Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Holy Mothers - Theatre Review

What: Holy Mothers (Dei Prasidentinnen)
When: 20 February - 3 March 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Werner Schwab
Directed by: Andre Bastian
Composition and video by: Daniel Fenby
Performed by: Alice Bishop, Helen Doig and Uschi Felix
Designed by: Peter Mumford
Lighting by: Stelios Karagiannis
Stage Management by: Millie Levakis-Lucas
Alice Bishopm, Uschi Felix, and Helen Doig
Wow. I feel speechless and I feel confident most people will after seeing the production of Holy Mothers at la Mama Courthouse this week. Unfortunately that wow is not a good one...

I have always wondered, given his magnificent wordplay and poetry, just how people have been able to translate Shakespeare into other languages. Having seen what Meredith Oakes has done with Schwab's writing I have come to realise for some writers, their work cannot be translated.

Schwab's writing is mired in neologisms and linguistic deconstruction. To try and translate a deconstruction of the German language into English is a fool's errand and nothing shows this up more that Holy Mothers. I am rather surprised that, as a German speaker himself, the director (Bastian) did not give the translation a go himself. I suspect it would have been less tedious.

I can't blame the entire tragedy of the evening on Oakes though. Schwab works in the areas of grotesque, black comedy, and post-dramatics. It appears nobody in the creative team or the cast are familiar with these theatrical concepts. Add to that a writer and creative team all made up of men trying to tell a story about women and, well, I am speechless as I said earlier.

In a pretty pink, symmetrical kitchen, three older women sit around a table, drink tea (and then later alcohol) and talk about being poor and their dependence on religion to make everybody's shit not stink. Anybody who has older relatives knows that feacal output becomes an obsession with a lot of aging people and Schwab takes this  - and a biting contempt of catholicism - to absolute extremes in this grotesque piece of German Expressionism.

It seems Bastian is one of those directors who plays the text and not the subtext and this is one of the biggest mistakes of the night. Schwab is credited with reviving German Expressionism which is built upon the idea of blowing up the reality of the external in order to reveal the reality of the internal. By having the blocking and staging and acting so mired in realism it becomes an exhausting chore to look past Schwab's never ending text and see the truths he is trying to reveal .

This production is also not helped by it's snail pace. Comedy of any genre requires pace and energy or it bogs itself down (pun intended). In this production there are pauses Harold Pinter would be proud of and they are littered everywhere. The show is almost two hours long but it felt closer to three for me, and could easily have 20 minutes cut just by picking up the pace.

Comedy also relies on archetypes and whilst I think Mumford did try to address this in his overtly clownish costuming, the director and the actors seemed to work against this idea with all their might in the staging to their own detriment. Felix (Mariedl) did the best job and to be honest, if it wasn't for her work, especially in the second hour, I really would have climbed over everybody to leave. Doig (Erna) almost gets in touch with her OCD character, but Bishop (Grete) misses the mark completely as a desperately emotional woman who never stops believing in a beautiful life.

The women are mired in shitty lives and this concept focuses most viciously on Mariedl who has become a successful bog unblocker who never wears gloves and is happy to put her hands in amongst everyones stinky shit to keep the pipes flowing because it is the work of God.  Schwab's razor sharp commentary comes to the fore when the local priest gets her to clear the blocked toilets at a party where he has hidden 'gifts' for a starving woman living on the edge of survival.

Given the lack of covert post dramatic staging during the majority of the play, the overt actions written in by Schwab right at the very end land like a fish flopping to death on a pier. It is hard for me to tell if that is a failure by the playwright because I lost interest so long ago I was having to force myself to not have a nap. I just knew it signalled the end and praised that horrible God the women were worshipping so avidly in the play.

Holy Mothers is definitely over written and I think it is a stretch to put him in the same basket as Sarah Kane as the director's notes suggest, but I do think the play is interesting - or it could be if anyone in the creative team knew how to read it and stage it. I don't think there is any good solution to the translation problems though. This is one of the problems for playwrights who play with language although sometimes they are some of the best plays written (in their own language...).

1 Star

Monday, 18 February 2019

Creatures of the Deep - Cabaret Review

What: Creatures of the Deep
When: 18 - 23 February 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Composed by: Ryan Smith, Sean Sully, and Sarah Wall
Performed by: Jake Edgar, Cat Sanzaro, Ryan Smith, Sean Sully and Sarah Wall
Jake Edgar, Cat Sanzaro, Ryan Smith and Sarah Wall
With the Green Room Award nominations having come out to day there seems to be little left for me to say except that Creatures of the Deep is sensational fun and intelligent and you would be silly to miss it. Winner of the Best Cabaret award in last year's Melbourne Fringe Festival, Creatures of the Deep is having a return season this week at The Butterfly Club as part of the Sustainable Living Festival and it will be hard for you to find a cleverer and funnier night out this week.

Picked For Last Sport has created a marvelous cabaret documentary about the curious wildlife we find under the ocean and around the Great Barrier Reef. A group of unpaid interns (Edgar, Sanzaro, Sully and Wall) join Fat Jacques Cousteau (Smith) down into our briny depths to teach us about our swimming neighbours.

The first thing you need to know is the entire cast are excellent theatre makers and bloody good singers, so along this journey you will not experience the usual cabaret standard of pitchiness. What you will hear is clever (and funny) lyrics, sung by singers who can not only sing melody but can harmonise the shit out of each other! Sanzaro stands out as a vocalist with big things going to happen in her life, but everyone in this ensemble works together and listens to each other.

Oh, and there is not a microphone in sight! I can't tell you how exciting it is to sit in the room and just hear the voices working in the room. Wall and Edgar do need to work on developing some power but I am very pleased they focussed on pitch instead, believe me.

Creatures of the Deep begins with a good old rolling sea shanty as Cousteau launches us on our voyage into the marine life off our coast. After meeting the lonely carnivorous pink jellyfish (Wall) who found her friends very tasty indeed, the crew get together and sing the ballad 'Coral City', ending with the sad fact two thirds of our northern Great Barrier Reef is now dead, bleached coral.  A pregnant male seahorse (Sully) sings a torch song about parenthood, before a school of sharks come and serenade us with an amazing barbershop quartet celebrating how happy life is when you can only go forwards (because if they go backwards they will die...).

I always get excited when I see theatre makers who focus on what is really important to the show and getting them really right. For this troupe it is the singing and a few puppets. I have already mentioned the pink jellyfish, but maybe the scene stealer of the show is the blowfish (although Edgar's pufferfish is pretty darn sexy too!). Smith leads us in a sorrowful dirge about how the poor little (big) blow fish is excluded because he is so ugly and out of proportion when he puffs up. I literally could not stop myself from continually saying 'awww' he was so sweet and pathetic...

The crew go deeper into the ocean and deeper into ideas as they explore the luminescent fish...and then the megatons of plastics littering the ocean. The statistics on the size and scale of the problem are absolutely mind blowing!

Creatures of the Deep has been nominated for Best Ensemble and Best Original Songs in the cabaret discipline of the 2019 Green Room Awards. How often do you get to see what all the fuss is about when you hear a show has been nominated? It is pretty darn rare so get on down to The Butterfly Club and prepare for an hour of fun and belly aching laughter amidst a few cold hard facts about our lifestyle!

5 Stars

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Forgotten Places - Performance Installation Review

What: Forgotten Places: From The Past a Future Begins
When: 13 - 17 February 2019
Where: The Mezzanine, Chapel Off Chapel
Directed by: Jayde Kirchert
Composed by: Imogen Cygler
Performed by: Jordan Barr, Kayla Hamill, Tomas Parrish, Willow Sizer, and Margot Tanjutco
Art designed by: Stu Brown
Costumes by: Aislinn Naughton
Margot Tanjutco
In a world obsessed with dystopian forecasting Citizen Theatre bring us something very, very different in the immersive experience of Forgotten Places: From The Past A Future Begins. You can enter their world of happy ending on The Mezzanine at Chapel Off Chapel and I guarantee you will smile and laugh and feel good for at least one hour of your life as you share this experience with the ensemble.

Forgotten Places began as a community project where residents of Stonnington were invited to take a photography walk with the Citizen Theatre team. Walking down lanes and the 'forgotten' spaces of the district, participants were encouraged to photograph elements of the environment which caught their eye.

Some of the photos were collated for further development and Brown went on to turn those photos into colourful abstractions and then further combine them into larger walls of art which form the architecture of the performance space. You can see in his earlier work that Brown loves bold,  bright colours and abstracted shapes so the outrageously positive and upbeat tone and 'in your face' joy of Forgotten Places comes as no surprise. The intriguing architectures and layers and colours of Stonnington were the perfect palette for him to riff off artistically!

Aislinn Naughton also tends to favour colour blocking and strong geometrics in her design work and her costumes are the perfect compliment to Brown's world. The characters come off as some sort of clown/psychopomp hybrid taking us through a layered garden of hope and possibility. They flit from room to room welcoming, guiding and amusing together and apart but always alongside us and each other.

You might be tempted to think that with all this colour and the gorgeous Play School style song cycles by Cygler that Forgotten Places is a show for children. Whilst it absolutely is perfect for the little ones, there is great depth of content and ideas cleverly devised by the ensemble for the adults too. We are just so used to thinking positivity is for kids and negativity is for grown ups that it would be easy to misread this event.

The world of Forgotten Places is split into four rooms; The Water Room which focusses on movement and dance, The Gift Room which is the home of Cygler on keys and is a place of songs, The Fun Room in which comedy and storytelling abound, and then finally there is The Mirror  Room which is a space of reflection. The program includes a map and a performance order you can choose to plan out for yourself, but Forgotten Places is really a 'build you own' experience, and you can wander from room to room as the mood takes you (or as the performers may guide you).

Forgotten Places is an experience of great beauty. Moments which stand out for me include the three goddesses (Barr, Hamill and Sizer) populating the water tanks with fish in The Water Room - every birth an angelic chorus of joy. Barr's 'Welcome Fruit' skit in The Fun Room was also hilarious and a wonderful commentary on the difficulties of communication and the rewards of patience. It is also a subtle homage to the less fortunate members of the community.

I also adored Parrish's 'Your Name Is' performance in The Fun Room. Again a beautiful combination of welcome and celebration as well as acknowledging members of the community with disability.

As I mentioned earlier some of Cygler's compositions repeat in childlike wonder such as the song 'Come And See This Place I'm In' which cycles with each act and continues the sense of warmth, welcome, belonging and permission. There are deeper moment with the more complex composition n The Gift Room though. As Parrish sang the lyrics 'Where day is dark and dark is bright' I instantly thought of winter skys and then busy nights on Chapel Street.

The Gift Room is an intriguing space as well. Whilst you listen to the songs there are three bowls with little scrolls. One bowl is a gift to you, another is a gift for someone you love who isn't there, and the thirds is a gift to be given to someone you don't know.

Like these little scrolls, Forgotten Places feels like a gift being given. I don't know if I have ever attended a performance which felt so genuinely like a gift for me. This may be why it has such a strong sense of magic about it... Kirchert's skill in interweaving all these ideas and elements into such a complex hour of fun and laughter is genius!

Forgotten Places is an immersive event for every age and here are some pro tips for you to get maximum enjoyment. First, wear shoes which are easy to slip on and off. Trust me, your feet will love you if you let them feel the textures on the floor! Secondly, don't forget to download a QR code reader app on your phone because you can look at how the art work was created and access the song lyrics in the space. The space is accessible and you can take your drinks upstairs with you. Win/Win!!!!

5 Stars

Monday, 11 February 2019

Badass - Cabaret Review

What: Badass
When: 10 February 2019
Where: The Toff In Town
Written and performed by: Tash York
Band: David (drums), Shae (bass), Tim (Keys & backup vocals)
David, Tash York, and Shae
You know a cabaret artist is in the A-league when they no longer needs props and costumes and have a personal back up band. For Tash York that moment has arrived and her new show Badass places her squarely in the big time of the cabaret genre.

I first came across York when she was MC for The After Hours Cabaret Club and right from that first moment I knew she was a talent to be reckoned with. Since then I have seen her show Adulting and, most recently, Petty Bitches with Boo Dwyer and York has gone from strength to strength as a performer and as a story teller.

In Badass York reveals her life goal to become a...well...badass. Beginning with a Micheal Jackson/Moulin Rouge medley York stamps her place on stage immediately and shows us she is not backing down from the fight. Riffing off singers such as Pat Benatar, York combines her sassy and clever ability to rejig lyrics and a pitch perfect voice with a range and power only the best in the business come close to having.

York is a comedian as well as a first class vocalist and Badass really is a laugh a minute. Marvelling at how Disney movies (love them or hate them) always manage to pull a tear from our eyes no matter how well you know the ending, York demonstrates her own talents in crafting an unexpected, yet heartfelt journey for the audience. Coming in hot and strong with her power statement, York journeys through some things which have prevented her from becoming a badass in the past. Things such as her nemesis high school bully, a late blooming bustline, a tomboy lifestyle and a passion for stationary.

After causing us to roll on the floor laughing our arses off, York's tale takes a turn when we meet Nigel - The EX. It is this part of the journey where York learns what a real badass is and if you are lucky she may even sing you a personalised power anthem for you to embrace your own inner badass (make sure you have a favourite dinosaur). The power of the utter honesty and rawness with which York shares herself with the audience is unmatched. Disney be damned! If your eyes don't well up when you hear her tale you are not human.

The universe doesn't know it yet, but York really is one of the best cabaret artists in the business. Whenever you get the chance to see her (she is off to Adelaide soon) take it. It will be a night you won't forget. One worthy of the biggest stages in the world.

5 Stars

Friday, 8 February 2019

As You Like It - Theatre Review

What: As You Like It
When: 8 - 10 February 2019
Where: Alistair Knox Park
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed and designed by: Meg Deyell
Composed by: Remy Chadwick
Performed by: Matt Bertram, Remy Chadwick, Louise Cocks, Meg Deyell, Tref Gare, David Harris, Shae Kelly, Josiah Lulham, Renee Mackenzie, Christina McLachlan, Dana McMillan, Francesca O'Donnell, and Dean Robinson
Stage managed by: Seinnah Kaylock
Christina McLchlan, Tref Gare, Josiah Lulham, Dana McMillan, and Louise Cocks

Some four hundred years ago in England William Shakespeare wrote three plays and then wrote them over and over again, and, like a virus they have invaded our psyche and we keep putting them on over and over again. For those of you infected, you can see one of the last of this Summer's garden Shakespeares in Eltham this week (and Diamond Creek next week) with In The Park Productions' version of As You Like It.

As these things go, this version of As You Like It has the notably unique characteristic of actually being the play Shakespeare wrote which is refreshing. Deyell has not manipulated the text or language in any noticable way (for better or worse) and the performers give an energetic rendition to one of many plays the Englishman wrote which involves girls dressing up as boys, people living in the forrests, exiled sons or daughters, and happy endings with lots of songs and weddings to finish things off.

The Bard's plays suffer from poor jumps of logic with overt exposition to explain how or why his characters end up being wherever it is they need to be, but As You Like It does have some of his more famous time wasters such as the 'All the world's a stage' speech so it has a sense of odd familiarity despite it's complete lack of connection to here and now in Australia. It being a comedy also gives us permission to overlook his rather random dramaturgy and inherently sexist and racist world view.

Having said all that, many of the actors in this production bring a wealth of skills and talents to bring depth and life to Shakespeare's worn out work. McMillan (Rosalind) and Harris (Adam/Touchstone) in particular, are really spectacular. Lulham (Charles/Jacques) and Cocks (Celia) also bring great energy to the stage and keep the story alive and worth watching.

Chadwick and O'Donnell (Musicians), along with McKenzie (Isabel) are a wonderful comic trio as well as imbuing the production with life through fun and, at times, haunting tunes and harmonies. My favourite buffoon in the piece is Bertram as Corin. Too funny by far!

On the down side, I was surprisingly disappointed with Gare (Frederick/Senior). He is a great actor as we saw in Romeo and Juliet last year, but in this production I felt as if he didn't know what he was supposed to be doing or why he was there.

This leads me to the direction. Deyell has been smart and what she lacks in vision and skill she makes up for in allowing the cast to work to their talents. She moves the cast around the stage cleanly and often that is half the battle.

Unfortunately there is too much playing of the text and not enough playing of the subtext, especially for the smaller roles. When people aren't speaking they are just standing out of the way and watching and (thankfully) listening. It made things a bit visually tedious but kept the story accessible for people who struggle with ye olde English. (I wonder why...?).

Deyell evidently has a strong eye for design though and her revolving triangular panels were highly evocative and made location shifts easy for both the cast and audience. Sleek, shiny grey panels gave way to rusted corrugated iron sheeting as we moved to the forests of Arden. Given the hippy costumes and machine guns I assume the idea was Duke Senior had created some sort of hill billy moonshine operation in the forest. A cute idea and it gave the musical trio a lot of room to play.

Sitting on the yellowed grass, seeing the sparse silver-green trees in the distance and listening to the kookaburras I did find myself wishing I was watching something Australian to go with the environment and the audience. Something riotous like Dimboola perhaps...

Having said that, As You Like It is a fun family event. The cast hand out maraccas and bells to the children at interval for a sing along, there is a playground next to the play space, and an icecream truck for the kids and a coffee truck for the adults. With face painting, a clothing stall, and some real knock your socks off performances, going to As You Like It ticks all the boxes for an end of summer treat.

3.5 Stars

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Q - Theatre Review

What: Q
When: 6 - 10 February 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and directed by: Aleksandr Corke
Performed by: Alanah Allen, Aislinn Murray, Ashleigh Gray, Caitlin Duff, Edan Goodall, Max Paton, Reilly Holt, and Wil King
Design by: Nathan Burmeister
Lighting by: Georgie Wolfe
Sound by: Justin Gardam
Aislinn Murray, Max Paton, Alanah Allen, Ashleigh Gray and Edan Goodall
For those who like their drama supernatural with more than a hint of the afterlife, Q is the play for you. Resembling the love child of The Good Place and No Exit, Q will keep you pondering long after the (metaphorical) curtain goes down each night at La Mama Courthouse this week.

Q is a drama in two acts (but no interval) which asks the deceptively simple question 'If life has no purpose and death has no purpose, which is better?' Some of us may think this is not a question we have to ponder but Corke makes the case that regardless of religion - or lack thereof - we all end up in the same place.

You might say (as I did to myself) "I don't believe in any religion. I believe there is no afterlife. I believe when we die it is the end." Corke's proposition, though, is that no belief is correct. If he is right, then the idea that death is where it stops is as faulty as any belief in gods or karma or veganism... It really is enough to make you think again, and as - in my opinion - that is one of the most important things theatre can make you do, I think this play is great.

The first act is about the death of Mr K. (King). He wakes up and is greeted in an antechamber by two bureaucrats (Holt and Gray), who are experiencing something a little unusual. K's file outlining the details of his life won't open and they can't find a key. An inspector (Allen) is brought in and realises the problem is K has been 'seized' too early.

K is given the choice to deal with long lines and unbearable administration to return to his life or, seeings he is already there, just sign a waiver and head off into whatever he believes his afterlife was always intended to be. K chooses to stay, signs all the forms put in front of him and heads off for the good times he always imagined heaven would be.

Begin act 2. K has been told there is just a bit more assessing to be done and then he can head off into the good rewards of a life well-lived so he finds himself in a waiting room with a bunch of other guests clutching their files and sitting in eager anticipation. (Everyone in the play is double cast except King). Well, almost everyone has their file. One very unresponsive and gloomy individual, Peter (Goodall), doesn't seem to have one which is a very curious thing.

One by one we hear their stories of how they ended up there and this is perhaps a section of the play which could easily be edited down a bit. It is great to get to know everyone in the scene and their stories are good, but not all of them move the action along and the stage gets very cluttered. Corke has directed all the bodies in the space well, but it is a bit too much like a game of musical chairs where someone keeps forgetting to turn off the music.

It is Goodall's amazing performance in this scene which keeps it alive and holds the tension. Peter doesn't speak at all and barely moves and, as such, is incredibly powerful. In a way, it is a shame Corke blinks and late in the scene has him move because suddenly he becomes a part of the group and therefore less powerful.

This is important because I suspect the real core of this play is about suicide. When Peter does finally talk, he interogates K about his last moments only to discover K gave up his life voluntarily. This infuriates Peter, who (I think) committed suicide himself when 'The world snaps to black.'

What Corke seems to be saying is if there is no purpose in life, and no purpose in death why not choose to live? Why give your life away? At first this may seem glib, but if you give in to his idea of the afterlife he is making a really good point. Trust me, if Corke's imaginings are true I have finally found a reason to try and live forever!

Q is dense and dark, but oddly humorous and a real thinker! The cast are a great ensemble and Gray, Allen and Goodall really stand out in the crowd. Everyone is good though. The only mild disappointment was Simeon's (Holt) death tale which was perhaps a little too dark and outside the emotional grasp of someone as young as Holt is.

Q is one of the best produced plays I have seen in a long time. Burmeister's set was fabulous with simple solutions which create strong evocations of a shadowy/cloudy world somewhere just outside of understanding. He and Wolfe have worked together well, with the lighting almost pulsing through the translucent set.

The smoke is probably redundant and not well used. Remember that once smoke is in the room it doesn't go away. In this case Wolfe used it for some memory sequences and this began to muddy up the exactitude of the antechamber in the first act.

Gardam's sound design was absolute perfection. His elongated and warped music set the emotional tone of the piece from the very beginning, and from start to finish he never lets the audience off the hook. Gardam's scape had the intriguing property of making the moments of silence incredibly stuffed with meaning and tension.

It really was a joy to see Q. Q is a Monash University student alum production and I constantly find the Monash graduates have an incredibly sophisticated grasp of theatre making beyond most courses in Melbourne at the moment. Whilst everyone else is training their students to go out and make their own ground breaking work, Monash is teaching their students how to make great nuts and bolts theatre as well as developing original ideas. The Monash production dramaturgy is pretty unmatched at the moment.

4.5 Stars

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Jen Der Unpacks - Cabaret Review

What: Jen Der Unpacks
When: 31 January - 2 February 2019
Where: Hares & Hyenas
Created and Performed by: Kat Mroz
Kat Mroz
Jen Der is the alter ego of Kat Mroz and you can meet Jen Der before she runs away to the USA at Hares & Hyenas this week. Playing for only 3 nights in this Midsumma Festival you have to be quick to catch this firebrand before she takes her wild leap into the unknown.

Jen Der is a country girl who hails from Albury Wodonga. She has hit the jackpot (?) and finds herself with a green card and dreams of making it big in the Land of the Free. Her bags are packed, her playlist is full, and her eyes are wide open so as to not miss a moment of her big adventure.

Jen Der's playlist is fabulous and rocks everything from Edith Piaf to Chaka Khan, from Bros to John Williamson, and she is going to dance her way across the world. Her accent has already traveled far and wide and slips from English to American before sliding back into a comforting broad Strine.

Jen Der is a lip sync artiste and she is one of the few I have seen in recent years who understands that the music has to be loud for the sync to work - praise be! Intriguingly, she also syncs some of the dialogue too which is unusual but works beautifully to settle the audience into a world where her mouth is not always the source of all words.

Jen Der lip syncs and club dances her way across the 45 minute show and really, this is what she is showing us. Yes, there is some sort of narrative, but it is fractured and non-linear so I kind of stopped listening and just enjoyed her brilliant and ecclectic taste in music. This is one of the few cabarets I have been to where I had no idea what I was going to hear next and was never disappointed by the choices.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I had is the songs should have had their fade outs cut. You can't dance or lip sync to a fade out, so Mroz should just cut the music where she wants it to end and moved the story along. (I use the word story loosely here).

Jen Der Unpacks is light, fluffy fun and, with a late start (9pm), is a show perfectly made to transition between Midsumma madness and a evening of clubbing into the early morning hours. To get things moving Jen Der encourages us all to get up and dance with her before heading into a night of continued partying and play.

2.5 Stars

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Cock - Theatre Review

What: Cock
When: 30 January - 10 February 2019
Where: fortyfivedownstairs
Written by: Mike Bartlett
Directed by: Beng Oh
Performed by: Matthew Connell, Scott Gooding, Shaun Goss and Marissa O'Reilly
Designed by: Emily Collett
Lighting by: Andy Turner
Sound by: Tom Backhaus
Stage Management by: Teri Steer
Matthew Connell and Marissa O'Reilly
For those of you who missed Cock last year (presented by Bakers Dozen), director Beng Oh has remounted it as part of Midsumma through his own company 15 Minutes From Anywhere. Cock is playing until 10 February at fortyfivedownstairs.

Cock was written by British playwright, Mike Bartlett in 2009 and won the the Olivier Award for outstanding achievement on it's first production. It is an interesting play and most of the ideas in the play are very contemporary (exempt for the in-your-face misogyny) and for the most part it talks about how we like to categorise people. Are you gay or are you straight? To be anywhere in between is betrayal of the worst kind.

This is John's (Connell) story which is emphasised by the fact no-one else in the cast has a name. John is anyone though - John Doe for example - and in this cockfight of a play he is pitted in the ring against M[an] (Goss), W[oman] (O'Reilly), and F[ather] (Gooding) in round after round of verbal battle and confrontation as he tries to find himself in a world of black and white with no shades of grey.

John is in a relationship with M. They break up and John discovers he is attracted to W and has a relationship. M tries to win him back and seeks back up from F. And thus begins an hour and a half of non-stop, circular, repetitive conversation which - to be honest - left me wanting to kill them all.

This is not the fault of the actors or the director. Most of the blame falls on the writer. Bartlett has obviously never heard of the concept of dramatic action and, whilst I rail against it as a dominating theory, I confess that Cock reminds me of why I should pay the idea far more respect than I do.

There has been a school of writing (hypernatural) which revels in minutiae and repetition and stays in the same place for far too long. I am reminded of Lauren Langlois' solo in The Complexity of Belonging. She was brilliant but the material was soul-destroyingly repetitious and the quantity of the content was inversely proportional to the quality of the commentary. Cock in  it's entirety is much like this.

Cock is pure dialogue which is something of a teaching trend in the play writing community at the moment. As such it makes a great radio play. It is hypernatural - not my favourite form - and staging instructions insist on an empty ring in which the fight takes place.  Beng Oh has worked hard to honour the playwright's intentions in his directions.

Beng Oh is also, evidently, a student of Viewpoints and the cast move about the stage keeping the teeter board always in balance as required. Unfortunately in such paired back circumstances the tools become apparent and, as with all legerdemain, once you see the trick you no longer feel the magic. Used sparingly, Viewpoints is a powerful technique, but in Cock it goes too far and actually destroys the visceral potential of the cock fights taking place. It removes the raw, the messy, the brokenness of the relationships we are viewing.

Connell in particular, whilst giving an amazing performance, lacked the feral nature of his desperation to understand himself and his resistance to everyone to fit into a label. Goss embodies his energies well as the controlling partner, and O'Reilly is a welcome breath of respite until she, too is drawn into the fighting pit.

Gooding was far too restrained and emotionally removed. He goes in to the pit fight for his son's happiness but at the most feral moment in the play - when they really are all fighting for their lives as they want them to be - everyone is very demurely standing on opposite corners talking respectably across an empty playing space. This moment is the great directorial failure of this play.

So much of this production of Cock sets up massive challenges for itself and tends to handle them with admirable acceptability and moments of brilliance, but the design doesn't help. Earlier I mentioned that the play looks at how black and white our ideas are and how John is searching for his particular shade of grey. Collett has recognised this and represents it in the costuming but she has missed the point. M, F, and W are the black and white, and it is John who is the shade of grey.

Turner has demonstrated a restrained genius with a bright white flood of light with least number of blackouts possible (thankyou!) and as well as feeling like a fighting ring it had the wonderful ambience of this story being looked at under a microscope. Unfortunately between the bland lighting and the gray palette costumes there was nothing for the audience to look at - except each other because it is in the round.

Thus I keep going back to the idea this is a radio play, not a stage play. One of the requirements of stage is you need to provide something to look at. The most interesting thing to see in the room was the audience with their wonderful outfits and in the melting heat we became something of a Dahli painting - panting and sweating and wilting in the airless room.

This brings me onto my soap box. If the audience is uncomfortable they will not fully enter the world of the play. This means, in extreme weather conditions, it is better to have the sound of heating or cooling which becomes a redundant background noise they will tune out. This idea that noise in the auditorium will destroy the play is far more ridiculous than the reality that a body in distress will trigger an escape reflex which you then have to spend the entire time fighting.

Back to the show though. Cock is a great example of just how pared back minimalism can be. If Bartlett's writing was a bit more economical, the show - in particular this production - would be quite phenomenal. There are points in the scenes where the characters go to leave the stage but are drawn back into the conversation only to start repeating themselves. These are the points Bartlett should have edited his work.

I have nothing but absolute awe and amazement at the cast's ability to learn those lines, speak them at that pace, and imbue them with meaning, intention, and recognise every emotional transition. As I said earlier too, I think this conversation about the prejudices of both extremes of the gay/straight spectrum is well placed and extremely important. The ensemble are working with difficult and complex material and can be proud of what they have done with it.

2.5 Stars

Friday, 25 January 2019

Petty Bitches - Cabaret Review

What: Petty Bitches
When: 25 - 26 Januaray 2019
Where: The Butterfly Club
Created and performed by: Boo Dwyer and Tash York

Boo Dwyer and Tash York
So often in life we are told to not sweat the small stuff but Dwyer and York are here to celebrate our ability and need - yes need - to pick at every small detail in their riotous new show, Petty Bitches. These days there are conferences for everything and the Petty Bitch conference has booked The Butterfly Club for 2 days of delicious ranting about all the little things people do to annoy the shit out of us all.

Dwyer and York are 2 of our hottest comedic talents and they have paired up to create the most enjoyable conference you have ever attended. Under the watchful eye of, conference...leader, Katy Petty, Dwyer and York take us through the 5 steps to embrace our inner petty bitch.

As with all good self improvement programs, B.I.T.C.H. is the mnemonic to help keep the process in mind. If only York could remember it...

There are the traditional affirmations which allow the audience to share their inner petty bitch. Mine was counting the items in trolleys ahead of me in the 12 items or less express isle in the supermarket. The B.I.T.C.H program has given me the tools to own this tendency with pride. For some of you it may be the use of apostrophes or ellipses. For others it may be the speed of email replies.

Whatever your petty bitch moments are own them, love them, celebrate them! Most importantly though - let them breathe and multiply.

Both Dwyer and York are amazing and powerful singers as well as comedic geniuses and as they work through hits such as '9 to 5' (upgraded to power petty bitch lyrics for the new century), complete with excellent harmonies and clever lyrics, we experience multilayered moments of joy. My favourite was 'Toxic' which reminds us of all the petty things which are irritating about driving a car and catching public transport. So very, very many irritating moments to petty bitch about...

Perhaps the one moment of the show which did not work for me was the encore but not because of its quality. Dwyer and York perform the most amazing 90's pop montage which is transcendent in its brilliance of construction and performance. The issue is it really doesn't relate to the show and is literally just tacked on the end.

I say it is far too good for that. In order to make the dramaturgy work though, they ought to take a leaf out of the Neil Patrick Harris Academy Awards playbook and perform it at the beginning of the show as the pre-conference, show-stopping entertainment. It is too good to remove and it is far too good to just be an add on.

Unforgettable cabaret moment of the year goes to the Dwyer/York kazoo wars. I honestly never knew a kazoo could actually be musical, never mind being capable of the lyrical feats their kazoos manage!

Tonight is the last night of the Petty Bitch conference in Melbourne before it heads to Adelaide so sign up now and head to The Butterfly Club tonight bitches! (No gender restrictions apply).

3.5 Stars

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Flawed____like a b_y - Theatre Review

What: Flawed____like a b_y
When: 23 - 27 January 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Bj McNeill
Performed by: Bj McNeill, Rebecca Montalti and Mitchell Wilson
Choreographed by: Claudia Subiela Ferre
Sound by: Seb Attebury
Stage managed by: Laura Barnes
Bj McNeill - photo by Darren Black
La Mama opens it's doors this year straight into the arms of the Midsumma Festival. Kicking off the 2019 program is a remount of Flawed____like a b_y written by Bj McNiell, an ex-patriot Sydney-sider who finds alphabet life more inclusive in his heritage country, the UK.

Flawed is a really clever idea. It looks at how a young male can find himself growing up in a world with a set of rules which don't fit. He rebels against all the stereotypes he is taught make him a man.

His mother tells him a man doesn't call another man handsome. He plays rugby to fit in - but doesn't. He goes on a family fishing trip and hates it even though his sister loves it...? This is where I start to disconnect.

I suspect I will get a lot of flak for this review, but here it goes. Firstly, McNeill is an intriguing writer with a poetic edge and a post truth aesthetic but in my view he failed to truly reveal himself and this left me with little little more than an appreciation of the theatre making skills of the team.

I suspect even the rape story is not his. It felt lacking and I have found a review in Miro which suggests to me the story McNeill tells in this version of the show is not his at all, but that of the reviewer in Miro. I have no doubt he has consent to tell the story, but the telling lacked a sense of authenticity for me and I think this may be why. He also embodies a suicide attempt as a physical motif but I failed to really feel the lead up so then I wonder if it is just a piece of beautiful art?

Flawed is beautiful. McNeill has striking features and the aesthetic in the show is black with a little hint of kink and bondage (like huge, pink, fluffy dildos). Ferre's choreography is fun and fluid and McNeill, Montalti and Wilson perform it with excellent timing and sharp attitude.

Flawed is billed as cabaret style and it is. Where, in a cabaret there would be a song there are dances, but in effect the journey is of that form.

And here comes my next critique. This show and this story is McNeill's and in it's current construction the other two performers are merely back up dancers. This cast is not the original, and I did find a clip of the original London show which is far more energetic and generally messier. I suspect it is also more affective than this very glossy, polished work presented in Melbourne. It is billed as experimental but to be honest, in Melbourne it is kind of standard fare theatrically speaking. Better dancing, perhaps?

I also find myself questioning why the show has a cys-female character in it. Montalti's performance is perfect but she doesn't fit the narrative of male gender roles and how to find your place as a man in a fluid spectrum. I found myself wishing McNeill had created a cys-male hetero-normative character to share the space with him and Wilson. The commentary would have been so much more layered and nuanced, and the tension and the stakes would have been so much higher.

There are some great and powerful images in the show. The orgy scene with the dildoes and silly string is brilliant. The Jesus on the Cross image was powerfully done too, if somewhat cliche.

There is a particularly poignant moment when McNeill begins a story speaking with one person in the audience and expands the story to have the 'you' in his writing expand from the singular to the plural. This was perhaps my favourite part of the show.

My quandary with Flawed is not whether it has been difficult for McNeill to find his place as a sexual being and social identity in this world. My reserve comes from the feeling he is using cliches and not telling us the real, painful, important moments of learning in his life.

I also feel there is confusion about what are general teenage angst/not belonging/rebellion moments and what is key to this particular conversation. For example, he doesn't like fishing trips with his family, but his sister does. If his sister is there it doesn't seem to me the excursion is a 'being a man' lesson - especially as she seems to like it.

This kind of story dilutes the real pain and the real family tensions and this is what needs to be revealed to make us care. It is the real and raw moments which motivate us to work to change the world. It is also that real pain and rawness which will make those of us on the 'g__l' side of the equation open up and share our humanity as well.

Flawed____like a b_y is fun and fabulous and I suspect it will have more impact in Adelaide (where it is headed next) than here, because I think the 'you' in the show is more likely to attend in that festival, rather than the already sympathetic Midsumma audiences.

3.5 Stars

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

I'll Have What He's Having - Cabaret Review

What: I'll Have What He's Having
When: 22 January - 5 February 2019
Where: Hare and Hyenas
Created and Performed by: Adrian Barila
Accompanies by: Rainer Pollard
Adrian Barila
Midsumma is a festival which explores a spectrum of human pleasures and Barila expands this notion in I'll Have What He's Having at Hares and Hyenas. This one man (plus accompanist - Pollard) cabaret has Barila showing us why he hides his Donna Hay magazines inside gay porn mags.

I'll Have What He's Having was created by Barila in 2015 whilst at Federation Uni and was remounted in 2016. Throughout the show Barila sings his way through his obsessions with desserts and sausage meats, expertly accompanied by Pollard who expands his role to straight man/side kick occassionally for food tastings.

Barila takes us on a crazy ride of 'Afternoon Delights' including an Asian snack lucky dip, creating an Eton Mess along the way. He has even written a book on the art of mastication!

I learnt a new term at this show. Apparently there is a new trend (emerging from Korea?) called the mush bang. It is a fetish involving watching people eat.

Barila takes us on an aural mush bang of his own. For those of you who can't stand it when a colleague eats carrots for lunch, this show may be challenging although I admit I did find listening to someone chew something crunchy quite sensual - but then, I am a soundie...

Barila has a well trained singing voice and his subconscious default of standing in first position with a permanently activated core indicate he is a classically trained dancer - although this is not the show to demonstrate that skill. Unfortunately, choosing to take the stage for what is meant to be an elongated sensory stimulation is not helped by being a white man in a white t-shirt and grey stonewash jeans. It's like being the vanilla in neopolitan icecream - tastes great, but what you really get excited about is the chocolate and strawberry. Barila is good but right now he is the chorus, not the principal.

Barila does really have a passion for food - or sweets at least - and you can check out his food vlog, Barila Bakes, to find the most unusual recipes for doughnuts and Kit Kats. In I'll Have What He's Having he shares this passion with the audience with a good amount of interaction and don't worry, they check for food allergies before the show so you are safe!

I'll Have What He's Having is fully baked and as sweet as pie. One of the great highlights is Barila's Cheezel fingers fan dance!


Monday, 14 January 2019

Newk! - Theatre Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 Stars