I'll be told that I'm wrong for not being distanced and objective about Nanette.

Fuck that.

This show made me feel – some feelings that I didn't want to have and some that are brilliant. It made me see my world through different eyes. It made me see myself differently.

That's everything.

That's art.


Another new show has been announced for 29 April at the Comedy Theatre. Tickets go on sale on Monday at Ticketmaster.