Reviews:
October-December 2006
               
          

31 Circus Acts in 30 Minutes

Allah Made Me Funny

Anthems from 45 rpm

Donna's Party

Educating Rita

Fragments: A Season of Short Plays

I Want To Be In A Jane Austen Novel

Lucia di Lammermoor

31 Circus Acts in 30 Minutes

Metamorphoses

The Pirates of Penzance

Private Lives

Puss in Boots

The Randomania Show

Sex Cubed

Sylvia

Varekai



Dance

Romeo and Juliet

Music

Messiah

Peace on Earth

A Tribute to the Blues Mamas

Women in Voice 15




Earlier reviews

Anthems from 45 rpm  
Brisbane Arts Theatre


Linking script by Wayne Simes

Amateur production


Nostalgics, the sixties sit-on-a-stool comedian Shelley Berman once quipped, is one of the games you can play with yourself. It’s also a game the performers of this patchwork Arts Theatre production play with their audience. It sets out simply to entertain, and succeeds by oiling the doors of memory through the magic of music – the pop songs of the sixties (Act 1), and the seventies and eighties (Act 2).

It is easy to sympathise with director Lynne Wright who had, the program informs us, set out and then abandoned a production of A Chorus Line; flirted with Leader of the Pack-The Ellie Greenwich Musical but couldn’t secure the rights; and finally, with the enthusiastic assistance of her performing troupe of nine women and three men , hit upon the idea of hits of three earlier decades and cobbled them together with a narrative by Wayne Simes. This, for Brisbanites at least, is packed with memory-pricking nostalgics every bit as telling as the musical numbers themselves.

Clearly most of the performers are neither trained singers nor dancers, but what they lack in these departments they compensate for with infectious enjoyment of playing it out to us. On the night I attended the audience responded well, even willingly joining the group on stage to dance along.

Act 1 gives everything from “Sentimental Journey” to “Down Town” and “Aquarius” from the notorious Hair which, the narrative reminds us, was considered too risqué and immorally seductive to ever play in the backward backwoods of sixties Brisbane.

Act 2 journeys through “Celebration”, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and the evening concludes aptly with the Ray Charles evergreen, “Hit the Road Jack”.

In accordance with the tradition of an ensemble enterprise, no individual credit identification is given in the program, but the female performers of “Me and Bobby Magee” and “Sweet Dreams” deserve special mention. Both are blessed with great voices and both know how to sell a song.

For those who were there at the time, remember the sixties and what a 45rpm looked like, this is a sentimental journey well worth the taking.

Directed by Lynne Wright

Playing until 31 December 2006: Wed – Sat at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm.

Duration : About 2 hours with a 20 min interval.

— Ron Finney

(Performance seen: 16th December 2006)
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The Randomania Show 2006 - Random Acts of Matrimony  
Harvest Rain Theatre


Amateur production

Cast: Ross Balbuziente, Bil Campbell Hurry, Julie Cotterell, Sarah McCoy and Tim O’Connor with Josh McIntosh.


There’s been a lighting failure – hey, it’s that time of the year – but after a quarter-hour wait, we relinquish our “tickets” on which we’ve dutifully written our telegrams and enter the theatre to the explanation that the show will go on as best they can with minimum lighting. Mid-program some of these telegrams are read out. At this point it becomes obvious the cast is playing on home ground, for although we miss many of the in-jokes the audience has a ball.

I expected something like that '70s musical comedy Dimboola which centres on two families, one Protestant and one Catholic, who share a riotous “wedding of the year.” This invited audience participation, a rather outré concept in that more staid era. In Randomania the audience is thoroughly warmed up by Josh McIntosh’s mimed intro. He holds up flip charts with firstly a picture of a mobile phone. Then the words “You can leave it on…but use it for good not evil.” He adds, “Now I sound like Bono.”

McIntosh flourishes and demonstrates how to play some cheap musical instruments; a triangle, cymbals that need to be prodded back into shape after strong clashing and the inevitable jingle bells (with horsy galloping). He calls (if one can be said to do so in mime-grunts) for volunteers to play these and conducts a reasonably recognisable version of the Blue Danube Waltz. Now, there was obviously some connection here that I didn’t altogether catch, but eventually I gathered that the musical instruments that toot, tinkle and plunk fitfully throughout the show are the cues for actions from the actors who rush hither and yon across the stage. It makes for restless, frenzied scenes but that doesn’t matter, for the point is clearly made that a wedding causes lots of fuss.

Thus the show is billed as being “totally controlled by the audience” but is this stretching the point – sometimes obscurely. Actually, the musicians’ random tooting and shaking indicate which tag the actors should take, depicting their characters for the night - bride, bridegroom, bridesmaid, groomsman.

There’s heaps of convoluted plot in Dimboola, and perhaps Randomania could have emulated this more by tightening the structure and enlarging content. In the end, it all comes down to six attractive lively young people having a lot of fun on stage, egged on by their mates. When they’re singing and dancing they really shine, with strong voices, good movement and choreography, lots of vitality. (I can’t tell you the name of the choreographer as there was no printed program and I didn’t catch the name in the thank-yous at the end, but the moves were generally crisp and well coordinated.) I rather wished there was more singing, for the extended spells of rushing to and fro palled, and even became exhausting – and I was just sitting down!

The music, directed by Maitlohn Drew, draws largely on the premise of cobbling together lots of well-known songs, distorting the words into a pastiche. And generally it works well, with lots of laughs. The juxtaposition and conglomeration of Christmas and a wedding gives: “I’m dreaming of a white wedding, just like the one I had last year… may all my weddings be white.” McIntosh reappears as the priest, reading a marriage service of saccharine song grabs cobbled together: “Love lifts us up where we belong, love is all you need, people who need people are the luckiest…” and culminating in the vows; “I-e-e-I will always love you-oo-oo.”

As one who long ago developed a jaded allergy to Jingle Bells I thoroughly enjoyed the cast’s witty multi-cultural rendition, such as Chinese style, Scottish Highland flinging; Michael Flatley-type dance; Middle Eastern dancing complete with snake charmers; indigenous Australian with good emulation of didgeridoo; and gutsy Russian cossacks leaping.

The set is simple but striking in black and blue, with five doors painted with each character in bold line drawing, and another side door through which Josh McIntosh inserts “knock knock who’s there?” type characters increasingly manic in costume, accent and character. With more actual story line and development this could be an excellent addition to the fluffy pantomime festive fare. But why didn’t he join the cast for a curtain call? He won plenty of laughs.

There’s more laughter from the out-takes as we leave; “What a dreadful audience/yeah, did you see the guy picking his nose in the front row/and he ate it.” All good clean fun. Happy Christmas.

Directed by Tim O’Connor

Played 29 November – 9 December, 2006 (Tues – Sat) at 8pm)

Duration: 60 minutes plus, according to whim. No interval

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: 9th December 2006)
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Messiah  
Queensland Choir/Queensland Orchestra (Concert Hall)

By George Frederick Handel

Professional production

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Santa and his reindeer are in the shops, snow-laden fir trees are springing up everywhere, there’s a panto in town, and we’ve ‘done’ Messiah. Just how Handel’s great oratorio found its place in the wonderfully eclectic mix of pagan, Christian, Northern European and commercial iconography that marks the celebration of Christmas is somewhat surprising, but certainly for many it is now regarded as an essential part of the run-up to Christmas.

Written in haste in London in the summer of 1741, Messiah had its first performance in Dublin in April 1742. There is nothing specifically “Christmassy” about the work, which moves in three parts through the prophecy of Christ’s birth and the nativity story in Part One, His death, resurrection and ascension in Part Two, and the celebration of the victory over death in Part Three. Theologically, therefore, Messiah fits more appropriately into Easter celebrations, but popular culture has dictated otherwise.

From the first Messiah was a success with audiences, if not always with the clergy who distrusted the performance of sacred works in commercial venues. Such has been its popularity that it has survived many different treatments; adapted over time to suit a variety of venues, the musical and vocal skills of available performers, and current musical tastes. The original performance involved 26 boy choristers and five male soloists – a modest cast by our standards. However, the 1859 performance of Messiah to mark the centenary of Handel’s death, with a chorus of over 2000 and an orchestra of 460 playing to an audience of tens of thousands, must have been quite an experience!

Nowadays performances tend to lie somewhere on a continuum between small-cast, restrained recreations of an ‘authentic’ baroque sound and large scale productions that are loud, lush and lavish. At this year’s performance by the Queensland Orchestra and Queensland Choir, the choir, numbering more than a hundred voices, brought plenty of volume to the choral sections of the work and the orchestra, under the direction of Nicholas Milton, while hardly lush, was full-bodied and energetic.

The four soloists, Natalie Jones (soprano), Milijana Nikolic (mezzo), Mattias Lower (tenor) and Michael Lewis (baritone) were warmly welcomed by the audience; some like Michael Lewis as old friends, others like the striking Milijana Nikolic as new and welcome acquaintances. As always there was a palpable excitement in the hall before the opening bars of the Sinfony, which acts like an overture to an opera and is kept deceptively low-key. However, when tenor Mattias Lower’s clear, confident and lyrical voice soared in the thrilling opening exhortation to be comforted, the audience was quickly caught up in the unfolding drama of the narrative.

Standing beside the taller Milijana Nikolic, Natalie Jones looked deceptively fragile, but once she began to sing the strength and range of her voice was immediately apparent. No stranger to this style of singing, she demonstrated the vocal agility and control that made mastery of Handel’s demanding score seem effortless. Milijana Nikolic’s remarkable voice was compelling and added beautiful colour to the alto’s arias. However, there was some lack of audibility in the difficult sections in the lower register and problems with articulation at times. Michael Lewis sang well within his range and clearly relished the ‘duet’ with Richard Madden’s trumpet in the rousing ‘The trumpet shall sound’ – one of the many highlights of the work.

Conductor Nicholas Milton’s control of tempi and volume meant that the soloists were never battling the orchestra and his energetic management of the large chorus kept their enthusiasm in check and ensured that the harmonies were smoothly blended. The work of the orchestra and its soloists is often undervalued in an oratorio, but their contribution to the energy and drive of this work was evident. I thought the use of the organ loft for the two trumpeters for their featured section in the nativity account a nice theatrical touch, as was its recent use in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Every Handel-lover has his or her own favourite reading of the score, and there are many treasured CD’s and records that will be given their annual airing over the next few weeks. However, for sheer excitement, nothing compares with being present in a concert hall with a few hundred other people experiencing the musical journey of this work. Although a sacred work by intention, for believers and non-believers alike, Handel’s genius makes the drama of the piece paramount. The movement from the quiet assurances of the opening passages through the injunction to rejoice greatly at Christ’s coming, the pathos of His rejection, followed by the triumphalism of the Hallelujah chorus and the rousing assertion that, at the end, ‘the trumpet will sound and we shall be changed’ draws the audience into a concurrence with the final, prolonged and satisfying Amen.

This year’s performance by the Queensland Orchestra and Choir met all expectations. Applause at the end was prolonged and well-justified. Doubtless last Saturday’s audience would have agreed with the reviewer of the first performance of Messiah, who wrote in The Dublin Journal in 1742: Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adopted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear .

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Conducted by Nicholas Milton


— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 2nd December 2006)
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Romeo and Juliet  
Queensland Ballet (Playhouse, QPAC)

Music by Prokofiov

Professional production


The Queensland Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet tells with great artistry and passion the timeless story of the “star-crossed lovers”, and in an Australia shocked by the violence and hatred of the Cronulla riots, the tale of hatred between the House of Capulet (Juliet’s family) and the House of Montague (Romeo’s family) is especially poignant.

Queensland Ballet’s principal dancer, Rachael Walsh, danced with profound beauty and pathos the role of Juliet. She captures the innocence, the joy and the wretched sadness that sweep through Juliet’s being. Back in 1995, a different production of Romeo and Juliet by the Queensland Ballet with the music of Tchaikovsky was highlighted by the ethereal brilliance of Michelle Giammichele as Juliet. In this very different production, Rachael Walsh has proved herself a very worthy successor.

Zachary Chant danced a strong Romeo, resisting the pointless hatred between the families, but ultimately being swept up in it.

It was good to see former company dancers Anthony Lewis and Victoria Hollyman-Lewis return to the stage in the roles of Lord Capulet and Juliet’s nurse. Anthony Lewis played a fiery Tybalt in 1995 and on this occasion brought a dark authority to the leader of the House of Capulet.

The sumptuous costumes designed by Noelene Hill combined with Graham MacLean’s set and lighting designed by David Walters to produce an enthralling atmosphere.

The Corps de Ballet danced with great commitment and the occasional appearances of the gypsies (Renee Von Stein and Amelia Waller) added zing to the unfolding drama. Prokofiev’s music conveys a haunting menace. It continues to be a shame that the Commonwealth Government low level of funding of the Queensland Ballet resulted in recorded music rather than a live orchestra.

Why must such powerful love end in tragedy? "For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

This was a brilliant exposition of that which is elemental in life told through the most elemental art form – dance.

Choreography by Francois Klaus

Playing until Saturday 16 December – Friday 8, Saturday 9, Thursday 14, Friday 15, Saturday 16 at 7.30pm; matinees Saturday 9 at 2pm, Sunday 10 at 3pm, Saturday 16 at 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 10 minutes, plus interval


— Matt Foley

(Performance seen: 2nd December 2006)
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Peace on Earth  
Canticum Chamber Choir/Brisbane Biralee Voices

Music of Franz Josef Haydn, Gustav Holst, John Rutter, Benjamin Britten

St Mary’s Anglican Church, Main Street, Kangaroo Point

Shaun Pryor, treble solo

Semi-professional production

Bombarded as we are at this time of year by secular carols and the vulgarities of commercialism, it’s good to be reminded of the original meaning of the Christmas season. And many serious choirs and orchestras use the period of Advent, before we are all overwhelmed by the magnificence and glory of Christmas, to give sympathetically-minded audiences the chance to hear some of the best Christian music ever written.

Advent, which is also known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Little Lent, is primarily a four-week season of preparation for and anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child, less sombre than the Great Lenten season with its thoughts of suffering and penitence before the triumph of Easter, so it’s an appropriate time to hear some of the gentler music that’s associated with the pre-Christmas celebration.

Gentle doesn’t have to mean soft or sentimental, though, and as usual Emily Cox, director of Canticum Chamber Choir, has chosen a varied but totally appropriate selection of music for the choir’s final concert for the year. Peace on Earth brings together music by Josef Haydn, Gustav Holst, John Rutter and Benjamin Britten, which also incorporates ancient Christmas carols from the 15th and 16th centuries, and a more sublime and refreshing concert you couldn’t hope to hear at this time of year.

The program began with Haydn’s great Te Deum (We praise thee, O God), a canticle from the early church (let’s not get involved in the complex controversy about its date of composition) that is very rarely heard now that the ancient service of Matins has been largely discontinued. Haydn’s lyrical version was composed in 1799, and the score is suitably joyous, even though the text has no direct relevance to the season, concerned as it is more with the praise of God and the glory of the Church. Originally scored for choir and orchestra, it is here performed with organ accompaniment only, to suit the simplicity of the programming – although every time I go to St Mary’s, I wish that the extraordinary talents of Christopher Wrench could be given full rein on a better instrument.

The choir was at its finest, sopranos, altos, tenors and basses clearly distinguished from each other but blending perfectly in the full choral movements, and if the male voices were a little rough in the final section “O Lord, in you have I trusted; let me never be confounded”, and seemed to miss the force of the final positive hope implicit in that text, it was a minor fault in an otherwise wonderful performance.

The choir’s next number was Gustav Holst’s version of “This have I done for my true love”, one of the loveliest of all carols, even though personally I prefer the traditional tune as sung by the Shakers in 18th century America. But Holst’s harmonies are beautiful, perfectly suited to the talents of Canticum, and the sentiments of the lyrics, where Christ as the great lover sings to his beloved people about the events of his life, concluding always with the simple refrain “This have I done for my true love”, is spiritually as well as musically uplifting.

I’d not heard the Brisbane Birralee Voices before, but this children’s choir, which has been going since 1995 and now has six different vocal ensembles, was this year honoured by the ABC FM with the award for the Australian Choir of the Year. Under their director and founder, Julie Christianson, the choir showed a discipline and control of tone that children’s choirs rarely achieve, and their voices were not the piping immature tones of immature youngsters, but showed promise of great things to come. Shaun Pryor, the treble soloist, was just as good as Aled Jones at the top of his form, and it will be a sad loss to Australian music when his voice breaks. The two carols sung by the group, John Rutter’s setting of “King Jesus hath a garden”, and the much-beloved 19th century Basque carol “The Angel Gabriel”, were sung with such perfect diction and clarity of tone that they were, unlike many children’s choirs, a joy to hear.

And then came the piece de resistance, Benjamin Britten’s early masterpiece A Boy is Born (opus 3). It’s fitting that almost exactly on the thirtieth anniversary of the composer’s death, his earliest choral work, published in 1932 when he was still a student, should take pride of place. It’s fiendishly difficult, much more so than his later and better-known A Ceremony of Carols , and even in Britten’s 1952 revision, in which he simplified the writing of the choral parts and also scored it for organ accompaniment, it combines gloriously complex music with a simplicity and lightness of tone that suits the chamber genre precisely. And precise is the word for the performance, too, for any sloppiness of rhythm or diction would have made the whole work into a mixed-up Christmas pudding rather than a selection of separate delicacies. It was a real treat to hear this, especially in the beautiful setting of St Mary’s church in Kangaroo Point.

If you’re not already a follower of Canticum, check their website www.canticum.asn.au for full details of next year’s concerts – their annual Good Friday Meditation at St John’s Cathedral is something you shouldn’t miss.

Directed by Emily Cox

Organ and piano, Christopher Wrench, oboe Mitchell Suchowacki

Played Saturday and Sunday 2 and 3 December 2006 at 5pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 2nd December 2006)
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A Tribute to the Blues Mamas  
Judith Wright Centre

Performers: Margret RoadKnight and Lil’ Fi, accompanied by Mary-Jane Carpenter and Kelly Green



Professional production


“Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety.”

Move over, Cleopatra, for these Wild Women could show you a trick or two – and by Wild Women I don’t just mean the indefatigable and never-aging Margret RoadKnight, but the real old troupers whose early 20th century gutsy talent inspired this knock-‘em-dead show, the real mothers of the blues, people like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Ma Rainey, Clara Smith, Odetta and Vera Hall, one of the greatest of all American folk artists.

Nobody is underestimating the appeal of later queens of the blues, like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, but because these earlier mamas are not as well known, it’s a real treat for any blues enthusiasts to hear them revived, and to be introduced to some of their songs for the first time, especially when they’re interpreted by such powerful throaty voices as RoadKnight’s and the dynamic Lil’ Fi’s.

Remember Sweet solitary blues, Coffee-flavoured kisses and the influential anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holliday and later Nina Simone, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees? All these are in this concert, as well as many others less well-known, and they’re interspersed with light-hearted but informative commentary, such as the fact that Hound Dog was originally a Big Mama Thornton song that Elvis Presley later made his own.

There were lots of Bawdy Blues numbers, too, including Sophie Tucker’s great hit Won’t you do what you did last night? and Lil’ Fi’s own number, Celebrate my curves, which had the older audience, who were definitely not anorexic, on their feet clapping as she celebrated bellies and butts and boobs.

Lil’ Fi is a wonderful singer with a great range, and she’s as out-there as anyone could wish. One of the most original performers on the contemporary roots music festival scene, she is on record as saying that you don’t need a soft flouncy voice if you have something interesting to say. She’s right on both counts – her tough amazingly elastic larynx belts out songs, some of them her own, that neither lull you into a sense of security nor encourage you to indulge in self-pity. “I’m afraid of no man, and very few women,” she sings, recalling her own mother’s philosophy, and both she and RoadKnight, along with the Minneapolis groups the WildKats, know that wild women don’t get the blues. (It was just a pity that there wasn’t room for that other great song from the WildKats, Big butts are comin’ back .)

Unlike Lil’ Fi, RoadKnight doesn’t write her own songs, but self-mockingly boasts that she shook the hand of the person who wrote the first song Bessie Smith ever recorded (“which shows how old I am,” she quipped to the delighted audience), and Robyn Archer once wrote a song for her which she didn’t get around to recording until long after Archer sang it herself at a concert. RoadKnight has her own style, perhaps more folk than raunchy blues, and the show worked better when the two women sang individually rather than in tandem. They confessed to being under-rehearsed, too, as Lil’ Fi now lives in Melbourne rather than in her original base of Queensland, and the lack of preparation led to some longueurs in the repartee. But they are both good enough entertainers to be able to overcome this slight disadvantage and the audience, mostly long-time fans of them, let them get away with it. Perhaps the fact that the fans were older than usual led to an uncritical acceptance of the minor faults in the show, especially as the two voices are as great as ever.

Due credit must be (and was) given to the keyboard players as well, Mary Jane Carpenter for Margret RoadKnight and Kelly Green for Lil’ Fi. I hesitate to call them accompanists, for both women are fine jazz musicians in their own right, and their solo spots, especially in the final encore, had the crowd roaring their appreciation.

The Judy, as this sparky live arts complex in Brunswick Street is popularly known, perhaps wasn’t the best venue for this kind of cabaret – there was only room for a few tables at the front, and the rest of us had to sit stiffly in the tiered seats, which had something of a distancing effect. But it was a great night out, and not just for greying first-wave feminists. There were as many men as women in the audience, and my only worry is that there doesn’t seem to be a young audience for blues and jazz. Does this mean that the genre will dwindle so that it becomes an esoteric fringe interest in a generation or so? I hope not, because this is soul-wrenching music, no matter how old you are, and Margret RoadKnight and Lil’ Fi are two of Australia’s best proponents of the form.

Played 1 and 2 December 2006 at 7.30pm

Duration : 2 ½ hours including interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 1st December 2006)
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The Pirates of Penzance  
Opera Australia (Lyric Theatre)

By Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert

Professional production


Was there ever a more joyous combination of words and music than in Pirates and was there ever a more absurd plot to illustrate the mindless, moralising, sanctimonious, blinkered and unquestioning Victorian love of duty, or perhaps that last word should be with a capital D. In its most purposeful and productive manifestation, Victorian Duty accomplished much that was needed in the socially unequal Victorian world of workhouses and gin palaces. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, though, Wesleyan Protestantism and Calvinism had successfully inculcated in the middle-class world of Gilbert and Sullivan’s audiences the sense of Duty as a convention to be adhered to as a necessary rule of life. The subtitle tells it all, “The Slave of Duty.”

This production is the first for Opera Australia in Brisbane after an absence of 18 years, and the inaugural production of a new partnership between OA and the Canberra Theatre Centre, QPAC and the Adelaide Festival Centre to tour throughout Australia, whether it be — as the program tells us — in a hayshed or an aircraft hangar (whoops, “hanger” in the program, wonder what that conjures up) — or as a performance on the ABC or one designed for schoolchildren. “We are here to spread the joy of opera,” we’re told. For people who have been lamenting for years the inability of OA to do just that beyond the centres of Sydney and Melbourne, this is obviously good news, and we can only keep our fingers crossed that it will last.

These laudable ambitions perhaps account for the set, designed by Richard Roberts from the Victorian College of the Arts, which quite obviously has to adapt to different stages and locations and to be easily portable. But it’s clever and it works superbly. We are greeted by a quite confined proscenium arch surrounded by twinkling lights with a panel curtain which has The Pirates of Penzance also picked out in twinkling lights. The action takes place on a raked area within this confined space, on which cut-out cartoon-like props such as trees are wheeled on by the cast, and the glorious ship in its various far and near appearances moves sideways across the stage on an invisible track. The wonder of this design is that nothing is static for very long. At one point we see a tiny ship on the horizon, a second later it reappears slightly larger, then again slightly larger, until the final appearance complete with pirates hanging off the rigging. Similarly when Frederic wishes to spy on the maiden daughters of the Major-General he nimbly climbs an invisible ladder behind the cut-out tree and then reveals himself by opening a panel disguised as branches. It’s simple, funny and very effective.

The singing is, as it should be, outstanding, both from the principals and from the choruses of maidens, pirates and policemen, and for the most part there is clear respect for Sullivan’s wonderful words; the patter songs particularly are models of enunciation. I found Taryn Fiebig’s Mabel did not always articulate very clearly, but then maybe her trilling, which was impeccable, is more important than her diction.

I wanted to be reverential about this production though. I wanted it to be brilliant. The Simon Gallagher and Jon English Pirates had become so familiar over the years that I thought that this was bound to be different and — dare I say it — better. So why did I feel rather unsatisfied? The much vaunted Australian stage physicality was well in evidence with the pirates leaping around like dervishes (particularly distracting in the case of a couple of them who wore brightly striped leotards), and in a sense this was a triumph of direction and choreography considering the confined playing area. It was the very conscious decision to parody Victorian theatrical melodrama, though, which paradoxically slowed the pace at times and, in combination with the exaggerated effeteness of the pirates, made for a lingering sense of disappointment. So the poses were suddenly frozen, the despairing hand to the temple employed at every setback. Anthony Warlow’s impersonation of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Silver (how many levels of mimicry can you have?) had obviously set the tone for this emphasis, but what works on screen doesn’t always work on stage, particularly when the piratical minions also camp it up as poor little orphans. By contrast John Bolton Wood as the very model of a modern Major-General in a very fetching red and white kilt, tight red jacket and white pith helmet played out his own comic agenda, his patter song an energetic delight, his shimmy and rotating sporran a wonder, and the “orphan/often” routine an enthusiastic nod to the popularity of Victorian music hall. Being short and fat, he is a far cry from Dennis Olsen’s memorably more urbane and elegant Major-General; staying in the late nineteenth century, but going down market — music hall rather than West End theatre — worked well for Wood.

I am a great fan of David Hobson, and his voice has hardly changed from the wonderful Baz Luhrman La Bohème . He looks wonderful whether as pirate dressed as jolly jack tar or elegant groom-to-be in silvery frock coat or white three-piece linen suit. It was therefore a pity that he had to fit in with the exaggerated rather than comic tone of the production, peering down Mabel’s throat as she trilled, and falling to his knees at her final high note. His more engaging encounters were with the lustily energetic Susan Johnston as Ruth, and made you wonder about the delights young Frederic might have experienced at bath time as he was growing up. There are advantages to being an orphan after all.

As Queen Victoria appeared in the giant full moon in the last scene and the pirates did a Ballet Troc de Monte Carlo routine, the chorus sang “we love our queen” and “peers will be peers” and rose petals rained down, and I wondered if G&S were also making fun of the Queen as the only mother of the nation — after all, most of the cast are technically orphans.

Unusually I have a plug for the program: with a fascinating long essay on nineteenth-century copyright laws or lack of them (aka piracy) and another on recordings of Pirates as well as all the usual stuff, it is worth every penny. And finally, where are the first-night tuxes of yesteryear? Not one in sight; only a few sequins. Indeed Jeffrey Archer looked as if he had just come straight from the first day of the Test at the Gabba. But, importantly, there were young people in this audience, a whole new enthusiastic generation of G&S lovers. So don’t let them down OA.

Directed by Stuart Maunder

Playing until 9 December 2006 (Tues-Sat at 7.30pm; matinees Wed, Sat)

Duration: 1hr 50min (including interval)



— Barbara Garlick

(Performance seen: 23rd November 2006)
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Sylvia  
Centenary Theatre Group (Chelmer Community Centre)


By A.R. Gurney

Amateur production


Googling Sylvia by A. R. Gurney produces 75,500 sites, mostly reviews and forthcoming productions from Manhattan in 1995 to Hamburg in 2006. One concludes that the playwright’s comedic device of having a talking femme fatale dog, the Sylvia of the title, intrude into the middle-years marriage of Greg and Kate strikes a universal chord. While this final production for the year by Centenary (before its thirtieth birthday in 2007), is tight, well-paced and well-timed by John Boyce, it fails to exploit the full potential of the device. We observe the action with only occasional moments of genuine audience engagement.

Married for 20-plus years and with their children out of the family nest, Greg and Kate have moved to city-apartment living. Free of the kids, Kate is on the verge of a new career while Greg is suffering the career atrophy of having been too long in the same job. Enter Sylvia, a cross-bred pooch he finds apparently lost or abandoned while walking (on his employer’s time) in a park. She is one smooth, fast-talking, street-wise operator who succeeds in seducing his heart and his mind by seeming to provide the unconditional love and affection that appear to be missing in the marriage. This love triangle with a difference should generate a progressive dramatic tension and Seinfeld-like edgy humour culminating in Kate’s ‘her or me’ ultimatum when she obtains an overseas study grant with spousal, but no canine, support. Currently it doesn’t.

Rather than developing the tension and humour, the production as seen thrusts it at us from the outset. In essence the story is predictably over as soon as it begins, due mainly to Lia Davies’ highly energised but unengaging Sylvia. She gives us all she’s got in the opening scenes leaving the production locked on one level, and her fellow actors with little or no room to shape and develop their characters. That is unfortunate for David Bell’s mutt-smitten Greg and most unfortunate for Selina Kadell’s Kate, who for dog-huggers and lovers is seen as the ‘villain’ of the piece, through the writing anyway. Their performances are sound but stranded. Beware of working with children and animals, actors are warned. All the more so when the animal involved can talk, is appealing to the eye, and has many of the best lines and action in the play.

In his trio of roles as informed dog lover, alcoholic society dame and ambiguously-gendered shrink in need of a shrink, Mark Scott plays for farce when a measure of comic realism is called for. He might note Charlie Chaplin’s attributed comment that ‘the art of comedy is stepping over the banana skin into an open manhole’.

Given that the season runs until December 9, there is time to rebalance the production, set it on a more even keel and have it ride rather than plough the rising swell of middle-aged uncertainty that the play explores.

Directed by John Boyce

Playing until December 9: Fri & Sat at 8pm; Sun at 6.00pm

Duration : 2 hour 10 mins with 20min. interval


— Ron Finney

(Performance seen: 23rd November 2006)
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Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour  
Arasta Productionz (Brisbane City Hall)


Professional production


To people who know nothing about it, the term Muslim humour may seem like an oxymoron, but not all followers of the Islamic faith are sour and dour religious fanatics. There were plenty of women in headscarves at the performance of Allah made me Funny in the City Hall on Thursday night, and plenty of men in beards wearing kufi, the traditional head dress in many countries, but even those in the long loose garment known either as galabia or dishdash were enjoying the jokes as much as the non-Muslims were. Of course I missed some of the in-jokes , but the stylish young woman sitting next to me explained them to me in between giggles.

We hear plenty of anti-Muslim humour, much of which is very offensive, but perhaps only a Muslim comic call tell a joke like the following and get away with it. For those of you who haven’t heard it, it goes like this: A Muslim man walks into a club and asks to see the manager. “What do you want?” the manager asks him. “To tell jokes about terrorism,” says the Muslim. That night he leaves the stage to tumultuous applause.

I took a deep breath, not knowing how to react, but the big crowd loved it, and soon I relaxed and was laughing away with everyone else at jokes against George Dubya and Little Johnny Howard, who was described as “George W. Bush with a black man’s lips”.

What was surprising was the number of terrorist jokes – A veiled Muslim women was sitting in front of two young white Australian lads on a bus. One of them reached out his hand to tweak off her veil, but was restrained by his friend. “Don’t do that,” he said. “She’ll kill us all!”

The sophisticated Muslim audience loved this, for they have learned, just as Jews, Aborigines and other minority groups have had to do, to laugh at the prejudices against them, but for me it was a sobering experience, and I wondered how a mainstream Australian audience would have reacted – probably with guffaws of recognition at what they regarded as truth. You need to be in a minority (as the non-Muslims were in this audience) to know how it feels.

What this show did prove was that humour is cultural rather than strictly religious. Both the comics, Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman, are American, Moss from an Afro-American background, and Usman an American of Indian background (i.e. the Asian sub-continent as opposed to native Americans). Both are coloured, and much of the humour revolved around appearance, and perhaps for an Australian audience the jokes seemed to be more about being black in a mainly white USA. “At least in Australia I’m hated for being American, not for being Muslim,” said Usman, while Preacher Moss made the quip that Americans were afraid of only two kinds of people, blacks and Muslims, and he qualified on both counts.

So it was a show about prejudice, rather than being specifically Muslim, for you could substitute any racial or religious minority in many of the jokes and they would still make uncomfortable sense in any context.

There were no religious or sexual jokes such as you find in Western comedy, and no swearing, but that just shows that these are not essential elements of comedy, for most of the show was excruciatingly funny. It was very much a family show but, as Preacher Moss remarked, it couldn’t possibly be a Muslim gig, for there were no hordes of children running around unsupervised.

Each comic approached his subject in a different way, Preacher Moss much more light-hearted than Usman, who made no attempt to hide his strong anti-American and anti-Western bias. His jokes had a more cutting edge, and that made them, for me, less funny, because his appearance was more stereotypal, and made me uncomfortably aware of how our perceptions are shaped by the media.

His question “Do you know that the country of Niger is named after a racist slur” had an edge of paranoia on the humour, as did his word-play about the India-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir really being about Mere Cash. You can appreciate the sentiment, as you can appreciate his suggestion that Operation Iraqi Freedom should be renamed Operation Iraqi Liberation, with its acronym OIL, but it was rather a case of overkill.

This stand-up comedy show is, in the words of its producers, “an attempt by a group of American Muslim comics to counter the negative stereotypes and attitudes about Muslims and Arabs by poking fun at themselves, their communities and the prejudices they face”. My problem with it was that it didn’t really come to grips with specifically Arab humour, and when I asked one of the non-Arab organisers afterwards why not, he replied with a grin that perhaps it’s Middle Eastern humour that’s the oxymoron. I have to disagree, for I’ve just returned from Syria and Jordan, and found that once the locals felt relaxed with Westerners, they had as many jokes against themselves and their government as we do.

I didn’t know quite to make of his remark, for certainly there were very few Arabs in the audience — only one man put his hand up and declared himself an Iranian. The rest were Turks, Malaysians, Pakistanis, Lebanese and Indians.

But that’s a cultural question for another time and place. My only disappointment with this show that it was too American in its focus, and I’m eager to see more home-grown Muslin comics. But as a barrier-breaking experience it could have done with a wider audience, because it’s a show about prejudice rather than religion, and these issues are better tackled through comedy than by confrontation.

Played Thursday 23 November 2006

Duration : 2 hours, including a 20 minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 23rd November 2006)
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Women in Voice 15  
Playhouse Theatre

Presented by QPAC in conjunction with the Queensland Folk Federation and Annie Peterson

Professional production


What a truly great evening, what a swellegant elegant party it was. Women in Voice 15 has come a long way since the Sitting Duck Café, calling in on the way to the Rialto in West End and the Princess, and now comfortably belting it out for the past five years at QPAC, where it’s jointly sponsored in conjunction with the Queensland Folk Federation and Annie Peterson, and with a nod, I’m sure, to the Woodford Folk Festival along the way. In its early days WIV had a slightly more butch audience, but in the conventional surroundings of the Playhouse the audience was more mixed, more like that for k.d. lang and Tony Bennett perhaps, but much less restrained. They whooped and clapped and participated in the party with huge enthusiasm. All the singers travel widely throughout Australia and internationally, but WIV itself has only travelled once interstate, in 2005 to Sydney for a two-week season at Star City.

So this particular party is just ours, girls, with the sassiest MC you could wish for. Carita Farrer bounced her way on to the stage in slinky bright orange (her pumpkin dress) with a floor-length feather boa in hot pink spiced with multicoloured highlights and an absurd delight of a headpiece looking like the waving antennae of a many-headed bumblebee. Her version of “Step inside now” with a lascivious high kick at each repetition of the title line encouraged us all to join her in her comic Lesbos, a little bit Dame Edna, a little bit Sandra Bernhardt. As she teetered over to her drinks table, we knew we were in for a wild night, but were coyly encouraged not to “peak too early.” Good advice too, because the fun was spread out throughout the evening, a bit of karaoke with Ralph from the audience, almost a game of twister except that there’d been a health and safety issue the previous night when part of a shoe intruded rather too intimately into someone’s orifice, charades, and the perfect party hostess offerings of burnt curry puffs, bratwurst and cheese on toothpicks stuck in a pineapple, and, finally, ice creams. The front rows all scored. As for Carita, she was on not one but two diets — she didn’t get enough food on one.

Each singer creates her own party piece, but they all step in as backing singers, so it really does seem like a big communal songfest. Some have props or a bit of a light show, others just sing, and what voices — blues, jazz, folk, pop, enormous variety, power and beauty, and a great line in comedy. Stacey Broughton’s very funny laments about waiting in her '50s black corselette, red tiered hooped petticoat and fluffy mules for the phone call from Mr Right who might just be James Bond is set in a wonderful 50s lounge room with wing armchairs, red feature phone and incongruous New Guinea phallic carving. A chi-chi-girl-style “Busy Line” later and she resorts to the comfort of her heart-shaped box of chocolates until she hears at last from JB himself who leaves his number, belted out by the back-ups, “6345-789.” A quick change into green taffeta with red belt and high platforms, and she’s off to tell him where to put his sweet lips.

Emma Dean, by contrast, just sits at the piano. She’s no bland Diana Krall though, singing old standards. She sings mostly her own songs and looks like a princess in white silk with a tumble of blonde curls cascading down her back, but she’s also raw with a great sense of irony and can morph in a second as she sings songs based on her princess diary into all the nasty little girls at school who are also doing ballet. And when she also plays jazz violin like Stéphane Grappelli and acoustic guitar, the audience is taken on a pretty wild ride.

Kristina Olsen is an American singer songwriter who has been coming back regularly to Australia over the past several years since her first visit here for the inaugural Woodford Folk Festival in 1994. Once again we’re in crossover territory — a great voice which is both folk and country, jazz and blues and with a fine line in political jokes between songs. She has some great plaintive riffs on the acoustic guitar as well. Two of the long narrative songs were standouts: the one about the woman who finally learns to fly, and the very funny “Better than TV,” a sort of theme song which she wrote for the TV-free America movement. All you need are flatmates like hers who are unusually three-dimensional in their vigorous sexploits. She obviously relished the quirky resonance of the Australian term for an apartment dweller. Kristina Olsen, by the way, is a WIV virgin this year, as our MC delighted in telling us. Let’s hope she’s back again next year.

Megan Sarmardin is the youngest in the party, but she takes command of the stage as if her mother gave birth in the wings. She’s certainly been singing on stage for a long time up in Mt Isa, and she was in Australian Idol this year. They can’t have known what hit them. Some of her songs are ones she’s written in conjunction with one of the superb musicians behind all the women who is also her mentor, John Rodgers, and are based on her family’s stories of their indigenous-Russian-Indonesian heritage. One in particular about fleeing from the authorities and hiding the children is like a great hymn about any and every history of colonial injustice. After showing some slides of herself as a young child in Mt Isa, she belted out the Tina Turner hit “River deep, Mountain high” as it was her Dad’s favourite song. What a talent!

Leah Cotterell is a WIV veteran: her first appearance on a raised dais with dry ice swirling round her feet and dressed like a Celtic priestess emphasised that authority as her voice soared in a strange song about being lost in the dark, which she and Jamie Clark, the guitarist, had created for all the ghosts in the old schoolhouse in Running Creek Road. After this the wonderful depth and range of her voice was given full rein in four very different songs from the 60s, possibly the most powerful being the Ewan MacColl classic “Ballad of Accounting” with the growling alto repetition of “from the cradle to the grave.” The lilting joy of “Dirty old river” by Ray Davies, founder member of the Kinks, with its Zen-like anthem of “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I’m in paradise” finished this segment, and I wondered could anything top it.

How about a bit of surreal madness with Christine Johnston, one of the Kransky sisters, then? On a high screen we see a strange little cartoon story of a generic insect — grasshopper, cicada, flying cockroach? — who bumbles into people and is caught up on an old lady who brushes her off so that she falls into a cone of ice cream. To the tune of “Greensleeves”, the light goes up on the stage where a large cone of ice cream is surrounding the insect, who is sweetly singing, yet looking like an escapee from the Munster family. As she escapes from her chrysalis of ice cream, she becomes more and more psychotic, her singing reaching heights and depths of anguish, as she tears her hair from her head. “Baby, it’s you,” she shrieks as she pulls bits of her dress off. Then suddenly it’s back to “Greensleeves” as she becomes Christine the Strawberry Girl, but now she’s a turtle. “Stop bugging me” she says. What a weird and crazy journey she takes you on, but what an astonishing imagination and voice to accompany it.

I’ve mentioned the musicians in passing, but I’d like to shower on them all the hyperbole I can muster. John Parker on drums; the wonderful John Rodgers on violin, keyboard, guitar (and was there a lute at one stage?); Stephen Russell on piano; Jamie Clark on guitar. Some of them have been with WIV many times, and there’s a pretty special synergy on stage that’s built up over time.

It was one a helluva party.

Directed and choreographed by Karen Crone

Playing until 25 November at 7.30pm

Duration : 2½ hours (including 20-minute interval)


— Barbara Garlick

(Performance seen: 18th November 2006)
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Puss in Boots  
Queensland Theatre Company

Adapted and directed by Scott Witt

Professional production


Panto hasn’t been part of the Australian theatrical tradition for a long time, maybe 60 years or more, since the introduction of television and its resulting different kind of comedy. There are so many special programs for kids, who are becoming more sophisticated by the minute, that the old-fashioned appeal of audience involvement, Spot-the-Villain and cross-dressing might, one would suppose, have lost its magic.

But thankfully it hasn’t, as the success of movies like Shrek has triumphantly proved. That is a movie that three generations can watch together, with something for all of them on a number of levels. And in the live theatre, it’s probably the only way to do panto these days.

So don’t you worry about that. Scott Witt’s adaptation of the old pantomime favourite Puss in Boots is proving a winner for the QTC, for he’s managed just the right balance between simple story-telling and good old-fashioned fun, with plenty of engaging stage props and enough double-entendres to keep even the adults in the audience awake.

There’s also a touch of sentimentality to tug at susceptible heart-strings, too, with Paul Bishop as the grieving father and Veronica Neave as the poor motherless son sharing the child’s favourite bedtime story, watched over by the spirit of the dead mother — sob, sob. This framing device, which leads into the dream sequence that makes up the main story, is probably the weakest part of the show, but it’s soon over so that the old-fashioned fairy tale silliness can take over.

If you don’t already know the story, which goes back to the 17th century French tale told by Charles Perrault, you have indeed had a deprived childhood. What! No sleek masterful cat in skin-tight moleskins and Cyrano-type hat buckling his swashes? No Fairy Godmother, Evil Villain and Idiot Son? No miraculous transformations of character or Right conquering Might? No wonder you grew up confused.

Like all fairy tales, by the end all has turned out for the best in this best of all possible worlds, so all the audience has to do is sit back and be entertained. And all the reviewer has to do is tell you whether and why it worked.

Rest assured, it did work, largely because three basic necessities of any production are magnificently fulfilled. Never mind the plot — that’s given, and all you have to do is let it roll along, without even having to suspend your disbelief. We’re in Fairy Land here, where anything can happen, so it doesn’t have to be logical. All we ask is a decent group of actors, a classy design, and a witty directorial concept — and this is precisely what we get.

Director Scott Witt has lived up to his name again, for there are lovely touches in this production, like the loopy doubling of the adorable Emily Tomlins as the Fairy Godmother and the guard called Darren. The names are Dickensian-with-a-twist, with a wicked villain called Sir Bloggs, a Princess named Rupert (a nod to the all-powerful magnate here?), and the ineffectual King Buttons straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

It’s a brilliant cast, with Veronica Neave at her wicked best as the arrogant Puss. Those white silk trousers and lace–trimmed boots, that complete physical control as she leaps about the stage, that self-mocking grin as she sends herself up rotten — aren’t we lucky to have her back? She even makes a semi-believable primary school child, bouncing all over her bed, although there’s often a little too much caricature here of the adult playing the child, so that the Son becomes a fairy tale figure himself rather than fitting well into the reality frame.

Paul Bishop is amiably self-conscious as the dopy Pippo the Miller’s son, who goes off with the cat to save both his father’s business and his plastic Princess (Niki-J Witt wickedly displaying more than a touch of the Mary of Denmark syndrome?), but he’s an affable fool, the perfect foil to his dashing cat — who conveniently turns back into a naughty puppet when Neave has to go off-stage for a quick costume change.

Of the much-beloved Adam Couper what can we say except that he’s his usual winning self, both as the dumb static Miller whose house is about to be destroyed by the evil Sir Bloggs (Boo! Hiss!), and as Bloggs himself, with seriously sexy mustachios and a fine line in growling.

Anthony Standish doesn’t have much to do except shuffle sideways like a paper puppet as King Buttons, but he does it superbly, but for me at least, the star of the show was Emily Tomkins as the Fairy (does my bum look big in this?) Godmother.

She fusses onto the stage in a semi-circular crinoline that displays her pneumatic bust, for all the world like Mary Poppins on a mission, and does one of the best audience participation routines I’ve ever seen. By picking out just two or three people in the audience — a two-year-old in the front row, and a man she names Roy — and talking to them directly, and by asking us what she should do next, she makes us all feel part of the party. It’s a really lovely performance, one of the best she’s ever done, and once again she displays the breadth of her talent, and adds another dimension to her repertoire.

None of this would work, though, without Jonathan Oxlade’s design, a versatile single set that’s easy for the actors to move around, while providing four or five different locations. It’s visually appealing without being too cute, and provides a perfect background for the truly wonderful costumes — I remember particularly Puss’s waistcoat, the Miller’s long skirted apron, Princess Rupert’s party frock, and the outlandish cardboard cut-out that King Buttons wore.

All panto needs a song or two, and here they are provided by the multi-talented Adam Couper, although I have to say that they’re not as tuneful and immediately appealing as I’d expected, and they didn’t have much toe-tapping sing-along pizzazz.

But overall the production was great fun, and you don’t even need the excuse of having a tame kid to go along and see it. This is old-fashioned panto adapted perfectly for our times and, whatever your expectations, you won’t be disappointed

Directed by Scott Witt

Designer Jonathon Oxlade

Playing until 16 December 2006: Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7pm, matinees Wednesdays 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 10 minutes, with a 20 minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 16th November 2006)
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Varekai  
Cirque du Soleil


Written and directed by Dominic Champagne

Under the blue and yellow big top at 1 Airport Drive, Hamilton, off the airport road

Professional production


This production pays tribute to the nomadic soul, to the spirit and art of the circus tradition, and to the infinite passion of those whose quest takes them along the path that leads into danger and mystery.

There are currently six different Cirque du Soleil shows touring the world, and about another six playing permanently in a number of cities. Brisbane has seen two or three of these already, but the current production, Varekai, has a different theme and emphasis from all the others, presumably so that nobody can justify staying away with the excuse that they’ve seen it all before.

In a way, of course, we have seen it all before, but we are still amazed by the sheer physical ability of the performers, the way they use their bodies to perform convolutions that seem impossible. We can never stop gasping in wonder at their physical prowess, and every time the acts are different, even though each is based on a familiar technique.

In that sense, the performers of Cirque are probably no better than the best of the Chinese and Russian acrobats, but what sets this company apart is the professionalism of the presentation, the spectacular staging and costumes, and the imaginative storytelling, which weaves the acts into a narrative with recurring motifs which give the show a shape, rather than it just being a series of discontinuous acts.

The story behind Varekai is that of a solitary winged creature (Mark Halasi) who falls twisting from to the sky into a magical landscape, which has been set in the beginning in a rather slow 10 minutes of “drawling and stretching and fainting in coils”, as the Mock Turtle would put it. Fantastic costumes, yes, and strange other-wordly creatures at the bottom of a fairy forest that somehow suggested the Beatles’ underwater garden as well, but nothing very exciting in the way of physical agility and, for my taste and the taste of the children around me, rather too busy to be able to hold our full focused attention. Even the clown didn’t excite their laughter, because for the kids he was too sophisticated to be funny, and for adults a little lacking in meaning.

But once the dazzling winged creature fell from the heavens, the mood changed, and the gripping narrative took over. The angel-like creature (or is he Icarus?) was stripped of his wings and rolled up in a net, pulled up into the flies as if being rejected by the world he had descended into. Then, like the magic creature he was, he unrolled himself from the net and used it to perform a series of exquisite acrobatic sequences, bringing forth from the audiences those gasps of admiration that every good circus performer should be able to achieve.

Eventually he fell to earth again, and lay there wingless, his arms outstretched, while the ugly black giant-like creature mocked him, and the show went on, with its usual exquisitely-costumed death-defying circus tricks, and eventually he found True Lerv with another shimmering acrobat whose silver-striped costume made her seem like a flickering sea creature, and whose agility was even twistier than that of a fish, and it all ended up happy ever after, as fairy tales should.

And in between there were costumes and music and physical tricks that had everyone calling for more, and it was a truly beautiful evening. Hand-balancing on canes, the triple trapeze, Russian swings, foot juggling and even a solo acrobat act performed on crutches — you name it, it’s here.

"Varekai" means "wherever" in the Romany language, and this show is about the perils encountered by the nomadic soul, as well as the ultimate rewards. It’s this thematic structure, as well as the costumes, of course, that raises Cirque du Soleil into a realm far beyond that of ordinary circuses, and has made therm deservedly popular.

So even if you don’t like circus, this one is worth seeing, for the way it can lift the spirit and enchant the senses; because it’s about human yearnings and aspirations; and you will probably believe, if only for a couple of hours, that magic can happen and that dreams can come true.

Costume designer Eiko Ishioka

Playing until 16 December 2006: Tuesdays to Thursdays at 8pm; Fridays and Saturday at 4pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 1pm and 5pm. Please note that the shows on Saturday 16 December will be at 1pm and 5pm. Performance schedule changes some weeks.

Duration : 2 hours 30 minutes, with a 25 minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 10th November 2006)
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Metamorphoses  
Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble (Metro Arts Theatre)

By Ovid

Amateur production


Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s (QSE) program for Ovid’s Metamorphoses promotes the company and its mission, provides the psycho-intellectual framework on which the production is structured and offers bios on the players and production personnel. However, in its undertaking to transform this ‘complex text into an exciting and easily accessible performance’, it does not reveal who is playing whom in what, in the poem-stories presented. Pity.

In a minimal setting, using a sheeted-plastic mound (a distracting mistake) and a collection of abandoned computer hardware to suggest the universality of the work, director Leah Mercer has chosen four pieces from Ted Hughes’ translation of 24 passages of Ovid’s more extensive original – Creation, Peleus and Thetis, Echo and Narcissus and Tereus. In most respects, the production succeeds in transforming the selected pieces into an accessible, energetically disciplined performance piece. Integral to the transformation is Gaven Edwards’ musical score and e-keyboard/percussion playing.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE-17CE) is recognised as among the greatest of Roman poets. From its origins as an insignificant city state around 750BCE, by the time of the birth of Christ Rome’s empire extended from Egypt to the English Channel. Unlike Greece, it is remembered more for its roads, arched bridges, viaducts, imperial architecture, system of law and focus on public service, than on any esoteric preoccupation with the arts and sciences. Scholars suggest it expected the works of its poets to reflect its utilitarian civic values. But Ovid was not interested in celebrating and sustaining the Roman ideal. Forsaking a legal career and fuelled by a passion for love, abandoned women and mythological transformations (particularly into flora and fauna), and blessed with poetic prowess and a keen wit often directed at the prevailing gods, he fell foul of the establishment. In 8 CE, when he was about 50 years old, he was sent into exile and died nine years later.

Leaping from story to story with little connection, Metamorphoses describes the creation and history of the world in terms of Greek and Roman mythology. It remains one of the most popular works of mythology and has influenced poets and playwrights from Chaucer and Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot. It has been said of Ovid that ‘if others have written more deeply, few have written more colourfully.’

The production and performances capture that colour. Like the whole, the parts performed have little connection with each other. Like the original, the production exploits the iconoclastic humour overt and latent in the text even when the action is violently horrific.

Through blended elements of dance drama (sometimes repetitive despite the varying dramatic tensions of the stories), we witness a playful birth of the world through gymnastic use of a ball which later serves both as a new born child and a severed head. A ball of red thread also serves a multitude of dramatic purposes – a severed tongue and a woven message. Imaginative stuff!

In converting the verse to dialogue the actors speak in both the first and the third person and move effectively between the various characters each portrays. The performances are generally well balanced with only an occasional harsh use of volume for intensity in the confines of the venue. While I’m not personally opposed to the use of the General Australian accent in delivering dramatic verse, its limited tonal range should be recognised and addressed. Great verse deserves the best possible vocal instrument.

On the whole, however, QSE is to be commended for its dedication to the classics and its willingness to journey where others fear to tread.

Directed by Leah Mercer

Playing November 8 – 25, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm.

Duration : 1 hour 10 mins, no interval



— Ron Finney

(Performance seen: 8th November 2006)
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Fragments: A Season of Short Plays  
Backbone Youth Arts (Metro Arts Theatre)

by Daniel Evans, Victoria Carless, Elizabeth Pullen, Kim Wilkinson

Backbone Youth Arts in association with Metro Arts and Playlab

Amateur/Professional

Backbone Youth Arts (and I’m shamelessly plundering the program notes here) is an organisation for children and young people aged from 7 to 25 who are interested in drama and performance. In joining forces with a number of professional mentors working in various aspects of theatre from stage management and lighting and sound design to programming and directing, Backbone has made it possible for young artists to learn from the horses’ mouths about developing, refining and staging a new work. This is a bold and exciting enterprise without a doubt, and the resulting productions are an interesting blend of amateur enthusiasm and professional control. The short plays only had a two-week run, “Holy Guacamole” and “The Rainbow Dark” on one night and the shorter “Garnett’s Store” and “Nineteen Pages” on the following night, giving each program a total of four performances. Obviously wonderful experience for all concerned, including the two professional old stagers in “The Rainbow Dark,” and not too lengthy a season to exhaust the ready audience supply of family and friends.

The first night’s offerings were both clever ideas imaginatively worked through. “Holy Guacamole” began with an evocative medley of noises of modern suburban life—bells, horns, doorbells, plus the inescapable Brisbane summer cicadas. As the lights came up, we saw the Hills Hoist and the recognisable figures of a trio of Barbie dolls, the Sheena sisters. Suburbia rules. But there were also elements of misrule hovering round: the anarchic figure of granny in a wheelchair, full of caustic one-liners, who once flew and touched the clouds and only gave up flying when the bedpan kept getting detached from her bottom—“don’t get too attached to contortionists,” she advised, “one day they’ll lose their heads up their anus”; and the individualist friend who romped from one enthusiasm to another—from Allah to Krishna overnight—all the while practising her acrobatics; and finally there’s Mum who only wanted to be ordinary and bully downtrodden Dad, but who had inadvertently introduced the Lord of Misrule into their world by giving birth to Eustace the Avocado Boy, the freakish outsider who wanted to be a magician and be able to disappear at will. Green skin, strange shape, always gentle, puzzled by the world he doesn’t fit into, and ultimately the one who must suffer in this funny yet sad picture of suburbia. “When did grey become so fashionable?” laments Gran. The script is well written with some very funny lines, and the young actors use the quite small and crowded stage with energy and panache. Given the cartwheeling, the constant coming and going, the Hills Hoist and magic tricks, this is no mean feat.

“The Rainbow Dark,” the second half of the first program, is another quirky look at modern life, but this time dealing with a more directly current problem, that of asylum seekers and how ordinary people cope with “people from elsewhere who don’t recognise perfectly good borders.” The government has mandated that these people are squeezed into people’s houses (out of sight, out of mind), and Gloria and Babs, enthusiastically played by Jan Nary and Kaye Stevenson, have 26 (plus one newly born baby) living under their stairs. Each domestic habitation is now a miniature Nauru. Babs also has an “unsavoury” dog Sylvia who farts and scratches and sniffs crotches, and speaks the true wisdom of the play, that the people from elsewhere are still able to see colour in their enforced darkness. Sylvia, played by Dirk Hoult, is a shambling, shaggy, doggy delight. He and the timid Babs make a great couple, and their liberation of the people from elsewhere at the end is like the uplifting climax of all those Italian films of the 50s when the peasants always triumphed over their poverty. This is an interesting script: the setting of a suburban lounge room is a familiar one, and ultimately the play deals with a problem we all recognise, but the writer, Victoria Carless, employs an almost Pinteresque method of deferring complete knowledge. Small details like Babs’s false teeth, the drape of Gloria’s satin nightie, the intentions of Donald the butcher, all serve to paper over the fact of the people under the stairs. It’s only Sylvia in the lounge room at the moment, and the elephant hasn’t yet made an appearance.

The second program was rather a disappointment after the clever scripts and very funny situations of the first program. The two plays were less edgy, much shorter, more serious, and could have done with more rigorous workshopping. They both had interesting subjects, although neither was theatrically riveting. The first, “Garnett’s Store,” was an exercise in WW2 nostalgia, complete with the Andrew Sisters on the radio, references to the bombing of Darwin and cheating the Yanks, and a verse or two from Mary Gilmore (who reads her nowadays?). The second short play, “Nineteen Pages,” opened with the graphic sounds of a car crash. The adolescent angst/grief which followed was fairly well balanced by two rather strange young characters called only “narrators” in the program, who commented on the action and wrote cryptic things in notebooks. They were certainly a leavening element, but whether they were from Mars or from beyond the pearly gates was not very clear. If only people wrote more drama for radio nowadays. Both these plays would have made good pieces for voices only, because the staging of them diminished rather than enhanced the narrative and the actual quality of the writing. The actors worked hard and were certainly competent for the most part, but that gulf remained.

I notice that Backbone Youth Arts group is working with children in the new State Library children’s corner when it opens later this month, making puppets, telling stories through dance and creating characters inspired by some favourite books. It’s good to see the Brisbane theatre scene enlivened by such a positive youthful energy as this. “Holy Guacamole” directed by Michelle Miall, “The Rainbow Dark” directed by Kat Henry, “Garnett’s Store” directed by Anthea Lock, “Nineteen Pages” directed by Melissa London

Played Oct 25-Nov 4; Wed-Sat 7.30pm

Duration : first program 2hrs 15mins (including interval of 15mins); second program 1hr 45mins (including interval of 15mins)

— Barbara Garlick

(Performance seen: 3,4 November 2006)
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I Want To Be In A Jane Austen Novel  
Harvest Rain Theatre

Written by Joanna Butler

Pro-am production


I’m a great admirer of Harvest Rain, not just because they put on the kind of family-oriented theatre that most other Brisbane companies don’t bother with, but because of the opportunities they offer to young performers and writers to have a go and get some experience. It doesn’t always work, and some shows are much better than others, but it’s always good to see – and the audiences seem to have a whale of a time.

This was certainly the case on the last night of Joanna Butler’s play I want to be in a Jane Austen Novel , where the high school groupies screamed their heads off at every remark, even when it wasn’t funny. I suspect that the cast were letting things get a little out of hand, too, for it was the end of a sell-out season, and they were playing directly to a very partisan audience. But that’s the risk you take when you go to a show at the end of a run.

Ever since the darkly-brooding Colin Firth set young (and not so young) female hearts fluttering in his soaking wet trousers ten years ago, any young woman who can read, or at least see, wants to be in a Jane Austen novel, although I’m not sure how they would cope if they were literally transported back to the very trying middle-class world of the late 18th century – all that lack of privacy, lack of entertainment and having to be polite to insufferable people. The TV series made the life of Jane Austen’s characters seem much more interesting than they would have been in reality, and I suspect that the novels themselves are hard going even for romantic teenagers these days- just as I’m sure that all those kids who swooned over Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet couldn’t cope with the text on the page.

Joanna Butler has made a creditable attempt in trying to bring both the novel and the current obsession with Dear Jane together into a workable play, and she’s to be congratulated for having it work well so much of the time. Her scenario is to offer parallel stories about the 18th century Pride and Prejudice and a 21st century woman’s desire to have the same kind of romance, and the play slips easily between the Pemberley drawing room and a modern school staffroom where Catherine Glavicic as Jen is heavily in lust with Colin Firth (well, aren’t we all?) and would rather be single than make do with anyone inferior.

The Harvest Rain website sums up the plot much better than I could, so here it is: “Jen isn't looking for Mr Right. She's looking for Mr Darcy. But the only tall, dark and brooding male in her life has four legs and a tail. So Jen takes the only possible route out. Jane Austen novels. But as the characters begin to take over her evenings, her weekends, even her work life, Jen starts to realise that maybe Mr Darcy isn't what he's cracked up to be. Maybe she wants someone from the real world....”

Jen’s forays into love lead her to interact with Jane Austen herself (Jess Loudon is suitably demure, although without JA’s often acerbic wit), and finally into the story, where she falls into the arms of Mr Darcy (a rather too self-conscious Matt Rossner). It doesn’t do her any good, of course, but is the basis for lots of hilarity, as are the parallels between the sanctimonious clergyman Mr Collins and the staff nerd Martin McMillan, both roles played with understated aplomb by the always pleasing Vanja Matula.

The trouble with the play is that it tries to do too much, and pack every possible kind of satire into every moment, no matter how inappropriate. There’s too much caricature in the characters, too, although how much of this is due to the inadequacies of the text and how much in the performers’ lack of discipline is hard to discern. As the Colonel in the Monty Python sketches used to say, “This is all getting extremely silly”, and even with the most willing attempt to suspend my disbelief, I couldn’t really accept that a high school teacher would only recognise a Tchaikovsky melody as a mobile ring tone, or that women in their mid-twenties would behave like fifteen-year olds suffering from hormone overdose.

Rather than classifying this as a potentially clever satire, I would say it’s more like an intelligent school romp, but with the judicious use of a blue pencil wielded by a professional dramaturg, and with a more experienced cast, and a director who isn’t blinded by the subjectivity of directing her own script, I think I want to be in a Jane Austen Novel might have a future. Perhaps Playlab could take it in hand.

In any case, Harvest Rain is to be congratulated once again for giving young talent a go. And they won’t have gone broke at the box office, either, so they score at least 2 out of 3.

Directed by Joanne Butler

Music director Kylie Morris

Played 20 October – 4 November 2006

Duration : about 2 hours 15 minutes including interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 4th November 2006)
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Sex Cubed  
Roundhouse Theatre

Do I need to say that this show is all about sex? There are seven short pieces by mostly beginning writers exploring various aspects of sex – including a couple of topics that one might never once have expected to see addressed on a Brisbane stage. And yes, there is some nudity and simulated sex required of the two actors who play all the parts.

But, as Sean Mee reminds us in his program note, sex is both an act and a word and, though there is quite a bit of enactment in Sex:Cubed , the show is very much concerned with talking about sex and especially with language itself; both its potency and impotence to communicate the complexities of emotions and desire.

While on the subject of language, here are some words you WON”T find in this review: ‘steamy’, ‘raunchy’, ‘suggestive’, ‘titillating’. Jennifer Flowers’ impeccable direction ensures that the performative aspects of sex are effectively distanced and appear as variously comically mechanical, sadly empty, or hilariously absurd. Hers is a coolly amused approach that is perfectly suited to the material, uncomfortably exploiting neither actors nor audience.

The cleverly minimalist set by Greg Clarke consists of a four metre square platform backed by a large square screen on which images appear throughout each piece. This small stage is topped by an even smaller square platform (should this be called Sex: Squared ?) which serves as bar, bed and dance floor. The swift costume changes occur onstage, accompanied by a lively mix of music that sets the mood for each story, as does the atmospheric lighting.

In the absence of complex sets, the screen plays an integral role right from the beginning of this production. As they enter, audience members are confronted by five multiple-choice questions flashed up on screen, inviting them to consider their preferred partners, positions, activities and proclivities. The clinical tone of the questions and apparently comprehensive list of permutations and possibilities serve to warn the audience that no areas of sexual activity will be considered taboo in this show. The repellently polysyllabic words used to describe what should be human intimacy hint at just such a tension in the plays that follow and, for the attentive, conceal a joke that intimates the lightness of touch that is also a feature of the show.

The first play, by Alex Broun concerns a young woman’s encounters in a bar where she is approached by several men, all with the same thing in mind. The first attempt at a pick-up is strongly language-driven as each party coolly sets out their requirements in a wonderful parody of a pre-nuptial (in this case pre-sexual) contract. The other encounters are interspersed between the other six plays, cleverly pulling the disparate pieces together and providing a slim but effective line of continuity. The final and successful pick-up is made when each partner believes that the other is, or is capable of being, a murderer – the possibility of death and danger proving the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The screen is particularly important in Scott Drummond and Gemma Galley’s Will you Lick My Eyeball? Here, an S&M-garbed couple perform their joyless sexual athletics to the accompaniment of a pair of demanding on-screen ‘sports commentators’, for whose apparent approval and rating they engage in ever more bizarre exploits. The interaction between what each of the couple actually wants and their misconceptions about what the other requires of them provides a very funny comment on the pressure that some people feel to appear as nothing less than a totally liberated and adventurous sexual performer.

In 3G David Megarrity explores the way in which technology – in this case the mobile phone – can create the illusion of improving communication between people, when in fact it further depersonalises contact. Here, the split screen displays the digital photos sent via phone that chart a relationship that is perceived quite differently by each of the participants. Isolated by spotlights on either side of the stage, the couple provide divergent commentaries on the key moments of what is already, for the woman at least, a memory to be erased by the Delete button.

In both Helen Howard’s Talking Dirty and Steven Mitchell Wright’s The Mourning After the emphasis is very firmly on language, though in Wright’s play the projected images also provide at times a lyrical commentary on the sadly ruminative monologue. Here Ryan Gibson is given the opportunity to portray all the confusion of a man, interested only in casual sex, who is suddenly surprised and overcome by love. This is a brave and moving performance in a play that disturbs by its readiness to explore the reality of homosexual loneliness and loss.

Rebekah Moore’s turn to display her virtuosity comes in Helen Howard’s poetic and verbally violent depiction of a woman driven to despair by the loss of what she values most in her relationship with her husband. In this play lists of words are flashed across the screen and used as offensive and defensive weapons as the woman struggles to understand her reactions to his infidelity and the withdrawal of what she sees as the essence of a loving relationship: each partner’s total absorption in the person of the other. Using language as the instrument of his re-education, she helps him begin his journey back into being honestly and totally present in even the simplest manifestation of love. This is an ambitious and complex play that it would be interesting to see in a different context.

Victor Kline’s The Salsa Lesson is essentially just that – and very enjoyable it is to watch too. This play comes closest to seeming to want to titillate the audience, but the apparently inevitable coitus is inconveniently interrupted, or at least deferred, comically subverting what has gone before.

In the final play The Goat or What the f@#k! Steven Martin brings together two of the strongest taboos in civilised society and, through exaggeration, succeeds in making them hilariously funny. The ever-present screen is an essential part of the action here – the comic-book graphics heightening the absurdity of the situation and thereby the comic effect. Yes, there is a real goat onstage, but try not laughing at the unthinkably awful if you can!

Overall, this is a very stylish production. Rebekah Moore and Ryan Gibson are a delight to watch throughout and move through the various pieces with composure, shifting easily from the comic to the serious and back again. In her control of the pace, tone, and mood of each play and of the production as a whole, Jennifer Flowers is exemplary as a director. Inevitably different members of the audience will prefer different components of the show, some finding offence or tedium where others find delight and depth. However, the evening reminds us, if we needed reminding, that sex has always been at the root (sorry) of all comedy and, conversely, causes more anguish in relationships than anything else. Maybe it reminds us too that a little voyeurism isn’t all bad – at least we women now know why men spend so long in the shower!

Directed by Jennifer Flowers

Playing until 11 November 2006: Tues - Wed 6:30pm, Thurs – Sat 8pm, Matinee 11 November 2pm.

Running time (no interval) 1 hour 45 minutes



— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 26th October 2006)
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Private Lives  
Queensland Theatre Company/State Theatre Company of South Australia (Playhouse, QPAC)

By Noel Coward

Professional production


When Somerset Maugham said that Noel Coward was the future of British playwriting, he probably didn’t think that that future would extend into a new century, but here we are, Private Lives resurrected regularly by most state theatre companies, Hay Fever with Judi Dench breaking records in London, even his short plays on television, and a wonderfully stylish production with Amanda Muggleton and Dennis Olsen of the three standards We were dancing, Red Peppers and Shadow Play in Brisbane only three years ago. Certainly Coward is played more frequently and in more places than his old rival Willie Maugham, and while he feared the possibility of appearing in Willie’s “venomous” memoirs, he was not afraid to include a line of his own in Cole Porter’s “Let’s do it”, “Somerset and all the Maughams do it.”

Which brings me to a minor quibble: why substitute Jones and Kahn’s “It had to be you” for Coward’s own “Some day I’ll find you” which was written for the play? Same period almost (a little earlier, 1924), but without the resonance – or maybe familiarity — of Coward’s own music and lyrics which inject a noticeably bittersweet irony (his previous musical play had been called, fittingly enough, Bittersweet) into the comments about cheap music and its potency, whereas the Gus Kahn lyrics merely underscore the marital games in a lighthearted and pretty obvious way. This said, the music as a whole was a great sing/humalong, toe-tapping accompaniment to the play even in the intervals.

This is a production with style and energy which, for me, broke away from the frequent Coward trap of mimicry and/or parody and an overload of “authenticity”. We’ve all heard the fruity Cowardisms repeated in production after production — my favourite is “Amanda, darling, I know every particle of you” which I wait for with the same expectation as Wilde’s handbag. It’s that word “particle” enunciated with exquisite knowingness that gets me every time. But they didn’t even use it here, and I wasn’t disappointed, because the wit, the languorous elegance, the sparkle and the glossy brilliantine were all superbly done (the latter giving me a touch of Dame Edna’s Oroton blindness at times).

Despite the program notes directing you toward a fairly ponderous reading of the play as all about modern marriage and the wilful disregard of moral principles, the production transcended the limits of this reading and took the audience closer to Coward’s more adventurous dissection of the between-wars mutually dependent upper classes and the bohemian literary and theatrical world in which he moved himself, a little bit like a mix of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The great New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael reviewing Julie Andrews (disastrously) in a musical about Gertrude Lawrence said of Lawrence that “The chic of the twenties playgirl was that she was so supremely casual she appeared brittle. Her high style was the concealment of feeling — deliberate superficiality…she made a game of snobbery — a snobbery based on style rather than on wealth. She had the sort of insolent confidence that made mannerisms into a style of life. She was what drag queens want to be.” The character of Lawrence as she epitomised the twenties playgirl, whether as Amanda or as drag queen manqué, is certainly the spur for Elyot’s wonderful “futile moralists” speech in Act 2; the self-mockery of the dance and the parodic singing in this Act and the Solomon Isaacs two-minute silences all contribute to this profound realisation of emptiness and the need to fill the moments of this “marvellous” age in which countries of the world could be encapsulated and thus dismissed in a single appropriate adjective.

Perhaps the lesson is not to read the program notes, or at least not to be guided by them, because this production is so much more than the implications they offer. The principals are superbly cast. Jean-Marc Russ as Elyot and Helen Christinson as Amanda are a great team, their chemistry is believable and the geography lesson is a highlight. If at times Russ sounds a little like a cross between Rex Harrison and Eric Blore, that funny little sidekick in the Fred and Ginge movies, that might just be because his rounded vowels are the most authentic. He certainly wears a tux well and handles a cigarette deftly. Christinson is a delight. She emphasises Amanda’s intelligence and sense of play, and she looks gorgeous. I was reminded of Fred and Ginge again when Christinson first appeared in a pastel green confection with yards of feathers around the neck and shoulders. Apparently Fred loathed Ginge’s preference for feathered garments, which only encouraged her to wear more of the same, her sweet revenge for the tedium of constant dance practice.

The comic timing of the four principals was impeccable. I was particularly impressed by Annie Maynard’s Sibyl, who, even though her Aussie vowels were occasionally in evidence, is an engaging and empty-headed beauty, the offspring of one of Coward’s “futile moralists” who doesn’t quite know how to counter Elyot’s scarifying opinion of her mother other than with a pout. She and James Evans as Victor develop and regress in a diverting and satisfactory way that is a fine balance to Russ and Christinson’s powerful duopoly. And the drop-down, knockout fights in both instances were beautifully choreographed.

Robert Kemp’s design is bold and striking, the clothes exquisite, and the sets, based on Raoul Dufy’s paintings of the French Riviera, colourful and adventurous. Not sure about cocktails in flutes, but there we go. The Dufy overlaying the walls, doors and windows in Amanda’s Paris apartment is a brave way to carry through the power of the earlier image of the idle rich, and for me it worked, particularly as the balconies in Act 1 were too high for comfort and gave me a crick in the neck in the front stalls.

It’s funny what works for an audience: great hoots and applause at a line like “Catholics don’t recognise divorce” and rousing, loyal applause for Carol Burns' far too tedious French maid. My applause was for the sensitive understanding of Coward evidenced in Michael Gow’s direction, and the intelligence and style of the four principals.

Directed by Michael Gow

Playing until 4 November 2006: Tues 6.30pm; Wed-Sat 7.30pm; matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm

Running time: 2½ hours including 2 intervals


— Barbara Garlick

(Performance seen: 19th October 2006)
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Lucia di Lammermoor  
Opera Queensland

For the first time ever at Opera Queensland, the conductor drew more attention than the singers. Sustained applause greeted his arrival in the pit; as the lights dimmed, people leaned forward and even stood to catch a glimpse of the venerable grey-haired figure.

Even without Joan Sutherland at his side, Richard Bonynge, 76, draws a crowd, particularly at a performance of the opera which more than any other made Bonynge and Sutherland international celebrities.

It is fitting that Lucia di Lammermoor has at last come to Brisbane, and Opera Queensland should be rightly proud of a tremendous production to conclude its 25th year.

This is the well-established Opera Australia version (it's a year older than OQ itself) created by John Copley and directed here by John Wregg. It is traditional and grand. Fabulous sets feature massive pillars and twisting stairs. The costumes are sumptuous, with the characters who people the vast stage seeming to have leapt from a Highlands picture book. They are well directed and choreographed. Essentially Donizetti's take on Walter Scott's novel is a melodrama, but the production and performances give it real life and emotion. The music is gorgeous, with arias and duets which are overwhelming in their quality when performed at this standard.

Principals and chorus combine with the Queensland Orchestra to present a richly textured and beautifully harmonious production. The chorus has been well drilled by their old master James Christiansen, brought from retirement after the untimely death of chorus master John Dingle, to whom OQ has dedicated this production.

Of the male principals, baritone Michael Lewis as Lucia's wicked brother Enrico is consistently of top quality. With a strong and rich sound, he asserts his vocal and physical presence from the first moments. Julian Gavin as Lucia's lover Edgardo has a beautiful and versatile tenor voice. A few wavery moments in his opening night first scene were more than compensated for by his soaring singing in the wedding scene, when as jilted lover he storms into the festivities. Bruce Martin as Lucia's chaplain Raimondo is a commanding figure with a strong and dark sound, although with occasional woolliness. Bernard Hull as officer Normanno, Rosina Waugh as maid Lucia and Michael Martin as hapless bridegroom Arturo all round out the well-chosen group of principals with classy singing.

And so to the key character: Russian-born soprano Elvira Fatykhova (now with Ankara Opera) is wonderful Lucia, her superb performance in this highly demanding role relished by the audience. Her singing is spot on, pure and lyrical, while her acting is perfect. She carries off the great mad scene with passion and conviction, acting and singing her heart out. The famous extended 'duet' with the flute is thrilling and very moving.

Bonynge has inspired a great performance from the Queensland Orchestra. There were perhaps some balance problems in the early part of the mad scene, with Lucia at one point in danger of being drowned by the instrumentalists, but in all, the delicate balance between players and singers is exemplary. The rich orchestration provides a satisfying mixture of instrumental delights. In the climactic moments of the opera, flautist Patrick Nolan rises admirably to the occasion — ending, like this production and OQ's anniversary season, on a splendid note.

— John Henningham

(Performance seen: 14th October 2006)
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Donna's Party  
Sue Benner Theatre


By Simon Brook, Felicity Carpenter, Daniel Evans and Michelle Miall

Profit-share production


As the title suggests, this play’s setting is a party. Is it your sort of party? If you identify with the lifestyles of Generation X and Y (or would like to) then there may be enough swearing, drinking, drug-taking, vomiting, urinating and simulated sex to enable you to believe you are watching a slice of life as lived by the affluent young. If, on the other hand, your idea of hell is spending a few hours in a room with a bunch of unpleasant people behaving badly, then Donna’s Party is probably not for you.

Which is a shame, because this play, written collaboratively by a group of young writers, has a lot going for it. The brain-child of Simon Brook, the Writer’s Foundry came together to see if a small team of writers could co-operate to produce a quality piece of work for the theatre in a very limited time-frame (in this case twelve weeks). Starting from the clever idea of updating David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971), the group came up with a plot that also brings together a group of friends on an Election night when, for a moment, it appears that Labor has won power. As in Williamson’s play, the evening degenerates as the real political situation is revealed and the characters turn on each other in bitterness and frustration.

In this play, however, there is no political idealism or much real interest in the outcome of the election evident in the group of work colleagues who have gathered for Donna’s housewarming. For most of them the outcome of the Idol contest on another TV channel is neither more nor less relevant than the Election result – a nice metaphor for contemporary disaffection with politics.

Though mildly contemptuous of Donna, the group decides to avenge her recent peremptory dismissal by their new boss, appropriately named Hunter. Unknown to her, they invite him to join the party and plan a way to humiliate and blackmail him. Implausibly, Hunter accepts the invitation and, after some verbal sparring – including a clever rap-duel – he is trapped and tortured by the group – who cruelly exploit a dangerous nervous condition. The first half of the play ends with him seemingly at their mercy and the second half is concerned with his attempts to extricate himself and turn the tables.

On a conceptual level this is a very workable plot, but there are practical problems that the writers have not overcome. In particular, the character of Donna is a mere cipher; she spends most of the evening either fluffing around wordlessly in the kitchen, flirting wordlessly with the boss who has just fired her, or lying comatose in the bathroom – giving the actress not much to work with. When, at the end of the play, it transpires that the whole catastrophe has been supposedly brought about because two of the men (who have scarcely seemed to notice her throughout the play) lust for her, and she has slept with another, then accused him of sexual assault, audience credulity is stretched to extreme limits.

The other characters are more clearly outlined, though only in two dimensions, and their roles as siren, trouble-maker, ineffectual leader etc. serve to further the plot accordingly. At times, some of the dialogue, though apparently clever, could be distinguished only by the first few rows of the audience. The problem of projecting audibly over the necessary noise of the television commentary demands a level of skill not available to some of the actors, who relied on a fast, off-hand delivery more suited to screen than to stage. On opening night the prevalence of what has been termed ‘the copulatory verb’ seemed clearly distasteful to some in the audience, hilarious for others, and drearily repetitive for many. Accurate representation of how many people speak? Maybe. Overuse theatrically effective? Maybe not.

There are other holes to pick in the plot, apart from some of the implausibilities mentioned, and in terms of structure the first half is too long – some members of the first-night audience therefore mistaking the interval for the end. With more time for script development the nature and relationships of the characters might have been established more economically, allowing audience attention to focus more clearly on their motivation and self-interest. However, given the time-frame in which this piece was conceived, developed and delivered, the play hangs together remarkably well and the performances, though largely stereotypical, presented a credible depiction of a group of people more interested in personal success and self-gratification than loyalty and friendship. I would have preferred a less attractively reasonable, more transparently unscrupulous personification of managerial power, but it was an effective struggle that ensued between the two camps nonetheless.

Which brings me to the political dimensions of the play – for this play can be received not only as a representation of relationships between work colleagues but also, like Don’s Party, as a commentary on the Australian political scene. The disorganised group with its bitter divisions, destructive in-fighting, and ineffectual leadership is eventually and predictably no match for the unprincipled and exploitative Hunter, who, unpleasant though he is, we end up reluctantly supporting. For some this will recall the situation faced by voters in the last election, many of whom expressed the view that their choices were limited to voting for the weasel or the snake – preferring in the end the devious Howard to the venomous Latham.

In performance, however, the political undertones which could do much to enrich the play’s texture were swamped by an over-emphasis on surface realism. Nevertheless, as the play suggests, maybe it is true that most people prefer watching Australian Idol to political commentary – in which case the writers have judged their audience astutely.

Directed by Simon Brook

Playing until 21 October 2006: Wed-Sat 8pm

Running time: 2 ½ hours including interval

— Maureen Strugnell


(Performance seen: 5th October 2006)
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Educating Rita  
Brisbane Arts Theatre

By Willy Russell

Amateur production

Cast: Sarah Malone, Alex Lanham


It’s a tough call; this two-hander is acted on the one set throughout and action is largely restricted to moving between desks, to a window or easy chair. Fortunately the actors are well up to the challenge and maintain interest, aided by Willy Russell’s witty script. The two actors seem relatively inexperienced, compared with long lists of credits in most productions’ program notes but they do come up trumps. OK, Michael Caine and Julie Walters set a high bar and it helps if the passage of time since watching their movie version has blurred memories, for this is on a different strata. But considering there’s little respite for either actor, they manage the dense text and continual exposure almost flawlessly.

Rita (Sarah Malone) is a 26-year old hairdresser who yearns for something more in life — “I want to discover meself” — and decides to take a course in Literature at Open University. Frank has allowed himself to be talked into teaching at the Open University because he needs the money to fund his drinking — the university has put him on notice to be discreet so bottles are craftily hidden behind the books that line his study walls. Rita arrives with her tough talking if high pitched, heavily accented Liverpudlian accent, which is well maintained, though sometimes a little too thick to catch all her words. (Malone is herself English and catches the nuances securely.) She’s a smoker and they’re soon sharing vices, swapping cigarettes for whiskey.

Frank’s wife has left him and he’s living with a former student, an obsessive cook, for whom he has little sympathy or compatibility. (“You pop off and put your head in an oven” and “I like my lamb done to the point of abuse.”)

A major theme is how people handle change. Frank begins in the position of power through his status and education, albeit threatened by his drinking and insecurity as a poet. Rita develops from the simplistic naïf with defensive crossed arms and gawky posture into assured, well-read and definitely intelligent confidence, eventually declaring: “I don’t need you.” Frank’s insecurity and self-doubt increase in their swapped positions until he declares that he will change his name to Mary Shelley for he has created a “Frankenstein”.

Malone deftly captures the hunger for learning and the riches of intellectual life, the rough diamond who tells it straight with perceptive insights. Perhaps she projects less convincingly the pain of her husband Denny’s throwing her out for going back on the pill and aiming beyond her station in life. Yet her transition from hard-nosed, brassy hairdresser to sophistication, assurance and strength is convincing, as she out-wits and out-thinks her disintegrating teacher and mentor.

The role of Frank offers less opportunity for such nuance; he’s largely contained behind his desk, impatiently flicking at assignments, or retrieving yet another bottle from behind the book. Inevitably a male lead has fewer costume changes out of the bookish tweed jackets, unlike the frequent ingenious additions and subtractions to Rita’s gear (costume credits to Sacha Scofield and Jasmin Erdelt). In the second act he gets to fall about in drunken excesses then berate and beg but the range of character hardly develops as wondrously as does his Pygmalian creature. Thus it’s no criticism of Lanham’s performance that he is out-shined by Malone, whose character has multi-faceted scope to soak up all direction. Her character can also reveal character change by toning her voice; having been told “there’s not a lot of point discussing beautiful literature if you have an ugly voice,” Rita goes through the transition from “bein’ an ‘alf-cast; I can’t talk the language” into more sophisticated mellifluous tones.

Direction by Graham McKenzie makes the best of the play’s inherent staging and interactive limitations, with pacing generally well managed. While essentially a comedy, with many laugh-out-loud lines in the witty text, there are layers of thought-provoking meaning which keep audiences thinking about the value of education and how many take it for granted; about often unconscious class distinctions still prevalent amongst the have and have-nots.

Do we see and feel any real chemistry between the characters? While not in the Maine/Walters class, there is enough genuine relationship to hold our interest. As well as fascination for Rita’s developing mind, Frank is lonely enough to lust after her body and to despair as she becomes caught up with her intellectual friends. We’re thinking, “Surely they won’t succumb to a happy ending relationship?” But no. After Frank finally exasperates the university heavies sufficiently to sack him (or its equivalent, a sentence of two years in Australia, which he supposes “must be a Paradise for the likes of me for they even named a favourite drink after a writer — ‘Forster’”), Russell’s ending cleverly plays on such happy-ending expectations. As Rita says, “All I’ve ever done is take from you, I’ve never given anything in return. I’m going to take years off your life” the salivating Frank is hustled into a chair — and given a haircut.

It’s the perfect light touch to end a multi-layered text and performance with a satisfying chuckle.

Directed by Graham McKenzie

Playing September 23 October 14, Wednesday Saturday at 8pm, Sunday matinee 2pm)

Duration: 100 minutes, 20-minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti

(Performance seen: November 2006)
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31 Circus Acts in 30 Minutes  
Circa (Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts)


Professional production

A review in 30 words: A talented trio of engaging performers present a dazzling display of circus acts at breakneck speed to the delight of children and adults alike. A perfect showcase for Circa’s talents.

Whew!

Under the artistic direction of Yaron Lifschitz, the trio of David Carberry, Darcy Grant and Chelsea McGuffin make the many disciplines of circus performance look deceptively easy. They quickly establish a relationship with their mostly young audience and, using the clever device of having to beat the stage-side clock which is counting down the minutes, they build up a comic tension as to whether they will be able to finish on-time.

Moving swiftly through tumbling, trapeze, balance, unicycle, diabolo and hoop work, they display a strength, flexibility, nerve and control that delights the children and leaves the adults in the audience feeling breathless. An ideal show for the school holidays, this is a cut-down version of a longer production that has toured successfully both in Australia and overseas.

There has been an amazing resurgence of interest in circus skills around the world recently, and Circa is very much part of this international movement. Through its performances and teaching workshops it aims to encourage people of all ages to test and develop physical skills that may, or may not lead to performance, but should certainly do a lot to improve fitness and concentration – which must be a good thing whether you are 6 or 60.

Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz

Playing until 8 October 2006: 11am and 1pm

Running time (no interval) 30 minutes

— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 4th October 2006)
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