Friday 21 September 2018

Stark. Dark. Albert Park - Theatre Review

What: Stark. Dark. Albert Park
When: 14 - 22 September 2018
Where: Studio Theatre, Gasworks
Concept by: Clare Mendes
Written by: Russell Bywater, Alec Gilbert, Clare Mendes, Mazz Ryan, and Bruce Shearer
Directed by: Elizabeth Walley
Performed by: Emma Cox, Alec Gilbert, Cosima Gilbert, Isabella Gilbert, Kyle Roberts and Mazz Ryan
Cosima and Isabella Gilbert - photo by John Edwards
Monologues are all the rage on Melbourne stages this year it seems, but to be fair, Melbourne Writers' Theatre (MWT) have a long tradition of exploring this performance form. This year, as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival this creative team bring us a wonderful collection of 5 short form monologues celebrating the local area in Dark. Stark. Albert Park.

On a bright, sunny day Mendes took the MWT team to Albert Park for inspiration and then sent them to their writing desks, pen in hand, to explore their ideas and Stark. Dark. Albert Park is the result. Exploring both the history and the personalities which make up the Port Phillip ecology, this collection rambles from past to present and back again and these musings are brought to wonderful life by a troupe of exciting actors which feature (my personal favourites) the Gilbert sisters.

Everyone is great but I have a bit of a fan obsession with Cosima and Isabella and watching them work together in Bywater's 'Happy Little...' as the sisters who came up with the name of Vegemite is a delight on so many levels. Bywater has written a fun, energetic and contemporary piece which looks at why two sisters won fifty pounds in a lucky dip to name this "black/brown, tart, sour sandwich spread" - which was a fortune back then - but then went right back to work on the factory floor and never left home. This sketch is an insightful commentary on female socio-economics of Melbourne in the 1920s. Walley has directed the Gilbert sisters to create a physically and verbally pacey presentation which challenges and displays all of their incredible skills and talents to the highest order.

Walley has used the conceit of snapshotting the history of Albert Park through these monologues but has cleverly used the construct of a giant portrait frame to acknowledge the historical aspects of much of the work. Each performer steps into or out of the frame at some point to acknowledge their place in the 'gallery'. It is a conceit which works well and is kicked off strongly in the first monologue 'Darke's Arts' by Bruce Shearer. In this monologue Roberts embodies the pioneer surveyor W.H. Darke who helped map the Melbourne city streets and who first settled on the "sandy ridge" which was to become Port Melbourne.

Mazz Ryan brings us into the present with 'Teddy Bear' which is a humorous look at dog culture including the trauma's of pet sitting, and the absurdity of dog cafes. Still keeping things fairly current Mendes has written a monologue which ostensibly highlights the fight to get the Grand Prix out of Albert Park. Unfortunately, the issue of bisexuality is conflated with this protest movement and it is a bit confusing as to what the actual connection is. I am not saying there isn't one but I am saying it is not clear in this work. Cox presents 'Invisible Petition' with great skill and a naturalistic performance to admire.

The evening ends on a faaaabulous note with Alec Gilbert portraying his version of Frank Thring in 'The Thring is...' Thring was a huge international star who came from humble beginnings in his little theatre in Middle Park to go on to dominate British stages with his masterful portrayal of Herod in Salome. He then went on to Hollywood to appear as Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur and a number of other epic films of that era including working with the great Cecil B. DeMille before returning to Melbourne.

Gilbert has written a wonderful monologue which starts from the point when Thring is King of Moomba in 1982. The day is ridiculously rainy and as he stands there sodden, Thring recounts his life and how he ended up in this circumstance. Whilst Gilbert does not have the girth of Thring, he certainly has the skills to remind us of the flamboyance and wicked wit Thring was known for. The whole event ends with a nod to Moomba (and perhaps a slight nod to Olivia Newton-John?) as the whole thing ends in a glorious and joyous party.

I really enjoyed Stark. Dark. Albert Park. I loved that it celebrated the community, I loved that it was grounded in history as well as the people culture of the area, and I think it was really well curated and presented. This is the kind of thing MWT do so well for Melbourne and in some ways, this is a great part of what I think our arts should be doing more of. There are only a couple more days to see this, so do make your way down to Gasworks.

3.5 Stars

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