Reviews:
April-June 2007
               
          

Alice

Amadeus / The Tempest

Back with a Vengeance

Boston Marriage

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

The Estimator

Grumpy Old Women Live

Hamlet

Heard it on the Wireless

The Last Five Years

Little Women

Love Child

Madama Butterfly

The Messiah

The Space Between

Sweeney Todd

Take Two

Three at the Powerhouse

Timon of Athens

The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay



Dance

Carmen

True Stories

Music

Scotland the Brave




Earlier reviews

Scotland the Brave  
Andrew McKinnon (Concert Hall)

Professional production

There weren’t many very brave Scots in the audience in the Concert Hall. I counted only half a dozen proper kilts, and there was never a sporran in sight, for even the most patriotic gentlemen had decided not to expose their knobbly knees to the icy Brisbane winter wind.

But that didn’t detract from their enjoyment of this generic spectacular, for there are almost as many pseudo-Scots in Australia as there are pseudo-Irish, and as usual promoter Andrew McKinnon put on a great show, another perfect crowd-pleaser.
BR> Massed bands (or at least the Queensland Orchestra at half-force); massed voices (i.e. 87 members of the Queensland Choir, and why are there always twice as many women as men?); a hundred pipers an’ all an’ all (well, six of them, augmented by four drummers from the Queensland Highlanders, with more than a third of them sharing the same surname, once more proving the truth of the old saying that the family that plays together stays together); three solo voices; a foot-stamping fiddler (Marcus Holden); and Andrew Fuller, an even fuller pipe soloist from Sydney, who almost brought the house down while piercing a few eardrums – what more could the human heart desire, unless you’re a Sassenach?

And did I mention the eight dancing gels in their plaids? Not a River Dance gesture between them, I’m glad to say, and they threw themselves into it arms and all, and made Michael Flatley look like – well, like the Irish dancer he is.

Add to this cast of thousands Sean Boyle, the Irish musical director in a green and gold kilt, and you have an evening of pure Celtic magic – and when I say pure I mean it, for this show contained no playing-down to the audience, or anything even remotely Disneyfied.

Yes, there was a medley from Brigadoon, Lerner and Loewe’s 1954 Broadway musical, but that’s almost a classic in its own right by now, and overall this was serious Scottish music, from well-know 18th century ballads like Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon and the Skye Boat Song, to historic clan rallying tunes like Macgregor’s Gathering and The March of the Cameron Men, and most of the Bonnie Prince Charlie songs.

The Thistle Highland dancers, in plaids as inauthentic as you could wish – is there such a thing as a genuine purple tartan? I ask merely out of ignorance, my grandmother’s McDonnell of Glengarry pattern being so obscure that nobody except family members recognise it - accompanied by the tiny Aspinalls Blair and Cailin, slightly too short to be the Anglican Primate’s sons. The girls got through the thousand-year-old sword dance with their ankles intact, although the little boys didn’t get a go at that one.

When Mirusia Louwerse sang The Skye Boat Song there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and when the rich tones of tenor Greg Moore and bass baritone Samuel Dundas harmonised in The Road to the Isles, “the laughter put the leap upon the lame”, so that nobody’s feet could keep from tapping.

And I mustn’t forget the compulsory sing-along, encompassing popular songs like Mull of Kintyre (thank goodness they printed the words, for Paul McCartney wrote it 30 years ago) and Scottish Soldier (which used to bring tears even to the eyes of my flinty-hearted Aunty Peg), as well as more trad numbers like The Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond (where I too have wandered in my day), and of course Scotland the Brave, it was a night to warm the cockles of any Scottish, or even Sassenach, heart.

Scotland the Brave 2007 has already toured to New Zealand and Canada to rapturous applause, and next year Andrew McKinnon has it booked in at the Lincoln Centre in New York, by which time I suppose it will have become Scotland the Brave 2008.

High may your proud standards gloriously wave, Andrew McKinnon, and thank you for a night of authentic Scottish grandeur.

Producer/director Mark Collier-Vickers

Conductor and musical arranger Sean O’Boyle

Sound design Geoff McGahan

Lighting Steve Granville

Played 30 June 2007

Duration : 2 hours, with one interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 30th June 2007)
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  
Gold Coast Arts Centre

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

With Rob Guest and Mandi Lodge

Amateur production

How do you like your meat pies?

Plump and juicy? Then try a little priest. Something pinker? Tinker. Paler? Tailor. Subtler? Butler. Hotter? Potter. Then there's chimney sweep, if you want it cheap. Some shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd on top?

If you were in London’s Fleet Street in the late 19th century, you’d have had an enormous choice, for Mrs Lovett’s famous pies were as varied as they were fresh – so fresh, in fact, that the creature that provided the meat filling had probably been killed just a few hours earlier.

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the so-called Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has been around since at least 1840, and who knows whether that’s where Jack the Ripper got his ideas 40 years later.

The story goes that to avenge his wife’s death, and to save his daughter from being ravished by the evil Judge Turpin, Sweeney Todd escapes from his fate as a transported convict and sets up in his old trade as a barber, in lodgings just above Mrs Lovett’s pie ship which, because of her dependence on cheap and nasty meat, is not going well.

While planning to get Judge Turpin to visit him for a shave, Sweeney Todd renews his skill with a cut-throat razor and acquires a lust for blood, eventually constructing a tilting chair and a chute which deliver his victims directly below into the kitchen of Mrs Lovett, whose pies suddenly become much desired by the local populace.

Stephen Sondheim’s transformation of this story into a musical is almost operatic in mode and, witty and menacing as it is, makes great musical demands on chorus and soloists alike.

Luckily the Gold Coast Arts Centre, who produced and presented this version of what I think is one of the greatest musicals ever written, had the talents of international and now local hero to call on, in the shape of Rob Guest. The success of any production of Sweeney Todd depends on the competence of the eponymous hero, and all a reviewer can do is applaud Guest’s consummate performance skills. From his thrilling baritone voice to his sinister demeanour and total command of the material, Guest made a perfect tortured and despairing Sweeney, and his activities with that cut-throat razor were swash-bucklingly terrifying.

This was an amateur production, and I don’t know whether Rob Guest contributed his talents gratis or not, but the rest of the cast were in fine voice, too, so that their singing almost managed to overcome the disastrous effects of the costumes, which had come from stock, and so cannot be blamed on wunderkind Christopher Smith, whose set was a marvel of ingenuity.

Robert Young, as director and choreographer, formed his motley collection of actors and singers into a very creditable ensemble, helped by the excellent voices among the soloists. As Mrs Lovett, Gold Coast veteran Mandi Lodge was frighteningly coy, and her shrieks of delight and horror would send shudders up any man’s spine, especially Sweeney Todd’s when she began her relentless sexual pursuit of him.

Jordan Reid, as the romantic male lead, was another star, and Alison Watson, the luckless daughter of Todd and the object of Judge Turpin’s evil intentions, gave her glorious soprano voice full range. She’s more a singer than an actor, though, and the addition of possibly the worst blonde wig in stage history since Jean Simmons in Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet many years ago unfortunately made her look like an unlikely object of anyone’s lust, even a frustrated judge’s.

But in the end the play’s the thing, and Sweeney Todd is deservedly regarded as Sondheim’s greatest musical. So as long as there’s a decent Sweeney (as we had here in Rob Guest), and a competent orchestra (ditto the Gold Coast Arts Orchestra) there’s very little that can go wrong, and this production got it very right indeed. Keep an eye out for their next offering, which I believe is Matthew Ward presenting an evening of Broadway classics on 13 July.

Director and choreographer Robert Young

Set designer Christopher Smith

Musical director Kellie Dickerson

Played 28 June to 7 July 2007

Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, with one 20-minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 29th June 2007)
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Three at the Powerhouse  
Powerhouse Theatre


Fans of the Brisbane Powerhouse will be glad to see that the recently-completed $3.5 million re-vamp hasn’t changed the atmosphere or even the look of Brisbane’s favourite live performance site, but has made it more efficient (the new theatre seats are especially welcome) and offers even more places to eat.

The two-month re-opening celebrations have included events as disparate as the Queensland Music Festival and the Queer Film Festival; a Powerkiz festival for children and an exhibition of international press photographs; and, of course, a number of short comedy performances.

I saw three of the latter recently – the host of the Nova 1069 Breakfast Show Meschel Laurie in her stand-up piece Shadow of my Former Self, London-based American comic Amy Lame with her illustrated family memoir called Mama Cass Family Singers, and Brisbane’s own Brides of Frank in a five-hander, ’Til Death Do Us Part.

All three, as so often happens with hour-long shows, had very short seasons, so this review is more of a reminder of what you’ve missed (or, in one case at least, were lucky to miss) than a recommendation of what you should see.

Like the curate’s egg, comedy shows can be a risky business, even if they’re not quite as risky as stand-up comedy in a pub. The patrons have come because (a) they know or have heard of the artists and/or (b) they trust the producers/venue to put on only decent shows. They’ve paid real money, too, so they’re more inclined to be quiet so that they can get their money’s worth, therefore hecklers are not encouraged, and audiences tend to be really polite.

With Meschel Laurie it was love at first sight or, for most of the audience, long-term love fulfilled. Her show was ostensibly about coming to terms with her body shape – and no, not even at her worst did she ever fill those size-50 yellow pants that were the advertising gimmick – and, because she had finally realised that she’s never wake up thin, the only alternative was to get bigger parts. Very much a message for the unloved overweight, and in her uniquely eccentric way she achieved more than any po-faced pop-psychologist for, from the look and reaction of the audience, some of whom were still showing last year’s muffin-tops, she was hitting the right note. Everyone, whether fat or thinnish, loved her, and with her usual hard-hitting verbal style enhanced by the freedom allowed by a live audience, Laurie produced a gutsy, hard-hitting, sometimes down-and-dirty and foul-mouthed monologue, which was very funny at the same time. Some unintended and unnoticed irony in the script sometimes, though, like the segment that mocked names that unfeeling parents gave their children. This coming from someone called Meschel? But nobody else seemed to get it – certainly Laurie herself didn’t.

I quite enjoyed this show, although it was right out of my age and comfort zone, but it’s good to see a stand-up who recognises a familiar audience and knows how to work them.

The very next night I saw the American comic Amy Lame (who should have an e-acute as the last letter of her name, but I’m not technically proficient enough to be able to command my PC to perform this complex feat). But even as it stands it sums up her act, because it was a very lame little show, even though the concept was cute and clever. The scenario is that Amy (another fat girl from a family of fatties) and her three siblings were kidnapped by Mama Cass (the real person from The Mamas and the Papas who did not die from choking on a ham sandwich) and forced to form a group called the Mama Cass Family Singers, and that for two years they toured the States attracting audiences until one day Mama Cass dumped them in a shopping centre car park and left them to their fates.

This comi-tragic fictional tale was told partly by Lame herself, directly to or with her back towards to the audience, but mostly through filmed interviews with her siblings, parents and the family dog, who apparently were in on the joke, such as it was. For those in the audience who thought it was a true story (stranger things have happened in America, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate), there was a Q&A session with the performer afterwards, where the idea behind the gig was explained. This may have enlightened us, but it didn’t make the show any funnier or more interesting and I, and many of the audience members I spoke to afterwards, wondered what the point was, and whether it had really been a smash hit at the Edinburgh Fringe festival (Scots may be a dour lot, but they’re not stupid), and decided that we’d just wasted an hour of our precious time. But we were all polite and clapped in the appropriate places, although nobody laughed very much, so I assume that, unlike her audience, Ms Lame went away satisfied.

The best of the three shows, in my book at least, was the totally surreal production from local heroes (in less PC times I would have said heroines), The Brides of Frank, whom I loved to bits even though I didn’t have a clue what they were on about. The first thing I had to do was cast off my old-fashioned “What’s it all about?” mentality and morph into the world of the American poet Archibald MacLeish, who once famously said, to the relief of English literature students everywhere, that “a poem should not mean, but be”. Once I’d achieved that state of mind I was ready to sit back and let it wash all over me, glorying in the outrageous fantasies of the five brides in white going to their collective doom; wondering at the costumes of the four fairy floss fairies dashing around the stage dishing out toffees; reliving, through my mother’s eyes, the days of the '50s housewives in check house frocks and frilly aprons; laughing myself silly at the antics of the lampshades, table and suitcases when the owner was out; and absolutely loving the Squalid Gold glittering ladies from the Spandau Ballet. How tacky life is when seen in retrospect, especially though the eyes of people who were never there. Cringe material for the middle-aged, but pure bliss for the open-minded.

So just because the Brisbane Powerhouse has been off the radar screen for the past few months, remember that it’s now back, and the latest acts are bigger, bolder and brasher than ever. And even though you may not find the idea of a fat naked lady reclining on a bed of daisies attractive, as Amy Lame’s publicity suggested, at least we were spared that in her show, and there are plenty of other things to look forward to. Check out the offerings for the next few months at www.brisbanepowerhouse.org.


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: June 2007)
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Take Two  
Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston (Cremorne Theatre)

Professional production


Cabaret or concert? In a small intimate theatre like the Cremorne, and with such versatile performers as Judi Connelli and Suzanne Johnston, it’s hard to tell. Part of me wanted the intimacy of sitting at a small table with a couple of drinks and dim lighting, but another part of me wanted a full concert performance with the singers in full view, strutting their amazing stuff above and in front of us.

For this show we got the usual raked seats instead of the Cremorne in cabaret mode – it costs thousands of dollars to remove all the seating and set up the space with tables, I believe – but it worked perfectly well, for these two Grandes Dames of musical theatre know how to entice an audience and massage them into compliance, and they know the tricks of looking audience members in the eye and involving them in the music. By that, I don’t mean the dreaded drag-‘em-up-on-stage-and-humiliate-‘em technique that is currently going on next door in the Lyric Theatre, but making us feel part of the show, friends of the performers rather than a faceless audience sitting there determined to be entertained.
BR> It certainly felt like Old Friends Night, for both Judi and Suzy are well-loved in Brisbane, to the extent that even a reviewer feels confident enough to refer to them on first-name terms, and their rare appearances here are always welcome. Both of them have international reputations in grand opera, musical comedy, music theatre and cabaret, and between them they have earned honours as various as Helpmann Awards, MO Awards, a Churchill Fellowship and an Order of Australia. But both wear their greatness lightly, and they performed for us as friends rather than celebrities, which helps dispel the formality that even a small theatre venue can often have.

For me the concert was a dream, combining plenty of Sondheim (I’ve always maintained that if Mozart were alive today, he’d be writing Sondheim musicals) with standard classics by Noel Coward, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter; as well as a touch of operatic genius with the Flower Duet from Delius’s Lakme. For even more variety there were a couple of comedy numbers, one of which, by local composer Robert Keane, was completely unknown to me, but a great light-hearted treat, for it was about choosing what animal you’d like to be if you could come back for a second time. This “Kangaroo” number is one of those songs that can work on any level, and to see Judi and Suzy hamming it up with dead-pan faces was one of the comic highlights of the evening.

But there’s more to cabaret theatre than just the songs. It’s the way the performers interpret them, and how they relate to the audience and to each other, and I think these two women have the balance just right. Their interpersonal relationship is strong, and because it comes across with just a slight touch of ambiguity (I particularly liked the gorgeous fashionably asymmetrical jackets and skirts), their affection was able to manifest itself while still including the audience in the emotions. Lots of good feminist stuff, of course, but without the stridency of the early Robyn Archer and her ilk – rather the emotions have a bitter-sweet edge to them, a kind of wistfulness for what might/could/should be more than anger at how things don’t work out.

There’s lightness and passion – and when both women use their astonishing operatic range, especially Connelli in Sondheim’s “Could I leave you?”, the mood changes exponentially and we are swept away by the power of the voices as well as the emotion – but there’s no sentimentality, for this is not a three-hanky show, nor even a women’s show. The men in the audience were enjoying it as much as their wives, girlfriends, and Significant Others of both genders.

It’s brave, it’s honest, it’s quirky and just naughty enough – in other words, as the old Cole Porter song goes, “It's delightful, it's delicious, it's delectable, it's delirious, it’s dilemma, it's de limit, it's deluxe, it's de-lovely".

Director: Jason Langley

Musical director: Michael Tyack

Lighting design: Michele Preshaw

Playing 13 – 23 June 2007, Wednesday and Saturday at 1.30pm, Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm

Duration : 2 hours, with one interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 15th June 2007)
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Back with a Vengeance  
Barry Humphries (Lyric Theatre)

Professional production


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

It might have been true of Cleopatra, but not for the rest of us. Time has us all in his inexorable grip, and not even that other legendary lady, the one from Australia with the Opera House specs, is exempt. Dame Edna Everage, I regret to report, is getting old and, like too many aging stars, has become a caricature of herself, substituting style for substance and trading on her fifty-year reputation and increasingly outrageous frocks rather than working on her script and updating the jokes.
BR> The implications of her surname have changed too – no longer Average, she has indeed become Ever Aged, and it was with nostalgic memories of the past, when her wit was sharp and her audience control tighter, that I watched her new show on opening night.

Even the set pieces, like the ritual mocking of members of the audience who were foolish enough to get seats in the front three rows, weren’t as witty as they used to be, and at times she was out of her depth, especially with was-it-Lynne? from Port Lincoln, which isn’t in Brisbane, and so provided no local references to be milked for laughs.

But you have to give it to her (whoops! - him - it’s so easy to forget the real gender status of the Dame), or his researchers, for getting the local references so right, and some of the old tricks still work, like the trembling gladdies at the end of the show (Phillip Adams, eat your heart out!). The final audience gimmick worked well, too, when a hapless younger man was brought up from the audience to be married on stage to an equally hapless middle-aged woman, after which the unsuspecting mother of the lad received a phone call from Edna to announce the happy news. It was one of those gimmicks that could have fallen flat, and I suspect the phone call was staged in every sense of the word – too many risks with answering machines and irate customers these days – but everyone played along and it was very funny, except that, like so much of the show, it went on too long.

It was Dame Edna’s show, but there were guest appearances from Sir Les Patterson, one character I have always detested not just for his crudity, but because he was created many years ago as Minister for the Arts, a deliberate, unkind and, worst of all, invalid swipe at Australia’s cultural pretensions to pander to British prejudices against the colonies. Some of us, who have been watching your shows for almost 50 years, Mr Humphries, have long memories, and for this particular Patterson-watcher, the character is now so crass as to almost unwatchable. Australia has changed, and dick jokes and farts aren’t funny any more, any more than yard-long dongers, or using the c-word as a term of abuse. The point may be that Sir Les is stuck in the past but even so, this kind of humour is itself way past its use-by date. It just leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – and don’t look for any ambiguity there.

But much can be forgiven for the reappearance of Sandy Stone, back from the dead with his dressing gown and hottie, reminiscing in the shades about his dear widowed Beryl, now eking our her final days in a sub-human nursing home, having been diddled out of all her savings by an Indian telemarketer. Sandy is a brilliant creation, who deserves to rank high in the pantheon of Australian comic creations, because he doesn’t have to be outrageous to make his point. I remember him fondly from the days when he was still alive and living in Gallipoli Crescent in Glen Iris (you can take the girl out of Melbourne, but you can’t take Melbourne out of the girl), with the sand-blasted reindeer on the glass front door, and the flying ducks on the wall, and The Great Book of Humour in the bookcase, when he and Beryl used to take their picnic lunches along on the Wattletree Road tram. Then it was the humour of recognition and affection, and I’m glad he still comes back from the dead to make me remember what Barry Humphries can still do when he wants to, and before he began to overplay his characters to the point where it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief.

Wealth and fame aren’t to be sneezed at, I know, but I yearn for the gentler days when the Dame wasn’t a megastar, but a housewife from Moonie Ponds whose pride and joy was her skill with the lamington log, where Madge the bridesmaid was a figure of fun rather than derision, and when life was sweeter and simpler. Perhaps it’s just as well that Sandy Stone is dead – he doesn’t belong with the shallow characters that Humphries now channels.

Still, the audiences are thronging to the Lyric Theatre, and the two young lesbians in the next seats thought all the West End jokes were hilarious (as I said, he does his research very thoroughly), so perhaps it’s just me whom age has withered. I certainly couldn’t do a stand-up show like this at his age. But I have an underlying regret that this great mind has, like Clive James, sold out to fame and fortune, and I wonder what lasting effects this has had on them both. If you see this show, you might, if you’re old enough, ponder the same question. < BR>
Musical director/associate director: Andrew Ross

Set designer: Brian Thompson:

Playing until Sunday 24 June 2007, Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, matinees Saturdays 1.30pm, Sundays 5pm

Duration : 2 hours 40 minutes, one interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 14th June 2007)
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True Stories  
Bangarra Dance Theatre (QPAC Playhouse)

Professional production


If Bangarra isn’t yet one of the most important dance companies in the world, it ought to be, and especially after this new production. The company mixes ancient stories and bold political statements with sublime physical movement and subtle choreography, using the white-fellas’ contemporary dance medium to convey the black-fellas’ truth, so that audiences can react to the works on every possible level.

The latest production, True Stories, presents two dynamic pieces of story telling. The first, (Very Old Things), breaks new ground for Bangarra in that it portrays the culture of the Torres Strait Islanders, very different from that of their mainland cousins. The traditional costumes are more elaborate, and the rhythms more closely linked to those of other South Pacific cultures, than those of Australian aboriginal people, and the result, under the perceptive eye and peerless choreography of Thursday Island woman Elma Kris in her debut work, adds another dimension to our understanding of indigenous cultures.
BR> Some of the ancient stories that she uses were passed down to her by the elders of the Murray Island people. They are not spoken of within their own communities, but Kris was given special permission to use them, so there is an added layer of privilege in their telling.

The dance pieces themselves are illustrations of an ancient culture, ranging from rain dances to hunting and gathering routines, and finally a gathering of men and women together. The choreography is magical beyond criticism, even beyond description, as the men embark on their fish-hunting journey with props of spears and fish traps, and the women sweep the ground with their hands and use their yam-digging sticks in the rounded sweeps of female symbolism.

Leading them all is iconic dancer Smilar Sinak, whose cultural heritage from his Aboriginal, Torres Strait and New Guinea ancestors adds to his gravitas as he leads the dancers in a stately and authoritative routine befitting a tribal leader.

The set, by Genevieve Dugard, is based on an ancient myth told to her by Elma Kris, of a hidden cave on Murray Island shaped like the mouth of a dugong. Dugard shapes the bamboo of the island to present this cave as a deep source from which the dancers issue forth warily, just as the myth itself creeps tentatively into a new environment. In the same way, Steve Francis’s music fuses traditional TS songs with modern hard core music to create a harmonious blend of the old and the new that is in itself a kind of reconciliation.

X300is a different piece altogether, a dramatically confronting piece about the atomic testing at Maralinga in the early 1950s and the subsequent effects on the so-called “empty” land and its peoples. The music by David Page strikes terror into our hearts, especially when it is contrasted to the gentler language of the original people, and with the help of new sound-cards for his computer, Page creates a chilling combination of sound and voice that brings the shame of this period of white destruction into full focus.

The set, also by Genevieve Dugard, combines images of modern and ancient landscape and effects. Sand crystallises into shattered glass; the X-ray effects of the explosions is portrayed through the crackling spikes of light rods; and dominating it all is a great collage descending from the flies that seems to be the wings of hundreds of desert moths, but opens and spreads to become a complex map of the contaminated waterways.

As a combination of sound, movement and narrative content, Bangarra’s production of True Stories comes close to perfection. It speaks to everybody, on all levels, and for me it was one of those few theatrical experiences that will stay with me for ever.

Artistic director: Stephen Page

Choreographers: Elma Kris and Frances Rings

Designers: Steve Francis and David Page (sound), Genevieve Dugard (set), Glenn Hughes (lighting), Jennifer Irwin (costumes)

Playing until 16 June 2007: Wednesday 13 and Thursday 14 June at 7.30pm, Friday 15 June at 8pm, Saturday 16 June at 2pm and 7.30pm

Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, with one interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 9th June 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
The Estimator  
Queensland Theatre Company (Bille Brown Studio)

By David Brown

Professional production


Although I missed David Brown’s first major play Keep Everything You Love, I was one of the many who were excited by QTC’s 2004 production of his Eating Ice Cream With Your Eyes Closed, finding the writing taut and the play edgy and suspenseful. Consequently I was really looking forward to seeing the development of this promising writer in The Estimator.

The original idea for the play has gone through umpteen drafts, been workshopped by Playlab, developed through workshops at the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference, shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award and further developed in conjunction with Queensland Theatre Company. Once selected for performance, the script has been modified throughout the rehearsal process and finally reached its world premier on 4 June.

So what went wrong? When I saw it on 8 June I found it flaccid, predictable, and tediously drawn-out with an improbable story-line, little development, and two ‘climaxes’ that left the audience unmoved. All this despite experienced direction, an effective set and very fine performances from the cast, who worked hard to inject life and interest into the clumsy text.

The audience did its best too, laughing dutifully when required and listening patiently to the ramblings of the central character – but they left the theatre (rather thankfully, I thought) with none of the buzz of excitement that a new play should generate. Maybe reviewers should always avoid opening nights, when the in-house chatter of those in the complimentary ticket club can mask the reactions of ordinary theatre-goers who have actually paid for their tickets. Or maybe I’m just sour at missing out on the drinks and nibblies?

The play concerns the plight of a young man (Martin) who calls at a dilapidated house to do an estimation for a removal company. He finds a messy interior, a young, recorder-playing girl (Sharday) and an old diabetic woman (Yonni) who falls on top of him, trapping him beneath her for most of the first half of the play. He is therefore forced to listen to the two talking inconsequentially, playing games and singing songs, occasionally finding himself an unwilling participant. Yonni falls asleep or into a coma from time to time, and Martin and Sharday find they have something in common – the untimely death of a father. In the second act the old woman’s daughter (Karen) appears and subjects Martin to the psychobabble of do-it-yourself life-enhancement techniques, ultimately making a (somewhat underwhelming and improbable) Revelation. That done, she lapses into an unexplained silence while Yonni divulges her Secret and the young man at long last, and to our relief, departs.

If this sounds a little Pinter-esque, forget it. The one thing Pinter knows about is how to engender audience involvement through economy and suspense – not qualities in evidence in this play.

What The Estimator does have are some fine set-pieces, particularly in the second act where Brown captures hilariously Karen’s attempts to steer Martin through the processes of a self-help workshop which she has attended, so that her ‘intervention’ can lead him to ‘healing’. Bridget Boyle gives Karen a nervous energy and earnestness that is entirely right, heightening the comic impact and injecting life and movement into what has been an essentially static play till then; the first act depending mainly on the youthful energy of Sharday. Natasha Wanganeen is perfectly cast in this role, which in less sure hands could have been embarrassingly smart or cute. She endows the fourteen year-old with a freshness and innocence that stops short of being cloying, and convinces us of a loving and sustaining relationship with her grandmother. Sharday is given the other set-pieces with which the play is larded – performing the music and song routines with just the right mixture of skill and awkwardness.

Carole Skinner as Yonni takes on the enormous task of making the garrulous and unattractive Yonni into a believable character, and it is greatly to her credit that she keeps the audience on-side with her throughout. Forced to spend most of the play either sitting on the floor or asleep on the couch, she has been given little scope to dominate the action, but uses her warm, husky voice to great and comic effect, alternately bullying and wheedling to get her own way.

The play hinges on the audience believing that the young man, once inside the house with its odd inhabitants, is powerless to leave. The actor is forced to spend around 20 minutes pretending he can’t get out from under the fallen Yonni, a feat which requires great improvisation skills from the performer and a suspension of disbelief that few audiences could maintain. Once mobile, Martin fails to leave, allegedly because he cannot find his folder, tie or socks; a device also somewhat problematic for both actor and audience. Remy Hii does well with this ineffectual character, making him as credible as the situation allowed and engaging our sympathy for actor and character alike.

For one who had hoped for so much from this play, the improbabilities of the plot and the awkward handling of the play’s movement (with characters conveniently falling asleep, going offstage to make endless and meaningless cups of tea, or left inexplicably onstage with no lines and nothing to do) made for a disappointing evening; excellent set, casting and performances notwithstanding.

David Brown is on record as saying that his Eating Ice Cream With Your Eyes Closed was consciously aimed at the sort of people who didn’t go to the theatre, the white, 40-something males living in regional Australia. I’m not sure what audience The Estimator is aimed at or what we are meant to take away from the play. There is a funny and deserved lampooning of the self-help industry and a suggestion that ordinary people muddle through and ‘move on’ from disappointments and disaster as best they can. But if there is anything more profound than this, sadly I missed it.

Directed by Jon Halpin

Playing until 7 July 2007: Evenings Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Tues 6:30pm, matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm

Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins, including 20 minute interval


— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 8th June 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Alice  
Harvest Rain Theatre Company

Adapted by Tim O’Connor from the novels of Lewis Carroll

Pro-am production


“If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

That’s my favourite line from Alice through the Looking Glass, and I’m glad that Tim O’Connor didn’t leave it out of his very funny and technically brilliant adaptation of the Alice books for Harvest Rain. Adults who know and love Lewis Carroll’s masterpieces are going to need that willing suspension of disbelief that Coleridge defined as constituting poetic faith, otherwise they’re going to be very puzzled by the dramatised version of Jabberwocky that’s built into the show, and the aggressively Frenchified version of Humpty Dumpty.
BR> Here are the characters we already know and love on every level from that of pure fantasy to abstract metaphysics, but the gasps and laughter from the packed audience on first night came more from the delight of new discoveries than from recognition, and I wonder how many people were aware that the Wonderland of the White Rabbit and the Duchess is a very different world from Looking Glass Land, and that the framing metaphor of the second book is that of a chess game rather than the card game of the first.

These may be semantic quibbles and have nothing to do with this joyous production, but I’d like to think that eight-year-old Bridie, who was enchanted by the characters both known and unknown, might go on to read the books themselves as she gets older, and as she gets even older and a tad more intellectually curious, might make her way to Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice (a plug here for one of the best books ever written), in which he explains most of the puzzling linguistic tricks, Victorian poetry and mathematical concepts that Carroll employs.

You don’t need to know any of that to enjoy this show, but I offer the reference to anyone who, like me, knows that Carroll’s stories are far deeper than they appear on the surface, and who would like to explore them further.

Meanwhile, however, you should perhaps explain to your children, when you take them (as I hope you do), that there are two books, not one, and that the Queen of Hearts (Wonderland) and the Red Queen (Looking Glass Land) are different characters. Kids of primary school level may not worry about these distinctions, but older children deserve to know that the White Rabbit inhabits a different world from that of the Lion and the Unicorn.

Plot there is none, in this production at least, merely a succession of wondrous characters, costumed out of this world to the furthest extent of Josh McIntosh’s wild imagination. Tenniel it ain’t, although clearly based on the original illustrator’s designs, but neither thankfully is it the Disney version, from which too many children gain their impressions. The costuming employs all the tricks of pantomime as well as puppetry, and if I say that of the multitude of characters I especially loved the oriental Caterpillar with his turban (Luke Kennedy remains one of my favourite actors in this company), the White King on his hobby horse (Jason Chatfield’s beard is a masterpiece) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum as spherical purple schoolboys (Catarina Hebbard and Tamara Meade), that’s not to downgrade any of the other costumes or the actors who inhabit them.

Naomi Price makes an enchanting Alice, as WASP as any Victorian maiden you could desire. Her little-girl English accent suits the character perfectly, and she wears her white pinny and striped stocking with aplomb. Jess Loudon doubles as the wondrous Cheshire Cat (a special commendation to creator Chris Lane for this blue furry puppet), and as the story-teller. It took me a while to be convinced of the usefulness of this latter introduced character, but I came to realise that some of the mimed incidents, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or growing alternatively larger or smaller, wouldn’t have been intelligible without her commentary, which also gave some structure to the confusing array of characters who appear in the complex chain of events.

This is a must-see show, for little children who have at least heard of some of the characters, for older children who might be inspired to go back to the books and read them, and even for older people, not just to revive childhood memories, but to think more deeply about some of Carroll’s ideas.

Is life just a game? A frivolous game of cards where nothing really matters, except in a dream? Or is it a game of chess, where the outcome depends on decision-making and thinking ahead? How much control do the pawns and the knights and the kings really have over their destiny? And even when, as in Alice’s case, the pawn becomes a queen, what does it benefit her?

Plenty of weighty metaphysical questions here if you want them; otherwise just enjoy it as one of the most spectacular shows you’re likely to see all year.

But always remember, my beamish boy (or girl), that when it’s brillig, and the slithy toves are gyring and gimbling in the wabes, you must always beware the Jabberwock, with jaws that bite, and claws that snatch. Keep your vorpal sword in hand and take courage from the thought that, like the Queen of Hearts and the painted roses, it might be only a figment of your imagination.

Director Tim O’Connor

Designer Josh McIntosh

Sound Tim O’Connor

Playing until Saturday 30 June 2007: Wednesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday matinees 2pm

Duration : 2 hours, with one interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 8th June 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Timon of Athens  
Grin & Tonic (146 Bonney Avenue, Clayfield )


Questions:
How many people in Brisbane have previously seen Timon of Athens?
How many theatre companies would tackle it?
Who would offer a production as a free gift to theatre lovers?

Answers:
Very few
Very, very few
Only Bryan Nason

In 1991 Bryan and the Grin & Tonic group embarked on a project to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in honour of the late Robert Arthur and his work in Queensland theatre in the exciting years of the 1970s and 80s. This is the twenty-fourth in the series and, it has to be admitted, we are already through many of the really juicy plays – but there are still plenty more to come. I am not privy to which play is planned to round off the enterprise eventually – perhaps King Lear or The Tempest ?

The group’s approach is not a conventional one - the performances are mainly rehearsed readings rather than full productions and there is no charge for admission, though a donation to cover the costs of the actors is appreciated. For me, however, the truly remarkable aspect of the project is that this is essentially theatre as a gift offered to fellow Shakespeare enthusiasts. Given the constraints of a reading, not all the performances are perfectly polished; but where else would one have the opportunity to see all of the plays in performance by trained actors committed to making clear the meaning of the text and speaking Shakespeare’s language well?

Many of the plays are familiar to audiences; some, like Timon of Athens, rarely receive attention, and in this case it is not hard to see why. A collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, the play is formulaic in its structure and uneven in its writing. Based on a reference in Plutarch and an earlier anonymous play acted at the Inns of Court, the play portrays Timon, a rich and generous supporter of friends and the Athenian Senate, who turns misanthropic when, his funds depleted, he is refused money by all who formerly sponged on him. The first half of the play depicts his genuine though unwise generosity; the second his disgust at the cupidity and corruption he now perceives as ineradicable in mankind.

The play is significant for a number of reasons, not least because I believe it shows us what the majority of lesser and often lost plays of this period must have been like. We like to believe that Elizabethan audiences feasted weekly on Great Drama, but much of what was on offer was coarse, run-of-the-mill comedy or dry rewrites of Latin stories. With its classical source, rhetorical style, lack of emphasis on psychological subtlety and overly schematic structure, Timon of Athens seems especially tailored to please the University wits of its time and only spasmodically reaches the level of intensity we associate with Shakespeare’s great and universal tragedies. Nevertheless, there is some biting satire and superbly vituperative speeches, and Timon’s descent into madness is ultimately moving. However Timon is no Lear, and the ingratitude of his sycophants in no way prompts in us the anguish that we feel at the unkindness of Lear’s humiliation at the hands of his monstrous daughters.

The play has some rewarding minor parts which were relished in this production by Paul Sherman as the cynic Apemantus, Andrew Blackman as Alcibiades the ill-used Athenian General, and John Watson as Flavius, Timon’s devoted steward. Alcibiades’ wonderfully argued plea for mercy for his condemned soldier’s life was given full value by Blackman, and Watson’s palpable concern for his master’s welfare made Flavius an affecting Kent-like figure. Paul Sherman achieved just the right tone for the acerbic Apemantus and provided a perfect foil for the trusting and ultimately disillusioned Timon.

The rest of the troupe (Matt Foley, Nadine Kelly, Scott Maidment and Cienda McNamara in particular) worked hard to keep the pace of the play moving and bring the two-dimensional cameo parts to life. However, the play is Timon’s; he is rarely off-stage and the part demands a courage and stamina that is daunting. Bryan Nason gave a bravura performance, memorising the long role and showing us Timon in all his affable vulnerability and later bitter loathing. The use of the outdoor setting made Timon’s metamorphosis from affluence into naked despair, seeking comfort only in nature, particularly effective and affecting.

Coincidentally, courage and stamina are two hallmarks of Bryan Nason’s long career in theatre. From his inspired work with the College Players in the '60s, through all the innovation with small theatre groups in the '70s and '80s and the commitment to bringing Shakespeare to life for countless school kids across the state, he has remained focussed on serving local theatre and fostering Queensland talent. Presenting the full series of Shakespeare’s plays is yet another ambitious and draining challenge he has set himself, which he tackles with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm.

Twenty-four down, thirteen to come by my reckoning. Phew!!

If you love Shakespeare, watch out for the next one - Pericles on 1 and 2 July. Telephone 07 3862 1181 for details of future productions or to be put on their mailing list.

Directed by Bryan Nason

Friday 1 June, Saturday 2 June 7:30pm


— Maureen Strugnell

(Performance seen: 1st June 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Carmen  
Queensland Ballet (QPAC Playhouse)

Choreographed by Francois Klaus

Music by Georges Bizet

Professional production


The Queensland Ballet’s treatment of Carmen is a passionate, engaging work. Choreographer and artist director, Francois Klaus, adds subtlety to the work by going back to the original novella by Prosper Merimee.

The lead role of Carmen, normally danced by Rachael Walsh, was performed on this occasion by Amelia Waller, who brought real joy and flair to the part. In a world where matadors were revered and soldiers obeyed, she dominates with sensual power as the defiant gypsy working in the tobacco factory.

The strength of Carmen’s zest for life rather overwhelms the soldier, Don Jose (danced by Zachary Chant), from the moment she throws a flower at him and tears him away from dreaming about his home in the Basque country. Similarly, the matador Escamillo (danced by Alex Wagner), falls under her beguiling spell.

The set design by Graham Maclean is uncluttered and dramatic, complementing the skilful use of colour by costume designer Noelene Hill, and lighting designer David Walters. Many productions of Carmen are choked with enough red and black for a Marxist anarchist convention or a Gregory Terrace Rugby game, but fortunately in this production, the use of colour is a little more subtle. Green foliage, blues and browns helped to transport us to the banks of the Guadalquivir River in Spanish Andalusia.

The corps de ballet danced engagingly as gypsies and as folk from the village, and the scenes in the tobacco factory, especially, bristled with a genuine intensity.

Why does passion so often lead to violence? In the tobacco factory, Carmen slashes Rosita’s face with a knife. Don Jose starts the drama as a thoughtful young man but goes on to kill his lieutenant, later kills Carmen’s gypsy husband and finally kills Carmen herself. The sweet, innocent character of Micaela (danced artfully by Claire Phipps) offers comfort to Don Jose in his anguish, but his affection for her is overwhelmed by his obsession with the fiery Carmen.

Bizet’s hauntingly beautiful and familiar opera score is used throughout the ballet, supplemented with other works by Bizet, some orchestrated and some for guitar alone, thus giving a truly Spanish effect which only a Frenchman could achieve. But it’s a shame that, despite Australia being in the greatest minerals boom since the 1850s gold rush, governments cannot find enough money to allow the Queensland Ballet to have a live orchestra for the performance of this timeless ballet.

Playing 18th May to 2nd June 2007

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including 20 minute interval)


— Matt Foley

(Performance seen: 25th May


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Boston Marriage  
Crow Theatre (Christ Church Community Precinct, Milton)

By David Mamet

Pro-am production


What is a "Boston marriage", I hear you cry. It wasn’t until I’d seen this powerful play by David Mamet that I realised it was a reference to the other “love that dare not speak its name”, a liaison between two women who live together without a man. These liaisons were not necessarily sexual, although they were the cause of much speculation around the end of the 19th century, when this spiky little play is set. After all, lesbianism was barely known and little understood, and the reason it was not a crime in England, for example, was that none of Queen Victoria’s legal advisers dared to explain to her exactly what the term implied.

In Mamet’s play, though, Boston suggests the geographical location as well as the social practice, and the first impression of the elegant set (the play is staged in the old vicarage of Christ Church Anglican precinct in Milton) is that we have stepped straight into a Henry James novel. And then one thinks of his work The Bostonians and everything falls into place.
BR> But you don’t have to know, much less care about, that portentous writer to appreciate this play, because the other turn-of-the-century writer who springs immediately to mind is Oscar Wilde. Now there’s a marriage made in - wherever you like, and what Mamet has done is combine the sentiments of a century-old sexual practice with his own sparse clipped dialogue, to produce a minor theatrical masterpiece that doesn’t drag for a minute.

Anna (Anke Willems) is the older of the two women, waiting impatiently for her estranged friend Claire (Jane-Elizabeth Ballinger). Anna lives in an elegant love-nest, set up not for a female liaison, but for Anna herself by a rich male lover, whom she has taken to support her secret lifestyle. When Claire finally arrives the atmosphere is knife-sharp, for the women have different expectations – Anna’s to be reunited with her ex-lover, and Claire to find a room where she can consummate her desire for a young inexperienced girl with whom she has fallen in love.

Fire-crackers all round, for although the women’s deportment may be as buttoned-up as their place in society demands, the emotions beneath their bustiers are as old as time and as savage as you could wish. And when their physical rectitude is contrasted with their crackling 20th century dialogue, sparks begin to fly.

The acidic verbal sparring is constantly interrupted by a dumb-ox Scottish serving maid, Catherine (Keira Louis), whom Anna insists on treating like a cipher, not even bothering to get her name or nationality right. This total disregard of another human being’s right to an identity could be funny, but in the light of Anna’s own secret underworld it is disturbingly ironic, no matter how much the director plays it for laughs. For the tragedy of this play is not the fate of the lesbians, but the way they are unable to cross the class barrier to unite in female solidarity with another oppressed woman.

The costuming is exquisite, the Edwardian dresses draped elegantly around Claire and Anna’s buttoned-up psyches, and the old vicarage provides a perfect setting for such a period piece – although the doors and fireplace would have been more authentic without the cheap varnish that undercut the elegance of the furnishings. But it’s the perfect venue for such a production, and it’s good to see plays being performed more and more outside the mainstream theatres, which are prohibitively expensive for independent theatre companies.

The acting is controlled, perhaps over-controlled, and in such a small venue, where audience and cast are only a few metres from each other, the stylisation often seems forced. One could wish, for example, that the women could look each other directly in the eye rather than stand like porcelain statues. It makes it impossible for an audience to warm to any of them, except perhaps the maid with her effusive bouts of crying, and when the illegal kiss finally arrives it loses its shock value.

But for all its flaws this is a production worth seeing, a rare chance to see one of America’s most cutting-edge playwrights giving us, for once, a play about frustrated women rather than a wasteland of brutal men. I wish this new company well, and hope they will continue to break the barriers of conventionality in every way.

Director John Zuill

Designer Genevieve Morrow Ganner

Playing Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm until 9 June 2007

Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, with a fifteen-minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 30th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Amadeus / The Tempest  
4MBS Festival of Classics

Professional production

This isn’t really a review, because the 4MBS production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus was not a full production in the conventional sense. But I want to say something about it, because it’s an example of the way that live theatre is being kept on the boil in Brisbane, often in unexpected ways.

We don’t expect live theatre from a classical music radio station, but Gary Thorpe is to be congratulated for including live performances of drama in his annual Festival of Classics. The inclusion of theatre works like Amadeus and, as a one-off earlier in the festival, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is a way of bringing new audiences to love theatre, in venues that are unconventional and unexpected.

The Concert Hall stage, where I saw The Tempest last weekend, is a case in point. It’s not the ideal space for live drama, as the acoustic was never designed to accommodate it, but how often do we get the chance to see important plays like this in performance? The Queensland Theatre Company gave us a fully-staged Tempest a few years ago, so we’re not likely to see it again for a while, and that fiendishly elaborate set would have cost an enormous amount.

But the play works almost as well with the simply staging that it got in the Concert Hall, with a few lengths of coloured silks doubling and tripling as various locations, and I’d rather see The Tempest like this than not at all, even if Bille Brown didn’t have the chance to learn his lines fully. Still, he hammed the role of Prospero up very wittily, and brought out the selfish side of what is really a nasty old man, while the production emphasised the often-ignored anti-colonial nature of the play, with the wickedness of his treatment of Caliban, dispossessed of his own territory, well to the fore.

The interpretation of Prospero was underlined by Eugene Gilfedder’s compelling portrayal of Caliban, whose own evil intentions towards Miranda can be excused in the light of his treatment by the colonial tyrant. “You taught me language,” cries Caliban, “and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse!” I’d love to see an Australian version of this play one day, with Caliban played by an indigenous actor. Wouldn’t it be great to see Kooemba Jdarra take it on as a project.

But back to Amadeus. This production, being a repeat of last year’s, was more tightly directed, and thus more effective. Ruth Bonetti reviewed it for stagediary.com in May last year, and I concur with everything she said, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I refer you to her review.

I’d just like to applaud 4MBS, and the inspired team of actors who made Shaffer’s play come alive again, for what they are doing to give us alternative ways of seeing live theatre, and in a musical context that’s totally appropriate, and lifts the play to an even higher dimension.

So congratulations to Eugene Gilfedder (again) for his mind-blowing Salieri, to Tama Matheson who takes on the difficult dual jobs as director and the role of Mozart (with not too many inane giggles, and for this relief, much thanks), for Kerith Atkinson for her sexy little Constanze, and for those Brisbane stalwarts of the stage, Steven Tandy, Sasha Janowicz, Nick Backstrom, Brett Heath, and Nicole Dennington and Dragitsa Debert as the venticelli, all of whom, in the tight little world of professional theatre in this state, don’t get as much work as they deserve.

Let’s have more of this off-Broadway kind of theatre in Brisbane, for all kinds of reason — for example, it was the first time I’d ever seen the mysterious world and magnificent architecture of the Masonic Lodge. Who knows — maybe we can have The Magic Flute produced there next year. After all, you can’t get a more Masonic work of art than that.

Director Tama Matheson

Lighting Nick Rowland

Music Co-ordinator Raymond Lawrence

Played 24 and 26 May 2007, final performance Saturday 2 June at 3pm

Duration : about 3 hours, with one interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 24th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Madama Butterfly  
Opera Queensland (Lyric Theatre)

Brisbane is treated to something really special with Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka's debut performance of Butterfly in Opera Queensland's production of Giacomo Puccini's enduring opera.

Dyka sings and acts the role with enormous confidence and power. Her voice is thrillingly strong and in perfect shape, with control and lyric beauty across the full range. Added to this, she acts the part with conviction, depicting a Cio-Cio-san who is a fascinating mixture of the vulnerable, naive, foolishly optimistic and courageous.

Her characterisation crowns a high-quality although not flawless production, in which singers, orchestra and direction come together very well.

This is the local version of Opera Australia's production which Moffat Oxenbould first directed 10 years ago. It's had various runs interstate since then, but this is its first Queensland appearance. Despite its national acclaim, it didn't work for me quite as well as the last Butterfly we saw in 1999.

Certainly the direction is dramatic in its intensity. It succeeds both in depicting the realisation of Cio-Cio-san's hopes in her marriage to Pinkerton, and the disintegration of her world in Act 2, through the interactions between Butterfly, Suzuki, Sharpless and Kate Pinkerton.

But some aspects disappoint. The arrival of Butterfly and her entourage should be one of the magical moments of opera, traditionally replete with lanterns and parasols. Oxenbould's approach is to have Butterfly's bridesmaids or attendants enter individually from centre upstage, faces shrouded, until finally Butterfly herself appears. It may provoke mystery, but it lacks the charm of representing the group making their hesitant way up the hill to present the bride to the groom.

The production eschews bulky sets and fixed props, instead using sliding doors and effective lighting for changes of scene. The action takes place in Butterfly's house, basically a flat stage with several low platforms, the whole surrounded by a moat filled with real water (which Management reassuringly announced was from more abundant northern regions!).

Facilitating the action are anonymous cloaked figures who rapidly and silently move items about or bring necessary props to the performers, as well as helping with on-stage costume changes. This device is effective in allowing fluidity of motion and developing a Japanese theatrical tradition, as in bunraku puppet plays, but it's puzzling that these functionaries are clad in light cream colored garments, rather than the invisibility of black. There are times, particularly during delicate lighting effects, that they loom all too obviously rather than disappearing into the darkness. It's also a little comical to see them splashing their way across the moat as they come on and off stage.

The design is also amiss in the colours and appearance of many of the lavish costumes. In a production touted as traditional the designers have not captured an authentic Japanese "look", with the colours generally far too bright and gaudy. A more traditional concept needs such elements as the light pinks, pastels and floral patterns for the women's garb, and perhaps darker blues or greys for the men.

Mind you, attempts at verisimilitude are challenging when much of the libretto and storyline are fanciful projections of 19th Century Italian images of Meiji-era Japan. A case in point is the storming in of Cio-Cio-san's uncle to denounce her conversion to Christianity, with his dark references to her soul's eternal damnation, an absurd transference of medieval Catholic notions to Zen Buddhism. With painted face matching his orange dress he appears like a figure in a kabuki ghost story, his intervention so grotesque that it might have been better to depict is as Cio-Cio's nightmare.

Veteran United States tenor Jerry Hadley performs well as US naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Yet despite knowing the role well he didn't seem entirely comfortable in this production on opening night. There was some straining in upper registers and occasional infelicities in intonation. He also manifestly had great difficulty donning his yukata during the love scene. By contrast, a fall by Dyka later in the performance was successfully laughed off by the soprano.

Pinkerton is one of the great cads of opera, and Hadley successfully plays him as an oily sort of character (yet one whom it is difficult to believe Cio-cio-san would so admire). Hadley seemed startled at his first curtain call appearance to receive a ripple of boos, intended I think for his character rather than his performance, but it was certainly unusual at an OQ opening night.

John Bolton Wood is a powerful Sharpless, the US consul in Nagasaki. His singing is spot-on as is his acting — his distaste for Pinkerton's morality is evident. Mezzo Jacqueline Dark, who sings clearly and expressively as Suzuki, is caring and attentive in her concern for her mistress, although at times her facial emotions of gloom seem exaggerated.

Tenor Christopher Dawes successfully captures the cunning essence of Goro, the marriage broker, while the several cameo roles are all carried off well, in both singing and acting — mezzo Anne Fulton as a dignified second Mrs Pinkerton, baritone Jason Barry-Smith as a pining Yamodori sporting long black locks, bass David Hibbard as the outraged Bonze, Mark Penman and Brett Carter as bureaucratic-looking officials. A memorable non-singing performance comes from five-year-old Cameron Beggs as Cio-Cio and Pinkerton's child Trouble — an audience favourite.

There isn't a lot for the OQ chorus, but their contributions, including the soothing humming chorus, are as usual excellent.

Peter Robinson's Queensland Orchestra provide a rich and well-balanced sound. Percussion work is particularly good, including convincing cannon shots and repetitive beats at dramatic moments. Butterfly is rare among operas in having long sequences of orchestral music without singing, which often exposes an orchestra's weaknesses or even a tinny sound from the pit. This one is pleasantly different.

Most of the magnificent moments are in the intense duets between characters — Butterfly and Pinkerton's love duet is splendid, but so too are the interactions between Butterfly and Suzuki, Suzuki and Sharpless and Sharpless and Pinkerton. The vocal highlight is, however, that old favourite, "One fine day", which earned sustained applause.

Final quibbles: the Japanese have a well-known tradition of removing shoes at the entrance to their homes, which I'm sure even US consuls and naval officers would not have been permitted to flout — hence it's jarring to see Pinkerton and Sharpless clumping about the house in their boots. And, the US flag looked suspiciously as if it had 50 stars, when everyone American schoolchild would know that in the early 1890s it had only 44!

But all that aside it's a production well worth seeing, with, in Oksana Dyka, an absolutely magnificent soprano who is rocketing to stardom.


Playing until 2nd June 2007

— John Henningham

(Performance seen: 19th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay  
La Boite Theatre Company (Roundhouse)

Adapted by Sean Mee from a novel by Rebecca Sparrow

Professional production


Do you remember the Rubik cube, Olivia Newton-John singing “Let’s Get Physical”, leg warmers, Kylie Mole, Expo, and all the other cultural icons of the late 1980s?

There are many more in The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay, the latest in La Boite’s series of Coming-of-Age-in-Brisbane plays, but those were the only ones I recognised. But it wasn’t because I have always distanced myself from the period that I missed most of the other references, for the 20-year-old sitting behind me didn’t either – it was all far too old-fashioned for her. Which proves one of two things: either that the play was targeted at a particular demographic, the Thirty-Somethings, who were in their late teens at the time; or else that teenage culture of whatever period is equally awful, and that in spite of leopard-patterned tights and neat black knickers, the kids of the 1980s were no better, and certainly no worse, than teenagers today, or in the 1960s, or indeed in any period.
BR> Parents may be hip or square, liberal or repressive – their teenage children are always going to resent their authority and find their behaviour excruciatingly embarrassing. Teenagers are always going to be screwed up by their hormones and their emotions, and always trying to find their role in society. Parties are always going to be riotous, and too much alcohol (and these days, drugs) will be consumed, and school teachers will always be the enemy. So what makes Nick and Zoe and Rachel any different from today’s teenagers?

Not a lot, really. The colours are louder – we’re not yet into the Goth era – and so is the music, but teenage angst remains constant, and Rachel (played very effectively, although always on the same level, by Neridah Waters) is torn between revealing her lust for Nick McGowan (a strong but equally single-faceted performance from Tim Dashwood), and playing hard to get. Her school friend Zoe (Hannah Levien in full Kylie Mole mode) tries to tempt her away from her studies, her parents have taken troubled school-mate Nick into the house against Rachel’s will, she retreats to her bedroom a lot, changes the posters on her wall, and hugs her pussy-cat pillow. The only relief for us as audience is that this is before the days of mobile phones and personal computers in the bedroom, and that her parents limit her phone calls to five minutes.

It’s a very slight piece, with no character development, no plot of any interest, and almost nothing to say. Where it does succeed is as a portrait of a particular time in the life of Brisbane, with enough geographical references to give the audience a good giggle, and plenty of nostalgic music, most of it cleverly written by Tyrone Noonan, and performed with even greater skill by the multi-layered Bryan Probets, who constantly surprises me with his hidden talents. Probets, already well-established as a serious actor, here proves himself to be a comic genius as well, and after this performance as dancer and rocker he’s ready to be snapped up by some enterprising entrepreneur.

Elise Greig is Rachel’s mum, a wicked caricature of the age-defying trendy mother, whose exuberance puts her dull daughter in the shade, and who treats her like a baby, still helping her to dress and undress, and waiting on her hand and foot to the extent of picking up her clothes from where she’s dropped them on the floor. “I should be so lucky!” - but isn’t that a Kylie Minogue song? You can see how out-of-touch I am.

The set is composed of six brightly-coloured boxes on wheels, which are moved around the acting space with irritating frequency, and open out to become a school photo-copier, a kitchen table, Rachel’s bed, and anything else the plot calls for. The boxes mirror the characters to some extent – loud, superficial and without much originality – so I’ll give the set the benefit of the doubt and call it an effective underlining of the theme of the play.

The show, adapted from a novel for young adults by Rebecca Sparrow, is very entertaining, and provides easy laughs of the “Did we really behave like that?” kind, and for even younger audiences it might act as a dreadful warning about how they appear to other generations, but when you’re young and the hormones are kicking in, who cares about what old people think? You and I were like that once, and our children and grandchildren are and will be, so all this play proves is that time is circular rather than linear, that young people should all be allowed to make fools of themselves, and that the fashions of the 1980s were only marginally less horrible than those of the 1960s, and that retro-anything should be banned as a dress code.

I appreciate that part of La Boite’s mission is to create a new theatre audience, and they’re doing it very successfully, but please, next year, can we have something less frivolous? Other independent companies in Brisbane are doing more serious stuff, and managing to attract young audiences, and the La Boite set deserve something better than a stepping-stone to Menopause the Musical, no matter how much fun it might be. This play is the young person’s version of Grumpy Old Women, where the only laughs are those of recognition. It’s not a play for grown-ups, and I didn’t speak to anyone over 40 who thought it had much value.

Light entertainment is good fun, but La Boite has given us a non-stop diet of it this year. Young audiences don’t need to be fed simple-minded pap like this – the success of John Bell’s Romeo and Juliet last year, and almost anything by David Brown (think Kill Everything You Love, for example), is proof enough that younger audiences appreciate drama with bite, and gives therm some ideas to think about.

Director/adaptor: Sean Mee

Designers: Josh McIntosh (set), Jo Currey (lighting)

Composer/arranger: Tyrone Noonan

Choreographer: Neridah Waters

Playing Thursday 17 May – Saturday 9 June 2007; Tuesday and Wednesday at 6.30pm, Thursday – Saturday at 8pm, matinees Tuesday 22 and 29 May at 11am, Saturday 2 June at 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 30 minutes, with one 20-minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 17th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
The Last Five Years  
Oscar Theatre Company (Judith Wright Centre)

Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown



Profit-share production

We know it’s going to end in tears, because the first song tells us so. Cathy is “still hurting”, because her husband Jamie has finally moved out, leaving her alone with her pain. So should we care?

Probably, because although the romance has been (or is going to be proved to have been) fairly conventional, she’s a nice enough kid, and successful musicals have been built on flimsier material.

The convoluted but grammatically correct verb configuration in the previous sentence suggests something about the structure of this fantastic American musical that’s been wowing audiences all over the world since it started taking out awards in 2002. It’s the story of a failed romance, but we see it both backwards and forwards, and on stage the couple meet only in one scene, their wedding, which occurs exactly mid-way through the show. They alternate songs (there’s almost no dialogue in the show) with Cathy, who begins the show with a song detailing the end of the relationship, moving backwards to the beginning, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning and trace his development as he falls for Cathy, marries her, and gradually falls out of love with her and in love with another woman. The X-structure is a very clever trick, although I’m not sure it adds much to our understanding of the psychology of the characters, but it does give us something else to think about while we’re enjoying the music and the performances.

And it’s here, rather than in the story or the concept, that the true merit of this (if we’re going to be honest) very slight musical lies. The music is really good, not because it has hummable tunes, a characteristic of musicals that went out with Andrew Lloyd Webber, but because it’s edgy, unsentimental (except where it’s intentional and ironic), and very much of-the-moment. We can hear the influence of Sondheim, the progenitor of the modern musical, and we also get moments as bitter-sweet as his, and almost as cynical. This is music that speaks to and for Generations and Y, who want it all but realise, unlike their forebears, that they can’t really have it.

The casting is exemplary. Anyone who regularly checks out Harvest Rain musicals will know the face and voice of Naomi Price, and here her considerable talents and vocal skills are given full rein. Her voice can scale right up the impossible chords that the music demands without ever becoming strained or screeching, and she can also lilt it down to the tender warmth of a self-pitying ballad. She moves beautifully and she’s not afraid to be sexy, although there’s no overt raunchiness in her performance, just the naturalness of a young woman in loving lust.

She’s ably matched by Luke Kennedy as Jamie. He’s not quite as spunky as he was when he blew me over in his roles of Cain and Japheth in the recent Harvest Rain production of Children of Eden, but he’s more subtly sexy, and we can see why the tender Cathy goes for him. Although he becomes the famous author who eventually leaves her behind, his character is one that develops selfishness rather than being that way from the beginning, and the wistfulness he half-displays as he decides to leave Cathy behind to pursue his career is very finely understated, and the more credible for that. His voice manages to control the tricky cadences of Jason Robert Brown’s complex tunes as confidently as Naomi Price’s does, and together they are the perfect combination of voices and characters, alike enough in their modernity, but complementing rather than competing with each other.

The string quintet which provides the live music gave the show even more vitality, and costumes, set and lighting were impeccable. Director Tim O’Connor showed why he is one of the best directors of musicals we have in this city, and although I sometimes wished I could turn the volume down a little, as it drowned out the lyrics, this was an almost flawless production.

We are extremely lucky in Brisbane to have young performers of such talent and initiative – Oscar Theatre Company was founded only three years ago by Emily Gilhome – but the problem is, as usual, that they don’t have the funding to hire venues for longer than a few nights, nor to buy the publicity that will ensure full houses. There’s hardly time for word-of-mouth publicity, either, although there was a healthy audience when I saw the show on the second night, so they’re getting something right.

What one can do is applaud the support of companies like Harvest Rain, who have given these young performers their start, and the confidence to make a go of it on their own. Whatever the limitations of their own family-oriented productions, they do provide work for many of the finest actors and singers in Brisbane, and showcase their talents to audiences who may otherwise may never get to see them. And that’s a firm beginning at least.

If this review is the first you’ve heard of The Last Five Years, you’ll be too late to see it now, as there’s been almost no pre-publicity for the show. All I can do is urge you to keep an eye on the programming schedules for Harvest Rain, the Judith Wright Centre, Metro Arts in Edward Street, the Cement Box at The University of Queensland, and The Powerhouse when it reopens next month, for between them they’re putting on some of the best shows in town. You can easily catch up with their programs by clicking onto the Brisbane Entertainment website – www.ourbrisbane.com/whatson, and following the links to Performing Arts. Then you won’t miss out on shows like this that attract, in my book at least, an 8/10 rating.

Director Tim O’Connor

Music Director Dale Lingwood

Playing from 9 – 12 May at 7.30pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 10th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Little Women  
Harvest Rain Theatre Company

Adapted by Joanna Butler

Pro-Am


The enduring appeal of simple lives, simply lived, is captured in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. First adapted as a four act play in 1912, it has lived through numerous stage and screen versions. Now the story of the March sisters and their Marmee is brought to rich imaginative life in Joanna Butler’s adaptation and production for Harvest Rain.

Joanna Butler notes in the program that “Little Women is unusual in that there is no antagonist, no master-villain. The conflict is all within; an internal struggle between desire and necessity, private inclination and moral obligation. The (inherent) values and themes…are in many ways counter-cultural to those in our society. The needs of others are valued more highly than the wants of the individual, personal flaws are examined and overcome rather than accepted or ignored, and personal integrity is prized over conforming to the expectations of others.”

Perhaps there were no Generation Ys in the audience, or if there were, perhaps they too were drawn away from self-obsession and touched by the magic as the production realised the perception. Throughout the evening that wonderful engaged silence between the performers and their capacity audience was palpable; a tribute to a dedicated and disciplined ensemble playing and mostly masterful direction, complimented by simple and effective lighting (Noel Payne) and the use of a live violinist (Briony Benjamin).

Butler has chosen a non-naturalistic, at times almost Brechtian style to convey her vision. Most actors are on the open set (Campbell Butler), most of the time. Many serve as multiple characters; as narrators; as stage hands; as dressers - even props and furniture. The chosen style and its energised choreography allow the story to develop fluidly and lucidly. By way of comment rather than criticism, I felt there were occasions (not many) when the movement dominated the drama and diminished the impact of the moment.

For one who believes that the first obligation of the actor is to be heard and understood, it was a rarely encountered pleasure to leave the theatre having heard and understood every word spoken by every performer with accent or without. It was equally a pleasure to see period costumes ‘tailored-to-measure’.

With such a balanced, engaging and honest ensemble it is almost regrettable to pay particular compliment to, or make particular comment on, individual characters and performances. However… Of those who played many parts Cameron Hurry and Norman Doyle earn special mention, especially Cameron’s John Brooke and Norman’s wonderfully understated Friedrich Bhaer. Equally effective by understatement was the still and quiet strength of Pauline Campton’s Marmee.

While Kathryn Marquet (Jo) might occasionally observe that less can be more, I am sure that had Louisa May Alcott been in the audience she would have recognised and honoured her and the other Little Women she created in the performances of Emma Grasso (Meg), Judy Hainsworth (Amy), and Tammy Weller (Beth).

In its publicity Harvest Rain claims the crown of Brisbane’s premier pro-am company. It is a crown earned and deserved.

Directed by Joanna Butler

Playing until May 12 at 7.30pm : Saturday at 2pm.

Duration : About 2 hours 30 minutes with a 20 min interval.


— Ron Finney

(Performance seen: 2nd May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Grumpy Old Women Live  
Garry Van Egmond Enterprises (Lyric Theatre)

By Jenny Éclair and Judith Holder

Garry Van Egmond Enterprises with Avalon Promotions and newtheatricals, in association with Liberty Bell

Professional production

If it’s not just your bowel that’s irritable, and if market researchers on the street approach everyone except you, then it’s clear that you’re a Grumpy Old Woman, and on Friday night there were at least 1500 of them (oh, all right, us) in the Lyric Theatre, because this packed-out show proves that the Awful Truth is much less awful, and much funnier, if it’s shared.

The television shows about the Grumpies (Old Men, Old Women, and Holidays) were compulsive viewing among the middle-aged because they brought into the open the little things about growing older that most of us like to keep secret because we think they’re unique to us. Like the tweezers we keep in the bathroom, for example, to pluck out the surreptitious chin hairs every morning, or the fact that staying home on Saturday night in your jammies watching telly is infinitely preferable to going to a party where you have to stand up all night and everyone ignore you. And I thought it was just me!
BR> The television shows probably outlived their initial impact, and their format, a series of shots of a variety of well- and lesser-known GOBs (as Grumpy Old Bastards are known in our household) mouthing off about little things that annoyed them, would probably have been better as a four-part series, because the concept soon wore thin.

But, as the man from Mortein used to say, while you’re on a good thing, stick to it, so that three of the Grumpy Old Women are spinning the idea out as long as they can, and are touring Australia to make glad the hearts of GOW and some GOM, who were there at the Lyric in the proportion of roughly 1-50.

And make glad our hearts they did, with everyone from young veiled Muslim women (would I lie to you?) to Bright Young Things helpless with laughter as they recognised attitudes that they, or their mothers and grandmothers, could relate to. A preference for elasticised waistbands, for example, or comfy shoes and really posh loo paper; things in our handbags like indigestion tablets and a cheque book, because we’re/they’re still using one; matinee tickets for the theatre because we/they don’t like to be out past bedtime – add your own ideas to the list, because they’re all there, and the laughter that rocked the theatre was the laughter of solidarity.

Three actors is a handy, and relatively economical number to do a touring show, and the set was of the simplest, but these troupers are our long-term friends, especially Linda Robson from Birds of a Feather - and it’s a real giveaway if you remember laughing through the first series of that television show. Dillie Keane and Jenny Éclair are better-known in England, but we recognise them from the BBC GOW shows, and they are outstandingly different in shape, stature and personality to keep the pace going in what is basically a very static format of witty one-liners.

Words like saggy, tut-tut, gusset, bifocals, hot flushes and arthritis pepper the dialogue, and the middle-aged comments about the loss of libido and incontinence problems drew the loudest laughs, but one thing that troubled me a little was that these women were definitely not old. Indeed, by the standards of many women in the audience they weren’t even middle-aged, and if sixty is the new forty, as I defiantly tell my children, then they’re selling out to out-dated attitudes to women. Forty-nine old! Give me a break – that’s the first flush of youth, and if they’re having libido problems at that young age, there’ll be no hope for them when they’re really old, like seventy-nine.

Still, the concept is a very healthy one, because it brings into the open all kinds of things that have hitherto been taboo, and that aging women have always been ashamed to mention except to their closest friends. The key-in-the-door syndrome, for example (and middle-aged women will know what I mean) is never mentioned in polite society, but just as Menopause the Musical and more seriously, The Vagina Monologues liberated women to talk about things that are of deep significance but have had to be hidden away, so on a lighter note Grumpy Old Women allows us to laugh at ourselves in solidarity rather than being laughed at in scorn.

And if at two-plus hours the show was about 30 minutes too long, and we got the feeling that the writers were stretching the idea past its relevance threshold, it didn’t really matter, because it starts at 7.30pm, thus giving most people time to get home by the GOW witching hour of 10 o’clock – or would have, weren’t Milton Road closed to traffic for the convenience of the football crowds, so that a normal 10 minute journey took us almost an hour – and that’s something to get really grumpy about.



Director Chris George

Designer Dora Schweitzer

Played 1 – 5 May 2007 Duration : 2 hours, including one 20-minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 4th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
The Messiah  
Hothouse Theatre (Gardens Point Theatre)

By Patrick Barlow and others

Professional production

Georg Frederic Handel it ain’t, unless you include the excerpts from the world’s most famous oratorio as sung by diva Mrs Barbara Redmond Bird (aka Carita Farrer). This she does in a wonderful shot-purple taffeta crinoline, ever-so-slightly out of date, as she is.

From her fake Regency armchair, she warbles away at arias from Messiah ranging from bass to soprano, with a bit of “The Minstrel Boy” and “The Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” thrown in, usually to rapturous applause, especially when she bowed low and revealed an impressive cleavage which managed to hide two metal spoons until almost the end of the performance. (Sorry, but you really had to be there.)
BR> The rapturous applause came from a full house at the Friday matinee, composed of groups as disparate as high schools students en masse, both male and female, although strictly segregated, and the grey-haired matinee set. It’s not often that an irreverent show like this will appeal to both kinds of audience for the same reason, especially when it’s as deliberately silly as this is.

Do they go for the impudent treatment of the nativity story, and the gloriously daft behaviour of the three actors and the chance to join in and shout a lot? Or are they, on a more serious level, appreciating the fact that the story is so important that it can survive even this kind of treatment, in the same way that Monty Python’s Life of Brian did? Because, in spite of everything, when the drums rolled and the stage backlights came up after the hilarity of the birth scene itself, where the invisible figure of Mary was delivered of her baby by the two men in the cast, and then appeared with a tiny romper suit on her/his belly (Mary is played by the irrepressible Hayden Spencer), suddenly it all became very quiet and very beautiful and the dignity was restored. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and was a very moving moment of theatre.

The scenario goes something like this: a group of very amateur actors sets out to perform a nativity play, but by ill-fortune their number is reduced to two, both men. That raises the problem of who is going to be the third Magi, who will play Mary, and how these two incompetents will juggle the multitude of parts. Jean-Marc Russ, with an accent as well-clipped as his moustache, is the entrepreneur/director Leslie Barrymore Locket, who tries to wheedle the bumbling incompetence of Owen Blunt (Hayden Spencer) into giving some sort of performance as both Herod and Mary , while he performs the parts of Joseph, assorted angels and, of course, the Wisest and Most Wonderful of the Wise Men, Balthazar, a role that involved a multi-coloured glitter turban twice as big as his head, which evokes the wrath of Owen, who had been promised the role.

And so it goes on, to the accompaniment of sulks, tantrums and exits-in-a-huff, so that the audience has to coax Leslie to come back into the theatre after we have all voted his performance as the most wooden. It sounds crass, but it’s one of those shows that is much funnier in performance than description, especially with the talents of three of Brisbane’s best-known and most beloved performers adding their own personal touches.

Farce it is, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that, but quite apart from the sheer hilarity of the performances, it’s luring people back into the theatre, proving that theatre can be fun as well as serious. And if it gets those schoolkids to come to other plays, so that they develop a more subtle understanding of what live theatre can do, then who can possibly argue that the silliness of The Messiah (and hands up who spotted the subtle difference in the title) isn’t as worthy a theatrical experience as a Monty Python movie, a kindergarten nativity play or even (although this is really pushing it!) an 18th century oratorio?

So let’s hear it for Georg Frederic Handel, Baby Jesus, and the Hothouse Theatre Company, and if you live out of town, look out for them in a regional centre near you.

Director Jon Halpin

Designer Rob Scott

Sound Brett Collery

Played 3 and 4 May 2007

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, with one 20-minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 4th May 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Hamlet  
Queensland Theatre Company/State Theatre Company of South Australia


By William Shakespeare

Professional production


Incest, adultery, suicide, murder, calumny, treachery, insanity, even the good old Oedipus complex – you have to admit that Hamlet has it all. In fact, I’m surprised they don’t give it an Adults Only rating.

Its place in the canon of world literature is assured, but the “Greatest Play” label often prevents us from taking an objective look at what it says. We know bits of it off by heart, we settle back comfortably when asked whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer etc etc, we affect the standard shock/horror response at the "country matters" repartee (if we understand it, that is), and after weeping with poor mad Ophelia we will never look at pansies in the same way again.

But it’s not a comfortable play, and establishing the real motivation of its protagonist is a problem that has puzzled directors and readers for 400 years. How much of Hamlet’s madness is assumed and how much genuine? Does he morph from one state to the other during the course of the play and, if so, what triggers it? How can we explain Gertrude’s easy drift from widow to wife – is she sexually insatiable, or simply a very weak woman? Ask your own questions, and you’ll probably find no answers, and that’s what has kept the play alive during the centuries, for nobody can satisfactorily work out its meaning.

Just as every age demands its own Jesus, so every age, or perhaps every decade, needs its own Hamlet. And here we have a brilliant 21st century interpretation from Cameron Goodall, who with director Adam Cook gives us the Johnny Depp version, all tousled hair, manic physicality, crazy mood swings and adolescent fun. These days they’d probably put him on ADHD medication.

But he’s adorable, because underneath the troubled spirit and the irritating wit is an acute intelligence and a deep sensibility, and because we know he’s going to die, taking everyone of importance in the kingdom with him, leaving nobody except the loyal but boring Horatio to keep his memory alive, we sense that the devastation is not local but universal, and that these deaths presage the death of western civilisation.

But this is not the time for a lecture in Lit Crit. The play’s the thing, and the production, and whether people are going to get their money’s worth out of what is a very long night in the theatre.

So first impressions first, and let’s begin with the set. What is that circular structure that dominates the stage, its tall panels bearing lists of names like a war memorial? “I pray you love, remember,” perhaps? It could be the motivating theme of the production, because as a set it is unforgettable. And when the organ thunders out in Wagnerian mode and the set rolls backwards upon itself, it reveals a great dark hall vaguely suggestive of Valhalla, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Rhine maiden or two, or Percival, or even Jean Simmons in a bad blonde wig, if anyone remembers the Laurence Olivier film version.

But no, in front of the hall are the battlements of the castle of Elinor, and soft, what light through yonder window breaks? Sorry, wrong play, and it’s not the light of dawn, but of Old King Hamlet as spook, done in by his brother Claudius in the nastiest possible way so that Claudius can seize the throne and marry his sister-in-law. I’m not sure about the laws of inheritance in Denmark, that the rightful heir can be left out of the equation, but perhaps today’s young Prince of Denmark should be sent to see this play asap.

Two soldiers are keeping watch, in the daggiest outfits that soldiers have ever worn since Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, which immediately gives rise to the question, what is going on here? We know that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but only ethically and spiritually, not materially, and everyone in this play looks as if they’ve been dressed from St Vinnies. The costumes, I have to say, are appalling, except for Hamlet, who is always in basic black anyway, with the odd coloured shirt and ill-buttoned jim-jams.

Why does Ophelia look as if she’s come out of a Boo-Peep Disney movie? Why dress Dennis Olsen like a reject from Alice through the Looking Glass designed by John Tenniel? I expected him to burst into a G&S patter song at any moment. And please God, why make the elegant Gertrude, played by the even more elegant Barbara Lowing, look like an overweight haus frau in bad fake furs and Paddy’s Market taffetas, with a dreadful Vivien Leigh 50s perm? I’ve read the designer’s program notes, so understand her reasoning, but on stage these costumes just don’t work – for anyone.

So much potential in this play, so many good actors, but it just doesn’t come together, for me at least. The production as a whole has no integrity – it’s as if three or four different plays are going on at once, and even the usually chirpy Emily Tomlins as Ophelia doesn’t seem to know what she’s there for.

But perhaps director Adam Cook is cleverer than I give him credit for, and the jerky discontinuous narrative that he has given us is in fact an image of the fragmentation of the world. I still can’t make up my mind.

But it’s scary stuff, and worth going to see, if only for the sword fight in the final scene, the war memorial set (which features a man called Brian Nasson among the list of war dead), and of course Cameron Goodall’s Hamlet, one of the best I’ve ever seen (and make that about 15 over a lifetime) - a man, as Ben Jonson would probably say, if not for all time, definitely of an age.


Director: Adam Cook

Set design: Bruce McKinven

Costume design: Kathryn Sprout

Lighting: Gavan Swift

Sound: Brett Collery

Playing until Saturday 12 May 2007: Monday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : Just over 3 hours, with a twenty interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 26th April 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)  
Tim Woods Entertainment (Cremorne Theatre, QPAC)

By Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield

Professional production


The task? To perform all 37 Shakespeare plays in 97 minutes, and your time starts NOW!
BR> Ok, let’s start with 20 minutes of warm-up (lots of usher jokes and intellectual redemption here, as long as you’re not a USQ student); add twenty minutes of Romeo and Juliet with the endearing new term “butt-love” to add to your vocabulary (Act II, scene ii, line 35 – look it up yourself!); Titus Andronicus (read Titus Androgynous) as a cooking show, and if you know the play you’ll realise that Jamie Oliver has a lot to learn; a rap version of Othello in five minutes; all 16 comedies in three minutes, The Scottish Play in one minute; Julius Caesar in three seconds; Antony and Cleopatra in 10 seconds; an interpretive dance version of Troilus and Cressida in four minutes, the history plays as a four-minute State of Origin match: and you’re up to - INTERVAL!

And thank goodness for that, for by this time you’re almost as exhausted as the actors pretend not to be, and you’d better increase that interval glass of wine to at least two (order them before the show), because you’re going to need them, especially if you’re called Old Ray and you’re a bit of a wig man.

A word of warning here – don’t sit in the front row or, indeed, on the end of any row; and especially don’t admit that you’ve read King John, unless you want your eyes burnt out with red-hot pokers. Actually, that’s one of the few interesting facts about that play that they leave out, but don’t you worry about that – I’m sure they’ll incorporate it in later shows, because there’s almost as much improvisation as script in this show, and even on first night the local jokes about Arts degrees from USQ, and Juliet using grey water for her balcony pot plants, were flowing smoothly. They kept excusing their very bad version of Hamlet (a small town which Damian Callinan doesn’t like because he’s a vegetarian, with no shops and a winery that opens only at weekends) by suggesting that we pop in to see a better production next door - QTC’s rather more serious version is on at The Playhouse from 25 April, but I wouldn’t advise seeing both plays on consecutive nights, as you need time to adjust your head space after this wicked travesty.

You don’t even need to know much about Shakespeare for this larrikin layabout rendition, because it’s the sight gags and the bad puns that make it so funny, even for purists. The first-night audience was mainly a young crowd, possibly because they know Frank Woodley from Spicks and Specks on ABC Wednesday night television, but the other two performers are equally good, and so different from each other in physical looks and personality that there’s no need to work out who’s doing what and with which and to whom. Well, maybe there is, and even the morning after I can’t quite remember because I was laughing so much, but it doesn’t really matter.

Damian Callinan is the stocky dopy one, a bovver boy who opens the show as a QPAC usher dragged on stage to keep the audience happy while the others find their props, and he played so many roles I can’t decide which ones I loved best. Although maybe the hapless Romeo, in a wig even less fetching than Juliet’s, or Macbeth with a weird Scottish accent, or his attempt to think up a swear-word to break some spell or other (the best he could come up with was “scrotum”, which he defended on the grounds that it was just like your nanna without a face, and I know I shouldn’t repeat that, but I keep breaking up every time I think of it), will stay longest in my memory.

Meanwhile Keith Adams stalks about being theatrical in a Denzel Washington or a thinner Frank Thring kind of way, horrified by the antics of these amateurs although, when he plays Hamlet, the way he reacts to his father’s ghost (played very effectively by a white sock dangled from the flies) is a professional lesson in how not to do it. His love scenes with the hairy-chested Ophelia (Frank Woodley, the reluctant audience member dragged up on stage and made to perform all the girly parts in a succession of execrable wigs) would immediately drive any young woman to a nunnery by choice, even if you interpret “nunnery” as “whorehouse” as the Elizabethans did.

As audience we too got to play many parts, from the Elizabethan (as opposed to the now-forbidden Mexican) wave to Ophelia’s id, ego and super-ego (I was in the idgroup, who had to call out “Cut the crap, Hamlet, my biological clock’s ticking, I want to have babies NOW!”). And when, after 45 minutes (but who’s counting?) of Hamlet in the second half, the five performers took their bow (Old Ray and the effervescent Robert from the audience had joined them on stage), and we all thought it was over, they performed the play again in a mere five minutes, because John Howard had cut their budget, and then in fifteen seconds and then, in place of an encore, they did it backwards – and believe me, you had to be there, because they got it word perfect.

What can I say? Ninety-seven minutes it ain’t – I made it 145 not counting the interval – but this strange eventful history is no second childishness and mere oblivion, for though it be madness, yet there is method in 't – even if it’s method acting. (And I know you’ll appreciate the gratuitous erudition there.)

So don’t miss it – please. You’ll probably find me there, because I want to see it again and again – and after this review, there had better be as many free tickets as I’d like! Or possibly not, because it’s almost sold out, so get in NOW, or your time will be up.

Director John Saunders

Designer Shaun Gurton

Playing until Sunday 27 May 2007: Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Matinees Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm, Sunday 3pm

Duration : 2 hours 45 minutes, with one 20-minute interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 20th April 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Heard it on the Wireless  
Kransky Sisters (Cremorne Theatre, QPAC)

Cremorne Theatre, QPAC

Professional production


They didn’t bring the little red Morris on stage with them this time. Maybe that had something to do with Mourne’s money-saving schemes, in particular the one where when she tried to drive out of a car park without paying and the boom gate fell on the bonnet. Or maybe not. Never apologise, never explain.

Neither did the two older sisters, Mourne (Annie Lee) and Eve (Christine Johnson), bring their tuba-playing half-sister Arva with them, for she has absconded from her humpy on the family property at Esk and gone off with the Hornbill Military Band – and that’s all the explanation you’re going to get.

Instead, they’ve allowed their other half-sister Dawn (Carolyn Johns) to leave the spider-infested laundry at Esk, and have brought her along with them to play the tuba. Dawn doesn’t speak very much, and from the look of her (I think Mourne and Eve have yet to give her a few tips on eye make-up) she’s not likely to run off with any brass player, male or female. But she manages to get her revenge for the slights and minor humiliations they heap on her when she sets the pace with her defiantly unpolished tuba.

But the girls did bring their musical effects with them, I was glad to see – the guitar, the aforesaid tuba, the reed keyboard from the 1960s, the tambourines, the musical saw, the biscuit tin and, of course, the indispensable lavatory brush. And with those instruments of the angels they made music, with numbers like The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”, songs their mother taught them (before she ran off with Dawn and Arva’s father, that is) or that they heard on the wireless (no television in the Kransky household), AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (tell me about it!), and a rendition of “Bright Eyes” that bring tears of hysterical laughter to your eyes as you learn that it was inspired by the death of Eve’s pet goldfish Goldie, devoured by a groper that Mourne put in the fish tank to save it from the piranha fish at the pet shop. Or something like that.

The other biographical fact you need to know to understand the three weird sisters is that Mourne and Eve’s biological father was a travelling salesman for the Abestos Cookware Company, and that after his brother ran off with his wife (the girls’ mother) and fathered Arva and later Dawn on her, the brothers haven’t spoken.

Annie Lee as Mourne, the eldest and most severe of the sisters, has been described as a cross between Joyce Grenfell and Miss Jean Brodie, but she’s more sinister than either of those redoubtable ladies, for under her bland narratives are dark tales of destructive spite. How did the neighbour’s guinea pig happen to be on the lawn when Mourne was mowing it? Never apologise, never explain, as I think I may have said before.

Although Eve (Christine Johnston) wears the same severe pleated black skirt, lace-up shoes and polka-dotted blouse as her sisters, she is the epitome of unfulfilled passion, positively quivering whenever her eye falls on the current male victim from the audience. (On the night I was there, Jason held his own, so to speak, against both Mourne’s severe reprimands and Eve’s incipient lust, and when he kissed Eve on the lips as he left the stage, the whole theatre pulsated with emotion of every conceivable kind.)

The three virgins from Esk (Arva has excluded herself from the definition by now, I suspect) have been bringing their homespun philosophy and travellers’ tales to audiences all round Australia in the last few years, and we have taken them to our hearts. And now they have won international fans as well, Edinburgh’s The Scotsman newspaper calling them “ a truly great comedy creation” after their success at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

If you missed them this time, check out their video clip on their website www.thekranskysisters.com. And when next they come to town, make sure you catch up with them for, if I may use a word that would never pass the Kransky Sisters’ lips, the whole audience were cacking themselves. And you may even finding yourself handing over good money for one of their tea towels.

Played 12-14 April 2007 at 7.30pm Thursday, 7.30pm and 9.30pm Friday, 2pm and 7.30pm Saturday

Duration : One hour, no interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 12th April 2007)


www.STAGEDIARY.com: Queensland's Online Stage Magazine
Love Child  
HIT Productions (Gardens Point Theatre)

By Joanna Murray-Smith

Professional production, with Amanda Muggleton and Melissa Dransfield


The real star of this show is the design. Pared-back and stylishly post-modern, the set provides the perfect foil for Anna (Amanda Muggleton), who 25 years ago relinquished her illegitimate daughter (Melissa Dransfield) at birth. Now a successful editor of nature documentary films, Anna’s immaculate but emotionless life is lived out in a designer flat decorated in olive-green and pale cream, colours echoed in her olive-drab designer trouser suit, set off by a cream wrap wound around her body in a faintly Japanese style suggesting both exoticism and repression.

A raspberry chair by designer Grant Featherston provides the only touch of colour in this setting, into which comes the renounced daughter, now a famous TV soapie star, dressed in rich colours of blue and dark pink with a few discreet frills. She’s fashionably elegant in a pretty way, in direct contrast to her mother’s classic '90s chic, and their personalities reflect their physical differences.

Billie, we learn, has been dreaming about her birth mother all her life, but only since her adopting parents died has she felt able to seek her out, a feat she has finally accomplished. This is where the action begins, at the point where Billie goes to meet her mother for the first time, in the expectation that all her childhood fantasies will come true.

From here the play can go one of two ways. Either there will be a painful but ultimately satisfactory resolution, or mother and daughter will decide not to continue the relationship. There’s room for some variations on these themes, but in a play which is advertised as being about “parent-child relationships, redemption and the need for love”, it’s what an audience has the right to expect, and what they probably came to see – a kind of nicely-resolved sociological problem play.

But ultimately it’s not what they get, and by the end of the play I couldn’t decide whether Murray-Smith was being ultra-tricky or downright dishonest. For in a play like this, which deals with such a prominent social issue, and which will probably attract many people who have a specific and maybe an emotional interest in the situation, there is an unspoken pact between audience and playwright that she will play by the unwritten rules of the genre.

Love Child, however, is less of a drama than a morality play. The issues are clear, the characters are emblematic, and the battle lines clearly drawn. The battle is between generations, not just between first and third wave feminism, but between two different kinds of selfishness. For Billie, it’s all about ME – she has been given away at birth, she has always fantasised about her mother, and she believes she has the right to demand emotional compensation and her mother’s love.

For Anna, too, it’s all about ME, but in this case her right to live her own life and not be confronted by a decision she made 25 years ago. To Billie, and to the audience, she seems heartless, in that she has never thought about the child she gave away – in fact, as she tells Billie, she would have aborted the foetus had she not discovered her pregnancy too late. Predictable gasps of shock/horror from the audience, and from Billie of course, because it’s the last thing she wants to hear, or ought to be told. What kind of callous woman is this, who can’t soften the pain she is causing with even the slightest pretence of concern? A little white lie would surely not have gone amiss, we feel.

But Billie is equally callous. She makes no attempt to understand her mother’s position, that of a naïve 17-year-old who discovered that she was pregnant after a brief shipboard romance with a man whose surname she didn’t even know – this was the libertarian seventies, after all, and sex was not a matter of commitment for anyone.

The battle is also between lifestyles. Billie is a soapie star, whose photograph adorns popular women’s magazines. Her next gig is to star in a porn movie, and her ambitions don’t go any higher than that, except a vague fuzzy desire to have lots of babies, an ambition that sits oddly with her own selfishness. Anna, on the other hand, is a university graduate, reads high-brow novels, collects modern paintings and doesn’t watch commercial television. Neither can appreciate nor even accept the other’s interests.

So whose side are we supposed to be on? It’s impossible to like either of these self-obsessed creatures, and your ultimate choice will probably depend on which side of the generation gap you happen to sit.

Until the denouement, that is, after Billie has achieved her goal and reduced Anna to a blubbery mess of self-loathing tears. And for what?

Not for the reason any of us thought. For Billie, who has indeed searched for Anna for many years, is not Anna’s daughter. She was adopted out at birth, but set her ex-lover to find any woman who adopted out a baby at the same time, and we see that her revenge is not personal but general, punishing any woman at random for the faults of her own mother. This is where I lost all respect for the playwright, for the play turns out to be a crude manipulation of emotions for no real reason.

In the end, the play is much ado about nothing, and perhaps that’s the reason that both the actors are so wooden and flat in their performances. Not even the versatile Amanda Muggleton can do much with this cardboard cut-out, unless we can give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s playing it to stereotype. Melinda Dransfield is equally shallow, without even the natural sexiness of the character she plays, and a voice that often grates.

But I did like the set.

Director Bruce Myles

Designer Judith Cobb

Played Friday 13 April and Saturday 14 April, 2007

Duration : One hour 20 minutes, no interval



— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 14th April 2007)
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The Space Between  
Circa (Roundhouse Theatre)

Created by Yaron Lifschitz and the Circa Ensemble

Professional production


As T.S. Eliot knew, there has to be a space between, but in his poem The Hollow Men it’s always filled by something sinister. “Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the Shadow,” he said, but Yaron Lifschitz and Circa have successfully set out to prove him wrong. There are certainly shadows in the spaces between the three performers, but they are shadows of beautiful things – lights forming magical patterns to frame the movement, music from everyone from J.S. Bach to Jacques Brel and Cake to give them a context.

Circa’s director, Yaron Lifschitz , gives a deeply metaphysical explanation of his concept which, he says, “eschews narrative and character, though is full of suggestions of both. Three performers meet and explore themselves, each other and, most importantly, the spaces between them, in a range of intense physical encounters.”

If you can’t quite follow the rhetoric of his program notes, which I found very impenetrable at times, it doesn’t matter, for the sheer skill of the performers, and the compelling music and lighting, weave their own kind of metaphysic which, with all due respect to Yaron, I think goes deeper than words can convey. But if you do want to explore his ideas further, I refer you to Circa’s website, www.circa.org.au, where you will find it set out in full.

In one sense, then, it’s futile to attempt to review this show, because all a reviewer can do is assess the performances against the conceptual background. As there’s no narrative, all I can do is share a few of my impressions after I gave up trying to intellectualise and simply settled back to appreciate the performers’ mastery of their craft, and the evocative soundscape and lighting.

There are three performers, two men and one woman. The space is square and dark, lit by a single spot. A young man (James Kingsford-Smith) enters, clad in singlet and black trousers. He stands silent for a moment and then, without warning, falls backwards, arms always by his side, so smoothly that you’re not aware of his knees bending to help him hit the ground. Gaps of appreciation and shock and, in my case, groans of pain as I gingerly straighten my own back.

But he doesn’t stop there. He does it again, and again, and again, with the same perfection of timing that he seems to be an automaton. He is joined by a young woman (Chelsea McGuffin) and they play a soundless game of capture and escape, kissing and killing. The second man (Darcy Grant) enters, the lighting changes to suggest prison bars, and there is a sinister duet as the young men stalk each other. Meanwhile,. McGuffin does some ineffectual things with a strip of cloth, and as the music changes so do the actions.

It’s fascinating stuff, and the performances were admirable, but I wondered whether McGuffin was recovering from a fall, or had been injured in some way. Much of her movement was tentative and fragile, sometimes she had to struggle to get into position, and the men seemed to carry her emotionally as well as physically.

She came good on the trapeze swing, where she hung by the roof of her mouth, an acrobatic trick I’ve never seen anyone else ever attempt, and eventually recovered her control. I’m not sure whether she was in fact nursing an injury, or whether the choreography was designed to make a deliberate contrast between male and female physicality, but in the end it didn’t matter, because it was an evening that evoked silent gaps of admiration and pleasure, one of the most striking circus shows ever, making a welcome return to the Brisbane stage after their recent successful overseas and interstate tours. We are privileged to have a team of such talent in this city – may we see more of them. Keep an eye on their website for upcoming shows.

Directing, lighting, sound, multimedia and operation by Yaron Lifschitz

Performed by Darcy Grant, James Kingsford-Smith, Chelsea McGuffin

Playing until Monday 9 April 2007: Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday at 6.30pm, Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Duration : Approximately 60 minutes, no interval


— Alison Cotes

(Performance seen: 2nd April 2007)


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