PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

All about Eve

Eve (Force of Circumstance and Nest Ensemble)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 29 – July 16

Eve

“Eve” draws from the extraordinary real life of a woman before her time… Australian author Eve Langley who published just two books before dying alone in 1974. Believing she was the literary genius Oscar Wilde, she dressed and behaved in a manner that was far from keeping with the societal norms of the 1900s, which the show illustrates through confliction of her personal and artistic responsibilities.

In thoughtful thematic examination of eccentricity as opposed to madness, Brisbane theatre maker Margi Brown Ash embodies the schizophrenic experience of the author’s rebellion against embrace of domesticity and refusal to live on tiptoe (like Emily Dickinson), but rather to write for herself, by herself. This is enhanced by the intertwining of Oscar Wilde’s children’s story “The Selfish Giant” throughout the narrative as highlight of Langley’s struggles. Literary references abound, often in revisit of the fable’s motifs. Indeed, the play is evocatively poetic in its language, always in focus on its big-picture concerns about belonging in the world.

“Eve” is the perfect vehicle for an actress as versatile as Margi Brown Ash. Working alongside her son Travis Ash (as storyteller/musician), she is delightful in her infectious energy and quirky charm, engaging the audience through the stream of consciousness narrative’s sometimes rapid transitions. Staging is similarly interesting in its bush cabin nook and cranny details, while warm lighting invites the audience into the action.

Like “He Dreamed a Train”, with which “Eve” is paired in double bill, this is a heartbreaking story of art and identity. Equal parts memoir of an author of fantastical stories and homage to artistic sacrifice, it is story of a quirky, but determined woman beautifully brought to life by a quickly and determined performer.

Globalisation gets personal

Rice (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

June 24 – July 16

“Rice” is a deceptively simple story of two women working in the city: one is a struggling cleaner, while the other is a high flying manager; one a migrant from China, while the other is a second general Brisbane girl whose grandmother moved here from West Bengal. Yet, it in tale of families and friendships, it isn’t long before it becomes so much more.

It begins with ambitious ­corporate climber Nisha (Kristy Best), unhappy with the office’s Chinese cleaner Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang) for not disposing of her after-hours takeaway rubbish. ‘Indian princess and ‘Chinese cleaner’ is all they see when in confrontation with each other, however, although they are from different generations and different cultures, as time passes they find themselves helping each other navigate their complex lives.

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This navigation is aided by the additional characters that the talented actors each adopt, never losing their essential chemistry, as they assume roles as diverse as hipster boyfriend, ungrateful daughter, Indian official and Russian cleaning crew supervisor. Certainly, the dramatic use of actors playing multiple characters is a bold theatrical device that can have its ups and downs and initial jumps are jarring, however, once accustomed to the style, audience members can easily appreciate the value this adds to the show’s momentum, which is readily maintained through its taut 90 minute duration, with characters volleying dialogue from across either side of the wide stage.

An abundance of Brisbane references add interest and a memorable soundscape enhances plot and thematic aspects alike, while its minimalist stage design rightly allows the show’s outstanding performances to bring Michele Lee’s script to life. The script is an impressive one, filled with humourous one-liners and realistic dialogue, but also a Brechtian self-awareness and acknowledgement of the presence of the audience a voyeurs. (“This is the part where we eat,” we are told, for example, as they share a Monday night meal in the office). And its lack or resolve is refreshing in its realism.

“Rice” is a fresh and refreshing show, worthy of its Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. While it is as its tagline promises, “an insightful story about the personal side of globalisation,” what it is really about is life through the lens of two equally strong and vulnerable women, which makes it an engaging show from which attention never wanes.

Sappy song satisfaction

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Thetre

June 16

Alan Cumming is a versatile performer, as well known for his role as cunning political consultant Eli Gold on TV’s “The Good Wife” as for his Tony Award winning turn as the debaucherous “Cabaret” emcee. And versatility, appropriately, characterises “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs”, which contains a perfect balance of songs and stories.

brisbane-powerhouse-Alan-Cumming-3-1178x663.jpgCumming is the consummate cabaret performer and an engaging storyteller (not just because of his ‘soon-to-be-independent’ Scottish accent), creating an intimate connection with the audience, despite the Powerhouse Theatre’s vast size, through his vulnerability in share of personal stories. The show allows Cumming to share some of his favourite songs, looked at anew. “Take off your judgey hat,” we’re told early on, and, as promised we do hear them in a different way, from fellow Scot Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’ as opener to a mid-show mash-up of Adele, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, ‘because they are kind of the same song right’? In each instance Cumming finds the emotional heart of the songs, sharing it as his own, but engaging too through gossipy between-number anecdotes with tell of Liza Minelli, a regretful tattoo, and a retro online commercial he made with Ricki Lake for Trojan condoms.

There are serious times too as Cumming touches on personal traumas that those familiar with his best-selling memoir “Not My Father’s Son”, will recognise. Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ is dedicated to his combat-traumatised grandfather and Rufus Wainwright’s ballad about father-son estrangement, ‘Dinner at Eight’ is delivered in reference to his abusive father, createing real poignancy.

The band (Lance Horne, piano; Eleanor Norton, cello; Chris Jego, drums) is excellent in musical support, adding to the linger of numbers like Hue and Cry’s ‘Mother Glasgow’, a tribute to the second city of the empire and its perpetual succour, at first comically but then movingly shared. And Cumming sure can sing, as seen in his rousing finale, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from the Broadway musical “Company”.

In Cumming’s charismatic hands, this is cabaret as it should be: emotional and personal, yet also chatty and with an easy charm (and sometimes bawdy humour). Indeed, “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs” is old fashioned entertainment from a master showman, easily able to take the audience from laughter to tears through the passion and pathos of his stories and songs. As such, it is not only a treat for Brisbane audiences, but up there amongst the most satisfying ever of Brisbane Cabaret Festival shows.

Austen attraction

Promise and Promiscuity (Penny Ashton)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 11

As if being a sole performer on stage isn’t difficult enough in itself, add in acting in multiple character roles and making it a musical and success is probably going to be no easy feat. Yet, in Penny Ashton’s hands in “Promise and Promiscuity”, the task appears to be a breeze.

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In parody of the novels of Jane Austen, the show follows the fortunes of husbandless writer Elsbeth of Brisbaneshire (in this instance) who writes thrilling stories under the male pseudonym Wilbur Smythe and would rather die an old maid than concern herself with frivolity in possession of foolish notions of love.

It begins with Elsbeth’s socially-ambitious mother lamenting over her aged 2 and 20 daughter’s lack of husband, but also excited by the family’s invitation to a ball at Quigley Manor. Things move quickly as Ashton clearly establishes characters with physicality and vocals. To her credit, each character, whether male or female, is well-defined and well-distinguished from each other with their own, unique physical quirks and characteristics, whether it be excitable younger daughter Cordelia or the aloof Mr Dalton, who is search of intellectual endeavour rather than romance. With such a crowded cast and quick changes, it takes time to ease into the show’s rhythm and unique Austen-like language. There is a veritable array of well-known Austen characters and although there are no wet shirts, male characters are the most memorable amongst the eight that Ashton plays, particularly, a snorting cousin Horatio, unable to offer compliment without also causing offence.

The script is full of witty incorporation of not just quotes for Austen aficionados but motifs that most people should recognise and double-entendre innuendo that nobody can miss. And the Ashtonisation of modern and pop culture references from Trump to Target and 50 Shades of Grey, add an often very funny touch to things.

Original music, composed by Robbie Ellis adds to the experience, especially when a dance partner must be sought from within the audience. Indeed, musical numbers that outline the importance of proper etiquette (to not be a strumpet) and the broken dreams of a family evicted from their cottage after accusations of wanton promiscuity (by writing as a male) could easy work in a mainstream musical.

“Promise and Promiscuity” may not be entirely proper in a Regency way, but it is genuinely good-natured. Ashton’s energy is infectious and, as a naturally engaging performer, she makes the show’s experience all the more delightful. While those familiar with the fiction of its source material, will appreciate its homage, its attraction goes to beyond audiences with this experience. It’s not so much a musical (as billed) but rather a play with some songs about the curse of being a woman in Austen’s world, yet it is still all sorts of wonderful.

 

Bush best

In The Warm Room – The Music of Kate Bush 1978 – 1980 (Electric Moon)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 9

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When a show is billed as “the voices of eight seasoned cabaret performers will shine Bush’s creativity, imagination and innovation”, expectations are high. Appropriately so, given Electric Moon’s previous shows, and as-anticipated, realised from its opening, beautifully-mournful number, ‘Moving’, by Josh Daveta, with ethereal additions from Bethan Ellsmore. And then there is Alison St Ledger who sounds just like the iconic and unique artist in the meta-music ‘Wow’.

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It is not all whimsical, however, with Daniel Hack rocking ‘Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak’. Indeed, there is something for everyone, from everyone; the stage is cluttered with collaborators (#inagoodway) and the show is all the better for it. The ten piece band, for example, does an excellent job in evoking a variety of moods and genre influences, as eclectic as its source songstress’ musical catalogue.

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Highlights include Daveta’s rollicking ‘Oh to be in Love’ and a haunting ‘’Oh England My Lionheart’ from an imposing (as always) Sandro Colarelli. And there is also Lucinda Shaw’s guttural ‘The Kick Inside’ and later symphonic post-apocalyptic ‘Breathing’, and a wonderful ‘Wuthering Heights’ from Bethan Ellsmore, in nod to Bush’s trademark cinematic and literary references and as example of Ellsmore’s vocal prowess.

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In each instance, the songs in the warm room are almost shared anew as the performers each bring something different to bringing out Kate Bush’s very best. But one would expect no less from Sandro Colarelli, Lisa Crawley, Josh Daveta, Bethan Ellsmore, Daniel Hack, Lucinda Shaw and Alison St Ledger… the best bringing out Bush’s best in make of an infectiously-entertaining evening.

Photos c/o – Lachlan Douglas

Ireland lives on

Ancient Rain (Paul Kelly & Camille O’Sullivan)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 13


Between Australian music legend and poet laureate Paul Kelly and Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, there is a proud Irish heritage, so it is appropriate that it is on WB Yeats’ birthday that they take Brisbane audiences on a journey through Irish poetry in “Ancient Rain”. The show, which combines original songs and music, together with spoken word, was inspired by more than a century of Irish writing and serves as both a reminder of its emotive poetry and range of themes.

It is a darkly beautiful show as it contrasts some of the most important events of Irish history, from the potato famine of the 1800s to the Easter Rising of last century with illumination of the evocative language of descriptions of lines like ‘October coloured weather’ which will linger long after shared. The lush musical arrangements transform the poetry into living art. In collaboration with composer Feargal Murray, Kelly and Sullivan have thread together a tapestry of tender moments of profound sadness at loss of language and country, but also celebration of survival. And lighting complements the mood and considered aesthetics of the elemental sounds of wind and thunder and the sensitive harmonies of the backing band, adding a theatrical feel to the show.


Kelly has a wonderful stage presence (as the country’s best balladeer with recognisable Aussie sounds, his vocals don’t always suit, but his voice is naturally suited to storytelling) and O’Sullivan is a compelling performer, whether in earthy or ethereal voice, meaning that together they are an irresistible combination, in complete command of the material. In Michael Hartnett’s ‘English Part Seven’, O’Sullivan soars in sing of ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’, while in Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ she tantalises with a husky voice in but a whisper. But it is Paula Meeham’s heartbreaking ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’ that represents the show’s pinnacle, at the end of Act One, as, draped in red veil she tells musical tale of the statue of the Virgin Mary, at whose feet a teenage girl gives birth before dying with her child.


“Ancient Rain” is a powerful project from two acclaimed performers that makes Irish history live again. While its tales are dark and melancholic in their heartache, they are very human stories, which means that everyone will have their own connection to its musical storytelling as they appreciate anew its old tales of war, rebellion and longing for freedom.

 Photos c/o – David James McCarthy and Sarah Walker