Monday, 14 January 2019

Newk! - Theatre Review

What: Newk! (The John Newcombe Story)
When: 14 - 19 January 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written and directed by: Kieran Carroll
Performed by: Damian Callinan

Damian Callinan
Melbourne is all about tennis this fortnight, but not all the action is happening at Melbourne Park. If you pop in to The Butterfly Club for a cocktail (the Newcano is very dry and extremely awesome) you can hear a great Aussie tennis story performed by a great Aussie storyteller as Callinan embodies John Newcombe in Newk! (The John Newcombe Story).

Newcombe now resides in Texas at his tennis ranch for the most part these days so we don't hear much about him in the tennis broadcasts anymore. At one point though he was a powerhouse of Australian tennis. Across his career he won 7 singles championships and 17 doubles championships and has played the likes of Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and the list goes on. His playing career spanned 1963 - 1978, after which he went on to captain the Australian Davis Cup team for five years and is an Australian Living Treasure as well as being inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Carroll's long form monologue encompasses not only Newcombe's professional success, but is also a fun portrait of his private excesses and and a heart warming insight into his personal life as he invites the elite of the tennis community  - old and new - to a backyard barbeque to celebrate his 70th birthday. Newk! is actually an adaptation of a full two act play penned by Carroll in 2014 and I encourage people to have a read (and perhaps stage it?). As much fun as Newk! is, the play digs deeper and we find out a lot more about his wife, Angie and the other people in his life.

Callinan is the perfect choice to play this member of the Australian 70's moustachioed sports elite. To the lay person it is kind of hard to tell the difference between Newcombe, the Chappells, and Barassi...

I don't know anyone who pulls off that dinky di Aussie sportsman persona on stage with as much aunthenticity and respect as Callinan. Callinan loves a larrikin and whilst Australia and Australians are moving on, it is nice to be reminded of those good old days with just enough of a nod to remember why we have moved on.

In Newk! Newcombe is portrayed as a hard playing, hard drinking kinda bloke who only loses when blood is left on the court. Interestingly, Newcombe is renowned for his intense mental focus so when Callinan shows us a heavy binge and talks about how the next morning Newk will be up at 6am for a 5 km hill run before a 5 hour training session it is fascinatingly believable. Not many people can do the one and then the other!

Newcombe made a lot of money from endorsements and whilst, as a child, I only knew tennis players names because they were on the back of cereal boxes, I do remember his advertising classics. Who can forget the toast 'cin cin', or 'avagoodweegend', and who didn't want to sleep on a Miracoil?

Newk! shifts between time much like a tennis game changes lead, and for the most part extremely successfully and with little confusion. I perhaps would have liked Callinan to embrace a more energetic physicality when playing Newk in his prime, but it is not a big issue.

Carroll has paid wonderful attention to detail with props and costumes. Everything from the King Gee shorts, the vintage Slazenger, and the bar lined with Cinzano and Kirks.

Between Callinan's earnest, dry and inclusive performance and Carroll's attention to detail, Newk! is  a wonderful show full of memorabilia and belly laughs. You will remember things you didn't even realize you knew as you travel down one of Australia's iconistic paths. There is no more perfect time than now to pop into The Butterfly Club, down a couple of Newcanoes and have a good laugh with an old friend, John Newcombe, before watching your next match at the Australian Open.

3.5 Stars

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Romeo & Juliet - Theatre Review

What: Romeo & Juliet
When: 6 - 16 December 2018
Where: The Rose Garden, St Kilda Botanical Gardens
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Musical direction by: Ben Colley
Performed by: Lucy Best, Benjamin Colley, Matthew Connell, Anthony Craig, Lilliana Dalton, Carly Ellis, Tref Gare, Ayesha Gibson, Joanna Halliday, Emma Jevons, and Hunter Perske, John Reed, Karl Richmond, Paul Robertson, Andy Song, and Emily Thompson
Choreography by: John Reed
Set by: Karli-Rose Laredo
Costumes by: Rhiannon Irving
Karl Richmond, Carly Ellis, and Matthew Connell - photo by Burke Photography
It is summer in Melbourne and time for all our garden Shakespeare companies to draw theatre goers and families out into the waning evening sunlight for magical mystery tours of theatre from our Anglo-patri-colonial past. The first off the blocks this year is Melbourne Shakespeare Company with that romantic old favourite, Romeo & Juliet, which is being performed in the stunning rose garden at the St Kilda Botanical Gardens.

Melbourne Shakespeare Company pay great attention to making sure they are in beautiful surroundings and present beautiful work and Romeo & Juliet fits the brief well. Everything is immaculate from the stage, to the costumes, to the props and the cast are always extremely well rehearsed with great attention to character, physicality (physical comedy is one of the company's fortes) and this year especially, voice work.

Led by director Jennifer Sarah Dean, Melbourne Shakespeare always bring a delightfully old school English feel to their productions and this year she goes a step further, interpreting the story as pantomime complete with a cross dressing female character in the Nurse (Gare). Gare is from the UK as well so his perfect interpretation of this mechanism makes complete sense.

Unfortunately some of the problems with this Romeo & Juliet stem from this very place. Shakespeare is old and outdated (if you get past that patri-colonial anglo-centric myth his plays are timeless and universal) so directors and auteurs have free licence to do absolutely anything with his plays which is why so many companies put on his work rather than approaching modern plays which more accurately speak to our world and the people in it. Turning the romantic tragedy that is Romeo & Juliet into a pantomime is many steps too far though, and the whole conceit falls apart from the point of Mercutio's (Richmond) death.

Whilst the play is potentially a barrel of laughs at the start, the concept of comedy begins on the basic premise that it has a happy ending. We can say a lot about Romeo & Juliet, but that is not one of them. It is also questionable as to whether the time for men to dress as women to create clownish charicatures is well and truly over in the post-truth age.

Another confusing aspect is the costume designs. Irving has once again developed a playful and detailed palate, but the 1920's flapper era was disconnected from the friar cassocks and the nurse outfit. When the show first began I excitedly thought this was going to be a Bonnie & Clyde gangster interpretation. The pantomime thing shook me completely. This is why design and concept are so important and the choices of one can invalidate or cause cognitive dissonance with the other no matter how beautiful.

Regardless, the cast were all at the top of their game and gave a lively rendition. I especially loved the camaraderie of the Montague boys. Song (Balthasar) and Ellis (Benvolio) totally stole the show with their incredible acting, great physical humour, and beautiful and strong singing voices.

Connell (Romeo) and Halliday (Juliet) were a joyfully perfect pair and played a playful interpretation of young love. Unfortunately I wasn't able to see the death scene because of a really strange staging choice which I think Dean and Laredo should reconsider before the season continues much further. It is the climax of the whole play so losing it for most of the audience by this odd placement seems a waste of everyone's time.

The script has been severely dismembered to just the highlights in order to make the show one act and also to fit in the Melbourne Shakespeare Company's trademark song battles and random Luhrmannesque pop song interludes. For the most part the music works and Colley has chosen an intriguingly ecclectic and sometimes outrightly hilarious mix of music to punctuate moments. The greatest triumph of the night is the cast rendition of 'Hallelujah'.

Romeo & Juliet is a feast of beauty and fun. Technically it is a work of perfection. It is really just a string of contradicting artistic decisions which lets it down.

Take along a picnic dinner and remember to take lots of water to stay hydrated. Romeo & Juliet will win your hearts.

3.5 Stars

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Alice's Theorem: A Conceptual Excretion of Thoughts - Comedy Review

What: Alice's Theorem - A Conceptual Excretion of Thoughts
When: 6 - 8 December 2018
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created and performed by: Alice Albon
Directed by: Fiona Scott-Norman
Alice Albon
It's the time of the year when all we want is a good drink and an even better laugh and you will be hard pressed to find any show on at the moment which will make you laugh as often or as hard as Alice's Theorem: A Conceptual Excretion of Thoughts. Sadly it is only on for a couple of days at The Butterfly Club so you have to hurry if you don't want to miss this collection of surprising, witty, and - at times - gross collection of mind droppings.

Alice's Theorem was first created in 2017 and performed in Ballarat (Albon is a Federation Uni graduate). Having sat through this ode to the acceptance of death cataloguing ways to enjoy your death experience I am not surprised to see it reprised and absolutely expect to see it reappear in the future.

Let me begin by saying Albon is the Ever Ready Battery Bunny on steroids. She does not stop moving for a single second and instead of each joke getting a drum kit boom tish, Albon gives a two step into a vogue pose. It is the kind of thing only a cute young woman with not so cute thoughts can get away with and it is pure magic. Some of it is nerves which need to settle down a bit, but as a comedy persona it is fun to watch and has a weird sort of mesmerising hypnosis.

Albon is here to give us a TED talk as the world's leading expert in her field - herself. In particular, Albon wants to talk to us about preparing for death. The way she looks at the world, everything we do is just filling in time until we die - "The one truly communal activity" - and she doesn't understand why people don't plan for it better.

Apart from lying under her death shroud for 20 minutes a day, Albon spends a lot of time thinking about how she wants to die. Her dream death is to be eaten by a shark after punching it in the face. Each to their own I guess...

Albon is tiny but she is no comedy lightweight. Beneath that cute smile and diminutive stature is a razor sharp feminist. She opened my eyes to a great truth when she explained the sexist nature of sharks and how they only ever seem to bite men...

Most of the show is a convoluted  5 step presentation on her theory on how life is analogous to excreting a turd. There are some fun quips and bad puns along the way to make sure we are still paying attention as well as essential life hacks and witty songs to punctuate the moments. Albon is a truly gifted singer and 'You Asked For It' is up there with the great comedy tunes of our time.

Alice's Theorem is a show full of audience engagement opportunities, all of them harmless fun. Have you ever seen an esophagus dance? You will if you come to this show (and so many more images which will be burned onto your retina forever - there are just some things you can't unsee).

I spent a lot of time in Alice's Theorem gasping at the audacity and then laughing my behind off. This show is wrong in so many ways which is what makes it so right and it has been perfectly crafted under the sure hands of cabaret veteran Fiona Scott-Norman.

4 Stars

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Ungraceful - Comedy Review

What: Ungraceful
When: 29 November - 8 December 2018
Where: The MC Showroom
Created and performed by: Julie-Anna Evans and Mason Gasowski
Mason Gasowski and Julie-Anna Evans
We don't see a lot of quality old-school sketch comedy on stage any more, even in the Comedy Festival. In Ungraceful Evans and Gasowski take us back to the days of Martin and Lewis, French and Saunders, and Abbott and Costello (without the pratfalls). This belly full of laughs is on at The MC Showroom and is a great way to get into the mood for the holiday season.

You know the work is going to be funny when the artists are brave enough to perform on a blank canvas. White on black leaves nothing unseen and Evans and Gasowski are up to the challenge.

For the most part Evans plays the straight man to Gasowski's clown. Gasowski has a body as fit and mobile as his facial features. He never stops moving and at times I found myself wondering how he ever found himself in that configuration. Evans is just as funny, but provides the strong wall for Gasowski to bounce off.

All of the skits are based on real things that have happened although the characters themselves are not real of course. Hilarious scenarios of mothers getting a bit too friendly with sons, New Age therapists being interviewed on TV, and the absurdities of seeking medical help in a country where you can't speak the language are all fair game for this comedy duo.

Creating a through line across the evening are wonderful vignettes of Kev and Dan who work at Classic Kitchens. On the showroom floor they share experiences with their girlfriends. Don't worry though. This is not your typical male, misogynist humour. Kev and Dan are a crack up because we get to see their foibles rather than them making fun of the women they are with.

All the material in Ungraceful is completely new so there are still a couple of small aspects which will tighten up over the season. The main issue is a couple of sketches don't end on the punch line so we don't always get the sharp boom-tish effect. As I say, though, I reckon this will be worked out by tonights show.

Ungraceful is really funny and The MC Showroom has set up the space as cabaret with a bar in the theatre itself so get on down, grab a drink and sit back and enjoy an hour of fun and laughter. The MC Showroom is in the heart of Prahran too so you can have dinner first and make a night of it because the show starts at 8pm.

4 Stars

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

The Melbourne Monologues: A Cabaret of Souls - Theatre Review

What: The Melbourne Monologues: A Cabaret of Souls
When: 27 November - 2 December 2018
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Christine Croyden, Brooke Fairley, Alison Knight, Neil McGovern, Martin Rice, and Bruce Shearer.
Directed by: Elizabeth Walley
Performed by: Joanna Davey, Alec Gilbert, Isabella Gilbert, Ruth Katerelos, Martin Rice, and Callum Straford
Ruth Katerelos, Alec Gilbert, and Martin Rice - Photo by Ian Thrussell
It has been a year since the last Melbourne Monologues (probably because it is an annual event...) and Melbourne Writers Theatre brings to the La Mama Courthouse stage another 6 original and intriguing monologues by local writers. Whilst there is no unifying theme and it is a blind selection process, director Walley has again brought a random collection together with a strong unifying concept  making this year's offering, A Cabaret of Souls, a evening of added depth and extra layers in exactly the way circus and cabarets do.

Alec Gilbert acts as the ringmaster for this motley collection of tired and jaded performers as he ushers us inside and dishevilled performers take their place around the stage. Rice is the strongman, Straford the clown, Katerelos the dancer, Isabella Gilbert the torch singer, and Davey takes on the persona of the burlesque artist. Their sad, tired eyes stare at us as Alec Gilbert launches into the first monologue of the evening, 'Angry Dancing' by Shearer.

This is a strong starter and Alec Gilbert performs it well, taking control of the audience from the very beginning, encouraging us to learn to dance out our anger as he, Gilkinson style, issues instructions. The cast get off their chairs and join the class. I loved this idea and I looked forward to an evening of integrating a chorus into each monologue which did happen although nothing to the degree of this first piece. My only disappointment was I felt Walley needed to have Alec Gilbert expand his audience to include the stage so that he could explore a level of interpersonal interactions which would give the monologue a more personal interpretation and allow the audience to be voyeurs as well as unwitting players in the scenario.

Knight's contribution, 'The Unspeakable Beauty of Falling' is a sad reminiscence bringing together childhood, death and terrorism. The tale is compelling but this work, performed by Katerelos, did start me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the short form monologue. I am coming to the idea that a short form monologue is more closely related to an impressionist painting than story telling and if you try to put too much into 10 minutes you risk taking away the space the audience have to delve into the ideas and emotions of the moments.

The big hit of the night for me was McGovern's 'Sometimes' - a beautifully written work around the simple question of what a mouth should be for. Walley's direction really strikes home as Straford comes forward, the sad clown of the ensemble. Straford mourns the lack of kisses in his life with pathos and humour, reveling in the intricacies of the thoughts, condemning the overpopulation of words which cross his lips and the dearth of tender skin. I couldn't help but blow him at kiss at the end to ease his sorrow.

Going from strength to strength, Davey takes over the stage as cat/woman in '3 Out Of 9'. No, not Catwoman, but a woman playing a cat. Fairley writes us a story about the struggle to keep joy and hope in our lives through the experiences of a she cat. Davey tells us of the rejection of her kits as they ween and leave the litter box. In a lively reminiscence she tells of the barbs on the penises of toms and what interspecies sex is like before admitting she only has 3 lives left, one of them lost because she threw herself into the mouth of a volcano. What do you do when you just keep coming back?

Isabella Gilbert takes over as the dance hall chanteuse in Croyden's 'The Diamond Bracelet'. A World War 2 tale, Isabella Gilbert tells us about her terrorist plot of rebellion for which she will be paid with a bracelet made from the souls of the dead. A beautiful tale, there is a little bit too much assumed knowledge in this monologue, and I think it is really a precursor to Croyden's full length play Underground which is being produced next year at Gasworks.

Isabella Gilbert finishes with a delightfully mournful version of 'Falling In Love Again' and a small dance routine. The song is perfect, but the dance takes it all a bit too far past the writing and sits uncomfortably. I don't think in 2018 in Australia we are close enough, temporally or geographically, to the subject to get the musical reference and the choreography does not showcase her talents well.

We finish the night back in Australia with a ten pound Pom in Martin Rice's 'The Charon'. Rice culminates all of the sad clowns in the show as his strong man persona shows his vulnerabilities in the face of his dad's end of life experiences. Exploring his own guilts, dreams, and journey in parallel with his dying father's, Rice finds a way to see the world through his father's eyes in the last moments. 'The Charon' is a bittersweet portrait of how the ferryman gets you to the other side.

A Cabaret Of Souls is exploring a new level of mature presentation for these annual Melbourne Monologue events and Walley has given us a key into what makes these diverse works part of a single family, whilst also celebrating the uniqueness of each delicate tale. What better analogy for such random talent than circus/cabaret?

3.5 Stars

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

She Said, She Said - Theatre Review

What: She Said, She Said
When: 27 November - 1 December 2018
Where: The Stables, Meat Market
Written and directed by: Sarah Sabell
Performed by: Lee McClenaghan and Emma Jo Mckay
Emma Jo Mckay and Lee McClenaghan
She Said, She Said (a pun on the he said, she said riff) is a sad tale of a dying relationship told with great tenderness and even greater pain. In the shadow of the Mere Mortals series at Arts House which has been exploring the death and decay of the body, it is only fitting at the Meat Market we have a play about the death and decay of a relationship this week.

Written and performed in a hyper-naturalist tone, the accuity with which Sabell tells this story can only mean she has lived it in some part somewhere in her life. The deft delicacy with which Mckay (Sam) and McClenaghan (Rachel) play the roles embody their understanding that the thoughts and feelings and emotions being examined are too big to be 'acted' and can only be truly felt by the audience if there is enough room on stage for them.

She Said, She Said is a chicken and egg tale. Was it Rachel's alpha personality which drove Sam to spiral deeply into her addictions or was it Sam's addictions which drove Rachel to hide in her work? The play shows us it is both. Each character had chinks in their armor and the other had the exact wedge to split that person completely apart.

Perhaps this is what the phrase 'you complete me' really means. They fill a hole. All we look for is the hole to be filled and think we can relax. How many times does that gap filler turn out to be a toxic irritant destined to weaken us further rather than make us whole?

Sam is unemployed and takes on the house wife role, getting Rachel's kids off to school doing the house work and gardening. Well, she would if she could stop smoking, toking and drinking long enough to stay awake. Rachel works ridiculously long days only to come home to Sam crashed out on the couch and the laundry still in the machine.

The days go by, one by one, looking almost identical until Rachel's sorrow turns into anger. Meanwhile Sam teases her about dating a man, desperate to find a way to break down the growing distance between them. Something's got to give and when violence erupts we finally see the relationship bones laying bare, the carrions of guilt, blame and shame having already picked away at all the tender parts.

I truly loved watching this play. It's honesty is refreshing and whilst it is a same sex relationship, much of the scenario is gender blind. It perhaps favours Sam in the conversation, but there is enough material to hint at the kinds of pressures Rachel is under, particularly as the custodial parent of two children.

The only thing really missing was any sense of actual sexuality between the couple. There is certainly room in the script, but for some reason Sabell has not allowed any intimacy between Mckay and McClenaghan. I spent the first half hour trying to figure out if Sam was Rachel's partner or just a house mate.

I also am unclear about the final scenario in the play. Needless to say, this relationship breaks down but five years later Sam comes back into Rachel's life and I don't know why. The situation has changed dramatically for Rachel over the 5 years and she is no longer in control. We never find out much about Sam in that time but it appears she might have pulled her act together.

All I can think is Sam is back in her life to punish Rachel but these scenes don't end up going anywhere so it's anybody's guess what Sabell is trying tell us. What I can say is it is these scenes which convince me we are supposed to empathise with Sam rather than Rachel but I couldn't make myself do it. I find myself on team Rachel despite her mistakes.

This show is prop heaven for actors. Every detail of a home kitchen and activities is accounted for and there is plenty of time for the actors to do what they need to do. In fact every detail of the staging of this play is immaculate.

Mckay is frighteningly convincing as a substance abuser, even to spitting up into a wastebasket after a choof of the pipe. McClenaghan is a wonderfully uptight work addict although her outfits become a bit of a costume parade as day by day goes by. Sabell's direction has set up a pace similar to that of a metronome with the suspense building of Jaws. It is the clinically clean forensic approach which draws us in as each layer of love is stripped away, heartbeat by heartbeat.

She Said, She Said is a remarkable play and one which really speaks to a very common relationship dilemma in these days of high unemployment, lack of work/life boundaries and the acceptability of recreational drug use. It is really hard to see the lines in this modern world - either because we are too busy or too blurry - and our families are the ones who pay the price.

Get down to the Meat Market and see She Said, She Said. This is an example of some of the things theatre does best  - it is theatre done with honesty.

4 Stars.