July-September 2006

Agnes of God

The Annual Report

The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead

Churchill's Black Dog

Cirque Eloise: Rain

Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset

Die Fledermaus

Dr Ox: The Experiment

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds



The Knowing of Mary Poppins

Last Drinks

Mabou Mines Dollhouse

New Royal

1975: A Love Story

The Pacific Solution


Porgy and Bess


The Return

Romeo and Juliet

Sub-Con Warrior

A Touch of Venus

Tribes of Avalon


Two Weeks with the Queen

Virtually Richard 3

Why Kids

The Woman Before

The Woman in Black

The Works of William Shakespeare (by Chicks)

Zack Adams: A Complete History



Sleeping Beauty

Earlier reviews Queensland's Online Stage Magazine

The Woman Before  
Queensland Theatre Company (Bille Brown Studio)

By Roland Schimmelpfennig

Professional production

When Barabas, in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, is reminded that in the past he has committed fornication, he replies carelessly, “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead”. Such a breezy dismissal of past vows and responsibility has got a lot of men into trouble over the centuries for, as the central character in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play discovers, the past is not always so easily shaken off.

QTC’s current production, while it may divide audiences, runs no risk of boring them. It is a troubling piece, exploring as it does the problematic relationship between our past and present selves and our current responsibility for earlier commitments; particularly those promises made in the name of love.

The play opens in a reassuringly concrete present with a long-married couple, Frank and Claudia, and their teen-aged son, Andi, packing up their house for a move to a new life far away. All sense of normality is shattered when a woman arrives, claiming to be the husband’s lover from 24 years ago who has come to keep him to his youthful promise to love her for ever.

It is at this point that the play could have gone down the well-worn path of domestic farce, with the hapless husband desperately trying to keep wife and earlier mistress apart and the newcomer re-appearing inconveniently throughout the play and threatening (happily, unsuccessfully in the end) to destroy his domestic idyll. For a few moments the audience is lulled into thinking that this is, in fact, the direction that the plot will take. However, Schimmelpfennig’s theme is a much darker one, and it gradually becomes evident that, once readmitted to his present, this woman from the past will wreak a dreadful havoc in Frank’s life which he is powerless to avert.

As Frank, Paul Bishop shows us a man for whom the past is, conveniently, another country and for whom past liaisons are well and truly dead. He leaves the audience unsure whether he does, in fact, recall any of what Romy claims they shared, or whether it is possible that it might all be a figment of her disturbed mind. Audiences can decide for themselves whether his willingness to consider abandoning his family for her is more than a middle-aged man’s momentary fantasy of escaping a tired marriage, or a recognition that, as she claims, their love was eternal. There is considerable ambiguity in Frank’s character, and Paul Bishop delivers a characteristically well nuanced performance.

Christen O’Leary is mesmerising as the mysterious Romy. Outwardly elegant, calm and pleasant, she nevertheless radiates strength and menace, and not for a moment do we question or underestimate her power to destroy what she cannot have. Her callous treatment of Frank’s son Andi when she discovers that, like his father, he can love and still reject his girlfriend, is made to appear totally logical in such a driven woman. Medea-like, Romy is relentless in her punishment of what she sees as her betrayal, and her revenge is likewise horrific.

Claudia, Frank’s wife, represents the reality that is doomed by Romy’s emergence from her husband’s past. Her peace of mind is destroyed, not so much by Romy’s existence, as by the fact that Frank has never mentioned her in nineteen years of marriage. Wanting to trust her husband, she is nevertheless unsettled by what she sees as his deliberate concealment – a response that Frank, like many men perhaps, finds hard to understand. Anne Pensalfini gives her a credibility that is all the more effective because, though her character is an innocent victim, she never plays for audience sympathy, making Claudia’s fate all the more shocking.

Anthony Standish plays Andi, the younger version of his father, and Emily Tomlins his girlfriend Tina who serves almost as a chorus to the action. Emily Tomlins has proved a versatile and engaging Emerging Artist for QTC, and in her very personal reading of Tina she adds a much-needed lightness to this increasingly grim tale.

Schimmelpfennig chooses to employ a fractured narrative for this modern story of imagined betrayal and very real revenge. Fragments of scenes are played, then replayed in context; a technique more familiar to modern movie-goers than to theatre audiences. While adding an element of novelty and possibly Brechtian alienation, it is not at all clear that this device adds much else of significance to the play. The repetition does not serve to further illuminate motivation or character, nor does it successfully signify underlying ironies or mythic resonances; eventually prompting in this viewer irritation at what seemed more like gimmickry than theatrical innovation.

Any other faults in this assured production can more properly be laid at the door of the writer or translator rather than that of the cast or director. There were a few disturbingly awkward lines and moments in the play that did not ring true — such as the scene when Frank is uncharacteristically cruel to his wife — to which the audience reacted with audible incredulity. If this were a deliberate effect the writer wanted to achieve, it was neither prepared for nor followed up effectively and therefore difficult to justify. It might be that a different approach from the director could have helped the actors over these particular hurdles, but overall the directorial hand was confident and Jon Halpin was very well served by his sound and lighting designers, Brett Collery and Matt Scott. Robert Kemp’s set effortlessly spanned the cinemascopic Bille Brown stage; its white expanse a fitting frame for the tragic action.

There is much to think and talk about in this play which takes the audience on a fast-moving ride from the domestic normality of the opening to the mythic nightmare of its conclusion. There have been many novels and plays written about the unwelcome intrusion of the past into ordered lives and the poisonous effects of revenge and this play delivers an interesting take on an ancient theme.

Directed by Jon Halpin

Playing until: 14 October 2006: Tuesday 6:30pm, Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Wednesday matinees 1pm, Saturday matinees 2pm

Running time:75 mins, no interval

(Performance seen:21 September 2006)

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 21st September 2006)
Details of this show  |  Back to Top Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
1975: A Love Story  
Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art

By Irene Vela

Amateur production

Cast: Melita Jurisic, Lisa-Marie Charalambous, Sandro Colarelli, and Lily Chang, Lionel Theunissen with Canto Coro

Think back to the heady days of the mid-'70s, the Whitlam era. Were you out celebrating on election night? Eating and drinking? What were you wearing? Mentally fast forward through the hard-left swing of politics, free tertiary study and Medibank, end of conscription. Perhaps the picture blurs a little over Southeast Asian events? Didn’t East Timor gain independence, and Whitlam supported its integration into Indonesia if achieved through non-military means? Ah, and didn’t Indonesia invade East Timor but the Australia government turned a blind eye? Remember, the “Balibo Five” Australian journalists were killed while trying to expose a covered up bloodbath, reportedly in “crossfire,” and their bodies were burned to cover evidence.

These events are fleshed out in Irene Vela’s ambitious musical with Romeo and Juliet undertones about Greek-Australian radical student, Rosa (Charalambous) who falls in love with Aussie journalist Tom (Colarelli). Her Greek papa is incensed and kicks her out of the house so she moves in with Tom and his possessive divorced mother, activist ALP member and candidate, Paula Risic (Jurisic). When Rosa encourages Tom to investigate East Timorese atrocities, leading to his death, there’s a conflagration of guilt and maternal/girlfriend conflict that is uneasily resolved over his coffin.

It’s performed by Canto Coro, a community choir which was formed in Brisbane in 1995; its Melbourne sister choir premiered the work in 2003. Lead roles are sung by professional actor/singers, while the chorus draws from multicultural (especially Greek and Hispanic) and indigenous communities, including students from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing arts.

Does it capture the zeitgeist of the Whitlam era? Remember the colourful kaftans, flowing Indian and cheesecloth skirts and blouses, platform shoes, the ubiquitous jeans that we wore? This production, much as it portrays the Indonesian invasion, the journalists’ deaths and a cynical excuse for their funeral, is already bleak enough, set as it is against black stage and curtains. The opening scenes of the election night celebration needed bright colour, lively movement rather than synchronised shuffling; flowing long hair, tie-dyed clothing and far more knee-high boots and jeans. The opening mood would have been lifted by investing a few dollars of their shoestring budget in cheese and Jatz bikkies, carafes, beer cartons and plastic glasses, rather than miming the drinking. Ah, but there’s the rub; this production was totally self-funded with no assistance from arts organisations, as was pointedly noted in the program.

Vocally, the lead singers show professionalism and experience; an assured Rosa (Charalambous) shines through the production and is a pleasure to watch and hear, though her sweet voice is sometimes overwhelmed by the musicians. Her lover, Tom (Colarelli) is a convincing actor with a pleasant and resonant voice that might be stunning with deeper breath control. While Jurisic is respected and experienced as an international and award winning actor with some singing credits, her Paula struggles with ungainly melodies apparently out of her range. Intonation lacks focus, especially obvious when joined with close harmonies from the cast. She projects a tension and off-balance posture which initially seems at odds with political candidature, but more convincingly reveals the trauma and heartbreak of losing her son.

There are some psychological and personality insights as when Tom quotes his last meeting with his father on a tram ten years ago, saying: “I thought I married a wife and I married a struggle instead.” (This line later boomerangs back at Rosa.) At times the libretto resorts to clichés (“Everything I’ve worked hard for is hanging by a thread”) and strings of Gilbert and Sullivanesque rhymes (enemies-history-hypocrisy-sympathy and anticipate-interrogate-pontificate.)

Some discordant harmonies don’t ring true, though usually effective orchestration is well projected by the six musicians capably directed by Mark Dunbar. Special commendation goes to David Kemp on percussion and the brass and reeds players. It’s commendable for Vela to compose such an ambitious score without formal musical education, and Dunbar’s skills are evident in orchestration (flavoured by Weill, Bernstein and Stravinsky) direction and above all his indefatigable enthusiasm. Sue Rider’s direction lifts the standard of amateur performers to acceptable if rather careful levels.

The first half is over-long and concentration begins to fade before it ends abruptly. There are no curtain calls so we have to gather this means interval time rather than The End. However, the second half opens up-tempo with percussive choreography and excellent voices from a fly swatting, rubber-stamping Ambassador (wittily captured by Theunissen with crisp diction and fine voice which ranges up to the falsetto) and his sidekick aides, Libby Schmidt and Lily Change. The prolonged and largely static choral funeral needs editing and focus, yet from its dirge rises an uplifting final scene in which Rosa, radiant in brightened lighting, vows to not return home until she finds witnesses to the atrocity.

Inevitably Whitlam’s messianic lines “Men and women of Australia” and “Well may we say…” are featured. This semi-staged production is brave and overall succeeds quite well in its goal to reflect contemporary multicultural Australia. With closer attention to diction and vocal technique, livelier stagecraft and musical polish, Canto Coro may become a cultural force worth watching in future productions. Oh, and more funding would help.

Directed by Sue Rider; Artistic Director/Conductor Mark Dunbar

Playing Thursday - Sundays, 15-25 September 2006 at 8pm, Saturday matinee 1.30pm

Duration: 150 minutes, 20-minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 22nd September 2006)
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Dr Ox: The Experiment  
Villanova Players (The Theatre, Morningside Campus of Southbank TAFE)

Adapted by Rod Thompson from a short story by Jules Verne

Amateur production

Unless we have friends or relatives intimately involved in a performance, or enjoy going out in a group, or think that any live theatre is better than none, most of us steer well clear of amateur theatre.

As a reviewer of 25 years’ experience, I’ve spent some of the worst nights of my life sitting through two hours or more of bad acting, sets that fall down, draughty halls and backache-inducing chairs, probably being the only one in the audience wondering how soon it will be over, and whether I can possibly sneak away at interval. (I very rarely do, I promise, unless it’s too bad to endure, or if I know the play and have seen enough to know that there are going to be tears before bedtime – chiefly mine.)

Occasionally, however, dedication and patience are rewarded, which is why I keep on going to amateur theatre – not as often as I should, I suppose, but everyone deserves a few nights at home in front of the telly, even jaded reviewers.

I had one such night last week when I went, with my usual low expectations, to see Villanova’s latest production, a new play by local hero Rod Thompson based on a short story by Jules Verne called Dr Ox: The Experiment. It’s set in 1873 in a mythical Flemish village called Quiquendone, a peaceful community where “there hasn't been the shadow of a disagreement for a century; where the cab drivers don't swear, the dogs don't bark, the cats don't scratch. A town where the police-court has nothing to do from one year's end to the next; where crime is as good as a myth, and where not an indictment has been drawn up for one hundred years. A town, in short, where for three centuries nobody has struck a blow in anger!", to quote either the playwright or Jules Verne – the program notes don’t make it quite clear.

But along comes Dr Ox (played with real success by Suresh Poonavaala), a scientist who decides to change the town completely by the introduction of excess quantities of oxygen into the air. The character smacks of Dr Frankenstein, in that his experiment gets out of hand, and the whole tenor of the village is disrupted as the inhabitants are totally changed by his experiment. Suddenly tempers become frayed, women demand independence (apparently Thompson’s wife Maria Plumb, who directs the play, insisted on adding a feminist dimension to Jules Verne’s original all-male plot), love affairs take on a life of their own, and old friends fall out over trivial matters. They even go to war against a neighbouring village, Oudenarde, with whom they have hitherto co-existed peaceably.

The fun in the play is the changes in people’s temperament and the way the final disaster, brought about by Dr Ox’s assistant Ygene (work out for yourself the bad French pun on their names before the narrator tells you), actually turns the clock back so that all is almost as it used to be, but the pleasure is compounded by the narrator, Jules Verne himself, who hurries the script and the actors along, constantly interrupting them and explaining to the audience what’s going to happen. Why Brett Heath didn’t want his name on the program as the Jules Verne character I can’t imagine, because he is quite wonderful, hamming up the role so skilfully that he almost convinces us that the very amateur performances of the other actors are only this stilted because they are his puppets. It’s a clever theatrical conceit, which can only work in the hands of a master actor whom, in the case of Brett Heath, the director has.

The text abounds with unforced literary references, some I suspect from the original Jules Verne story ( The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and certainly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are there), but the adaptation itself, knowingly or not, has more than a touch of Dad’s Army and even Aristophanes’ Lysistrata , a play from ancient Greece where the women withhold their sexual favours until their men refrain from going to war.

I’m not pretending this is a brilliant production, for the cast is mostly made up of amateurs whose enthusiasm far outweighs their abilities, but Brett Heath’s performance alone is worth the $16 admission fee.

But I loved the costumes. Never has fabric stiffening been put to such creative use as in making the white Dutch-doll bonnets, and what Leo Bradley achieves with baubles and trimmings from Spotlight’s haberdashery section can only be called a triumph, even if the bright green pompoms stuck on Michael Byrnes’ 21st century black lace-ups are a big mistake.

But most of all it’s exciting, for me at least, to see a local play that has intelligence, wit and an imaginative structure, and I mean no disrespect to cast and crew if I say that it deserves a much better production than this. If I were Rod Thompson, I’d send the script to Playlab, or even to the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference, because with a bit of help from a professional dramaturg and a professional reading, it could develop into something very good indeed.

Directed by Maria Plumb

Playing until 23 September – Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7.30pm, matinees Sundays 10 and 17 September at 1.30pm

Duration : 2 hours, including interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 9th September 2006)
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Two Weeks with the Queen  
Harvest Rain Theatre Company

Adapted by Mary Morris from the novel by Morris Gleitzman

Pro-am production

Childhood cancer is a frightening thing, and not just for the victims and their parents. What about the child’s siblings, who often don’t understand and probably can’t accept that a person their own age may be going to die? How does the brother or sister of a child with cancer cope not just with the illness, but with the parents’ distress and the changes in routine?

It’s a topic not often treated in literature, but when Morris Gleitzman wrote his book Two Weeks with the Queen about a typical Australian country kid called Colin whose little brother Luke suddenly develops cancer, it became an instant success.

Later Mary Morris adapted it for the stage, and ever since the play has been performed both professionally and by amateurs, for it is a touching but very funny script, and an effective way of communicating with the 10–14 age group about a problem that most of them won’t have to face, but which helps them to come to terms with death.

The point of view is that of Colin, tough and funny, who refuses to accept the verdict and is determined to find a way to cure his brother. He decides that Queen Elizabeth II must have the best doctor in the world, so resolves to contact her to borrow her private physician.

The way he goes about this is so naïve but so inventive that it almost makes your heart break to think of his inevitable disappointment, but Colin has lots of fun along the way, especially as his first stroke of luck is being sent to London to stay with his aunt, uncle and hypochondriac cousin, to be out of the way while his brother dies.

Ever the optimist, Colin finds his way to the gates of Buckingham Palace, is quite indignant when he’s not allowed in, and late one night takes his wimpish cousin and tries to climb over the fence. All hell breaks loose, and although from there the plot develops pretty much as one might expect, there are more characters to come, and deeper issues about acceptance of difference, and different ways of dying, that give the play a gravitas that it would otherwise lack.

This is a very important play, but whether the Harvest Rain version is a very important production is another matter. It’s been cast mainly from the younger group of HR players, and director Leigh Walker has given them their heads to do as they like.

I think this was not wise. These actors are too young and too inexperienced to hold back their performances, and they take some of the comic sequences to extreme, not realising that it’s more effective to underplay than overplay. Therefore the Qantas air-hostess (but why is she wearing Virgin Blue colours?), who wriggles her bum and struts around like a cat-walk caricature, loses all credibility; as does the appalling English family who makes Harry Potter’s Aunt and Uncle seem like a perfectly normal set of characters.

Although Josh McIntosh’s sets are very witty and the choreography is slick, the production doesn’t measure up as adult theatre. And there’s a question that should be asked – is it better that young people should see a good play sloppily done, so that they learn nothing about theatrical excellence; or not see it at all, thus missing out on some valuable ethical insights? Just a thought.

Directed by Leigh Walker

Playing until 23 September 2006 – Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 20 minutes, one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 7th September 2006)
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The Knowing of Mary Poppins  
Visy Theatre

Written by Marcel Dorney, Leah Mercer, Margi Brown-Ash, Stace Callaghan & Carol Schmidt, from an original concept by Leah Mercer

Professional production

P L Travers hated Walt Disney, with good reason, for he did an unforgivable thing. Disney turned one of the strongest, most complex figures in children’s fiction into a trite romantic, and immortalised her in a way that her creator never intended. For P L Travers it must have been like seeing your rough-and-tumble child made into a Barbie doll.

Today’s children know Mary Poppins best from the Disney musical, with Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, but the character that previous generations grew up with was created by Helen Lyndon Goff (who preferred to be known as P L Travers), and was as tough and vulnerable as she was herself. And even if we didn’t realise it then, she was the Eternal Female endlessly seeking the great god Zeus; the Triple Goddess who incorporates the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.

The Knowing of Mary Poppins, which presents the life and strange character of Travers herself in a surreally wonderful setting, is currently having a second run at the Visy Theatre. It has been refined and simplified this year, or so it seemed to me when I saw it, and it works even better. There’s been a cast change, too, Jodie le Vesconte replacing Carol Schmidt as the Mother, Sunlight, Mary Poppins and other characters, and her strange haunting beauty adds an almost ethereal dimension to a production and a vision that is already other-worldly, while at the same time having its feet firmly on the ground.

Stace Callaghan and Margi Brown Ash repeat their unforgettable portrayals of the Maiden and the Crone, the set is as playful and profound as ever, and Robert D Clark’s music is again a joy.

I reviewed this show last year (Stagediary August 2005), so there’s no need for me to say the same things again. But my opinion then was the same as now – it’s one of the most inspired, poignant, magical and enchanting shows to come out of Queensland, and it deserves to be seen much more widely. I hope that Arts Queensland can see its way to touring the production soon.

Directed by Leah Mercer

Designer Conan Fitzpatrick, composer/musician Robert D Clark

Playing 31 August - 9 September 2006: Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm

Duration : 1 hour 20 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 6th September 2006)
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The Annual Report  
Gardens Theatre

Written and performed by Rod Quantock

Arts Council Tour

Professional production

There’s something about the old-style Melbourne Loony Left that is enduringly endearing. Think Barry Dickens and his ilk, and older readers will know just what I mean.

Rod Quantock has always been a leading light (or cess-pit, according to your political and aesthetic point of view) in Australian comedy – remember Australia, You’re Standing In It on the ABC back in the '80s? He’s kept his career going for decades longer than any of his contemporaries except Barry Humphries, which proves something about (a) the ongoing relevance of his satirical targets and (b) his uncanny ability to latch onto the current zeitgeist, as the full house at his one-night show at the Gardens Theatre proved.

In spite of the crude language, the deliberate defiance of political correctness, the simplicity of his arguments and the soft targets of his anger, the show is much more structured and clever than it seems on the surface. There’s no point in my relaying any of the jokes, because it’s one of those shows where you really did have to be there, but the way he wove a few key objects and ideas through what seemed on the surface to be an eclectic ramble was breath-takingly funny, and an object lesson for young comedians who want to learn some tricks of the trade.

His microphone stand is a case in point. For a full ten minutes we get its provenance, its connexion with young Rod and the part it played in his life journey, its versatility and adaptability. Then, somehow, it performs with an audience member and is put into her tender care, and we forget all about it until it becomes the instrument of John Howard’s downfall at the end of the show, as Our Beloved Leader comes on as a matchbox and … well, as I said earlier, you just had to be there.

Quantock is a cult figure mainly for the Baby Boomers, as we haven’t seen him much on television for a couple of decades, except in those appalling ads for Capt’n Snooze beds. A large percentage of the audience was greying and thickening around the waist, and he makes no attempt to hide this fact, or that he is on an Arts Council “regional tour”, in which Brisbane is the only capital city. Other destinations are Albany in WA, Portland in Victoria, Narrabri in NSW, and the Pilbeam Theatre in Rockie – hardly high-status venues, but he weaves the joke into his narrative until we begin to feel sorry for the other big cities that didn’t get to see him.

He works the audience beautifully, with no over-the-top humiliation like Dame Edna’s, although he does make a running joke about people who arrive late, and when a heavily pregnant woman sneaked in the back ten minutes late, engaged her in cheerful conversation with her about the reason, which turned out to be the old “three children at home with the baby-sitter” excuse. But that was it, and she was left to enjoy the show in peace, although sneaky references to large families did make their appearance along the way.

In spite of the humour, Quantock is an angry man who lets it all hang out. No subtle disguising of his subjects here – Howard, Vanstone and Ruddock are people he seriously hates, and he goes for them with both barrels. It’s not the genial humour of The Glass House team, and some of the audience were a little discomforted, because political humour has softened in the years since Quantock’s career began. And in some cases he cut very close to the bone, so that if the Thought Police had been around, they would have taken his tongue-in-cheek anti-Arab rhetoric seriously – as did many of the audience, until they read between the lines and saw his point.

On the surface it seems blatant and as lacking in subtlety as a parliamentary debate, but that’s the glory of it, because it’s deeply intellectual, and it takes clever people or ex-Melburnians (which are not necessarily mutually-exclusive groups) to work out the double- and triple-entendres. It’s not for a Good News Week audience, but appeals to people who would enjoy John Clarke and Brian Dawe even more if they went feral.

Quantock is The Chaser team growing old disgracefully; an obsessively party-political Roy and HG; a grown-up Paul McDermott without the nasty edge. The Annual Report is for True Believers only, especially those whose political passions are not yet spent, and who have maintained the rage for thirty years and more. But nobody can do this kind of partisan humour better than Rod Quantock, and it proves one thing at least – that Australia, in spite of current evidence to the contrary, is still a free society, because in the US he’d immediately be locked up in Guantanamo Bay, and in China he’d be taken out and shot. That’s how good he is.

Directed by Rod Quantock

Played 29 August 2006

Duration : 75 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 29th August 2006)
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Last Drinks  
La Boite Theatre

by Shaun Charles (adapted from the novel by Andrew McGahan)

The Roundhouse, Musk Avenue, Kelvin Grove

Professional production

If you go to Last Drinks seeking ultimate enlightenment about the dirty tricks of Brisbane’s hit-men and politicians that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.

And if you try to draw direct parallels between the characters in this play and the real-life characters of the time, ditto. Except, that is, for the disgusting Minister-for-Everything, played with gusto by Steve Tandy with his hair dyed, certainly the most colourful and possibly the most evil of the many corrupt politicians of the dark dying days of the National Party government in Queensland in the late 1980s.

The political background is certainly there, and the program notes provide musings by Errol O’Neill and John Orr to prove it, but the play is based on Andrew McMahan’s crime novel of the same name, which won him the Ned Kelly Award for best first crime novel in 2000. So it’s best to forget about playing Spot-the-Character and concentrate instead on who’s doing what, and with which, and to whom, because that’s a hard enough ask in itself.

The story involves a disgraced journalist George (played as a pathetic dumb ox by the usually-sparkling Peter Marshall), who is trying to find out who murdered his old but estranged best mate, Charlie the restaurateur (and if the name of a certain big-time restaurant guru in Brisbane just flashed through your mind, let it stop right there, for Charlie has already been done to death in the nastiest and most visually shocking way by who-knows-who?).

When the dastardly person’s identity is revealed at the end, it comes as something of an anti-climax, as we’ve been through a number of murders in the course of the action, and most of the suspects have already been killed, so there are no prizes for guessing, but it’s a rather cheap trick when the culprit turns out not to have appeared in the action heretofore.

Three of the cast – Peter Marshall as George, Steven Tandy as Marvin the corrupt politician and Damien Cassidy unrecognisable with a shaved head as the unfortunate Charlie – are free to concentrate on their single characters, but Chris Betts (2 roles) Chris Baz (3) and especially the unfortunate Helen Howard (4 ) have so much to do that it’s sometimes hard to tell which role they’re playing at which time.

Helen Howard as the Nun, Maybelline (girlfriend of George and many others), Louise (whose purpose in the narrative escapes me as I write) and the Stripper (and we’ve all heard about the sexy black undies which, you’ll be glad to hear, are not as obscene as the publicity would have us believe) has such a short period on stage as any of them that’s it’s impossible for her to establish believable characters, and we are left with sketchy caricatures, some of which are more successful than others.

Chris Betts is better as the ultimate villain than as the poncy public servant, which he rather too obviously models on Sir Humphrey without the dry wit, and at two days’ remove I can’t distinguished between any of Chris Baz’s three roles.

This may be, of course, because I found it hard to concentrate, for the lighting is so dark that it was often difficult to work out what was going on. David Walters shows his usual mastery with special effects, but it doesn’t work well in the unconfined area of the Roundhouse, any more than the extra space that the stage offers helps the audience to understand as well as see what’s going on. This is a play, I think, that would work better on a thrust stage or even as a fourth-wall space with all the actors facing the audience, as the darkness in the round hides their faces rather too well. Shadowy the play and its atmosphere are meant to be, I know, but that doesn’t help if the audience isn’t sure who is who at any particular time.

I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t make comparisons, but as a play Last Drinks seems to me to have confused its genres. There’s not enough about the Fitzgerald Inquiry to clarify many of the issues, especially to the younger people in La Boite’s audience who were only children at the time. And even for those of us who lived through it, the references don’t really illuminate the plot. And as a crime thriller, it’s a bit of a fizzer.

Ninety minutes was plenty for me, and in spite of the spectacular lighting effects at the end, Last Drinks ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Director and dramaturg Ian Lawson

Designer Bruce McKinven, lighting designer David Walters

Playing 17 August – 2 September 2006: Tuesday and Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday 8pm, matinee Saturday 2 September 2pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 18th August 2006)
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The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead

Queensland Theatre Company (Cremorne Theatre)

By Robert Hewett

Professional production

With Jacki Weaver

You have to love this Jacki Weaver showcase.

Forget all the portentous stuff in the program notes about the idea of forgiveness, with its references to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and the victims in Northern Ireland who have exonerated the perpetrators of the violence. This is an artificial moral gloss put on what is, essentially, a one-woman show that links seven different characters in the same story, a gloss that attempts to give the play more gravitas than it deserves.

As a piece of drama, let’s not over-praise it, but accept it for what it is - a popular commercial production starring one of Australia’s most popular commercial actors, a real audience pleaser, and deservedly so.

But let’s not dismiss it too readily, either, damning it for its shallow dialogue and caricatured characters, some of whom are even less subtle than Kath and Kim. Not every play that hits the stage has to be highbrow or deep-and-meaningful. There’s room in the theatre for The Australian Women’s Weekly version of tragedy and ruined lives, especially when it’s presented as delightfully as it is here, and why shouldn’t the Queensland Theatre Company get frothy every now and then? This is a lot more fun than they’ve given their audiences in a long time.

Jacki Weaver relishes every moment of her seven roles in The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead , and why shouldn’t she? It’s a dream vehicle for an actor as accomplished as this, and she plays everyone from a 4-year-old boy to an old woman with (almost) equal aplomb. She teases and flirts with her audience, playing directly to them and inviting them to join with her in what is basically a series of dress-ups, and they respond with enthusiasm, for she is absolutely beguiling. There’s no attempt to conceal the costume changes, which are all done on stage, although semi-concealed by a darkening of the lights, and as she comes on in yet another wig (at least one of them white, as well as the B, B and R of the title) there is often spontaneous applause, which she acknowledges with a wink or a shrug of the shoulder.

Yes, she knows how to seduce her audience and, as I said, you gotta love her for it.

The story is about a rather dull suburban woman, Rhonda Russell, who hears from her next-door-neighbour and so-called best friend Lynette that her husband, who has recently left her, is having an affair with the blonde in the cheap jewellery store in the local shopping centre. So angry is she that she goes off to aforesaid shopping centre and, more by accident than design, kills a blonde, who of course turns out to be the wrong woman, the partner of a lesbian doctor and biological mother of their IVF son Matthew (the cute little kid who keeps a lizard called Lily in a shoebox). Weaver plays all these characters as well as her ex-husband Graham and Mrs Carruthers, the old lady who looks after the little boy. There’s not enough time for any of them to be portrayed except in the sketchiest of terms, but in taking on the roles of seven different first-person narrators, Weaver invites the audience to flesh out for themselves the skeletons of the characters she presents, so we become, once again, part of the process of theatre-making.

It’s such a clever trick on the part of playwright Robert Hewett that it disarms all but the most curmudgeonly of critics, and although this production has been dismissed as slight and fluffy, I found it immensely entertaining. It didn’t arouse any deep emotions, or make me think very much about the issue of forgiveness – after all, the crime was manslaughter rather than murder, there was no premeditation, and the death occurred only because the victim slipped on a dropped ice-cream cone – but I was captivated the whole way through because of Weaver’s captivating performances and sheer versatility.

Don’t go expecting a masterpiece, but enjoy it for what it is. In spite of the self-important program notes, which were written by neither playwright nor director, so that lets them off the hook, the play offers us a tour-de-force from one of Australia’s most loveable actors, and a gentle reminder that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but as many different ways of seeing as there are participants in any drama.

So leave your high moral principles at home and enjoy already!

Directed by Jennifer Hagan

Designer Laurence Eastwood

Playing until 16 September 2006: Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Tuesday 6.30pm matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : 2 hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 17th August 2006)
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New Royal  
Metro Arts Theatre

By Marcel Dorney

The Independents 2006

Profit share production

With Louise Brehmer, Jonathan Brand, Lucas Stibbard

In Greek mythology, Hera was the wife (and sister) of Zeus, king of the Gods. She was worshipped as the goddess of marriage and birth, and her virginity returned every year when she bathed in a sacred well. Her children, some sources suggest, were conceived not with the help of a man, but out of lust and hatred, by slapping her hand on the ground. She was constantly jealous of her husband’s amorous affairs, and punished her rivals with implacable fury. Even Zeus could not stand up to her.

Why do you need to know all this? Simply because it might help to understand the choice of name for the female character in this play, an aspiring designer from the Gold Coast. Marcel Dorney’s Hera crashes the official opening of her hometown’s new Centre for Excellence in Science and the Arts (stop laughing!) and reluctantly becomes embroiled with a big, beefy, shaven-headed bully (Jonathan Brand) who has recently inherited his father’s vast media empire. Presumably to avoid libel suits, Dorney has named this thuggish anti-hero Lachlan, not an especially subtle touch, especially as his family name is Vaunt.

Lachlan woos her with helicopter flights and a platinum credit card, and offers her a design space over which she is to have complete control, so naturally she agrees to marry him and bear his children. What she doesn’t realise (because she hasn’t read the same unreliable scandal sheets that we have) is that he is in fact homosexual, but needs an heir to continue the dynasty. And here entereth crippled architectural genius Dan Pritikin (for the life of me, I couldn’t work out the symbolism of this name), and we are left to ponder whether he is the hero bringing salvation or the devil who will take Hera down to hell so that male might and egos will prevail.

But don’t underestimate our girl. She is the Queen of the Gods, and although she may have as little idea about what is going on as we have, she manages to seduce Pritikin so that she can get pregnant (sensitive audience members may like to avert their eyes from this particular scene), wreaks revenge on all her enemies and, one supposes, goes off into the world to found a dynasty of her own.

At least, that’s what I think happens. The plot is so convoluted, and the script so laboured and portentous, that I kept losing interest, in spite of the best efforts of the very talented threesome who agreed to play these over-written parts. New Royal has the sub-title “un comedie de nouveau noir” , which makes the very basic mistake of confusing the gender of the noun, which should be une comedie - and I’m sorry to be pedantic, but if you’re going to show off by using French phrases, you should be careful to get the grammar correct; and while I’m on the subject, was Lucas Stibbard’s abominable French accent deliberate, or didn’t he and the director know any better? …(At this point, having lost my own grammatical structure entirely, I’m going to finish this sentence and begin again…)

New Royal purports to be “a wicked black diamond of a comedy”, but I’m afraid it gives out a dull glow rather than a sparkle. This is partly because of the over-convoluted plot, but mostly because of the stodgy dialogue, which is more like a laborious written treatise than a playscript meant for performance. This is a great disappointment, for Marcel Dorney is one of our best young playwrights, and his scripts for Oman Ra and The Knowing of Mary Poppins were real treats. But here he takes himself and his thesis far too seriously, and lacks the lightness of touch that has made his other plays so appealing.

It fell to the actors to make the play glitter at all, and Louise Brehmer in particular managed to sustain the fire in her taxing role of Hera/narrator. Lucas Stibbard as Pritikin showed a physical agility with his crutches that matched the appropriate surliness of his embittered character Pritikin (and I suppose he is almost thin enough to deserve that name); while Jonathan Brand increases in stature as an actor with every new role, although I could have wished for a little more menace in his rather stolid performance.

New Royal is a play with a great deal of potential, but I think it needs the objective eye of a dramaturge to bring it down to size, by cutting some of the most academically pretentious prose and simplifying the text.

Directed by Marcel Dorney

Music composed and performed by Dani Kirby

Playing until 26 August: Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, no performance Friday 24 August

Duration : 1 hour 40 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 12th August 2006)
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Brisbane Powerhouse

Music and lyrics by Casey Bennetto

The Drowsy Drivers

Professional production

Oh yes, I remember it well - the Kirribilli agreement, the sweetest victory of all, the piggery, the Armani suits, Placido Domingo, Alexander Downer’s fishnets, and Australia deciding time and again.

They were heady days in Australian politics, the early 1990s, and all of the (admittedly partisan) audience at the Powerhouse last week gasped, thrilled, cheered, hissed and scoffed, as the program urged them to do, at Paul Keating’s various victories and inevitable final defeat, and laughed themselves sick at the blatant political revisionism.

Keating! is political satire at its best, at least as good as Max Gillies but with the added advantage of great music from reggae to rock, all composed by writer/actor/director Casey Bennetto, and performed by the most cheerful bunch of musos you’ve ever seen, who sing along, provide the chorus lines, and get up and perform minor roles. I’ll never forget whatsisname, dressed as Cheryl Kernow in a bad blonde wig and a red shoe-string top that displayed a great deal of chest hair, singing “Heavens, Mr Evans”, and her Foreign Affair replying in tones somewhat less-than-dulcet, “My heart’s in peril, Cheryl”.

Mike McLeish plays Keating, wily and articulate, especially in his invective, and in the songs manages to rhyme Howard not with coward , for a pleasant change, but with empowered and grapes that are soured , while the very well-built Casey Bennetto appears first in a gleaming wig and a white towelling dressing gown, not so much as the Silver Budgie but the Silver Barn Owl; and later, as Keating’s nemesis, needing only horn-rimmed specs and bushy eyebrows to place him in the power struggle.

I wonder if Peter Costello saw this show in one of its sell-out seasons in Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide, and whether he would have related to “the promise that a friend once made”, as Keating schemes to get his own back on Bob Hawke. I wonder whether today’s born-again John Hewson would recognise himself as the limp proponent of the GST, which Howard later promised we would never never have? But I bet Kerry O’Brien loved the way he is sent up in the 1993 election coverage.

This is politics for all those who can remember, not with bitterness but with nostalgia for the good old days, when stoushes were stoushes, when politics had some guts, when parliamentary debate was more than merely mud-slinging, and where we waited with bated breath for Keating’s latest streams of abuse.

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end”, but although they had to finish, this brilliant piece of satire showed us, albeit for only six performances, that there are still people of vision among ALP supporters, and that the Light on the Hill still shines, however much it may be hidden under a bushel.

Directed by Casey Bennetto and Mike McLeish

Played 8 – 12 August at 8pm, Saturday matinee at 4.30pm

Duration : 1 hour, no interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 12th August 2006)
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The Woman in Black  
Playhouse, QPAC

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill

Newtheatricals, Lunchbox Theatre Productions and Singapore Repertory Theatre

Professional production

The Woman in Black is to our times what The Mousetrap was to the mid-20th century. It’s been running for almost 20 years, has been seen by over 3 million people, and is full of chills and thrills. It’s highly professional, very cleverly plotted, hugely entertaining and extremely theatrical – which means, in effect, that it has no soul.

That’s not to say that it’s bad theatre, and you can see why it’s been running for so long, because the tension is well maintained and the shocks, when they finally come, are very effective – I have to admit to screaming and clutching my companion’s arm when the first bolt came out of the blue.

It’s a very old-fashioned ghost story, about a spooky old house, a dead widow, a long-hidden mystery and a young solicitor who is plunged into the middle of it all, having to spend nights alone in the deserted house sorting through old Mrs Drablow’s papers. The narrative technique is much more modern than the Agatha Christie model, though, for the story is told by a narrator (John Waters) who takes his manuscript to a young actor/director (Brett Tucker), hoping for some ideas about how to present this horrid tale to the world , for “it must be told”.

The young actor tries to instil some basic performance skills into the elderly author, who is such a bad reader that we don’t know whether to despair of or laugh at him, until the actor decides on a bit of role-playing, where he will play the elder man telling the tale, and the older man will take on the other parts, so that he can distance himself from the horrors that he has seen.

And so our story begins. All the elements of high melodrama are here, from the deserted house surrounded by sea mists and quicksands (you’ll hold your breath in terror as the little dog is eventually saved from a sandy grave), to a ghost in the attic, strange noises in the night, and lights that mysteriously go on and off. As the tale progresses, the narrative becomes the real drama, and the initial two people, the actor and his pupil, morph into characters in the narrative, until fact mingles with fiction so cleverly that, as audience, we lose our objectivity and suspend our disbelief until we are totally sucked into the whirlpool of the narrative.

At least, that’s the intention. But once the first shock/horror moment occurred, people in the audience started to laugh and the melodrama began to send itself up, and all we were able to do was admire the brilliance of the plotting and the talents of the actors.

But I must change that last word to the singular, for Brett Tucker, no matter how much of a spunk he may be on film and television, and no matter how he may set female viewers’ hearts racing as he does unmentionable things to long-suffering cows in McLeod’s Daughters , is a prime example of a screen actor out of his depth on stage. He is in control neither of his English accent nor his pace, and at times speaks so fast that I wished for a close-up of his face so that at least I would be able to lip read. His is a breathless, wait-for-it performance that too obviously sets up the moments of tension, and makes most of the subsequent bombshells very predictable.

His performance is a likeable but naïve Australian version of the anxious young man, so lacking in subtlety that it makes an unhappy contrast to John Waters’s absolute control of the many characters he has to play. The manifest disparity between the acting styles of the two men makes it seem as if they are in different plays, which robs the whole production of its integrity.

Waters’ performance is a lesson in multiple role-playing. His changes from the elderly author to the many minor characters in his own story are achieved effortlessly with a different hat or a different accent, and he underplays so effectively that his very stillness commands attention. Here is a rare chance to see a consummate artist at work, and he’s a joy to watch.

As a piece of commercial theatre, The Woman in Black is an enjoyable frivolity which combines lots of laughs with an acceptable amount of terror, but it’s more in the line of a ghost tale for teenagers than a true horror story – Kerry Greenwood rather than P D James, if you want a literary analogy. I wouldn’t take pre-teens to see it, for it has the nightmarish qualities that can seriously disturb unsophisticated minds, but for grown-ups who like a good laugh as well as a few shocks along the way, it’s pretty good. I don’t regret having seen it, but it’s not one of those plays that will live in my memory.

Directed by Robin Herford

Resident director Jason Langley Playing 9 – 20 August 2006: Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 1pm, Sunday matinee at 3pm

Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 10th August 2006)
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Tribes of Avalon  
Cement Box Theatre

By Matthew Brown, Benjamin Williams, and the Cast and Crew of Tribes of Avalon

Company Underground Productions

Amateur production

The program of this highly energised, highly original and highly entertaining production informs that, In the early 1970s, for reasons undisclosed, The University of Queensland’s Vice Chancellery gave directions that maintenance of its teaching facility, the Avalon Theatre, was to cease. In 2004 the Avalon was closed…due to structural damage caused by termite infestation. At that time the theatre was home to UQ’s drama program and to two of Brisbane’s leading independent theatre companies, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble (QSE) and Zen Zen Zo (ZZZ).

These are the Tribes of Avalon of the title, and if I read correctly, all are represented in the production.

Born from improvisation and gestated over a lengthy period, the mystical musical (think Pink Floyd) allegory, with its cast of thousands, both celebrates and eulogises a theatre space in which many of this state’s theatre notables spent their formative creative energies. This play, the production and the cast pay them vibrant and moving homage.

Director Sarah Thomasson, working in a minimalist and effectively flexible set by Rob Butterworth, reveals herself as a talent to be nurtured. Rarely in a large cast production have I seen such a controlled evenness of performance, or level of infectious energy and enthusiasm.

The packed house was treated to a night of theatre as it should be, in celebration of a formative icon, while raising middle finger to things as they’ve become. When a full house applauds spontaneously throughout and rises to join the dancing at final curtain, something very special is happening.

In such ensemble playing it is almost a pity to mention only a few in particular. All gave their all, and everyone in the house received and appreciated it. Jessamy Ross, Mathew Brown and Kieren Davey deserve special mention. However, Jeremy Wood as the finally redeemed villain Sowilo, gave such subtlety of gesture with his head, snake-like tongue and (when required) rap delivery, as made one want to hiss. He was nicely counter-balanced by the rich voice of Rob Butterworth as his 2IC. Although sometimes indistinct, Villy’s Jesta took the stage on every appearance. But with his final touches as Binh, Tom Kenny’s pink high heels and appreciation of an item of Sowilo’s clothing capped a performance revealing an engaging and compelling comic talent.

In two words - Bravo, ALL!

Directed by Sarah Thomasson

Playing until August 5 Wed – Sat at 8pm.

Duration : 2hours 20 mins including interval

— Ron Finney

(Performance seen: 3rd August 2006)
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A Touch of Venus 2006  
Musica Viva (Hamer Hall, Melbourne)

Yvonne Kenny, soprano, Iain Burnside, piano

Professional production

{Editor's note: Renowned Brisbane soprano Lyn Moorfoot was about to join the team as music reviewer when she had to transfer to Melbourne for professional reasons. As she was able to see Yvonne Kenny’s concert before the Brisbane recital, we are running her review of the Melbourne performance to tempt concert-goers even more. AC.}

August in Melbourne is the time to beat the winter blues and go out to the theatre. So it was that this Brisbane girl, newly arrived in Melbourne, was at Hamer Hall for a winter treat with the renowned Australian-born soprano, Yvonne Kenny, partnered on piano by her friend, Scottish pianist and BBC broadcaster, Iain Burnside.

Kenny and Burnside are touring Australia in association with Musica Viva in an intimate evening of song and poetry chronicling a woman’s life and love in a cabaret style which crosses genres and generations. It is rare for an acclaimed opera singer to tackle such a wide ranging program that includes Broadway greats like Sondheim, Kern, Weill, Porter and Coward, interspersed with gems of the classical lieder and opera repertoire – Handel, Hahn and Schumann. But not only do Kenny and Burnside accomplish this with panache, they maintain the integrity of each genre, whether it be ‘legit’ music theatre or da capo arias with baroque ornamentation.

The stage is set with an impressive floral installation, grand piano and a high stool for singer - a typical cabaret set. Kenny graces the stage in a shapely black sequined evening gown, complemented with a dash of colour from her collection of shawls which match the moods of young love, abandonment, parting, rapprochement and a chutzpah finale. Burnside is an equal partner in this venture, contributing to the elegant patter. On piano, he can conjure up, in one moment, the lush orchestral instrumentation of a Canteloube song from the Auvergne and immediately follow it with the plaintive economy of a Benjamin Britten folksong setting.

In capable hands and voice, we are taken on an emotional journey through some of the most sublime songs from the opera, chamber music and Broadway repertoire. We see the irrepressible joy of new love in Schumann’s Seit ich ihn gesehen ; the pre-adolescent agony of an eleven year old in Victoria Woods ‘ Crush , set at a Sydney bus stop; the wry truth of the morning after in William Bolcom’s Toothbrush Time ; the cynicism and co-dependence of Sondheim’s Could I leave you? ; and the pain of betrayal in Handel’s O Sleep ’. The contained longing of the Jerome Kern standard All the things you are will linger with me for many years. The second half has some demanding singing culminating in the Satie tribute to vaudeville queen Paulette Darty in La Diva de l’Empire where we glimpse Kenny’s playful tease. All those performances as Cleopatra have stood her in good stead!

Vocally, Kenny is in fine voice. The carefully crafted program shows off her trademark legato line, rich ‘chest voice’ and consistent tone through all vocal registers. Her diction is a joy and she toys with consonants with relish (you’ll get every word).

Although she is ever gracious in her acknowledgement of Burnside’s contribution, it’s Kenny herself who is the real star. At evening’s end there is yet more: three encores, including a riotous Tom Lehrer romp - Masochism Tango , followed by a tribute to a misunderstood screen icon of the 50’s that I’m not going to give away.

This is a rare treat for song enthusiasts of all genres. Try not to miss it.

Yvonne Kenny will give one recital in Brisbane at the Concert Hall, on Wednesday 9 August 2006

Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes, with one interval

— Lyn Moorfoot

(Performance seen: 2nd August 2006)
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The Return  
Springboard Theatre Company (Visy Theatre)
by Reg Cribb

The Return is an ideal platform for the talents and aspirations of Springboard Theatre Company. Formed in 2003 by Emma Dean and Luke Wright to fill a perceived gap in Brisbane theatre, this group aims to produce plays that will attract and interest young audiences while providing emerging actors with an opportunity to showcase their talent. The focus on youth, however, does not mean that their productions are all fun, froth and rock-and-roll. Unafraid to tackle confronting topics such as the experience of war, depression, violence and imminent death, Springboard is already noted as a serious company and making an impact on the Queensland scene.

The Return is set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Perth train compartment where two young misfits take advantage of a guards’ strike to terrorise the occupants. Though very specific in its references (Western Australian audiences would be particularly aware of the demographics of the route), the play could take place in Sydney, Birmingham, New York, Toronto, or any big city rife with alienation and meaningless violence. Cribb’s play reflects a society where the widening gap between the privileged and those left behind in the race to acquire more and more of the affluence on display everywhere leads to despair.

While such material could easily lend itself to sociological preaching, Cribb avoids a heavy-handed approach. From the first moment of the play when the two ex-cons burst onto the set with their rappers’ attitude and funky moves, the audience knows it will be in for an exciting ride. The ebullience and energy of these two young ratbags makes them perversely attractive, even though we are aware from the beginning that they are looking for trouble. It is they who set the tone and the pace of the show and the director, Jim Vilé, has wisely given his two young actors plenty of scope to bounce the audience into an active engagement with the story.

The play walks the now familiar but tricky line between comedy and menace, with a bit of social commentary and pathos thrown in. By and large it succeeds, keeping tension high throughout, with enough surprise in the ending to enable us to overlook some of the improbability of the denouement. The idea for the play was allegedly triggered by the author’s witnessing a girl on a train being pestered by a couple of young men while the rest of the passengers ignored the situation. This is initially what happens in Cribb’s play, but the trouble-makers here eventually turn their attention to the two other occupants of the compartment, whose reaction is quite unexpected.

Josh McIntosh has done an excellent job in designing a set that looks authentic: with its graffiti-covered windows, worn flooring and broken seats it could be any trashed suburban train. It provides a perfect playground for the two delinquents who swing around the bars with an agility that speaks both of the childish release of the schoolyard and, more unsettlingly, of hours spent working out in the prison gym. This mixture of childishness and grim experience marks both men. Though both dress like carefree youth, each wears on his body the stigmata of prison; Steve with his tattoo, Trev with his needle tracks. With these two, nothing is quite as simple as it seems on the surface and, as they attempt to rattle the cages of their fellow prisoners in the carriage, they discover that other people’s appearances can be equally deceptive.

As Lisa, the quiet young law student who, to our dismay, joins Steve and Trev in an otherwise empty carriage, Emma Dean is a convincing potential victim. As she withstands their attentions our admiration for her courage grows, only to be shaken later as the play unfolds. In the difficult role of Simon, the writer whose off-stage narration introduces the action at the beginning of the play, David Kiernan is equally convincing as a seemingly innocent and ineffectual bystander who is caught up in a situation he would prefer merely to observe. His metamorphosis is very unsettling, and it is to the actor’s credit that he remains convincing in a somewhat contrived ending to the play.

Catherine Glavicic is stunningly good as Maureen, the worn-out suburban mum, a gem of a part of which this actress relishes every moment. With her dry humour and tough worldliness, Maureen is more than a match for the young men, but Steve’s insights into the background that they share are very disturbing for her. Glavicic has a great sense of comic timing which this part gives her plenty of opportunities to display, but she is also capable of showing us Maureen’s recognition of herself, caught in the same hopeless spiral as the men, but eventually exercising a choice. Like her, we do not know at the end of the play whether or not it is the right choice. For the optimists in the audience her decision to make the return journey might be seen as a glimmer of hope; for the pessimists it could be a return to a meaningless treadmill. Certainly, for her fellow passengers the train journey has ended in distress and disillusion.

For this play to work well it needs Steve and Trev to be a very plausible couple of louts, and in Gavin Ingham and Luke Wright Jim Vilé has found as dangerous (though oddly likeable) a pair of villains as I have seen on the Brisbane stage. Luke Wright kept reminding me of the young David Wenham’s wonderful pyromaniac, Doug, in Louis Nowra’s Cosi. Though slighter than his companion, Wright’s Trev appeared volatile, thoughtlessly cruel, and in some ways the more disturbed and disturbing of the pair. Gavin Ingham’s Steve was totally intimidating; equally unpredictable, he seemed ready to explode into terrible violence at any provocation. From the opening moments he and Trev appeared as partners engaged in a complex dance, whether it be in miming extravagant guitar riffs, swinging around like acrobats, or circling each other as they prowled the compartment. Their closeness was both mesmerising and very unsettling.

Steve is by far the most well-developed character in the play and Ingham makes him really come alive. He has the physicality, the muso’s showmanship, the vocal range and the ability to make us believe in this complex thug who draws so many different responses from the audience in the course of the play. At the beginning we see him as no more than a mindless bully, but later it is clear that, though a small-time crim and a loser, he is very self-aware. His analysis of the stratum of society he comes from, where the only time a male really feels he has power is when he has a gun in his hand, and where the best career move for a girl is to get pregnant, is acute. He tells us that he has used his time in prison to get some sort of an education, but neither he nor anyone else in the play can offer any hope of change.

There appears little place for love in the lives of any of these characters, but a memory of being loved lingers for some of them as they approach the terminus. Among the many disclosures and discoveries that occur at the end of the play, perhaps the most surprising is the revelation that Steve has, in the past, performed an act of great compassion in concealing a distressing truth. It is a powerful moment and could easily be overplayed, and it is greatly to Gavin Ingham’s credit that he takes the audience with him in the painful journey Steve is forced to take, through to its bleak conclusion.

In The Return, Reg Cribb has captured an aspect of modern Australian life that is instantly recognisable in all its vigour, raciness and violence, and this production does it full justice. The play has been adapted for film and retitled Last Tram to Freo – well worth looking out for.

Directed by Jim Vilé

Playing until 12 August 2006: Evenings 7:30pm, matinee Saturday 12 August, 5pm

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (no interval)

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 2nd August 2006)
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The Pacific Solution  
Metro Arts Theatre

By Ben Eltham

Professional production

Cast: Louise Brehmer, Jonathan Brand, Lucas Stibbard, Amin Deering

The Pacific Solution brings the issue of asylum seekers in Australia right onto our suburban couches. My initial response was that this play is a worthy effort, if rather slight at only 50 minutes, and the actors do their best by it. They successfully make the point that many yobbo, cricket-loving, beer-swilling Aussies couldn’t care less for the big issues as long as she’ll be right mate in their own backyards and lounge rooms. The postcard that passes for a program cites The Pacific Solution as Ben Eltham’s first play, and it would have been helpful to have more information about him, rather than resort to good old Google. There we learn that he’s “a Brisbane-based writer, critic and musician. He is a former State Library of Queensland Young Writer of the Year, plays in a hip-hop band, Briztronix, and reviews music and theatre regularly for The Courier-Mail. Ben is the Business Manager of Straight Out of Brisbane Festival.” His play, with acute eye and ear, brings us the downside of the Australian psyche and politics.

The minimalist program means I can’t tell you more about the performers’ experience except that they’re billed as a “multi-award-winning local cast” and they appear to have all had a degree of professional experience. Thus, it’s even unclear which actors played Phil and Johnny. However, the actors all did their darndest; the conchy, serious and uptight law student Phil was very serious, very conchy and uptight to the point of being anal. The amiable ocker blokey servo server was a lovably amiable, thoroughly ocker bloke. Mandy (Louise Brehmer) who processes Centrelink claims all day, showed more switched-on tendencies, more aware and thoughtful than the men, but still not prepared to stand up to them by stepping over the line to help a needy refugee.

The play opens as Johnny and Mandy settle on the vinyl couch for the Friday all-night telecast of the Ashes, helped along with plenty of beer and a cone of pot. They banter idly about the respective merits of various beers and cricketers and Johnny rips into his hate-lists of dole-bludgers, hippies, feminists, lefties “who are paid to organise protests, my taxes pay for that.” It’s all topical with dollops of information, courtesy of Alan Jones, about petrol prices and the government’s 40% GST fuel excise and the greenhouse myth. Mandy makes a few small efforts to pull him into line over the word “bongs” though “abos” seems OK and so does his assertion that white people give money to support their petrol sniffing habits – we note the irony here as the marijuana bong goes back and forth companionably. She does venture into deep and meaningful territory by asking what he’d wanted to do after school. “Cricket”, of course. “No, when you finish school, I mean.” He looks blank but eventually points out there are only so many places in a cricket team. Such probing draws a defensive “do not question my lifestyle!” and “don’t f-ing manipulate me.”

Eltham assembles a deft grab bag of the nation’s myopia guised in Johnny’s big-hearted wash of tolerance (“I can cop the odd poofter or two.”) After all they contribute to the economy, (fashion designers and hairdressers are the new plumbers, earning $70 or $80 an hour), unlike bloody uni students and dole-bludgers. He reflects that it must be cheaper being a homo as they have fewer expenses – some pinot noir, a few condoms.

Into this, punctuated with occasional roars over runs and wickets, walks Phil, fresh from university classes and heading for his desk to study. He makes a lengthy point, trying out words like unconscionable and reprehensible , and pointing out that marijuana is a Schedule 1 illegal drug and those three joints a day ruin lungs and short term memory. Johnny counters that lawyers are a bunch of parasites to which Phil pompously says he’s studying law “to try and help people of other nations” – an assertion which is tested and failed when into their relaxed Friday night stumbles a Muslim man (Amin Deering) who begs: “I need a place to stay, I need a job, I wish to apply for asylum.”

Johnny’s first reaction, “I’m not the stinking government”, is pure blind-eye but then he compounds the situation by bashing the refugee’s head against a wall in a scuffle. It’s now deemed a home invasion and the hapless man is shoved into a cupboard while they argue their way out of the inconvenient problem.

All the stock phrases are trotted out - we’ve got to have procedures in place or we’ll be flooded; people would take advantage of our good nature; we’ll have all their family coming if we’re seen as a soft touch. As for Phil, campus president of Amnesty International, all his legal knowledge is directed into how they can avoid any involvement and he applies his ingenuity to the pesky situation. After consulting his torts he phones the landlord to have the cupboard excised from their lease so it’s not their legal responsibility. Mandy makes an effort to talk with the man and shows some sympathy, but inevitably agrees that a pacific solution is necessary; they must relocate him to an island.

The parallels are all too obvious, as is the telling rhetorical question: “How do you put a dollar value on your peace of mind? No price is too high to pay for peace of mind.” The characters have sorted out their problem with a pacific solution and can return to the more pressing issue of the cricket.

The direction is sound, the set basic with a simple tatty vinyl couch and easy chair, cupboard and two doorframes. Lighting – well, there was light, but not particularly memorable.

I came away from this short play thinking that, yes, we get the point; yes, interesting parallels, if a little obviously drawn. But it does linger in my mind and the parallels do resonate. For we all know some people just like Johnny, Mandy and Phil. The disturbing thought is, do we ourselves share some of their lines and mind-sets? In that case, the four actors have done justice to a play that, reflecting back, brought the uncomfortable issues of social justice right into our own lounge rooms. The ending came rather abruptly and we left thinking is that all there is? It’s a short play and so there’s little scope for developing the characters; they haven’t grown or been changed by the event, but that’s the point. We feel frustrated that issues were highlighted but without any real solutions even though the characters reached one that suited them. But of course, that’s the point Ben Eltham wanted to make.

Directed by Marcel Dorney

Played until 29 July 2006

Duration: 50 minutes, no interval

- Ruth Bonetti

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 29th July 2006)
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Porgy and Bess  
Living Arts (Lyric Theatre)

by George and Ira Gershwin, from the book by Dubose Heyward

Living Arts Inc. (New York) and Andrew McKinnon

Professional production

We’re all so familiar with the lilting tunes from Porgy and Bess - Summertime; A woman is a sometime thing, I got plenty of nuttin’; and It ain’t necessarily so , that we tend to forget that it’s an opera rather than a musical, and are surprised by the long recitatives and thrilling power of the voices. Finally completed and first staged in 1935, it was based on Porgy , a stage show that George Gershwin called “the most outstanding play that I know about the coloured people”, and at the time was a big gamble, for the thirties was not a time of racial harmony in mainland USA. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein were also thinking of setting the play to music, as a vehicle for Al Jonson, and had they decided to go ahead it would have been a very different musical experience indeed, for Al Jonson could never be classified as an opera singer.

Gershwin also intended the opera to be performed by an exclusively Afro-American cast, for there is only one white character, the unlovable detective who threatens to send Serena’s husband’s corpse to the medical students if she doesn’t raise the burial money by the next day. So Gershwin’s dream has been fulfilled in this international touring production, and it’s the first time Brisbane has ever seen a full professional staging of the opera with a black cast.

And what a cast! The principal roles call for such demanding vocal output that each is rotated among three singers, so that on the night I saw the play Porgy was played by Richard Hobson; Bess by Kearstin Piper-Brown; Crown, the overwhelming villain of the piece, by the magnificent bass Stephen Finch; and the amoral gambler Sporting Life by Ronn K Smith, whose singing voice is more impressive than his stage presence. I also found Hobson’s Porgy rather too passive and weak, and would have liked to see a different singer in the role, because I’ve seen stronger Porgies who have given the role more guts. Piper-Brown, judging from cast photographs, is the most obviously sexy and voluptuous of the three singers who share the role of Bess, and her sexuality was compelling, while you couldn’t hope for a more powerful cad than Finch as Crown, the sex machine whose power over Bess (and the audience too, I suspect) is irresistible.

For the ten people in Australia who don’t know the story, it’s set in Catfish Row, an imaginary suburb in Charleston, South Carolina. (Think A Streetcar Named Desire in an even grimmer black neighbourhood). The crippled beggar Porgy falls in love with the beautiful but deeply flawed Bess, the fancy woman of the criminal stevedore Crown. After killing a man called Robbins, Crown has to flee from Catfish Row until the hunt calms down, and Bess elects to stay with Porgy and make a new life. This she does so successfully, repenting of her past and renouncing the booze and the drugs, that she is finally accepted by the community. Eventually (need you ask?) she meets up with Crow again and is tempted back into his arms, finally returning to Porgy, who then kills Crow and is taken off to be questioned about the murder.

During his time of interrogation, however, Bess is persuaded to shoot through to New York with the slick-and-sleazy Sporting Life, so that when Porgy returns, without having been charged and therefore a free man, he finds his little hovel empty. Finally, after much searching of soul and wringing of hand, he hand-skates off into the wild blue yonder on his little wheeled platform to seek her in New York. I don’t like his chances, so just be thankful that nobody has ever written a sequel, and we are left with an ending not entirely of doom and gloom, but with some slight glimmer of hope about the possible triumph of the human will.

It’s a dazzling production, with a set (James Fouchard) which, considering it has had to travel so far, is amazingly complex and effective. The costuming is very much of the period, with no attempt made to pretty things up at all, but with just enough colour, in the form of Bess’s clothing, to add a touch of brightness here and there. Sound and lighting are of a standard you would expect room a company of this standing, and none of the singers was overpowered by the orchestra, probably because they were all miked, a fact which, in itself, blurred the line between musical and opera that is one of the problematic elements of the original concept.

Another problematic detail was the use of surtitles, when the dialogue is all in English – Gullah English certainly, a Creole blend of English and African languages, but easily understood all the same. Problems of political correctness always arise with this kind of decision – is it condescending to the audience, downright insulting to the original text, or simply a generous gesture so that audiences don’t have to work too hard? It isn’t as if the singers don’t articulate clearly, for whenever I shut my eyes for a moment I could understand every syllable, and found the surtitles too much of a distraction from what was going on stage.

Colour and movement, all-singing all-dancing, a cast of thousands, soloists of the highest calibre – why was it that I left feeling vaguely discontented? It was because overall I found the production a little lacking in energy. This sounds an odd thing to say of a show where there’s hardly a still moment, but it was a lack of emotional energy among the chorus who, although they sang their lungs out, didn’t display any real passion, almost as if the show had been too long on the road and they were now just going through the motions.

Still, that didn’t seem to worry the full house, who gave them almost, but not quite, a standing ovation, and perhaps it’s just a minor quibble about a production and an opera that offered what was, by any standards, an exhilarating experience.

General direction Will Roberson, stage direction Susan Williams-Finch

Choreographer Keila Cordova, conductor Stefan Kozinski

Played 1 August 2006 at 7.30pm, 2 August 1.30pm, 3 August 6.30pm, 4 August 7.30pm, 5 August 1.30pm

Duration : three hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 25th July 2006)
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Zack Adams: A Complete History  
Metro Arts Theatre

By Shane Adamczak

Semi-professional production

Cast: Shane Adamczak

It's a catchy opening story: our character Zack first catches the acting bug in grade two, all of seven years old. But this is grand vision stuff, it's destiny, the reason he was born was to tread the boards. Adamczak cleverly portrays the lisp through gappy teeth, the twitchy excited body language as he prepares for his one line in the Nativity Play; he drinks plenty of water, hums to warm his voice. Of course, on-stage he tangles the words in Spoonerisms, wets his pants and is dubbed "Zack the Christmas play wee boy." After taking a break from show biz he emerges again as a Grade 7 super cool dude telling jokes that thud abysmally. He morphs into high school insecurity of re-establishing a fan base, which largely consists of Cassandra, a girl-friend who's not a girlfriend because he's too shy to ask her out. Then into tertiary drama and dance school, pursuing Jess the dancer who hisses "Noice leotard, you reotard." As he's busily dancing to impress her - with effective lighting and convincing movement, some training is evident - he sees she's oblivious in the stands, pashing another girl.

It's pretty obvious that this is largely autobiographical though Adamczak did graduate from WAAPA (West Australian Academy for Performing Arts) whereas his alter ego Zack confesses to never auditioning or enrolling and merely hanging around the cafeteria for three years. Right from the first scene the lanky, likeable lad in beanie and glasses ("it's difficult to make repairs on your own glasses...") draws our empathy with self-deprecating humour. Inevitably, there's plenty of f-words and blokey fart jokes ("Am I the only one that's done that?" i.e. crap in the bath.) But it's not excessive or gratuitous. "No dick jokes" he reminds himself and proceeds to tell a joke about a soldier whose penis was obliterated by shrapnel.

The supporting music, aptly billed in the program as "Muzack (Sound Design)" and credited to Michael Fragomeni, reflects various moods. Adamczak frequently adds a change of timbre with his own voice - with signature rap ("Zack Zack Zack Adams"); singing an unaccompanied funeral eulogy for his mate Fender: "I'm gonna make it to heaven; light up the sky like a flame", and his audience participation slot where he croons "Blue Moon" over our accompaniment. There's the deep and meaningful song; it's lonely travelling with a solo show so when I'm lonely, it's a comfort that there's someone watching over me, the big guy in the sky. You know who I mean - the saviour with long hair and a really big dick, kept in a jar, he was nearly a Czar - Rasputin.

In an effective final song he accompanies his decent singing voice with guitar. This versatility sustains the long-distance of a solo show. He's also wisely given himself time-out and a change of pace for the audience by turning on the television for a Big Brother sequence in which he's filmed playing half a dozen varied roles; a range of uptight or loony housemates and the fluffy presenter.

Soon he's in the chair pleading to leave the house; "Can I vote myself off?" "No. Read your contract you whining bastard." After he realises he's really "made a dick of himself. the prick that comes second", he now has to fulfil three months of unpaid media engagements. Worse, he's sold out, so drinks himself senseless and into a pool of vomit; "My 15 minutes of fame were up and I had wasted them on reality TV." He's briefly "bloody delusional" enough to consider repeating his mistakes by tackling America - after all Heath Ledger and Hugh Jackman made it big. Instead he skulks onto another Virgin Blue plane home to his parents' couch, though "I did tell Cassandra I love her; I left a message on her answer phone after she dropped me at the airport."

Some of Zack's most laugh-out-loud moments come out of his travels on Virgin Blue, first to Sydney for dodgy auditions, then to London and back to Perth. Same crap movie, same meal to throw up, this is your captain speaking. nah, just joking. His Centrelink segment gives wicked social comment and telling character vignettes; especially we enjoyed the dreadlocked hulk who swaggers in, leading with his crotch, to push to the front of the queue. There are Zack's little games to pass the boredom of waiting in line, of flicking rubber bands and dobbing in someone near him, of jumping on the chairs to play "the floor is made of lava". "Nah, just kidding. I thought of it."

All up, Adamczak sustains audience interest well. He explores topics we can all relate to. He sings, he dances, he uses all the space. He changes pace and mood. We're not rolling in the aisles throughout but there are sufficient solid belly laughs for us to leave feeling renewed. His take on life and hard times as a struggling actor has lifted us out of our own stresses of our week. Which is surely the point another Adams - Patch - made about the value of comedy.

Directed by Laura Motherway

Playing until July 29 at 8.15pm

Duration: 50 minutes, no interval

(Performance seen: July 29, 2006)

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: July 2006)
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Churchill's Black Dog  
Roundhouse Theatre (QUT Kelvin Grove)

By Clare Dyson

Professional production

It's something of a challenge to anticipate a performance that tackles the dark topic of depression. We joked uneasily that we might go crawling home in a fragile state. We wondered if there would be an interval and if so, would some of the audience escape. In fact, Clare Dyson's contemporary dance production injected flashes of wry humour into the stark movement, often wrenching text and visual imagery. This made it accessible and saved it from the indulgence of a pity-party, while still depicting a bleak landscape of dislocation and isolation. The overall experience was cathartic, even possibly uplifting in its comforting resonance of "Oh yes, I've felt that" or "I know what they mean."

This is billed as "a look at depression, darkness and the human psyche - how we all get through the day. Particularly on a bad day, or month or year." The four dancers each project their expression of facets of mental illness - the self-sabotaging inner talk; the obsessive rituals and time-wasting procrastinations many use to fill their days. Brian Lucas' character labours over every last obsessive-compulsive detail of writing letters only to crumple them up. He tells "knock-knock" jokes through an empty door-space. Unfortunately, the answers jarred with me disconcertingly as I was still trying to reconcile Churchill of the production's title with the action and words onstage. Henry Kissinger? But Churchill died decades before Kissinger. Pizza delivery boy - no, surely there was no British take-away in WW2 times, especially not Italian.

For me, the title was unfortunate as I spent half the performance trying to find links and references to Churchill the politician, wondering if the female characters wre supposed to be his mother or his wife. Belatedly we found in the program a statement that the work doesn't include any references to Churchill, but this wasn't evident from advance publicity. Yes, it's a catchy title, echoing Anthony Storr's book Churchill's Black Dog, Kafkas's Mice & Other Phenomena of the Human Mind, but such confusion made it counter-productive. The choice of music appeared to back such a pretext; 40's swing music like the ironic "I am happy, very very happy" and Bing Crosby evergreens were congruent with Churchill's era.

In that incongruous patter and chatter that haunts brains of self-sabotaging depressives, Avril Huddy twitches and stutters, while Meeuwissen dresses and undresses: "I put on a pretty dress. This is my happy dress, this is my pretty dress, this is my cheerful dress" , but all are the same brown straight sack-like shape. Otherwise white singlets and sparse petticoats make stark statements in the dark, illuminated in searing light. The publicity notes that there will be nudity but it's only a few initial moments to assert the vulnerability of those suffering depressed states; an opening freeze frame of a man and woman, standing static. {Remember Sir Robert Helpman's quip: "The trouble with nude dancing is that not everything stops when the music does."}

The rich visual symbolism of the set makes a strong impact; into this intimate cocoon-like black theatre in the round, the tiered seating wraps around the stage on which vivid images are highlighted with dramatic shafts of light - the work of choreographer/designer Clare Dyson's brother Mark Dyson. The lighting on whirling figures is particularly effective. Brittle brown leaves strewn over the stage create a shifting whispering-sands effect of constant sound, as characters fling themselves into them with such cathartic abandon that we're tempted to join them. Mafe-Keane fitfully sweeps them into listless piles around the tables and chairs. There's a claw-footed bathtub from which legs and arms writhe - how often do we repair to the warm water womb when feeling miserable? Two floating windowpanes are highlighted in shimmering light.

Particularly amusing was the segment in which one character reads the weather predictions, idly swatting an insect with rolled up newspaper. Lucas' wallowing under the table in a lather of finger-pointing and self-berating rang all too true: "I'm worried about you/you just lie there/you've got to get up and do things, see people/try to make an effort. you're just pathetic!" There's the resignation of "I have good days and bad days, " the turmoil of "losing my wallet, losing my way, losing my mind." Then the final thrust of "the black dog has come to stay for a while" brings this poignant depiction of complex mental anguish to a close. This challenging work shows sensitive empathy for the depths many people experience and is presented with integrity and insight.

Production and design lighting by Mark Dyson

Playing Thurs 27 - Saturday, July 29, 2006

Duration: 60 minutes (no interval)

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 28th July 2006)
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The Works of William Shakespeare (by Chicks)  
Harvest Rain Theatre

by Leah Pellinkhof

Harvest Rain Theatre Company

Pro-am production

Cross-dressing and gender-bending at the conservative Harvest Rain Theatre, renowned for its family values and wholesome productions? Farts and up-chucks? Is this the end of civilisation as we know it?

It's certainly the end of Shakespeare as we know him - or a very different take on him, at least, for the premise of this insane cabaret is that Shakespeare's plays were written not by the Earl of Derby, or Rutland, or Southampton, or Essex. Neither were they written by Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh or even Ben Jonson, but by women. That's right, they're pure chick-lit, composed by luminaries like Good Queen Bess herself (all the Richard and Harry plays), Mary Queen of Scots ( Lady Macbeth ), Miss Frances Bacon, Catherine de Medici (all the Italian plays), Princess Sophie of Denmark ( Hamletta ), and Anne Hathaway ( A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew ).

This is where I wondered if we were in for a night of cringe rather than fringe theatre, for this is pro-am cabaret, after all, which is too often self-indulgent, unresearched and downright silly.

But I was won over from the opening scene, with five crazy women in front of their dressing-room mirrors wondering if they were going to be any good, having to be told that the audience had come in and that the show was starting, and rebelling at various stages against what the director required them to do. And when, after interval, they couldn't believe that the audience had come back for more, they won me over completely

It was so funny, and so well done, that it deserves to become a cult show. From sending-up The Da Vinci Code with their discovery of Shakespeare's own diary (recently found beneath the floor of the 20th reproduction of Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre in London) to their wicked re-writing of the texts, it's at least four laughs a minute, and I was astonished at the familiarity with the plays, which are not just the better-known tragedies, but some of the duller history plays like Henry VI, which is a dubious addition to the canon anyway.

How can you not love Macbeth with a John Howard accent pandering to his wife's wishes to become queen; Scottish accents bad enough to frighten even Braveheart; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Trude and Prue from Kath and Kim; and the girl from the Humpybong TAFE whose main pleasure in life is to pull the heads off Barbie dolls?

And what a cast! Bil Campbell Hurry is the self-important director who upstages everyone else (all she needs is the T-shirt I saw recently which says "Jesus loves everyone, but I'm his favourite"); Julie-Anna Evans can't disguise her natural style beneath the ludicrous parts she has to play; Emily Gilhome is the cynical butch actor who tries to put everyone in their place and ends up gagged and tied to an office chair, from where she is pushed around like a useful prop; Nell Lee, the breathless anxious one, eager to please the director, is a comic delight; and everyone loved Sarah McCoy, the beautiful bimbo (Corinne Grant in disguise?) who wants to play all the important parts but doesn't understand what's going on.

The costumes are to die for, ranging from authentic stomachers to tired old bits of grubby sheets; and the production values are up to Harvest Rain's usual high standard.

Bell Shakespeare it ain't, but it's a real hoot, and if you like your Romeo and Juliet played with Con the Fruiterer accents, you won't be able to stop laughing. It's a worthy foil to both the Brisbane Festival and the World Shakespeare Congress, so do yourself a favour, let your hair down and go and see these gels do the same.

It's the perfect antidote to all the serious theatre we've been seeing recently. But hurry, because it finishes on August 5 - unless they extend the season by popular demand, as they ought to do if they have any sense.

Directed by Leah Pellinkhof

Assistant director and writer, Sean Pollard Playing until Saturday 5 August: Wednesday - Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 26th July 2006)
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Cirque Eloise: Rain  
Lyric Theatre

By Daniele Finzi Pasca

Professional production

What constitutes a circus? When I was growing up it was always a combination of the Big Top, the circus ring, clowns, animals, jugglers, acrobats, music, showmanship, sawdust, smells and the noisy reactions of the crowd. There are still a few of these old-style entertainments about, but they seem to belong to another age. Cirque Eloise, like a number of other newly-formed circus troupes, is involved in attempting to preserve the best traditions of the circus's past while moving into new areas more suited to the tastes of the twenty-first century.

Gone are the performing animals, and therefore the ring, the sawdust, and the smells. Gone too, in Rain , are the clowns. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of physical humour, slapstick and joking involved, since every member of the troupe is included in the often very funny group acts that punctuate the specialty performances. Whether being knocked out by an irate juggler, pushed off the top of a piano, catapulted into the wings, or 'peed' on by a prankster, these performers are called on to demonstrate high-level traditional clowning skills.

That other tradition of clowning - the sad individual behind the big smile - is very much in evidence too. There is a sweet melancholy running through this show, a nostalgia for a lost past that is evident in the costumes, the music and the choreography. The show opens with the Director, Daniele Finzi Pasca, speaking of memories of rain in his childhood, making sense of the backcloth of sky, the recurring clouds and the childlike fixation with water. Throughout his introduction Pasca's English pronunciation is corrected from the wings, to his growing annoyance. This mixture of comic irritation and nostalgia colours the entire piece, which purports to take place in a theatre where a circus show is in rehearsal.

Set in an earlier age, this circus has performers who do not wear flashy outfits, lacquered hair or revealing leotards. Instead the women are in bloomers and long stockings or long dresses while the men wear shorts guaranteed not to over-excite any but the most desperate women in the audience. The music that accompanies the acts is not the brass-band bravura of old-time circus bands, however. Instead, largely performed by the acrobats themselves on piano, violin, saxophone and accordion, it is redolent of that sweet sadness that we often associate with French sensibility.

The combination of this music, skilful lighting, and imaginative choreography makes the act where five women dangerously twirl, dangle, and entwine themselves in columns of cloth, finally to hang like broken dolls, somehow inexpressibly sad. There is a solemn gravitas too about another outstanding act: the two-man strength and balancing act termed 'hand to hand' in circus parlance. Jacek Wyskup and Bartlomiej Pankau are breath-taking as they perform impossible feats in quiet slow motion, then disconcert us by occasionally gazing seriously out into the audience before continuing their act. There is absolutely no flashy showmanship in this circus, no demands for applause, no self-congratulation. All the artists seem to perform for themselves or for each other, so that we feel privileged to be included in their world.

So, with no Big Top, no circus ring, animals, sawdust, smells, brass bands, clowns, or gaudy showmanship, what is left that marks this show as a circus? Well, apart from the awe-inspiring skill of the troupe who are trapeze artists, jugglers, acrobats, strong men and women, musicians, dancers, and clowns, there is one absolutely vital ingredient that is present in abundance - and that is the ability to move an audience to a very vocal involvement with the show.

The "oohs" and "aahs" that greet spectacular feats, the loud and spontaneous applause, the gasps and sudden silences that accompany particularly daring moves are characteristic of circus audiences everywhere. But it is above all in the delighted laughter that continually erupts that one recognises the particular appeal of the circus. And, for all the nostalgic sweetness, there is a great deal of laughter in this show. This is epitomised in the final scenes, when the rain cascades down and the troupe celebrates its coming with an infectious joy that encapsulates all the playfulness of childhood. Sliding and cavorting round the flooded stage the performers release the child in all of us - and that is surely quintessential circus.

Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca

Playing 26-29 July 2006: Evenings 7:30pm, matinees Thursday 26th and Saturday 29th , 1:30 pm

Running time: two hours, including interval.

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 26th July 2006)
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Romeo and Juliet  
Bell Shakespeare (QPAC Playhouse)

by William Shakespeare,

Professional production

Shakespeare rules, OK? And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

In spite of moans and groans about a modern tendency to dumb-down the Bard; in spite of academic conferences considering such weighty topics as Shakespeare as a Motivational Tool in Sports and Business (would I lie to you?); in spite of endless debates about whether it was Our Will or some better-educated impostor who actually wrote the masterworks; in spite of deadly-dull high school classes and agonised textual analysis of solid versus sullied flesh: in spite of all this and more, this particular Dead White Male managed to keep about a thousand raucous teenagers quiet for three hours last Tuesday, with many of them (admittedly mostly girls with panda eyes and bed hair) in tears. So don’t tell me Shakespeare is irrelevant to our times!

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The final lines of the play sum it up, for Romeo and Juliet is indeed the most tragic of all Shakespeare’s tragedies. In other plays, like Macbeth, Hamlet and even Othello,there is always somebody left to take over and carry on, but these young lovers are the only offspring of their respective families, and their early deaths mean the end of the family line.

It’s a play about young people in the foolish flush of first love, who can’t see beyond their own passion and will not listen to their elders – and we’ve all been there. A rational grown-up approach to this love affair would be to say, “Grow up! Listen to your elders and betters. When you’ve reached maturity you’ll understand that we only have your best interests at heart.”

But the whole point is that young people don’t listen to their parents’ advice – the old are a different species, and know nothing, and have never suffered, and can’t understand. All modern 13-year-olds believe that love conquers all and that they know best. And this is why the play resonates so strongly with young people in every generation, because it’s about the frustrations of growing up.

But it’s a morality tale for older people, too, that we have to listen to our young people and be sympathetic to them. None of the adults in the play can see that, except the figures of the Nurse and Friar Laurence, who are usually played as figures of fun. In John Bell’s intelligent interpretation of the play, however, they are the only two who can cross the generations, and although their efforts may be fumbling and the outcomes devastating, at least they have tried to empathise with the young lovers’ plight.

Romeo and Juliet has survived the treatment of many directors, and has proved its timelessness over and over again. Some people might think that there’s no going back after Baz Lurhmann’s film Romeo + Juliet, but John Bell has surpassed him by being just as up-to-the-minute (iPods, skateboards, blades and cargo pants), but keeping faith with the text, neither cutting it to shreds nor sacrificing the words to the action. And the kids in the audience got it, listening and laughing at all the appropriate places, and reacting just as the groundlings would have in Shakespeare’s day, especially with rowdy guffaws at the sexual jokes – although I did notice that the word maidenhead is apparently not part of the modern vocabulary, for nobody except the adults picked up the wicked word-play of the opening scene.

I thought this was a fantastic production. The set is pared down, as befits a show that is going to travel all around the country, and its out-of-kilter walls and sloping floor are a perfect metaphor for the fact that the time here, as in Hamlet, is out of joint. To ensure that there’s no confusing the Capulet tribe with that of the Montagues, the former are dressed in shades of red, pink and orange, while the latter are all blue and green, so that when the street fights take place it’s like a mob of rainbow warriors.

Bell has made some risky casting and directing decisions, but on the whole they’ve paid off. John Batchelor plays Capulet as an amiable buffoon, Secret Men’s Business and with sexual innuendo seeming to dominate his life, but like so many bluff hearty men he displays a disconcerting violence when he’s crossed, and was there a disturbing sub-text to his relishing the idea of his virgin daughter’s wedding night, and later embracing her dead body? He’s certainly a type we recognise.

Friar Laurence, instead of being portrayed as the fat fool that he usually is, in the hands of in the hands of that fine actor Philip Dodd becomes a tall thin priest subliminally re-enacting his own youth, desperate to do the best for both his young charges even when he’s ambivalent about his personal reactions to their youth and beauty. He too becomes a figure of tragedy rather than fun, a kind of Falstaff with a conscience, whose intentions are good, but whose grasp of logistics is shaky, and whose courage fails him at crucial moments. This is one of the better interpretations of the Friar I’ve seen in a long life of theatre-going.

Although the other characters are too many to mention individually, James Evans’s Tybalt, in his tight orange leathers, is a convincing villain, and plays the class game very effectively – no mixing with the street gangs for him. He’s going to live and die his own way, and he’s very frightening indeed.

Sarah Woods as the Nurse is a piece of casting that employs all the clichés about this character – the bawdiness, the swinging loyalties, even the just-slightly-off-the-mark clothing – but she fits into the family better than any other Nurse I’ve seen, more a companion than a servant, completely at home with her place in the household, but intimidated by the master of the house as much as everyone else. Woods plays her as a shrewd sensible creature who, while having Juliet’s happiness at heart, knows the way of the world, and realises that although weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning {Psalm 30:5, if you care}. This, combined with her inability to communicate except through babble, makes her failure to protect the child even more tragic.

Of the minor characters, most are adequate, having nothing of any real importance to do, and some are brilliant. Thank God for Arky Michael, one of the funniest actors in mainstream theatre, who plays Peter, the older melancholy Capulet retainer, as the ultimate fall guy. His baggy shorts and striped socks are a sight for sore eyes, and his deadpan acceptance of the blows rained on him never gets in the way of his canny self-preservation. Lexi Frieman as Lady Montague had nothing much to do except look like a leafy-suburbs air-head, for Lady Capulet has the best role, which Linda Cropper exploits to the full. And so to the star-crossed lovers themselves. I really liked Julian Garner’s Romeo, private school lad though he was. There’s something about him that would make any mother wish he were her son, for in spite of his youthful silliness, he shows his potential to make a valuable contribution to society in any of the more respectable professions. Garner effectively goes through all the problems of the adolescent, swinging from butch self-confidence with his peers to trembling trepidation in the presence of his sweetheart, and we can almost believe him when he shrugs off his first love Rosalinde to declare himself smitten for ever by Juliet. It all has to end in tears, we know, but perhaps death is better than disillusion when it comes to the inevitable end.

I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the casting of Chloe Armstrong as Juliet. Apart from being even skinnier than Posh Beckham, which detracted, in the eyes of my companions at least, from her sexual appeal, she moved like the dancer she is rather than a feet-on-the-ground actor, and wasn’t convincing in her role as a flesh-and-blood woman with all a growing woman’s desire. She was so brittle that it seemed as if she would break in any red-blooded man’s embrace. Nor did she have the vocal facility to match her character – although John Bell wisely has all the actors speaking in their natural Australian accents, Armstrong’s voice has a grating edge, especially in the vowel sounds, which sits uneasily with her physical fragility.

In the end, of course, the play’s the thing, and it triumphs as it always has and, I suspect, always will. This is a Shakespeare production as up-to-the-minute as you could wish, but always treating the text with the greatest respect, without any dumbing-down or trivialising, and every teenager in the audience on Tuesday loved it, showing their appreciation with stamping whistling and raucous cheering. And so did I. Directed by John Bell

Set and costumes Stephen Curtis, lighting Matt Scott Playing until Saturday 29 July 2006 – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm, Tuesday 11am and 6.30pm, Thursday 11am and 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : three hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 25th July 2006)
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Sub-Con Warrior  
Zen Zen Zo

Professional production

Composers: Tyrone Noonan, Jeremy Neideck

This production creates a vivid world for an avid gamer. An innovative use of space, multi-media and virtual fiction provide a challenging and exciting experience. Zen Zen Zo present raw energy performances with reflexive emotional content. Founded in 1992, the company has strong roots in Japanese performing arts, and an earnest driving spirit.

We were welcomed into the theatre by geeks who registered us and got us ready to play, and we all waited in suspense for the almighty gameMaster (Rob Thwaites) to start up our game. Right from the start the lines between the real and the virtual were blurred, which lent a powerful dramatic edge to how one engaged with the cyberspace theme.

This was our mission, as briefed by the gameMaster: a child, Andi (Aideen McCartney), is spending too much time in the arcade; we learnt that one can only spend so long in the sub-con before they will remain there forever – immersion. So we had to follow the quest through the cyber-world to rescue her from the clutches of the Big Boss (Steven Mitchell Wright), whose gaming world seems to her more exciting than fair-and-square reality. We also learnt it wouldn’t be possible to retrieve the child by coercion as she wished to remain forever.

The first level instantly reminded me of the humble Game-Boy. The landscape was made of fluoro colours and 8-bit sounds. Zen Zen Zo have made substance of the virtual, so that as the audience entered the sub-con, they could physically engage in the world of Mario and Mortal Combat. These traditional games have simple and seemingly noble objectives: rescue the princess, defend earth and humanity from alien settlers etc. It seemed that the objective would quickly become shaped by the way the participants played the game, and it all became a little more odd-world.

The audience was immersed in the action promenade (bush-walking) style, and interacted with this ‘virtual’ world fighting off zombies and solving puzzles. Landscape changes and stories were revealed within the space and architecture, but only for as long as we were present there. The artificial was blurred with what we know about reality, inviting imagination and semiotics to engage the audience in the drama.

There was no chance of a numb bum, as I was literally on my toes right through. Tension and flow were well are maintained, and as the play/game concluded a tiny LED bulb in my head switched ON, and I exited the sub-con with Andi and a bunch of fictional characters etched onto my conscience. It was just a game…

The characters of the sub-con were programmed and performed like frantic flash cartoons. They were eccentric and extraordinary, and very believable as gaming characters go. They guided the drama with finesse and skill, and maintained a consistent and inviting energy on the trek. Praise to leading actors Katrina Cornwell, Chenoeh Miller, Peta Ward and Noa Rotem for sustaining a martial promenade.

Sub-Con Warrior 1 sheds light on our impulses as gamers, and the actions we make for an overall outcome. An audience member, on TV unaware, gets trigger-happy with a gun point-blank to attain a clue for our mission. It seems that although the parameters for play within are pre-set, most rules can still be twisted and are subjective according to vested interests.

Clearly our level of interaction in the theatrical Sub-Con is privy to the narrative content as planned. Through interaction we are involved in controlling the meaning of the sub-con story, which creates a very special dynamic as far as audience involvement goes. One who delves into the subconscious must prepare to greet their truth. Within the gaming paradigm, it occurs to me, the sub-context is not limited within the theatrical path we journey on, but self-contained and resounding according to the emotional connection/involvement of an individual player; the positioning of the moral high-ground seemed to shift around like the landscape.

As an audience member I felt rather challenged and a little misled, but as a gamer I was thoroughly entertained, and ready to save and quit. This show was full on.

Directed by Lynne Bradley and Steven Mitchell Wright

Composed by Tyrone Noonan and Jeremy Neideck

Played 13th – 29th July 2006

Duration: 100 minutes, no interval

— Simeon Bonetti

(Performance seen: 29th July 2006)
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The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds  
Centenary Theatre Group

By Paul Zindel,

Amateur production

Life’s a bitch, and before you die you take out your frustration and bitterness on other people, especially if you’re a deserted mother of two daughters.

Yes, some people live very grim lives, and if we hadn’t been made aware of this kind of situation through endless television documentaries over the years, we would scarcely be able to believe the characters in Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer-winning play.

An embittered, alcoholic, psychologically abusive mother (Beatrice, played by Gillian Simpson), whose idea of punishing her sad-sack daughter is to keep her home from school; the same sad-sack daughter (Gabrielle Scawthorn as Tilly) who puts up with it because she knows no way of escape; another daughter (Sarah Hope as Ruth) who is her mother’s darling because she’s half mad and will do whatever her mother likes when bribed by a cigarette. They take in one lodger at a time, usually somebody with senile decay, whose money helps keep Beatrice in ciggies and Jim Bean, and is usually neglected if not actively ill-treated. Happy Familles indeed! Move over, Tennessee Williams. And move over Glenn Close – even by boiling bunnies you’ve got nothing on Beatrice. Sick and sad, that’s this lot, but even the loneliest people can dream and hope. So as the play opens we find Tilly thinking great metaphysical thoughts about how the atoms that make up her hand have been part of the earth throughout its history. (Anyone who saw Jacob Bronowski running dirt from Auschwitz through his fingers will realise what she’s on about.) But just as we are preparing ourselves for a bit of deep philosophising, the scene switches to mother at her most abusive, and we are introduced to Tilly’s small ray of hope, given to her by her science teacher (a nice gay Jewish man, therefore sexually safe), in the form of a science experiment about – well, that’s where the play gets its title. And I’ve looked up man-in-the-moon marigolds to see whether they really exist, but not even Google could help.

There are tears before bedtime, of course, and the death of the bunny – in this case played by a very unconvincing stuffed toy – isn’t the worst of it. All Tilly’s dreams are shattered, when her mother manages to turn Tilly’s minor school triumph into yet another cause for her own paranoia, and by the end one wonders whether hope will spring eternal or remain dead on its feet. Will Tilly be one of the marigolds that are killed by the ray treatment, or will she survive, thrive and become a super-mutant?

Gloomy stuff, but a very powerful play, which hasn’t really dated in the sixty years since it was written – although I suspect that letting teenage girls play with gamma rays at home wouldn’t get past the education authorities these days. It’s also a good play for women, as all five roles (Alice Long is one of Tilly’s rivals at school who confidently introduces her own science project to the audience) are for females. The character Nanny, however, who shuffles around on a walking frame and doesn’t respond to any human contact, I find quite redundant, serving only as a reason to show Tilly’s good heart and her mother’s evil one, and Glen Roussos’s extremely bad wig does nothing to bring it alive.

Technically the play is ground-breaking, with its long internal monologues, a gift for any actor, and on the whole the three main characters perform quite well. Director Fred Wessely has wisely decided to forgo any attempt at American accents, but he’s obviously obsessed with clear diction, to the extent that too much of the dialogue is spoken as if the actors are in elocution class, or have come straight from a Speech and Drama exam. They ar-tic-u-late ver-y clear-ly , sometimes adding the odd syllable (the school as-sem-bal-ly was one that particularly grated), and often seem more focussed on the diction than the emotion. Pitch and volume need better control, too, for constantly shrieking at the top of the voice is not always the best way to emphasis an emotional moment.

Still, the play remains relevant, they’ve made a good attempt to get it right, and I don’t have too many complaints about it as an amateur production. And little theatre groups like this certainly have their place – they give actors experience, they attract small but faithful audiences, and most of all they give us the chance to see important plays that we would otherwise miss out on.

Directed by Fred Wessely

Playing until 29 July 2006, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 6pm

Duration : just under two hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 23rd July 2006)
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Agnes of God  
Front Row Theatre

By John Pielmeier

Amateur production

It has all the elements of a gripping whodunit: a baby who died soon after its birth in a lonely convent has been found shoved in a wastepaper basket. Sister Agnes, a naïve young novice, has blocked all memories of the birth – let alone the baby’s conception – from her mind: “Everybody wants to talk about the baby but... I never saw the baby so I can't talk about the baby because I don't believe in the baby.”

Is it another virgin birth? Inevitably suspicions are winked and nudged in the direction of the parish priest, although the final scenes exonerate him of involvement. Was the baby murdered? The courts bring in a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Julie Bray) to ascertain if Sister Agnes is mentally sound enough to stand trial. Agnes entered the convent in her teens and knows nothing of sex or birth though Dr. Livingstone’s investigations reveal an abusive upbringing. The power struggle between the psychiatrist and Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, fiercely protective of her simple-minded, fragile novice, creates most of the play’s dynamics.

It seems churlish to quibble that this production is a touch bland; after all, Nicole Glover plays a simple-minded young girl whose sing-song monotone is indicative of her state of denial. Yet she is known for her glorious singing voice; in this production, collaboration with the Queensland Conservatorium of Music students utilises Susan Punshon’s composition, soprano Rebecca Del Valle with sound recording from Clarke Matthews and Matthew Duncan. Perhaps Agnes’s escapism allows little scope for anything more than hand-wringing and body-rocking when pushed out of her comfort zone.

Does the blandness come from the relatively static movement? One can hardly expect a wide range of gestures as both nuns are restricted by the submissive convention of hiding their hands in their habits. The three characters are placed in a relatively simple set, with different interactions highlighted by a spotlight in three areas of the stage.

Although Julie Bray projects passion and frustration into her investigations and reveals some vulnerability as revelations tap back into her own past family tragedy, she could have infused more warmth into the character. More contrast between her reflective moments and the combative scenes with the mother superior would add depth. The latter, Bernadette Smith, projects the inexorable strength of character of the role but also her genuine concern and love when admitting her own relationship as Agnes’ aunt.

Any company willing to stage performances in a busy Festival month are surely brave and hopefully have a trusty following. It’s a competent production, obviously crafted with diligence and deserved a larger audience.

Directed by Christopher Sargent

Playing until July 29, Friday – Saturday at 7.30 pm

Duration: 100 minutes, 20-minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 21st July 2006)
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Virtually Richard 3  
Expressions Dance Company (Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts)

Choreographed by Maggie Sietsma

Professional production

The 8th World Shakespeare Congress, coinciding with the 2006 Brisbane Festival, has meant that Brisbane audiences have had the opportunity recently to see a number of exciting and innovative performances taking various approaches to Shakespeare's plays.

The plays have always lent themselves to re-interpretation and have been transformed into operas, ballets, musicals and films, with varying success. Maggie Sietsma's treatment of Richard III for Expressions Dance Company has met with great interest wherever it has toured, and it is appropriate that Brisbane audiences should have had the opportunity to see it again in the context of a wider celebration of Shakespeare's genius. It is good to see that it still impresses as a powerful piece.

This is not a faithful, scene-by-scene reproduction of Shakespeare's play in dance. Instead, it focuses on communicating the major themes, images and emotional moments of the play, allowing us to see the rise and fall of a fascinating monster. The Richard of this piece is one who is implicit in Shakespeare's text, but never so convincingly embodied as in Dan Crestani's writhing, twitching, spitting, synthesis of evil.

Watching their distillation of the play, it is very clear that all those involved in the conception of the piece, the choreography, the choice of music, and the performance, are well steeped in Shakespeare's Richard III: its characters, power struggles and harrowing emotions. Experiencing their interpretation sends one back to the text with renewed interest — which is what every exciting performance of a Shakespeare play should do.

It is the four women in the company who are used to display the cruelly destructive aspects of Richard's character, and their performances are extraordinarily moving. Sally Wicks, in the role of Queen Margaret, is a powerhouse of energy as she furiously attacks Richard and later, as the Duchess of York, excoriates her hateful son. Emily Amisano magically transforms the grieving Lady Anne into Richard's mesmerised victim who seems to foresee her fate even as she succumbs to his will. The young Elizabeth, whom Richard plans to use to shore up his position as king, is shown in all her vulnerability and terror by Lizzie Chittleborough, while Megan Futcher's anguish as Queen Elizabeth is almost unbearable to watch as she stumbles and flounders in her hopeless search for her lost sons.

Ryan McMillan (substituting for an injured Ryan Males), Justin Rutzou (taking on Males' role as Edward IV), Jason Northam and Zaimon Vilmanis fill in the minor roles. McMillan's Clarence was appropriately pathetic in the violent murder scene, while Vilmanis and Northam met the challenge of metamorphosing convincingly from the playful innocence of the two young princes to the menace of Richard's depraved henchmen. Both men and women formed a chorus that reflected and commented on the action throughout the play, maintaining the forward movement of the plot while further embodying the charged emotions engendered by the major characters.

But, of course, the play is Richard's, and so is this production. In Shakespeare's text Richard is likened to a toad, a spider, a rutting hog and various other repellent creatures. Dan Crestani gives us all these and more. His movement is at times fluid and sinuous, at others twitching and convulsive. Displaying the involuntary tics of Tourette 's syndrome, he jerks and prances, confronts and threatens. His Richard is mercurial, switching from devious dreamer to skilful seducer, from louche corrupter to malicious tormentor.

It is a captivating performance in which Crostani gives us a monster drunk with self conceit, delighting in showing his villainy to an audience, yet contemptuous of our opinion. As he struts, pounces, insinuates and manipulates we recognise the inescapable power of his will. Eventually we come to identify with Lady Anne, recognising how she can be at the same time repelled and attracted, disgusted yet aroused.

This version of Richard III is fascinating for a number of reasons, not the least being that it chooses to concentrate on Richard's effect on the women whose lives he destroys. The strong performances by the female dancers, bouncing off the virtuosity of Crostani and supported generously by the other male dancers, makes this piece a triumph. As always, the soundtrack devised by Abel Valls is evocative and compelling, while the deceptively simple set by Nahum Szumer is inventively used and lit.

It may be some time before we have the opportunity to see this work again. Those of us lucky enough to see it this time around will find it hard to forget.

Playing until 21 July 2006

Running time: 74 minutes (no interval)

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 19th July 2006)
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Mabou Mines Dollhouse  
Mabou Mines Theatre Company (Gardens Theatre)

By Henrik Ibsen

Professional production

This ground-breaking staging of Ibsen’s play about suffocating bourgeois sexism focuses on the concept that men and male power are not dependent on physical size. The staging is brilliant, from the first rolling-down of red curtains to create a claustrophobic smaller space in which a doll’s house is erected, so that the characters have to crouch and crawl through its doors and windows — the females, that is, for all male characters are under 1.3 metres in height. As director Lee Breuer says, the patriarchy is in reality three feet tall, but has a voice that will dominate six-foot women. Indeed, in casting tall women (the maid Helene, already the towering height of six foot, is further elevated on stilts), Breuer makes an ironic point, which he calls the politics of scale: “Who really are the dolls in this house?” His adaptation thus plays with the scale of both the actors and the set to make a powerful statement about gender politics. "Male power isn't dependent on physical size," says Breuer. "We're exploring the metaphor from the woman's point of view, the way maternal love is lavished on these child-size men, which only infantilises them further.”

As Nora says, empowered by her disillusion, “I’ve conceived three children”, even though this production gives her only two children. Of these, particular praise is due to “son” Ivar, played by tiny 10-year old archetypical Little Person Hannah Kritzeck who, as the program notes, is “tall as a yard stick.” She is fascinating with her truly doll-like physique and her excellent acting.

Nora, of course, is the focal point of the play and it’s significant that actor Maude Mitchell is billed as co-adapter, for she obviously has strong ownership of the role. Hence, she’s brave enough to bare all in the final scenes with no attempt to glamorise sagging flesh. We watch Nora’s development from someone who is merely her husband’s twittery songbird/squirrel, who inevitably begins to grate by the end of the first half, into a truly towering character. This is not because she’s twice the physical size of her husband, for it is accentuated in the final scene by her flowing white skirt that billows from the opera house box down to the floor. As she says “I have another duty, just as sacred…my duty to myself”, she tears off the billows and all her clothes. The impact of her unflinching nakedness is probably far more potent than anything even Ibsen could have imagined.

Mitchell’s voice reveals this growth: her high, girlish, breathy chirping deepens into a deep masculine range as her inner strength develops. Most of the actors manage to adapt their native American accents well enough to become convincing Norwegian tones, helped by the addition of some actual terms ( tack for thank you, ja and nej). Mitchell’s accent is more convincing than that of Torvald (Mark Povinelli), who slips occasionally into an American tone, but his tight timbre reveals dominance and cruelty under the saccharine endearments. Nora’s friend, Kristina Linde (Honora Fergusson Neumann) projects a rich deep voice that rivals the men’s masculinity.

The staging and lighting are particularly effective: the strobe lighting that portrays Nora’s hysteria as she dances the tarantella in her Capri costume reflects her almost unbearable intensity. Pianist Cristina Valdés adds a musical running commentary as in a silent movie, with a score largely adapted by composer Eve Beglarian from the music of Edvard Grieg. Helene (Margaret Lancaster) plays a bass flute and adds a piercing soprano to the violin which Nils Krogstad (Medina) draws with a flourish from his briefcase for the hilarious scene where Kristine Linde seduces him. Here Breuer expands Ibsen’s script with his uproarious choreography of the event, which adds to the coyness of the original meeting outside.

The final scene is performed as opera with the doll’s house transformed into an opera house, with dramatic monologues turned into operatic arias. Pairs of puppets are used as a chorus, echoing the argument with their voices and their little hands. Within this set, designed and built by Jane Catherine Shaw, they watch the action from box seats along the back wall, reflecting the leading characters in their actions, the males raising pleading arms. Thus Breuer creates the concept that the dolls observe the dolls: "I wanted to allude to the fact that we're all dolls, programmed to observe and to comment. In the last analysis, we're all kind of programmed."

Does this treatment of Ibsen’s play, which was unsettling even in its own time, gain anything from the casting of Little People? Or do we merely find ourselves fascinated, displaying the same reluctant voyeuristic that we display at sideshow alley freaks as we peep through our hands? Whatever one might think, the casting certainly proves that these males are sexual beings unashamed to show their flesh or to simulate orgasm. Overall, it’s a powerful and thought-provoking production in which all actors, whatever their size, challenge us to rethink gender, marriage and relationships. The combination of such a brave production with the whole-hearted commitment from the actors and brilliantly innovative staging makes it a tour de force.

Directed by Lee Breuer

Played at the Brisbane Festival, July 15-22, 8pm

Duration: 2 hours 30 mins (interval 20 mins)

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 18th July 2006)
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Metro Arts Theatre Basement

Lyrics improvised by Peter Rowe

Professional production

Performers: Peter Rowe (lyrics) Terri Delaney (vocals) and Linsey Pollak (WX5 windsyth)

It’s amazing what can come out of a box! Sound-wise, listeners are treated to the huge range of nuance Linsey Pollack draws from his electronic Windsynth — a reed pipe attached to a synthesiser. On a deeper symbolic level, poet Peter Rowe challenges them: “I want you to be sure that you let yourself out of that box that you’ve got yourself locked in” as he shares in song his journey from out of his “box”. From this song’s opening words: “A boy locked in a room in the dark, so lonely and scared and so confused” we know he describes his own 30 years’ alienation and frustration as a Down syndrome with restricted speaking ability. But this is no pity party; he uplifts rather than depresses, telling how his life opened up with the use of facilitated communication (FC) to “speak” by tapping the letters on a keyboard — and his significant creative talent burst out in poetry, song lyrics and a published children’s book. Type the name qwerty and you have a clue to this performance, for the name follows the keys of the computer keyboard.

Imagine if you were unable to speak, to express even basic needs, let alone the deep thoughts of your mind and soul. Imagine the frustration. Then again, imagine the release if someone gave you a key to unlock the door of all those suppressed thoughts and feelings. This is Rowe’s experience, which he shares generously, inviting us into his world.

It’s innovative — there’s probably nothing like it in the world. It’s improvisation taken to the nth degree. For whereas jazz musicians improvise their riffs, words are the catalysts to kick off whatever takes the moment. As improvised performance goes, this surely reaches new heights. As Peter improvises his lyrics, Terri Delaney is a central interpreter; she holds Peter’s hand as he indicates the words on his FC and translates them into immediate song. The process works on complex time frames; even as she improvises a phrase, she’s reading the next. The performers are completely on the edge, never knowing what each performance will bring as they walk on stage. This means taking risks, of making themselves vulnerable.

Linsey performs solely on the windsynth, though he’s well known through decades of performances and workshops for his unique flair for making musical instruments from various house and garden objects such as the garden hose panpipes, the watering can clarinet, rubber glove bagpipes, carrot flutes and clarinets, chair flutes, broom clarinets. These instruments have featured in many of his shows such as Out of the Frying Pan, Knocking on Kevin’s Door. In qwerty we hear a full range of woodwind sounds {flute, saxophone, clarinet, windpipes as well as rhythm and keyboard harmonies}, all from a pipe plugged into a box.

Terri Delaney projects a warm, rich and full blooded voice often reminiscent of Cleo Laine, at times with a tinge of Shirley Bassey. Her range is wide and projects effortlessly in the intimate basement theatre. Yet all through the performance this is Peter’s voice we hear; the other performers are sensitive to his message and don’t intrude. At the end of the 90-minute show, we suddenly realise that the “normal” speakers almost entirely restricted themselves to the musical; even with banter back and forth, Linsey spoke only a sentence or two and Terri largely translated into song. What they do transmit, apart from the music, is their deep respect for Peter as an artist in his own right, their warmth and empathy. This gives us a rare opportunity to be involved in a very special creative relationship.

The trio of performers have developed deep rapport, having worked together since the “Horse to Water” project in 2004 and received standing ovation at Woodford Folk Festival. That they’re obviously also good mates, means more when we know how special this relationship is. Peter’s dry humour shines through and he obviously revels in the opportunity for taking the piss: “And don’t you think these two people with me are quite talented…I have to carry them sometimes but I’d be lost without them ganging up on me”. This defuses overly confronting reactions to self-revelations how, sitting in a box alone, in the dark, alone in the dark he cried: “Do you hear me? I’m in here….” We feel his sheer enjoyment of the magic of release: “Suddenly there was light, there was joy!” That he could say things he’d wanted to say for 30 years, like “thank you… what is that? Why?... I need to go to the toilet… I don’t understand…I love you.” All with a likeable humility: “I’m feeling a bit nervous and out of my depth down here in the basement. Is it OK?”

Yes, Peter — and Terri and Linsey — much more than OK.

Playing July 15 and 16, 2006 at 8.15pm)

Duration: 90 minutes, no interval

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 15th July 2006)
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Brisbane Festival, Derby Playhouse & La Boite Theatre

By David Malouf

Adapted and directed by Stephen Edwards

Powerhouse Theatre, New Farm

Professional production

Johnno, David Malouf’s coming-of-age novel, is as much a Brisbane icon as Malouf himself. It captures the city in a way that no other work of art ever has, and those people who grew up with the book as well as with Brisbane might wonder how it could ever be translated to the stage.

But those who go to see this staggeringly exciting production expecting a more intellectual version of Hugh Lunn’s much-loved Over the Top with Jim should beware, because this is a very different beast altogether. No cosy reminiscences here, but a cutting-edge theatrical experience that takes audiences right out of their comfort zone into an unknown vision of Brisbane where the metaphor of water is used literally as well as symbolically.

Do you remember when it used to rain in Brisbane? Great heavy drops that drenched the gardens and flooded the gutters, muddied the playing fields and provided endless hours of fun for little kids and adults alike, splashing mud between their toes and having water fights? That’s the only nostalgia you’ll find in this production, where most of the stage is flooded with water and the actors have to perform barefoot - and most of the time get very wet indeed. The only character to avoid water damage is Dante, Johnno’s friend and the narrative voice of the novel and the stage show who, like the protagonist of The Divine Comedy, is led through the different circles of Hell.

Even without this mythical sub-text, Johnno is a deeply spiritual journey. Performed in balletic mode with a minimum of dialogue, it’s a multi-faceted production which also uses back projections on a revolving three-armed fabric screen, and a sensitive soundscape created by Elena Kats-Chernin (listeners to Radio National’s Late Night Live will recognise her from that show’s theme music).

The actors, like the production team, are a culturally eclectic lot – Sean Mee as Dante, Paul Denny as Johnno and Eugene Gilfedder as The Father are long-time Brisbane favourites, but choreographer Caiman Collins is Irish, and many actors come directly from the UK, as does director/adaptor Stephen Edwards of the Derby Playhouse.

It’s the first time any Australian company has collaborated with a British counterpart to produce a piece of theatre, but Brisbane Festival Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini wanted a production that would connect directly with audiences in Brisbane but also have an international resonance. After its Brisbane season, Johnno will travel to England for a three-week season at the Derby Playhouse, and I can’t wait to hear how it’s received there.

I went on the second night, always a good time to go, as the audience is made up not of free-loaders like reviewers and official Friends-of-the-Arts, but genuine theatre lovers who pay good money to put their bums on the seats, and are the real core of live theatre in any city. At interval, many of them seemed puzzled – not about the treatment of the novel in itself, but about the meaning of some of the techniques, especially the purpose of having a stage flooded with water. But by the end everyone had been totally captivated, for once we had all come to terms with the fact that this was not an ordinary stage play in a comfortable genre, but a vivid experiment in form and meaning, its status as a festival piece became firmly established, for festivals are about taking risks, looking at old ideas in new ways, coming from left field, and generally turning audiences upside down and not always landing them on their feet again.

You can find all kinds of mythical and cultural resonances in the production – not just Dante’s journey to the underworld, but the wanderings of Ulysses, Oedipus trying to escape his fate, the peregrinations of Peer Gynt, and even Stephen Daedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses . This is why, in spite of its cultural and geographic specificity, it will probably be well received wherever it travels, because like all great literature it suggests the universal through the particular.

But we can take it on a simpler level, too, and admire the unity of the production as the coming-of-age experience of an Australian larrikin as seen by his more sober school friend. Paul Denny as Johnno is his usual exuberant self, a perfect choice to play the manic but soul-searching pilgrim; while Sean Mee, the stolid Dante, is an enigmatic foil for Denny’s physical and emotional fireworks. Of the ensemble players, none stands out particularly, which is as it should be, although I was amused by the attempts of British actor Emily Pierce, as The Mother, to capture the cadences of a shrill working-class Australian housewife. But the sublime Eugene Gilfedder, one of Australia’s most versatile and subtle actors, in his own quiet way gave all the other actors a discreet lesson in ensemble playing. Every tiny role he had, from the uncomprehending Father to the limp-wristed dancing master teaching the samba, was a little triumph, and perhaps if the other actors had been encouraged to express their own versatility, there might have been a better balance between the two lead actors and the chorus, and thus a lightening of the production, which did occasionally bog down in its own weighty symbolism.

But Johnno was the perfect piece with which to open what promises to be a sparkling and challenging festival – confronting, highly original, yet firmly based in its own locality. This is not the kind of thing that we usually see on our stages, so do yourself a favour and find how exciting live theatre can really be.

Co-director Sean Mee, composer Elena Kats-Chernin, sets and costumes Dan Potra

Playing until 5 August 2006 – Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Tuesday 11am and 6.30pm, Saturday 2pm and 8pm

Duration : two hours 20 minutes, including interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 15th July 2006)
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Warehaus Theatre (Cremorne Theatre, QPAC)

Book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

Profit share production

Eight years on from its controversial debut on Broadway, Parade remains a fascinating but difficult musical, but it’s just the kind of thing that the bright young company Warehaus Theatre love to tackle.

They earned their place in the Brisbane scene with last year’s edgy and very successful production of Sondheim’s Assassins, a dark and violent musical that explores the underbelly of American politics. Parade is in the same mould, an enquiry into the trial and eventual lynching of Leo Frank. The story is based on a real case - Frank, a Jewish New Yorker, had come to live in Georgia with his Atlanta-born wife Lucille. He had an administrative job at the National Pencil Factory and in 1913 was falsely accused of the murder of the thirteen-year old Mary Phagan, who had a holiday job there. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but on the second anniversary of Mary’s death a lynch mob abducted him and drove him 130 miles to his ghastly death.

These are the only known facts about the case, and the real murderer has never been found. The musical examines the dark and troubled nature of the times, when there was more than one layer of prejudice in Georgia. As the prosecutor muttered to his off-sider about a Negro janitor who is the first suspect (Jeremy Youse is totally convincing here), “Hanging another nigger ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better than that.” < BR>
The chief witness, another janitor who had absconded from a chain-gang, is bribed to testify against Leo Frank, even though there are strong suspicions that he is the real murderer, and the plot revolves not just around this blatant miscarriage of justice, but also around the love relationship between Frank and his wife Lucille.

A strong theme, therefore, and there’s no denying Brown’s debt to his mentor Stephen Sondheim. Modern musicals have moved on from the cheerful fairy tales of the mid 20th century, and Sondheim has led the way with grimly sub-texted shows like Assassins, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd . The tradition has clearly struck a chord with Warehaus, and it’s a style which they interpret with supreme skill, the acting and production values being so high that I have to wonder why it’s only in the last year that they’ve manifested themselves. It’s hard to fault the choreography (Caron Koch), the design (Silvia Balazova) and Cienda McNamara’s direction, which combine with a super-talented cast to bring this edgy musical alive in a way that we don’t often see in Brisbane.

It’s rare, also, to see an amateur company with a cast who can act as well as they sing and dance, and the chorus work is particularly impressive. But the soloists stand out, too, especially Michael Balk as a frightened but indignant Leo Frank, the beautifully-voiced Penny Farrow as his wife Lucille, the deep-throated evil of Ryan Goodwin as the ex-con Jim Conley, and Judy Hainsworth’s enchanting high notes as the murdered Mary Phagan, whose ghost keeps returning at the trial like Banquo at the feast.

Why does there always have to be a But? My only problem on opening night was with the musical itself which, for all its worthy political and moral motivation, was derivative in a way that wasn’t really successful. There are resonances of the Brecht/Weill musicals of Germany in the 1930s, and more than a nod to Stephen Sondheim, the modern master of the genre, but Parade just doesn’t live up to its promise. Jason Robert Brown may have won a Tony Award for it, but I found it too long by at least an hour, not least because we were told how it would end, so there was no suspense to keep us on the edge of our seats. Nor was the music good enough to sustain my interest, at least – not one memorable or even hummable tune, even though it was technically accomplished. Comparisons might be odious, but with Sondheim, for example, once you’ve heard the signature song, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his melody stay with you for ever, and such a claim can’t be made here, not even for the title tune The Old Red Hills of Home. The American South is famous for its tuneful music as much as for its lynch mentality, so why not incorporate some of it into this often gloomy score?

I wish I could have liked it more, but I have to admit that I voted with my feet and we left at interval. Not even the energetic talented cast could keep us in our seats, especially as we already knew the denouement, for three hours is a very long time for a show that hasn’t much musical sparkle. This is not a reflection on anyone in the cast and production team, which was very slick and professional, except for some clumsy scene changes and the live orchestra’s propensity to drown some of the singers.

Other audiences have also voted with their feet, it seems – the show ran for only 84 regular performances when it was first performed on Broadway, and I think I can see why. There’s colour and movement here in Warehaus’s production, and energy to burn, but grim realism isn’t an integral part of the genre of the musical, and there’s a strange imbalance here between the true story behind the plot and the distancing effect that a lightness of touch can achieve. So, very reluctantly, I have to say 6/10 for the vehicle, 8/10 for performance values, and 10/10 for effort.

A good try, though, and another example of the talent that this theatre company is attracting. But perhaps a different choice of material might work better for their next production – what about Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera , or its 18th century precursor by John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera? Now there are two musicals I’d like to see this very gifted company have a crack at.

Directed by Cienda McNamara

Playing 12 – 29 July 2006, Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2pm

Duration : three hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 14th July 2006)
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West Side Story  
Ignatians Musicial Society (Schonell Theatre)

Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Community theatre production

Overtures are tricky things. When all goes well they are useful in settling down an audience, introducing the musical themes that are to follow, and establishing a mood of eager anticipation. When things don’t go so well - as was the case on opening night with some insecure solo work and slips in timing – an audience stirs uneasily, wondering what else might not be quite right.

Well, quite a lot really, at least at the performance I saw. Once the show got under way there were very few musical problems, but the singers and dancers, who all worked very hard, deserved much better support than that provided by the backstage crew on opening night. There were some unforgivable missed and muddled lighting cues, the set changes were much too leisurely, and radio mikes malfunctioned, seriously affecting the male lead, particularly in his first and important solo.

This was a great shame, as Steven Moore has a lovely voice which shone through all the difficulties. His solos are very assured and his voice blends beautifully with that of Siobhan Kranz’s clear and expressive Maria. Heidi Robinson’s Anita provides a spirited foil to the fragility and sweetness of Maria, and the scenes between these two women are among the most effective and affecting in the show.

On the whole, this is a very strong singing cast that copes remarkably well with the demanding dancing and acrobatic movement that the show requires. The guys leap around the stage, clearing fences and bouncing off car wrecks in a convincing exhibition of excessive testosterone; the girls are given less chance to show off, but their dances are spirited. The fights are particularly well choreographed and performed at top speed; the deaths of Riff and Bernardo genuinely shocking

Of the two gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks have, perhaps, the easier task. They are the outsiders and audience sympathy is on their side (as was, clearly, that of fellow outsiders Robbins, Bernstein and Sondheim), though the writers stop short of making the ‘all-American’ Jets totally unsympathetic, putting the worst of the racial slurs in the mouth of the repellent cop, Shrank .

Jason McKell as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, is perhaps the most convincing and powerful presence in this production. He radiates authority, whether it is with his gang or his womenfolk, and is a quietly compelling figure whenever he comes onstage. Matt Fennell as his Jets counterpart, Riff, works hard and dances impressively, but his character is given less to work with.

The small-group set pieces (particularly "America", "I feel pretty" and the sure-fire "Officer Krupke") work very well, with Craig Anderson as Action particularly successful. His character seems genuinely dangerous beneath the fun; unlike some of the cast who occasionally suggest leafy western suburbs Brisbane rather then gritty west side New York. However, when Anita is cornered and assaulted by the remnants of the Jets gang, led by Action, it is a genuinely chilling moment, and Heidi Robinson is totally convincing both in her fear and her revulsion. The larger set pieces generally look and sound good, though the full cast reprise of "Tonight" with its microphone and lighting mishaps, causing even the orchestra to seem to panic for a moment, turned into a nightmare last Friday.

Given the attention to detail in many aspects of the production, I was disappointed in the lack of success in making Rick appear a credible ex-gang leader. When we first meet him with his private-school hair style and smart-casual gear we could be forgiven for assuming he had just returned from a Bible Study camp, or auditioning for Godspell . Certainly he had the look of someone surprised to find himself in the wrong musical. Granted, he appeared later with his shirt outside his pants, but even when he tried to stop the gang fight it was hard not to be reminded of a teacher who has finally lost control of Year Nines. Steven Moore needed a lot more help to establish something like street-cred, which a few more work-outs with the gang and a rethink of costuming and hairstyles could have provided.

In the end, however, a musical like this stands or falls on the quality of the singing, the energy of its chorus work, the commitment of the often undervalued orchestra and the loyalty of the company’s supporters. Simone de Haas (director), Harmony Lentz (musical director), and Lindon Weise (conductor) serve Ignatians well, both in challenging the mostly young performers to reach professional levels of performance and in meeting the laudable aim of community theatre groups : to provide quality theatre at affordable prices.

Directed by Simone de Haas

Playing until 5 August 2006: evenings 7:30 pm, Wednesday 19 July 6:30 pm.

Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 14th July 2006)
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Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset  
Queensland Theatre Company

By Stephen Carleton

Bille Brown Studio, South Brisbane

Professional production

From ghosties and ghoulies, and creepies and crawlies, and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.

Perhaps it’s because the local priest is Irish that the good Lord isn’t listening to the old Scottish prayer, for Somerset, one of those doomed 19th century settlements in northern Queensland founded by idealistic white people who were probably in it for God, gold and glory, is rapidly becoming a ghost town, and the ghoulies are out in force. And let’s not even mention the things that go bump in the night.

Fever is raging in the rapidly diminishing community; Captain Wilberforce Drinkwater, the Government Resident, is dead; and so are five of his seven daughters, who were named for the Seven Heavenly Virtues - Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. Only Hope and Fortitude are left, and I’m not giving away too much of the plot if I tell you that Hope, rather than springing eternal, is dead, leaving only the aptly-named Fortitude to face the world with her mother, the redoubtable Constance, who prefers to be known as Lady Drinkwater.

The ironic nomenclature in this fascinating script is not just theological. In a starving settlement where only the rain can be relied upon, the name Drinkwater has resonances that weave their way in and out of the text, and the more we see Father Angelico, the more we appreciate the playwright’s burning satirical touch. After making a first favourable impression, Professor Crabbe begins to live up to his name, especially when he decides to drink brandy and tea instead of water, and as for Lady Drinkwater, her Christian name is not the only constant element of her personality.

Caroline Kennison is a formidable Lady D, imperious and seemingly passionless, and on opening night, when her deadly secret was finally revealed, the surprise among the audience was almost palpable. She seems to hold the play together in the same way as she holds the community, by maintaining standards and distancing herself from the chaos, but when the truth is revealed and she too falls to pieces, so does the community, and the play ends on a note of pure terror.

This play won the 2004 Patrick White Award, and with its ambiguous dialogue, strangely twisting and turning plot, and cast of Gothic characters, I’m sure the Late Great Nobel Prize winner would have approved of the choice. It’s the kind of play that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not least because in the first hour you have no idea where it’s going. Everyone I spoke to at interval had the same reaction- “I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen!”

Neither could I, and I was torn between wanting to get to the end to see how Carleton was going to tie up his convoluted plot, themes and characters; and simply wanting it never to end because it was such a stunning production.

Bruce McKinven’s set was drawn out across the great sweep of the stage in the Bille Brown Theatre in the same way as the plot was drawn out and the characters stretched to snapping point. Matt Scott and Brett Collery’s sound-and-lightscape of the opening Sturm und Drang interrupted the seeming peace of the upper-class drawing room with hints of horrors to come. The dead-white makeup of the two surviving daughters not only made their faces look as if they were powdered with the white arsenic that 18th court ladies used, but also provided another clue, for those who had eyes to see, to the final revelation.

Although all the characters are standard types rather than realistic people, the power of the actors makes them come alive as individuals. Caroline Kennison is in fine form as Lady D, hiding her Machiavellian behaviour under a cold brittle cloak, and her barely-concealed antagonism towards the Chinese merchant Hop Lee makes a mockery of her philosophical commitment to a racially harmonious new colony. Robert Coleby is the professor who comes to seek refuge from the storm, at first the only figure of stability in the frenzied atmosphere of the little community, but soon descending into male dominance and eventual collapse as he comes more and more under Lady D’s spell.

Drunken Irish priests who lose their wits as well as their moral scruples when removed from the constraints of society are two-a-penny in European literature, but Michael Futcher makes Father Angelico a figure of fear as much as of fun, and he suggests in his performance the dreadful possibilities of virtue corrupted. The only sane person in this strange sextet is Hop Lee, the Chinese merchant, played by Darren Yap. This is an exquisitely-controlled performance which revels through Yap’s demeanour as well as the text the ultimate irony of the plot – that the only truly civilised person is the outsider, the racial misfit who is despised by all the white settlers but who is the only one who survives, and that through his personal integrity rather than good luck.

And so to the daughters, frightened and frightening little waifs in their lace nightgowns, their faces rendered almost featureless by their flat white makeup. It’s difficult for adults to play children without making it look fake, but Emily Tomlins (Hope) and Jodie Le Vesconte (Fortitude) keep us guessing all the way through as they cling together like two halves of a single soul. Are they about to become ghosts as their five older sisters have? What do their visions and forebodings really mean? Have they scratched through that thin skin between the real world and the world of dead? And what has happened to them in real life, apart from the multiple deaths in their family, that has turned them into semi-changelings? Tomlins and Le Vesconte are very convincing in these roles, close enough in character to be sisters, but different enough in personality for us to be able to accept them as individuals rather than as simply a pair.

To mix Gothic nightmare with real Australian history and psychological drama is a big task, but Stephen Carleton has succeeded admirably. This is one of the most exciting new plays I’ve seen for a long time and, as a production, a commingling of text, direction, design and acting that adds up to a sure-fire winner. Make sure you see it.

Director Marion Potts, designer Bruce McKinven, lighting designer Matt Scott, sound designer Brett Collery

Playing 10 July – 5 August 2006: Tuesday at 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, with one interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 13th July 2006)
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Sleeping Beauty  
Australian Ballet (Lyric Theatre)

Choreographed by Stanton Welch, designed by Kristian Fredrickson.

Music by Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky,

Professional production

This production of The Sleeping Beauty was Kristian Fredrickson’s last design before his death in November 2005, and a more perfect legacy one could not wish for. Fredrickson was one of Australia’s best stage designers, and for this ballet he not only produced exquisite costumes and his trademark symbolic sets, but achieved a perfect marriage between colour and meaning.

Accompanied by her flimsily skirted fairies, Lilac, the Queen of Spring, inhabits a world of blush-pale beauty; but when the wicked Queen of Winter, Carabosse (danced with a shivery evil subtlety by Annabel Bonner Reid), enters this perfect world to bring down her curses on the new-born Princess Aurora, she and her attendants are also clothed in white, but this time the whiteness of death, tinged with grey and black, more like the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s stories than the more obvious black-clothed figure we are used to. So the moral boundaries between light and dark, good and evil, are smudged a little: although Evil is finally conquered, as in all good fairy stories it must be, it is the defeated but not destroyed Carabosse who is the last to leave the stage, and we are left wondering when she will return.

Not in this story, though, for although the 21st century question mark about happy endings is palpably there, it seems that, for a moment at least, “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds”, and the colours change to the rich reds and golds of royal triumph.

This is such a visually striking production that I could rave on about the details of set and costumes for ever, like the use of richly-coloured Indian fabrics, the stiff-legged dolls and soldier toys, the adorable ginger and white cats, who just about upstaged the dancers with their pure-cat behaviour (Ben Davis and Natasha Kusen played them the night I saw the show) , and the icy forest from where Prince Florimund (Robert Curran) and his little brother Prince Florestan (Adam Bull) set off to rescue the sleeping princess.

But there is more to a ballet than the way it looks, of course, and choreographer Stanton Welch makes fierce demands on his dancers, especially on Princess Aurora (danced on Monday night by Rachel Rawlins), who has the fiendishly difficult task of remaining balanced on one toe for at least five minutes while she flirts, pirouettes and acknowledges her four suitors. But here, as everywhere, she triumphs over gravity as well as her young men, and there wasn’t the slightest trace of a tremble or a stumble — a truly remarkable performance, and one for which she received well-justified ovations at the end of the evening.

At three hours it’s a very long ballet, and there were lots of four-year-olds fast asleep by the end of the second act, but as Tchaikovsky’s original score went for four-and-a-half hours, perhaps we should be grateful — or perhaps not for those who, like me, just couldn’t get enough of the magnetic power of the production.

I have rapidly dimming memories of Maina Gielgud’s 1985 production for The Australian Ballet, where the sets were a cold glittering blue, and where the corps de ballet were all well-fleshed. Fashions change in ballet as in life, however, and this year’s crop of dancers are so thin as to look almost anorexic, probably more suitable for the lightness of touch that Fredrickson and Welch bring to this latest interpretation. And the girls’ fragility of appearance belies their physical strength, which takes them through the very demanding routines that Welch has devised for them.

All fairy tales finish happily-ever-after, even if there’s a darker sub-text here, and there is usually a wedding and a party. In this ballet, the joie-de-vivre goes on for a full 30 minutes after the romantic resolution, where all the dancers get a chance to perform, and although in one sense it’s pure self-indulgence on the part of the choreographer, and smacks a little of the end-of-term concert of a ballet school, the dancing is so exhilarating, and the techniques so impressive, that you never really want it to end.

After all, why waste all those gorgeous costumes, and the talents of the cast of thousands, by finishing the ballet just because there’s no more narrative? There’s still lots of Tchaikovsky at his tuneful best for the choreographer to use, after all, and the finale leaves everyone on a high, and in large part contributes to making this production of The Sleeping Beauty one of the most brilliantly gorgeous interpretations of classical dance that you’re ever likely to see.

Chief conductor and music director Nicolette Fraillon with The Queensland Orchestra

Playing until 15 July 2006 – Wednesday 12 at 7.30pm, Thursday 13 at 6.30pm, Friday 14 at 7.30pm, Saturday 15 at 1.30pm and 7.30pm

Duration : three hours, with two 20-minute intervals

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 10th July 2006)
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Expressions Dance Company

Choreographed by Maggie Sietsma and Sue Peacock

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts

Professional production

Flight is a perfect title for the latest program offered by Expressions Dance Company. As ever with this bold company, the dancers take off explosively, float weightlessly, swoop dangerously, and in every way defy the normal laws of gravity. Just to watch them is to indulge in a form of masochism, knowing that one will be left with a feeling of guilt and dissatisfaction at the limits of one’s own feeble and essentially earth-bound body.

In both pieces in this program (Flight by Maggie Sietsma and “If only he could see what she was looking at…” by Sue Peacock ) the concept of flight is used metaphorically too, as characters flee from their past, themselves, and each other, or soar into freedom as they resist the pull of the past. In both pieces too the audience is invited to let its imagination fly, following the dancers in explorations of identity and relationship against a constantly-changing and sometimes fanciful background of words, balloons and birdcages.

Maggie Sietsma’s piece showcases the dramatic power and athleticism of Zaimon Vilmanis who, as Dave, the central character of Flight, explodes in a storm of anger and frustration as he battles everything that shackles him to his past and prevents his self-realisation. The other dancers all demonstrate their versatility as they represent different aspects of his life in a constantly-changing kaleidoscope of characters and alter-egos. Sally Wicks easily meets the challenge of a series of difficult and stamina-draining duets, and Dan Crestani gives a wonderfully manic performance as a demented bird.

For anyone used to classical ballet with its respectfully silent audiences, it might come as surprise to hear the delighted laughter and appreciative gurgles that greet the inventive scenery or genuinely funny moments in contemporary dance pieces. The shock of hearing dancers speak is a further stimulus to an audience to engage more fully with the action on stage, and Maggie Sietsma uses all the elements at a choreographer’s disposal, including comedy, visual jokes, intriguing music and the human voice, to create an imaginative world in which to explore meaning.

This is the premiere of “If only he could see what she was looking at …” by West Australian choreographer Sue Peacock, and it is ideally suited to the ensemble work at which this company excels. Against a backcloth of projected and constantly dissolving phrases, snatches of conversation, and incomplete statements, the dancers come together and drift apart in an endless stream of connections and disconnections, expressions of intimacy and exclusion. Performers take turns in narrating the fragments of a shifting relationship where nothing is certain, clothes are exchanged, gender roles reversed, and continuity is elusive The movement is at times frenetic and compulsively repeated, the dancers working miraculously in unison to a beat of music, percussion, or sometimes only their own breath. There are similarities with the work of some modern Japanese dance groups in the almost obsessive exploration of closeness and distance, union and resistance.

It would have been good to be able to write at greater length about the contribution of the soundscape to this piece and to Maggie Sietsma’s Flight, as both use music particularly effectively to support and enhance the dancers’ work. The music chosen is listed in the program, so enthusiasts can follow it up for themselves later. However, appropriately, while watching these pieces the music does not demand attention, it is there to create and sustain a mood and it is only afterwards that analysis of just how cleverly the mix was made is possible.

“If only he could see what she was looking at..,” is a very powerful and demanding piece and Brisbane is fortunate to see its first outing. It is also the first opportunity Brisbane audiences have had to see the work of Megan Fucher, the latest addition to the Expressions ensemble. The beautiful line and lyricism that she brings complements the strength, authority and energy of the other female dancers and provides another foil for the athletic men.

Brisbanites are extraordinarily lucky to have a company of this excellence and international standing with such an exciting venue as the Judith Wright Centre as its home. During the 2006 World Shakespeare Congress the company will be staging Maggie Sietsma’s Virtually Richard 3 featuring Dan Crestani for three performances only (19th, 20th July) – another example of this company’s determination to make connections between different branches of the arts in Queensland.

Playing until 17 July: Sat 8, Fri 14, Sat 15 July 8pm, Wed 12 July 6:30 pm, Fri 14, Mon 17 July 11:30 am.

Running time: 1hour 30 minutes including 20 minute interval

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 8th July 2006)
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Die Fledermaus  
Opera Queensland (Conservatorium Theatre)

An operetta by Johann Strauss II

Professional production

Life is mostly froth and bubble, one person’s fish is another person’s poison, whatever turns you on, a little of what you fancy does you good, each to their own taste, or even there’s no accounting for taste.

Choose your own cliché, for they’re all applicable to this frothy little production of Johann Strauss II (not to be confused with his less famous father, also Johann, and no relation to Richard of Salome fame, which opera is coming to Brisbane later in the month as part of the Brisbane Festival).

Froth and bubble is what this production is all about, and the frivolity extends even to the frocks, for designer Leon Krasenstein has done a time leap so that the setting is Vienna in 1910, the age of Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s paintings are echoed not just in the rather puzzling set but also in the costumes, which are something less than subtle. All that vertical ruching suggests the ease with which a Viennese blind can be pulled up, and there is an extremely revealing but not titillating underwear scene (surely a little judicious padding is essential if Alfred, the would-be seducer of Rosalinde, is to strip down to his long-johns, and if I were Jacqueline Mabardi I’d insist on a less revealing negligee and a more flattering corset).

Gender-bending, cross-dressing and rampant campery are also part of the design but, as I’ve never read the libretto, I’m not sure how much of it is in the text and how much director John Milson has added. But he has great fun with it, and I was reminded of Noel Coward’s song "I went to a marvellous party", which is all about who does what and with which and to whom, and where the guests "couldn’t have liked it more".

Because it’s operetta rather than serious opera, you’re allowed to laugh at the ludicrous plot, and when you mix a practical joke that went wrong, a frustrated wife, a Latin wannabe lover who sings with a Melbourne/Italian accent (another reviewer has already made the Con the Fruiterer reference, which is why I’ve had to improvise), an ambitious maid, a transgender count, a drunken jailor and a lawyer who out-clichés the whole profession, it’s no wonder that the production uses English surtitles, even though it’s sung in English. The translation is by Milson himself and Michael Schouten, and is so good that it’s worth reading the surtitles even if you can follow the sung words.

This production is visually stunning and the tunes, of course, old favorites. Although there are almost as many polkas as there are waltzes, it is the latter which bring the gasps of recognition, and when Rachael Cunningham as Adele comes out with "My dear marquis", the ball really takes off. This is Cunningham’s debut both in the role and with Opera Queensland and, if this performance is any indication, she has a great career in front of her.

The other main roles are sung with skill and gusto, although Jacqueline Mabardi as the adulterous wife Rosalinde did grate a little on the top notes. Jason Barry-Smith as her smooth white-collar husband echoes the good humour of all such rogues in his smooth flawless tones; Michael Martin as the Latin lover sends up his part superbly; but mezzo Sarah Sweeting has to try rather too hard to capture the butchness of her role as Prince Orlofsky, sometimes straining her delicate voice.

The other singers are equally good without being outstanding, but with a farcical plot like this it’s better that they perform as an ensemble rather than as individual stars. After all, there are cameo roles here for almost everyone, including the chorus, with lots of cabaret numbers thrown in, and although I’ve heard stronger musical performances from Opera Queensland, there’s enough fun here to suit just about everyone except the severest critic.

It’s a touring production, which after its Brisbane season goes to Toowoomba and places north, and I’m sure that those audiences will react just as the first-night crowd at the Conservatorium Theatre on Saturday night — total confusion over the plot, polite laughter at the gender-bending and bad jokes, appreciation of the singing, a gentle acceptance of a below-par Queensland Orchestra but, above all, delight in Strauss’s gloriously ebullient score, which bubbles and fizzes and, like genuine French champagne, makes you forget all the less pleasing aspects of plot and production.

I do have a general question, though, which has puzzled me for years. Why is it that intelligent music-lovers, who wouldn’t accept any weak jokes in straight theatre, will laugh uproariously at the most feeble attempts at humour on the part of musicians and librettists? The weakest joke from someone like Richard Tognetti at an ACO concert will evoke guffaws of laughter from an audience who wouldn’t crack a smile if the same joke were made in a play or by a comedian. And in this production, what’s really so funny about a slim-line Gertrude Stein look-alike in tails, or a lovely young woman in drag kissing an elderly man dressed as an aging geisha? These formulaic characters are simply part of the social ambiguity of the plot, not jokes in themselves. Why do music lovers leave their verbal sophistication at home when they come to concerts?

Directed by John Milson, with the Queensland Orchestra conducted by Kellie Dickerson

Playing Tuesday 11, Thursday 13, Saturday 15, Tuesday 18, Tuesday 25, Thursday 27 and Saturday 29 July at 7.30pm: Thursday 20 July at 6.30pm, Saturday 22 July at 1.30pm

Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, including interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 8th July 2006)
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Bunker Productions (Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts)

By Stephen Vagg

Independent production

If people are now having their mid-life crises earlier and earlier, does this mean that they’re going to die young?

For the sad characters in Stephen Vagg’s latest play, you might wonder whether it’s worth living at all, for they are so dejected that their idea of a good night out is the trivia night at the local pub. They’re all single — not necessarily wanting to be, but mostly unwilling to commit to anyone long-term — they’re all professionals, and they’re all either grinding away at unfulfilling jobs as low-grade conveyancing solicitors, or have given up paid work to write the Great Unpublishable Australian Novel.

Chief character Michaela (played so poignantly by Cindy Nelson that she made me want to weep) is returning to life after breaking both her legs falling off a roof (don’t ask!). The other major break in her life is with her boyfriend, the unspeakable Ben, because he dished her after the accident, and her whole life is now focussed on her team winning the trivia competition. In this enterprise she is joined by Garry, an endearing drop-out played by the wonderful Chris Sommers, who knows all the trivia answers and is perfectly lovely to Michaela in an entirely platonic way which makes you wish she’d just hop into the cot with him instead of languishing after Ben the Abominable (played by Michael Priest, and for those who have never seen him before, I’m glad to be able to report that he’s actually a very good actor rather than having been typecast).

Enter Francesca Gasteen as AJ, a screaming neurotic who may very well have been the reason why all her friends left Brisbane in Vagg’s earlier play of that name. Desperate for the love and sex she’s never going to get, she hangs around Michaela et al, who are far too well mannered to tell her to f-off, and creates more storms in a gin glass than one would have thought possible. The lust-worthy Aram (surely Tom Oakley has been typecast here) floats from one girl to another, totally untrustworthy but eminently forgivable by the women in his life; and Louise Alston has four roles to play, mostly as bitchy ball-breakers of various types, although they are too similar in character to allow her to make them easily distinguishable.

Between them, this little group may know all about cricket scores, movie stars and every other trivial pursuit under the sun, but their lives are as frivolous as their interests, and you want to tell them to get a grip and get over whatever it is that’s blocking their paths. But they can’t, and the appeal of the play is the ambivalent attitude we have towards them, for at one level they’re as genuinely comic as the cast of Friends, but on another as genuinely tragic as any teenager in the throes of adolescence. The trouble is that these people are all 30-something — but at least they’re not snorting coke or downing E’s, as far as we know. What really worries me is that in 10 years they’re going to be running the country.

Stephen Vagg’s ear for current jargon, and his ability to create realistic characters, is so impressive that one could wish the play had a more serious sub-text, because as far as the dialogue goes, it’s as good as anything David Williamson can write. Vagg is brilliant at slick commercial comedies — so slick that I wonder he hasn’t been grabbed by an Australian television company to write scripts — but maybe it’s now time to turn his undoubted talent to something a bit more important than trivial people in trivial situations. I wanted at least a semi-serious theme in Trivia, if only to show that Vagg can give what he has always promised, a comic way of presenting problems that really matter. One day he’ll write his Mother and Son play, and then I know he’ll have come of age.

Directed by Stephen Vagg and Francesca Gasteen

Playing until 8 July 2006: Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes including interval

— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 1st July 2006)
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Why Kids  
QUT Gardens Point Theatre

By Henri Szeps

Professional production

This is the second one-man show based on his own life that Henri Szeps has written, performed, and toured. In the first, I am Not a Dentist, premiered in 1997, Szeps addressed head-on what must have been a galling realisation for an actor of his range and experience: that he was known outside of Sydney primarily for his role as Garry McDonald’s dentist brother in the long-running TV series Mother and Son.

In fact, Szeps had enjoyed a varied and successful career in both Australia and England, studying Method acting under Hayes Gordon at the ground-breaking Ensemble Theatre in Sydney in the 1960s before moving to England where, among other things, he played in Shakespeare with the prestigious Prospect Theatre Company. Since his return to Australia in the mid-70s he has performed and starred in plays by Neil Simon, David Williamson, David Mamet, Bertolt Brecht, Patrick White and Arthur Miller, and a variety of musicals, films and TV shows.

In the early 1990s Szeps starred in two significant one-man shows: a translation of Patrick Suskind’s Double Bass, and Sky, a play written specially for him by John Misto. Plays that are essentially monologues are like the long-distance solo yacht races of acting and the strain of attempting them can defeat even the most accomplished performers. For some, however, the experience of taking on an audience single-handed can become addictive. Henri Szeps may well be one of these, and the decision to write his own material followed naturally.

A master of seemingly effortless timing and rapport with an audience, it is these skills that Szeps employed in his first venture into autobiographical theatre where, through a mixture of personal and theatrical anecdotes, he allowed the audience glimpses of his early life in a refugee camp, foster home, and orphanage in Europe and moved on to trace his development in the craft that was to dominate his life — performance.

However, despite the success of this show, now nearly 10 years old, Szeps explains that he grew to feel increasingly that a whole area of his life to which he had devoted an equal amount of time and energy had been glossed over, namely marriage and parenting. And thus the idea for Why Kids? was conceived. Covering a little of the same ground as his earlier show so as to demonstrate the extent of the baggage he brought to the daunting task of life-long commitment and responsibility, Szeps lays bare his insecurities, failings and perceptions to a captive and captivated audience. The story he tells is both funny and moving without being mawkish, and is punctuated with particularly appropriate songs, mostly from the musicals he loves.

Much of what Szeps has to say about the complexities of marriage and parenting in Why Kids? is amusing, insightful, and thought-provoking. To this reviewer’s taste, however, among the wry comments and home-spun philosophy there was at times a bit too much of a preacherly tone. Indeed, given the average age of the audience of which I was a part, it seemed at times a little like a master class in egg sucking. I have also to admit that, in the flatter parts of the evening — and there were some — I kept being drawn back to the illusion that I was watching Dr Phil in full flight.

But this is to give an unfair impression of the show as a whole because, of course, Szeps is not a philosopher, an educator, or a relationship counsellor. He is an actor, a performer, an entertainer; and in these roles he is an expert. The show tells a story which is interspersed with anecdotes, jokes and, most successfully, songs and these give Szeps the opportunity to do what he does best. When he adopts a character or an accent he shines, when he recites a poem by Khalil Gibran on children he makes it sound profound, when he smoothly segues into a song we want more.

Why Kids? is sponsored by the National Performing Arts Touring Program, Playing Australia, and has been on the road since the end of May. It requires a lot of hard work and stamina to take a show like this through regional New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, West Australia and the Northern Territory and we are fortunate that we have performers and sponsors willing to take on the challenge. These productions play only for a day or two in Brisbane before moving on, so you have to be quick to catch them. They feature artists of international standing, the QUT Gardens Point Theatre is a charming venue, parking is free and secure, and publicly funded arts programs such as this deserve support. So, watch out for the next one.

Played Thursday, Friday, 29, 30 June, 8pm. Saturday 1 July, 2pm, 8pm

Running time including interval: 2 hrs 10 mins

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 1st July 2006)
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