Saturday 23 March 2024

THE DRESS: Theatre Review

WHAT: The Dress
WHEN: 22 Mar - 30 Mar 2024
WHERE: Werribee Mansion
WRITTEN BY: Alaine Beek
DIRECTED BY: Nigel Sutton
PERFORMED BY: Alaine Beek, Lore Burns, and Scott Jackson
COSTUME BY: Harry Quinert

Scott Jackson - photo by David Mullins

A classic comedy of manners written in Melbourne? Who would have thought? Yet here one is in all its original glory and performed in the most perfect setting. The Dress is being presented for its second season (originally produced in 2022) at Werribee Mansion by Essence Productions for two weekends only. Head out west to see a glorious couture period gown presented in a sumptuous heritage estate and brought to life with a witty script and lively actors.

Celebrating the period in which the Werribee Mansion was built, Alaine Beek has written a comic yet heart-warming 90-minute play set in the late 1800s. Mrs Hannah Green (Beek) has been a widow for three years, living alone in her husband's mansion. As was the custom at the time, the estate was bequeathed to her son, and he has reduced her household staff to 4. This has now diminished to only 2 because people in that era were eschewing domestic jobs for factory work. Yes, factory work was possibly more dangerous, but I personally understand why you would resent being a drudge for wealthy loafers despite the romantic tomfoolery suggested in shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. Especially if you had made it all the way to Australia to get away from that sort of thing!

Still, it would be very lonely sitting around such an enormous estate with nobody to talk to and only your grief to keep you company. Back in those days, before pret-a-porter, one of the closest relationships women of means had been that with their seamster. Attire and status have always been synonymous across human history and dressmakers definitely madeth the woman in society in those days. In The Dress, Mr Bertin (Scott Jackson), is Hannah's seamster/confidante. 

The play begins at the point in Melbourne history when George's department store opened. Georges was unique in that it was a department store like Myers, but it catered exclusively for the well-to-do. Going there to shop was a full experience including fussing attendants, free (top shelf) alcohol, and an array of items which must have been positively mind-boggling at the time. What this meant for artisan dressmakers though, was a substantial loss of clientele and an inability to match the selection and availability of fabrics and finished clothing.

Mr Bertin is a desperate man. His customer base is receding at a rapid pace, the only form of marketing is word of mouth, or your clothes being worn at social occasions, and all of his money is invested in his fabric stock personally sourced from overseas trips. Bertin stumbles upon a clever idea. There is a masquerade on the upcoming social calendar, so he needs to find a patron to wear one of his creations to get some buzz and some business happening. But who?

Bertin has a delightful relationship with Hannah. She hasn't bought a gown in years, moping about her manor in black since her husband's death. Despite this, Bertin still visits regularly and they laugh and talk. On this visit, though, Bertin has a plan, and it has a dual purpose. He needs a gown at the masquerade, and he desperately wants his friend to come out of mourning and live her life to the full again. As he says, she is missed by everyone. 

Peeking through her diary Bertin identifies a name she has put a little heart beside - Mr Flattery - and commits to bringing this gentleman back into Hannah's life to escort her to the ball. There is a catch, however. No matter how hard he tries, Bertin cannot find Flattery. Hannah knows why and spends the time leading up to the ball playing with Bertin and his pretences, all the time letting him create a concoction she is sure she will never wear. Along the way we learn some Melbourne history and a bit about the art of couturier, Hannah has a lot of fun with a lobster, and Bertin gets a Cinderella story.

The Dress is performed in traverse along the main hall and up the grand staircase and the tale is accompanied by the depth and beauty of the sounds of a single live cello played by Lore Burns on the night I attended. Nigel Sutton (director) has done a great job with the constraints of this kind of theatre configuration (which seems to be having a revival across Melbourne I might add...) and Jackson keeps the pace energetic and lively as he strides and struts and patters up and down the hall always in a state of agitated excitement and exuberance. Beek has an elegance and dignity very suitable for the Lady she is portraying and there is a nice synergy of her slight Scottish accent referencing the original Scottish Chirnsides who built the Werribee Mansion in the 19th century.

The Dress is funny and sweet with just enough pathos to give it gravitas. The staging in the Werribee Mansion gives the story an authenticity and really does create an atmospheric connection to those times in which it is set. My one regret was I wanted the waltzing moment to be bigger, last longer. It has the opportunity to truly transport us back in time if they would literally sweep down the whole length of the great hall and back again. It has the potential to be as meaningful as 'Shall We Dance' in The King & I

I really enjoyed The Dress and the actual dress, made by Harry Quinert, is breath-taking. It does everything it sets out to do. It's a funny warm fuzzy in very dystopian times. If you don't live in the western suburbs why not take the opportunity to stay overnight in the hotel and then visit the zoo on your way home the next day? What a wonderful little mini-break that would be!

4.5 Stars

Sunday 17 March 2024

SWANSONG - Theatre Review

WHAT: Swansong
WHEN: 13 - 22 March 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Conor McDermottroe
DIRECTED BY: Greg Carroll
PERFORMED BY: Andre de Vanny

Andre de Vanny - photo supplied

The Irish have a long history of ... well, everything. The recurring cultural themes which come out of that tiny nation are poverty, violence, and emotional depths deeper than the Mariana Trench. The women are unbreakable and the men cry behind their flailing fists. From this tradition springs Conor McDermottroe's play Swansong, enjoying a third run at Theatre Works - following hit seasons in 2018 and 2019.

Swansong is the (quite typical) story of a young Irish lad growing up poor in the western port of Sligo. Sligo has a long history of poverty and was one of the ports the famine ships (or coffin ships) used to transport Irish to the Americas in the 19th century during the Potato Famine. Around 30,000 Irish left from the Sligo port and McDermottroe draws on that history to frame the story of our beset Irish lad Occi (Andre de Vanny). The precise time in which the story is being told is not important. The play was written in 2005, but the film version which followed in 2009 sets the present as being around the 1970's. 

What we see in this production of Swansong is an open, black, end stage theatre without any kind of staging or cloths. Just some theatre lights hanging from the grid, on a boom, and a lonely Par Can in one corner on an H-stand. We know instantly this is stripped back theatre. Everything about this show is going to rest solely on the shoulders of the actor. It is an act of great bravery by director Greg Carroll. Or perhaps not, given he is working with perhaps one of our greatest actors of current times.

The lights come up and out strides de Vanny in a dated brown shirt, brown leather jacket, and faded blue trousers. He calls out a hearty hello in a lilting brogue and stares straight into the audience, but it is not us he is seeing. He is speaking to his favourite swan, Agnes, as he tosses bread to her and fights off the other swans coming in for a feed.

The term swansong refers to the myth that just before dying swans sing their most glorious songs. It is not true, but the myth has been a part of Western society since Aesop's fable (and probably earlier) The Swan and The Goose. Is this tale we are about to launch into going to be Occi's swan song? In truth we never find out. The film may be more explicit in this as it is in all aspects of the story. Is this Agnes's swan song? Again, we never find out. One of the criticisms I have about the script is the end doesn't resolve well, but maybe I am possibly just putting too much weight in the title.

As Occi watches Agnes swim away he sees the swans all heading for a wreck in the harbour. He tells us it is a coffin ship and speaks to the despair the starving people on the dock must have felt as they watched it sink. I have done a bit of research. I can't find any evidence of a coffin ship called the St Martin but the point is made well and the link of endless Irish poverty with the fated life of Occi is established. As we peer into those sepia toned stories of yesteryear, we move forward into Occi's troubled life.

Occi was born into poverty as an illegitimate son in a time when being a bastard was a literal thing and had appalling social consequences. Anyone who watched Game of Thrones knows what I mean. Occi (pronounced Okky) was christened Austen Byrnes, but McDermottroe has a lot of fun playing with his own history working in Australia to embed the chant 'Occi Occi Occi, Oy Oy Oy'. It is a fun bit of silliness and works well to draw in an Australian audience who might otherwise find themselves wondering why they should care about this young man's life.

Occi seems to have suffered some sort of neurodivergence after an unfortunate barrel roll down a very steep sand dune in his childhood. Young boys playing dangerous games which have tragic endings is another trope we all know well. You know things are not going to end well as soon as Occi starts setting up the story. There is no specific diagnoses but across the course of the show there is the inference he is not the brightest bulb on the block, and he definitely has anger management issues. 

He also finds himself, after one violent incident, in a psychiatric institution. Here is where he meets the love of his life, Mary. The title of the play also refers to the fact that swans mate for life. The fate of both Occi and Agnes are bound together in this sad tale.

Mary leaves the institution, and sometime later so does Occi but they don't meet up again immediately like some sort of Hollywood fantasy film. Occi struggles to manage his medication regime and has to resort to the dangerous work of deep-sea fishing to earn a living. A man dies and, in an attempt to avoid consequences Occi joins the army. It is at this point the story reveals a strangely ironic humour and eventually leads us back to where this 90 minute of theatre began.

A 90-minute one person show is not something I would usually even begin to enjoy. In the outrageously skilled hands of de Vanny though, the time marched on with pace, pathos and humour. There are sadly many fewer great actors on the stages in Melbourne than I would like to see. I am thinking people of the calibre of Syd Brisbane and Evelyn Krape. Andre de Vanny is one of those actors and you should not miss the chance to see a master of their craft in all their glory. This actor is the whole package - voice, body, intention. Occi is de Vanny, de Vanny is Occi. And Occi is sweet and pathetic and angry and violent and loving.

I am glad McDermottroe made the movie because the script doesn't fully realise all of its characters and ideas. It was written for himself as an acting vehicle and is now a legacy in the theatre canon for men to tell men's stories. Part of me hesitates over the play because it feeds into that age old male myth that a single insult is a socially acceptable trigger for violence. The play also lets Occi literally get away with murder, inferring his poverty is excuse and punishment enough. On the other hand, it holds back from becoming a ballad of violence and finds a way out so that we can like Occi at the end. I don't know if that is a good or bad thing...

Regardless, de Vanny's performance is a triumph and Carroll did the best thing a director can do with a performer of this calibre - stay out of his way. It does not surprise me that de Vanny has been able to take this to the world across the years. There will always be an audience for a story like this and de Vanny's performance is a masterclass in acting.

5 Stars.


Thursday 14 March 2024

CAR CRASH - Theatre Review

WHAT: Car Crash
WHEN: 11 - 16 March 2024
WHERE: The Butterfly Club (Upstairs)
WRITTEN BY: Gregory Vines
DIRECTED BY: Cassandra McGrath
PERFORMED BY: Elyse Batson, Alec Gilbert, Melanie Madrigali, John Voce, and MJ Wilson

Melanie Madrigali and Alec Gilbert - photo supplied

Here's one for all the Yes Minister fans out there. We all remember that outrageous interview Prince Andrew gave in 2019 about his association with notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. You know the one I mean. The one where he explained his miraculous ability to not sweat. Playwright Gregory Vines has decided to take a peek behind palace doors and imagine what the conversations would have sounded like in his play Car Crash now playing at The Butterfly Club.

The scenario for Car Crash is pretty simple. Two royal advisors (Alec Gilbert and Melanie Madrigali) spin their way through 'family' troubles. They seem to be Prince Andrew (John Voce) specialists and vacillate between boredom and apoplexia trying to manage the Prince's PR. 

The play begins with Gilbert lamenting the toughest decision of the day, trying to choose between a gingernut biscuit and a shortbread for dunking into his tea. Madrigali comes in with the morning papers and the two banter with all of the rhythm and wordplay of that venerable English comedy series I mentioned earlier. Over the course of the hour the two exalt the death of Epstein and ponder the fact that everyone (including themselves) knows/went to school with Ghislaine Maxwell. Then they catch wind of the upcoming interview and their poor little stultified brains whirl into overdrive to plan his interview strategy. We may never know who the brainchild behind that piece of PR absurdity was really, but Gilbert gives a very credible indication it was him!

In their defence, both advisors wanted to pull the plug but then in strides the Prince and all hope of an elegant way out fail in the face of royal obtuseness. Along the way there is a baffling (and not very well crafted) interruption by a professor (MJ Wilson) trying to lobby for a start-up enterprise. That part of the play doesn't really work. I think it was to demonstrate how the real business of the realm gets ignored whilst all the royal shenanigans dominate time and money but it isn't strongly on point and poorly acted so all it does is make the play longer than it needs to be. The show is only an hour long but it feels longer than that because of these scenes and the extraordinarily long blackouts.

Apart from this, the acting across the rest of the ensemble is right on point and Voce brings excellent energy to his cameos as the Prince. Gilbert is perfect as a Sir Humphrey type character. Madrigali's performance is equal to Gilbert's but I do think her character misses it's mark. This kind of writing needs to be played in a Laurel and Hardy style. You need the fool and the straight man (person). In this scenario the show would have had a lot more energy and laughs if Madrigali avoided dropping into fellow foolery with Gilbert. A lot of the humour in a Nigel Hawthorn type of character lies in the 'clear thinking' one being led down rabbit holes in a completely unexpected manner, not in joining in with the crazy. 

This may not be all Madrigali's fault. The show is directed by Cassandra McGrath but I am not convinced she has a lot of experience in stage direction. As lively as Vines' script is, the actual staging of this show is boring. Actors sitting on stage and talking is the absolute death knell of live performance. There is nothing interesting for the audience to see when everyone is sitting and there is little opportunity for actors to communicate their relationship with each other when stuck in a chair. It is even worse when the chairs are on opposite sides of the stage and facing straight out to the audience. The Butterfly Club stages are small but that should incite challenge and innovation in directors, not encourage them to give up.

There is one other actor in the show who I haven't mentioned yet. Elyse Batson plays the quiet, obedient, and disregarded servant Maddison. Batson is a tall woman with a surprisingly imposing presence and a mobile face which speaks volumes even though she speaks very little. I think in the right role, Batson will dominate the stage.

Car Crash is not going to change the world, but it is funny in a retro English way. The characters are archetypes we are all familiar with even though the topic is starting to fade into deep past. Time before COVID seems so much further back than it really is... If sipping tea and dithering about royal foibles is your thing, Car Crash will be exactly your cup of tea.

3 Stars.

Monday 11 March 2024

EVERY LOVELY TERRIBLE THING - Theatre Review

WHAT: Every Lovely Terrible Thing
WHEN: 28 - 16 March 2024
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
WRITTEN BY: Adam Fawcett
DIRECTED BY: Justin Nott
SET BY: Harry Gill
COSTUMES BY: Martelle Hunt
LIGHTING BY: Sidney Younger
PERFORMED BY: Lyall Brooks, Emma Choy, Sharon Davis, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Megan Jones, and Wil King
SOUND BY: Tom Backhaus
AV BY: Aron Murray
STAGE MANAGED BY: Ashleigh Walwyn

 

Lyall Brooks and Wil King - photo by Pia Johnson

It has been a long time since I have seen an original Australian play with a really classic feel and timbre. I mean the kind of play which resonates with the depth of plays like Summer of The Seventeenth Doll or The One Day of The Year for example. Every Lovely Terrible Thing, written by Adam Fawcet, produced by Lab Kelpie and now showing at Theatre Works sits, rather surprisingly, in that wheelhouse. For those of you with more international leanings, you might want to think of plays like Miss Julie and August: Osage County perhaps to get a sense of this play before going to see it.

This story follows the well-worn concept of a family coming together, usually in a rural setting, and airing all their dirty laundry, reliving childhood trauma and rivalries, and rarely resolving very much at all. Along the way someone tends to die, someone 'comes out', and someone gets drunk and starts a fight. Every Lovely Terrible thing does not stray far from the formula, but the characters are, for the most part, well developed. As well, this play throws in a bunch of post-dramatic affects with varying degrees of success to bring a traditional narrative arc into the 21st century. 

I want to say the coalescence of all of this level of disfunction is beyond reality but, to be honest, the Coleman's are pretty tame compared to the whole lot of crazy in my family tree and, sadly, I don't believe we are that far from 'normal'. I wish I was more shocked by the story lines than I am. Having said that, Every Lovely Terrible Thing has a good dose of troubles for most trauma-addicted theatre goers to indulge themselves in.

The Colemans' reside in a country town. The dad is dead, the mum (Megan Jones) is dating. The son (Lyall Brooks) and daughter (Sharon Davis) are twins - of course! The son (Charles) inherited the local pub and the daughter (Britta) escaped the nest and moved to Sydney but finds herself back in the family home and pregnant. Charles is married to Phoebe (Emma Choy) and they have their own grown-up child, Cooper (Wil King). Cooper is struggling to find their identity outside pre-existing paradigms and is challenged by a range of life lessons which come in the form of the local tradie, Lachie (Jordan Fraser-Trumble). 

Even though the structure and characters are very familiar to us, don't be put off by that. The story is well constructed, and the characters are crafted with depth and complexity which makes Every Lovely Terrible Thing a very satisfying and substantial night of theatre. There is very little which is new in our world, and there are even less old stories told well. Every Lovely Terrible Thing is an old story told very well.

Despite its classic structure and content, Every Lovely Terrible Thing has a range of post-dramatic constructs and also sits comfortably within the genre of queer theatre as well. I don't think all of those contemporary tricks and bits and bobs work or enhance the story, but they also don't detract from it too much, so I guess I am left with 'why the hell not?'

One thing that doesn't work is the appearances of the character Kid Coyote (Fraser-Trumble). This character and the videography (Aron Murray) do not fit the location or the narrative. The concept comes from the video game Red Dead Redemption but nobody plays video games in this play, and the play is set in contemporary Australia, not a post-apocalyptic America. Including this character confuses the narrative. I am guessing it is there to build tension and raise the stakes, comparing family feuding to the level of blood and gore. The play does constantly reference hunting so the idea is fine, but the reference only reads to gamers. 

Coopers little fantasy interludes, on the other hand, are brilliant and flow from the opening scene watching classic movies with his grandmother (Jerrica). The relationship between Jerica and Cooper is one of great love and beauty, and a wonderful counterpoint for Jerrica to the stressful disconnect with her own children. Cooper helps her to look forward with hope to a future whilst Charles and Britta drag her kicking and screaming into a painful past which cannot be forgotten and certainly will never be forgiven.

A recurring theme in Every Lovely Terrible thing is that horror movie staple, the rabbit. The tradition of rabbits in horror stories is long and proud. Why? Because they are cute from a distance, but if you get close they have the eyes of a psychopath and the claws to scratch your eyes out. We also associate them with hunters, being skinned, and as food. It is interesting to note in Fawcett's play the rabbit which keeps appearing is brown and straggly and ugly, whereas the one in Justin Nott's (director) production is pristine and white and cartoonish. Nott's rabbit fits the queer theatre genre better, but I think Fawcett's rabbit is scarier and leads us to the revelations in the play more clearly. 

The acting in Every Lovely Terrible thing is consistently good across the ensemble although Choy needs to develop her ability to project a bit more. I was sitting in the front row and struggling to hear her. King is phenomenal as Cooper, and they have no problem meeting the demands of the central character. 

Most of the play resolves well although a couple of story lines don't earn their ending. There is no hint in act 1 to support Phoebe's choices in act 2 - either in the script or in the direction/acting. It makes that story choice feel gratuitous and as a woman I am tired of theatre making gratuitous choices for female characters. 

Also, there is a whole story line completely undeveloped for Charles. The end of the play is crafted like a movie inferring there will be a sequel, but I don't know if that works in theatre because who knows if the sequel is ever going to materialise or when? More detailed work from the director in act 1 would make this final moment not leave the audience feeling like they are missing out on something big and important. There is a wonderful, corrugated iron shed in the set. We need to be pointed to it more often in act 1.

The set (Harry Gill) is incredibly full and detailed. I rarely say this at Theatre Works, but it might just be a bit too busy. Martelle Hunt's costumes are perfection. I do want to mention if the script calls something a dress, then either the character should wear a dress, or the director should change the word to skirt. Simples! Tom Backhaus' sound was effective if a bit loud.

Sidney Younger's lighting is perfection and I even forgive the gratuitous smoke machine. I always love Younger's work. I have, however, come to the conclusion that lighting lecturers get kickbacks from lighting suppliers on the sale of theatrical haze/smoke. The mind boggles as to how much money is spent on the stuff this century. I know what haze does for film and it is important in that context. It does not have the same efficacy on stage. Many a theatre budget would look a hell of a lot healthier at no loss to the dramaturgy if we just didn't spend that money. In this instance it did detract from the 'river' lighting though because it was more fun watching the laser show up in the grid than watching the ripples on stage.

Every Lovely Terrible Thing is a great piece of text-based theatre written with confidence and depth. Theatre is about telling our stories and revealing the hidden. This play does those things well and the production elements and performances are excellent. This is a play to see and remember as part of the Australian canon.

4.5 Stars


Saturday 9 March 2024

RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL - Musical Theatre Review

WHAT: Ruthless! The Musical
WHEN: 1 - 24 March 2024
WHERE: Alex Theatre
BOOK & LYRICS BY: Joel Paley
MUSIC BY: Marvin Laird
DIRECTED BY: Chelsea Matheson
MUSICAL DIRECTION BY: Dave Barcay and Ned Dixon
SET DESIGN BY: Damien Jones
COSTUME DESIGN BY: Britni Leslie
LIGHTING DESIGN BY: Jason Bovaird
PERFORMED BY: Olivia Charalambou, Dolly Diamond, Chloe Halley, Stephanie Astrid John, Britnie Leslie and Emma Clair Waxman
SOUND DESIGN BY: Rhiannon Gilmore
STAGE MANAGED BY: Dylan McBurney

Britnie Leslie, Chloe Halley and Dolly Diamond - photo by Angel Leggas

The nights are stupidly hot at the moment, and the weeks are still long. I can think of few better ways of getting through life right now than sitting in an elegant theatre and watching a light-hearted musical with outrageously glamourous costumes and a dark heart. Ruthless! The Musical, playing at the Alex Theatre, is just the ticket (pardon the pun) to help us get through the remnants of summer. There is the added bonus of being able to go for a late night stroll along the beach afterwards too.

Ruthless! The Musical is a parody of stage mum stories like Gypsy, has more than a slight whiff of the darkness of Sweeney Todd, and an ending to rival Hamlet. Created by Joel Paley and Marvin Baird in 1992, Ruthless is the story of an 8 year old dancing/singing prodigy who learns at a young age that success is a combination of talent and opportunity - and sometimes you have to actively create the opportunity. Or is it? Ruthless has a lot of fun twists and turns as it meanders across the evening. In 2015 Paley created a 90 minute version of the show but I don't think this is that version as Stagebug's production goes for just over 2 hours including interval. Surprisingly I did not find this a problem which speaks to how much fun the show is.

Ruthless is visually stunning. Damien Jones' set design sits squarely in the style of the genre and whilst the costumes and set do have a candy pink theme, Jone's never lets it overtake the scenic tableaux just as Britni Leslie (costumes) also reigns the colour in just enough to stop it from becoming sickly and overwhelming. The detail in all the costumes is incredible but your jaw will literally drop to the floor when you see Ginger Delmarco's (Leslie) gown in Act 2. That is the dress dreams are made of!

Ruthless is not a perfect production. I have issues with some directorial (Chelsea Matheson) choices. The performers all work far too much to the audience. I honestly found myself looking behind me to see if there was conductor cam up in the mezzanine or if the band was actually up there rather than backstage. Neither of those things were true. I know it is a part of the genre to sing out but, at least in the acting parts, it would be nice to believe the characters are speaking to each other. Otherwise, what is the difference between full staging and a staged concert? It would give more power to the moments the actors are breaking the fourth wall with the audience if they aren't looking straight at us the whole time.

In the same vein - and maybe because of the lack of connection with each other - the characters lean too far into the cartoonish IMO. I would have loved to see some of the human underneath. If we don't get that hint of real emotion, real thought process, then it is hard to find a reason to care about the characters. Too much of the performance was playing the text and not the subtext. 

There were some exceptions. Olivia Charalambous in the tiny role of Louise Lerman was a show stealer, and Stephanie Astrid Jones gave us great hints about the potential complexity of a life surprisingly lived.

Leslie as Judy Denmark was a bit annoying with that typical chipmunk voice so common in female roles in American musicals. When playing Ginger Delmarco, however, she settles into a wonderfully sophisticated performance. Dolly Diamond was everything you expect which is exactly what the role of Sylvia St Croix demands. Seeing Diamond in this role is enough reason on its own to see this production of Ruthless. I don't know when or if we will ever get to see her in a role this incredible again.

The musical direction (Dave Barcay and Ned Dixon) is clean and precise and, for the most part, the singing is powerful. I did wonder if the voices are starting to get tired though, with Leslie missing a couple of key high notes and both Leslie and Chloe Halley (Tina Denmark) sounding a bit screechy across the whole show. I recommend they stop pushing so hard and rely on the microphones a bit more to soften their tone and be kind to their vocal chords. 

I admit, Halley's portrayal of Tina annoyed me quite a bit too. It is hard to be an adult playing a child because it is too easy to fall into irritating and noisome. I know because I have made that mistake myself. No matter how bratty a real child is, they still have a sweet innocence and tenderness - when they want to - which is hard to emulate as an adult. Halley needs to find those genuine moments of sweetness and hope to really make Tina come alive. If she can find that in the character, this would allow her to also find some of that softness in her singing I was talking about a moment ago. She needs to channel a bit more of the younger Shirley Temple.

These grumbles are quite minor though, in a show jam-packed with fun and mirth, bright sets, and glorious costumes. Jason Bovaird's lighting keeps the pace and movement flowing without drowning the show with tricks. Just like the other design elements, he creates a panorama of light with just enough candy colour to give texture. Rhiannon Gilmore's sound system allows the theatre to fill with the sounds of the band and singers whilst maintaining perfect clarity. Not a word is lost in the singing. Not a beat of a drum drowns the piano. It is an impressive mix and I have been to a few commercial musicals which could learn a thing or two from Gilmore I reckon.

This production of Ruthless! The Musical is light and fun. It has a lusciously dark heart, some twists you won't see coming at all and some you will (which is part of the fun), and it is a visual spectacular.

4 Stars

Tuesday 5 March 2024

DRY LAND: Theatre Review

WHAT: Dry Land
WHEN: 28 Feb - 9 Mar 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Ruby Rae Spiegel
DIRECTED BY: Olivia Staaf
DESIGNED BY: Abbey Stanway
LIGHTING BY: Tomas Gerasimidis
SOUND BY: Dion Spyropoulos
PERFORMED BY: Buzz Billman, Endrico Botha, Isabelle Duggan, Cassidy Dunn, and Luce Wirthensohn

Luce Wirthensohn and Cassidy Dunn - photo supplied

Dry Land is a confronting play about teenage sexuality and abortion. It is set in the fraught state of Florida. Written ten years ago by Ruby Rae Spiegel at a time when abortion was a protected right in that US state, it is even more topical in a post-Trump presidency era with the overturn of Roe vs Wade. Unfortunately you won't get any of this context in the production of Dry Land currently playing at The Explosives Factory. What you will see, though is a play about relationships and growth and a myriad of ways teenage girls learn about life, and pain, and problem solving.

Dry Land is a play original written as a two hander and centres around the relationship which develops between Amy (Luce Wirthensohn) and Ester (Cassidy Dunn). The two teenagers are on the same swim team. Amy used to be a cheerleader and Ester has recently transferred from another school where she was on the varsity swim team and is trying to get back on track to a University scholarship. Ester is trying to make friends. Amy is looking for someone not part of her world to help her with a serious problem. The play opens with Amy asking Ester to punch her in the stomach. Women watching this play will know exactly what is going on from the very first moment.

The set design (Abbey Stanway) is wonderfully conceived as a change room with lockers and benches and tiles. The blue is meant to tell us it is near water but it would have been even more helpful if the team had followed the writer's notes and had them both wearing bathing suits in that first scene. 

In fact, one of the most irritating thing for me in this production is the costume design and presentation of Amy. They have followed the writer's physical instructions to the letter but not the instructions on intention. Instead of Amy coming across as someone trying to look effortless, Wirthensohn's Amy comes across as someone who genuinely doesn't care. It is a surfy emo look which is miles away from the ex-cheerleader/super self conscious teenager she is supposed to be. It is the little things like doing something with the hair and getting rid of those god-awful Birkenstocks which would make all the difference. Then the character would make sense. Then, perhaps, Wirthensohn would also understand how anxious Amy really is.

Add to that the writer specifically says "the actress playing Amy should feel comfortable being exposed. If she is hidden or too covered [during the abortion scene], it will seem that the abortion is something that should not be seen. It is meant to be seen." The granny pants Wirthensohn wears for modesty totally destroys the writer's intention and is made even worse because she doesn't remove them and they appear under her bathers in a later scene. 

The reason for the exposure is represented by the location of the play which the director (Olivia Staaf) never overtly reveals and plays with, but is really important. The writer revealed in an interview that the nearest abortion clinic is 10 km away from that spot and even when the play was written and abortion was a protected right this clinic was continually bombed. Dry Land is about exposing what is underneath. Because the director never addresses any of this the scene about the Everglades makes no sense, but it is - again - important to the work. That scene is about modern America covering up what is natural and messy and difficult. 

It is rather absurd that the cast use an American accent (not the right one, but they give it a go) and the team have kept the brand names we aren't really familiar with for peanut butter and laundry detergent, etc, but the actual location of the play is never brought to the fore. It is this lack of dramaturgical understanding which gets me all riled up because the topic is so contemporary and important.

I really wanted to like Dry Land so much more than I did, but the direction and some of those key choices around Amy left me frustrated and disappointed. Some of the problems do rest with the playwright I will say. Dry Land is still a two hander play with appendages. As good as the cast are (and they are good) the three supporting roles never earn their place on stage or in the story and the story develops too slowly overall.

To finish on a positive note, I have to say that Dunn positively shone as Ester. Her journey was detailed, complicated and resolved to perfection.

2.5 Stars


THE ROOF IS CAVING IN: Theatre Review

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 ...