Monday 24 July 2023

ROUGH TRADE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Rough Trade
WHEN: 19 - 29 July 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
DIRECTED BY: Anthony Skuse
LIGHTING BY: James Wallis
SOUND BY: Cluny Edwards

Katie Pollock - photo by Teniola Komolafe

People come down pretty hard on Facebook as part of the whole 'let's hate on social media' zeitgeist but this platform has done a lot for connecting people in a positive way if you bother to really look at it. Some of those connections include buy/swap/sell groups and community groups like the Good Karma stable of sites. One fun version of that is the Rough Trade pages. Katie Pollock has decided to let us in on the culture and people who use Rough Trade in her play Rough Trade presented by Rogue Projects at Theatre Works Explosives Factory.

The play begins with a bit of fun about the sex life of slugs and the double entendre of the phrase 'rough trade' which is a term used when men who are rich have sex with men of the working classes. After we get past all that let's get bums on seats stuff, Pollock goes on to tell us a funny, intriguing, poignant, and heart breaking story about the types of trades and people who make them through sites like Rough Trade.

The character (I don't think she has a name) is a 50+ woman who finds herself on unemployment benefits for the first time in her life. She has had to downsize her life to some sort of communal living situation and has become an avid participator in the Rough Trade community. There are rules to the Rough Trade community including no cash - trades only - and no profiteering. Thus we have the question of perceived value. What is a lemon worth? Can someone find value in a bunch of slugs on the doorstep?

Most of the show is funny anecdotes and strange trades but there is heart and soul in the character. Almost as an aside we learn she is 3 days from her next dole payment and has no food, and she never invites her children to her place so they can't see how she is living. The Rough Trade site has become her lifeline, not just a convenience and when Facebook shuts it down for breach of code of conduct the impact is far more than just a shut down page.

This story is the heart of the work and the almost accidently dropping of these key bits of information tugs at the heart strings in ways that being forthright would never achieve. It is that secret life of desperation and shame that the 50+ group of women are hiding in current times which is so powerful and it is a story we aren't telling because as a society we don't seem to be able to get our head around how this demographic could find themselves in these terrible circumstances. To be fair, I reckon the women in question don't know how it happened either.

Pollock is not a trained actor, she is a writer, and it is kind of evident in the way she moves and her voice. I mention the voice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Pollock doesn't use diaphragmatic breathing so there is not much projection. This is not a big problem because she has a radio mic to support it. 

Pollock tells us the story of the guy on TedX who started with a red paperclip and kept trading up until he ended up with a house. (This is not in the spirit of the Rough Trade sites so don't try it, you will be hammered) and I really wish director Anthony Skuse had lent into that as a performance style rather than creating a theatrical space. Because of Pollock's natural style, Rough Trade would have worked so well as a faux TedX talk. Instead there is a dissonance between the theatricality of the production and the non-theatricality of Pollock's demeanour. It is her earnestness and authenticity and a strong script which saves the show, rather than strong performance choices.

Following on from this I need to talk about the lighting (James Wallis). The lighting design is excellent with beams of open white enclosing Polloc in a square box, with dips and shades of colour as needed. What I am less happy about is the outrageous overuse of the smoke machine. 

This play is static and minimalist and the lighting fixtures are static. There is no dramaturgical reason for the haze and, in fact, it is evident it is causing Pollock harm. Her vocal chords are drying out and tightening and if she continues to work in this environment without good vocal care she is in danger of permanent damage. Smoke/haze/fog are not benign elements and must be used with caution (and dramaturgical intention). In this case the smoke actually distracts from the performance as it draws the eye away from the performer to watch pretty swirls up in the grid and it is pumping hard. I don't want to see you, Wallis, I want to see the world of the play!

On the other hand, the sound design created by Cluny Edwards is sparse yet powerful. The constant dinging of notifications was just the right balance to demonstrate how tethered the character is to Rough Trade without becoming an annoyance.

Rough Trade is quite a powerful story and told in a compelling way. Watching it, it is one of those shows in which it becomes evident that there are a lot of different ways the show can be performed which is exciting for women who are looking for solid, meaty one-person shows to produce. The play is available through Currency Press.

3 Stars

Friday 21 July 2023


WHAT: Under My Tongue
WHEN: 18 - 23 July 2023
WHERE: Brunswick Mechanics Institute
DIRECTED BY: Belinda Locke
DESIGNED BY: Claudia Mirabello
LIGHTING BY: Bronwyn Pringle
PERFORMED BY: Amanda Lever and Joseph Stewart
Amanda Lever and Joseph Stewart

We all know about disability...we think. So often, though, people forget that some disabilities are invisible. Quite a lot, actually. With the performance piece Under My Tongue (and accompanying exhibition) director Belinda Locke interogates the barriers for people with those invisible disabilities and how they are managed. The exhibition juxtaposes respondents' answers with commentary from people with more visible disability which is intriguing and powerful. Under My Tongue is being presented by Next Wave at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute this weekend. Note, it is also available on demand via streaming until the end of July.

Under My Tongue starts with a man (Joseph Stewart) doing the seemingly innocuous act of going to bed. He takes a pill and settles into what we assume is a good night's sleep. An intriguingly contrary start to a theatre show indeed. At some point though, his arms start moving, pointing, dancing in staccato sequences. It resembled an external representation of dreaming until his partner (Amanda Lever) joins him. She notices but continues calmly in her bedtime routine, laying down beside him and gently touching his arm before settling into sleep. This seems to calm Stewart and for a moment there is peaceful slumber for them both.

Then Stewart starts up again and Lever tries to calm him, using more and more directly suppressive actions such as smothering. At some point Lever also starts her own manic contortions. Eventually they both end up out of the bed and dance a beautiful duet  of pain and awkwardness. Thus ends act 1 and it is beyond impressive in all ways. The big red curtain and bed evoking a mouth and tongue as well as the contradictory symbols of comfort and danger. 

In act 2 the red curtain is paged and the warmth of the boudoir is replaced by the cold blue of a hospital waiting room. Designer Claudia Mirabello has juxtaposed two incredibly different spaces with minimal, yet impactful backdrops. Lighting designer Bronwyn Pringle weaves her powerful magic emphasizing the architecture in sophisticated ways. The strong, grey blue vertical lines of the concertina backdrop, industrial chairs and the ECG style beep in composer Emah Fox's design work together as one to tell us where we are and how we might feel about being there.

Stewart and Lever find themselves in the cold, beeping environment after their tussles. It seems at this point Stewart morphs into a simple companion sitting in the waiting room. For most of the rest of the show it is Lever doing the dancing in a series of solos, her body enmeshed in Fox's synth pop creations, her body contorting at the music beeps and crackles, both human and music collapsing and rebuilding under stress and strain.

For most of this I was strongly affected as Lever contorts and strains with her illnesses and barriers - completely invisible to Stewart sitting patiently by her side. After the second solo though, this is where the show falls down for me. As good as Lever is, and as amazing as the music is, I felt myself falling into a bit of a slumber because it started looking and sounding the same to me. At the same time Stewart just keeps sitting around doing nothing. 

There is no choreography credit for this work so it is hard to know how to talk about this problem. There is a dramaturg though. It is unclear to me how both Locke and Julian Dibley-Hall (dramaturg) have failed to identify this big hole in the narrative structure. Towards the end of the piece the couple return to the bedroom and Stewart does become involved again, but the show is 50 minutes. There is just a LOT of time where he is a bystander, and a lot of time when Lever is dancing but it is hard to know what she is representing. I don't know if the various solos are different types of invisible disorders but there is not enough diversity in the choreography or the sound tracks to help the audience follow in my opinion.

Having said that, every aspect of technical execution for this show is world class - the design, the dancing, all of it. The accompanying exhibition is also edifying. I have a personal fondness for Andy Jackson's contribution and was touched by his comments about his partner and how important her loving gaze is for him. I love the light Locke is shining on invisible disability and the unseen struggles. She also invites us to share our own experiences to become part of the exhibition. Under My Tongue is thought provoking and revelationary.

4 Stars

Thursday 20 July 2023

BLUE TO THE HORIZON: Musical Theatre Review

WHAT: Blue To The Horizon
WHEN: 18 - 22 July
WHERE: Bluestone Church Arts Space
WRITTEN BY: Sarah Wynen
DIRECTED BY: Daniel Kim and Tess Walsh
DESIGN BY: Elaine Mackaway
LIGHTING BY: Opal Essence
PERFORMED BY: Stephanie Beza, Jackson Cross, Mathew Dwyer, Zoe Harlen, Lucy May Knight, Nicole Rammesh, and Kristie Thai

Mathew Dwyer, Zoe Harlen, Stephanie Beza, Nicole Rammesh, Jackson Cross, Lucy May Knight - photo supplied

It really is true that some of the best theatre comes when you least expect it. I admit I was cold and tired last night and just wanted to curl up at home and stay warm and cosy. Instead I braved the night air and made my way to the Bluestone Church Arts Space only to have my socks knocked off with a wonderful and tight little musical Blue To The Horizon. Presented by Sevenfold Theatre, this show is only on until the 22nd of July so you need to jump on it quickly, but it will be worth it. Trust me!

Book, lyrics and music written by Sarah Wynen, Blue To The Horizon is a dystopian thriller. A nuclear bomb is dropped 100Km away but the blast devastates the east coast of Australia in very little time at all. Six hapless randoms find themselves fleeing to the ocean on a small boat. After staying confined in the small cabin for two weeks they brave the open air and try to decide on their next move. In a show full of life and death situations, romance, betrayal, and starvation, Blue To The Horizon is akin to Lord Of The Flies with a brilliant political kicker at the end. I truly think this show has the best ending I have ever seen and you never see it coming!

Wynen always intended Blue To The Horizon to be a minimalist musical theatre show, but I have to say I would be so excited to see this develop into something spectacular. It is a musical loaded with great characters, exhilarating music, and layered with ideas - some of them very dark indeed. All of it is sugar-coated with standard musical theatre tropes which only makes the dark edges sting even more when they appear.

Part of what makes Blue To The Horizon so good is the music and Daniel Kim (Musical Director) has layered in so many incredible harmonies it is like having an extended ear orgasm. I'm not going to lie, there is some pitchiness across most of the cast, but they hold it all together well enough and when they sing in chorus, with all of those clever harmonics, it fills the room and the soul. Kristie Thai is excellent on the piano and the clever composition and harmonies makes it sound as if there is more than the one instrument in the room. It really is incredibly well done!

Whilst I am talking about the ensemble, I need to say how amazing they all are as actors. Nicole Rammesh (Sophie) holds the show together with her nuanced portrayal of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood in an end of the world scenario. Jackson Cross (Bronson) has a charming pubescent vulnerability. The show does get stolen towards the end by Lucy May Knight's performance of the less than mentally stable Chris. Zoe Harlen (Anne) is very credible as a doctor and Stephanie Beza plays her partner Rae with a strength needed to balance out the cast. Mathew Dwyer's character Beau sits in a wierd space but Dwyer plays it with restraint, delicately avoiding turning him into a monster.

Another key element to this show working is the choreography (Tess Walsh). Walsh honours the minimalist aesthetic, working with repeated etudes, and clever symbolism to help the cast tell the story.  

Elaine Lackaway's set and costumes do their job nicely, but I did find the milk crates on the dolly really irritating. The cast just keep moving it around for no significant purpose most of the time. It is just silly 'business'. Forget about the crates. This is not a show about crates (despite the writer's description).  Opal Essence does a good job with very few lights and the important notes are hit with precision and boldness.

I alway love a raw, new musical. In fact, that is pretty much the only kind of musical I do enjoy. Blue To The Horizon is fresh and strong. It is shocking. It is outrageous. And yes, it is beautiful too. Don't miss it!

4.5 Stars

Thursday 13 July 2023

AWAY: Theatre Review

WHAT: Away
WHEN: 8 - 22 July 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
WRITTEN BY: Michael Gow
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Mitchell Wright
DESIGNED BY: Greg Carroll
PERFORMED BY: Iopu Auva'a, Rupert Bevan, Linda Cookson, Stefanie Falasca, Bailey Griffiths, Justin Hosking, Eleanor Howlett, Cait Spiker, Stephen Tall, and students from Collarts
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brigette Jennings

Stefanie Falasca and Rupert Bevan - photo by Danial Rabin

There are probably only a handful of what we might call true Australian modern classic stage plays - mainly because we don't revisit them in repertory seasons. Amongst that venerable cohort sits Michael Gow's Away which is being presented this month at Theatre Works (Acland St). This play is pretty much a permanent fixture on the education curriculum so this is a great opportunity for students this year to see what happens to a play between page and stage and explore that dynamic journey.

Away, written in 1986 but set in 1968, takes place in an era of international tumult (the Vietnam War) and comes after longer periods of social tumult including struggling out of the World War years and all of the economic difficulties and insecurities which resulted. Whilst the over-riding link between the characters is losing sons in various ways, the underlying link is the economic strata which had developed as Australia entered its Golden Age of recovery with the emergence of our secondary industries. A constantly repeated refrain in the play is 'We're living in a country with one of the highest standards of living on earth...' and 'There is a price that has to be paid, of course. And we should all be prepared to pay it.' The inference being the price is our sons. What makes this play's context interesting is it was penned in the decline of that secondary industries boom which allowed Gow to pose the question was the cost too high?

Stephen Mitchell Wright's production probably doesn't really focus on this level of social commentary. Instead he has concentrated on the theatrical lineage of the work. Gow bookends the play with that grand old man William Shakespeare. The play starts with the ending of a high school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and ends with the first read through of King Lear at the same high school. The middle structure of the play mirrors the elemental reckoning of The Tempest. The play is also written in The Bard's 5 act play structure. This adds another interesting layer to Gow's choices because during the Golden Age interest in Shakespeare and veneration of patriotism were at all time lows which begs the question was Gow honouring The Bard or linking him to lies and failures of that era?

Of course we are now in 2023. We lie in the wake of that not very venerable Tony Abbott and his following cohort. Patriotism is at an all time high as is the love of Shakespeare (we can blame that on the old man's 400th anniversary). As such the reading of this production, with it's heavily layered Shakespearean aesthetic - particularly in the first half of the show, becomes a tad confusing and perhaps problematic. In contrast, the second half is intensely powerful as it eschews most of the ruffles and brocade and the characters are able to look at the post-Tempest wreckage and mourn their lives and losses.

Greg Carroll (designer) has worked hard to establish a very traditional Dream set, with ash-washed trees lining the wings, and a faux white cyc. There is even a mobile Juliet balcony which allows Wright to play with vertical space which I really appreciated. They even have one of the best moons I have seen staring down on the shenanigans. The creative team has taken the surrealism of the Dream and made it the over-riding aesthetic mixing costuming and props from all eras. You haven't seen anything until you have seen a Hawaiian shirt next to an Elizabethan ruffle!

On paper this concept works, but I personally felt it would have been better for the audience if they costuming stayed with the cast of the opening play. By having non-Dream cast in full Elizabethan made it confusing at the beginning to understand family relationships and social strata. In particular, I felt it messed with my reading of Harry (Iopu Auva'a) and Vicky (Stefanie Falasca). Those two characters are supposed to be exhausted, poor factory workers, the immigrants bringing the Golden Age to its luminescence on the back of their labour and poverty. Instead they look sprite and lively and lack the foil needed to play as relief to Gwen (Eleanor Howlett) and Jim (Justin Hosking) who are Great Depression survivors who now live a comfortable life in a white collar middle class Australia, holding on to their privilege with iron fists. 

I will say, however, the use of the Collarts students as supernumeraries was powerful perfection with their pantaloons and spears, watching, waiting, looming... Oh, and big props to Gow for not letting Meg (Cait Spiker) take the easy, expected route! That is, perhaps, his one overt nod to a more modern feminist aesthetic and I loved it even as I sat on the edge of my seat expecting her to give in to Tom's pleas for sex, and it sets up Coral beautifully for her final moment with Roy.

Roy (Stephen Tall) and Coral (Linda Cookson) are an intriguing and odd couple. Having lost their son in the Vietnam war Coral becomes obsessed with Kim Novak and seems to be living out the story line of The Mirror Crack'd to cope with grief. I would have loved for Wright to have pushed the bread trail Gow left inferring her potential as a sexual predator. It would have brought an intriguing question about trauma or reward to Tom's (Rupert Bevan) story line and truly heightened the real play within the play in the second act. It would possibly have also brought some humanity to Roy's threats and anger towards Coral. We forgive all with his glorious aria in the final act though. 

Overall, I think this is a really strong production of Away and the second act is everything you want in theatre - cathartic, painful, sweet, sad, and fulfilling. It wouldn't take much to really lift this production to complete excellence. My recommendation would be a wind machine which starts blowing slowly from New Year's Eve until the raging storm at the end of the first half. As the wind blows the layers of the past (costuming) could be swept away. I can't help thinking how powerful this would read for the Gwen storyline in the second half with all of those habits and rules which are her safety net having been blown away. This kind of subtextual detail is perhaps what I miss most in the first half of the play. 

The wind machine would also have the added benefit of blowing away all of that redundant haze and the smell of the herbal cigarettes... Ben Hughes' lighting is functional but lacked a bit of punch. It was probably hard to get definition with a set so ashen though. Rachel Lewindon's sound and composition was powerful and potent but I think the storm needed to grow, not just appear at the end of the first half. Winds of change and all that sort of thing... There is such a strong overlay of Shakespeare you can afford to bring in old theatrical technologies and it will work much better than more modern techniques like the haze.

As you can tell by what I have written, Wright's Away is an intriguing production and a wonderful example of the kinds of choices every production of every play has to make. The script is all potential, the production is all applied art. In this tension comes the magic and the conversations which follow. Context, meaning, emphasis... What better way is there to study VCE drama?

It has also been quite delightful to see Away, a very early Australian post-dramatic text, juxtaposed with When The Rain Stops Falling earlier in the Theatre Works 2023 season. Both plays share a lot in common in style and structure and level of interpersonal investigaton. You can easily follow the lineage from Gow 1986 to Andrew Bovell 2008 and to look at their plays reveals a lot about Australia in the intervening time frame.

4 Stars


WHAT: The Roof Is Caving In WHERE: La Mama Courthouse WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024 WRITTEN BY: Matilda Gibbs with Jack Burmeister and Belle Hansen ...