Top and tail treats

Rather than jinx things again with a post about the shows I am most looking forward to seeing in the year to come (at least we got Emerald City and Be More Chill), I take this time of year as an opportunity to reflect on the theatre year that mostly wasn’t. From its top and tail months, these have been my highlights of the 40 rather than usual 140(ish) shows seen:

Best dramatic performance

  • Richard Lund’s layered, contained performance as recent art school graduate Ken, assistant to abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko in the two-hander Red from Ad Astra.
  • Jayden Popik’s bold and powerful Queensland Theatre debut, as Declan in Mouthpiece, the company’s must-see return to the QPAC stage.

Best Staging

  • Set Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the Ad Astra’s small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, in John Logan’s Red.
  • Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together for QUT’s early-in-March presentation of Anton Chekhov’s seminal Three Sisters.

Best Video Design

  • Nathan Sibthorpe’s stunning video projections, creating a sense of immersion into Queensland Theatre’s world premiere production of David Megarrity’s The Holidays.

Best Musical

  • Phoenix Ensemble’s dynamic September strut out of the super-fun 2012 musical Kinky Boots.

Top moment

  • When the rollicking Pirates of Penzance in Lynch & Paterson’s In Concert production sneak up on the Major-General’s house with Catlike Tread while singing at their top of their Tarantara lungs in the eponymous parodic Gilbert and Sullivan song.

Sunshine state sounds

Sunshine Sounds

Brisbane Powerhouse

November 29

After the year that has been, everyone is in need of some sunshine and succour to their soul so the return to the magic of live music with Brisbane Powerhouse’s “Sunshine Sounds” is a particularly welcome Sunday afternoon session. The show, which features renowned artists Katie Noonan, Louise King and Andrea Kirwin in concert, represents the last in the performers’ mini tour and a wonderful opportunity for Brisbane audiences to share in their stories of music and friendship.

Every singer songwriter has a coronavirus song, Fijian Australian soul songsmith Andrea Kirwin safely assumes before sharing her own ‘We Shall Overcome’, assurance that the sun will come shining through. Topical as its content may be, its realisation appears typical of the independent artist’s heartfelt folk and blues-style musical stories. Indeed, the prolific festival performer has an earthy sound that sees her soulful sounds soothing us into the afternoon with the show’s over-all-too-soon opener ‘Young Wild and Free’.

Kirwin has a warm stage presence and a compelling calm that charms the audience through between-song festival stories and reflections about her artform. When she shares her take of Tracey Chapman’ ‘Give Me One Reason’, however, the distinctive guitar melody is base to both initially gentle verse and a growing daring and defiant energy. Her versatility is further evident when she is joined on stage by internationally renowned cellist Louise King for an inspiring ‘Bloom’, the title track of Kirwin’s new album and emotionally-captivating ‘Love Will Save the Day’ tribute to Brisbane Pride and the belief that love can find a way.

Continuing the coronavirus theme, five-times ARIA Award winning and seven-times platinum selling singer/songwriter Katie Noonan talks about the disempowerment of hotel quarantine in introduction to her new number ‘Golden Light’ and its reflection of the gift of gratitude that this year has provided. And its repeated ‘let me adore you again’ tribute to her husband is spine-tingling in the exquisiteness of her vocal range and intonation.

Amongst original numbers, Noonan takes us back to the early 90s courtesy of an independent feminist Brisbane folk band Isis number and also applies her opera-like vocals to another suitable COVID-19 tune, Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, albeit paired back to be presented as an emotional piano ballad of heartbreaking longing to break free from loneliness and isolation, in call-back to her recent Brisbane Festival show, “The Sweetest Taboo”.

King has also used COVID-19 time to work on her craft, the contemporary classical musician tells us, before bringing the beauty and diversity of music written for cello to our ears. The biggest surprise is not the instrument’s beauty, however, but King’s illustration of its remarkable vitality and versatility through soothing laments, blue grass sentiment and First Nations’ sounds alike.

Though the Queensland women all have their own distinct sets, time is also included to celebrate the very up-and-coming talent of 11-year-old Layla Barnett who wows the audience with a beautifully serene delivery of Noonan’s former band George’s debut single, ‘Special Ones’. It really is an afternoon of celebration appropriately surmised in a final collaborative ‘I Am Woman’ affirmation and tribute to Helen Reddy. So, thanks to funding as part of the Queensland Government’s Arts and Cultural Recovery Package, the production not only allows three acclaimed performers to share their talent, but introduces us to that of an outstanding young newcomer.

Behind the Bells

Jingle Bells Sucks Baubles (Astra Nova Youth Creatives)

Ad Astra

December 8 – 20

Thanks to John Birmingham et al, Queensland has a tradition of share house tales, meaning that experience of on-stage stories like Astra Nova Youth Creative’s “Jingle Bells Sucks Baubles” brings an instinctive comfort. The show, which is performed and commissioned as part of Astra Nova Youth Creatives, revisits 2019’s share-house story of Max, Dani, Jayden, Tristan and Andre, with an update of how the Paddington housemates and their friends are faring after a year of people moving in, out and sideways.

Like living in a share house is not complicated enough, however, the story again takes place in this festive season and Christmas is horrific in a way worse even than Australia Day… in fact it sucks baubles, especially in this COVID-19 year of border closures and restricted travel to families. Add in the wedding between youngest group member, social media micro-influencer Dani (Aliandra Calibrese) and her fallen-on-his-feet financial planner fiancé Keenan (Owen Green), and you have stage set for comedy.

It is a crowded house, both on stage and in the stalls with many audience members returning to revisit 2019’s show and it is easy to appreciate why so much of its season is sold out, given the comic timing that positions the show’s fun. Even those new to the characters and stories can still walk away rewarded by memorable performances from across the cast.

With housemates past and present and also some unseen-but-mentioned characters, it’s a sizeable who’s who across which to track relationships, however, these are soon easy enough to follow. Stereotypes set up some automatic conflict beyond just fights over consumption of each other’s fridge food. Laser-focussed personal trainer Cameron (Hayden Parsons) is always operating at 110% which aggravates an impatient Jayden (Jarvis Taylor) who just wants to get high and play COD in his living room. And against the hyperbolic shoutiness of some Act One performances, Taylor gives us some good light and shade moments allowing for Jayden’s delivery of many of the show’s funniest lines, especially in response to keen-for-a-cause (and an argument), but also kind of ignorant newest house member Cass (Bronte Price).

In some ways things settle in ActTwo as we all head to Dani and Keenan’s wedding rehearsal, especially as best man Andre (Mitchell Bourke) takes over the microphone for some very funny emcee commentary. All-over-the-place Woolies worker Andre is a man of many ideas but few concrete plans, much to the frustration of will-they-or-won’t-they friend from uni Jessie (Caitlyn Leo), who just hopes he can sort himself out. Though she has her own issues, trying to reconcile her passion and her career path, it is long-time household member Maxine (Lara Rix) who speaks the most sense, especially in a standout scene featuring passive-aggressive conversation with Dani about social media and influences.

As complement to the performances, the production conveys a clear attention to detail. Simple props establish a lived-in feel to the share-house thanks to bookshelved bongo drums, Cards Against Humanity and even a ‘do the dishes’ reminder amongst photos and post-it note insults on the fridge. And the set transforms easily to scenes at The Creek establishment where some of the housemates work, only adding to their complications.

The new work by Pierce Gordon is well written, especially in its inclusion of COVID-19 complications into the narrative, but also in its meta-theatre mention, meaning that even if audience members are not of the on-stage demographic themselves, they can appreciate the chaos behind the scenes of the yuletide bells and baubles. Perfect for the holiday season, “Jingle Bells Sucks Baubles” is a light-hearted comedy that reflects how our lives are forever changing and the ways we cope with that change. While its story includes weddings, break-ups, career changes and unexpected surprises, these are all wrapped up in a hopeful and therefore ultimately heart-felt ending.

Back for four

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 3 – 13

It takes a lot to make audience participation in theatre successful, especially when performers are having to work hard in guide of ‘volunteer’ contributions, however, in what has become “A Very Naughty Christmas” tradition, deviant Santa Stephen Hirst and Stacey de Waard ensure that this section of Understudy Productions’ 2020 show is once again one of its highlights. Of course audience involvement looks a little different this year, without any on-stage participation, however, in the show’s fourth year, it is still as funny as ever as the audience is given “A Christmas Carol” unlike any other.

There is a familiarity to other sections of the adults-only Christmas comedy too and move along from a punctuation to grammar gag amongst its easy low-brow humour. Aurélie Roque gets into the holiday spirits to bitterly share of her bedroom issues with Saint Nick in a totally-inappropriate ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ and an Andrew Sisters with a twist number delivers an upbeat ‘Let it Snow’. There is return too of the perennially favourite “Mean Girls” ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ routine, masterfully mixed into the rum pump um pum of Justin Bieber and Busta Rhymes’ ‘Drummer Boy’ to amp up the energy. Comedy and musical numbers are appropriated updated with WAP and TikTok type pop culture references (most notably in Emily Kristopher’s naughty nod to the role technology can play in creating connection over the holidays) and even some political touches. And things still tie together nicely with a ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ closing snowfall of red and green confetti to affix an exclamation point to a night of shared celebration at having made it through this dumpster fire of a year.

Pre-show, those new to experience of the franchise are almost lured into expectations of tradition with share of ‘We Three Kings” et al Christmas classics and a lively ‘Feliz Navidad’, from Brisbane’s sexiest carolling tin soldiers, Melissa Russo, Steph Long and Santa’s little helper Shay Debney. What follows is a show of cabaret style escapism featuring a range of musical styles and wonderful harmonies. Indeed, all numbers display the abundance of vocal talent within the cast and the live band (Tom Collins on keys and guitar, Chris Evans on drums, Elliot Parker on bass and band leader Luke Volker on keys) is again excellent in filling familiar tunes with appealing vigour. And Wesley Bluff’s lighting design works a treat, expertly guiding the audience from, for example, a peppy duet about puberty to Elliot Baker’s nightmarish ‘White Christmas’ yearn for return from a Christmasless life

Again there is no narrative as such, but instead a collection of segments set to show us how naughty is the new nice. From burlesque shows of skin and a David Cuny stiptease to bawdy reappropriation of traditional lyrics and a new imagining of the iconic “Love Actually” doorstep notecards scene, there is something for everyone in “A Very Naughty Christmas”… apart from the easily offended. While the upgrade from the Visy to Powerhouse Theatre represents a loss of intimacy, it does reveal more friends in which to share revel in its naughtiness. And thankfully, while Christmas comes only once a year, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is making appearance twice most nights for those wanting to get their tinsel tickled and bells jingled. And while it is sure to get you in a holiday mood, be warned that you may never consider Mummy Kissing Santa Claus in quite the same way again.  

Cultural confrontation

Flat Out Like a Lizard (Robert the Cat)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

December 2 – 12

“Just a story about the dark”, Norman Price’s “Flat Out Like a Lizard” is billed as…. “You there in the dark, me here in the dark”. This is indeed true, however, there are many more motifs and through-lines operating than just that of darkness, and untangling and making sustained sense of them all asks a lot of its audience, especially given the show’s indulgent 90-minute duration. Indeed, while there is a clever use of clues in its connection of perspectives, this confronting piece of post-modernist theatre is not for the conventional theatre goer … but perfectly positioned for the provocation typical of many Metro Arts shows.

The Australian playwright, director, actor and theatre scholar’s work is not one but many stories… Australian stories that span a century. Through the eyes of a rotating Lazarus White, mysterious and dangerous, characters emerge from within some moments of dark humour. But is there a market for them? And what is a writer to do when a committee of experts remains unconvinced of their marketability. It is through this that the work asks its most enduring questions about the value of the arts and storytelling, which are particularly poignant right now given the manner with which the pandemic has disrupted the industry.

As White presents each story snippet to the committee of gatekeepers funding a production, we are tantalised with just enough for connection before being shocked out of their allure by harsh lighting and critical committee member bombasts of “we have set criteria to address”, “there’s no market for this” and “nobody wants this” et al. The stories themselves make an unequivocal impact, not only through their sometimes strong language and disturbing content. They are told by performers Katy Cotter, Amy Hauser, Darcy Jones, Peter Keavy and Thea Milburn, who each take turn to play the central character of Lazarus White (symbolised by a stylised jacket transfer) and assume other support roles at other times, which allows each actor distinct opportunities to shine in sometimes menacing vignettes. Darcy Jones, in particular, gives a chilling description of a shocking theatre experience of a little man that will leave you reconsidering how you sit in the stalls from now on.

Heightening the impact of many the highly-stylised stories, Geoff Squire’s lighting design paints the New Benner Theatre with a range of hues, including some less often typically seen on stage, which adds interest. Most memorably, our metatheatre opening introduction to Lazarus White’s navigation of the performance space as a metaphor his journey, illustrates how he affects and is affected by the performance space through its use of shadow and gaps in the space between light and dark.

Norman Price’s work is clearly divisive. “Flat Out Like a Lizard” may have moments that resonate, but it is not a work with mainstream appeal. It is darkly gothic and dangerous, but also both emotional and intellectual in its encouragement of audience engagement through hard work. It makes its point and it labours it hard, making the endurance of its experience more one of performance art than traditional theatre. Still, its take-away commentaries about the value and legitimacy of cultural artefacts, the roles of stories in our society and the crucial importance of cultural gatekeepers are valuable in their provocation.

Spanish satisfaction

Smiley

BackDock Arts

November 19 -29

In emoji terms a ‘smiley’ face with a broad, closed smile is used to express genuine happiness and warm, positive feelings. In its namesake 2013 play written by Guillem Clua, it how chiselled Latin bartender Alex (Sergio Ulloa Torres) communicates his feelings to his lover the morning after, in hope that he feels the same … before a week of being ghosted, which is what leads to the unintended, upset phone messages to older architect Bruno (Matt Young), that set the Spanish gay romantic comedy in motion.

The two-hander, “Smiley” which is sponsored by Brisbane Pride in its Australian premiere, is a love story, pure and simple, but one that is authentically complicated by contradictions and insecurities. And Liam Burke’s adaptation and direction celebrates this, within the lens of connection courtesy of technology, without sacrificing momentum or comic opportunities or disrespecting the original text. Its central premise is based the red thread of destiny, a Japanese legend that states that when two people are destined to be together an invisible red thread connects them from the day they were born, no matter how different they may seem. Protagonists Alex and Bruno are perfect for illustration of the metaphor; they are very different, with little in common beyond both being gay men living in Barcelona. Yet, from the moment of that mistakenly dialed phone call, they are linked, despite an initial awkward (and very funny) first meeting and date. And the ensuing narrative serves as a wonderful tribute to some great romantic comedies.

Functional design facilitates a range of Barcelona locations, allowing the talented Torres and Young to give physically-demanding performances that maintain intensity around some well-timed comic moments. Torres is a magnetic performer whose sassy, energetic disposition works in balanced complement with Young’s relatable, seemingly more settled Bruno. A highlight of the versatility of Young’s skill comes in roles as Bruno, but instead as he transitions seamlessly through a string of Alex’s potential Grindr matches, each with their own unique and very distinct personalities.

The emotional truth at its core makes “Smiley” heart-warming and easy to watch. Rather than relying on clichéd comedy courtesy of Alex’s accented pronunciations, his funniest moments come from the ordinariness of his mini-rants about diet coke et al. But along with its humour comes a hopeful honesty that gives a reassurance as to the future, for romantics and pragmatists alike, ensuring that everyone leaves the intimate BackDock Arts theatre space with their own in-real-life smilies. Indeed, this is a play of universal themes of a time in which technologies have changed our lives. While it focuses on the experiences of the gay community, the longing of repeated voice message plays and desperate desire to discover digital clues and interpret the meaning of every emoji of even group message communications, make it a relevant as well as engaging work beyond this and, therefore, one that makes for a very satisfying visit.