Friday, 9 March 2018

2018: RED by Liz Lea

Red by Liz Lea Productions.  At QL2 Dance Theatre, Gorman House Arts Centre, Canberra, March 8-11, 2018.

Choreographer/Performer: Liz Lea

Choreographers: Vicki van Hout; Virgina Ferris; Martin del Amo
Dramaturg / Mentor: Brian Lucas
Cinematographer: Nino Tamburri
Film Editor: Arianna Bosi
Script writers: Liz Lea; Brian Lucas; Victoria Lea
Lighting Designer: Karen Norris
Rehearsal Director and Dramaturgy: Natalie Ayton
Costumes: Consultant – Cate Clelland; Designers – Liz Lea, Brian Lucas, Bruce Scott and Brooke Giles

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 9

On January 21 this year I reviewed a solo dance theatre work, writing “For Ghenoa Gela to show the rest of us her personal salvation in re-connecting with her traditional culture is clearly more than a passion.  It’s a necessity as much for her sake as for ours.”

At the time I thought it was rare to see such core personal growth in understanding made into dance art form and then performed by the artist herself.  Yet, just a few weeks later, Liz Lea has taken the same risk.  Her story is as central to her understanding of herself: equally necessary to be told by her on stage as Ghenoa’s was for her.

Equally, also, for us to appreciate the hidden force propelling another person’s life.  Where for Ghenoa it was the need to find her place in her culture; for Liz it is the need to know the truth about her pain – not ‘normal’ menstrual pain as she was told when 13, but essentially untreatable endometriosis.

“For 20 years,” Liz writes, “I had an illness I was not aware of and for those 20 years I travelled and toured, performed and created....Why tell the tale?  My journey played out on stage and I gave away my future for the stage, all without my knowledge.  Best I address some of that on a stage.”

And like that other dancer, Ghenoa, Liz Lea can find humour at surprising moments and expressed in surprising ways, connecting us to her personal story as supportive friends; as comrades on life’s journey.

As I wrote of Ghenoa Gela, this piece by Liz Lea is “work which seems to me to be a new original and significant form, which I’ll call Theatre of the Personal Self.”

Red also places Liz Lea’s work in the relatively new tradition of ‘dance theatre’, which in my experience became established mainly by Kate Champion’s Force Majeure company, beginning for me with The Age I’m In at The Q, Queanbeyan in April 2010 through to Nothing To Lose (in which Ghenoa Gela performed and choreographed) at Carriageworks in the Sydney Festival, January 2015.

Looking through my collection of reviews of works I see in this tradition ( search for “Force Majeure”) I see Liz Lea’s and Ghenoa Gela’s works as parallel to the long tradition of visual artists painting self-portraits, to capture the essence of themselves, just as they have done for others. 

In this process, the artist places herself in context: and thus both explains herself to herself while illuminating her audience’s understanding – in Gela’s case of the essence of Indigenous culture, and in Lea’s case of our capacity to work through pain to become true to ourselves.  In this work we see, I believe, the true nature of art.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 8 March 2018

2018: Thank Q for the Memories

Thank Q for the Memories, devised and directed by John Shortis and Moya Simpson, with Stephen Pike. At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 8-10, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 8

If I listed everyone involved in this enthusiastic celebration of The Q’s first ten years – Shortis & Simpson as comperes, narrators and conductors, with the 29-strong Queanbeyan Players Chorus, the 44 members of the Wordly Goods Choir, the 42nd Street Dancers (only 9 of them), the 10 individual performers, and the Band (Peter J. Casey, Dave O’Neill, Ian Blake and Jonathon Jones) – there would be no space for a review.

But John Shortis, despite his usual extensive historical research – in this case back to the 1830s – left out the one name of perhaps the most important person, although he didn’t appear on stage: Ratko Vatavuk, project architect in the Project Team from BVN Architecture.

Here’s a little of “In the Architect’s Words” published by the Australian Institute of Architects, to add to John’s story of Council’s decision to follow up the Queanbeyan Players’ raising of $50,000 for a proper theatre next to the “barn” of the Bicentennial Centre:

Pre-existing site conditions also constrained the building's location, as the presence of a large in-ground service line in the existing carpark established the footprint, and the 100 year flood level elevated the building onto a podium.

This gives an extra level of relevance to Moya’s singing not only of  “celebration”, but of John’s execrable rhyme, with “elevation”.

The building is a simple and urbane zinc and terracotta clad structure hovering within the lively Queanbeyan civic precinct. Its facilities rival those of much larger centres and include a raked 350-seat auditorium, generous stage and wings, crossover and a large orchestra pit.

And here’s how it looked in the design awards presentation photo by Brett Boardman:

No wonder Shortis & Simpson say “We love entertaining here, and we love to be entertained here.  It’s our favourite theatre”.  I’ve reviewed more than a dozen shows in The Q since it opened in 2008, and I feel the same way.  And as Moya sang, it seems as if time has gone by and even disappeared – can it really be only ten years?  The Q has become such a natural part of Queanbeyan that it seems to have been – and will go on – forever.

The celebration program was an eclectic collection of items ranging over many of the shows, including Shortis & Simpson’s, which have appeared at The Q, tied together by John’s newly written songs, such as "Thank Q for the Memories", "Life Before the Q" and "Ten Good Years".

Not all items were musical, such as the very funny Hermia / Helena verbal stoush from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, played by Jordan Best and Jenna Roberts; and the more serious excerpt from Playhouse Creatures where Elizabeth Bradley and Amy Dunham – accompanied by Jordan Best on cello – reflect on their time as the first women to perform on stage – in the 17th Century – with its resonance for the role of women in the 21st Century, made particularly relevant on March 8 as the International Women’s Day which the United Nations describes as “a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

A neat contrast was Dave Evans and Jenna Roberts performing the Lasagne Incident from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, followed by the Jenna’s singing "I Will Be Loved Tonight", from that show, accompanied by Peter J. Casey.

A special delight was the re-appearance of the great satirical pianist Peter J. Casey, especially in his performance of his version of the squirm-inducing "I Just Want to Conceive With You", which was originally imposed upon the world in Shortis & Simpson’s show about the business of song-writing, Waxing Lyrical, at The Q (reviewed here December 2011).

It’s a pity we can’t have the more regular services of Peter J. Casey, who nowadays lives in Wagga Wagga, and this terrific band, but a glance at Peter’s extensive bio explains why.

If theatre is essentially about engagement and entertainment, then Shortis & Simpson’s work is an engaging and highly entertaining celebration of this theatre – The Q.  As Tim Overall, Mayor of Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council has written, To The Q Team: Well done to you all, you have galvanised the community in a truly commendable way.  The Councillors and I wish you continued success for the next ten years.

And so say all of us (though I worry a little about being “galvanised”).

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 21 January 2018

2018: My Urrwai

My Urrwai created and performed by Ghenoa Gela.  Belvoir and Performing Lines in association with Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Sydney Festival, at Belvoir Downstairs, January 20 – February 4, 2018.

Director – Rachael Maza
Dramaturg & Movement Consultant – Kate Champion
Set & Costume Designer – Michael Hankin
Lighting Designer – Niklas Pajanti
Composer – Ania Reynolds

Previewed by Frank McKone
January 19

Performing on stage is always a risk (break a leg!), but the greatest risk – to your sanity, if not in failing your audience – is to turn your own life into a public performance, and then perform it yourself.

For Ghenoa Gela to show the rest of us her personal salvation in re-connecting with her traditional culture is clearly more than a passion.  It’s a necessity as much for her sake as for ours.

Fortunately, for us as well as for her, the family into which she was born in Rockhampton did their best to maintain their previous Torres Strait singing and dance culture from Moa (where Ghenoa's mother grew up in St Paul's Village), and Erub (Darnley Island where her father hails from), despite all the influences from Christianity and economic forces which set aside the past – even on the Islands themselves.

What a revelation it was for Ghenoa to be taken on a visit “home” to Moa, discover the reality of her culture as she nervously performed traditional dance, only to realise that people at home had forgotten the very dances that she had been taught at “home” in Rockhampton. 

As she learns what it feels like to understand her place as the holder of knowledge for her people, we experience with her that great impact.  When Indigenous people say how important is their culture, we can now understand what they mean.

We also discover that Ghenoa is a magnificent performer in a rather different context – the one which has taken her, for example, to the Edinburgh Fringe and even to So You Think You Can Dance – Top 100 on tv.  She can make all of us, from whatever culture, laugh along with her as much as be fascinated by her story.

I have noted Ghenoa’s initiative before, such as her choreographing – for the whole company – of the finale for Kate Champion’s Nothing to Lose (Kate’s last show as artistic director of Force Majeure, reviewed here January 23, 2015), so I am not surprised Ghenoa has chosen to ask Kate’s advice as dramaturg for My Urrwai.  And, of course, to have another strong Indigenous woman in Rachael Maza to direct the production has guaranteed the solution to that potential problem of the risk of performing not only your own work, but your own self.  Add in the strongly creative input of Michael Hankin and Ania Reynolds for the visual and sound landscape for Ghenoa’s journey, inventively lit by Niklas Pajanti, for work which seems to me to be a new original and significant form, which I’ll call Theatre of the Personal Self.

If ever there was a need for cross-cultural understanding, and surely we need this more than ever before in our time of political divisiveness, Ghenoa Gela’s work is essential viewing.

 Photos supplied
 Ghenoa Gela in My Urrwai

 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 20 January 2018

2018: Alice in Wonderland - No 3

Dubs Yunupingu as Alice
Alice in Wonderland adapted by Mary Anne Butler, from the story by Lewis Carroll.  Produced by Michael Sieders for Sydney Festival at Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, January 5 – 27, 2018.

Director – Cristabel Sved; Production Designer – Melanie Liertz; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Toulmin; Lighting Designer – Matt Cox.

Dubs Yunupingu – Alice
Alex Packard – Harry / Mad Hatter / Rabbit
Ebony Vagulans – Caterpillar / Chelsie / Cheshire Cat
Drew Wilson – Quinn / Queen of Hearts /March Hare / Dormouse

Other roles: Bottle, Door, Chocolate Tree, Shoes (2), Mouse, Jack of Hearts, Three of Spades – shared between the performers.

Program includes the script published by Currency Press

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 19

The play begins before the action and ends, after the action, with distant crows, a little closer at hand honey-eaters – possibly the particular species I recall from north of Katherine and in the Kimberley – with the occasional close-up blow-fly: a soundscape that tells us we are in ancient Australia.  These sounds, plus the punt and catch of the high-flying AFL football between two young fellas, bring us into modern times – but what’s this girl who wants to take the mark?

Today’s Alice is an up-to-the-mark 14 year-old young modern woman.  She is offended, in fact oppressed by male dominance, specifically because she is not allowed to play in the under-15s – not even to train – simply because she is a girl.  “I don’t belong here,” she says.  “I don’t belong there.  I don’t seem to belong anywhere!”

By the end of the play, her experience of the magical world at the bottom of a children’s playground spiral slide – really consisting of her own imagination testing her thoughts and feelings in twisted forms derived from the real world – makes her ready to stand up for herself, face the taunts of the boys, and she will surely get to play her beloved AFL – the code.

In this production, the casting adds another layer: the two young women are clearly Indigenous, while the two young men are clearly not.

I’m sure there will be some purists who will see Mary Anne Butler’s updating of the oh-so-19th Century-English Alice as a travesty of literary tradition.  There may be others who think that theatre for children should not be so polemical – in this case absolutely feminist.  But why not? – when the conventions of male supremacy are still so obvious in too many families in the way wives and children are treated in the real world, where family violence is so often their experience.

Butler hasn’t taken up these thoughts as far as I have here: she concentrates on the positive development of Alice as a young woman finding her way towards a personal goal – not being willing to be left in her childhood state, accepting the strictures imposed by others, any more.

The code is a metaphor for the rules of the game which Alice needs to follow to achieve her goal – and it is the Caterpillar (firmly played by Ebony Vagulans) who teaches her, in the philosophical section about how you know who you are – which in this adaptation becomes about how you become what you want to be. 

The theatrical devices used in this production, with only four performers, were in their own right an education in drama for the young children watching, and maybe for many of the adults.  The rabbit, like the mouse and others, began as a small soft toy, turned very effectively into an apparently living puppet by the boys manipulating its head, legs, and giving it a voice.  As Alice grew smaller, the rabbit became the man/actor; while at another point Alice became giant-sized (that’s where the two very large shoes come in), while the full-size rabbit now seemed small in comparison.

This kind of playing around often became very funny, especially for the younger children – while at the same time sections of the script deliberately extended the vocabulary, even into words like ‘metaphor’ and ‘metamorphosis’ (which caterpillars naturally do, but which Alice must do for herself). 

It looked like little children’s drama, as if Alice was still 5 or 6; but the language took on a higher stage of learning, for the 14 year-old going on 15.

While watching, from my biassed drama-teacherish standpoint, I felt at times not sure if it all was working; but in the end the positive responses from the audience, ranging from about 4 to adult, and some comments I overheard in the foyer, indicated that people were very happy with the end-product.

So as the director, in her notes, explains: “We have set Alice’s world in a playground, and it is through her imagination that Wonderland with all its madcap characters and shifting shapes is conjured from the everyday people, discarded toys and playground equipment.  This imaginative capacity that is so important in the lives of children, and important to our creativity and enjoyment as adults, has been a guiding theme in this production.  Alice’s capacity for conjuring make-believe into a new reality for herself is there for all to take strength and purpose from.”

And all the actors’ skilful conjuring of their bodies, props, puppets and elements of the set made this Alice in Wonderland a playground full of surprises and wonder for young and old alike.

And so, to summarise this week of the Three Alices, it has been interesting to see that each adaptation and staging approach has been quite different. 

Of the three, personally I found the Ickle Pickle (No 2, on January 16th) the warmest and most engaging – perhaps because it was most suited to its setting in my local community.

The more conventional form of the commercially touring show (No 1, on January 14th) was in many ways the most satisfying in achieving a Lewis Carroll effect – but it might have been better to establish its audience at the 8 to 12 level, rather than promote it as fun for all ages, down to almost babes in arms who were there last Sunday.

Mary Anne Butler’s adaptation, (No 3 on Jan 19), was the version with the strongest dramatic throughline and sense of educational and political purpose – but, as in No 1, the use of mics distracted me at first and for the smaller Lennox Theatre I thought they were not really necessary. 

So, fit for local community purpose puts Ickle Pickle ahead; but Mary Anne Butler’s script and production puts Michael Sieders Presents ahead across the country; while Penny Farrow’s script and Rapidfire International and Boyd Productions win points for commercially touring beyond our borders a literally straight approach close to Lewis Carroll’s intentions.

And, indeed, Alice herself wins in all three – as she should.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2018: Barber Shop Chronicles

Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellems.  Sydney Festival: Fuel, National Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse, UK, at Seymour Centre, York Theatre, January 18 – 28, 2018.

Director – Bijan Sheibani; Designer – Rae Smith; Lighting Designer – Jack Knowles; Movement Director – Aline David; Sound Designer – Gareth Fry; Music – Michael Henry; Fight Director – Kev McCurdy; Staff Director – Stella Odunlami; Barber Consultant – Peter Atakpo; Company Voice Work – Charmian Hoare; Dialect Coach – Hazel Holder; Tour Casting Director – Amy Ball.

Cast: (alphabetical order)
Tanaka / Fiifi – David Ajao; Kwabena / Brian / Fabrice / Olawale – Peter Bankolé; Wallace / Timothy / Mohammed / Tinashe – Tuwaine Barrett; Musa / Andile / Mensah – Maynard Eziashi; Samuel – Bayo Gbadamosi; Winston / Shoni – Martins Imhangbe; Tokunbo / Paul / Simphiwe – Patrice Naiambana; Emmanuel – Cyril Nri; Ethan – Kwami Odoom; Elnathan / Benjamin / Dwain – Sule Rimi; Kwame / Simon / Wole – Abdul Salis; Abram / Ohene / Sizwe – David Webber.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

Though I was unable to follow about 60% of the dialogue, because of the dialects and accents of most of the characters in Barber Shop Chronicles, the importance of the story still came through. 

People from post-colonial Africa, particularly in this play from Nigeria (now Niger, pronounced Nijair), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Uganda and South Africa, for many different reasons left their homes and settled in Britain.  Inua Ellems, born in Nigeria, has become a significant “cross-art-form practitioner: a poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist, designer”.  His concern in this play is the state of play among the current community of first and second generation African immigrants, especially the men struggling to make their way in Britain.

Their barber shops are hardly a source of much wealth, especially since their customers are almost entirely from this small community, trying to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (to use a phrase common in the England of my childhood there, after the Great Depression and World War II).  But it is in these barber shops, run and frequented, of course, only by men, that issues like their relationships with women – their wives in particular – and the younger generation, who know little about the past histories of their parents; and their attitudes about their home countries and the politics there still today, become sources of constant talk, argument, conflict – and hopefully some kind of accommodation.

Though I could follow little of the details (for example of old prejudices about Ibo and Yoruba in Nigeria; of differences of views about Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe and the future now he is no longer President; or of the conflicting views about Nelson Mandela as a failure or great man in South Africa), I began to see the barber shops as a kind of TRC – a Truth and Reconcilation Commission, especially for the younger generation to be told disturbing truths about what their parents had done, to survive and escape in the turmoil of the past.  They may be ‘free’ in England, but no-one can escape their past except by knowing, acknowledging, and becoming reconciled with others, even with those who had previously kept the past secret as protection – and even with a parent who has died without revealing the truth to his son.

After many scenes in different barbers’ shops – the scene-changes are represented by lighting up their advertising signs, and accompanied by powerful African harmonic group singing and dancing – the play ends on a positive note for the central young man as he realises and comes to understand the truth about his father’s past, and is able now to treat his community’s elders with respect, as an equal.

Photos by Prudence Upton

 Changing moods in the Barber Shop Chronicals

Because of the, for me, overwhelming complexity of the relationships between such a huge range of characters, with so many actors doubling up, I am unable to name who played those final roles.  But in the end, I suggest that this doesn’t really matter, in the sense that the play is about the community as a whole rather than about individual personal tragedies and successes.

In this way, the play has universal significance.  We all, in whatever community we see ourselves belonging to, need to understand, appreciate and come to terms with everyone’s trials, tribulations and attempts at resolutions, however close to or far away from completion during our lifetimes.  The joy expressed so excitingly in the whole group’s singing and dancing which linked the scenes and stimulated such applause at the end, said it all.

Barber Shop Chronicles changing scenes

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2018: The Wider Earth

Emily Burton, Tom Conroy, Thomas Larkin
The Wider Earth by Writer / Director / Co-Designer / Puppet Designer David Morton.  Sydney Festival: Queensland Theatre and Dead Puppet Society co-presented with Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre, January 6 – 28, 2018.

Dead Puppet Society acknowledges St Ann’s Warehouse as the original development partner.

Creative Producer / Puppet Fabricator – Nicholas Paine; Co-Designer – Aaron Barton; Lighting Designer – David Walters; Co-Composer – Lior; Co-Composer – Tony Buchen; Sound Designer – Tony Brumpton; AV/Animation Designer – Justin Harrison; Dramaturg – Louise Gough.

Assistant Puppet Coach – Helen Stephens; Voice and Dialect Coach – Melissa Agnew; Illustrator (AV) and Puppet Arting – Anna Straker; Puppet Fabricator – Matthew Seery; Puppet Arting – Jen Livingstone; Puppet Fabricator (Secondment) – Tia-Hanee Cleary.

Technical Manager – Sam Maher; Stage Manager – Nicole Neil.

Cast: (alphabetical order)
Margi Brown Ash – Reverend John Henslow; Emily Burton – Emma Wedgwood; Tom Conroy – Charles Darwin; Thomas Larkin – John Wickham; David Lynch – Richard Matthews / Robert Darwin / John Herschel; Anthony Standish – Robert Fitzroy; Jaime Ureta – Jemmy Button.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 20

Photos by Jamie Williams

The set design for The Wider Earth
Video screen above, the full width of the stage
The revolve showing one aspect used for on board The Beagle and other locations,
here on Galapagos

 “If your theory is fit, it will survive.” – David Morton, whose  The Wider Earth is that wonderful, all too rare theatre in which form and content are unified.  What’s more it’s a great example of the art of communicating science.

Even though Charles Darwin himself began a perpetual misunderstanding by writing that evolution is the “survival of the ‘fittest’” – which uncomprehending people ever since have interpreted as meaning ‘biggest and strongest’ – at last, in this grand theatrical story of Darwin’s moment of epiphany, we get the real picture.  The procession of evolving new species and extinction of others is all about the often tiny changes in all the small parts which at any moment in time fit together to make up the whole.

Dead Puppet Society’s Morton, thanking the Queensland Theatre “who were responsible for elevating this project from a playful exploration into a fully-fledged work”, states his hopes – that I say he has fully achieved – writing “The Wider Earth is a work of fiction drawn loosely from the historical record.  It takes memories of real people, places and events and passes them through the lens of myth.  Some may call it blasphemous.  Others may caution that the simplicity of the tale undermines the real work of its hero.  I hope it might stand as a celebration of the incredible complexity of our planet, and go some way towards humanising the part played by those brave enough to stand against the dominant thought of their time.”

It’s exciting to see the mystery of art in action.  Can you imagine making clear the scientific thinking process Darwin went through on his first trip around the world in The Beagle, as he observed and was almost trapped in volcanic eruptions in the Land of Fires (Tierra del Fuego) on the tip of South America, returning to England finally after five years (via the Galapagos, Hobart and Cape Town) – using a revolving stage, a video projector, a few coloured lights, a sound system, a few (expensive) actors that you can dress up, and the idea that animals can be represented by puppets on the ends of sticks, visibly manipulated by actors when they’re not doing something else?

If you find it hard to see how you would do it, then it would take me pages of writing to describe.  It’s a great shame if you can’t get to see it for yourself, but all I can say is this team have done it! That’s why I’ve listed all their names, to show how huge the task has been – and how amazing that all these people could make David Morton’s ‘fiction’ tell a truth which has fundamentally changed our understanding of life on earth.

The Wider Earth is a Wider Understanding of ourselves.  Please try not to miss it.  I hope it can continue to be played long after the end of this season in only 8 days’ time.

Darwin with his favourite beagle in
The Wider Earth

Darwin examines an iguanadon on Galapagos
in The Wider Earth

Darwin feeds a turtle on Galapagos
in The Wider Earth

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

2018: Alice in Wonderland - No 2

Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Jason Pizzarello from the story by Lewis Carroll, with additional material from Alice Through the Looking Glass, and original music and songs by Peter Best.

Ickle Pickle Productions at Belconnen Theatre, Canberra, January 12 – 20, 2018.

Director – Jordan Best; Choreography – Talisha Jackson; Set Design and Scenic Art –
Steven Galinec; Costume Design – Fiona Leach; Makeup Design – Janette Humphrey; Graphic Design – Jenny Watson; Sound Design – Jordan Best; Original Design Concept – Wayne Shepherd

Alice – Sarah O’Neil; Alice #2 – Emily O’Brien; White Rabbit – Jade Breen;
Mad Hatter – Jim Adamik; Cheshire Cat – Nicole Carr; March Hare – Oliver Johnstone; Dormouse – William Best;
TweedleDee – Brenton Cleaves; TweedleDum – Kay Liddiard; Queen of Hearts – Alex MacPherson; King of Hearts – Janie Lawson; Duchess – Shaylie Maskell;
Two of Hearts – Jack Morton; Five of Hearts – Joss Kent; Seven of Hearts – Callum Doherty; Knave of Hearts – Joe Moores;
Cook / Mock Turtle – Eryn Marshall; Caterpillar – Caitlin Simkin; Humpty Dumpty – Lucy O’Sullivan;
Old Squirrel – Jim Tweddle; General – Bailey Lutton; Fish Footman – Jacinta Rush; Frog Footman – Bianca Lawson; Flower (Rose) – Kellee-Rose Hand; Flower (Tiger Lily) – Zoe Lee-Archer; Executioner – Aron Tweddle.

Ensemble: Aimee Halley, Alysandra Grant, Annabelle Ferrington, Ella Colquhoun, Sabine Zen, Layla Wilson, Victoria Hunt, Reba Nelson, Erica Karlstrom.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 16

Jordan Best’s Alice is definitively aged 10 years and 9 months.  Humpty Dumpty tells her “I should have stayed at 10.  But it’s too late now.”  And promptly falls off the wall, “never to be put back together again”.  Alice notes that the line is too long for the poem.  Like so much of her experience down the rabbit hole, it doesn’t fit.

Before the age of 10 she lived in a naïve kind of wonderland, thoroughly engrossed in reading storybooks; now she lives in a new growing-up land making her wonder about all sorts of things, from how we know who we are, how we know what’s true, to how we know what’s right. 

Best splits her Alice into two: the one in her dream keeps chasing but can never catch up with the one who fell asleep in the real world.  But they meet in the court of justice, and sing with the whole cast in the finale of a world where we all live together.  All put back together again, as a family, in a fitting song, I Wonder, by Jordan’s father, film composer Peter Best (Crocodile Dundee and Muriel’s Wedding) while her husband, Jim Adamik, perhaps ironically, makes a wonderful Mad Hatter  – and not forgetting their son, William, always asleep as the Dormouse.

This is genuine community theatre, in the Belconnen Community Centre, for our local audience of young families and the occasional oldie like me.  It doesn’t matter that not all the performers have polished technical skills – what’s essential is their commitment, enthusiasm, and appreciation of the purpose in putting on such a meaningful play.  In fact, though, the younger players matched those of greater acting years and experience very well, while Talisha Jackson’s choreography kept the show moving – with, I thought, a special highlight being the dance/movement work by Nicole Carr as the Cheshire Cat.

The sound design – also by Jordan Best – used a mix of recorded background music (between the music for the songs) which oddly worked – taking us back in time to early 20th Century ragtime, and particularly to the song Ain’t She Sweet? (composed by Milton Ager, lyrics by Jack Yellen, 1927).  Perhaps the question in mind was how sweet is Alice, at least in her dream form, when she refuses to accept the Queen of Hearts’ autocratic idea of justice?

The set design also worked very well, especially considering the limitations of this theatre, allowing for much rapid movement on and off stage for such a large cast and ensemble, with a simple device of roll-on flats for scene changes, keeping the show literally rolling along.  And lighting was nicely done, with changing colour spots making the move from the real to the dream and back again – again a simple device, but all that was needed.

Overall, then, this Alice in Wonderland is a highly satisfying piece of community theatre, with significance beyond the merely local: more than mere entertainment, and certainly an enjoyable evening.  Different, of course, from this week’s commercial Alice in Wonderland No 1 touring at the Canberra Theatre Centre (reviewed here January 14), but in some ways more fitting.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 13 January 2018

2018: Alice in Wonderland - No 1

Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Penny Farrow from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with additional material from Alice Through the Looking-Glass and Rhyme? And Reason? by Lewis Carroll.

Produced by Rapidfire International Inc (USA) in association with Boyd Productions Pty Ltd (Melbourne)  on tour at Canberra Theatre Centre, January 14, 2018.

Director – Penny Farrow; Production Designer – Zachary Lieberman; Lighting Designer – Sam Gibb; Costume Designer – Zachary Lieberman; Puppets by Deiter Barry Creations.

Alice – Georgina Walker; White Rabbit – Jacqui McLaren; Queen of Hearts – Simon Burvill-Holmes; Mad Hatter – Karen Crone; March Hare – Liam Nunan; Dormouse/Caterpillar – Jackson McGovern; Tweedle Dum – Merlyn Tong; Tweedle Dee – Tamara Meade; Cheshire Cat – Simon Burvill-Holmes / Jackson McGovern.
Narrators – Ensemble

Reviewed by Frank McKone

This version of Alice in Wonderland is essentially straight theatre.  It has a Prologue, including parts of The Hunting of the Snark, as Alice falls asleep and begins to dream of tulgey woods and a white rabbit with a stop-watch; and ends with an Epilogue as she re-awakes – and yet still seems to see the same white rabbit hurrying away off-stage.

In Scene 1, miming very effectively creates Alice’s falling down the rabbit-hole, and her shrinking enough to use the tiny key in the tiny door into Wonderland, where characters are created in a combination of extraordinary costumes and puppet figures in

Scene 2 – Advice from a Caterpillar about who she thinks she really is.  (His hookah doesn’t produce smoke, and was probably a complete mystery to modern very much non-smoking Canberra children);
Scene 3 – Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, where Alice learns about language and logic;
Scene 4 – A Mad Tea Party, where logic simply doesn’t apply;
Scene 5 – A Rattle Battle, where Alice shows the Tweedles that fighting over inconsequential issues is unnecessary;
Scene 6 – A Game of Croquet, where the Queen of Hearts always wins and continually orders executions for losers and questioners, extending into
Scene 7 – Who Stole the Tarts?, where the rule of law means whatever the Queen thinks is ‘evidence’, even though Alice can see that no evidence is ever presented.

It’s just as well Alice wakes up at this point, considering where her logic might take her – presumably about Queen Victoria in the days of the author, who was really the mathematician and logician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (d.1898); while we have plenty of weird interpretations of ‘rule of law’ in modern times, even among elected prima donnas.

The characterisation of Alice by Georgina Walker was a key (not so tiny) to the success of this production.  She is a very skilful mover, not only literally as a dancer but as an upfront thinking Alice who won’t take nonsense for an answer – including making it perfectly clear that she is not afraid of the bully Queen, and tells it to her face.  Definitely a role model for the modern woman, but in fact for any of the children in the audience.  Not all of the nearly full theatre were old enough to follow all the intellectual argument (two in fact were made afraid by the hunting of the snark), but even the very young could not but be impressed by Alice’s determination.

The rest of the cast, of course, provided the platform and surroundings for Walker to perform on and bounce off, in costumes and a set design that made it all work.  The only quibble I have was with the use of microphones, though I recognise the difficult choice in a 1244 seat theatre.  Miking inevitably takes away the sense of direct communication with the actors, making it harder to feel empathy with the characters.

Walker and Simon Burvill-Holmes as the Queen were the most effective in making their voices rounded and more personal (and perhaps they had the best-scripted parts for doing this).  For children’s education in theatre – and after all that’s surely an important motivation in presenting Alice in Wonderland – their human connection with the people (and their characters) on stage needs to be enhanced.  I’m not sure that even modern technology can quite do the trick.

However I’m pleased to have seen this ‘straight’ approach to Lewis Carroll and the originality of incorporating the poems.  It will be interesting to see the other two productions showing this week, one in Canberra and one in Sydney, in comparison.

Georgina Walker, Liam Nuna, Jackson McGovern and Karen Crone as
L to R: Alice, March Hare, Dormouse and Mad Hatter in
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, adapted by Penny Farrow

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 23 December 2017

2017: Deepspace, by choreographer James Batchelor

Deepspace created by James Batchelor and Collaborators.  Canberra Theatre Centre, Playhouse, December 23, 2017 

Choreographer: James Batchelor
Performers: James Batchelor, Chloe Chignell/Amber McCartney
Visual Artist: Annalise Rees
Sound Design: Morgan Hickinbotham

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Deep was the space of the empty black stage of the Canberra Playhouse.  Deep the performances must have been for the creator and performers.  But little was meaningful to me, even though I could walk around respectfully with the other several dozen observers for very close-up or more distant angles of view.

I describe the work as a literal exercise of the imagination: intense and mostly oh-so-slow exercise on the performers’ parts, while my imagination was working flat-out trying to make anything out of what they were doing. 

Having read that this was the result of Batchelor’s and Rees’ trip on an Antarctic marine research vessel, I thought I saw some movements reminiscent of the sea sway I had experienced on the good ship Otranto for 36 days (London to Sydney in 1954).  I also saw some some oddly shaped white pieces of board they used to roll a little ball around on, which might have represented icebergs. 

Unfortunately that made me see the rest of my crowd as a “colony, a rookery or a Waddle” of penguins [see ], which rather defeated the apparently serious purpose of the performers, who became for me tourists disrespectfully disturbing the penguins who were forced to move away and regroup as their space was invaded.

The rolling of balls became some sort of theme, from the two they tossed off the stage near the beginning, which were retrieved towards the end; the large plastic blown up beach ball which the woman rolled up and over the man; the little ball rolled around and then off one “iceberg” to the other (and which mysteriously disappeared); and the row of little balls the woman carefully placed along the spine of the man (lying on his front) which with extraordinary flexibility he made roll from his lower back to between his shoulders and back again, and forward again and off over one shoulder.  One of these was then picked up between the woman’s two index fingers (on separate hands) and slowly rolled around each finger (amazingly without being dropped) while the man used a small mirror to reflect a beam of light from an above stage spotlight onto her ball, which she eventually raised and moved until she stuck it in her ear.

Somewhere in this activity must have been the intention which James Batchelor explains as follows: “The expedition was an environment where art and science as research were occurring simultaneously. What then is the relationship between art and science? How do these practices contribute to or interrogate one another? What are the potential platforms for art and science to engage with people today and in the future? These are ongoing questions that Deepspace is concerned with.”
[ ]

Having seen Deepspace, those questions remain ongoing.

However one aspect of the performance interested me, following my interest in my teaching days in Rudolf Laban [ see if you need to get a good picture].  In my interpretation, Laban’s work showed how movement, especially between two people, can form its own kind of ‘movement grammar’, so that each position seems to have been a natural result from the previous position, and can be followed naturally to the next position.  It’s rather like two people having a conversation in the same language: you respond to what I say, and I respond to what you said.  A sentence might form this way (a series of movements initiated by one person) but significantly a kind of mysterious wholistic conversation can happen; which in movement can incorporate many more performers than just two.

At the beginning of this kind of work, it will be improvisation, but the result can be a dance which may look quite fascinating to watch.  The meaning, though, can be apparent only to the dancers who have brought this unique language into being.

Whether consciously or not, this is what James Batchelor and his Collaborators have done.  Some among the observers remained apparently transfixed until the nearly 70 minute end; others remained polite but bemused; because I had read that in Melbourne it had run for 40 minutes, I became more distant – if not entirely bored – after that time, until the ball bearing episode took my attention near the end; no-one walked out as far as I could see (which wasn’t always very far between the penguins).

So I leave you with ongoing questions, not only about how art and science relate, but even about this particular example of performance art.

Since no program or media material was provided at the show, I acknowledge the two following images:

Contemporary dancers James Batchelor and Amber McCartney in 'Deepspace'.
Photo: Jamila Toderas

by Bree Winchester:

James Batchelor with 'iceberg'
 © Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 21 December 2017

2017: Paper Cuts by Kirsty Budding

Paper Cuts, written and directed by Kirsty Budding.  Launch of Paper Cuts: Comedic and Satirical Monologues for Audition or Performance, published by Blemish Books, Canberra.  Canberra Theatre Centre, Courtyard Studio, December 21, 2017.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

I began to take notes as ‘Emcee’ Jasper Lindell got us underway with some mildly amusing banter, but soon realised that I was sounding (to myself) just like the rather unfunny Rob Defries performing the first of the 30 monologues as an extremely old-fashioned, I presume amateur, Director giving his Notes to his cast before opening night of a Birth of Jesus Christmas play.

So I forgot about trying to review, by my count, 28 performers of 30 of the 36 monologues in Kirsty Budding’s book, and decided to focus on the overall success of the event – in effect, a new use of theatre to launch a theatrical book.  The ploy, the commercial or unpaid status of which I am not sure about, certainly filled the Courtyard Studio with an enthusiastic crowd – including two who bid up a framed poster of the book and a signed-by-the-cast copy of the book to $150 each, to be donated to the RSPCA.

The original thought on Budding’s part was to write a new up-to-date book of monologues “as an accessible resource for performers of all ages and dramatic interests, with lengths ranging from 1 to 7 minutes covering a spectrum that includes physical comedy, light-hearted humour rooted in realism, black comedy, and satire.”  That’s a tall order in itself.

The next original idea was to act out what has turned out to be a large proportion of the items in book, with book sales by Blemish Books at interval, the charity auction to kick off the second fifteen, and a post-launch party to round out the night.  I can’t comment on the party, and I haven’t checked how many books were sold, but the sessions in the theatre went off pretty well.

Since the monologues were designed for people to use as audition pieces, the evidence on stage was a bit tainted for serious judgement from a critic.  Among the actors were those very well-known, well-known, not so well-known, or even almost entirely unknown around Canberra’s theatre traps.  There were some pieces which seemed to me to be cleverly put together for comedic effect, such as Helen Way’s Disturbed Dance Instructor or Cameron Thomas’ Things I Hate, which concluded the first and second halves respectively; some which may have been better written than they seemed, such as The Actor severely overplayed by Patrick Galen-Mules; and some, like the opening Director’s Notes, which were without much to offer either way.

Perhaps the one showing most maturity was Gertrude’s Sweetheart, played to great effect by Phillip Mackenzie.  The ageing resident’s success in defeating his equally ageing superficial unethical rival for the hand of Gertrude, herself aged to the point of second teenage-hood, genuinely won the hearts of the audience, fulfilling the author’s hope of writing “light-hearted humour rooted in realism”.

Of course, my age may cause me to be biassed, and it’s true that much of the modern twitter about selfies on Facebook which got laughs, more or less bypassed me, but the question I came away with is about the purpose of the theatre presentation.

My own book on auditioning (for theatre training rather than for parts in plays) also may by now be old hat, but the key to choosing really useful audition pieces must be that each demands a great depth of the actor in personal understanding to create a fully-developed character (or show that the actor could with good direction); while the actor also needs a vehicle to demonstrate performance skills and understanding of theatrical style.

It’s often better, then, to choose a speech from the middle of a great play, which provides all that context.  Pieces written specifically for auditioning, but without all those before and after connections, have to be remarkably well written.  Watching many of the Paper Cuts items seemed to me to be a bit like watching a night at the Comedy Club, full of short-lived stand-up comedians – only some of whom were clever enough to absolutely engage the audience beyond the immediate laughter.

I guess the two examples in recent times who demonstrate my point are Tom Gleeson and Maggie McKenna.  To write an audition piece to match Gleeson’s scripting and improvisation for another actor would be a rare work of art; and to watch the ABC’s Making Muriel is to show what an auditionee needs.

So Paper Cuts provided an interesting evening and some new thoughts about using theatre for advertising and promotion.  In the end, though, each actor-in-waiting must select carefully from a very wide range, perhaps including but also certainly from far beyond this book.

Helen Way as Disturbed Dance Instructor
in Paper Cuts by Kirsty Budding

Cameron Thomas performing Things I Hate
in Paper Cuts by Kirsty Budding

Phillip Mackenzie performing Gertrude's Sweetheart
in Paper Cuts by Kirsty Budding

Frank McKone’s First Audition: how to get into drama school was published by Currency Press, Sydney, 2002.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 7 December 2017

2017: Muriel's Wedding - The Musical by PJ Hogan

Muriel’s Wedding - The Musical, based on the movie by PJ Hogan.  Book by PJ Hogan; Music and Lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall, with songs by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus & Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA.

Sydney Theatre Company with Global Creatures Production at Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 6  - January 27, 2017/18.

Directed by Simon Phillips
Technical Director – Richard Martin; Musical Director (orchestrations, arrangements & additional music) – Isaac Hayward; Resident Director / Choreographer – Ellen Simpson

Music Supervisor – Guy Simpson; Sound Designer – Michael Waters; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Set & Costume Designer – Gabriela Tylesova; Choreographer – Andrew Hallsworth

Muriel Heslop – Maggie McKenna; Rhonda Epinstall – Madeleine Jones; Bill Heslop – Gary Sweet; Betty Heslop – Justine Clark; Deidre Chambers – Helen Dallimore

Brice Nobes – Ben Bennett; Joanie Heslop – Briallen Clarke; Nicole Stumpf – Hilary Cole; Ken Blundell – Dave Eastgate; Cheryl Moochmore – Manon Gunderson-Briggs; Agnetha Fäitskog – Jaime Hadwen; Anni-Frid Lyngstad – Sheridan Harbridge; Björn Ulvaeus – Mark Hill; Alexander Shkuratov – Stephen Madsen; Charlie Chan – Kenneth Moraleda; Janine Nutall – Laura Murphy; Malcolm Heslop – Connor Sweeney; Benny Andersson – Aaron Tsindos; Perry Heslop – Michael Whalley; Tania Degano – Christie Whelan Browne

Annie Aitken, Prue Bell, Kaeng Chan, Tony Cogin, Caroline Kaspar, Adrian Li Donni, Luigi Lucente, Tom Sharah

Isaac Hayward (Keyboard 1); Luke Byrne (Keyboard 2); Cameron Henderson (Guitar 1); Gary Vickery (Guitar 2 / Keyboard 3); Vanessa Tammetta (Violin / Viola); Clare Kahn (Cello); Emile Nelson (Electric / Double / Synth Bass); Steven Pope (Drums); Tim Paillas (Percussion)

Maggie McKenna as Muriel Heslop
with The Bouquet
Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 6

ABBA’s songs are used better in Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical than in Mamma Mia!, the Musical.  It’s hard not to compare the two.  Mamma Mia! cleverly weaves the story around 22 songs, introduces significant issues about men’s behaviour and women’s proper treatment, but ends in marriages all round – feels good but a bit too easy considering the less attractive reality expressed in some of ABBA’s more serious songs.

Muriel’s Wedding, especially in PJ Hogan’s updating of his movie script, and the black edge to the excruciatingly funny numbers, using seven of ABBA’s songs among the very witty songs – verbally and musically – by Miller-Heidke and Nuttall, creates a much more powerful effect.

Where Mamma Mia! is a highly enjoyable romantic comedy with some worthwhile social commentary along the way, Muriel’s Wedding focusses on exposing crucial issues of some men’s destructive behaviour, both in the family and at the political levels.  At her mother’s funeral, Muriel shows how she has grown up through the experience; so have her sister and brothers – and so have we.

The satire is funny – often terribly funny – because Muriel (but absolutely not her father) comes to understand how she has changed; while Mamma Mia!’s Sophie Sheridan quite simply gets what she hopes for, while her mother rekindles an old flame without her script providing any justification, apart from the romance of ‘falling in love again’.

Mamma Mia!’s women want to be independent and strong, but are waylaid by love.  Muriel and Rhonda, facing the horror of cancer – impossible to predict and probably incurable – learn what love really entails, gain in strength, and strengthen our understanding.  Hogan’s quality of drama is not strained.

In comparing these two very Australian productions, both have everything going for them on stage; but, for me at least, Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical gets an extra guernsey: the story of corruption and the satirical contrast of typical Aussie sexist culture in Porpoise Spit with the wild variety of the Sydney city scene has freed the designers to let themselves go.

A typical Mondrian painting

The stage design opens in primary colours, turning into edgy plain Mondrian-style art, against which Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes riotously explode – on the beach, in Oxford Street, under the Harbour Bridge, on the Opera House forecourt,  in every wedding dress shop you can imagine, at a tropical island resort, inside the Heslop lounge room watching tv, outside before and after Betty sets it on fire: scene after scene until the funeral service, where stark black takes over from frothy white.  This is design with emblemetic purpose, a drama in its own right.  A work of art – very specifically modern Australian art from John Brack through Brett Whiteley to Tylesova herself.

Beach scene in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical
Set and costumes designed by Gabriela Tyselova

Gabriela Tyselova's designs for 'Misfits of Sydney'
for Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

In some ways the choreography in Mamma Mia! from a ‘pure’ dance point of view was more original and complex, and therefore could be seen as more entertaining; yet Andrew Hallsworth and Ellen Simpson have exaggerated the dance and movement work in a way that make so much fun of Australian characters that we just could not stop laughing.  Somewhere behind our recognition was the old cartoon, “Stop laughing, this is serious!”, which has been picked up by the ABC in its series on the history of Australian comedy [ ] .

Ben Bennett as Brice Nobes
Design by Gabriela Tyselova
for Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

After the design, there’s the more than difficult job of praising individual actors, since no-one among the principals and the ensemble lost their footing – which they might well have done literally in such a fast moving production, which outshone the movie for set and costume changes with the cameras in our eyes permanently turned on. 

I’m sure everyone agreed with me that the long search which finally lighted upon Maggie McKenna for Muriel was well worth the extra effort, which we saw played out on ABCtv  in Making Muriel, broadcast on November 26, and still available on iView until December 26.  McKenna’s voice has the full range needed for the singing, while her acting superbly captured each mood, especially in the more complex situations where Muriel finds herself divided several different ways at once.

Maggie McKenna as Muriel Heslop
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

The groupies like Tania, Cheryl, Nicole and Janine were absolutely wonderful comedians throughout (comediennes? – or is that not politically correct nowadays), and were absolutely but accurately ghastly in their nasty unwillingness to accept Muriel, in the song Can’t Hang – about with us any more! 

Then the mystical silvery-white ABBAs, in Muriel’s and later her mother Betty’s imaginations, seemed to me, relying on my distant memory, to perform with as much elan as the originals in that faraway Eurovision contest in 1974. 

Christie Whelan Browne, Manon Gunderson-Briggs,
Hilary Cole, Laura Murphy (maybe not in correct order)
as Tania Degano, Cheryl Moochmore, Nicole Stumpf and Janine Nuttall
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

Briallen Clarke, Michael Whalley, Connor Sweeney
as Joanie, Perry and Malcolm Heslop
in the lounge room watching tv
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

There’s far too much to cover here – I’m almost writing a thesis, already – but I have to say that it was Justine Clarke’s Betty, when she finally could no longer cope in the face of her husband’s calumny, who turned our feelings over, and turned the play around as the ABBAs sang SOS, and we realised what that meant.

And, of course, I haven’t mentioned what really happened when Muriel married.

What Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical does is to tie together the three strings of comedy, serious social criticism and personal growth through tragic experience to make a top quality theatrical work, which should well satisfy those of us concerned about ‘conservative’ programming by the ‘majors’ which I’ve previously discussed in Platform Papers commentaries. 

If Mamma Mia! The Musical is not to be missed, then Muriel’s Wedding, The Musical must not be missed even more.

Maggie McKenna and Justine Clarke
as Muriel and her mother Betty Heslop
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 2 December 2017

2017: Tristan: A Song for a Superior Man by Chenoeh Miller

Raoul Craemer
Photo by Andrew Sikorski
Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man.  Written and Directed by Chenoeh Miller.  Little Dove Theatre Art at Ralph Wilson Theatre, Gorman House Arts Centre, Canberra, December 1-3, 2017.

Co-written and performed by Chris Endrey, Nick Delatovic, Oliver Levi-Malouf, Raoul Craemer and Erica Field.

Composition and Sound Design by Dane Alexander; Dance Choreography by Alison Plevey and Oliver Levi-Malouf; Technical Design and Operation by Ben Atkinson – The Sound Workshop; Technical Support by Gregor Murray and Shannon Jackson.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 2

This work, starting from the idea of ‘hero’, explores the breakdown of a man’s mental stability in the face of expectations of being a ‘man’, and the possibility of his rebuilding himself as a ‘good man’.  Though I am not a pop song aficionado, I think Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero was the theme for the first dance piece, which stirred the pot by being energetically danced by a figure dressed and made up convincingly as a female, later to be surprisingly revealed as a male.

The theatrical form is uncompromisingly expressionist.  Raoul Craemer presents the ‘Tristan’ model, pumping iron as we enter the theatre, and when exhausted, describes his breakdown as literally burning from his feet up to his heart, in a room beset by thunder and rain, waiting for the roof to fall in, and the rainwater to douse and save him.  But the roof, he tells us before fading into the dark upstage, falls in too late.

Then, for about an hour, we follow bits and pieces of men’s stories of their experiences of becoming and being ‘men’, based – we are told – on responses to a survey asking a wide range of men in our community questions such as have you ever been violent, or been the object of violence, and others about their feelings about themselves and their relationships.  In developing the work from the original script by Chenoeh Miller, the performers incorporated some of their own experiences as well.

Much of the work is expressed in semi-dance movement, using background recorded songs, and a lengthy recording of a woman speaking about the process of trying to understand and articulate the contrasting roles of women and men; while Erica Field, dressed as a woman, is on stage as a visual focus for us as we listen to the hesitancies and difficulties in the woman’s explanation.

Finally, Craemer reappears, and describes his growth and reconstruction as a new ‘Tristan’.  He then goes to each of the figures at that point prostrate on the floor and revives them, including the woman dressed in male attire, with care, respect, and indications of love.

There is also an appropriate degree of humour in the piece, as men appear from behind doors with unexpected anecdotes to lighten the intensity of the struggle to understand their role as ‘men’.

I’ve used quote marks here to emphasise that Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man is about the concept of manhood, and how it might be interpreted.  Though so much concerned with ideas, and therefore properly using expressionism as its style, some sections effectively stir our emotions – especially the early scene of conflict in a marriage imposed on both the man and the woman by unintended pregnancy; and again in the feeling of hope in Raoul Craemer’s performance of the final scene.

Though I could not class this work as thoroughly polished, in the sense that it needs a clearer and stronger through-line as a piece of theatre, the individual performances, choreography and the exploratory concept make the show worthwhile viewing.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 30 November 2017

2017: Mamma Mia! - Australian Tour

Stephen Mahy and Sarah Morrison
as Sky and Sophie
Photo by Peter Brew-Bevan
Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with some songs by Stig Anderson.  Book by Catherine Johnson from an original conception by Judy Craymer.

Canberra Theatre Centre, November 24 – December 17.  Gala Opening November 30, 2017.

Director – Gary Young; Choreographer – Tom Dogson; Musical Supervisor – Stephen Amos; Set Design – Linda Bewick; Costume Design – Suzy Strout; Lighting Design – Gavan Swift – Sound Design – Michael Waters

Principal Cast (in order of speaking)
Sophie Sheridan – Sarah Morrison; Ali – Monique Sallé; Lisa – Jessica di Costa; Tanya – Jayde Westaby; Rosie – Alicia Gardiner; Donna Sheridan – Natalie O’Donnell; Sky – Stephen Mahy; Pepper – Sam Hooper; Eddie – Alex Gibson-Georgio; Harry Bright – Phillip Lowe; Bill Austin – Josef Ber; Sam Carmichael – Ian Stenlake; Father Alexandrios – Stephen Anderson

with an 18-strong chorus ensemble.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 30

There are many ways to judge a musical.  Audience participation last night would have meant dancing in the aisles, if only there had been room.  We appreciatively applauded after every song-and-dance number – except, of course, as Donna retreated from Sam’s advances in Winner Takes All.  I think the full complement of 1239 bums on seats stood up, jigged in time, clapped, screamed, whistled and waved arms about for the encores in perhaps the most enthusiastic response from traditionally cynical Canberrans that I can remember.

But I think there’s more to Mamma Mia! than a mere immediate enthusiasm.  The program has a neat history of “The Show that Won Over the World” by Dewynters London asking, “So why has the show struck such a chord with audiences around the world?”  But the obvious answers, offered by Judy Craymer, of “feel good factor”, audiences who “recognise themselves in the characters”, and ABBA’s music are not enough to explain the response of Canberra’s audience – equally mixed across the board from young to old, from those who would be regulars to Bell Shakespeare to young clubbers I might see at Comedy Club venues.

Mamma Mia! has become a kind of “popular opera”, which is different from traditional operas and the general run of musicals, written by a composer (or two) and a librettist.  Weaving a story out of a selection of previously written and very well-known songs places this work into a slot in what is nowadays a world-wide culture.  After all even Australia has presented songs in the Eurovision Song extravaganza, which was always widely multicultural and is likely to expand its reach in future even unto Asia, I understand.

For this Craymer, Catherine Johnson and, of course, the composer Andersson and lyricists Ulvaeus and Anderson should be recognised for making an original contribution.  Of course, the further question might be, for how long will it remain as a leader in its “musical” field?  This is Mamma Mia!’s second tour of Australia (previously 16 years ago in 2001), with a brand new thoroughly Australian design and production team – a good sign for a continuing life.

Could it last a hundred, or even four hundred years?  Well, it might.  I’ll suggest two comparisons, which you may find unexpected.

Alicia Gardiner, Natalie O'Donnell, Jayde Westaby
as Rosie, Donna Sheridan, Tanya
in Mamma Mia!
Photo by James Morgan

Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe, Jose Ber
as Sam Carmichael, Harry Bright, Bill Austin
in Mamma Mia!
Photo by James Morgan

First, there are Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.  What a shame he never thought of a daughter searching for her three possible fathers, inviting them without her mother knowing, and ending up with her mother “giving her away” in a conclusion with four marriages: the daughter to her lover; her mother to one possible father, Sam; Bill marrying Rosie; and the other possible father, Harry, marrying a man called Lawrence!

Just as William at the end of the 16th Century played with and queried the role of women in personal, economic and political life of his time, using humour, song and dance, so Mamma Mia! has a similar part to play at the end of the 20th Century.  Shakespeare gave us The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Taming of the Shrew, and even The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night.  Mamma Mia! we might exclaim!

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been made into operas, but one other opera takes up the economic and personal/political issues like Mamma Mia!, and has a parallel history concerning the impact of its music.  John Bell’s recent production of Carmen was especially significant for using the music to tell the woman’s story, rather than concentrating the audience on wallowing indulgently in the fascinating Spanish dance.  Bizet wrote the opera as a new form of social criticism in 1875, but untimely died as the 32nd performance ended, preventing him from objecting to later productions which became all about the music.

Watching Mamma Mia! I realised how many in the audience were focussed on ABBA’s songs, applauding after each like an opera audience applauds each aria.  But we cannot fail to see the point in Donna’s story, bringing up Sophie without needing any of the three men who might have been Sophie’s father.  Her recognition in the end of her love for Sam is clearly made a separate issue: so she can marry for love, but not for submission; and the same is true for Sophie in marrying Sky; with the added modern twist of Harry – just in time for the passing of the same-sex marriage law.

The third element of judgement must be about not just the standard of the acting, singing, dancing and band performances, but about how well the directing and design worked for the type of drama being presented.

This show was excellent on all counts.  The choreography was much more fascinating to watch than some I found on Youtube, and executed with tremendous energy and vivid life which made the show almost bounce off the stage.  The straight acting by Sarah Morrison, Natalie O’Donnell and the four men (the ‘fathers’ and Sky) was well done, including what can be problematic – the transitions from speaking to singing.  The engagement with the audience was never lost.  Then the comic acting by everyone was wonderfully done – deliberately overplayed to exactly the right degree, always with a certain ironic humour, which comes from being an Australian show, I think.

On the music side I had only one – actually two – brief moments of concern.  All the band’s work for the songs seemed to me to be spot on as I felt they should be to be consistent with the ABBA musicianship and style.  But the two overtures, apart from being far too loud (while levels during the show were mainly very good for clarity, only sometimes dominating the voices a bit); the overtures included harmonies which seemed to me to be out of tune with Benny Andersson’s orchestration.  On each occasion, I thought someone was trying to introduce a kind of imitation ‘modern’ or even ‘post-modern’ off-colour dissonance, even if only for a few bars. 

Maybe there was an idea of saying, the story of Donna is not all harmony and light, but I think that was done better by the songs themselves, and the overtures should have kept to their musical style.

That said (as everyone says nowadays), this production of Mamma Mia! is literally brilliant, visually and musically, from costumes, set and lighting designs through to precision dancing, terrifically varied athletic choreography and great timing in the acting and singing.

Not to be missed.

© Frank McKone, Canberra