Friday, 24 February 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong - Theatre Review

What: The Play That Goes Wrong
When: 22 February - 11 June
Where: The Comedy Theatre
Written by: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields
Directed by: Mark Bell
Composed by: Rob Falconer
Performed by: Darcy Brown, Francine Cain,Adam Dunn, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, James Marlowe, Jordan Prosser, Brooke Satchwell, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Tammy Weller, and Matthew Whitty.
Set by: Nigel Hook
Costumes by: Roberto Surace
Lighting by: Ric Mountjoy

Luke Joslin, Nick Simpson-Deeks, George Kemp and Darcy Brown (falling)

The Play That Goes Wrong is the hot and hilarious West End show which has made it's way to the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne. Sporting an all Australian cast headlined by Satchwell, this production is an exact duplicate of the show which has been wowing English audiences since 2015 and now it is our turn to have a good laugh.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a type of theatre we don't see that much of in Australia anymore. It is an English drawing room melodrama which takes its pedigree from the great 'whodunnit's' of history. Watching it, I was reminded of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep for those who are more familiar with American theatre. Both plays are satires of the melodrama genre and mystery thrillers played in the style of high farce.

Both plays also rely heavily on the production elements to work as autonomous performers in the play, acting independently and turning the usually reliable into uncontrolled and uncontrollable forces. Add into this chaos understudies who discover the thrill of the limelight (Weller), a corpse which is decidedly undead (Brown), and the curse of the role of Florence Colleymore (Satchwell) and you have a recipe for utter chaos and belly-laughs galore.

The opportunities for laughs do not end there, however. Lewis, Sayer, and Shields have a long history of writing these type of 'shows that go wrong' and they understand the need to break the fourth wall and every other piece of theatre etiquette in existence. The stage crew are decidedly visible and the cast are decidedly un-trained as this community theatre company attempt to stage a show with a full cast and full production for the first time (notwithstanding their previous productions of The Two Sisters, Cat, and James and The Peach).

Bell (director) is highly trained in physical theatre - including being a student of Le Coq - which comes through all the performances. Every movement of every performer is clear and precise and complete as one would expect from this background. In some respects I found this a little irritating because it worked against any sense of climactic build. What you see is what you get right from the first moments of the show. Having said that, the audience were uproariously laughing from that very first moment which was great.

There is nothing subtle about the show. It goes for the hard laughs from the very first moment and everything you think can go wrong does...and quite a bit more indeed! I particularly enjoyed the moment Weller, Simson-Deeks, Kemp, and Joslin got caught in a script loop. It was subtle and an in-joke for those in the trade but with clever direction and overwrought acting (and the malicious application of Turpentine) it became obvious to event the uninitiated and was one moment which really brought the house down.

For the most part the pace was surprisingly slow with every accident telegraphed by long statue tableaus so the audience knew to respond. This was tiresome in the first act but the second rolled along at a ripping pace as the cast tried to get to the end of the play and solve the mystery before everything fell apart around them (literally).

This show is highly contrived and very English (with the actors using English accents as well). It was a lovely stroll down memory lane when all Australian theatre was English and it was a really good laugh as well. Theatre like this is part of our past, but it is nice to revisit it every once in a while and this is about as good an example as you are likely to find.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a good, fun night and a great Autumn thrill. Prepare to laugh until it hurts and then get ready to laugh some more. Great acting and wonderful attention to detail bring this play up out of the ordinary indeed!

4 Stars


Friday, 10 February 2017

Erasers - Theatre Review

What: Erasers
When: 6 - 17th February
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
Written by: Jake Arky
Directed by: Gabrielle Savrone
Performed by: Jesse Badger, Khema DeSilva, Ellen Grimshaw, Victory Ndukwe, Finn Orson, Barnaby Pollock, Jayden Popik, and Erin Shay.
Set by: Gabrielle Savrone and Izzy Summers
Sound by: MBYRO

Barnaby Pollock and Orson Finn
The Owl and Cat Theatre brings us one of the most powerful pieces of theatre you will see this year with their production of Erasers. Arky's depiction of the disaffected youth of today and Savrone's playful yet sensitive direction packs a wallop which will leave you reeling at the end.

Erasers tells the story of a well to do family from the East side of town. The father (Badger) is a workaholic and the mother (Shay) wants to be her sons' friend. The two boys, Jordan (Popik) and Nathan (Orson), have become completely disconnected from their parents and each other.

Both boys yearn for connection to something and someone. Jordan, the older brother, seeks for it in a hip hop culture he does not belong to and does not understand, whilst Nathan is lost in a world which cannot face the truth of who he is.

The story begins with a shocking event which by itself could have been the whole play and been impactful but Arky takes it further. Most plays stop where this one started. Arky is asking questions of us we struggle to face and which is becoming a much bigger social tragedy over the last few decades than we could ever have imagined.

There is an old saying 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. Arky challenges this by framing his story-telling with a pair of narrators - The Illustrator and The Colorist (played by Badger and Shay). This is a magnificent play device because these two don't explain the story. What they do is say all the things which are usually left unsaid. They read between the lines and utter the unutterable.

This device works on two levels. Firstly, it 'fills in the blanks' and provides us with a lot of humour because they often say what we are all thinking. It also gives these struggling teenagers a voice they haven't yet developed for themselves. As such it gives depth and context for everything they do and say and this allows us a chance to understand them when their actions seem prosaic or cliche or unfathomable.

Savrone has worked with her cast to create some beautifully iconic, yet real characters. Popik is a powerful actor and I expected the detail and power of his character to shine as it did. He is so good though, I was worried he would eclipse the rest of the cast. I needn't have been concerned. Everybody on stage knew who they were and why they were there and never allowed us to escape their world for a single second. In particular DeSilva's Yolanda was hilarious. She is a strong young woman who knew who she was in the world. Orson's Nathan was hypnotic and disturbing and so concentrated he gave me shivers at times.

In his hop hop delusion Jordan befriends Eddie (Ndukwe), an East side boy, and keeps trying to prove he is more homeboy than the real thing. There are many important statements in Erasers, but one of the most resonating comments is that the East side is the dangerous side of town because they are all trying to kill each other, whereas on the West side they are trying to kill themselves.

As I said earlier, this play is about not feeling connected and not being seen. At one point the father says to Jordan he is there for him and Jordan's response resonates in an abyss of darkness with a simple "When?" Tellingly, the father gives up and goes back to his work.

Nathan epitomises the themes through his (and his friend's) life on-line and the need to publish on the internet to be seen. He has no sense of what is appropriate, it all needs to be out there and it is up to site administrators to censor him which drives him deeper and deeper into a well of isolation. His brother Jordan makes a futile and misguided attempt to help but neither of them understand themselves or each other and they have no role models and so the tragedies which ensue are seemingly inevitable.

Erasers is a play with serious adult themes and shocking social commentary and Savrone does not shy away from any of it. The Owl and Cat have provided information on how to get support if this show is too disturbing. Seeing Erasers is really important though because we need to start seeing the things we no longer look at. Our teens are screaming louder and louder to be seen and heard. We need to start listening or we will lose the world.

5 Stars

Friday, 3 February 2017

Sad Digger Mad Mary - Theatre Review

What: Sad Digger Mad Mary
When: 3 - 5 February
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Tom Halls
Directed by: Yvonne Virsik
Performed by: Tom Halls
Design by: Anastassia Poppenberg
Lighting by: Jason Crick

Tom Halls

Sad Digger Mad Mary is a masterpiece of stream of consciousness Absurdist theatre. Playing now at the La Mama Courthouse you need to be quick because it closes on Sunday.

2015 was the year of centenary celebrations - what an odd word to use - to commemorate the diggers who fought and died in the wildly inappropriate (absurd?) landing at Gallipoli. Whilst that year began with a profusion of pomp and propaganda with a well funded myriad of overtly nationalist and fantastical tales of heroism, bravery, and patriotism as the year came to a close we came to start seeing and hearing more honest, less grand and honorable stories. As the mists of national delusion cleared we began to hear real stories from real diggers who thought the whole thing was basically a load of unmitigated crap and who wanted nothing to do with any of it.

Although a year or so too late, Sad Digger Mad Mary would sit perfectly within the truthful telling of those mad times and bad times. Yes, this is absurdist theatre but then the entire Gallipoli incursion was reality in a flux of absurdity.

Halls tells the story of a young digger who is sent home after a disastrous tragedy of which we only learn the details later. In the first moments he wakes in a PTSD induced fright and gently Halls begins to introduce the digger to us.

Everything seems normal, just like out of the lyrics of 'Waltzing Matilda'. A lone outsider with a campfire and a billy on the boil, camping under a gum tree and living the ocker swaggy's dream. Moments of oddity intrude in the form of flashbacks and memories. There is a sombreness and sadness and recognizability to the mise-en-scene.

The first real hint of the true story being told is the appearance of the digger's dog Bluey. This is the moment we get the hint that something is not quite right. Is this bloke really a digger with PTSD or is this true madness? In a way both are true.

The definition of absurdity is something which is wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate (you now understand why I called war absurd...). Theatre of the Absurb emerged in the 1920's and was all about a lack of logic, reason, and meaning. It had an air of hopelessness, chaos, and despair - a living remnant of The War To End All Wars. The great proponents included Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. As I have discovered, Halls is a master of this art of theatre making.

Marrying the timing of the First World War with this movement, and then bringing in the magical and fantastical Mary Poppins with just a hint of the ultimate showman, God himself, Halls wheels and spins and turns inside out - travelling between the trenches, his childhood and an incomprehensible future where mobile phones are de-rigueur. The world is on fire and Halls is trying to tell us we are in the middle of it as we look to story-telling to identify who we are rather than look at the reality.

Yes diggers were heroes, but they were men with with strong streaks of confusion and cruelty forcing a definition of manliness impossible to live up to. Yes, Mary Poppins was magical but the way she kept popping up and butting in and then disappearing was kind of...well...weird and creepy. If God isn't a show pony then I don't know what that phrase means!

As Halls tells us the love story between the digger and his mate it becomes clear he is asking whether being Australian is something other than just being human? When his lover joins in trying to beat him to death and is then killed himself a massive question is posed about what price we will pay to fit in and whether that price is ever really enough. The suggestion is the answer to that second question is no.

Sad Digger Mad Mary is not a show for the sleepers. The shifts and turns and jump-abouts take concentration but Virsik has worked in great detail to keep Halls' transitions clean and clear and supported by the production elements. Crick's lighting is magnificent and this more than anything helps us retain our sanity in a reality turned upside down and inside out.

Poppenberg has created a beautiful and appropriate world with a mix of reality and suggestion, three dimensions and two. There is even the inside world and the outside world all of which help us understand and locate ourselves as the story-telling spins more and more wildly. Masterful detail include the gum leaves which could also be flames, continuing the theme of burning, burning, burning.

It is rare to see theatre of this detail and calibre. Do not miss your chance to see Sad Digger Mad Mary. It is one of the most truly Australian stories ever told.

5 Stars

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Rambling Feminist - Theatre Review

What: The Rambling Feminist
When: 1 - 5 January
Where: The Butterfly Club
Written and Performed by: Shona Anderson

Shona Anderson
A one woman monologue, Shona Anderson tells a montage of travel stories in The Rambling Feminist. The downstairs stage of The Butterfly Club is actually the perfect venue for this tale as the mirrors on the wall act as a metaphor for the reflections Anderson is engaging in as she 'rambles' through her travels across Europe with her boyfriend.

The downstairs stage is what might euphamistically be called intimate and usually I feel it is too small for the work being presented on it, but somehow Anderson has managed to make it feel huge. With a tent covered in green transparent netting and a red star cloth behind the space becomes evocative of openness and possibility.

Anderson has a lot of talent as a writer and her facility with metaphor is inspiring. From the very beginning we hear this as she described being dropped of in Byron Bay as like someone dumping a cat along a highway. It sounds dreadful now, but in the context of the story-telling it was hilarious.

The show begins very strongly. Anderson has developed a calming tone and pace as well as rhythmic body movements which are evocative of meditation. In fact her hands constantly return to the meditative om position which becomes hypnotic to watch.

Complimenting her vocal patterns, her body moves to the same beat. She uses it well and it is evident Anderson is highly cognizant of using space and shapes on stage to help storytelling. 

Her hand and arm movements are intriguing. They are not used in a naturalistic or responsive way. Instead they form patterns and speak with her words much like traditional dances such as the hula and strangely highly reminiscent of Auslan.

Although Anderson is technically rambling, the show does have a linear narrative as she parallels her European travels with the disintegration of her personal relationship.  I am not sure the piece is all that feminist. The ideas seem to be more about freedom although there is a strong commentary on personal dignity and respect.

One of the more fascinating stories is about the Albanian experience under the dictator Enver Hoxha. The context of this story was one in which the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was seen by the people as a fracturing of community and the embedding of differences, not an act resulting in freedom for the people in any way.

Anderson refers to her depression briefly, which explains the meditative frame of the dramaturgy but I think she takes it a bit too far. Her voice soothes, the movements are hypnotic and despite some excellent writing it becomes easy to lose focus. Changes in pace and tempo would help bring attention to the important moments and phrases.

There are a couple of songs in the show and it was exciting to discover Anderson has a beatiful, smokey, folky voice perfectly suited for this hippyesque travel discourse. At the start Anderson says life is like a kaleidoscope, watching ourselves is like looking at germs through a microscope. 

This is how The Rambling Feminist works. Anderson is putting all of these experiences together on the one page to look for meaning and learning. This piece is not didactic. The stories are placed before us and it is up to us to get angry and learn for ourselves.

The Rambling Feminist is an intriguing piece. With a bit of work on the rhythm and pace it should do well.

2.5 Stars

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Free Admission - Theatre Review

What: Free Admission
When: 31 January - 5 February
Where: Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
Performed by: Ursula Martinez

Ursula Martinez

Free Admission is a solo show which is not stand up nor burlesque although these provenances are evident throughout. I guess in drama school it would be called a dramatic monologue, but I prefer to think of it as one of the most complex and dynamic pieces of theatre I have seen in a while and you can see it too right now at the Fairfax Studio.

Sometimes I like to go to the theatre. Sometimes I see shows which are okay. Sometimes I see shows which blow my mind. Free Admission is one of those shows.

Ursula Martinez calls herself a performance artist. She has a strong background in burlesque and is known for creating work which has alternatively been called brilliant and disgusting. You know it is good when it evokes such strong reactions on either side of the spectrum. You know it has a message and you know people are feeling it.

Martinez is also an accomplished actor and in particular spent time working with the now iconic and possibly most influential modern company Forced Entertainment. This is significant information because the influences of duration and ordinariness are the hinges on which this performance swings.

Much has been said in reviews about the commentary Martinez makes on the theatrical fourth wall by building a wall between herself and the audience. People have also commented on the counterpoint of gradually being hidden by the wall as more and more of her personal experiences and observations - her inner self - are revealed to the audience.

What seems to have been missed is the framing of the work within the mundanity of a repetitive and somewhat physical activity which acts like a harmony to the story and story telling. The moments of pause in the building process act like accents and help the audience understand what is important and when to listen. The slight interuptions to Martinez's breathing as her arms tire and she has to lift the bricks higher and reach further to wipe off the extra cement create a subtle tension which help build the momentum in the narrative. Free Admission is a masterpiece of dramaturgical construction.

Martinez begins her story in the 70's as a child in school where playground songs were the teaching ground for intolerance and social stigma. Martinez is from the UK so I didn't recognise the songs. They began as just a little bit cheeky which made us laugh, but true to the format of the entire show Martinez escalates to songs which are so overt the audience is left in complete silence, paralyzed by modern social conscience and perhaps a touch of guilt. I certainly got to thinking about the version of 'Eeny Meeny Miney Mo' I used to use at school...

Martinez keeps the tone on the light side for the first half of Free Admission, although never shying from the extremes of the spectrum she is observing at any point in time. The melodic structure of the show is that of a lullaby. It is soothing and repetitive with almost every phrase beginning with 'Sometimes I...'. This combined with the repetitive actions of the wall building lull us into a calmness even as the material becomes more and more angry and pointed.

Martinez takes some time to talk about her dead father and her living Spanish mother. She talks about her mum's experience as a three year old growing up in the midst of the Spanish Civil War where the difference between life and death is knowing whether to salute with your palm stretched or fist clenched. She investigates the idea that her dad might still be alive if the National Health services were better. She talks about the way women are spoken to and commented on and ordered about. The show is very funny, but it is also a show which silences the audience more effectively than anything I have ever seen before.

Interestingly there are times she comes out from the wall and true to her burlesque heritage there is nudity. I have never really been able to resolve the social commentary of the nude female body on stage so I shan't try and make any meaning from it. It is perhaps enough that it engendered the confusion at all. I did find myself asking one of my other personalities whether, if this show was done by a man, nudity would have been required or if I would have reacted differently. I don't know. It is just good that I was put in a position where I had to ask myself this question.

Sometimes I see shows that are funny. Sometimes I see shows which are sad. Sometimes I see shows which make me angry. Sometime I see shows which remind me that theatre is essential to society. Free Admission is essential to our society. It has to be said. It has to be seen. It has to be sensed.

5 Stars