Tuesday 28 May 2024

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024
CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford
DIRECTED BY: Trey Lyford
PERFORMED BY: Jacinta Yelland

Jacinta Yelland - photo by Ashley Smith

Our planet is suffocating, and our country is dying. What the wildfires aren't burning, the floods are washing away. Environmental disasters run parallel to the societal catastrophes human beings inflict on one another and all this is building up to what has to be some great conflagration in the near future because things can't keep going the way they are... Although based in Philadelphia, Jacinta Yelland has dug deep into her Australian roots to create KOAL with Trey Lyford and this show packs a punch in just over an hour. Riffing off that tiny Koala which survived the bush fires in 2019, referencing the endless mining disasters we experience in this country, and looking to Yelland's own family history of indentured servitude, KOAL journeys from funny to frightening in the blink of a baby koala's eye.

The show begins with a young girl dancing around a tree but soon we hear crackling and just about every Australian knows that sound. Fire. The girl runs off and we see a koala. Suddenly we are at a zoo being welcomed by a wildlife warrior with very strong resemblances to a certain Australian zoo dynasty. The zookeeper wants to introduce us to a koala and assures us the fire is very far away so we can ignore it. 

Then we meet Stevo, a miner. He goes down a cave to check methane levels but there is a cave in. The fire rages on and smoke starts to fill the room. Meanwhile the young girl is trying to attend school but doesn't meet the dress standards - shoes...

KOAL is a towering inferno performed with incredible skill by Yelland, who is a very highly trained physical theatre performer. Her characters are well-defined and performed with great nuance. The three stories arc to a delightful, if devastating, crescendo under the boughs of the gum tree which has held centre stage the whole time. I remember reading a long time ago that the reason there are so many eucalyptus trees in Australia is because they are more resilient to fire. Over the millennia more fragile native plant life has burned away, but the gum trees stand strong and tall because of their oil content. Even though it is toxic to them, that same oil is in the very leaves which keep our koalas alive. There has to be some kind of metaphor in there somewhere... but I digress.

As Yelland morphs from character to character and weaves her stories together, the tree at the centre of the stage morphs along with her. Payton Smith has created the perfect travelling set. In all there are 3 ladders of different sizes, and they are all strewn with brown paper woven to represent bark (paper bark?) or rock as needed. Gum leaves poke out here and there to the satisfaction of the little koala. I always hate ladders on stage but, to be honest, I didn't even realise that is what it was until part way into the show as it starts morphing into trucks and caves and kitchens and all sorts of things. Perhaps towards the end all the fiddling becomes a bit too much, but the show is just short enough for it to avoid becoming tiresome. Ethan Mentzner's compositions and sound design are faultless and take us everywhere the story needs to go very powerfully indeed.

If I do have a criticism (and yes, I do have one), I feel like the Indigenous story is the least elegantly realised and integrated into the overall structure of KOAL. The work assumes the audience has read all of the publicity material and, to be honest, I thought it was a story about refugees until I remembered what I had read. On the bright side, this play works if you read it that way and this is a very current and urgent interpretation. On the sad side, the stories of the Stolen Generation are important, and we miss an important part of the storytelling if it goes by without being noticed. I am surprised Lyford (director) didn't pick up on the ambiguity but perhaps, given he is not Australian, he didn't realise there could be another interpretation. It would be very unfair to expect international artists to be up to date with Australia's constant shameful social policies.

KOAL is equal parts delightful and a dystopian nightmare. Emerging from the embers the characters leave it to us to work out if catastrophes are a thing of our past or the only thing we have to look forward to.

4 Stars

Tuesday 21 May 2024

THE WORD: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Word
WHEN: 17 - 26 May 2024
WHERE: Abbotsford Convent (Magdalene Laundry)
WRITTEN BY: Michael Carmody, Nadja Kostich, Michele Lee and Ensemble
DIRECTED BY: Nadja Kostich
COMPOSED BY: Allara Briggs Pattison
SET AND COSTUME BY: Matilda Woodroofe
LIGHTING BY: Richard Vabre
PERFORMED BY: Spike Angwin, Grace Annan, Sunday Bickford, Kleopatra Dukas, Harris Tate Elliott, Noray Hosny, Oscar Munro, Jackson Reid, Harriet Turner-Brown, Vito van Hout, Frankie Lee Willcox
VIDEO DESIGN BY: Michael Carmody

Ensemble - photo by Jason Cheetham

Words... We give them. We speak them. We take them back. We forget them. We write them. We erase them. We colonise them. We lose them. We find them. We learn them. We honour them. We ban them. They are clumsy and imprecise, yet they are the most sophisticated communication system we have ever designed. We are who and what we are because of them and in spite of them. The St Martin's Theatre Youth Ensemble have spent a long time exploring them and they now have an (almost) undergraduate level of understanding of semiotics and - more importantly - a brilliant piece of theatre now playing at Abbotsford Convent, called The Word.

The Word has been crafted over a year and a half under the tutelage and guidance of an incredible array of industry creatives. What shines through the strongest in this show, and IMO is perhaps the greatest achievement, is the cohesion of the ensemble as well as their centredness and confidence in what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing it.

The Word is physical theatre, but it is not the kind which is high powered and aggressive. The performers rarely stand still, but their movements and journeys around the space is gentle and controlled. They find themselves within some kind of archaeological archive. The space is strewn with pottery and busts on wooden plinths which are moved around as story and context shifts and changes. Within this archive the ensemble explores their relationships with language, heritage, and community. 

The words themselves are released into the space in the form of video projection (Michael Carmody), dialogue, monologue, poetry, song, breath and silence. The words BEFORE, AFTER, and NOW slide into each other across 2 large cloths defining the boundaries of the corner stage configuration. These words, the artefacts littering the stage, and the energy and youth of the ensemble tell us immediately that what has happened and what is happening are all integral parts of what is yet to come.

Two groups form. An ancient feud. Somebody said something but nobody remembers what, exactly. Sides have been taken, but if you don't remember what was said anymore should you change sides? Should there even be sides? Modern day apps are full of tick box answers to questions but what if nothing suits so you have to tick 'other'? Can you really explain how you don't fit in a box in just 180 characters? Can words be that meaningful and precise? Somebody doesn't like a word. Should we ban it? Do we understand the ramifications of doing so? Do we understand the ramifications of letting the word stay? 

Nadja Kostich (director) has led this marvellous ensemble into a maelstrom of humanity and together they have created a beautiful map - or is it a maze? Helping to connect language to feeling and emotion Allara Briggs Pattison (composer) has, with absolute genius, created a sound scape which takes us into the deepest heart places and subliminally helps us understand why words are important to us as individuals, us as a community, and us as a collection of communities. The journey includes original songs by two cast members which are breath-taking! 

The movement sequences created by Bridget Fiske (choreographer) keep the space, the air, and the ideas ebbing and flowing and allow the words to shift the dust on a musty history of communication and the lighting sculpted by Richard Vabre (lighting designer) reveals and hides in a playful yet edifying manner. All of this plays out on an evocative museum style palette created by Matilda Woodroofe.

When you enter the performance space, you are offered the chance to write down some words that are important to you. Words that you love or hate, your first word, words you have been introduced to. This small act of pre-performance framing is integral to how deeply you become embedded in the concepts held in the show. Along the way we also learn the history of the Magdalene Laundry itself which 'speaks' so strongly the tale being told in it right now. 

This is not a show about answers. The Word explores ideas. It explores ideas about words and ideas framed by words. You will leave The Word wiser than when you entered the building, and you will be glad this happened.

4.5 Stars

Monday 13 May 2024


WHAT: The Roof Is Caving In
WHERE: La Mama Courthouse
WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024
WRITTEN BY: Matilda Gibbs with Jack Burmeister and Belle Hansen
DIRECTED BY: Belle Hansen
SET BY: Belle Hansen and Brigette Jennings
PERFORMED BY: Joanna Halliday (violin), Daniel Kim (clarinet), Joshua Mackie (trombone), Linus Finn Mackie (guitars), Bek Schilling, Marlena Thompson, and Karen Yee (Keys)
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brigette Jennings

Marlena Thomson and Karen Yee - photo by Daren Gill

Rare is the person, these days, who hasn't had a share housing experience of some kind or another. For those of us who have been there/done that several times over it reveals itself to be a very changeable situation which can include the best of times and the worst of times. You can end up with life-long friends, people you never want to see or speak to ever again, and potentially even situations which include police involvement. To that you can add the many, many permutations of property manager and questionably habitable lodgings you might encounter, and it becomes no surprise that the Frenzy Theatre Company bring us a surrealist montage to explore the experience in The Roof Is Caving In currently playing at La Mama Courthouse.

Riffing off the theatre classic The Odd Couple and following the saturated colour palette of Barbie, The Roof Is Caving in is the story of two students who find themselves cohabiting for the first time in a less than well maintained after apartment complex.  We meet Bronwyn (Bek Schilling) and Hester (Marlena Thomson) as they are being handed over the key by an overly welcoming property manager (Joanna Halliday). After skulling the welcome wine, Halliday makes a quick exit and the two new tenants face their first dilemma - there is only 1 key for the apartment... 

In the ensuing negotiation of who will be the Keeper of the Key we discover Hester is the pedantic character and Bronwyn is the slob. My one big disappointment is that I really wanted Schilling to settle into their archetype like everyone else in the show. Instead, they kind of play the Everyman but that isn't right for the hyper-surreal tone of this production. 

The great delight of the play is the banda/chorus including everyone else in the cast. Whilst Bronwyn and Hester tug and pull to find a way to co-exist amidst unwashed dishes, unfinished laundry, very thin walls and late-night love interests, the ensemble pop up in the shower, the fridge, the window - just about everywhere playing the soundtrack of the lives of these two young women. It is true that their jaunty and sometimes dark jazz is a bit loud in the space but it is so good who cares? 

They also play all of the other characters in the play and they are brilliant. Joshua Mackie's handyman almost brought me to tears with his incompetence and Karen Yee as the neighbour is suitably domineering. Halliday is absolutely terrifying in a bunny boiling kind of way as the property manager and Daniel Kim has found so many ways to use a fridge which doesn't involve food it is positively mind boggling. Linus Finn Mackie plays Bronwyn's boyfriend and he is great but I couldn't quite work out his architype.

The entire ensemble keeps the tension building and the music and dance breaks work well for the most part. Perhaps the one moment it doesn't work is possibly the most important one - the housewarming party. There is soooo much work put into building up the party and the jeopardy the party puts the housemates in, but instead of keeping the tension going when the property manager turns up, Belle Hansen (director) let's it fizzle into another dance break which means we lose the thrill of the crescendo when the worst thing that could happen does happen. 

The Roof Is Caving In is a great script (Matilda Gibbs) and Jack Burmeister (composer) has written wonderful music for the banda and cleverly interwoven other sound elements to create atmosphere as intense and the colour palette. Hansen has made sure the cast keep the pace up and they use the space and their bodies and each other incredibly cleverly. Unfortunately, the show is about 15 minutes too long and because the crescendo stutters we really do feel it towards the end. 

The set (Hansen and Brigette Jennings) is detailed and clever. I would have liked the logic of the apartment to be as influenced by surrealism as everything else in the show is, but that might be a step too hard. How good would it have been with a sideways shower and a bed up a wall or something like that though???? There is no lighting credit, but I do think colour temperature was used well too. This show also wins the award for best and most appropriate use of a smoke machine since the end of lockdowns too ;)

The Roof Is Caving In is a wonderful and fun nightmare which is just a little too close to reality to be entirely comfortable. It is so exciting to have the live instruments in the space and the performers so cleverly integrated into the entire structure of the performance. 

4.5 Stars

Saturday 11 May 2024

THE BRIDAL LAMENT: Performance Review

WHAT: The Bridal Lament
WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
SET BY: Al Joel and Emily Borghi
LIGHTING BY: Govin Ruben

Rainbow Chan - photo by Sarah Walker

Song cycles are always rather unpredictable performance modes for audiences. The question becomes one of whether the music stands as musical exploration or whether it stands as storytelling. The Bridal Lament which is produced by Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and in its third iteration, this time at Arts House, is a song cycle which has Rainbow Chan exploring her Weitou cultural heritage both as part of a diaspora and also as part of her own authentic musical signature.

Chan's family left Hong Kong aroung the year the British lease of the territories expired in 1984. A millennia earlier, ancestors had left the mainland to settle into a walled village in what was to become known as Hong Kong. This agrarian culture are the people of Chan's matriarchal lineage. 

Centuries ago, weeping and wailing became formalised ritual as part of the Chinese people's relationships with their gods. It was also one of the few ritual forms which imbued women with magical/mystical agency in a patriarchal domination which takes the breath away to even try and conceive. For some time preceding the Cultural Revolution the celebration of marriage through wailing and lamenting became established in folk culture. As part of holding on to the past whilst marching inexorably into the future, Chan has revisited one of the communities in Hong Kong which still contain women who lived these experiences, women who learnt and performed these laments as part of their life events. Chan's mother was not one of these women, but her grandmother most certainly was.

There is a certain dark humour lurking within the implied horror lying under the current of these laments which Chan has resurrected. Young girls spend years learning these songs in the full knowledge they are going to be sentenced to a life of exile with people they do not know to live out a fate they have no way of foreseeing. A life in which they will have no personal agency at all. Once the matchmaker has done their job, the bride to be sits in a loft and sings her bridal laments for three days. Her feet may never touch the ground again until she is wed. 

What is left unsaid in Chan's show is that these laments are not actually for the family although it is the family who listens. They are for the gods. This period is a liminal state for the young woman who is trying to seduce the gods into making sure her fate is not as terrible as it possibly could be. It is no coincidence that in these traditional laments the groom is called the 'King of Hell'. The young woman is about to leave everyone and everything she knows to live with someone with that title and once this lamentation ritual is complete, she is expected to never cry again!

In Chan's The Bridal Lament she sings those laments to us in a blend of Weitouhua and English. Traditional chants are mixed and blended and melded with Chan's own brand of electro-pop. Parallelling the story of young brides preparing for their journey into the unknown, Chan gently weaves in the tale of her own family's exodus and how she finds herself part of the modern diaspora. Director Tessa Leong has worked with Chan to craft a thoroughly engrossing piece of theatre to accompany Chan's playlist. The explored social traditions are echoed gently in the slightly assonant tunings of Chan's music which whisper to us, the people in her new home, of the cultural dissonances of the past which make an excitingly different here and now.

The Bridal Lament looks to the past but connects women of a bygone era to those of today. As Chan tells us, these laments are a form of rebellion. They are a call to resist their fate as best they can. Chan, herself, is the embodiment of the success of that rebellion despite the distance in time and location it has taken to achieve it. As much as we might want to wallow in the victory, Chan reminds us that it is important to remember the pain of the past. How can we know who we are if we don't know who we have been? This is true of all of us, both within our individual cultural histories, but also within the history of the community we now find ourselves a part of.

Chan is accompanied by animations created by Rel Pham and shares the stage with a magnificent crystalline installation designed by Al Joel and Emily Borghi referencing rain, tears, cleansing. It is the carriage carrying the bride to her new husband. It is the mouth in a mouth, a whirlpool... it is hui.

Chan is still developing both vocally and musically, but as the music in The Bridal Lament moves into her own pop style you can clearly see the artist she is destined to become. On a stage filled with large architectural structures Chan does not disappear or get overwhelmed. Chan is destined for larger arenas but right now what we get in The Bridal Lament is the authentic origin story. Perhaps this fate is not one Chan should resist..

4.5 Stars

Saturday 20 April 2024

THE KING'S PLAYER - Theatre Review

WHAT: The King's Player
WHEN: 19 - 26 April 2024
WHERE: Alex Theatre (Studio)
SCENIC ART BY: Jen Ellis Stevens

Tref Gare - Photo supplied

It is Comedy Festival season so our stages are chockers with stand up and cabaret artists, but if you look deep enough you can find some theatrical gems which are belly-achingly funny, yet taught and complex enough to please the most erudite of theatregoers. The King's Player, being presented by Victorian Theatre Company in the Alex Theatre Studio space is just such a delight.

Set in Elsinore, the King's player (Tref Gare) let's us tag along with him as he tries to find employment to feed his terrifyingly hungry belly. Along the way we learn about his dad, his willingness to imbibe in unknown substances, and his lack of knowledge of theatrical standards. We learn he is also the inventor of the single link chain much to his blacksmith father's disappointment and our great amusement.

The King's Player is having a 30 year revival and yet it seems as fresh and full of life as if it had only been devised on the rehearsal room floor last month. Early in his career, Gare trained in physical theatre and mime in Europe and then joined the touring company The Medieval Players. From these experiences he created this hilarious and insightful play. 

What surprises me, more than anything, is how an actor with this incredible level of skill in clowning and physical theatre is not appearing on mainstages regularly. We all know Tref's work featuring in the very many indie Shakespeare revivals around town such as Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It but none of these give him the scope to really show his incredible talents in the realm of physical theatre. You will know what I mean when you go and see this show. I recently said Andre de Vanny's work in Swansong was a masterclass in acting. Well Gare in The King's Player is the second in the series and every young actor in Melbourne should come and see this show to really understand what their craft is/should be.

In The King's Player Gare takes us down a maelstrom of Medieval conditions which juxtapose that Shakespearean representation of royalty. We see poverty, love, and sacrifice - things nobody in Hamlet's world seem to ever truly understand. We learn about the destitute and desperate life of a thespian in a time of plague and patronage, where the only way out is to be favoured by the monarch - a truly double edged sword as the King's player discovers for himself. Thank goodness for the magic of theatre ;) Somehow Gare has us laughing all the way!

All of this happens in just over an hour through the efforts of an indefatigable actor, naked hand puppets, and a magnificent backdrop created by Jen Ellis Stevens for the original season back in 1994. This work of art parodies the Bayeux Tapestry created back in 1077 and tells the tale of William the Conqueror's conquest of England. Stevens' 'tapestry' tells us the tale of the King's player's journey to conquer his vocation and if you look close enough, you can follow our protagonist's story as the events unfold. It made me think of the Graeme Base storybooks, and The Eleventh Hour in particular.

The King's Player is a magnificent piece of comic theatre. It has everything - canon, comedy, mime, puppetry, pathos, history, dreams, hope, hunger, starvation, panic, love... How on earth has Gare done this???? And how is it so side-splittingly funny????????

The King's Player is one of the best hours you will ever have in a theatre and this show is perfect for touring. It would be an amazing thing to take to high schools too - a great learning tool about history and theatre for those poor HSC candidates in desperate need of laughter and exposure to great contemporary art.

5 Stars

Sunday 14 April 2024

#SWIFTOK - Cabaret Review

WHEN: 11 Mar - 21 April 2024
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus (Cabaret room)

Dean Robinson - photo by Elyse Batson

The Comedy Festival is here and our stages are full of everything silly and fun. Dean Robinson's one person cabaret #SWIFTOK is very silly fun indeed and is playing at The Motley Bauhaus, upstairs in the cabaret room.

The premise is simple. Dean is a 14 year old 'Swifty' and is livestreaming from his bedroom his complete obsession with Taylor Swift. As quick as we might to disregard Swift and her fans it is important to remember just how important this woman who appears so unassuming actually is. 

Swift is one of the world's best-selling music artists. She is the highest grossing female touring act, and the first billionaire with music as her main source of income. Her music spans a wide range of music genre and (as Dean tells us and impressively demonstrates) her lyrics have been compared to the writings of William Shakespeare and the truth is her songwriting skills really are impressive. She writes all her own songs and is rerecording early releases to reclaim her IP. In case you want to deride her music, her grandmother was an opera singer and Swift has never used autotune to correct her vocals.

Robinson explains how TikTok works, and the range of Swifty's who inhabit #SWIFTOK including the conspiracy theorists, the lip synchers, and the clowns. Along the way he lament's Swift's poor record dating men with names starting with the letter J and seems to have undertaken a mission to get Swift back together with the infamous Harry Styles. Robinson talks about the derision Swift receives for writing from personal experience when that is exactly what all the male artists do too. This reminded me of the flack PINK got when she brought out 'I'm Not Dead'. 

All of this is accompanied by Robinson singing excerpts from Swift's playlist. My biggest criticism is how pitchy he is and how by the end all of the excerpts started sounding like the same song. Maybe that is a deliberate commentary too? In his defense though, the venue had a VERY loud jazz band downstairs on the night I went which was very distracting.

Interspersing the Swift obsession there is some reference to reality with Robinson not speaking to his best friend Brittany because she has a boyfriend now, and there is someone called Troy who is a classmate. All of that got a bit lost for me and I wonder if this was aged right. My recollection of being 14 was a great desire to become an adult. It sounded to me like Brittany, Dean and perhaps Troy were still playing primary school games... 

#SWIFTOK is a bit unpolished right now, but it is harmless fun and Robinson has a natural childish charm which makes you want to smile whenever he does and the props are so much fun. If you don't know much about (or have never heard of) the TCU you will learn a lot, and if you are a Swifty you will have a good time. Robinson even leaves us with a prediction into the future and now all I can do is wait and see...

3 Stars

Sunday 7 April 2024

DUCK DUCK GOOSE - Theatre Review

WHAT: Duck Duck Goose
WHEN: 3 - 13 April 2024
WHERE: Theatre Works
WRITTEN BY: Catriona Daly
DIRECTED BY: Timothy Wynn
DESIGN BY: Mikailah Looker
AV DESIGN BY: Lachlan van der Kreek
SOUND DESIGN BY: Morgan Francis
LIGHTING BY: Arielle Roberts
PERFORMED BY: Emily Carr, Matt Domingo, Mitchell Holland, Rachel Nutchey, Jeanda St James, and Ilia Swindells

Ilia Swindells and Matt Domingo - photo by Darren Gill

What a play Duck Duck Goose is! Irish playwright Catriona Daly has written the play which needed to be written for men today. Being presented at Theatre Works until the 13th April, Ipswich based That Production Company is bringing us a story about what it is to be men in a world becoming intolerant of 'boys will be boys' behaviour. 

The party of all parties happens. The play begins the next morning. Chris (Mitchell Holland) finds himself waking up on his mates' kitchen floor and is startled by the appearance of Jane (Rachel Nutchey) who is playing on her phone. She appears to be doing a walk of shame after boozy sex with Davey (Matt Domingo) and has a strangely tense and confusing conversation with Chris before leaving. Davey and housemate Andy (Ilia Swindells) emerge and have another confusing conversation with Chris about deleting a toxic male What's App groups they belong too. 

Eventually it emerges that Jane lays charges against Davey saying he raped her, and Andy tried to join in. The men deny it, of course, and Chris is put in the position of choosing to stand up with his bruvs. When he does actually go ahead and delete the What's App group, he becomes complicit, and they all face legal trial. 

Chris, in particular, faces trial by media and social media. Chris is constantly reminded he didn't see what happened so why does he insist it didn't happen? The recurring theme becomes the refrain 'if it talks like a duck, 90% of the time it is a duck'. If all of the chat talk is misogynistic and violent, there is a strong likelihood someone in the group is going to be exactly that type of person.

This is what makes Duck Duck Goose so important. It is not about rape or guilt. It is about perception and loyalties and probabilities. This is Chris' story, not Davey's or Andy's. Chris wasn't in the bedroom and didn't see or do anything, but he becomes socially crucified because of his staunch support for his friends. On the other hand, he is absolutely sure it didn't happen because Chris saw Jane immediately afterwards in the kitchen and she didn't 'look' traumatised. Sitting alongside this questioning of unsubstantiated loyalty is the question what does trauma look like? 

Possibly the most compelling scene is when Chris goes on a Tinder date with Marie (Jeanda St James). She talks about an incident on a bus when a guy sat beside her and exposed himself and started masturbating. Her point was that most of the people on that bus, if asked, would likely say they don't tolerate assault, but all anyone did was move away or get off. On the other hand, Marie was confused and in shock and did nothing and went to work just like any other day. She was completely traumatised but anybody looking would have said she was fine. Another regular refrain across the work is how can people stop assault when they can't recognise it even when it is happening right in front of their eyes?

Daly deftly avoids the conversation being split along gender lines though. Chris' sister Sarah (Emily Carr) sides with her brother and his friends and a male radio shock jock, Leo (Swindells), becomes a strident interrogator who exposes some deep prejudices held by Chris both to the public and to Chris himself.

Director Timothy Wynn has created a show with extremely strong visuals and the cast is strong. I had one big hesitation with the casting. It is great that it is diverse, but Wynn has accidently created a show where the people of colour actors are the sexual offenders, and the white guy is the poor innocent lost in a maelstrom of slings and arrows. I am confident that was not the intention, but it is a really big OOPS!

Mikailah Looker (designer) has created a strong visual impact with a white rectangular rostrum across the width of the stage with a mirroring border above which allows a kind of tickertape messaging which tracks the time lapse of the show across the front. The concept of nothing is black and white contrasting with the white set in a black box theatre is strong and it also has a sense of a police lineup. On the other hand, there is little depth to the acting space which makes watching the show feel a bit like watching a tennis match. The scrap heap of kitchen stuff in the corner is a tragedy and using the fridge for everything and serving wine from a dirty coffee kettle in the date scene let the show down badly.

The AV works by Lachlan van der Kreek is impressive. The stage floor becomes a mobile phone interface, the tickertape messages swing from literal to abstract ideas, and the text is projected on the back wall for comprehension and accessibility for the d/deaf community. I really did like how the captioning was done but the font is too small, and it is pointless for the first half because the lighting designer (Arielle Roberts) floods the theatre (for no dramaturgical reason - AGAIN!) which takes ages to dissipate. Even if the font had been bigger, we still would not have been able to read the words easily through all that haze. Do it or don't do it. Stop messing around with accessibility. And yes, the captions are necessary because the entire show is played with a strong Galway accent and spoken at fast pace which means a lot of people need the support of the text on the back wall to keep up and understand what is happening. 

Apart from the haze, the lighting design is crisp and effective. The sound design by Morgan Francis is strong and compelling. All of the production elements work well. Perhaps one other reservation was that Holland never changes or adjusts costumes when everybody else does. He is on stage the whole time, which is a challenge, but it is odd that he is in casual sweats and bare feet all through the show including on the date and in court. I think simple costume shifts (such as shoes, perhaps) would have been possible within the arc of the show.

The cast is impressive although I would have liked Nutchey to find more definition between the three characters she plays (Jane, waiter, Sarah's friend). Swindells was mesmerising as toxic male Andy, and also the coked up radio DJ Leo. The build-up of misdirection and constant pressure Leo applies to Chris in the radio interview interrogation is masterful and the centrepiece of this production. Holland carries his central role well and never lets the energy or tension drop in what is a really huge role.

Duck Duck Goose is one of the most important plays I have seen on stage in a long time and this production has strong visuals and performances to take it where it needs to go. It is a clever interrogation of those grey areas where we don't know quite what is going on. It asks the question how much effort do we make to look at the context to find out? 'If it talks like a duck, then 90% of the time it is a duck'. How can we stop assault when we don't even recognise it when it is happening right in front of us?

4.5 Stars

Saturday 23 March 2024

THE DRESS: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Dress
WHEN: 22 Mar - 30 Mar 2024
WHERE: Werribee Mansion
WRITTEN BY: Alaine Beek
DIRECTED BY: Nigel Sutton
PERFORMED BY: Alaine Beek, Lore Burns, and Scott Jackson
COSTUME BY: Harry Quinert

Scott Jackson - photo by David Mullins

A classic comedy of manners written in Melbourne? Who would have thought? Yet here one is in all its original glory and performed in the most perfect setting. The Dress is being presented for its second season (originally produced in 2022) at Werribee Mansion by Essence Productions for two weekends only. Head out west to see a glorious couture period gown presented in a sumptuous heritage estate and brought to life with a witty script and lively actors.

Celebrating the period in which the Werribee Mansion was built, Alaine Beek has written a comic yet heart-warming 90-minute play set in the late 1800s. Mrs Hannah Green (Beek) has been a widow for three years, living alone in her husband's mansion. As was the custom at the time, the estate was bequeathed to her son, and he has reduced her household staff to 4. This has now diminished to only 2 because people in that era were eschewing domestic jobs for factory work. Yes, factory work was possibly more dangerous, but I personally understand why you would resent being a drudge for wealthy loafers despite the romantic tomfoolery suggested in shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. Especially if you had made it all the way to Australia to get away from that sort of thing!

Still, it would be very lonely sitting around such an enormous estate with nobody to talk to and only your grief to keep you company. Back in those days, before pret-a-porter, one of the closest relationships women of means had been that with their seamster. Attire and status have always been synonymous across human history and dressmakers definitely madeth the woman in society in those days. In The Dress, Mr Bertin (Scott Jackson), is Hannah's seamster/confidante. 

The play begins at the point in Melbourne history when George's department store opened. Georges was unique in that it was a department store like Myers, but it catered exclusively for the well-to-do. Going there to shop was a full experience including fussing attendants, free (top shelf) alcohol, and an array of items which must have been positively mind-boggling at the time. What this meant for artisan dressmakers though, was a substantial loss of clientele and an inability to match the selection and availability of fabrics and finished clothing.

Mr Bertin is a desperate man. His customer base is receding at a rapid pace, the only form of marketing is word of mouth, or your clothes being worn at social occasions, and all of his money is invested in his fabric stock personally sourced from overseas trips. Bertin stumbles upon a clever idea. There is a masquerade on the upcoming social calendar, so he needs to find a patron to wear one of his creations to get some buzz and some business happening. But who?

Bertin has a delightful relationship with Hannah. She hasn't bought a gown in years, moping about her manor in black since her husband's death. Despite this, Bertin still visits regularly and they laugh and talk. On this visit, though, Bertin has a plan, and it has a dual purpose. He needs a gown at the masquerade, and he desperately wants his friend to come out of mourning and live her life to the full again. As he says, she is missed by everyone. 

Peeking through her diary Bertin identifies a name she has put a little heart beside - Mr Flattery - and commits to bringing this gentleman back into Hannah's life to escort her to the ball. There is a catch, however. No matter how hard he tries, Bertin cannot find Flattery. Hannah knows why and spends the time leading up to the ball playing with Bertin and his pretences, all the time letting him create a concoction she is sure she will never wear. Along the way we learn some Melbourne history and a bit about the art of couturier, Hannah has a lot of fun with a lobster, and Bertin gets a Cinderella story.

The Dress is performed in traverse along the main hall and up the grand staircase and the tale is accompanied by the depth and beauty of the sounds of a single live cello played by Lore Burns on the night I attended. Nigel Sutton (director) has done a great job with the constraints of this kind of theatre configuration (which seems to be having a revival across Melbourne I might add...) and Jackson keeps the pace energetic and lively as he strides and struts and patters up and down the hall always in a state of agitated excitement and exuberance. Beek has an elegance and dignity very suitable for the Lady she is portraying and there is a nice synergy of her slight Scottish accent referencing the original Scottish Chirnsides who built the Werribee Mansion in the 19th century.

The Dress is funny and sweet with just enough pathos to give it gravitas. The staging in the Werribee Mansion gives the story an authenticity and really does create an atmospheric connection to those times in which it is set. My one regret was I wanted the waltzing moment to be bigger, last longer. It has the opportunity to truly transport us back in time if they would literally sweep down the whole length of the great hall and back again. It has the potential to be as meaningful as 'Shall We Dance' in The King & I

I really enjoyed The Dress and the actual dress, made by Harry Quinert, is breath-taking. It does everything it sets out to do. It's a funny warm fuzzy in very dystopian times. If you don't live in the western suburbs why not take the opportunity to stay overnight in the hotel and then visit the zoo on your way home the next day? What a wonderful little mini-break that would be!

4.5 Stars

Sunday 17 March 2024

SWANSONG - Theatre Review

WHAT: Swansong
WHEN: 13 - 22 March 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Conor McDermottroe
DIRECTED BY: Greg Carroll
PERFORMED BY: Andre de Vanny

Andre de Vanny - photo supplied

The Irish have a long history of ... well, everything. The recurring cultural themes which come out of that tiny nation are poverty, violence, and emotional depths deeper than the Mariana Trench. The women are unbreakable and the men cry behind their flailing fists. From this tradition springs Conor McDermottroe's play Swansong, enjoying a third run at Theatre Works - following hit seasons in 2018 and 2019.

Swansong is the (quite typical) story of a young Irish lad growing up poor in the western port of Sligo. Sligo has a long history of poverty and was one of the ports the famine ships (or coffin ships) used to transport Irish to the Americas in the 19th century during the Potato Famine. Around 30,000 Irish left from the Sligo port and McDermottroe draws on that history to frame the story of our beset Irish lad Occi (Andre de Vanny). The precise time in which the story is being told is not important. The play was written in 2005, but the film version which followed in 2009 sets the present as being around the 1970's. 

What we see in this production of Swansong is an open, black, end stage theatre without any kind of staging or cloths. Just some theatre lights hanging from the grid, on a boom, and a lonely Par Can in one corner on an H-stand. We know instantly this is stripped back theatre. Everything about this show is going to rest solely on the shoulders of the actor. It is an act of great bravery by director Greg Carroll. Or perhaps not, given he is working with perhaps one of our greatest actors of current times.

The lights come up and out strides de Vanny in a dated brown shirt, brown leather jacket, and faded blue trousers. He calls out a hearty hello in a lilting brogue and stares straight into the audience, but it is not us he is seeing. He is speaking to his favourite swan, Agnes, as he tosses bread to her and fights off the other swans coming in for a feed.

The term swansong refers to the myth that just before dying swans sing their most glorious songs. It is not true, but the myth has been a part of Western society since Aesop's fable (and probably earlier) The Swan and The Goose. Is this tale we are about to launch into going to be Occi's swan song? In truth we never find out. The film may be more explicit in this as it is in all aspects of the story. Is this Agnes's swan song? Again, we never find out. One of the criticisms I have about the script is the end doesn't resolve well, but maybe I am possibly just putting too much weight in the title.

As Occi watches Agnes swim away he sees the swans all heading for a wreck in the harbour. He tells us it is a coffin ship and speaks to the despair the starving people on the dock must have felt as they watched it sink. I have done a bit of research. I can't find any evidence of a coffin ship called the St Martin but the point is made well and the link of endless Irish poverty with the fated life of Occi is established. As we peer into those sepia toned stories of yesteryear, we move forward into Occi's troubled life.

Occi was born into poverty as an illegitimate son in a time when being a bastard was a literal thing and had appalling social consequences. Anyone who watched Game of Thrones knows what I mean. Occi (pronounced Okky) was christened Austen Byrnes, but McDermottroe has a lot of fun playing with his own history working in Australia to embed the chant 'Occi Occi Occi, Oy Oy Oy'. It is a fun bit of silliness and works well to draw in an Australian audience who might otherwise find themselves wondering why they should care about this young man's life.

Occi seems to have suffered some sort of neurodivergence after an unfortunate barrel roll down a very steep sand dune in his childhood. Young boys playing dangerous games which have tragic endings is another trope we all know well. You know things are not going to end well as soon as Occi starts setting up the story. There is no specific diagnoses but across the course of the show there is the inference he is not the brightest bulb on the block, and he definitely has anger management issues. 

He also finds himself, after one violent incident, in a psychiatric institution. Here is where he meets the love of his life, Mary. The title of the play also refers to the fact that swans mate for life. The fate of both Occi and Agnes are bound together in this sad tale.

Mary leaves the institution, and sometime later so does Occi but they don't meet up again immediately like some sort of Hollywood fantasy film. Occi struggles to manage his medication regime and has to resort to the dangerous work of deep-sea fishing to earn a living. A man dies and, in an attempt to avoid consequences Occi joins the army. It is at this point the story reveals a strangely ironic humour and eventually leads us back to where this 90 minute of theatre began.

A 90-minute one person show is not something I would usually even begin to enjoy. In the outrageously skilled hands of de Vanny though, the time marched on with pace, pathos and humour. There are sadly many fewer great actors on the stages in Melbourne than I would like to see. I am thinking people of the calibre of Syd Brisbane and Evelyn Krape. Andre de Vanny is one of those actors and you should not miss the chance to see a master of their craft in all their glory. This actor is the whole package - voice, body, intention. Occi is de Vanny, de Vanny is Occi. And Occi is sweet and pathetic and angry and violent and loving.

I am glad McDermottroe made the movie because the script doesn't fully realise all of its characters and ideas. It was written for himself as an acting vehicle and is now a legacy in the theatre canon for men to tell men's stories. Part of me hesitates over the play because it feeds into that age old male myth that a single insult is a socially acceptable trigger for violence. The play also lets Occi literally get away with murder, inferring his poverty is excuse and punishment enough. On the other hand, it holds back from becoming a ballad of violence and finds a way out so that we can like Occi at the end. I don't know if that is a good or bad thing...

Regardless, de Vanny's performance is a triumph and Carroll did the best thing a director can do with a performer of this calibre - stay out of his way. It does not surprise me that de Vanny has been able to take this to the world across the years. There will always be an audience for a story like this and de Vanny's performance is a masterclass in acting.

5 Stars.

Thursday 14 March 2024

CAR CRASH - Theatre Review

WHAT: Car Crash
WHEN: 11 - 16 March 2024
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
WRITTEN BY: Gregory Vines
DIRECTED BY: Cassandra McGrath
PERFORMED BY: Elyse Batson, Alec Gilbert, Melanie Madrigali, John Voce, and MJ Wilson

Melanie Madrigali and Alec Gilbert - photo supplied

Here's one for all the Yes Minister fans out there. We all remember that outrageous interview Prince Andrew gave in 2019 about his association with notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. You know the one I mean. The one where he explained his miraculous ability to not sweat. Playwright Gregory Vines has decided to take a peek behind palace doors and imagine what the conversations would have sounded like in his play Car Crash now playing at The Butterfly Club.

The scenario for Car Crash is pretty simple. Two royal advisors (Alec Gilbert and Melanie Madrigali) spin their way through 'family' troubles. They seem to be Prince Andrew (John Voce) specialists and vacillate between boredom and apoplexia trying to manage the Prince's PR. 

The play begins with Gilbert lamenting the toughest decision of the day, trying to choose between a gingernut biscuit and a shortbread for dunking into his tea. Madrigali comes in with the morning papers and the two banter with all of the rhythm and wordplay of that venerable English comedy series I mentioned earlier. Over the course of the hour the two exalt the death of Epstein and ponder the fact that everyone (including themselves) knows/went to school with Ghislaine Maxwell. Then they catch wind of the upcoming interview and their poor little stultified brains whirl into overdrive to plan his interview strategy. We may never know who the brainchild behind that piece of PR absurdity was really, but Gilbert gives a very credible indication it was him!

In their defence, both advisors wanted to pull the plug but then in strides the Prince and all hope of an elegant way out fail in the face of royal obtuseness. Along the way there is a baffling (and not very well crafted) interruption by a professor (MJ Wilson) trying to lobby for a start-up enterprise. That part of the play doesn't really work. I think it was to demonstrate how the real business of the realm gets ignored whilst all the royal shenanigans dominate time and money but it isn't strongly on point and poorly acted so all it does is make the play longer than it needs to be. The show is only an hour long but it feels longer than that because of these scenes and the extraordinarily long blackouts.

Apart from this, the acting across the rest of the ensemble is right on point and Voce brings excellent energy to his cameos as the Prince. Gilbert is perfect as a Sir Humphrey type character. Madrigali's performance is equal to Gilbert's but I do think her character misses it's mark. This kind of writing needs to be played in a Laurel and Hardy style. You need the fool and the straight man (person). In this scenario the show would have had a lot more energy and laughs if Madrigali avoided dropping into fellow foolery with Gilbert. A lot of the humour in a Nigel Hawthorn type of character lies in the 'clear thinking' one being led down rabbit holes in a completely unexpected manner, not in joining in with the crazy. 

This may not be all Madrigali's fault. The show is directed by Cassandra McGrath but I am not convinced she has a lot of experience in stage direction. As lively as Vines' script is, the actual staging of this show is boring. Actors sitting on stage and talking is the absolute death knell of live performance. There is nothing interesting for the audience to see when everyone is sitting and there is little opportunity for actors to communicate their relationship with each other when stuck in a chair. It is even worse when the chairs are on opposite sides of the stage and facing straight out to the audience. The Butterfly Club stages are small but that should incite challenge and innovation in directors, not encourage them to give up.

There is one other actor in the show who I haven't mentioned yet. Elyse Batson plays the quiet, obedient, and disregarded servant Maddison. Batson is a tall woman with a surprisingly imposing presence and a mobile face which speaks volumes even though she speaks very little. I think in the right role, Batson will dominate the stage.

Car Crash is not going to change the world, but it is funny in a retro English way. The characters are archetypes we are all familiar with even though the topic is starting to fade into deep past. Time before COVID seems so much further back than it really is... If sipping tea and dithering about royal foibles is your thing, Car Crash will be exactly your cup of tea.

3 Stars.

Monday 11 March 2024


WHAT: Every Lovely Terrible Thing
WHEN: 28 - 16 March 2024
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
WRITTEN BY: Adam Fawcett
DIRECTED BY: Justin Nott
SET BY: Harry Gill
COSTUMES BY: Martelle Hunt
LIGHTING BY: Sidney Younger
PERFORMED BY: Lyall Brooks, Emma Choy, Sharon Davis, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Megan Jones, and Wil King
SOUND BY: Tom Backhaus
AV BY: Aron Murray
STAGE MANAGED BY: Ashleigh Walwyn


Lyall Brooks and Wil King - photo by Pia Johnson

It has been a long time since I have seen an original Australian play with a really classic feel and timbre. I mean the kind of play which resonates with the depth of plays like Summer of The Seventeenth Doll or The One Day of The Year for example. Every Lovely Terrible Thing, written by Adam Fawcet, produced by Lab Kelpie and now showing at Theatre Works sits, rather surprisingly, in that wheelhouse. For those of you with more international leanings, you might want to think of plays like Miss Julie and August: Osage County perhaps to get a sense of this play before going to see it.

This story follows the well-worn concept of a family coming together, usually in a rural setting, and airing all their dirty laundry, reliving childhood trauma and rivalries, and rarely resolving very much at all. Along the way someone tends to die, someone 'comes out', and someone gets drunk and starts a fight. Every Lovely Terrible thing does not stray far from the formula, but the characters are, for the most part, well developed. As well, this play throws in a bunch of post-dramatic affects with varying degrees of success to bring a traditional narrative arc into the 21st century. 

I want to say the coalescence of all of this level of disfunction is beyond reality but, to be honest, the Coleman's are pretty tame compared to the whole lot of crazy in my family tree and, sadly, I don't believe we are that far from 'normal'. I wish I was more shocked by the story lines than I am. Having said that, Every Lovely Terrible Thing has a good dose of troubles for most trauma-addicted theatre goers to indulge themselves in.

The Colemans' reside in a country town. The dad is dead, the mum (Megan Jones) is dating. The son (Lyall Brooks) and daughter (Sharon Davis) are twins - of course! The son (Charles) inherited the local pub and the daughter (Britta) escaped the nest and moved to Sydney but finds herself back in the family home and pregnant. Charles is married to Phoebe (Emma Choy) and they have their own grown-up child, Cooper (Wil King). Cooper is struggling to find their identity outside pre-existing paradigms and is challenged by a range of life lessons which come in the form of the local tradie, Lachie (Jordan Fraser-Trumble). 

Even though the structure and characters are very familiar to us, don't be put off by that. The story is well constructed, and the characters are crafted with depth and complexity which makes Every Lovely Terrible Thing a very satisfying and substantial night of theatre. There is very little which is new in our world, and there are even less old stories told well. Every Lovely Terrible Thing is an old story told very well.

Despite its classic structure and content, Every Lovely Terrible Thing has a range of post-dramatic constructs and also sits comfortably within the genre of queer theatre as well. I don't think all of those contemporary tricks and bits and bobs work or enhance the story, but they also don't detract from it too much, so I guess I am left with 'why the hell not?'

One thing that doesn't work is the appearances of the character Kid Coyote (Fraser-Trumble). This character and the videography (Aron Murray) do not fit the location or the narrative. The concept comes from the video game Red Dead Redemption but nobody plays video games in this play, and the play is set in contemporary Australia, not a post-apocalyptic America. Including this character confuses the narrative. I am guessing it is there to build tension and raise the stakes, comparing family feuding to the level of blood and gore. The play does constantly reference hunting so the idea is fine, but the reference only reads to gamers. 

Coopers little fantasy interludes, on the other hand, are brilliant and flow from the opening scene watching classic movies with his grandmother (Jerrica). The relationship between Jerica and Cooper is one of great love and beauty, and a wonderful counterpoint for Jerrica to the stressful disconnect with her own children. Cooper helps her to look forward with hope to a future whilst Charles and Britta drag her kicking and screaming into a painful past which cannot be forgotten and certainly will never be forgiven.

A recurring theme in Every Lovely Terrible thing is that horror movie staple, the rabbit. The tradition of rabbits in horror stories is long and proud. Why? Because they are cute from a distance, but if you get close they have the eyes of a psychopath and the claws to scratch your eyes out. We also associate them with hunters, being skinned, and as food. It is interesting to note in Fawcett's play the rabbit which keeps appearing is brown and straggly and ugly, whereas the one in Justin Nott's (director) production is pristine and white and cartoonish. Nott's rabbit fits the queer theatre genre better, but I think Fawcett's rabbit is scarier and leads us to the revelations in the play more clearly. 

The acting in Every Lovely Terrible thing is consistently good across the ensemble although Choy needs to develop her ability to project a bit more. I was sitting in the front row and struggling to hear her. King is phenomenal as Cooper, and they have no problem meeting the demands of the central character. 

Most of the play resolves well although a couple of story lines don't earn their ending. There is no hint in act 1 to support Phoebe's choices in act 2 - either in the script or in the direction/acting. It makes that story choice feel gratuitous and as a woman I am tired of theatre making gratuitous choices for female characters. 

Also, there is a whole story line completely undeveloped for Charles. The end of the play is crafted like a movie inferring there will be a sequel, but I don't know if that works in theatre because who knows if the sequel is ever going to materialise or when? More detailed work from the director in act 1 would make this final moment not leave the audience feeling like they are missing out on something big and important. There is a wonderful, corrugated iron shed in the set. We need to be pointed to it more often in act 1.

The set (Harry Gill) is incredibly full and detailed. I rarely say this at Theatre Works, but it might just be a bit too busy. Martelle Hunt's costumes are perfection. I do want to mention if the script calls something a dress, then either the character should wear a dress, or the director should change the word to skirt. Simples! Tom Backhaus' sound was effective if a bit loud.

Sidney Younger's lighting is perfection and I even forgive the gratuitous smoke machine. I always love Younger's work. I have, however, come to the conclusion that lighting lecturers get kickbacks from lighting suppliers on the sale of theatrical haze/smoke. The mind boggles as to how much money is spent on the stuff this century. I know what haze does for film and it is important in that context. It does not have the same efficacy on stage. Many a theatre budget would look a hell of a lot healthier at no loss to the dramaturgy if we just didn't spend that money. In this instance it did detract from the 'river' lighting though because it was more fun watching the laser show up in the grid than watching the ripples on stage.

Every Lovely Terrible Thing is a great piece of text-based theatre written with confidence and depth. Theatre is about telling our stories and revealing the hidden. This play does those things well and the production elements and performances are excellent. This is a play to see and remember as part of the Australian canon.

4.5 Stars

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHAT: KOAL WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory) WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024 CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford DIRECTED BY: Tre...