Friday, 18 October 2019

Rebel: A New Musical - Musical Review

What: Rebel: A New Musical
When: 18 - 20 October 2019
Where: The MC Showroom
Book, music and lyrics by: Drew Downing
Directed by: Clary Riven
Musical direction by: Tyson Legg
Performed by: Frank Kerr, Tyson Legg, Peter Nguyen, Aaron Syrjanen and Conrad Tracey
Design by: Betty Auhl
Stage managed by: Janel Gibson
Frank Kerr
Are you a fan of country music? If so, you better mosey on down to The MC Showroom to experience Melbourne's newest musical, Rebel: A New Musical this weekend before it closes!

Beginning it's life as a cabaret show in 2014, Downing recently had a burst of inspiration which has allowed him to expand the story and music into a full two act show. I don't know if purists would call this a real musical because there is no dancing and has a character cast of 1, but it certainly is of the ilk of historical figure musicals which frequent venues such as The Palms at Crown and The Athenaeum.

The story revolves around the life and loves of David (Kerr) who comes to also be known as Rebel. His family hits hard times and moves to Texas to live on his uncle Randy's farm. Yes, this musical is unapologetically targeting the American audience...

Anyway, Randy has a farm hand, Jimmy Ray, and the twinkle in their eyes gives away the true depth of their 'friendship'. It turns out that Rebel has the same inclinations as his uncle and after a violent incidence with his father after coming out Rebel takes the guitar Randy bought him and hits the road for California in search of rock and roll.

There are a lot of references to rock and roll in this show and this might be confusing for some until you realise that rock and roll came from the country and western genre in the 60s. In fact, the time period for this musical is very important and to be honest had me confused until the very end.

To clear things up, the 'concert' Rebel is giving is the day after the Stonewall riots in 1969 and by that time he is in New York City. Therefore, most of the story goes back to a much earlier era - unspecified although we are told it is before "The King" was a thing. Kerr gives an amazing performance and has all of the sexiness and insouciance of Elvis Presley but his youth is a bit confusing in this particular regard.

Homosexuality was most definitely behind closed doors in that era, but Rebel is a surprisingly gentle and beautiful homage to the Daisies and Jimmy Rays of that era. Most of the emotional violence actually comes from the hidden gays as we learn in the power rock anthem 'That's What The Stars Told Me (Hollywood)' in act 2.

I wouldn't say Rebel led a charmed life, but he had more than his fair share of brushes with fame before garnering his own. James Dean, Rock Hudson... need I say more? The most beautiful and touching love story is the one with his sister who he leaves behind on the farm though.

The music is the real strength of this story and if this was America it would get airplay and there would be some huge hits. 'Just Off The Road' and 'Ordinary Cowboy' would be on everybody's tongue and 'Western Bar' would be the iconic pub song for sure. The ballad 'I'm Not Coming Home' is enough to bring tears to your eyes. If 'Jimmy Ray' doesn't become a Joy FM frequent play hit then what the hell is going on Melbourne????

Perhaps the biggest flaw with this show is the beginnings of both acts. They are clumsy and messy and it is a combination of poor direction (Riven) and bad stage management (Gibson). If there is one thing American's know, it is how to make an entrance. If there is one thing this musical doesn't do, it is make an entrance. Also, whilst I love 'Say What You Know', I don't think it is strong enough as an opener.

The show has been on for 3 nights now, and there is a lot of smoke in the room (although it is appropriate and well done for a change), and Kerr's voice is starting to show the strain a bit. Having said that, he is right on pitch for most of it and he is so god damn lovable and sexy I would sit there and watch him and listen to him even if he couldn't sing a note. Believe me, though, this man can sing!

With cabaret seating and a bowl of pretzels at every table, The MC Showroom is the perfect place for this hoe down. Auhl's wooden barn house set and really intelligent use of space is perfect and the band is sublime. Legg's musical direction is superb and you will be completely blown away by Syrjanen on the slide guitar, the banjo, and his very impressive use of the wah wah bar.

For something a bit different and a whole lot of fun get on down to The MC Showroom. Grab an ale and whoop along with your friends for Downing's latest shindig.

4 Stars

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Savannah Bay - Theatre Review

What: Savannah Bay
When: 17 - 27 October 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Maguerite Duras
Directed by: Laurence Strangio
Performed by: Brenda Palmer and Annie Thorold
Lighting by: Clare Springett
Stage managed by: Julian Adams
Brenda Palmer and Annie Thorold - photo by Jack Dixon Gunn
In a lovely programming curation, La Mama is presenting Duras' Savannah Bay alongside The Disappearing Trilogy for the rest of October. Both plays look at the disappearing actress and in the case of this play, the disappearance comes through time and dementia.

The play gets it's name from a mythical bay in Siam where the lead character (Palmer) supposedly made a film (of the same name) with Henry Fonda. The play is about love and death and connections lost. It is told through the portal of a woman at the end of her life, a point where you can choose to forget but you can't choose what you remember.

Duras was obsessed with broken love and death and spurred by Edith Piaf's Les Mots d'Amour, she has spun a tone poem tale of great passions and great despair, a tale shared by an aging woman and her granddaughter who is forced to watch as the memories wash away like the ebb tide. Memories and connections recede just like the sea waters on the white rock the old lady has become.

The play begins with a young woman (Thorold) visiting an old lady. They share the song and the young woman tries to encourage the older one to share her stories - perhaps desperate to stay connected as the threads of memory fray dangerously. One of the intriguing questions left lingering by this play is does the older woman even want to remember and is it fair to make her do it?

The great strength of Strangio's production (director) is the great affection, delicacy and care with which the younger woman treats the aging diva. Palmer presents a feisty, if failing, old lady, but Thorold's tenderness is a thing of absolute beauty. In a world were we are engaged in a Royal Commission into the care of the elderly, this production of Savannah Bay is a portrait of just how to care for our senior citizens regardless of your relationship to them.

Duras is not a realist writer and this is perhaps the place where this production falls down a wee bit for me. It may be a fault in the translation (Duras wrote in French) but regardless of whether the tone poem is recognised there are some key motifs in her writing which I feel have been ignored.

A savannah is also the word used for a sub-tropical grassy plain with sparse trees, just as sparse as the memories the old lady is able to link together. The text is also repetitious, washing backwards and forwards like the waves in the ocean. The whole thing is made to sit on the stage and in our ears and our minds like an impressionist painting - indistinct yet clearly pointing to something, some moment(s), some time(s). It is no coincidence that Thailand is referred to as Siam despite the script having been written in 1982...

The play also switches between the women in the room, and the women as actors. The line is constantly being blurred between representation and presentation. Again, the 'acting' presence was, for the most part, ignored in favour of keeping us in the here and now. None of these omissions diminish the beauty of this production, but perhaps they deny us the full impact of the pain so abundant in the script? It also would have made the marriage between The Disappearing Trilogy and Savannah Bay so much stronger and more poignant for those who choose to see both works in tandem.

Having said that, this production of Savannah Bay is really beautiful. Palmer is delightfully feisty and sad and contrary in that way that older people become, and Thorold demonstrates such a beautiful depth of love and quiet despair as she tries to hold on to the lady who is slipping away from her.

3 Stars

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The Disappearing Trilogy - Theatre Review

What: The Disappearing Trilogy
When: 16 - 27 October 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and performed by: Suzie Hardgrave
Set and Lighting by: Bronwyn Pringle
Sound by: Chris Wenn
Stage Management by: Teri Steer
Suzie Hardgrave - image by Darren Gill
La Mama is often the place to see practice-led doctoral projects from universities across Melbourne and the latest is a work by Suzie Hardgrave, The Disappearing Trilogy. Investigating the disappearance of the female actor into her roles and out of herself, this dramatic triptych runs until 27 October.

Hardgrave has engaged in an international career as a performer and researcher and is currently completing her doctoral studies at Monash University. Her studies appear to be examining the identity of 'actress' and '...why and how expectations of performance affect the female in Western culture' - if I read the program notes correctly.

The Disappearing Trilogy is a 3-part sequence. The first is spoken narrative and addresses the internal loss of self worth and identity after the actress' show closes with a 1 star review. In the second section Hardgave explores body art as her mode of storytelling as the voice over narrative talks about the pressures of physically meeting industry demands of embodying characters and the notion of the celebrity as identity. The final section involves Hardgrave stepping out of the frame and relating as her true self, but is there any authentic person left under the veneer of the actress?

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this show for me was the writing style. Riffing off poetic stylings of feminist icon Gertrude Stein, Hardgrave has written her text in a cubist style (which is mildly referenced in Pringle's sophisticated and restrained set design). This is particularly true in part 1 of the trilogy as repetition is used as a building block, the text torn apart and reconstructed time and time again to reveal nuance and detail - to build a 360 degree picture of this actress in pain.

My only wish is that there was less. In a 90 minute show, the first hour is this endless, repetitious refrain about a 1 star review and the "after, after, after party". What had the potential to be a incisive commentary on how linked the actor ego is to public reception of the work they are involved in became a self-indulgent, self-pitying quagmire of tedium. Shorten it by 15 minutes and the humour will have a chance to shine through as well as the idea that the show is not the actor and the actor is not the show.

Luckily parts 2 and 3 are a more respectable 15 minutes each and, for the most part, much more effective. I loved the analogy of body art in part 2 with the commentary on the ridiculous lengths the actress goes to in order to become a star. Whilst there are strong references to an abusive agent, in the end I did find myself thinking how self-inflicted all of the pain and confusion of the actress and her identity crisis was. Hardgrave does in fact talk about acting as addiction.

The second act also brought Pringle's aesthetics as a lighting designer back into focus. Part 1 was very stark, although incredibly sophisticated - more in line with designs by Niklas Pajanti. In part 2 though, Pringle brought back her trademark use of colour (without losing sophistication) and in part 3 I was in awe at the hint of surrealism she sneaks into the frame. Except for the ridiculous amount of smoke used throughout the show (which was also aesthetically inappropriate IMO), Pringle managed to create the actor as a gallery portrait with all of the talent and magic of master painters through the ages.

The final section of the trilogy was less successful for me. The actress steps out of her frame, removing the wall between her and the audience. Hardgrave speaks again and this time it is supposed to be real and improvised, but it is quite clear through her delivery that this is as practiced and rehearsed and scripted as the rest of the show. It is a pity really, because if Hardgrave could have found that authenticity of the immediate voice, and with the wonderful interactions of Wenn's sound design, her retreat back into the frame and her self-imposed prison/shield/screen would have been so much more powerful.

I like the meta-ideas in the construction of The Disappearing Trilogy, but I would have liked them to be referenced more strongly in the text. It is hard to be self-referential and not self-indulgent in a one person show and Hardgrave hasn't quite found that line. Some stricter script dramaturgy would help, as would a more 21st century post-truth approach to the work.

2.5 Stars

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Riot - Theatre Review

What: Riot
When: 8 - 12 October 2019
Where: The MC Showroom
Written and directed by: Thomas Ian Doyle
Performed by: Benjamin Brooker, Marisa Matear, Emma Louise Pursey, Gabrielle Reiher, and Mazz Ryan
Sound by: Benjamin Brooker
Emma Louise Pursey and Mazz Ryan
The Owl and Cat has been closed for a while now, but the creative relationship between Thomas Ian Doyle and Gabrielle Reiher continues in their latest project Riot. After a premier season at their old venue in 2017 and a workshop process in Alaska, Riot is back on the Melbourne stage at The MC Showroom albeit for a very short season.

I didn't see the original production so I don't know how the play has evolved, but generally speaking it follows the love catastrophes of a 20 something Millennial and has a parrallel commentary of free for all capitalism. Reiher directed the premier, but this time she is acting in it and Doyle has directed the play himself.

There has been some gender/sex movement in this production due to circumstances as well as Reiher's explorations of playing male characters. The final result is that the lead character, Gin (Matear), is female in this iteration and Kane (Brooker) is male. Whilst the play does hold up with these changes, I suspect the commentary on relationships and community would be more powerful and complex in the original gender casting. Reiher plays Gavin as a man and was completely convincing to my plus one.

The relationships are complex, but I will take a shot at explaining them. Gin has an ex, Janette (Pursey), who is her dope supplier but who doesn't want anything to do with her anymore. Gin works for Kane. Gin meets Gavin, they sleep together and he ends up moving in - she is doing him a favour. It is no surprise to learn later in the play that Gavin doesn't pay for anything...ever. Gin meets Lola (Ryan) and they start getting jiggy with it too.

This seems pretty standard, but there are twists and turns in all of the relationships which will come as much of a surprise as they are illuminating. I'm not one hundred percent clear on the capitalism analogy - how it works in this story - but it is a good mechanism for building urgency as we can relate to current events which have escalated. There is a riot coming!

In some respects this is a brave production and I think some of the actors (Ryan for instance) have been brave and bold in embracing the roles. Doyle and Reiher have always had nudity and simulated sex as part of their artistic statement and Riot brings plenty in an array of forms. Sadly though, I admit I didn't find any of it sexy and I wasn't convinced it moved the story forward.

Having said that, Riot is directed as naturalism so it makes sense to be so explicit in such an ordinary way. Sex is far more often ordinary rather than extraordinary after all...

Underneath all the gimmicks and complexities of Riot is a really strong and positive message. Gin is struggling with the ordinariness of her life and situation. She gets herself into situations and causes harm to the people around her because she cannot face her agency in managing herself.

It is the final scene with Janette which really opens the door of understanding for the audience. This is usually the case with Doyle's plays which is what I love about his writing. In a world which has lived in panic for decades, Doyle tells us how okay it is. All you have to do is be honest and use the management tools now available.

There were a few cast changes in the two weeks prior to opening so performances were a bit sketchy. Pursey dominated the stage, though, and Reiher's performance was detailed (and convincing for those who don't know her). I wasn't entirely convinced most of the cast understood the overarching narrative of the play though. Whilst each scene was detailed, I didn't feel what happened pointed to the next thing about to happen - and yes, it is a trajectory play.

I also got a bit confused about a couple of highly stylised scene changes. They were a disappointment because for the most part the simple staging of four chairs was arranged and rearranged with efficiency and purpose. I was also not convinced by the 'shop window' upstage which revealed the major prop for the next scene in the previous one. It's hard to make that idea work in a minimalist production.

I would really love to see Riot with the original gender/sex casting and a tighter link between the meta-statements and the story of the characters. I do hope the team get past the recent troubles and try again at some point - perhaps with some design support to help draw ideas together.

2 Stars

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Do Not Collect $200 - Live Art Review

What: Do Not Collect $200
When: 9 - 19 October 2019
Where: MUST Space
Created and directed by: Harley Hefford
Head writer: Aleks Corke
Featuring: Zoe Condliffe, Callum Foulkes, Rohini Jaswal, Celina Mack, Lachlan McCormack, Meghan Mitra, and Arianna Walley
Assistant director: Kate Speakman
Set by: Ashleigh Baxter
Costumes by: Kirky Kirkman
Lighting by: Justin Heaton
Sound by: Caitlin Duff
AV by: Eamonn Johnson
Stage managed by: Shannon Brown
Natasha Nosiara and Luna Erica
The world of live art has been a bit quiet in Melbourne lately, but MUST has gone all in with their extravaganza event, Do Not Collect $200. The family favourite game Monopoly has been upsized to a full participation experience and we are the living tokens having experiences, earning money and clout, and living life inside an all capitalist system.

Created originally in 2017 by Magical Mystery Co., Hefford was invited by MUST Artistic Director Yvonne Virsik to recreate the event at Monash University. The original involved apps and roaming, but the programmer was snapped up by Google and this iteration is a slightly more analogue version of the event - but still heaps of fun!

You are attending the product launch of Hasbro's newest iteration of Monopoly - Monopoly Life! The event is kicked off by TV star Marvin (McCormack) and marketing diretor Arkangela (Jaswal). After the obligatory speeches, explanation of the rules, and trantrums, you are invited to start playing the game.

Playing in groups of 5 (BYO or join a table) you get a lucky dip of money and some clout. Just like life, your position on the totem pole is more luck than logic. You can sell clout for money and you can pay money for clout. It all depends on what you think is more important in Monopoly Life!  Pick your token, throw the dice and start your journey around the board.

Unlike traditional monopoly though, you don't collect properties. Instead you land on and buy experiences. Different experiences earn you different amounts of money or clout. You can choose to engage or not, depending on what you think will make you the richest person at the end of the night.

I did not get to do everything of course (I think that is impossible), but some examples of experiences you can have include record a podcast, participate in Survivor, become an artist, be on a jury, etc. Along the way you may also have to pick up random cards including calling the Capitalist Hotline and admitting a money secret, or a Cent card which may earn you money or cost you money. If you go to jail you better make sure your debating skills are up to par or you could be left out in the cold (literally) for a very long time.

Across the evening there is also a book launch by entrepreneur Corei (Foulkes) who has discovered to make a fortune all you have to do is write a book telling everyone else how to make a fortune. He spouts all the facts and figures - but what do they all mean?

As with all capitalist systems there are the front people and then there are the workers who make it all happen. Poor Lena (Mack) works her butt off but people can't even get her name right, and Juliette (Walley) is asked to present an analysis of the feedback from the evening without being given any time to prepare the data. Situation normal really. I did wonder if these young performance makers understood the dark truths which lie beneath their comedy and how much a presage of their own futures they were really foretelling.

The evening is packed full of fun and as with life, you have limited information and must make your choices and hope you get the experience you want. At the end of the game there are winners - the best photo, the most clout, the most money - but you are left to decide if perhaps you are the winner by having the best experience(s)? After all, you really can't take any of it with you...

Do Not Collect $200 is a fun exploration of the complexities and pitfalls of pure capitalism. You also get to decide if you are going to play by the rules, but if you don't then beware of parking inspectors!

The great thing about Do Not Collect $200 is you get to decide your level of participation. Every decision is your decision to make and the night is yours to build as you choose. A fully functioning drinks and snack bar also help the night pass with a lot of laughter and sharing. After all, isn't that what board games are about?

Do Not Collect $200 is a lot of fun and quite well realised. It is an incredibly complex operation taking around thirty people to create and has been realised well. Kirkman's costuming is right on point and the AV (Johnson) is integrated well.

The event has a really nice blend of performance and participation. Perhaps my only complaint is I didn't want to take time out of the game to go to the toilet but I really, really, needed to pee. Eventually nature won, but it was the quickest pit stop I have ever made! Do Not Collect $200 is well worth the trek out to Clayton.

4 Stars

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Rhythm Empire - Dance Review

What: Rhythm Empire
When: 5 October 2019
Where: Irving Hall
Australian Tap Dance Festival Featuring Omar Edwards
2019 has seen the 8th Australian Tap Dance Festival come to Melbourne. A line up of top class Australian tap dancers and international guest artist Omar Edwards came together at the Ministry of Dance to deliver a week of master classes and workshops for all ages and competencies of tap dance. The Festival ended with a gala evening, Rhythm Empire, which celebrated everyone's work over the course of the festival.

You may recall in 2017 I reviewed the 6th Festival's gala night, Rhythm Kaleidoscope. The overall shape of Rhythm Empire is the same although there were distinct differences in style of direction for the dance form. Many of the same faculty were leading workshops and had their moment to shine at the gala concert as well as letting the students celebrate their work and skills through group choreography.

One of the big things I noticed this year was a de-gendering of tap which was exciting. Apart from the senior 'Riverdance' troupe, there was not a mary-jane tap shoe on the stage. Both the guys and the gals were tapping and stomping across the stage with equal power and flair.

There was a big emphasis on 'keeping it real' in this concert. Costuming was only lightly themed with the intention to show tap dance is for the everyday, not the exotic Broadway musical, and with dancers of all ages it was apparent just how democratic this art form is.

Perhaps what was lost was a sense Fred Astaire glamour, but his dance was for romance. The dance on stage in Rhythm Empire was for everybody living every life.

As with Rhythm Kaleidoscope, the montage of styles and applications was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this gala event. Gary Stocks brought us shuffle tap whilst Thomas Waddleton brought us the jazz impro magic of Louis Armstrong, his voice bringing as much magic as his playfully unpredictable tapping feet.

Moving forward in time Shane Preston gave us the modern age favourite, hip hop tap dance before interval arrived. I should mention many of the dance numbers were backed by the live band which was a great touch.

Act 2 was sharper and more energetic as the stage was taken over by the more advanced tappers. Kicking us off for this session was the acapella number choreographed by Winston Morrison, 'Rhythmutation'. As soon as this dance started we knew tapping was getting serious now.

Well, sort of serious. Bill Simpson came out and played around with the audience in 'Dawn' and Eden Read showed us the funny side of tap burlesque in 'The Busker'.

Some performers brought energy to spare and Emma Wickham brought that and a sassy attitude in 'Little L'. In fact whenever Wickham was on stage she owned it almost as much as did the guest star Omar Edwards.

Americans are always great at teaching us how to own the moment and the spotlight and Edwards gave us all a master class. As soon as he stepped on stage he was a forceful presence in the room. On a stage full of tappers excellently miked up, Edwards puts his vocal mic on the stage and then taps in front of it, blowing all the rest away. Talk about dropping the mic! 

Speaking of Edwards, his choreography brought together tribal and ritual elements expressing the joy of celebration with power and pizzazz. It was his solo piece, 'Love On The Floor', which broke our hearts though. He spoke of his 13 year old mother whose job it was to be a living scarecrow and how slap tap dancing came from her soul. Edwards brought us back to dance as story telling in a post truth age.

Whilst I think this year's gala event didn't have quite the impact of the one in 2017 it is still a wonderful celebration of the flexibility and versatility of tap dance. The love and excitement for the tap dance from shone through the faces of all performers and just to see that creates a magic of it's own.

2 Stars

Monday, 30 September 2019

Jofus and The Plank - Comedy Review

What: Jofus and The Plank
When: 24- 29 September 2019
Where: The Burrow
Created and performed by: Lily Fish
Directed by: Lily Fish and Kimberley Twiner
Lily Fish
Straight out of all the great schools of clowning steps Jofus, a clown character created and performed by Lily Fish. The odd little love child of Harlequin and the Umbilical Brothers, and following in the tradition of Mr Bean, Jofus takes us on an adventurous new tale about The Big Bad Wolf with The Plank as the only ally.

The tale of Jofus and The Plank begins with the expectation of a visit from Uncle Kevin. A very excited Jofus makes a batch of short bread cookies. Uncle Kevin rings to tell Jofus he will be late, but the smell of the cookies permeates the air and comes to the nostrils of a very hungry Big Bad Wolf.

Thus begins an adventure tale told through mime, sound, half muttered words, and The Plank. When The Big Bad Wolf enters the kitchen Jofus jumps out of the (unusually high) kitchen window and plummets down the side of a very tall building. With the intervention of a very prolific egg-laying bird and a balloon Jofus desperately tries to elude The Wolf but it all comes down to a final showdown. Will Jofus defeat The Wolf or will Jofus become dinner?

Fish has as wealth of classical clowning training and experience and for Jofus she leans heavily into the Commedia traditions. Add to that some exemplary mime skills and The Plank becomes an extraordinary vehicle to embody the journey. It is a phone, the windows of the building, a balloon string, The Wolf's slavering tongue, the smell of biscuits wafting in the air or the stench of The Big Bad Wolf's breath and more!

There is no fourth wall to break in Jofus and The Plank. Jofus is telling us a story and speaks to us directly as both narration and narrator. Jofus is as aware of us as we are aware of Jofus. In fact some of the funniest moments are when Jofus steps out of the story to speak to us. The telephone conversation with costume designer Jofus about the ill-fitting pants is hilarious.

Unfortunately this is the part which seems to have left the children in the audience lost and restless.the gags about the paucity of Fringe production was completely over their heads and possibly went a bit too long. In fact, my major criticism of the work would be that there are many moments which indulge themselves too long.

Jofus is constantly acknowledging audience laughter and when it comes Jofus just keeps dropping in and out of the moment wanting more. It makes the show lose momentum. The idea works, but only for a finite amount of time.

Jofus and The Plank was co-devised by Po Po Mo Co partner in crime, Kimberley Twiner, and is a wonderful example of the art of clowning in the modern (or post post modern) era. Fish's skills are brilliant and with a little less induglence this show will wow the festival stages of the world if given the chance.

4 Stars

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Just Us Girls - Theatre Review

What: Just Us Girls
When: 21 - 29 September 2019
Where: Music Room, Trades Hall
Created and performed by: Ellen Grimshaw and Alice Stewart
Directed by: Milly Cooper and Sarah Vickery
Lighting and sound by: Justin Gardam
Alice Stewart and Ellen Grimshaw
The Music Room at Trades Hall is being occupied by strong female performance makers this week with the show Just Us Girls. This is basically a VCA Masters programs takeover as directors and writers from the writing and directing program dominate the stage with overwhelming messages of female oppression and a plea for empowerment.

The publicity blurb speaks to Just Us Girls being an absurdist work but that is not really correct. It is more accurately a post truth surrealist journey using performance body art (in the footsteps of the work of Maria Abramovic). Coupled with Grimshaw's stream of consciousness text, the show barely takes a moment to breath as it powers through a patriarchy which has no idea what it is to be a woman.

An Alien (Grimshaw) arrives on this planet and meets Dick Shirt (Stewart) and spends the next hour trying to find out what a girl [please insert the word woman wherever you feel you need to feel like an adult] is. Dick Shirt has absolutely no idea, citing examples which include potatoes and a couch amongst other objects, but then asserting quite vehemently there is only one type of girl.

There are moments of real genius in the writing including the 'sorry' aria and a trip to a restaurant where the Alien is invited to choose rape cake from the menu. Amongst all of the physicality and dance these are the moments when the show has true heart, as Grimshaw emerges from her charicature to tell us her experiences of rape are in the multiples and not just the one extraordinary event the media and culture like to tell us will only ever happen to a woman.

In a world where noodles are microwaves it is these explosive moments of truth which keep us glued to what is happening. My one reservation is that in telling us Feminism is really just equality (an oversimplification, but point taken), and where the idea of women being diverse and right in front of men's noses, I do worry about the monochromatic depiction of the 'man' in the show. In speaking against misogyny has the team crossed the line themselves into the abyss of misandry?

The physicality of Just Us Girls is intensely energising, but just as the performers get exhausted by the end, so too are the audience a bit worn out. Luckily this Fringe sized chunk of theatre is just the right size to sustain the work the audience need to do to keep up.

I would have liked more use of the AV. If you are going to use technology you really should use it consistently to ensure it really feels like a part of the show. I feel this would really amp up the show by giving the audience a few more keyholes into some of the more obscure shifts, especially in the second half.

As theatre, Just Us Girls is energetic and full of a truly righteous fury and yearning. It just needs to be careful not to be guilty of the same crime it is accusing the patriarchy of and thus falling into their stereotype.

4 Stars

Aurora - Circus Review

What: Aurora
When: 18 September - 6 October 2019
Where: Royal Botanic Gardens
Directed by: Kate Fryer
Performed by: Sam Aldham, Matthew Brown, Jeremy Hopkins, Spenser Inwood, Adam Malone, Selene Messinis, Jillibalu Riley, Tara Silcock, and Shani Stephens
Costumes by: Harriet Oxley
Lighting by: Jenny Hector
Projection by: Rhian Hinkley
Stage Managed by: Sienna Dillon
Sam Aldham, Jillibalu Riley, Josie Wardrope, Matthew Brown, Shani Stephens, and Jeremy Hopkins - photo by Mark Turner
The Circus Oz big top is back and with it comes all the fun and frolicking which is synonymous with this company. Reinforcing it's natural world themes, the Royal Botanic Gardens is host to this season of their latest new work, Aurora.

Reveling in the joy of being in their own natural habitat (the big top), the circus troupe engage with the story of extinction which is on everybody's mind at the moment.  Over one hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Melbourne this week about this issue, Finucane and Smith are roaring the message out at fortyfivedownstairs with The Rapture Chapter II, and at The Butterfly Club Picked Last For Sport have been telling the tale of Creatures Lost.

In Aurora, Circus Oz are taking a slightly more light hearted stance and the acrobats celebrate what is gorgeous and adorable about our ice cap populations with just enough of a hint of the coming doom to remind us of what we are in danger of losing if we don't act now. Penguins frolick (with more than a little touch of Happy Feet influence), a polar bear (Silcock) cavorts, and albatrosses glide their way through life barely noticing - and definitely not understanding - what this approaching mob of humans are doing to their world.

The show starts with a fun loving colony of Adelie penguins clowning around before performing a  traditional and yet ever so exciting trapeze routine. I feel pretty sure these penguinos are blood relatives of the Amigos who befriended Mumble... The penguinos come back and play several times across the evening. My favourite was the portly one (Riley), and after an amazing whip routine I kind of became enamoured with the kinky one (Malone) too.

Next we get to meet the polar bear. Silcock - as well as being a wonderful foot juggler and excellent balancer - is a fantastic singer and as she moves in to her new Antartic digs, suitcase in hand, the story really starts to get going. She plays with the penguins - juggling one all topsy turvy with her feet (my favourite puppet act ever!) before she joins in and plays with the colony of penguins. Sadly, she is a bit bigger and heavier than the penguinos and the ice is getting thin so when she jumps in on the fun, the ice cracks and everyone falls in. Luckily the penguinos are a happy go lucky bunch so all is forgiven and it is time to play again.

At this point I need to mention the wonderful use of projection (Hinkley) throughout the show. The visuals are projected directly onto the stage floor and tell the meta story about polar melts, black ice, and ever changing environments. Fryer (Director) and Hinkley have created magic in the way images and performers work together to create a living ecosystem for the story they are telling.

The night is full of excellent circus skills, seamless and energetic transitions, and things I have never seen before all swirling in a lively vortex over some deep and serious undercurrents. All the while the poor janitor (Aldham) is trying to clean up the mess but the goal posts keep moving. His rope routine, trying to cleanup plastic bags and netting, is exciting with a terrifying twist at the end!

I won't tell you everything that happens because you need to go and enjoy this show for yourself. I will say I am always in awe of the Washington trapeze and Malone does things which should not be humanly possible in it. If I hadn't seen it for myself I would never have believed anyone could have this much of a sense of balance.

Malone again, the hula hoop routine was stunning. I am not sure I have ever seen a man do the hula hoops and it was absolutely intriguing to see how the different point of balance and removal of the need to be sexy makes this apparatus so powerful. With little hints of Cyr Wheel choreography it was thoroughly gripping (pun intended).  Of course, then the projections starting playing hide and seek with the poor janitor so that the entire troupe had to come out and help him clean up the hula mess...

Brown's straps routine is fantastic and Stephens' hand balancing is elegant beyond words. Oh, and I have never seen the Chinese Pole done the way Inwood and Stephens did it. I was blown away! I should mention Inwood is filling in whilst troupe regular, Josie Wardrope, recovers from a performance injury sustained the day before opening. All of this is held together and propelled forward by the musical stylings of two amazing musicians - Hopkins and Messinis.

I think what I love most about Aurora is it's return to playful, family circus. The last couple of shows I have been to - Rock Bang and Wunderage - have been incredible, but very much stepping into art house territory. Aurora is a show the entire family can enjoy and laugh at and then take home to talk about in a bit more detail.

Don't miss this chance to celebrate the big top with Circus Oz again. Everyone will leave Aurora with a huge smile on their face and plenty to chat about afterwards. Sometimes it is nice to have a serious message told a bit tongue in cheek and this is a great show to start the extinction talk with the young ones in a way which isn't scary or threatening. Oh, and the show is heaps of fun for the adults too!

5 Stars!

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

A Day In The Life - Cabaret Review

What: A Day In The Life
When: 27 - 29 September 2019
Where: Wonderland Spiegeltent, The Paddock - Federation Square
Written by: Bridget a’Beckett and Julia Davis
Performed by: Bridget a’Beckett , Julia Davis, and Sharni Page
Choreography by: Jessica Enes
Costumes by: Kim Simon
Sharni Page, Bridget A'Beckett, and Julia Davis
Melbourne Fringe Festival is not just about grown ups. There is a lot of stuff out there for the little ones and Wonderland Speigeltent (behind ArtPlay at Federation Square) is bringing a whole program of fun including the Musical Sprouts show A Day In The Life.

Yella (A'Beckett), Blueno (Davis), and Reddy (Page) sing their way through some of life's greatest challenges such as brushing your teeth, cleaning your bedroom, and going to the toilet. With the help of the other kids in the audience, Yella learns these life skills and along they way they teach the children some basic music knowledge.

Musical Sprouts are committed to creating theatre for children with really high music performance values. They are amazing singers and musicians with classical training and throughout their songs they create glorious harmonies which literally brought beatific smiles to the faces of the very young ones in the audience at the preview. Not just visiting the world of canto bello, the trio take the audience through a brief tour of jazz, rock and pop and a little bit of looping for some percussive fun.

Some parts of the show are more successful than others. The toilet training sequence doesn't really work because Yella leaves the stage to do it. Having said that the 'Toothbrush Tappy' song really does get the feet tapping and the kids can get up on stage to help Yella learn how to brush her teeth and the feminist anthem 'I Can Do That' is rousing.

The costumes are colourful and I loved the flower set piece at the back. A'Beckett is cute and energetic as Yella and Davis is suitably mature and a bit grumpy as Blueno. My one suggestion would be that Page needs to find a bit more character definition within this trio.

A Day In The Life is fun and beautiful and has that rare quality of being for the really, really little kids - the toddlers rather than the preschoolers. They really do appreciate the music and the performers are gentle and caring with their rambunctious audience. Because it is behind Art Play, the kids can go and play after (or before) the show too!

3 Stars

Monday, 16 September 2019

Let MEOWT! - Theatre Review

What: Let MEOWT!
When: 12 - 17 September 2019
Where: Rattlesnake Saloon
Created and performed by: Catherine Holder and Laura Moran
Catherine Holder and Laura Moran
There is a crazy Fringe venue on downtown Lygon Street called the Rattlesnake Saloon which is straight out of a Spaghetti Western, and in the dance hall room at the the back is a secret stash of Melbourne Fringe performances taking place. The one I saw last night was the cute and funny Let MEOWT!

I have been a fan of Holder's work for a while. Experiences she has created, such as Sonder and Blood Is Thicker Than Hummus, are clever, interactive and enriching. Let MEOWT! sees Holder creating a more traditional fourth wall type of show with Moran - although it is fair to say this is still not what anyone would call 'standard'.

Holder and Moran play two cats - Cinnamon and Pepper respectively. Born from the same litter and growing up with the same human slave (who they call Mother) Cinnamon is the runt and the very self important Pepper spends every moment of her life making sure she knows it.

Cinnamon is fun-loving, curious, and perhaps not the brightest bulb in the Christmas tree. Pepper, on the other hand, is sleek and neurotic and ever so condescending.

One day they find themselves locked in the bathroom. Not through any malice on the part of Mother. It's just that Cinnamon was napping in the laundry basket and Pepper was on the window sill enjoying the view when the door was closed. The next 45 minutes of the show involves watching the two of them tearing the bathroom and each other apart as they desperately try to escape their own Satrian hell in order to find food (it's been a whole 5 minutes since they last ate) and a litter tray.

Let MEOWT! is Fringe heaven for the cat lovers of Melbourne. Holder and Moran have evidently spent a lot of time watching cats and have so many of their mannerisms and peculiarities down pat.

Perhaps the one thing I missed was a more fluid articulation of their spines. Cat's almost seem like they don't have a back bone and Holder and Moran were definitely 2 legged creatures standing tall and straight. I also couldn't figure out why they spent the whole time looking at the ceiling rather than the audience. I would have connected much more strongly with the performance if they had just looked at me...

In terms of Fringe programming, I think Holder and Moran have misunderstood their audience. Although it has some wonderfully dark aspects, Let MEOWT! is really more of a kids show and would have been a sell out in an earlier time slot and a child friendly venue. As a show for adults it lacks depth and body.

Having said that, cat lovers love cats - all cats - any cats - so take a day off watching feline memes on social media and head down to the Rattlesnake Saloon tonight for your last chance to see what these furry creatures get up to when Mother's back is turned. You will even get some handy hints about applying mascara!

2.5 Stars

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Standing Strong: Mudburra Man - Music Review

What: Standing Strong: Mudburra Man Album Launch
When: 15 September 2019
Where: fortyfivedownstairs
Featuring: Ray Dimakarri Dixon

Moira Finucane, Mama Alto, Ray Dimakarri Dixon and Pierra Dennerstein - photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Last night, riding on the waves of Finucane and Smith's extraordinary show The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction, Ray Dimakarri Dixon launched his new album Standing Strong: Mudburra Man. The album is a collection of 8 wonderfully arranged and produced songs speaking to the struggles the Mudburra people are dealing with in the Northern Territory. It is a love song, a dirge, a call to arms. Most of all it is a collection of sublime beauty.

Standing Strong is the result of a year long collaboration with Finucane and Smith. Whilst working on another project, Moira Finucane met Eleanor Dixon who them went on to introduce her to her father Ray. Father and daughter have been performing together for years as the group Rayella but when Finucane heard him sing 'Goodby Song' in his language her world changed and she pledged to help him produce Standing Strong - not quite realising just how much work was involved...

At the same time Finucane and Smith were developing The Rapture Chapter II and they realised Ray Dixon's passion in fighting fracking in the Northern Territory and working to save his language which is only spoken by 50 people now were all a part of the picture they were trying to show. Dixon's seminal song 'Nkgurra Marla' (meaning protector of home) became a centerpiece of the cabaret as well as being the perfect springboard to getting Dixon's music and message out into the world.

At it's simplest, Dixon's deep and sonorous voice, accompanied by an acoustic guitar are enough to cause your heart to resonate with the rhythms of Australia. When you add in the incredible talents of the 20 amazing artists who have collaborated to create this album, the music ascends to the sound of a people and planet crying out to be heard.

Collaborators of this album include: 
Ed Bates - pedal steel (Mudburra Man)
Joe Camilleri - saxophone, pedal steel arrangement (Mudburra Man)
Clare St Clare - backing vocals
Aidan Fergusson - electric guitar
Ben Keene - bass, percussion, string arrangements
Mama Alto - backing vocals
John McAll - piano, organ, melodica  & percussion
Darrin Verhagen - cello, flute, keyboard, arrangements

At the launch we had the pleasure of hearing several songs from the album including 'Yulu Wumara' and the stoic title song 'Barlawa Kurdij Karrdi'. 'Yulu Wumara' (Fracking Song) speaks to the truth that 85% of the Northern Territory is currently holds a fracking license or is under application for one. Extinction is in progress and through music Dixon is doing something about it.

The launch ended with Dixon performing the song which changed Finucane's world. Swaying to the mournful tune of 'Goodby Song' I felt my world change too.

The album is sung in a combination of Mudburra and English. For me there is always something magical hearing people sing in their own language. There is a fullness and gentleness and nuance which cannot be replicated. Dixon's Mudburra words speak to your heart even if you don't understand everything he says.

You can purchase a copy of the CD through music@moirafinucane More information HERE

4.5 Stars

The Rapture Chapter II: Art VS Extinction - Cabaret Review

What: The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction
When: 4 - 29 September 2019
Where: fortyfivedownstairs
Written by: Moira Finucane
Directed by: Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith
Performed by: Pierra Dennerstein, Ray Dimarrkari Dixon, Moira Finucane, Rachel Lewindon, and Mama Alto
Lighting by: Jenny Hector
Moira Finucane - photo by Jodie Hutchinson
 In 2017 Finucane and Smith told us that The Rapture was here. They beckoned us to look around and act immediately. It is 2019 and we have done nothing at all. The Doomsday Clock is still at 2 minutes to midnight and Moira Finucane is back. In The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction she is telling us there is no more time to waste and she is not wasting any time doing it.

We are back in the ice chapel of 2017 and Finucane enters as the fully annointed Snow Queen regalia after her tour of the Antarctica. What she found there, however, has released an urgency which eschews such frippery and throughout the show she strips away the layers of society, of manners, and of performance because now it is time to speak from the soul. From human to human. Our lives depend upon it.

I said we are running out of time, but Finucane's most important message is that there is still time. There is time for things to get better. There is time for things to get worse. I found myself wishing she could/would do this show in Parliament House in Canberra so that our leaders would finally hear and listen.

There are few niceties in Chapter II. It is dark and it is searing. You know the world is in trouble when Finucane, goddess of love, stands bare chested roaring a warning against waking terrible monsters. Under the biggest glacier in the world there lies deep secrets and lots and lots of bones. In the same way you do not want to wake a vicious dog, a crying baby or an angry man do you really think it is wise to melt this glacier and add 17 meters to the height of our oceans? How many bones will be under water then?

One of the genius elements of Finucane's work is her ability to connect dots and see pictures holistically. Do you really think the rate of death of women in non-warring countries is a coincidence? Do you think the fact that 85% of the Northern Territory is licensed for fracking or under application for such a license is a coincidence? Do you think it is a coincidence the Koala is on the edge of extinction? Do you think it is a coincidence there are only 50 people alive who still speak the language of the Mudburra people?

Finucane has called in the big guns for this exhortation. Having raised her voice as loudly as she can and quoted as many facts and figures as the brain can humanly hold it is time for the land to speak for itself. Yes, the angelic choir of Mama Alto and Dennerstein are still with her, joking and cajoling about the importance of Krill amongst other things but now we need to hear an even older and wiser voice.

To do this, Finucane has brought us Dixon. Dixon teaches us the words nkgurra marla - meaning protector of country, guardian of home - and then sings us this song in language. Nothing reaches into the soul more strongly than hearing First Nations songs sung in language. We don't need to know the words. We can feel the power and authenticity resonating through the sounds.

We need to hear his voice. We need to hear their voice. We need a Makarrata.

In play writing we are told we can't be too expositional because modern audiences don't like being told what to do, what to think. This is just another way to silence voices of concern and dissent. Finucane is a strong woman and in a post truth age she is honoring the movement of truth telling. Ironically, she does wrap up her honest and urgent words in glorious works of art. Costumes, set, music, all of the staging choices are divinity made corporeal.

The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction is terrifying. The horror lies in the truth that the outcomes lie in our very own hands. It is just as  Finucane's choir sings to us - 'The bigger the stone, the deeper the ripple'.

The situation is urgent and time is speeding up. If you do not act now, if you do not vote for 'the better' politician (so what if none of them are actually good?) now, if you do not plant a tree now, if you do not help someone drowning on the karaoke stage now, if you do not explode your love now what can our future possibly be except more bones at the bottom of an ocean floor?

I know there is a lot of theatre to see in Melbourne this month, but you must make time for The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction. You must make time for survival.

4.5 Stars

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Batmania Bus Tour - Theatre Review

What: Batmania Bus Tour
When: 11 - 21 September 2019
Where: St Kilda
Written and performed by: Elliott Gee, Raymond Martini, Indiah Mone, and Vidya Rajan
Costumes by: Honor Wolff

Vidya Rajan
One thing we know about Melbourne because of all the plaques and street signs and monuments is a dude called John Batman was one of the white people who got here first. His legacy is the kind of gift that keeps on giving and The Very Good Looking Initiative invite you to a township named after his lordship just as he always wanted - Batmania! Batmania is having it's very own Expo this year at Theatre Works, and for the truly adventurous there is also a Batmania Bus Tour.

I got to go on the bus tour and I can honestly say I saw a completely different side of the town I used to know as St Kilda. What side did I see? I have no idea, but I laughed so much I choked along the way.

The Batmania Expo and Bus Tour are anti-theatre horror comedies. What does this mean? Who knows? What I can tell you is that the experience takes you on a ride and spits in the face of expectation.

As all good bus tours do, the passengers are treated to a Batmanian tourism video highlighting the achievements of the community, their cultural distinctions, and some important local safety warnings. Zimpy means hungry and if you call something a gull it can be a compliment or an insult for example.

The most important information you will get however, is the local EHS warnings. The rules are simple. 1. Do not touch the sand. 2. If you touch the sand, do not touch your face. Like all normal people we - and the tour guides - forget or ignore the warnings almost as soon as they are spoken. If you are addicted to zombie stories you are going to love the Batmania Bus Tour.

Gee is the mullet wearing bus driver who is forced to work with new tour guides (Rajan and Martini) who have done the locals out of a job. The tour guides have only been in Batmania for 3 weeks yet are quite good at describing local attractions despite not aving had the chance to experience them yet. There is one little detail they forgot... Sight seeing bus tours don't work so well in the dead of night...

It all starts innocently enough with plenty of photo stops of unlit edifices and exhortations to marvel at the abundance of avian architecture to be found in Batmania. Things begin to fall off the rails after an unscheduled toilet stop however, and the tour descends into chaos from that point on.

The tour is a lot of fun and the bus - although not quite what is shown in the video - is comfortable and just like all bus tours, nobody can see anything because you are either on the wrong side of the bus, or the view is obscured (by this little thing called night in this case).

It is the journey of the tour staff which become the point of interest in the Bus Tour. The ideas are strong and funny. Perhaps my main concern is the very site line difficulties for tourists are true for the performance. I couldn't see much more than glimpses of what was happening.

I got the gist of it, and I saw enough to understand and laugh, but I felt disconnected for much of the end of the tour. Having said that, I was comfortable and warm and quite enjoyed hearing the random laughter around the bus as people each saw snippets of different moments in the show. Perhaps this is the anti-theatre aesthetic the company are striving for?

I also think they could tighten up the ideas. There were longish gaps between each step in the process and they could be filled with more suggestive material such as when the air-conditioning was broached.

The Bus Tour starts on Fitzroy street but ends at the Expo in Theatre Works just in time for the big finale. Everything about the project is tongue in cheek and fabulous with just enough political and social barbs to make us feel content.

Go and visit Batmania. It is worth it. You can take in the accessible Expo or go on the Bus Tour. Either way you are going to end this unique experience laughing. In fact - do both!

3.5 Stars

Side A - Theatre Review

What: Side A
When: 15 - 29 September 2019
Where: Toy Library, Trades Hall
Written and performed by: Amanda Santuccione
Amanda Santuccione
I first came across Santuccione two years ago in her debut solo show Twenty Minutes To Nine. Since then she has gone on to hone her performance skills and this year she brings another surprisingly personal and powerful story to the audiences at Trades Hall in Side A.

The power in Santuccione's work is the well spring of authenticity and lived experience with which she gifts the audience in every performance. It also lies in her ability to not shy away from the pain, but to sit in it long enough for us to feel it and then move us forward to the strength and wisdom which comes from getting to the other side.

Side A is perhaps a lighter piece overall, with the first half being almost a stand up comedy routine. This show, though, is built in 2 acts and whilst the first half has tiny hints of what is to come the power of the second act comes as a complete surprise.

Side A begins with a wander down memory lane. Feeding into our current retro obsession Santuccione takes us back to the days when mix tapes were real acts of love. A time when making one meant hours listening to the radio for the precise moment the song you wanted was played. A time when all you needed was some sticky tape to overwrite any cassette. A time when DJ's where judged on how rarely they talked over the music. Those were the days...

For Santuccione this was also a time of growth into adulthood and sexuality. She lets us laugh our way through her crazy experiences of a first date, a first kiss, a first walkman, a first sexual assault...

Santuccione was a precocious child as her Sunday School teacher can attest to and in act 2 things get more serious as she explores family and peer expectations for a single, straight female. We take teenage sexuality so for granted now but do girls really all want to get fingered at the age of 13, or lose their virginity by 16? Some do, some don't, but shouldn't it be up to us rather than our community?

In act 2 Santuccione soars as a spoken word beat poet and the power and glory of her pieces 'I See You' and 'Friend' will tear you apart. People say words have power. Santuccione's words most certainly do.

Side A is a surprising show. It is hilarious and soul searing all in the same experience. Spend an evening at Trades Hall and kick the night off with this wonderful work of art.

3.5 Stars

Monday, 9 September 2019

The Subtle Art Of Online Dating - Cabaret Review

What: The Subtle Art of Online Dating
When: 9 - 15 September 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written by: Katie O'Connor
Directed by: Kate Tomkins
Performed by: Nerida Hannah, Katie O'Connor, Maddie Roberts and Bonnie Ryan-Rowe
Bonnie Ryan-Rowe, Katie O'Connor, Nerida Hannah and Maddie Roberts
Because we just can't get enough of it, this year's Fringe Festival brings us another painful yet funny stab at the vagaries and absurdities of romance by app in O'Connors new show. The Subtle Art Of Online Dating is playing upstairs at The Butterfly Club this week.

The topic is not new, but it appears to be endlessly fascinating. Hasn't dating always been a key source of hilarity throughout history? In the tradition of shows such as Ghosted, Tinder Tales and Fuckboys: The Musical, The Subtle Art Of Online Dating pokes fun of and thrusts swords into our current obsession with trying to find love through pure strangers rather than risk getting to know the people around us.

I have to say I don't think The Subtle Art of Online Dating brings much in the form of original material or new perspectives. What it does do, however, is highlight the powerful performance skills of the cast. This team of theatre makers are cohorts from Federation University and all of them demonstrate strong technical skills as actors and also demonstrate Tomkins' skill with use of space - particularly in such a small venue. I rarely enjoy shows which use the auditorium aisle, but this is possibly the first time I have thought it to be done well.

The Subtle Art of Online Dating has an in-yer-face quality which seems to be the rage at the moment in Melbourne, but I wonder if that is actually the great weakness of the work. The four actors come out singing a song (flatly...) about being bitches. It is loud and aggressive and comes from the idea of reclaiming insult words. I personally do not think this is the way to regain respect or dignity - or language - but it is one of those things people do the wrong way for all the right reasons I guess.

A little more softness and vulnerability would make this a much more powerful piece because, despite it's claims to the contrary, The Subtle Art of Online Dating is not a comedy. It is a very sad tale of pain and confusion. In order to amp up the comic, the team have had to resort to obnoxiousness and braggadocia which becomes very confronting. Because of this, I found myself caring very little despite the excellent stage craft on display.

The one exception for me was Hannah's portrayal of the lonely, chocolate addicted young woman who finds happiness in glitter adorned appliances... Hannah also plays the piano which allows the team to segue into song and dance for that real cabaret vibe. I take her warnings about Hinge very seriously too!

The Subtle Art of Online Dating is fun, and a good way to round off a night of show going at The Butterfly Club. It is also informative. I had no idea there were so many dating apps on the market now!

2.5 Stars

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

False Advertising - Cabaret Review

What: False Advertising
When: 21 - 24 August 2019
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created by: Jenna Featherstone
Performed by: Matthew Nutley and Jenna Featherstone
Jenna Featherstone
A fun new cabaret came to The Butterfly Club with the insouciance of Mad Men and the dryness of Utopia. Jenna Featherstone took us inside the spin and grin of the advertising world in False Advertising and boy, did she let it all hang out - to dry!

Although Featherstone has had a substantial advertising career with major clients (and you find out just how big they are/were in the show), she is also a performer with a significant background in musical theatre. It makes perfect sense to combine her talents in campaign design, copy writing, and singing to come up with this cheeky little cabaret.

Like most of us, Featherstone had something of a love affair with the TV series Mad Men, and as she began her first tentative steps into the world of advertising her head was filled with thought bubbles of long lunches, glitz and glamour, and old fashioneds on tap. And then she got a job.

Featherstone knew she would be starting at the bottom but it was a real shock to find herself hanging out with cockroaches and being implicated in a case of serial roachicide. Still, the only way was up and eventually she hit the giddy heights of the gambling industry.

Accompanied by repetiteur Matthew Nutley, Featherstone makes her way through a range of fun songs from popular musicals which lament the problems of a workaday world including the evergreen '9 to 5'. Perhaps one thing I would suggest is that Featherstone focus on developing the mezzo range of her mezzosoprano voice. Her lower tones are lovely if a bit weak, whereas her voice gets sharp on the very upper notes.

The downstairs stage of The Butterfly Club has undergone a facelift with sexy black tabs and bigger loudspeakers. On the night I went the sound was a bit too loud - almost to the point of pain - and unfortunately this highlights weaknesses and those sharp notes hurt.

Putting those technical issues aside though, False Advertising is very funny and Featherstone brings back all of those earworms advertising executives get paid so much to destroy our brains with. Featherstone even apologises for her personal role in destroying perfectly good songs by turning them into ads.

As expected in cabaret there is audience interaction. In False Advertising Featherstone got us to help her sell unsellable products. The important thing to remember? Sex sells...anything!

False Advertising is a clever show and heaps of fun. Perhaps just lowering the key of certain songs would push it into the exceptional range. Featherstone is a beautiful and charismatic performer and I look forward to her next installment.

3 Stars

Thursday, 22 August 2019

How I Met My Dead Husband - Cabaret Review

What: How I Met My Dead Husband
When: 24 August - 7 September 2019
Where: Bluestone Church Arts Space
Written by: Lansy Feng
Directed by: Belinda Campbell
Performed by: Simone Cremona, Lansy Feng, and Lauren Kaye
Set by: Abbey Stanway
Costumes by: Georgina Hanley
Lighting by: Jennifer Piper
Stage Managed by: Henry O'Brien
Lansy Feng - Photo by Jack Dixon-Gunn
A love story spanning lifetimes, How I Met My Dead Husband is as funny as it is heartbreaking. Lansy Feng brings her soul to the stage in this surprising tale of star crossed lovers being presented by Wit Inc at the Bluestone Church Arts Space for the next fortnight before a short return season at The Bowery Theatre.

Australians are taking a moment to search back through their cultural heritage and share their stories and for Feng that means exploring her Taiwanese background. Exploring the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and the role of destiny in determining our lives, Feng tells us the story of Chuen-Jiau.

Four lives ago, Buddha made a boo-boo and forgot to wipe her memories before bringing her back into the world in her new body. For some reason Chuen-Jiau seems to have slipped off the mind wipe slate completely and we meet her in her fourth incarnation with full and complete memories of all that has gone before. Yep, it is as painful as you can imagine including being 'pooped out' at birth, being a grown up in a child's body, and spending all of these lives searching for your lost love. "What the fuck, man?"

Despite the great sorrow and tragedy underlying the ideas of How I Met My Dead Husband, Feng has a wry sense of humour and a wonderful comic timing which fill the hour full of hilariously unexpected perspectives. Her incredibly mobile face has an anime effect and Feng's diminutive stature and delicate features and aura are belied by a soulful contralto voice which will shock you to the core.

As Feng unravels her four lives and the meeting and losing of her love along the way of each of them, the journey is peppered with a perfect blend of Nina Simone and Edith Piaf amongst others. Rarely do you hear a singer who really taps into the soulfulness these artists delivered, but Feng brings that and more with the slightest touch of Asian tuning which enhances rather than detracts from this cultural intermingling.

Perhaps my favourite moment was when Feng sang in her native Mandarin though. A gentleness emerges in her voice as she sings the ballad 'Longing For The Spring Breeze'.

My favourite story has to be the French experience. I don't know if it's child abuse to name your newborn Croissant but Feng provides a range of handy hints and tips on how to pretend you speak French to natives without knowing any of the language.

The first iteration of How I Met My Dead Husband in 2018 was more of a mystery thriller, but Campbell has worked with Feng to lean into the beauty and instead we have an hour long love story which is so much better than Shakespeare's star-crossed tragedy. The coffin is still the centrepiece but Stanway has amped it all up for this production with a stunning tiled floor, a shrine and a silhouette light box which is some sort of combination of pani slide and animation slides.

The cut-outs for each frame as they build the texture to match the story is an act of delicacy and grace we really only ever see in Asian cultures. Perhaps my one comment would be the husbands photo and this light box need to swap places so that Feng is framed by these images rather than being upstaged by the photo. Piper's lighting concepts and skills are really developing and How I Met My Dead Husband is cleverly and sensitively handled.

Whilst I can't imagine a fate more horrible than the one Chuen-Jiau has been forced to live through, the Gods do take pity on her - sort of - and for those who love the concept of a 'true love' this is the show for you! A stunning combination of surreal beauty and earthy reality, How I Met My Dead Husband is a top rate cabaret and shouldn't be missed.

4 Stars

Friday, 16 August 2019

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Musical Review

What: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
When: 9 August - 3 November 2019
Where: Her Majesty's Theatre
Book by: David Greig
Music by: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by: Jack O'Brien
Orchestration by: Doug Besterman
Featuring: Benjamin Belsey, Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon, Elijah Slavinskis, Paul Slade Smith, Edgar Stirling, Lenny Thomas, and Lachlan Young.
Choreography by: Joshua Bergasse
Design by: Mark Thompson
Lighting by: Japhy Weideman
Sound by: Andrew Keister
Projections by: Jeff Sugg
Puppets by: Basil Twist
Lenny Thomas and Tony Sheldon
It is time to indulge your sweet tooth and head on down to Her Majesty's for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. A night of shockingly funny spectacle and lots of laughs, this production is a hoot.

I don't know how you grow up in the modern Western world and not at least have a passing familiarity with the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book, the films, the golden tickets...even Cadbury now have a real Wonka Bar. It would be beyond belief to think it would not be made into a musical and so it has, and here it is.

This musical began it's life in 2010 and debuted in London in 2013. It had a decent run but also didn't hit the heights of imagination. In 2017 it was reworked with a new director (O'Brien) for Broadway and is still being tweaked as it moves across the world. I reckon they have pretty much got it right now.

I admit I am not a musical theatre addict so it may not be surprising that I will say this show is fabulous when critics of the Sydney season were so harsh but here I go. I am not overly impressed by all the sparkle and the spangle. What I look for in a show is a strong story told using all of the elements of theatre making and all of those elements working together to support each other. This is what you get in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But don't worry - there is also a bevy of fun and funny surprises along the way just as you would expect in Wonkaland.

This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leans more towards the family fantasy of the 1971 film. Having said that, there is definite darkness there and this is what makes it feel like a secret night of naughty for us grown ups while the kids are enjoying all the colour and movement.

Yes, there are the twee moments, such as when Grandpa Joe (Sheldon) makes jokes about his age and references Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills but this is what musicals do and you can hate on it or - as I did - groan a bit and then laugh at the inevitability. This jaded tolerance is the perfect precursor to allow yourself to sink into the glorious blasphemy which sits below all of Willy Wonka's (Slade Smith) charm and affability.

Perhaps the biggest change to the story is in the musical Wonka seems to have selected Charlie long before he (or Charlie really) ever comes up with the idea for the competition. Yes, it telegraphs the outcome but we already know how the story goes and this way we don't have to pretend surprise. It is all about the journey as they say.

Sheldon is great fun as Grandpa Joe - full of energy and life contrary to his supposed aged and crippled state, and Slade Smith is excellent as Willy Wonka. This is not a dance spectacular. This production is all about great lyrics being sung well and I don't know anybody with the dental dexterity of Slade Smith in the songs which go 100 miles a minute! The top of Act 2 is a wonder as he gallops through 'Strike That, Reverse It'. My poor brain couldn't keep up but it had nothing to do with the delivery or the sound system which is as clear as a bell (except for 'Queen of Pop' for some reason).

I loved all of the children, but most of all I loved their dreadful fates as they disregarded all of Wonka's warnings. The true genius of Slade Smith's Wonka is he becomes so very, very human as he gives in to the understanding he won't be listened to and what will happen next is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow morning.

The Gloop family (Octavia Barron Martin and Jake Fehily) are adorable, and the Salt's (Stephen Anderson and Karina Russel) are satisfyingly autocratic. The Beauregarde's (Madison McKoy and Jayme-Lee Hanekon) do the Kardashian's proud!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of sleights of hand and fun illusions. Violet Beauregarde's evolution into a giant purple ball and then bursting had me in stitches but the true coup d'etat comes in Veruka Salt's demise. In this production Veruka is a prima ballerina and her encounter with the sorting squirrels is straight out of The Nutcracker Ballet. For those of us who get that reference this is the pinnacle display of why this show is so good.

It is the dramaturgy, people, and it pokes up it's head in moments of brilliance all across the show. For example Mrs Green (Joseph Naim), the rotting vegetable seller, is a hoot and a fun reference to the age of pantomime. The Oompa Loompas are also resolved in a very clever and satisfying way and one of the great decisions for this musical is to leave out many of their songs. They are there when they are needed and they are gone when they add nothing to the story.

Traditionally one of the main morals of this tale has been said to be 'bad things happen to children who don't behave' but in this musical this is not true because at the very end Charlie does not heed his warning and yet he wins the kingdom. I think it is the song 'It Has To Be Believed To Be Seen' which tells us the truth of this show and is the idea which resonates across our post-truth world. So much of the sparkle and spangle being sold to us by our leaders - social, political, theological, geographic, economic... - requires faith in the message or the mouth because there is not a whole lot of evidence to back up their statements of 'fact'.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the whole package. The production values are fantastic but more to the point they do what they do perfectly and it all points to the story not at itself. The performances are all consistently brilliant. The dancing and choreography is clean and precise although this is not really a dancing musical. The singing is perfection.

Part of the brilliance is when it works best is when all of this is left behind! One of the scenes which had me laughing the most was the journey through the wind tunnel. The whole journey is done with mime. Not a single prop or set piece is in place but we know exactly what is happening to everyone at every moment and it is bellyachingly funny.

Okay, I will complain about one thing. I think the glass elevator should rise faster. The end of the show, musically speaking, really slows down into a kind of lullaby tempo. It is beautiful but I was tired and suddenly, at the end, all I wanted to do was go to sleep. This will be great for the parents because their kids will be ready for bed!

On the night I went Lenny Thomas was playing Charlie and he was terrific. I also saw Elijah Slavinskis at the media call and he was equally as brilliant. I suspect no matter which night you attend you will love whoever of the 5 boys playing Charlie you get.

5 Stars