Saturday 25 November 2023

CHRISTMAS UNDER THE BIG TOP: Event Review

WHAT: Christmas Under The Big Top
WHEN: 24 Nov - 24 Dec 2023
WHERE: Burnley Oval
PRESENTED BY: Damian Syred

Christmas Under The Big Top

The genie is out of the bottle, or perhaps it is more correct to say the Santa is out of the North Pole. Christmas is nearly here, merchandising has already hit the stores and some people have already put up their Christmas lights (WTF?). It's all becoming very real and - just in time - the magic of Christmas has come to Burnley Oval in the form of Christmas Under The Big Top.

Christmas Under The Big Top is a unbelievable event full of fun and magic for toddlers whith just enough consideration for the parents to make it fun for all. To be honest, part of what makes it fun is how much joy and play the kids get from all the activities. This event is possibly the best value for money parents are likely to find in the festive lead up. There are 3 circus tents and the journey through them results in a joy filled, wonder filled, food filled night full of laughs, screams of excitement, and great family memories. 

The first tent is all about photo opportunities, hands on activities, and play for the kids. There are so many places to take photos with snow people, on thrones, and even in Sesame Street! Yes, the stars of this show are Elmo and Cookie Monster, and if you can wait until after the main circus show, you can get your photo with these two megastars of the stage and screen.

This first tent also has a fun teacup ride, the clowns arcade game where prizes can be won, and activities including playing with stacker blocks, kids can make their own bakery snack, and there is even a drawing area. There is popcorn, and fairy floss and slushies available. The most important thing though, is there are bouncing castles. 

There are three in total from what I saw. Two in that first tent and one in the second food tent so there is bouncing opportunities for every little tike! As I just mentioned, the second tent has a bouncing castle, the food cart with simple foods for kids and kid-carrying parents and there is also a coffee station for the parents so don't despair. You can divert outside to an under cover eating area with trestle tables and a Sensory Station for kids to wander through, and here you will access the all-important...um...facilities...?

Once sated, you will have the energy and nerve to meander into the third tent. In the third tent lies wonder and amazement as the circus ring lies waiting for the entertainment about to happen. You can wander into this tent and any time and I think they have kid's stuff happening most of the time, but in the last hour all the stops are pulled out and the real circus reveals itself. 

Circus is always a place of beauty and daring and excitement and the show under this big top doesn't disappoint. After Elmo and Cookie Monster left the stage, Mrs Claus MC's the night as my favourite circus apparatus comes out - The Wheel of Death. As well, we got to see an amazing contortionist, a glorious aerialist on the silks, and - OMG - there was the motorcycles in a Christmas bauble. (Does anyone remember the movie Roustabout?) Three of them at the same time. I nearly feinted in amazement and terror. No wonder it is called The Globe of Death.

I took some family members with me, including a little one. Yes, there were moments of tears - mostly from overstimulation and fatigue - but she made it through the whole evening and was smiling at the end. It was almost impossible to get her away from the bouncing castles, she loved the teacups and the family got some wonderful pictures for the photo album. 

The only downside was the photos with Elmo and Cookie Monster are right at the end of the night because they are performers in the show. This wasn't communicated well which led to some grumpiness, but the moment eventually arrived and smiles were the outcome. Yes, there is also a Santa for more traditional photo outcomes.

If you're looking for fun things to do for Christmas, Christmas Under The Big Top has to be at the top of the list. Ticket prices are low and you can have an amazing time and not spend a cent. If you do have money to spend, most of the stuff you have to pay for is very reasonably priced and, for example, slushy refills are really cheap. Things that come with ticket price include the activities, the tea cup ride, the bouncy castles and the stage shows.

Let's face it, finding things that are fun-filled and the full package when it comes to fun times and entertainment for the little ones are hard to come by. Christmas Under The Big Top is exactly that AND children under 2 are free! So get on down to Burnley Oval and get your Christmas Spirit under Damian Syred's big top.

4.5 Stars


Sunday 19 November 2023

FAIRSPELL ACADEMY: Book Review

WHAT: Fairspell Academy
WRITTEN BY: Ava Richardson

Christmas is coming and it is always so hard to think about Christmas presents. I think I have just uncovered a genius solution for those of you who have young adults to consider. If you haven't heard of her dragon books already, let me introduce you to Ava Richardson. Richardson has authored a multitude of books in her fantasy dragon world, and Fairspell Academy is book two of her latest trilogy about the dragon defenders of Destia.

For those of you familiar with the scifi/fantasy genre, imagine Anne McCaffrey's dragons of Pern and Leigh Bardugo's magical realm of Ravka combined, and all of them living at the Winx academy. This is the world Richardson has created in Fairspell Academy. It's a heady cocktail which skirts the danger of overcomplication really well. As I mentioned, Fairspell Academy is the second book and I haven't read the first one - Pack Dragon - yet, but I have already bought it and it is sitting on my Kindle right now to read along with all of the previous books in this world because Fairspell Academy really is that good! (And yes, I have preordered book 3 too).

The great thing about the way Richardson writes is that we can piece together the history of the story even though, as in my case, I might not have read anything coming before it. This has the potential to become laborious for an already addicted audience, but I think it is done with a light touch so that you don't really quite feel like it happened. 

If you are a true addict - and I was certainly one of those pre-teens who had to read every book in every series written by any author I loved - you will be totally invested in this story moment by moment. For initiates, this is like the Goblet of Fire book in JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. It's full of intrigue and practice and competition you can't put it down. I haven't stayed up to finish a book in ages, but I had to do it with Fairspell Academy.

Eva Thirsk is a private in the Destia army, who accidently bonds with a small pack dragon. She is a farm girl orphan and her dragon, Perrell is too small to be a fighting dragon despite it being her great dream. The first book, Pack Dragon, is about how Eva finds her magical powers and how she and Perrell find themselves in a battle they are the key to winning.

In the second book, Fairspell Academy, Eva has formally been admitted into magic school with Perrell by her side. Eva has to start at the bottom, in magic classes with students several years younger than her. She soon discovers her magic is a bit different than everyone else's and she and Perrell also have to figure out how that brave little dragon can compete in strength contests with the bigger fighting dragons. 

The magic of Fairspell Academy is more than the usual isolated child overcoming insurmountable odds, and secret pasts, and inherited talents. Normally in these kinds of stories the protagonist is the one with all the shortcomings and everyone has to gather around and work as a team to help that person reach their true potential. In Fairspell Academy though, as well as mastering her own arts, Eva has to work with her dragon to help Perrell find ways to achieve her goals and dreams too. Thus, in Eva and Perrell we have a beautiful pairing which goes far beyond selfish ambition. This tale is about team work on a much deeper level than was found at Hogwarts for example.

The beauty about giving these dragon books by Richardson as a Christmas gift is that the world is so well developed the stories will sustain your young adults for possibly the whole next year. They are the gift that will keep on giving! (Oh, and why not give them the McCaffrey books too?)

5 Stars

Saturday 11 November 2023

SALLY CARROT IS A FRAUD: Theatre Review

WHAT: Sally Carrot Is A Fraud
WHEN: 8 - 11 November 2022
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY: James Burgess
PERFORMED BY: Caz Dawes

Caz Dawes

Presented as part of the 'Monologue Festival' at The Butterfly Club this week, you could easily mistake Sally Carrot is a Fraud as just a comedy routine. It is much more than that, and your heart will ache as you learn the journey Sally has taken to get to this moment in her life.

Sally Carrot (Caz Dawes) is a young actor who has turned up to audition for what sounds like a one-line role in some TV series. Along with at least 346 other hopefuls she sits in a room waiting for her number to be called. At the start of the monologue they are only up to the high 200s so she will evidently be there for quite a while. 

To fill in time she starts chatting to the people around her and we learn about her childhood friend Tabitha and the clique she so desperately wanted to be a part of. Sally also tells us about her friend Julia Roberts (yes, the celebrity). Suffice to say, friendships are not easy for Sally, people can be cruel, and an active imagination can help or hinder.

Sally also has a lot of genuinely helpful acting tips along the way including don't be the person you think they want...be the person you are! Sally's life might be different if she followed that advice herself.

The show kicks off with a really funny off-stage set up as Sally finds her way into, out of, and back into the room and finds her seat. Dawes has a wonderfully mobile face for comedy and uses it to maximum potential all through the show. It is actually a bit of a shame the monologue takes a darker turn and never comes back because the set up and the actor are perfect for a laugh-a-minute hour of comedy.

James Burgess is a young film and TV director so he evidently knows the casting call process well. You can always tell when a writer writes what they know. What I don't understand is why he has written this role for a woman rather than a man, because this is where he falls in a hole both in the writing and in the directing. 

For the entire show the text is performed, but the subtext is ignored. Some of this flaw lies with Dawes, but as the director Burgess should have seen this and drawn out the undercurrents. I think, because he wrote the character as a woman, rather than a man, he doesn't truly understand the complexities of the relationships he has created which means he can't see the missing pieces. 

We hear the stories about Tabitha but we never find out how Sally truly feels. We hear about the Avalon Airport incident, but we never see how much damage was caused. We hear about Julia Roberts but we never get clarity on where any of this sits in Sally's mind and what this means for her here and now.

The biggest problem though, is that the stakes of this audition are unclear and there is no emotional pay off at the end for the audience. Because we don't understand the deeper sub-text the ending becomes unbelievable- not in a good way. It is not that we don't understand Sally has gone into a revery, but I have never met a moment of self-revelation which lasts for so long and resists so much prompting.

Add to this, the visual tedium of an actor pretty much just sitting in a chair for an hour and standing up a couple of times, and you have a rather unsatisfying and surprisingly sad night of theatre. It is dangerous for actors to sit when on stage because it usually ends with them relaxing their core. As soon as that happens they relax their grip on the audience. 

If you are going to sit in a chair for a long time you really need to find all the ways you can interact with that chair - especially if you are performing comedy. Just doing something dynamic with the chair would have made Sally Carrot Is A Fraud much more entertaining and would have added some textural depth to the performance.

I think Sally Carrot Is A Fraud is a cute idea and Dawes does a great job with the comic aspects of the material. Unfortunately the show just doesn't have the depth it needs to work as drama, or the comic direction and writing it needs to succeed as a comedy piece. If Burgess goes back and sees what the piece would look like as a male character I suspect he may be able to truly find the depth and detail he is looking for. Don't be the writer you think they want you to be - be the writer you are.

2.5 Stars

Friday 3 November 2023

WEREDINGO: Theatre Review

WHAT: Weredingo
WHEN: 1 - 4 November 2023
WHERE: Arts House (main hall)
WRITTEN & CHOREOGRAPHED BY: Thomas E S Kelly
COMPOSITION BY: Sam Pankhurst
ANIIMATION BY: Studio Gilay
PERFORMED BY: Thomas E S Kelly, Benjin Maza, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, and Vicki Van Hout
LIGHTING BY: Chloe Ogilvie
COSTUMES BY: Selene Cochrane

Benjin Maza, Thomas ES Kelly, and Glory Tuohy-Daniell - photo supplied

Every so often a show comes along which excites your soul and shakes your conscience at the same time. Weredingo, created by Karul Projects and playing this weekend at Arts House, is one of those shows.

Weredingo began as a solo dance exploration back in 2017, when Thomas ES Kelly (writer and choreographer) and producing partner Taree Sansbury created a solo dance exploration of a person shape shifting. That solo - or a version there of - is still in this third iteration of the original idea and is still the powerful centrepiece of the work. In 2019 the original Shifting>Shapes became SSHIFTT. In SSHIFT the work expanded into the basic story we have now, but back then it had a sci-fi aesthetic and perhaps less sophistication in it's dramaturgy. By 2021 this fully realised version of Weredingo emerged as part of the Brisbane Festival. This is the show we are seeing in Melbourne. We are so lucky to be seeing it at all, and even more importantly right now in Australian history.

Weredingo is the story of a support group for shape shifters. Shape shifters litter the mythologies of all peoples across the world and The Dreaming is no different. What is perhaps different for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is that their shifters are not static remnants of history past. Rather they represent history, the present, and the future as well. In a revelatory monologue by Colton (Kelly) - and supported by amazing animations by Studio Gilay -  we are clearly shown the connection between ideas, human and landscape - their integral nature, and the integrity of the concepts from a people we Westerners so often underestimate and undervalue.

As I said, this show revolves around a support group for shape shifters. We, the audience, are attending for the first time. As with all good support groups there is free tea, coffee and bickies in the foyer as we wait, and a facilitator (Frankie - Vicki Van Hout) comes around and gets some basic information. As pre-performance framing goes this is superb, so when you show up you might want to already have thought a bit about what your animal shift is before you arrive. Any kind of identifying accessory is most welcome in this very safe space for shifters.

The show starts in dimness and a humaniform wedge-tail eagle (Bunjil) crosses the front of the stage slowly, watching us unwaveringly before disappearing into the darkness upstage. Then the lights come up and the irresistable Frankie starts the meeting. We are all new to the group so she teaches us the meeting mantra which is a commitment to the safety of this space for all beasts, no matter what their form. Then Colton and Birgil - not Virgil!!! - show up and the meeting starts in earnest. 

Through dance and through speech the stories of their shifting are told. Kelly's choreography is a joy to behold. Blending contemporary styles with traditional First Nations movement and dance, Kelly brings past and present into the future with life and vitality. In his hands these dance traditions blend seamlessly - as seamlessly as the text and movement blend in the text-based parts of the show. The pas des trois early in the show with Colton, Birgil (Benjin Maza), and Frankie is delightful and somehow reassuring? In a little side note - Birgil is going to make you laugh and giggle the whole night!

Somebody is late to the meeting though. Just when we think we can settle into a simple and safe support group meeting, Denise (Glory Tuohy-Daniell) arrives. Up until now shifting has been presented as the kind of thing you get used to and become something of a master of. Denise is not that lucky. Her shifting is unresolved and uncontrolled. Almost always triggered into a shifting state, Denise's shifts are painful and violent and cause much injury and trauma to her very own self. This is when shit gets real. As soon as Denise enters the room she smells something different about Frankie and so she cannot relax. 

When Denise tells her story we see the original kernel of this show - or some variation of it - and it is a power, glory, and tragedy deserving of the centrepiece it holds. My favourite moment in the show is when Denise says 'Let me tell you my story' and then breaks into her dance. Because dance is language and it is story, and Denise's story cannot be told in words. It must be seen and felt. It is visceral. It is an experience. 

Dance does what words cannot. This is one of the reasons why Weredingo is so powerful. It integrates dance and text so perfectly that our forebrain and our hindbrain can follow along effortlessly, and our emotions and intellect work together to understand what has been put before us.

Weredingo is funny and it is powerful in its ideas and mythology, but it is also a very important message for us right here and now in 2023. In a country with a failed referendum, Weredingo speaks to what it means to be a social ally. In a world where being a social ally is a currency, and genuinely well-meaning people and corporations are jumping on board at a speed faster than light, Weredingo makes us face what that does look like and what it needs to look like. 

Allies are not needed to make safe spaces. We are needed to fight the fight which makes ALL spaces safe. Rather than creating meeting spaces and community programs for our cause of choice we should be out there in the firing line, stopping the war. If you are an ally you need to be stopping the bullet, not building a wall the bullet can't penetrate to be cowered behind.

Weredingo is the full package. It is beautiful, funny, disturbing, and insightful. The whole proceeding is watched over by Bunjil, who keeps an eye on the people and the land - ever watchful, ever present.

5 Stars!

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

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