Wednesday, 28 August 2019

False Advertising - Cabaret Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Stars

Thursday, 22 August 2019

How I Met My Dead Husband - Cabaret Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Stars

Friday, 16 August 2019

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Musical Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Stars


Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Wild Cherries - Theatre Review

What: Wild Cherries
When: 14 - 25 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Daniel Keene
Directed by: Beng Oh
Performed by: Lucy Ansell, Molly Broadstock, Milijana Cancar, Dennis Coard, Carmelina di Guglielmo, Kim Ho, Troy Larkin and Enzo Nazario
Set and costume by: Emily Collett
Lighting by: Shane Grant
Sound by: Ben Keene
Stage managed by: Teri Steer
Molly Broadstock and Milijana Cancar- photo by Sarah Walker
Riffing off the work of Chekhov, La Mama presents a new play by Daniel Keene (writer) to the stage. Wild Cherries shifts the lens of The Cherry Orchard and examines the plight of labour slaves rather than the ruling elite.

Beginning as short pieces about modern slavery written for Sydney Theatre Company for a project which was never realised, Daniel Keene crafted the idea into a mirror play for The Cherry Orchard. Whilst Daniel Keene and director Oh say in the program notes Wild Cherries is looking at modern slavery, the construction and style have an old world feel and remind me most strongly of writers such as Steinbeck and perhaps Williams, and the costumes (Collett) also take us into a kind of Great Depression aesthetic.

Wild Cherries tells the story of 8 cherry pickers. They are itinerant labourers paid little and fed even less. They are people at the bottom of the heap and who are about to fall even further as the employer plans to separate the men from the women and ship them off to unknown places to do even more menial work in worse conditions.

Probably because of its genesis, Wild Cherries is written in a very monologic style which makes it tricky to maintain dramatic action and Oh appears to have really played into that by having most of the text spoken on a rostra downstage right.  It was an intriguing choice if a bit confusing. The Courthouse has a lovely sized stage and cordoning it off and mostly only using one spot seems like a strange choice.

I also wonder at directors who seem to have forgotten centre stage is the most powerful spot for performers. I keep seeing tables and other furniture put there, and in this case it is just completely ignored and unused. I would love to say it was reinforcing some point in the play but I don't think that is true. It really does seem to just be an affectation and one which is uncomfortable for the audience who have to sit for just over an hour and half with their neck craned in an unusual direction.

In this review I shall ignore the 3 ladders. It is the kindest thing I can do and appears to be what the cast do for most of the show beyond the first 5 minutes anyway.

In an interview with Cameron Woodhead, Daniel Keene spoke about constructing this play as an attempt at creating a "beautiful object" and "a piece of poetic writing". I did wonder if Oh's insistence on everything happening on a plinth was an attempt at referencing a living sculpture rather than a play as such - perhaps something in the vain of Gustav Vigeland?

If so, it does begin to work in the blocking but the stage placement and Collett's design don't really reinforce that idea.  Having said that, without the fruit tree netting structuresin the set - which are so impressive upon entering the space - Grant would have had very little to light and there would have been no way to bring the play to a climax visually.

Daniel Keene's homage to Chekhov is strong and consistent in the structure even to the final moments of Fir(The Cherry Orchard) and Afina (Wild Cherries) . The monologues are heavy and Wild Cherries is dense with despair and hopelessness. Having said that, like the Russian, Daniel Keene's writing is alway filled with humour and it is as much a mistake to play to the pathos with him as it was when Stanilavski did it to Chekhov.

Despite his protestations otherwise in the Woodhead interview, Oh has unfortunately fallen into that trap. The actors lean heavily into their emotional repertoire, layering everything with anger and sorrow which is emphasised by Ben Keene's (quite amazing) sound design.

Performances are strong (although all the different - and not consistent - accents had me confused), and luckily a couple of the actors found ways to shift out of the doldrums to bring life and hope and humour to the show. In particular, Ansell (Elena) and Nazario (Anton) gave emotional dynamism which allowed us respite from the gloom which, in turn, helped emphasise the horror of the circumstances. Larkin (Emil) also portrayed a wonderfully layered performance.

Some aspects of the story are problematic for me. The women are written from a very male perspective and the wedding - whilst necessary for some kind of group survival celebration - was a mystery. As the granddaughter of a woman who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp with toddlers I can attest to the fact that women are not as much the victims of fate and passive in the face of oppression as Daniel Keene has written, but for a man this isn't such a bad set of portrayals.

Wild Cherries is the beautiful object Daniel Keene was desiring to create and Oh has, for the most part not gotten in the way of that. It is longer than it needs to be. Perhaps the one major criticism is the pace. Every scene seems to move at the same pace. It is difficult to manage this because of the monologic structure, but this is the kind of circumstance where the director's skill can become evident. Daniel Keene gives all of the verbal hints in the script needed to understand the climactic conclusion, now Oh and the cast just have to craft the momentum of the work to get us there.

Wild Cherries is a dip into an older style of theatrical story telling. It is languid in a way we don't see a lot of any more. It perhaps doesn't make it's point about modern slavery very clear but it is still wonderful writing and the echoes of Chekhov resonate deeply.

3.5 Stars



Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Helping Hands - Theatre Review

What: Helping Hands
When: 7-10 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Directed by: Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonzalvez, and James Matthews
Performed by: Tara Daniel, Vanessa Di Natale, Emily Griffith, Dee Matthews, Artemis Munoz, Aislinn Murray, and Alexander Woollatt
Set and lighting by: John Collopy
Costumes by: Hannah Aroni
Sound by: Jacinta Anderson
Stage Managed by: Jacinta Anderson and Loughlin Turpin
Tara Daniels (with Uncle Bob) - photo by Alexis Desaulniers-Lea
Helping Hands is a phenomenal piece of theatre now showing at La Mama Courthouse and I strongly advise everyone to go and see it. Presented by neurodiverse theatre company A_tistic, this show is a comedically serious investigation into how neurodiversity manifests in our society and what help does and might look like in order for people to flourish.

Helping Hands is devised theatre show inspired by an essay called Quiet Hands. The theatrical project began as a creative development and spun off into a array of explorations including: Them Aspies, Pinocchio Restrung, and Alexythemia. This fourth show looks at what help for people on the Autism Spectrum looks like. It doesn't leave it there, though. Helping Hands goes on to model what might be more positive ways to guide and assist people with neurodiversity to experience their lives to fullest.

Beginning with a talk show interview, the comic tone is set by Munoz (host) and Murray (mother) talking about the difficulty of raising an allistic teenager (not autistic). The mother bemoans the tendency to lie and other problems which would never happen if the daughter was autistic. It is an outrageously funny beginning and the laughs don't stop for the next hour and half.

Helping Hands is a serious work though, and throughout the hilarious sketches of appalling ignorance in the health profession and our seriously flawed welfare system, we follow the story of Donna (Murray). This little girl is attached to her red ball and the parents engage a therapist (Matthews) to help Donna separate from her comfort toy.

The therapist uses the common place ABA (Applied Behavioral Training) to teach Donna new techniques. ABA is a process based on positive and negative rewards. A criticism posited in this show is what Donna actually learns is her body is not her own and the definition of fun and happiness is defined by what people around her say it is and not her own personal experience.

The story then goes into nightmare territory as we learn about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Centre which still, to this very day, use electric shocks to 'train' their students in a manner not dissimilar to how shock collars are applied to dogs. As you can see, hidden inside the humorous sketches and outstanding theatrical techniques are issues of great pain and horror and we need to understand what we are doing and make sure when we help that is exactly what we are doing - not causing more harm!

And so we watch a film noir sketch which takes digs at academia's inability to demonstrate flexibility unless you are formally registered as special needs (I know a bit about this myself so I can speak to the accuracy of this depiction). We see a college party where the line is blurred between what is awkward social abilities and more common social ineptitude. We see an overbearing mother harangue her children but is she just house proud or is there something neurodiverse going on? An important question because historically it has been assumed the occurance of autism in females is much lower than males - an assumption which is now being questioned.

Everything, theatrically speaking is done simply but very, very well. The design and staging is extremely minimalist, but not careless. The dramaturgy is excellent and the story telling clear, dynamic and completely engaging. The acting is uniformly engrossing and the lighting (Collopy) and sound (Anderson) work to shift between a world of nightmares and safety.

What sets Helping Hands in a stratosphere rarely reached by most theatrical performances is the team manages to create safe spaces for the audience to get what they need for their comfort and safety. By this I mean they do not shy away from using techniques such as flickering lights which can cause problems for people with neurodiverse abilities for example, but as a part of the structure of the work, the audience are given the opportunity to provide their own self-care.

Such options include pre-show warnings and a chill out room for people to access whenever they need it. A break is built in half-way through the evening after a particularly challenging sensorial moment to allow for rest and quiet if needed. Given that a portion of the cast also identify with neurodiversity this also allowed them to recentre and recover before moving forward. This may sound like it slowed everything down, but because of the excellence of the theatre making and the pace and cleverness of the work, it really just felt like a mini interval which was much enjoyed by everyone.

The second half of the show thrust off most of the negativity and began exploring what good and positive help might look like. Donna's carer (Griffith) learnt how to positively help when a panic attack occurs without interfering with Donna's autonomy as a person. Matthews and Di Natale show how just lifting light levels can calm a space down for the neurodiverse and it does not destroy the artistic integrity of the piece - you could say on many levels it actually improved the integrity part of the phrase artistic integrity...?

Most importantly, as well as presenting a story about Autism, the production proved their message of positive contribution and interaction by having a cast facing these kinds of challenges participating in creating and performing this clever and magnificent piece of theatre. It does not fail in either areas of art or integrity unlike television shows such as The Good Doctor for example.

I really cannot speak too highly of Helping Hands and I am not being nice because it is work created by a neurodiverse team. Anybody who reads my reviews knows I can never be accused of being nice... The company are engaging in a Q and A after every show of the season so you can ask questions about what you have seen or what their process was, and the show will also be available on-line for viewing - check the A_tistic website for more information on that.

5 Stars