Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Frankenstein (Ensemble Theatre) - Street Theatre

Don't think about it! Just plunge in.

Playwright Nick Dear's re-telling of Mary Shelley's seminal horror novel Frankenstein is rankest melodrama, but Ensemble Theatre and director Mark Kilmurry pull it off in style.  But: Do Not Try This At Home, any amateur companies seeking to ride the wave of a familiar title. I'm not sure it would have worked at all without the unflinching commitment of a very talented cast, and principally a quite extraordinary physical and emotional performance by Lee Jones as the Monster.

The set is a polished circle surrounded by a curtain on a rail - reminiscent of the Bell King Lear of a couple of years ago - and lit by a collection of steampunky light bulbs liberally distributed at varying heights. It's effective, but not quite gothic enough for my taste and this particular story.  The ambience is enhanced by a solo cellist (Heather Stratford) playing creepy atmospheric music (by Elena Kats-Chernin) - in a very steampunk skirt.  (There's a lot of solo cello about theatre at the moment, has anyone else noticed?)

In lesser hands the opening sequence - the birth of the Monster - could well have become farcical, but in this production instead brought home the terror of a full-grown creature suddenly thrust into the world like a newborn baby, raw and blinking an uncomprehending.  I confess I was disappointed by the loincloth; I am no fan of gratuitous nudity in theatre, but this would not have been gratuitous, and it was the only part of the production that seemed a pulling of punches.  I also would have liked the Monster to have been a lot more monstrous in appearance, but I can see how that might have flirted with caricature, and that would have ruined everything.  As it is, Jones manages a twisted carriage with a powerful physical presence and a total emotional investment that is purely compelling.

He is ably matched by Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein - ultimately far more twisted and monstrous than his misbegotten experiment - though in one scene of high passion my mind did flit briefly to that episode of Friends where Joey is cast against Gary Oldman, who explains to him that truly Great Acting involves a considerable amount of spit.

The plot is ridiculous, and the language is so florid in places that  it could easily have risked silliness, but the momentum is so relentless, and Jones so unwavering in his performance, that the whole effect becomes convincing.  Just go with it.  The ultimate testament is that even my mercurial attention span did not regret the lack of an interval, and not once did I think of Peter Boyle.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Under Milkwood - Canberra Repertory

Yes, yes, it's been a very long hiatus.  I am so insanely behind in my reviews - and so frantically busy in the day job - that I was pretty much giving up on ever getting back here. But I've just realised that there are only two performances left of Rep's production of Under Milkwood, and it is so transcendently wonderful that if there is a chance of getting one more bum on a seat then I owe it both to Rep and to the possessor of that fortunate posterior.

I won't say too much, or I'll never hit the Publish button, so this is probably not really a review.  But Duncan Ley has done an absolutely astonishing job with this; the ensemble is perfect, the set wonderful, the costumes bang on, and the lighting and sound possibly the best I've seen.  And Duncan Driver as the narrator is glorious; his voice is rich without being unctuous, round without being plummy; I could listen to him read the phone directory and instead he is reading Dylan Thomas' brilliant, rolling, heartrending prose.

When this ends you'll discover that your mouth is open, your hand is on your heart, and you've been holding your breath for minutes.  Please go see this!


PS: seen and not reviewed since Pocket Shakespeare:

December 2012:
Glimpse     (42downstairs)

January 2013:
Oliver!  (Ickle Pickle)

February 2013
The Magistrate (NT Live)
West Side Story (Free Rain)
The Secret River (Sydney Theatre Company)
Calendar Girls (Canberra Rep)
Les Miserables (Canberra Philharmonic)
Henry IV (Bell Shakespeare)

March 2013
Animal Farm (shakeandstir)
Dear Epson  - Danny Bhoy
It's My Party & I'll Cry if I Want To (HIT Productions)
Thursday (Brink Productions)
Men of Substance - Tripod
Vakomana Va Viri Ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) 
Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (Two Gents Productions)

April 2013
Mindbender - Ross Noble
Richard, Prosessor of Literature - Stephane Georis
Eurobeat  (SUPA Productions)
As We Forgive (Collected Works)
Under Milkwood  (Canberra Repertory)
Pea!  (Serious Theatre)
People (NT Live)
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (Queanbeyan City Council)
One Man, Two Guv'nors (Sydney Theatre Company)
Weimar Cabaret (Barry Humphries, Meow Meow & the ACO)
Piece of Cake - The Kransky Sisters

I have notes; I may get around to these. But no guarantees! And I have a feeling I've missed a couple.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Street Two: The Polyphonic Bard

I am a big fan of Caroline Stacey's Made in Canberra initiative at the Street Theatre, even if I haven't always been 100 per cent enthusiastic about some of the individual projects. So it's nice to be able to close out the year with one which I unequivocally enjoyed.

Tamzin Nugent's The Polyphonic Bard is a sort of Baroque revue, with music by Tallis, Purcell, and others of the era impeccably sung by the Pocket Score Company, and interspersed with readings and scenes from Shakespeare. Gillian Schwab's lighting design is wonderful, often seeming to create whole new spaces, though I was less certain about the set, hung about with nooses of thick rope.  

Seth Edwards-Ellis does an equally fine job on sound, most notably in the finale, where the Pocket Score guys sing over building loops of recorded choirs, to quite mesmerising and moving effect. Gorgeous voices all: David Yeardley (counter-tenor, and harpist, so clearly unafraid of stereotypes), Paul Eldon & John Virgoe (tenors), Daniel Sanderson (baritone), and Ian Blake (bass).

Of the cast of CADA students performing the Shakespearean excerpts, the sole female, Crystal Rose, despite an unfortunate blonde wig, was a clear standout, especially in her scene from Taming of the Shrew. And Nick Beecher deserves a mention, if only because he doesn't appear to have got one in the programme, and for sheer versatility - this is the fourth stage I've seen him in this year, and all in wildly diverse roles.

The music is the reason to come to this, though, and it's a shame that only four performances were scheduled - with luck perhaps we may see a reprise in the New Year, or perhaps other explorations complementary music and literature from other eras (the Victorians would be a thing of beauty, for example!)  In any event: this was well worth the pittance of a ticket price.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Street Theatre: Finucane & Smith's Glory Box

This is hard to review, basically because I thought my ears were bleeding for most of it - despite my wearing the earplugs recommended by Frank McCone - which was a tad distracting.  Some of the show was fun (some just puzzling), but most of it was ruined by stupidly, pointlessly, painfully, harmfully high-decibel canned music.  Lots of complaints from fellow patrons at interval about the volume - and quite a few people left (one whole table on the stage was abandoned for Act Two). I am not a wuss about loud music, but this literally hurts.

So if you value your aural health, don't go. I am really not exaggerating, and if the Street is not willing to moderate the volume then they must certainly be hoping that Mark McCabe doesn't have a free evening during the run.

With the exception of the always astonishing Maude Davey, and faultless performances on trapeze and hula hoop from circus artiste Anna Lumb, Glory Box lacks the novelty and subversive edge Finucane & Smith gave us in their original Burlesque Hour. Demi-monde darling Moira Finucane essentially reprised a food-based repertoire we've mostly seen before. An attractive young man in swimming trunks did a very silly and unrevealing quasi-strip-tease, and a couple of dancers krumped in vintage lingerie, but these acts are hardly cutting edge. Worst in show was an ingenue in a few strategic diamante strands who offered an unedifying karaoke rendition of "Feelin' Good" (NB: Ladies, if you are nubile and naked, it may not be your singing that is getting the applause). There is a novel wettish-fetish scene, but I'm not sure it was worth  the elaborate set up we had to wait through in order for it to proceed.

There's lots of audience participation, and plenty of people seemed to be swilling the Kool-Aid along with their champers, so rusted-on fans of burlesque - and Finucane - may well enjoy this.  If you buy table seating on the stage, you will be sitting behind the speakers, which may help - unless you're shy.  If you're sitting in the theatre proper, invest in really good earplugs and sit as far back as you can.  It will still be too loud for comfort, but may not actively rupture your eardrums.

Good luck.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Canberra Critics Circle Awards 2012

The Canberra Critics Circle met a few mights ago to announce the recipients of its 2012 Awards for excellence.  The full list and details of awards can be found on the Circle website.

I was particularly pleased to see recognition for Everyman Theatre's production of pool, no water, Rose Shorney's excellent musical direction of Titanic and Hairspray, and Caroline Stacey's many, varied and innovative projects at the Street Theatre.  I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't a nod in the Visual Arts category for Vivienne Lightfoot's exhibition Substance at ANCA - and it would have been nice to have seen a valedictory mention of Jorg Schmeisser's posthumous exhibition at Beaver Galleries.  And though a gong for the Rugby Choir is probably well due, it's a shame that it didn't arrive until after the departure of long-time musical director Andrea Clifford, who laid so much of the groundwork for the Choir's success.

I like the CCC Awards.  I don't always agree with them - there are a couple this year that I thought were downright naff - but that only goes to show that any "critic" who claims to be truly objective is either a fool or a charlatan. The Circle has credibility and gravitas, the awards are genuinely local, and open to all, and no award may be made at all in a category unless the Circle members consider the quality justifies it.

Congratulations to all those who were recognised, and thanks to the Canberra Critics Circle for taking the time and investing in the effort required to acknowledge the work of our local artists and performers.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Canberra Rep: Improbable Fiction

You can always trust Alan Ayckbourn for something to watch in the Festive Season - and this is another Christmas cracker from Rep.  Lighter even than the average Ayckbourn, the second act in particular ascends into a farce that rivals Noises Off  for frenzy, timing and busy-ness, and exceeds it for absolute synergy of cast and crew (it's the first time I've seen a cast bow to the backstage, and truly the crew deserved a curtain call of its own). Director Corille Fraser has out Learninged (Walter) Learning with this production of Improbable Fiction.

The action is framed by yet another unbelievably good set, this time designed by Wayne Shepherd (who also wrote the original music), and constructed by Russell Brown and his henchmen to an extremely high standard - it's a large Tudor interior, with staircase and second floor corridor - and people were thundering up and down and along them all night.  I've worked in flimsier offices. Actually I've lived in flimsier accommodation, especially in my student years.

This space hosts a meeting of the Pendon Writers' Circle, as dysfunctional as any small committee - and as entertaining to observe, provided you're not a member.  There a few blocking issues which may already have been remedied, with some members of the circle facing away from the audience and occasionally hiding each other (from some places, Vivvi, Jess and Brevis are all in a line, and only Vivvi can clearly be seen - but she faces the back, so can't as easily be heard).  Unnecessary, as the story provides for some members not to turn up, presumably in order to make a semi-circle arrangement possible without looking contrived. It's also true that this first act drags a little, but not a lot (the tea-pouring scene is deliberately excruciating), but it's all a set-up for the fabulous, frenetic payoff of Act Two, in which ... No, that would be a spoiler. Pretty much any description of Act Two will be a spoiler, damnit.

Jerry Hearn anchors all of the action as part-time author of instruction manuals, Arnold, whose house this is. Anyone who caught Hearn's wonderful performance a few years back in Rep's production of Stoppard's On The Razzle can only have been longing to see him in another farce, and he does not disappoint (this is also the nicest character he's played in years, I think!). He's a perfect Arnold, and as Act Two wears on, increasingly hilarious. Another standout was Euan Bowen as master of the malapropism, sci-fi wannabe Clem (and a host of other distinctly less insipid characters), who I think garnered more spontaneous applause on several of his exits than I've ever heard before in a Canberra theatre.

New Canberran Kate Blackhurst is impressive as Jess: farmer, lesbian quasi-separatist, and aspiring writer of florid gothic romances. (She and Hearn had flawless accents, and we know by now that I care about this). Christa de Jager, as Grace, the meek executrix of risibly execrable children's illustrations, seemed to struggle a little with her North Country accent in Act One, but was quite excellent in her variety of arguably tougher roles in Act Two. Heather Spong, introduced in Act one as the prolific but inexplicably unpublished crime writer Vivvi, nailed all of her characters from the outset but was the most fun to watch as the spontaneously lachrymose Sergeant Fiona. And Madeline Kennedy, as Arnold's mother-sitter Ilsa, has come a very long way since her (perfectly good) Chava in Fiddler back in February; she shows lovely depth and versatility, as well as admirable stagecraft for a relative neophyte.

Special mention must also be made of Andrew Kay, who stepped in at only two or three days notice to understudy for Jasan Savage* in the assorted roles belonging to Brevis, retired schoolteacher and curmudgeonly composer of small-scale musicals. (His Treasure Island for the local school garnered ten curtain calls. Says the encouraging Arnold: "They often don't even get that on the West End!"  I LOL'ed). We were warned in an opening announcement that Kay was a last-minute substitute and might have to refer to the script here and there. And he did - though beautifully covered by clever use of props - but still, what a quite remarkable feat. The dialogue in this play is highly complicated, and the physical action (trust me) considerably more so, and Kay was an entertainment in himself.  In fact, while it is easy to imagine the veteran Savage as blustery Brevis in Act One, by Act Two it was hard to see how anyone other than Kay could have taken on the role given the versatility - and physicality - the second half requires. This is one occasion when getting the understudy will not, I promise you, detract from your enjoyment by the smallest iota.

But back to the crew - Shepherd's set is revealed in Act Two to be as cunning as it is attractive, and ought to sprint away laughing with the CAT this year; the timing of those operating it is just as exceptional. Chris Ellyard's lighting is precisely perfect, and  Michael Moloney's sound nicely complementary (with a minor early misfire neatly fielded and milked for a laugh by Jerry Hearn). Miriam Miley-Read's costumes must be as cleverly constructed as they are appealing, as innumerable lightning-fast costume changes were executed without the faintest hint of effort from the audience's perspective - there must have been a small army of dressers in the wings.  Actually, there must have been an army of every sort of backstage crew contributing to this extraordinarily smooth delivery of a very technically demanding and complicated play, and its members - led by highly experienced Stage Manager Joyce Gore, and Hazel Taylor on props -  should be very proud of what they've achieved here.

This may be the best farce we've seen from Rep since their 2007 production of Noises Off.  It deserves to sell out, especially at Rep's ridiculously low ticket prices, so get your seats ASAP and enjoy.

* Word is that Jasan Savage is hospitalised and quite seriously unwell, and all possible positive thoughts and wishes are with him and his family for his speedy and complete recovery.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Playhouse: Private Lives (Belvoir)

I've been looking forward all year to this: Noel Coward, the Tobies Schmitz & Truslove, a smart modern perspective from the Belvoir team - what's not to love?  I thoroughly enjoyed this - and yet I'm not quite persuaded they entirely pulled it off.

Toby Schmitz is an outstanding Elyot - attractive, charming and underneath it, a deeply awful human being. Zahra Newman, cast against type, didn't totally convince me as Amanda until about two-thirds in when a costume change transformed her at last into the cool femme fatale of Coward's original vision. She seems too tomboyish to be the woman the dialogue is describing (and the jokes about getting a tan don't sit comfortably).

Eloise Mignon, on the other hand, is cast utterly to type as the seemingly insubstantial Sybil, and so is man-of-the-moment Toby Truslove as stolid Victor. Truslove seems to have injured himself, appearing throughout with a leg-brace and cane, and I was impressed by the way in which this was used to actually enhance his character and actions; in fact it worked so neatly that I wasn't sure it was a real injury until he hobbled on for curtain call (and I turned up this photo from backstage at Belvoir). And there's some lovely schtick from Mish Grigor as the French Maid of nobody's fantasies.

Schmitz's fabulous Benedick in Bell's production of Much Ado About Nothing last year showed that he excels at divesting a classic role of its baggage and giving it a fresh and contemporary inflection. In this production, director Ralph Myers has done a stellar job in eliciting the same from the whole cast - but there are still a few places where Coward's language is just too affected or dated to be delivered convincingly in a present-day voice. On the whole, though, there's almost no echo of the usual Round the Horne Fiona & Charles stuff - it's almost a reinterpretation, and without the veneer of Fraffly, Elyot and Amanda recover their edge (and nastiness).

It's very, very funny stuff. But there are a number of things that in my view did not work well, and one of them was a terrible set. It's a stark white, inexpensive looking hotel corridor, featuring two numbered doors and a lift.  (A hall table would have come in very useful.) Even leaving aside the question of why these four clearly moneyed and self-indulgent quasi-aristos are apparently honeymooning at the Queanbeyan Formule 1, why are they drinking their cocktails and squabbling in the hotel corridor? Yes, the convention of adjoining balconies might be annoyingly trope-ish, but it does actually work (beautifully, for example, in the Frasier homage episode Adventures in Paradise). This design choice smacks of heaving out the baby with the bathwater, and it isn't helped by oddly dim and inconsistent lighting. Nor is it improved in the second act, when instead of Amanda's apartment being the usual art deco dream, she and Elyot inexplicably haul a mattress into the cheap white living room and flop it down in front of the now equally inexplicable lift.  

The musical choices are wildly varied, and entertaining, but also not entirely a comfortable fit. A scene where Amanda and Elyot hurl themselves into an air-performance of Phil Collins is great fun to watch, but I found it discordant in the context of the play. On the other hand, the lovely Some Day I'll Find You, which Coward wrote especially for this play, was sadly conspicuous by its absence.

These snipings are, of course, quite trivial - but then so, often, was Coward. In any event they should not deter you from a very enjoyable production, especially as Schmitz spends most of it in a terry-towelling robe. Recommended.

Addressing the Backlog (the method in the madness)

I've had a tough couple of weeks and am hideously behind with these reviews.  I have ELEVEN to write, in fact, aargh.  So here's the plan: I'll get on with the latest review (Private Lives) while it still has some relevance, and finish the ten missing ones behind it as opportunity arises. I'll backdate them so they still show in chronological order of viewing. So if you're looking for something in particular*, it will be worth checking back for it earlier in the thread, if that makes sense.

Still to write:

Bare Witness , by fortyfivedownstairs, at the Street  (DONE!)

Sheila Diva, the Eco-Diva by Kate Hosking at Street Two  (DONE!)

Les Ballets Trockadero at the Canberra Theatre

South Pacific at the Princess, in Melbourne

Jesus Christ Superstar, the broadcast of the new stadium production with Tim Minchin in it

Music, the new Barry Oakley play, Melbourne Theatre Company

Elling, also MTC, with Darren Gilshenan reprising the eponymous lead

Margaret, Queen of the Dessert, TheatreWorks (actually, this can't be a review per se, as I only saw a preview)

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum at Her Majesty's in Melbourne.  Don't wait for me to review it, though, just book your tickets and get yourself there by whatever means possible.

The Idea of North Christmas Concert at the Street.

and next off the blocks, as it's still showing here in Canberra:

Private Lives (Belvoir), at the Playhouse.  (DONE!)

In the interim, for those who claim, albeit with some justice, that there's pretty much nothing I won't watch,  a review by someone else of a show I have absolutely no desire to see  (though I've developed a morbid fascination for reading the remarkably uniform critiques.)

A bientot.

Friday, November 16, 2012

CYTC: 4:48 Psychosis

Wow, am I behind. For various reasons I haven't finished reviewing anything I've seen for the last two weeks, and that's a bit of a backlog. There are at least five reviews on their way, but in most cases it's too late to make any difference, so in the meantime I'd like to draw your attention to something there is still time for you to see. (Not me, though, unfortunately - I'm away).

I've mentioned before that I'm a little afraid of the work of Sarah Kane, but there are two of her plays on my "to see" list, and one of them is 4:48 Psychosis, which Canberra Youth Theatre Company is staging at the Courtyard until 21 November, directed by Karla Conway.

This is a brave choice for a youth theatre company, dealing as it does with suicide - although this is not a company of children, but young adults.  And in fact the play does more than "deal" with suicide - it's widely regarded as Kane's suicide note.  It's named for the time in the morning when she most often woke despairing, and she took her own life three days before the premiere. So this is no confected, empathised, fictional take on suicide; this is the real deal, a play once described by Ben Brantley in the New York Times  as "charged with the raging verbal energy of someone trying to make sense of a situation long beyond the reach of rational thought".

I think this will be very tough viewing, but if well done, also very valuable, and I'm impressed that CTYC is taking it on.  If anyone reading this does get along, let me know what you thought.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Street Two: Diva Sheila, the Eco-Diva

Kate Hosking is a very talented woman. Fabulous voice, great chops on a double bass, and gorgeous to boot. But this show just doesn't work.
There are three separate elements at work here, and they don't marry up. First is Hosking's "Diva Sheila" persona. Second is the script, and third are the songs interspersed throughout, in which Hosking accompanies herself (beautifully) on double bass.

The Diva persona is a puzzle. It seems to be intended as a kind of larger-than-life drag-type character who will allow Hosking to get away with some outrageousness, but there really isn't any material in the script that needs or benefits from that. And while Hosking looks ravishing in a slinky black evening dress with a dominatrix spiked leather collar and matching sky-high Louboutins, none of that matches the "Eco" image she was trying to create - actually the "Eco" thing was never adequately explained and ultimately went nowhere in particular.  Hosking would have done much better to discard "Sheila" and just been an exaggerated version of herself.

Another reason for that is that the stories she tells - varied and interesting, about her experiences as a folk musician in Europe - are clearly her own. They're not exaggerated, or hammed up for comic effect. They're perfectly worthwhile stories, and disowning them as the Diva's oddly detracts from their persuasiveness.

Finally, there are the songs, which as I've already said, are beautifully sung and performed. Hosking is magic on the bass and sings with a rich bluesy voice that reminded me a little, at times, of Michelle Shocked. But the choice of songs was another disconnect. The segues from anecdotes seemed slight and and forced, and several songs involved the adoption of additional personae (I Was Only Nineteen belongs to an older man; Strange Fruit is a black woman's song, and I'm uncomfortable with its appropriation, though obviously very well-intentioned). The songs seemed to be chosen for a sort of social justice edge, which might have gone with the purpose of the Diva, but wasn't often reflected in the stories leading into them.

I found Kate Hosking very likeable, and impressive, and I really wanted to like this show.  And this certainly wasn't the worst hour I've spent in a theatre. There's a lot to enjoy here, but it just doesn't all go together. If Hosking ditches the "Diva" and matches her songs to her stories, I'd go see her again in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Street: Bare Witness (fortyfivedownstairs)

Mari Lourey's script about war correspondent Dani Hayes is transcended by its execution at the hands  of a talented cast, innovative director Nadja Kostich, and the lighting design by Emma Valente.

I wasn't that crazy about the script, taken alone. The story of a photojournalist learning her craft in assorted war-torn hells on earth isn't all that new (think of the various incarnations of the Daniel Pearl story), and at times is even a little patronising (vide a somewhat self-righteous claim that no one in Australia knows or cares about the Balibo Five). However it does bring a finely-crafted consciousness of the moral issues of whether it's OK to grow rich and famous from other people's tragedy, especially given that those people desperately need to have their tragedy known. Is it OK, we're asked explicitly, to re-pose a corpse for a photo shoot: is that fakery, or a way to get the truth across more urgently?  The answer remains ambiguous -well, of course it does.

The play told in a stylised and precisely choreographed fashion, anchored by a remarkable physical performance by Daniela Farinaci as Dani. The story is told in vignettes framed by photographs Dani has taken, projected on the wall; other video is also used, notably of running wolves. The whole cast is versatile, everyone but Farinaci playing multiple roles at breakneck speed, and completely committed, physically and emotionally.

This is a powerful production with a lot to say, and even if not all of it is new, it is impressive in the telling.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Playhouse: Batman Follies of 1929

What an irresistible concept this seemed when I first saw the posters and grabbed my tickets. Imagine Batman and his associates doing vaudeville / cabaret / burlesque in 1929: who wouldn't want to see that?  Alas, the rhetoric-reality gap strikes again.

Master of Ceremonies was a bloke in spectacles and a suit who called himself Alfred Penniworth, Wayne family retainer, and who read most of his bad jokes in an Australian accent from a bound script (with a bat sign on it, of course). This show has been playing at Sydney's Vanguard for months; there's really no excuse for not knowing the lines (or the limited set list) by now - but really, for a show of this sort a bit of ad-libbing's the least we ought to be able to expect.

There's some very ordinary burlesque from "Catwoman" and "Poison Ivy" (who really just stands on stage in a caftan and writhes a bit) - "Batgirl" improves on this with some genuine contortionist work; impressive, if that's your thing, and certainly in line for the era.  A pretty unfunny (and anachronistic) set of stand-up from "The Scarecrow" can only be holding its place in view of an even unfunnier (in fact, quite nasty) performance from "the Joker", which seemed to draw more from the "Saw" franchise than the Batman one. There's some reasonably entertaining old-fashioned magic from the same bloke in different costumes ("The Riddler" and "Two Face"); some acceptable singing from "Harley Quin", and some really good singing from "Mr Freeze" and a lady "Penguin" - who was frankly wasted on just one number and should have been brought back for the finale (which used a recording instead). The closer was a rather Cro-Magnon-looking tap-dancing Batman, but the highlight for me was the introduction of Robin, a tiny tiny child who performed some very 1929 feats of acrobatics to deafeat a classic henchman-type.

The two best things about Batman Follies are, first, the incredibly detailed and beautiful costumes, and second, the Gotham City big band, a really top-notch ensemble that provided live music for almost all of the acts. I would happily have paid my ticket price just to watch and listen to these guys.
 In fact, I probably would have preferred it. Batman Follies of 1929 is a great idea - now it just needs to invest in acts that live up to it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Free Rain: To Kill A Mockingbird

There was doubtless some sort of irony in finding myself for this show seated next to, apparently, Prue & Trude , bitching over their chardies about the temerity of the "usherette" asking them to move up a seat to make room for other paying customers at this sold-out performance. Though Christopher Stergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's legendary novel To Kill A Mockingbird is not the best page-to-stage translation around, the power of the story undeniably remains, and so does the petty snobbery of some middle-class townsfolk in this production directed by Liz Bradley.

Cate Clelland's design of lattices and trellises works very well to give the impression of a whole small town, but the decision to have almost all of the large cast on the tiny Courtyard stage for much of the time makes things messy and crowded, and while this serves to build a sense of claustrophobia, a place where everyone's all up in everyone else's business, it is also at times hard to follow. Similarly, having the courtroom spectators in Act 2 chatter audibly through procedings might have been realistic, but was also incredibly distracting and deeply irritating (I kept wanting to ask Trude & Prue to shut the hell up, but it wasn't them).

Michael Sparks has done an excellent job as accent coach.  Steph Roberts, in an anchor performance as Miss Maudie, gets to recycle her already sound Southern accent from Streetcar a few years ago. Colin Boldra, while not the most charismatic Atticus Finch ever, is solid, and all three children (Maddison Smith-Catlin as Scout, Martin Hoggart as Jem, and Ben Burgess as Dil) are remarkably good, at least once Smith-Catlin finds her pitch.  It's a relief, too, that Bradley has found some genuine talent for the black roles, and Joyce Waweru (a lovely Calpurnia), David Kinyua (Tom Robinson) and Ewem Etuknwa (the Reverend) are all welcome additions to the Canberra theatre scene.  The whole cast does well, but I was especially impressed by Tony Falla, who gets his Jud Fry on as redneck supreme Bob Ewall, and by Megan Johns, an actor new to me, who is absolutely outstanding in the role of his daughter Mayella.

To put that in better context: I have never been one of the legions who number To Kill A Mockingbird among the greatest novels of all time, or even among their personal favourites. For me, the powerful messages against racial prejudice are too badly tainted by the fact they are rooted in another dangerous prejudice: that women lie about rape (and that a poor white trash woman is more likely to lie than her middle-class "betters"). 

Watching Johns' brilliant performance through this lens was almost unbearable. Conventional wisdom - though this is never actually established in either book or play - is that Tom Robinson is a victim of racial prejudice, innocent of raping and beating Mayella. But Johns is completely convincing as a rape victim on the witness stand, and watching her harangued and patronised by a courtroom full of men (Boldra's Finch, Peter Holland as the prosecutor and Brian Daly as the Judge) is deeply uncomfortable viewing.

Finch's contention is that shy, poor, downtrodden 19 year old Mayella has been plotting and saving all her money for a full year, in order to bribe her siblings to go out for ice-cream, solely to create an opportunity to seduce an unwilling Tom Robinson. (This is never supported by testimony, incidentally - Finch could call evidence to prove the ice-cream story, if it were true, but never does.) Does that hypothesis sound likely to anyone Mayella's father catches them, and it's suggested that he beats her as a result. There is good evidence for this bit of the claim - but it's a red herring. Even if it was her father who beat her, not Robinson, that's no evidence that Robinson did not rape Mayella.  Bob Ewall would not be the first father to blame his daughter for being raped, or to beat her for it, either.  

I wish Harper Lee had written this story about a black man wrongly accused of killing a white man, or robbing a bank, so I could invest unequivocally in her moral position. But to ask me to believe a 
diffident, brow-beaten, and almost certainly abused teenaged girl would scheme and scrimp for a year and spend every cent she could scrape together just to have the opportunity to coerce a reluctant older man into having sex with her has never sat easily with me.  Neither does the way she is treated in court, by men later lauded for their great and nuanced moral sensibility.  Watch Megan Johns' performance, just for a few minutes, without the conventional assumption of Robinson's innocence, and let me know if it doesn't make you uncomfortable too.

Monday, October 29, 2012

NT Live: The Last of the Haussmans

What a gem of a thing this is!

I've raved on before about NT Live, so won't bore you again with that palaver, but I will reiterate: the UK National Theatre is the best of the best, and in choosing which of its productions will be broadcast via NT Live, it doesn't have to settle for anything less than the best of the best of the best.  Whatever you see through this programme, therefore, you can be sure it's an absolute corker.

So it is with The Last of the Haussmans, a remarkably assured and "finished" first play from Stephen Beresford, with probably the most universally outstanding performances from an entire cast that it's ever been my privilege to witness. 

There's not a thing here that's not to rave about. The set consists of a wondeful, if slightly worse for wear, art-deco beach house which was so real I felt physical longing for it. I've spent the last few days trawling through real estate websites looking for something similar and wondering what I'd have to do to afford it. (Maybe in Detroit?)

Julie Walters plays Judy Haussman, who abandoned her offspring to her own vicious parents in her flowerchild youth, and has now considerately returned to them - tightly-wound, disastrous-in-love Libby (Helen McCrory), and histrionic, ruined junkie Nick (Rory Kinnear) - so they can nurse her through her final days with cancer, in the hope of inheriting the wonderful house. Which would clearly be the only thing she's ever done for them. On the way, Judy has accumulated a somewhat dodgy GP, Peter (Matthew Marsh), who covets both Libby and the house, and who sucks up to the adoring Judy with pot-fuelled Bob Dylan marathons and OTT flirtation, and a gorgeous but cripplingly shy neighbour boy Daniel (Taron Egerton).  The menage is completed by Isabella Laughland as Libby's 15-year-old daughter Summer, her every breath seething with adolescent fury and contempt.

Judy is an appalling old narcissist, whose breathtaking selfishness has wrecked the children whose ingratitude she now rails against. It's a fascinating study of how a Sixties' "Me Generation" culture has been in many ways as harmful when directed toward hippy-dippy voyages of self-discovery as towards the sort of Randian social Darwinism of Thatcher (or modern hard-right US Republicans).

If that sounds bleak, it isn't. The play is funny, witty (Kinnear has some wonderful lines) and ultimately uplifting. And very, very worthwhile viewing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Wharf Revue- Around the Rings of Satire


Every Wharf Revue is brilliant.  The only distinction that can be made in respect of the level of genius from year to year is in how long it takes me to turn to my companion and say that I already want to come back and see it again.  Last year it was only about ten minutes in, as the voices of Julia Gillard and a masked Kevin Rudd soared through an Andrew Lloyd Webber pastiche ("Rudd Never Dies"!).  This year it was only a few minutes longer, when Josh Quong Tart (replacing auteur and regular Jonathan Biggins in the cast) tore off his Lord Vader Helmet to reveal an uncannily convincing impersonation of Tony Abbott singing "I Will Survive".

Honestly, this show is funny and clever on so many levels it warrants several viewings just to be sure you've got it all.  Last year we were lucky: the ABC broadcast a recording of Debt-Defying Acts (ooh, still available on iView?!) a couple of times around Christmas, and I deeply hope they'll do the same for this one.  There is a quite staggering sketch written by Drew Forsythe and performed by Josh Quong Tart, which is Alan Joyce addressing Qantas shareholders as James Joyce - the sheer cleverness of it was, I swear, physically exhilerating.  And I could probably see that sketch three more times without fully grasping everything that was in it.

Another joy of the Wharf Revue is the musical direction by the marvellous Philip Scott - there's some recorded music, but most is played by Scott himself on the keyboard (here disguised as a the console of a spaceship).  There's huge fun to be had picking out the sources of the musical numbers - though the extended sequences from Guys & Dolls (concerning James Packer's deal with the NSW government for a casino at Barangaroo) and Mary Poppins were a doddle. In the latter, Julia Gillard (played again by the extraordinary, and serendipitously named, Amanda Bishop) and Bill Shorten (Tart again) look for ways to get traction with the punters; it's funny because it's trooooooooo!!

A harder sell was a sketch set in a gun shop - call it an unspoiler alert, but if you don't recognise this as a parody of the Monty Python "Cheese Shop" sketch right at the start, you're not going to find it nearly as funny as it should be.  And because the show launched six weeks ago and has been touring regional NSW, it's missed some opportunities offered by recent parliamentary shenanigans; though Drew Forsythe has shoehorned in a very funny (and slightly breathtaking) race call of the Golden (Peter) Slipper Stakes.

With Jonathan Biggins' Australia Day commitments limiting his Wharf Revue involvement to a video of Paul Keating's head in a jar, his usual collaborators Scott and Forsythe have done him proud with the addition of Josh Quong Tart, who like returning guest Amanda Bishop, sings beautifully, dances fabulously, and can impersonate pretty much anyone. Bishop didn't get as much star material as last year, but does get to show off a bravura soprano in "The Gay Marriage of Figaro".

There are still performances left on Friday and Saturday night plus a Saturday matinee. So you have three more chances to see it. Or, as I prefer to think of it, a chance to see it three more times. Do it! Laugh til you cry! Thank me later!