Clockwork changes

A Clockwork Orange (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

January 6 – February 7

Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, which is part of the final movement of his last, and arguably most famous symphony, Symphony No. 9, composed in 1824, is a thorough examination of the emotion of joy as being heavenly in origin and available to mankind through a loving God. In “A Clockwork Orange”, however, it represents a thematic extension of 15-year-old protagonist Alex’s psychological conditioning.  As the vicious leader of a gang of criminals who beat, rob and rape, he is the antithesis of society. Such is the provocative premise of the classic confronting 1962 short novel by prolific writer Anthony Burgess.

It is the repressive totalitarian super-state England of the future where the despicable Alex gives free rein to his violent impulses and thus is jailed for bludgeoning a lady to death. Here, he volunteers for an experimental aversion treatment (the Ludovico Technique) to earn his freedom and is conditioned to abhor violence so that, returned to the world defenceless, he becomes the prey of his prior victims. The controversial work is a bold choice as a season opener, but a rewarding one due to its experimental nature. Even with a cast of 17, multiple roles are often required. More notably though, each performance alternates between male and female droogs (to use the novel’s teenage slang narration, which incorporates elements of Russian and Cockney English).

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The result of the gender-blind casting is negotiable. The narrative’s ultra-violence may not be as potent in the changes, but it is still shocking. In female cast rotation, however, it becomes Melanie Bolovan’s show, not just narratively but through her blistering performance within the physically demanding role. Not only is she excellent in the torture scenes that show shades of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and its Room 101, but her changed physicality as the character morphs from foul-mouthed thug to reformed formal criminal with an instinctive abhorrence to violence, shows incredible nuance and an energy to which audience members cannot help but respond.

The use of comedy to slightly lessen the blow of its strong themes is also appreciated, although sometimes jarring. Although sexually aggressive, Alex is a cheekily charismatic criminal. Humour also comes from obvious malpropisms like referring to the Minister of the Interior who determines that Ludovico’s technique will be used to reduce recidivism, as Minster of the Inferior. But even with a bit of “Weekend and Bernie’s” ‘corpse’ comedy and a chorus line of a different sort, it doesn’t always feel right to laugh given the prevalence of its simulated and alluded to extreme violence.

Although it could have been tighter in terms of timing, there is much to appreciate about this production of “A Clockwork Orange”. Simple staging sees an imposing clockwork clog providing occasional nook into which characters cranny. And in on-stage realisation, the narrative is much easier to follow that in its original novel form.

Certainly, female actors in the principal roles bring an alternate-night new perspective to the brutal dystopian satire. Although still chilling and confronting, however, this take appears more fable than extravagant story, which gives it a unique appeal and enhanced resonance of its big moral themes around goodness, evil, self-control, and the individual versus society. With such as strong start to the year, one can only await the eclectic mix of shows to follow as the 2018 unfolds.

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Much (Ado) merriment

Much Ado About Nothing (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 10 – 11

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When the show starts well before the play begins with comic duo Constables Dogberry (Mckeira Cumming) and Verges (Cleo Taylor) leading the audience in Mexican wave and beach ball game to the sounds of Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’, it is clear that with this “Much Ado About Nothing” we are in for a good time. The vaudevillian clowning from the ockerish couple is the perfect preamble to the Queensland Youth Shakes Fest celebration of the works of William Shakespeare and share of their contemporary take of one of the Bard’s classic comedies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” tells the tale of returning war heroes and their fortunes and misfortunes in love. Decorated veteran Claudio returns to Messina and soon sets to woo host Don Pedro’s daughter, Hero. They are engaged to be married, but in the short period between the proposal and the wedding many misunderstandings and misleadings occur. The most prominent of these is the wedding party’s secret attempts to inspire passion between the quarrelling Benedick and Beatrice. From here one would hope for a double marriage ceremony but Shakespeare is rarely so simple.

The proverbially titled comedy is an excellent choice for this year’s production. It is easy to follow and gives opportunity for a large cast involvement. And this “Much Ado About Nothing” is certainly a crowd pleaser as it plays up the fun through song, dance and heaps of humour. Although this is an abridged version, the production retains all the wit and emotion of the original script. With a strong ensemble, clever direction and an effective design, it is fresh, exciting and impressive.

Chelsea Dawson and Callum Ford are equally excellent as the modern, mature ‘rom-com’ sparing partners, Beatrice and Benedick, last to know they are in love, although perhaps more convincing as their individual characters than as part of the couple. Fittingly for the text-driven comedy, their delivery of the Shakespearan dialogue is eloquent and poetic, despite being mostly of insults, and together than provide an apt contrast to the more conventional courtship of Claudio (Charles Platt) and Hero (Megan Dale). Plus, their comic timing is highly entertaining.

Ford is particularly versatile, taking Benedick from roguish joker in his distain towards love to commitment in choice of love over friendship, so that we absolutely believe in the better version of himself that he becomes. Similarly, Dawson’s ability to portray Beatrice’s defensive wit alongside her genuinely heartfelt scenes such as in share of her sadness about never finding the right man, make her performance memorable in all of its moments. Also of note is Harlee Timms’s perfectly-pitched performance, as the nefarious Don John, the manipulative bastard half-brother of Don Pedro (Liam Wigney). His powerful portrayal of the trouble-making villain gives the audience a needed thought-provoking glimpse at the play’s sometimes darker themes.

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With staging full of bright colours and summer costumes, it takes the audience longer than usual to transition to the text’s darker later tones, despite the deliberateness of Director Johnny Balbuziente’s decisions to signpost character transitions as the plot progresses from silliness to seriousness (although unnecessary and easy-laugh stereotypes do not help).

Delivered by some of Queensland’s brightest young actors, dancers and musicians, this is a most accessible Shakespeare. And to have put the work together to such a high standard in a matter of days is an amazing feat. The knockabout passion of the creative cohort energises the text and the manner in which the entire cast plays off the audience adds another level to an already fast-paced and funny piece of entertainment, showing that Shakespeare can still be as merriful as ever.

Considerations of quality

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A couple of months away travelling and a couple more laid up with pneumonia and I saw fewer shows in 2017 than in recent years (but still well into the double digits). Reflecting, it is clear that quality over quantity can be incredibly rewarding. And what quality there was on offer… so much so that my usual top five favourite, has been blown out to the following ten:

  1. Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
  2. Lady Beatle (the little red company, La Boite Theatre Company)
  3. My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)
  4. Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)
  5. The Play that Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  6. Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  7. Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (Nigel Kennedy, QPAC)
  8. Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  9. Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  10. Humans (Circa, QPAC)

And honourable mention to the UK’s National Theatre Stage to Screen show Yerma… Gut-wrenching, phenomenal theatre thanks to Billie Piper’s devastatingly powerful performance.

And mention also to the following highlights:

  • Best performance:
    • Elaine Crombie as a hilarious house-slave in Queensland Theatre Company’s An Octoroon.
    • Merlynn Tong in her intimate and vulnerable one-woman work, Playlab’s Blue Bones
    • Cameron Hurry as badly behaved brother Valene in the darkly irreverent The Lonesome West by Troop Productions
  • Best AV – Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  • Most thought provoking –- Octoroon (Queensland Theatre, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best new work – Merlyn Tong’s Blue Bones (Playlab, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Best Reimagining – Signifying Nothing (Macbeth) (Hammond Fleet Productions, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best musical – Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  • Best cabaret:
    • Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
    • Lady Beatle (The Little Red Company, La Boite Theatre Company)
    • Song Lines (Michael Tuahine, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
    • Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs (Alan Cumming, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
  • Best music – Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (QPAC)
  • Best opera – Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza and the Classics (Lunchbox Productions, QPAC)
  • Funniest – The Play That Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  • Most fun – Let Them Eat Cake (Act/React, Anywhere Festival)
  • Most madcap – Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most immersive – Trainspotting Live (In Your Face Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Most moving – Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)

2018 looks set to continue to showcase both the wonderful work of this state’s creatives and innovative works from both here and further afield. Festivals will continue to punctuate the cultural calendar, serving to oscillate audiences between feast and famine like a cultural bulimic… although with Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival moving to May (maybe at the same time as Anywhere Festival) it may be a shower than usual start to the year.

Here we go again

Mamma Mia (Michael Coppel, Louise Withers and Linda Bewick)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

December 26 2017 – February 4 2018

“Mamma Mia” opening night means a wash of blue hues … from transformation of the usually red carpet of media wall arrivals to Linda Pewick’s on-stage setting of a postcard perfect Greek tavern. It’s a far from melancholy feel though; the light-hearted musical comedy is as fabulously fun as ever in its celebration of love, laughter and friendship.

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‘Buildings are like children; you always recognise your own’ architect Sam Carmichael (Ian Stenlake) coincidentally comments when he arrives to the tavern on the idly Mediterranean island of Kalokairi. Along with Harry Bright (Phillip Lowe) and Bill Austen (Josef Ber), he has been invited to the wedding of free-spirited Sophie Sheridan (Brisbane’s own Sarah Morrison) and her fiancé Sky (Stephen Mahy) by the bride-to-be, who wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is, even after reading her mother’s diary, she has no idea which of the three men he might be. Writer Catherine Johnson’s storyline is simple enough, but of course things don’t go exactly to plan as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Natalie O’Donnell), two decades after last visiting the island.

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“Mamma Mia” is not just one of the first jukebox musicals, but a global phenomenon thanks to its soundtrack of ABBA hits. Dialogue segues naturally into the songs and only minor lyric changes are needed to integrate them into the narrative. (Although the stylised Act Two opening ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, although excellent, jars with the feel of the rest of the show).

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A brilliant band under musical director Michael Azzopardi brings vitality to the ABBA tunes. Although slower songs like Donna and Harry’s nostalgic ‘Our Last Summer’ reminiscence about their long-ago fling are beautiful, it is the upbeat numbers that serve as crowd favourites, with audience members clapping along as Donna’s carefree friend Rosie (Alicia Gardiner) cheekily implores Bill to ‘Take a Chance on Me’ and bopping in-seat during a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, during which Donna’s other visiting best friend, the thrice divorced and now affluent Tanya rebuffs the advances of  the much younger tavern worker Pepper (Sam Hooper). And Act One’s closing disco-esque dance number ‘Voulez Vous’ is a sensational showcase of the ensemble’s energy. Under Gary Young’s smooth direction, new and fun choreography ensures that that even those who have seen the show in its previous manifestations, will be satisfied with its fresh and joyful energy.

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What is particularly wonderful is the manner in which the show celebrates the talent of its trio of older actresses, Natalie O’Donnell, Alicia Gardiner and Jayde Westaby. The former Donna and the Dynamos girl group of long-term best friends enliven every scene in which they appear together. Tanya and Rosie’s ‘Chiquitita’ ask of what’s wrong and attempt to cheer up a crying Donna is absolutely hilarious, with Gardiner (best known to Australian audiences for her role as nurse Kim Akerholt in the award-winning series “Offspring”) bringing plenty of personality to the sassy role. And when they try and convince Donna that she can still be the girl she once was in ‘Dancing Queen’ the result is absolutely delightful.

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O’Donnell, who herself played the role of Sophie in the first Australian touring production in 2001, brings some bitterness but also hearty determination to the stoic single mother Donna. Her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is outstanding, not just vocally but in the emotion that is brought to its narrative significance of her admission to Sam that he broke her heart. Morrison is marvellous as the young, optimistic Sophie, sharing a convincing chemistry with on-stage mother O’Donnell, as evidenced particularly in their affection during ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ where Donna sings to Sophie about her regret at how quickly her daughter is growing up,, as she dresses Sophie for her wedding. And as the unsuspecting fathers, Carmichael, Lowe and Ber are all also superb.

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“Mamma Mia” shows that not everything has to be of “Wicked” scale to be wonderful. Indeed, what this show is most about is its music and what makes this production so successful is its celebration of not just this, but all things ABBA in a performance that warns of its ‘strobe lighting, theatrical haze, spandex and loud music’. The result is a fabulous night out for audiences of all ages. And when ‘Super Trouper’ costumes are revisited in the curtain call with full company renditions of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’, and you get the chance to jump up, it will not just be in ovation but in the mood for dance and celebration of having the time of your life.

Reindeer revelations

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 7 – 16

“Naughty is the new nice” we are told as “A Very Naughty Christmas” begins with Pentatonix’s ‘Good to be Bad’. From here, the show follows snippets more so than stories the little family that surrounds Santa (Stephen Hirst), the scantily clad Saint Nicolas who sizzles onto stage with a swaggersome ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’, Elvis style.

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Featuring a live band, ten performers and Christmas songs as you’ve never heard them before, this is a Christmas at its most salacious. And its winter wonderland is never as hot as when the dryly-humourous Vixen (Aurélie Roque) shares a filthy and fabulous ‘Jingle Bells’. Apparently, animosity runs through the reindeers’ ‘classic office dramas’. Not only is Vixen regretful of her romance with Nick, but Comet (Claire Owen) hates the oft put-upon Rudolph (Jason Bently) for trying to steal her role as head navigator, so is determined to seduce Santa to let her light the way. And the scampy Prancer (Adwan Dickson) is somewhat inhibited by his Judaism.

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The show is cleverly constructed to combine santa-mental yuletide songs with reimagined Understudy Production’s unique and far-from traditional takes. An all-ensemble finish with Tim Minchin’s contrarian carol, ‘White Wine in the Sun’ is perfect in its universal emotion and inclusive sentiment as much as its melodic delivery, leading into Mariah’s merriful ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ to fill even the most bah humbug of souls with the sprint of the season. The lovestruck Dasher (Lachlan Geraghty) and anxious Dancer (Monique Dawes) also share a lovely ‘Last Christmas’.

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Certainly “A Very Naughty Christmas” showcases the abundance of vocal talent within its cast. More roadie than reindeer-like, Cupid (Chris J Kellett) delivers a strong, melancholic initial traditional take of ‘White Christmas’ before transporting it to a tongue-in-cheek more literal, bigoted bogan place of reminisce. Ruby Clark showcases strong vocals in her sing of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ to equally naughty Donner (Emily Vascotto). And when Rudolf is finally given his moment to shine, shine he does, courtesy of Bently’s vibrant vocals. This is all of course due in no small part to the wonderful work of the on-stage band of Keita Neralic on guitar, Dan Smith on drums and Elliot Parker on bass, under Musical Director Tnee Western-Dyer on keys.

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With everything from classic carols to modern pop and even an all-male “Mean Girls” bit, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is the perfect experience to get audiences in a holiday mood. Though there are some political pokes, everything is light-hearted. Indeed, there is a tap number and even a ‘Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer’ singalong. With sugar and spice and all things both naughty and nice, it is a wonderful celebration of the sentiment of this special time of year, full of delightful fun and rather-not-know revelations like why Santa needs to get the sleigh reupholstered so often.

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The Wives of Wolfgang (Hannah Belansky & Co)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Platform

December 1 – 3

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“Three women: the cat, the wife and the mistress, meet in the wake of their mutual lover’s death to ensure that he doesn’t take all his secrets with him to the grave.” Certainly “The Wives of Wolfgang” is enigmatic in its self-promotion as a sexy and entertaining cabaret of songs, burlesque and dark comedy to awaken the senses… and the dead. In execution it is just as enigmatic, but in a beguiling and intriguing way.

‘What’s the time mister wolf?” its three female characters chant in combined question to Wolfgang (Michael Whittred). The occasion is the lone-wolf’s funeral, where the three unacquainted ladies meet, set upon solving a few mysteries and share some secrets. When they do so in poetry, it makes for a wonderful artistic experience, especially as lush lighting compliments the stylised, sexy movement of stage. It is an aesthetic that is established from even before the show starts, with Wolfgang frozen in stance on stage alongside his coffin, but one which is unfortunately not always maintained throughout the show’s realisation, as comical moments of dialogue parroting contrast to the sophistication of others, created a confused rather than coherent tone. The show’s music, however, is a standout, especially the numbers featuring Composer and Performer Whittred on guitar. And his vocals, in particular, resonate richly, particularly in a number sung to his wife in admission of wrong doing but belief still in their relationship.

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Jessica Kate Ryan has a beautiful voice but even in a catchy, melodic introduction to her cat character, the lyrics are not always clear in competition with the soundtrack. Writer and performer Hannah Belanszky gives a committed performance as the perfect wife, self-indulgent and better in all that she does, while Caitlin Hill exploits every comic possibility from her role as the mistress in search in validation. They are all strong, yet flawed, complex female characters, which is superb to see, even if at times it seems like we only scratch the surface of their characters in what feels like a rush through their stories. Although its aesthetic is generally mesmeric, things could be clearer. The cat metaphor, for example, creates some unnecessary complication and has audiences potentially urging for the simplicity of less elements, all given opportunity to excel, as opposed to the woe of mismatched content and sensibility.

As cabarets go, “The Wives of Wolfgang” is certainly original in its sensory experience. And although overt references, for example, clang against its generally sexy and seductive tone, it is, on the whole, entertaining. Its “The Stepford Wives” meets “Chicago” description is absolutely apt and something worth focusing on without distraction for its potential to be realised.

Calendar Girls day out

Calendar Girls (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

November 17 – December 9

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The British comedy film “Calendar Girls” may be almost 15 years old, but as Nash Theatre Company’s final production for the year shows, its fascinating yet true story is still familiar enough and its themes resonate enough to engage 2017 audiences.

When Annie (Lindi Milbourne)’s husband John (Chris Carroll) dies prematurely from leukaemia, her close friend and Women’s Institute branch co-member Chris (Carrie O’Rourke) hits upon the idea of an annual calendar alternative to the usual Yorkshire bridges and landscape scenes to raise funds to purchase a more comfortable sofa for the visitor’s lounge in the hospital where John was treated. The WI group decides to do modest nude (as opposed to naked) poses for the camera while engaging in traditional WI activities such as knitting and baking, with strategically placed props covering their exposed body parts. As their bras come off for the new settee, conflict follows both from within the WI organisation and amongst the ladies themselves as the calendar causes massive media attention from across the nation and the world. In Nash Theatre’s hands, the ensemble piece presents broad comedy and poignant drama in equally measured doses. Indeed, despite some initially problematic accents, the production is like a Yorkshire ray of sunshine, especially delightful for a summer-day-out matinee.

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All the female characters have an immediate natural rapport, understandable given their later disrobing. And the comprehensive script (at 2+ hours running time) allows each character their transformative moment in the sun. The timid and easily anxious Ruth and prim and proper President Marie Smith Jones are almost caricatures, however, Annie is simply lovely and Lindi Milborune conveys both kindness to her increasingly fragile husband and steadfast loyalty following his passing. Carrie O’Rourke is another standout as both outspoken advocate and caring friend, even when morphed by insensitive and selfish dogmatism. Together they convey a strong sisterly bond even as their characters have very different reactions to their new-found celebrity status.

Like the sunflower that serves as its ongoing motif, “Calendar Girls” trumpets joy. While some cultural references are now dated, the show still contains many genuinely humorous moments. Choreography is carefully considered during the scene in which the women manage to strip down and strike strategic but suggestive poses while never revealing too much. And their crafty humour is nicely magnified by the painfully embarrassed reactions of the calendar’s amateur photographer (Mervyn Marriott).

As it is in life, “Calendar Girls” has its happiness and sadness, however spending time in the company of its ladies makes for a wonderful couple of hours. Its script is tightly executed to accentuate the positive without too much labour and its sweet, witty and good-humoured comedy is genial and not overdone. Indeed, it offers the rare treat of an ensemble of female talent all on stage at the same time. The fact that it contains some seasonally jubilant scenes, only adds to the joy of its experience.