Friday, 28 June 2019

Crazy Arms - Cabaret Review

What: Crazy Arms
When: 27 - 29 June 2019
Where: Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Created by: Damon Smith
Performed by: Adam Coad, Trent McKenzie, and Damon Smith
Damon Smith, Adam Coad and Trent McKenzie
These days the piano (or pianoforte in full) is considered to be something of a classical instrument but Smith knows there is so much more to it then that. In his new show Crazy Arms, playing at Chapel Off Chapel this week, Smith takes the piano out of the opera house and puts it back in the bars and dives where it lost its patina and livened up the world.

Beginning very formally, Smith comes out on stage in a three piece suit and bow tie and sits himself down at the baby grand, beginning his tale of this magnificent instrument in 1708 with Mozart. We learn a few things, such as why the instrument was such an important invention (because the harpsichord had no dynamic range - softness and loudness), why the word 'forte' is such an important inclusion, and also how Mozart found himself spying on his sister's piano lessons and then trying stuff for himself.

So far the evening seems quite formal and I found myself wandering why there was a 4 piece drum kit and double bass on stage. "Oh, they must be for the next show" I thought, given this is the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and there are several shows across the night in the venue. I settled in for an hour of beautiful music and virtuosic playing.

This is exactly what I got. Smith is a bit of a larrikin however. He has already cracked a couple of small jokes, but then he calls out a friend from back stage to help him with tempo. Out strides Coad holding a huge metronome. Immediately these two fall into a comfortable old patois and the jokes - most of them musical and all of them hilarious - begin.

After the trusty yet despised metronome gives in and as Smith moves through Beethoven and Chopin, Coad makes his way to the kit and begins to accompany Smith through the works of Satie and others (occasionally with a washboard instead...) until McKenzie also comes on stage to claim the double bass.

The journey continues across time with Smith switching between the grand and an upright, and McKenzie embraces the formality by bowing his instrument. But then we enter the era of Boogie Woogie and all bets are off (as is Smith's jacket and McKenzie's bow).

Leading us into the 20th century, Smith allows us to realise the fun and importance of the pianoforte on modern music. We visit Liberace, Atwell, Joplin, Dr John, and others. Moving from Boogie Woogie into rock and roll the team serenade us with 'Blueberry Hill' and 'Great Balls of Fire' before sliding gently into the jazz era with Dorsey.

This festival iteration of Crazy Arms is a pared down version. The full show is 2 acts of 50 minutes, but in the Loft we got a greatest hits version across a very short hour. One of the highlights was the groups version of 'Night Train' which allowed McKenzie and Coad to really strut their stuff with solos. The night ends with the title piece 'Crazy Arms'.

Don't be fooled into believing Crazy Arms is a concert. The music includes classical mashups and modern medleys and even 'Popcorn' pokes it's head out at one very delightful stage.

Crazy Arms is only on for one more night at Chapel Off Chapel. Don't despair if you can't make it tonight though because I believe there are a couple of tour dates coming in July.

4.5 Stars

Thursday, 27 June 2019

I Really Don't Care - Cabaret Review

What: I Really Don't Care
When: 27 - 29 June 2019
Where: Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Ron Elisha
Directed by: Suzanne Heywood
Musical direction by: Meg Hickey
Performed by: Kate Yaxley
Kate Yaxley and Meg Hickey
I think in some ways everybody in the world is fascinated by Melania Trump. How can she be married to The Donald? Can she really love him? What is in it for her? This week you can find out playwright Elisha's point of view about this in I Really Don't Care at Chapel Off Chapel.

The title of this show refers to that day in 2018 when Melania decided to wear a jacket branded 'I Really Don't Care, Do U?' whilst on a visit to children of refugees who have been separated from their parents as part of the US immigration policy. It has since been explained as a message to a malicious media cohort, but at the time there was a lot of questions about the incidence which assumed an ugly position on the part of the American First Lady.

Elisha is a renowned playwright with an extensive back catalogue but I think I Really Don't Care shows his limitations. As an aging male I felt the text demonstrated his inability to empathise with the woman behind the he public image.

In some ways, I Really Don't Care is a fantasy in which Donald gets his come-uppance with Melania (Yaxley) struggling harder and harder to justify staying with him. In the end the question is raised as to whether even a prenuptial agreement is a strong enough incentive.

Elisha tries hard to reveal a women of depth and a mother desperately concerned for her son but the story is circular and repetitive and just keeps coming back to the idea Melania is simply a gold digger and will do whatever it takes to live the life she wants. In fact, at one point a lyric in one of the songs actually says that.

Speaking of the songs, they are fantastic and I wish there were more of them and less text, the lyrics are biting and clever and set to music we all know. The two stand out songs for me were parodies of 'Anything Goes', and 'Price Tag'. Yaxley is a phenomenal singer and I just wanted to hear more of her versatile, soaring vocals, and far less about Barron and Donald. - or even Melania for that matter. A less interesting bunch of people I can't imagine - except for Donald's ability to destroy the modern world, of course.

I Really Don't Care is a script which continually allows itself to delve into the banal and purile. There is commentary on the size of Donald's penis. A lot of time is expended on Melania's nude photo shoot with GQ and implications of escort work. The point at which the show reaches a real low is the discussion about Donald and Barron being on the autism spectrum. There is no evidence of such a thing despite media speculation and unless it is contextualised well, autism is a topic which should be treated with great respect.

To be honest, I feel Heywood's direction just feeds into the shallow stereotypes and she has Yaxley changing clothes so often it becomes incredibly tedious. On the bright side, you know that once Yaxley makes it through all the clothes on the dress rack the show will be over. The idea is to reinforce the idea of Melania as a style icon and ex-model, but turning Yaxley into a clothes horse is serious overkill.

Yaxley and Hickey make a good team. They both attended the Queensland Conservatorium together and their synergy is evident and explains why the songs are just so good. Hickey also doubles as Melania's personal dresser for the never-ending costume changes with a wonderful attitude of discreet, bored tolerance which fills in the gaps between the music.

I find myself curious as to how audiences will respond to I Really Don't Care. I think on opening night there was a significant number of people in the room who might be sympathetic to Donald's world view and I did hear a couple of older men after the show discussing whether penis size should be an issue. I agree. Perhaps in the Comedy Festival or the Fringe Festival there might be a more energetic response.

I probably sound as if I didn't like the show, which is not true. I just didn't like the point of view of the show and did not feel it really had a female sensibility. Yaxley is magnificent in her role and everything production is schmicko. The inner feminist in me did get a boost as Melania talks about Donald's propensity for the pussy grab, etc. I think it was just a bit cruder and shallower than I was hoping for.

Don't miss this opportunity to see Yaxley perform though. We will be seeing a whole lot more of her on Australian stages, believe me!

3 Stars

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Any Moment - Musical Theatre Review

What: Any Moment
When: 25 - 26 June 2019
Where: Chapel, Chapel off Chapel
Composed by: Bradley McCaw
Musical direction by: Shanon Whitelock
Performers include: Du Toit Bredenkamp,  Harry Fenn, Anne Greenland, Vidya Makan, Bradley McCaw, Natalie O'Donnell, John O’Hara, Jessie Singleton, and Shanon Whitelock
Cast of Any Moment
Any Moment was performed in concert as part of this year's Melbourne Cabaret Festival to coincide with the release of the concept album for this new Australian musical created by McCaw. Taking over the Chapel for two nights, the cast had a lot of fun playing with the new (very new) songs as well as singing the older material (developed in 2018) incredibly well.

Any Moment is not like the kind of musical we are used to. Sitting somewhere between a song cycle and musical theatre, this show is intended to be a kind of meandering through the lives of people living in a suburb across the course of the year. If I understand the idea correctly there is no book as such - the story (if you can call it that) is told across a collection of songs. There is apparently a main character(s) - because every good musical needs romance - and McCaw explained the story is 'revealed' across the course of the evening.

I kind of like the idea of there being no book because in truth the greatest weakness I have experienced with new Australian musicals lately is appalling books. I don't know why composers and lyricists aren't working with actual playwrights, but the whole thing is a bit of shemozzle.

In this concert presentation I have to admit nothing about the story of characters was revealed. Having listened to the chosen material what I can most confidently say is it is absolutely Australian and McCaw can write really good tunes. His lyrics are a bit tricky because whilst, for the most part, he uses the standard feminine rhyme, every so often he throws in an assonant rhyme which causes a moment of dissonance for the listeners. This may very well be deliberate but to be honest it felt more like a lazy cheat.

The songs themselves are musically diverse with all of the tropes of solos, duets, quartets and group vocals. My favourite was probably the comedy rap number which included a dad who forgot to pick his daughter up before heading to the community barbeque (pictured above). There was a completely new ballad performed by O'Donnell which was heart rending. It was asking the question if anyone knew the old man down the road who had just died.

Interestingly, having looked up other musicals of this style (Closer Than Ever, Songs For a New World) it seems to me musical theatre is finally discovering Modernism. As I listened to the songs I found myself hearing a world reminiscent of Ginsberg poetry or perhaps, moving a bit further forward in time, the detail and high definition of hyperrealism.

As I said, I wasn't able to really grasp the/a story from the concert. It may be more clear on the concept album. In fact, it probably is. I did wonder, though, if this is a story I would care about. As intriguing as the every day detail of this community is I tend to prefer my theatre to have a meta concept or idea. For example The Sound of Music has WWII, Fiddler On The Roof has the Jewish Progrom, even Wicked has a form of Apartheid. Having said this, without a book I don't know how you would or could layer this is.

What Any Moment is, is a wonderful snapshot of modern Australian suburbia. You won't only see yourself in this music, you will probably see everyone you know.

2.5 Stars

Monday, 24 June 2019

Death of a Demi Diva - Cabaret Review

What: Death of a Demi Diva
When: 22 - 23 June 2019
Where: Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Willow Sizer
Composed by: Rachel Lewindon and Willow Sizer
Directed by: Jayde Kirchert
Performed by: Elijah Bradbury, Rachel Lewindon, and Willow Sizer
Willow Sizer
Death of a Demi Diva is one of those cabarets which will return and return because it is just good fun, clever, and has appeal across the generations. Created in 2017, it has just finished it's latest season at Chapel Off Chapel as part of the 2019 Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

Modelled somewhat on the iconic tragic character Norma Desmond from the movie Sunset Boulevard, Sizer has created her own aging tragic diva - Madame Darling. Dripping in furs, fabulousness, and Received Pronounciation to rival Patrick Stewart's, Madame is in the Loft to perform her grand farewell concert. The problem is nobody (not even the foyer servants) have any idea who she is.

We find ourselves at the tech rehearsal where Madame is in a fluster. Ute (Bradbury) seems to be missing and there is a strange young woman (Lewindon) on stage who has very disappointing fashion sense. "Modern." Madame is flustered and finds herself reaching out to Tech Man - I forgive her this because of her age - until Ute finally appears with her specially blended coffee to settle her nerves.

Madame has the little girl lilt and warble in her singing voice which was all the rage in The War Years early last century (think the singing voice of the original Disney Snow White film). Luckily her ability with pitch, range, and excessive vibrato cover up a complete inability to lyricise. With classic songs such as 'Every Time We Touch' (I get so hard...), 'Bosom Buddies', 'I'm Still Here', 'Clammy Boy' and the anthemic invitation of 'Come Along', Madame works her way through her play list whilst trying to find her spot light and her will to live.

Sadly, the conceit of Death of a Demi Diva doesn't really hold up and the middle of the show gets rather tedious. We lose the humour available in the concept of a tech run as Madame wallows rather too deeply in her melancholy and whilst the style of the music creeps forward into modern times (Sizer could absolutely do a Cher concert to die for), the momentum stalls - as has Madame's career.

It doesn't really pick up again until the second half of the hour when Sizer/Madame launches into a medley of our favourite divas including Bonnie Tyler, Dolly Parton and the inimitable Lady Gaga to name just a few. I should point out that apart from this section, all the songs are original compositions - evidenced by the outrageously bad lyrics!

Along the way, Madame does make some important points about the trajectory of careers for divas - especially in the 'good old days'. In that so called 'golden age', despite having the pipes of a goddess, Madame's choices were to become a model or an extra because "...us women are considered very harshly when playing in what are considered men's sports - and by men's sports I mean everything!" An aspect of great beauty and bravery in the character of Madame is her ability to cut incisively through issues of discrimination and neglect whilst maintaining an air of pained dignity and aloofness.

Death of a Demi Diva is a great show to take your parents and grand parents to. The older generation will love the return to the tunefulness of a bygone era which is unlikely to ever return, and you will enjoy the wit and humour of a woman of yesterday trying to come to terms with today's world. The show treads a fine line between pathos and parody and for the most part it lands well.

3 Stars



Saturday, 22 June 2019

Age of Stephen - Cabaret Review

What: Age of Stephen
When: 20 - 23 June 2019
Where: Loft, Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Stephen Valeri and Mark Wilson
Directed by: Mark Wilson
Performed by: Caleb Garfinkel, Kellie-Anne Kimber, Andrew Rousch, and Stephen Valeri
Stephen Valeri - photo by James Thomas
What would an Australian cabaret festival be without some form of homage to John Farnham? More Australian than Vegemite, Valeri brings his fantragic adoration to the stage of the Loft with Age of Stephen.

Whispering Jack is one of the great Australian albums of all time. In fact, it was the first Australian album produced on CD and not too long ago celebrated it's 30th anniversary by being re-released on vinyl. Well, I guess Australia has never been known as a forward thinking country...

Valeri first came across Farnham at the tender age of 3 when his parents took him to (a very age appropriate?) production of Jesus Christ Superstar in which 'The Voice' was singing the lead role of Jesus. In effect we get to blame his catholic upbringing for an obsession which few can live up to. Never fear though because Valeri has the range and ability to match Farnsy note for note - although noone can match his power of course.

Valeri believes he is the soul mate of Farnham and has trawled through the details of both of their lives to find the intersections of which there is more than 1 - which is very surprising! Perhaps the closest match is they both had a mullet. Famous for sporting a mullet almost surpassing Michael Bolton's, Farnsy's blonde locks are paired with the black, curly mullet of a 7 year old Valeri. Valeri admits to crying when his mum finally chopped them off.

As fun and tragic as Valeri's obsession with Farnham is, he is truly a great singer and in Age of Stephen he is backed by an impressive 3 piece band. Valeri tracks the musical career of Farnsy from the early days of 'Sadie The Cleaning Lady', through his time with the iconic Little River Band rocking the anthem 'Playing To Win', before taking us into 'The Age of Reason'.

One of the most beautiful moments was a tender medley with Kimber harmonising like an angel. I have always preferred Farnham's anthems to his ballads but Valeri and Kimber just blew me away with the beauty of their rendition of 'Please Don't Ask', 'Touch of Paradise', and 'Burn For You'.

We all know the song everyone has come to hear though, and the band tease and tease and tease but Valeri leaves us hanging about whether we are going to hear it. He does show some great footage of Farnsy appearing on stage with Celine Dion to sing it though.  Will he? Won't he? You will have to pop along to find out for yourself. In the mean time you can sing along to hits such as 'Chain Reaction' and 'That's Freedom'.

Age of Stephen is a fun, funny and classy tribute night to John Farnham. Even though Farnham keeps making come back tours he is probably getting a bit long in the tooth now and Valeri may very well be the closest you will ever hear vocally live on stage now. It is also kind of nice to experience his songs without the additional "with Olivia Newton-John" tag which seems to have become a permanent fixture. (Don't get me wrong, I love ONJ!).

4 Stars

Friday, 21 June 2019

Wunderage - Circus Review

What: Wunderage
When: 20 - 30 June 2019
Where: Cobblestone Pavilion, Meat Market
Directed by: Chelsea McGuffin and Rob Tannion
Performed by: Phoebe Armstrong, Grant Arthur, Jess McCrindle, Chelsear McGuffin, Tania Cervantes, Lachy Shelley, Dylan Singh, Bonnie Stewart, David Trappes, and Skip Walker-Milne
Set by: Michael Baxter
Costumes by: Harriet Oxley
Lighting by: Paul Lim
Stage managed by: Joshua Sherrin
Phoebe Armstong
Circus Oz  and Company 2 have taken over the Meat Market for the rest of June with their new show Wunderage. They have transformed the Cobblestone Pavilion from a cavernous hangar into a tetrical landscape of potential creating a Wonderland of possibilities for their circus performers.

Wunderage began as a creative workshop between the two companies called Underage where they gathered together a group of young people to explore the boundaries of shared space within a context of the tension of the tight rope. The resultant show now in performance is very much a kind of surreal meditation on balance, interference, interaction, and assistance.

Amplifying the dreaming of the experience is its presentation as a promenade. The audience wander from stage space to stage space to watch feats of incredible balance and control, often having to look up, and regularly having to be aware of the space and people around them as the performers shift from floor to plinth to low and high wires seemingly randomly.

As with all dreams of fancy, there is no narrative in Wunderage. It is more about the exploration of what is possible both alone and with groups in situations where balance is crucial. apart from the tight rope routines which do form the most significant part of the program, there is bicycle acrobatics, chinese pole and shoulder pole routines.

I was particularly blown away by the shoulder pole. Walker-Milne is a fey sprite but even his small body mass is a burden at the top of a tall pole perched on the shoulder of strong man Trappes. In fact, Trappes was phenomenal throughout the evening - from doing a long twirling head spin on an aerial swing travelling across the high wire to being the pivot point for acrobats on top of a tiny plinth. This man is as solid as a rock and as strong as an ox as they say.

Whilst there is excitement and pace, particularly in the chinese pole and a naughty and daring low wire group play scene involving the whole company, most of the evening's entertainment centred around slower, more highly skilled and dangerous tricks which required control and concentration. Stewart brings a lot of the up tempo with dynamic percussion, but it is Arthur's slightly mournful ennui which really sets the tone for the evening. There is one high wire walk by McCrindle in which Arthur sings the recurring refrain "Hold on" which resonates deep in the soul.

Perhaps the most stunning moments in the show are on the 2m wire where McCrindle and McGuffin perform a pas des deux before McGuffin ends crossing the tight rope in ballet shoes en pointe! As if this isn't crazy enough, later in the evening the women walk the wire in stilletoes!!!! Crazy good and just plain crazy!

As fun and exciting as Wunderage is, it is also an interesting study in what can be achieved alone, and what can be achieved when groups of people work together - leaning on each other and trusting each other. There is even a cheeky look at what can happen when there is interference.

I am not a huge fan of promenade performances (except when they actually do occur on a promenade). I think they are incredibly ableist and therefore exclusionary and I am not convinced the 'immersiveness' actually increases audience satisfaction that much. Also, it always seem the tall people end up in the front of the crowd...

Having said that, for people with mobility issues, in this show there are seats on the sideline where you will still see most of the the show. I admit, too, the sense of personal space and teamwork of the performance is echoed in the audience needing to pay attention to their periphery although it still just becomes a bit of a push and shove affair really and you do have to pity the little kids (or perhaps their parents).

You can definitely see the Cirque du Soleil influence in Tannion's direction, particularly how the music is used in concert with the performance - a part of the organic whole rather than just another element. Wunderage lacks a bit of the pace and humour we might typically associate with Circus Oz and it is less about shock and awe. Rather it is a focussed and sustained concerto exploring possibility, risk and wonder - the ultimate experience of childhood.

4 Stars

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Drew Downing's Ultimate 90s Playlist - Music Review

What: Drew Downing's Ultimate 90s Playlist
When: 20 - 22 June 2019
Where: Theatre, Chapel Off Chapel
Created by: Drew Downing
Performed by: Drew Downing, the Ultimate 90's Band, 3BG
3BG and Drew Downing
The Melbourne Cabaret Festival has taken over Chapel Off Chapel for the rest of June and to get things going Drew Downing is rocking the Theatre stage with his retro concert Drew Downing's Ultimate 90s Playlist. As kitsch as it is, this concert has a sound system to rival the major arenas and Downing's choice of songs will have you up off your chair dancing and singing along!

I have always thought of my self as an 80's tragic but this concert had me realising how much of the 90s soundtrack had seeped its way into my brain. With slightly more sensible lyrics than the 80s (although Downing may disagree) and a pervasive hint of grunge Downing took me back to my love affair with bands such as Snow Patrol and classic pop hits such as 'Breakfast At Tiffany's'.

Yes, the concert is littered with such musical giants as The Spice Girls, Oasis, and The Back Street Boys and Downing is more than ably supported with an incredible 8 piece band. You might cringe a little inside as you sing along to Shania Twain's 'Still The One' but we are reminded the 90s was awash with some great guitar riffs and was an era of good harmonies and the occassional soulful ballad (although the days of the power ballad were nearly gone).

As Downing takes us through the era of Video Hits we are reminded of the classic Archie remake - Dawson's Creek. Stumbling through the theme lyrics of 'I Don't Want To Wait' we were taken straight back to the teen angst of Dawson, Joey, Jen, and Pacey as they searched for love and life awash with teenage hopes and hormones.

The second half of the night was something of a tribute to boy and girl bands and Downing organised a special opening night appearance of up and coming Burwood based boy band 3BG to wow the crowd. Someone might want to do something about their costumes, but the boys were great and seemed to really enjoy the big band, big sound, and big crowd.

Yes, I am a pop culture tragic but I was not alone in the room last night. Littered around the cabaret tables were pockets of people singing along, standing up and dancing, and at one point there was even a smart phone torch vigil. You know it is a hit concert when that happens!

4.5 Stars

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Two On The Night Train - Theatre Review

What: Two On The Night Train
When: 13 - 22 June 2019
Where: Gasworks Theatre
Written and directed by: Martin Quinn
Performed by: Frazer Lee and Katherine Pearson
Set by: Alaina Bodley
Costumes by: Constance Lewis
Lighting by: Adelaide Harney
Sound by: Edwin Cheah
Stage management by: Stephanie Ghajar
Katherine Pearson
Midwinter tends to bring out melancholy meditation in people and Two On The Night Train, playing at Gasworks, fits the season perfectly. Lost on a train bound for nowhere, two confused souls struggle to remember who they are, where they are, and where they are going.

Two On The Night Train has been written and directed by Quinn and in the program notes he credits Beckett as his muse and predecessor.  I disagree. To me this play feels much more beholden to Satre and his seminal work No Exit. Whilst I can acknowledge traces of Vladimir and Estragon I think the despair and horror of being endlessly trapped is much closer to a Satre lineage - although perhaps the sentiment is oppositional. Satre believed we can act without reference to our past whereas Quinn seems to be saying memory is vital to the act of moving forward.

It is not true to say the characters (Lee and Pearson) do not have names - it is just that they can't remember them. They also can't remember where the train is going, where it came from or why they are there. The only thing they know is they are there (although they do have a tendency to forget about the other one until they run into each other) and there seems to be nobody else on the train. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

As you have probably caught on by now, Two On The Night Train is not a comic romp. Instead it is a philosophical metaphore addressing the 'question of being' for this current generation. As interesting as this sounds - particularly if juxtaposed by such existential searching of artists of previous generations, this play searches, but gives the audience very little to relate to or contextualise with which makes it rather unsatisfying. "Does anyone know where the train is going?"

The text is repetitive and circular and Bodley (set) and Harney (lights) have  created a striking set which traps the characters in an endless row of train carriages (well over 600 at one point - although the facts were disputed), all looking and feeling the same. Plastic nib walls with puckers become shattered glass or cobwebs depending on the lighting. Existential closeness becomes philosophical distance. The coldness only relieved by the presence of two human bodies. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

Because the text and the blocking is so repetive Harney and Cheah (sound) take on the burden of keeping the play moving forward with an ominous sound scape and constantly shifting lights - which is fortunate because whilst Quinn indulges in philosophical discussion he fails, for the most part, to include any dramatic action. In the end nothing really happens, there is no change. This is probably his meta-statement about the millennial conundrum but as a piece of theatre I did stop caring about either the idea or the characters. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

In this empty space of not knowing, the only thing the characters have to hold onto is each other but they spend little time looking at each other (partly the fault of the set and partly direction) and although they reach a peak of frustration I feel with more humanity and panic Two On The Night Train could reach the heights of real horror. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

It may be if Quinn gave this to another director, they could find this humanity. I feel Quinn is caught up too much in the intellectuals of his story to open it up to the rest of us more fully. This also comes across in the stiltedness of the dialogue. Pearson manages to break the character down to a creature of emotion but Lee never really manages to get past the diction and therefore is left portraying something closer to an automaton than a human being in existential crisis. "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

In the end, the answer to this question is no. Nobody, inside or outside the train, knows where this play is going. People say life is about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps this is true but it implies things will happen on the journey to make it worthwhile. With no memory and no sense of forward (except to try and find the driver) Two On The Night Train never really goes anywhere despite traveling endlessing along train tracks.  "Does anyone know where this train is going?"

The ideas behind Two On A Night Train, according to the program notes, are strong and intriguing but Quinn needs to reveal more about humans rather than ideas for it to be a really successful stage play. Something has to happen.

Two On The Night Train is visually quite stunning though, and Cheah's sound track evokes strong emotions. It is also nice to see a playwright adding a philosophical edge to his work. We don't do that enough these days I think. It is rather nice to have the audience be considered as thinking beings rather than cattle who just want a good laugh.

2.5 Stars


Saturday, 15 June 2019

When The Light Leaves - Theatre Review

What: When The Light Leaves
When: 12 - 23 June 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Rory Godbold
Directed by: Jayde Kirchert
Performed by: Tomas Parrish, Michelle Robertson, Leigh Scully, and Veronica Thomas
Set by: Stu Brown
Costumes by: Aislinn Naughton
Lighting by: Gina Gascoigne
Sound by: Imogen Cygler
Stage Management by: Teri Steer
Leigh Scully and Tomas Parrish
 As of Wednesday next week Victoria's new voluntary assisted dying laws will come into force, hopefully changing the face of respectful end of life decision making in this state forever. If you need reminding why this is a good thing, or have not yet been fully convinced in the first place, make your way down to La Mama Courthouse to see When The Light Leaves. It will all become perfectly clear.

The topic of euthanasia has been in hot discussion in the Australian landscape for decades. In 1995 the Northern Territory briefly had laws allowing it and Dr Phillip Nitschke was the first medical professional in the world to administer a lethal injection in this situation. He managed to help four people pass away with dignity and respect before the federal government closed the loophole which allowed the Northern Territory to go rogue.

Since then there has been much debate across Australia and the world about whether people have the right to choose how to die, and whether they can be assisted once they have made the decision. In Melbourne there have been several plays on the issue (The Window Outside, The Magnolia Tree) and on SBS you can watch the American TV series Mary Kills People which deals with this question too.  It is kind of unbelievable to think it has taken this long for any state in Australia to try again. How many people have suffered needlessly in that time?

In 2017 Godbold wrote a story called I Give You My Life which was inspired by his father's horrific attempt to put himself out of the misery of an agonising death from esophageal cancer using nembutal. Sadly he was too far gone to swallow it all and the damage it caused only added to the pain and trauma of the situation for himself and those around him. Kirchert saw Godbold's work at La Mama Explorations and has given Godbold the opportunity to develop the play into what is now presented as When The Light Leaves.

When The Light Leaves is the story of Dan (Parrish) who is suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he only has 6 months to a year to live. As he wastes away we see how his lover Liam (Scully) and his sister Kate (Thomas) deal with the situation. It is especially complicated because their mother has dementia so both siblings are trying to maneuver within that landscape as well. Robertson plays the home-visit nurse who tries to help Dan manage his pain throughout his decline.

The play begins with Dan giving a nightmarish monologue about the physical decline of the body (or the skeleton as he calls it) during the final stages of cancer. He talks about the skin spiltting as it is stretched across bones and other very visceral effects. This show is not for the squeamish! A simple abstracted stage created by Brown, with perfectly complementary and striking lighting from Gascoigne add to the maelstrom of darkness and despair.

In fact, one of the brilliant features of this show is Kirchert has managed to engage all of the elements of performance making - script/acting/lights/sound/set/costume - and have them work synchronously together to tell this story with massive impact. I know this should be a given but it happens far to rarely in my experience. There are not a lot of directors out there who actually envisage their productions in such entirety and you can really see the difference when they do.

I love that the team has gone minimalist and so abstracted because the work is full of incredibly emotional content and to push the realism would turn it schmaltzy. The choices in this production allows the ugliness and pain to stand starkly in the space with nowhere to hide. Some essential(?) props do hang from the ceiling and when they are used they swing like a pendulum, signalling the clock ticking away on Dan's life as he becomes more and more frail and destroyed by his disease. Cygler's crackling soundscape - mirroring the electrical seizures in Dan's brain - is a powerful choice too!

I do think, perhaps, those swinging props are over used. It is a fine line between using a prop like that to it's fullest and using it too much. Liam's tantrum scene crosses that line in my opinion, and also the use of it in telephone conversations drove me crazy. However I loved the overall idea and aesthetic and what it did to the dynamics of the space.

Scully and Parrish are mind blowingly good as a couple trying to negotiate a lifetime of loving through a tiny keyhole of a horrible lingering death. I also enjoyed Thomas's overly distraught portrayal of the sister. It reminded me that there is always one person in every family who makes everything about them.

For me, Robertson was a bit too aloof. I feel the writing indicates the nurse is much more sympathetic and tortured about what it happening and what she is allowed (and not allowed) to do about it than Robertson shows us. And she is way to attached too that tea cup!

I am just being picky now. The reality is When The Light Leaves is a powerful and timely story and I thank Godbold for having the courage to write it and Kirchert for bringing it to us in such a powerful way. It's raging empathy will leave you breathless.

4 Stars

Friday, 14 June 2019

Beachside Stories - Theatre Review

What: Beachside Stories
When: 13 - 22 June 2019
Where: Studio Theatre, Gasworks
Written by: Brooke Fairley, Alison Knight, Clare Mendes, Bruce Shearer, and Adele Shelley
Directed by: Elizabeth Walley
Performed by: Tony Adams, Melisand Box, Emma Cox, Alec Gilbert, Dick Gross, Sarah Hamilton, Coralie Ling, Peter Logan, Tony Manago, Giovanni Piccolo, and Karissa Taylor
Giovanni Piccolo and Peter Logan - photo by John A Edwards
Melbourne Writers' Theatre are presenting their newest season of local short plays, Beachside Stories, at Gasworks until June 22. This season has a fun new twist with the company having been invited to interview local residents of note and create performance pas de deux to show off the rich and extraordinary living history in the Port Phillip community.

For this adventure, the writers interview a range of local people - mostly via email - and through a process of exchanges and editing a snapshot of their works and achievements within communities was created. What makes Beachside Stories truly powerful is the person whose life's work is being examined (and honored) is right there, up on stage performing their truth alongside the theatre makers involved in creating this living gallery. Walley (director) has also cleverly chosen to reuse the oversize picture frame set piece from their 2018 season Stark. Dark. Albert Park.

Not every story hits the same high notes, but every story is unique and most are worth telling. Perhaps the only odd one out is the story of Melisand Box. She seems to be a wonderful young woman but she has not lived her life yet and has no story to be told. As such her vignette - with a wonderful Anne Hathaway impression by Taylor - is fun and fanciful but really doesn't seem to fit into the program which is about real people engaged in truth-telling.

The program begins with the story of the many failures of Gross who has received Queens honors for service to the environment and local government. As Gross interrogates Gilbert about his life the list of things he didn't quite get through council and the list of changes he hasn't yet been able to make, the depth of humanity and character of the man fighting those fights for us all shines through.

Perhaps my personal favourite was the second story about Reverend Ling and written by Mendes. Ling was the first ordained female in Australia and has never relented in her ecofeminist ministry. Cox stands beside the now quite elderly Ling, showing us the feisty young woman who received a special shawl on ordination in the Northern Territory, made for her by the local first nations people with embroidered images from their dreaming. Things have not been easy - in fact they have been very lonely if you read between the lines - but Ling still has every ounce of that fighting spirit and is still an activist (currently for refugees) in her retirement.

Logan's story is a feisty one. He has spent a lot of his life in active protest to save Albert Park from the Grand Prix. He is also a marathon runner and this has enabled him (and his wife) to outrun the police on many occasions whilst trespassing to hand out protest literature. Knight has created an interview style text, much like a TV documentary, with a lot of memories to laugh at and a fun twist at the end.

As much fun - and as surprising - as the stories have been so far, the program ends on a high note (literally). I am sure we have all heard of the singing butcher of South Melbourne Markets. If you haven't, this is your chance to not only find out more about him, but to also hear his glorious voice resonate across the studio. Manago was discovered in his little butchers shop serenading the customers at 38 years of age. He has completed 8 master classes in Rome and Italy, and performed regularly with Melbourne City Opera. Adams and Hamilton play out Manago's story, but the final bravo is left for the man himself.

More and more as time goes by and I see programs such as Beachside Stories I start to realise this is perhaps what theatre is about more so than those box office megapods dominating our industry. Is this what our first people are trying to tell us - that story telling build communities when it comes from people and is for people, and that we corrupt it and ourselves when it lacks truth and relevance?

In fact, the one thing I did feel was missing from the program was the story of an Aboriginal community member. So then, is the absence of this story actually a part of the story of the community of Port Phillip? Now that is something to think about too amongst this colourful and richly woven tapestry of life!

4 Stars

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Travesties - Theatre Review

What: Travesties
When: 12 - 23 June 2019
Where: fortyfive downstairs
Written by: Tom Stoppard
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Performed by: Syd Brisbane, Milijana Cancar, Matthew Connell, Tref Gare, Joanna Halliday, Dion Mills, Johnathan Peck, and Gabrielle Sing
Set by: Jordan Stack
Costumes by: Rhiannon Irving
Lighting by: Alex Blackwell
Sound by: Alex Toland
Stage Managed by: Kyra von Stiegler
Dion Mills, Johnathan Peck, and Joanna Halliday - photo by Christa Hill
Do you want to see a good old English romp but are sick to death of Shakespeare? If so head on down to fortyfive downstairs and get an evening full of Stoppard wit with Bloomsday's production of Travesties.

Travesties is being directed by Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Jennifer Sarah Dean and much of the style and aesthetic of those productions (including cast and the work of costumiere Irving) are a part of this show, so even if you still love Shakespeare and go to the gardens every year you will get a kick out of this. On the other hand, Stoppard is a wordsmith too and not limited by the artistic and social reductions of Elizabethan England - and he does not have the benefit of having been performed so often the work is seared into our brains like branding on cattle - so you will have to challenge yourself to keep up and will probably even have to stay awake!

Stoppard (who you may know from works such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and After Magritte) is a British satirist who likes to take the artistic forms of other artists and craft them into conversations about social and philosophical ideas in the worlds of his plays. Shakespeare, Beckett, Magritte, etc - are all grist for his mill. In Travesties Stoppard probably hits the overload button though, drawing on Dadaism, Socialism, Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan and, of course Joyce (thus the interest of Bloomsday).

This play references just about every artistic movement at the start of the 20th Century. Yes, it is too much and barely holds together with many theatrical flaws, but it is impossible to deny the mightiness of the ambition and the skill which is so evident. Unfortunately this is a play which requires the same ambition in staging and this production of Travesties lacks a vision to match Stoppard's. Dean's Travesties is pacy, smart, and well presented and performed but the ho hum factor merely highlights the difficulties in the work rather than celebrating them and opening the art to it's fullest glory.

Travesties is framed by Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but it is really a dream play which lies deep within the realm of dadaism/surrealism. It is further projected forward by Joyce's unique writing experiment which became Ulysses. 

Ulysses is often talked about as a stream of consciousness work. It is that and so much more. Every chapter is written in a different style and Stoppard has told us Travesties was written with the idea of each scene being a different style. One of the great problems with theatre makers today is a lack of understanding of the range of theatrical styles and in this production whilst the actors work with this idea to some degree, the overall arch of the play does not shift and turn wildly as the construct demands and which also references the anti-art aspect of the Tristan Tzara (Connell) character. This includes all elements - lighting, sound, costume, set... I think this play is just to big for almost everyone involved.

Travesties centres around the historical truth that all the male characters were in Zurich during World War I and riffs on the conceit that they all somehow were involved with each other and become linked by a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the newly constructed Zurich Central Library. The play is a whirlwind of ideas just as the city was a whirlwind of modern thinkers in a whirlwind of war. As the story unfolds ideas about what is war, what is art, and what is history clash, crash, and burn only to rise up from the embers again and again and again.

Although Dean has created an English drawing room farce rather than the biting satirical maelstrom Stoppard has written there are great performances and moments of glory. Connell demonstrates wonderful comic skills as Tzara and Halliday positively sparkles her way across the evening as a lively Gwendolen. Brisbane and Cancar are fantastic actors but this production (and perhaps Stoppard's writing) gives them little to do or be or say to move the story in any direction. To be honest I don't even know why Stoppard included Lenin's wife at all...

Manservant Bennett suffers from the same poor character development although Gare himself manages to steal many moments with clownish hilarity. Sing did a wonderful Wildean Cecily but I am not entirely sure she was playing Stoppard's Cecily... Having said that, her costume was probably the one most closely referencing the artistic aspects of the work. The character of Carr is a marathon and the sad truth is it is just too big for Mills.

The set (Stack) and lights (Blackwell) have hints of the exagerration needed for this play but something has gone terribly wrong with the sound design (Toland). There was something very soft coming out of the speakers (apart from the gramophone music which is fine), but it was so soft it was almost impossible to hear and what I did hear didn't seem to make sense in this world either?

As you can tell by now, I am a bit frustrated and confused about this production of Travesties. The theatre maker in me is frustrated by the possibilities in the work and confused by some of the artistic decisions which have been made. On the other had, Stoppard's work is witty and full of quotable quotes such as "causality is no longer fashionable owing to the war", "we're here because we're here", "the further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art", and "without art man was a coffee-mill: but with art, man - is a coffee-mill!"

If you love wordplay and strong ideas Travesties is an exciting night of theatre the likes of which we don't often get to see staged and it is worth going just to see a playwright allowed to go wild with his ideas (even if it is another Englishman - and I won't even touch gender politics...). An added bonus is you will get to see great actors do good jobs with intensely challenging material. There are a lot - and I mean a lot - of laughs to be had so don't be shy about it.

3 Stars

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Rudy & Cuthbert - Theatre Review

What: Rudy & Cuthbert
When: 12 - 22 June 2019
Where: The Lawler Studio, Southbank Theatre
Created and performed by: Toby Blome and Zelman Cressey-Gladwin
Zelman Cressey-Gladwin and Toby Blome
Get ready for an hour of fun filled master clowning with Rudy & Cuthbert. Beckettian absurdism meets modern theatre making in this high clowning romp across the Lawler Studio stage this week before the pair head back to Sydney to tell part II of this sweet and hilarious tale.

Rudy & Cuthbert are the creation of NIDA graduates Cressey-Gladwin and Blome. A comedy pair to rival our greatest clowns, the pair have come to the stage to produce the classic stage play 12 Angry Men. Their management skills are nowhere near as good as their comedy skills though so things do not happen in the right order and, as Murphy always told us, what can go wrong does go wrong. The question is can their friendship survive their incompetence?

The show begins straight out of the Beckett playbook. In a kind of Godot/Act Without Words hybrid they enter the stage and seem very surprised to see us. Much of the show is clever and well executed mime and, to be honest, when there was text I almost felt irritated - like it was a cheat. It is well used though and all adds to the hilarity and surprise of the event.

Thinking today was supposed to be bump in, not performance, the pair handle the situation well and in the interests of efficiency decide to speed up casting by auditioning the audience. Don't be afraid - this is not scary audience interaction stuff! It is more a case of these two have never even heard of the theatrical 4th wall.

Rudy & Cuthbert is an hour of solving theatre making problems the most ineffective way possible. Complete with a Rocky Balboa tech rehearsal dance break and an 80's wind machine power ballad Rudy and Cuthbert struggle to make it to opening night and stay close. As funny as this is, all of us who have ever tried to make indie theatre know every moment of pain and despair which sits below this comedic farce.

What sets Rudy & Cuthbert a step above a lot of other shows of this nature is their absolute understanding, and technical mastery of, the tradition of clowning. This show honours all of the great traditions whilst the pair bring a fresh and modern take. I kept thinking of strong clowning pairs such as The Umbilical Brothers although the material and style are very different.

My one criticism is they perhaps should let the show end at it's naturally resting place rather than push that last extra step. Having said that, it ends as it starts - breaking audience expectation - and that is an important part of the aesthetic and intention of the show. It brings a lot of laughs so hey, do what you want guys because you do it so damn well!

Highly infused with the hilarity of big top circus clowning, but with the delicacy and nuance of an absurdist theatrical aesthetic, Rudy & Cuthbert is a super fun night of theatre. I can't wait to see the next episode when it comes to Melbourne!

4.5 stars