Worthy WW1 remembrance

The Blood Votes (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Holy Trinity Parish Hall

November 7 – 11

There is something special about the closing performance of The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s short “The Blood Votes” season as the Sunday matinee takes place on November 11, the Centenary of the First World Ward Armistice. Experience of the historical theatre examination of the Australian conscription debates of World War One is saturated with an appealing authenticity beyond just this though. Fortitude Valley’s Holy Trinity Parish Hall is adorned with propaganda posters of the time and filled with era-evocative live piano sounds.

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And so, to ensemble share of the patriotic Great War marching song, ‘Australia Will Be There’ we are rallied ’round the banner of our country to take the field with brothers’. As the cries of “God Save the King” fade away, we are told than it is 1915 and given description of the experience of Gallipoli from the troops’ perspective. The play, whose title is taken from a famous anti-conscription leaflet and poem of he time, is not about front however, but encounters closer to home, punctuated by reminder of key events and losses occurring overseas. And from its opening illustration of life in lead up to the first national conscription plebiscite, it is an absolutely fascinating journey and a worthy theatre experience.

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The verbatim style work, written by Michael Futcher and directed by Rob Pensalfini, crafts together a narrative representation of the reality of home-front life at the time in Brisbane, in all of its guises, exposing and complicating the rhetoric of wartime sacrifice through its examination of multiple perspectives. While the Universal Service League of Women petition Prime Minister Billy Hughes to compel ‘dirty coward’ shirkers to support men overseas, state, social and moral pressure is also applied to meet government quotas, seen for example in the shocking reality of recruitment officer visitations to interview eligible over-18 men as yet unsigned up, such as Robert O’Neill (Dudley Powell). Though the scenarios and personalities of its stories represent a mix of real-life and dramatised creations, the social divisions produced by conscription are startlingly clear as families, friends, couples and communities are pressured and shamed, and, despite inflation, employers being boycotted to sack workers who fail to comply to the call to help those at the front exhausted and in need of reinforcements.

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“It’s all political!”, Robert’s Irish mother Kathleen (Rebecca Murphy) exclaims during one such attempted recruiting officer interrogation. This short statement represents the most accurate summation of the show’s content. The complicated politics of the time add another layer to the complexity of the social issues of the era. Indeed, the work allows space for these elements to effectively co-exist with allusion to the lack of Labor Party support of the controversial PM and reference to the 1917 creation of the Australian Nationalist Party in merger between the Commonwealth Liberal Party and National Labor Party formed by Billy Hughes and his supporters after the Labor party split over conscription.

Certainly, the volatility of a time in which there was no neutral political space especially with a looming second plebiscite resulting in even more vitriolic and socially divisive campaigning, is clear. Its authenticity is understandable given the work’s origin. The QSE has been collaborating in partnership with historians from the University of Queensland’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Services who have themselves conducted years of research into the era in Brisbane. The primary and secondary source documentation of letters, newspaper reports and alike, make for a rich and rewarding theatre experience unlike any other.

Many familiar faces from QSE shows bring the work’s characters to life. Matthew Finkins captures the uncompromising passion of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, even though his character is mostly only seen delivering combative radio-bite rhetoric about the freedom of the empire. Ellen Hardisty and Dudley Powell work wonderfully together as young sweethearts Ruby and Robert, who just want to have kisses and cuddles, and intend to stick together no matter what. Meanwhile in a credit to her craft, Lilliana Macarone is absolutely unlikeable as the single-minded and emotionally manipulative Mrs Patterson, with sons fighting overseas and in need of conscripted assistance.

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Also of particular note is Rebecca Murphy who jumps between Irish and ocker Australian characters and accents with ease. The majority of the cast change sometimes rapidly in and out of roles. Although they do it well, apart from occasional line lapses, there is something disjointed about the realisation due to confusion of seeing actors as conflicting characters in consecutive scenes. The nature of the hall’s stage set-up also serves as an early distraction with the sounds of its use initially competing with the show’s dialogue.

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“The Blood Votes” is full of examination of rewarding themes and interesting ideas such as the evolution of the anti-war socialist movement of the Women’s Peace Army in Queensland. And it is rewarding to see women taking centre stage in strong, rational and eloquent debate. In particular, Paige Poulier exemplifies this in her portrayal of warrior peace angel Margaret Thorp, calling for the National Council of Women for persistent vigilance and challenge against the forces of militarism. While the different protective perspectives of the time’s women may be in some way expected, surprise comes from the involvement of the time’s institutions such as the church, ‘because sometimes praying is not enough’.

With so many layers to its truth, “The Blood Votes” is a work sure to evoke emotions, despite the audience luxury of retrospect, whether it be frustration at the loaded language of guilt from self-righteous moralisers, or shock at the still-formidable symbolism of a single white feather. There is also the power of recognition that the more things change the more they stay the same, as, under the War Precautions Act, a mother is arrested, without evidence, for being an enemy alien German with alleged association with anti-conscription agitators.

In its presentation of a piece of local history, “The Blood Votes” at once offers story behind our country’s glamorised Anzac mythology and taps into universal themes. It is, therefore, particularly pleasing to hear of plans to make teaching resources and video of the play available, for this is a work that needs to continue on in life beyond just this season.   

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Anniversary score!

Oklahoma! (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

November 16 – December 1

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If there is one thing people know about Rodgers and Hammerstein, it is that they wrote incredibly catchy songs. This was the case from the musical theatre writing team’s first collaboration “Oklahoma!” and the enduring popularity the show is certainly evident in the capacity audience at Beenleigh Theatre Company’s 40th Anniversary production.

Under Conductor Julie Whiting, the 13-strong orchestra soars the audience through the musical’s memorable melodies in its lush and full overture, as its strings glide us into the opening scene of a golden hazed meadow with corn as high as an elephant’s eye. Even with the buoyancy of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ and ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, however, it takes a little while for the show to find its feet and natural dialogue rhythm of pace and pause to move the story along.

The ground-breaking musical presents a classic narrative: in 1906, in the Native American Territory that wouldn’t become the state of Oklahoma until later that same year, two men, cowboy Curly McLain (Connor Hawkins) and farmhand Jud Fry (Lachlan Clark), fight for the affections of farm girl Laurey Williams (Samantha Paterson).

The book musical evokes a range of audience emotions, including laughter. Allison Pattinson’s comic timing as the no-nonsense, respected community leader Aunt Eller sets this tone alongside Josh Cathcart’s simple, sprightly Will Parker who, having just returned from Kansas City, is full of happy-go lucky youthful exuberance in his quest to keep 50 dollars in his pocket to be allowed to marry the ‘Can’t Say No’ young Ado Annie (Terri Woodfine). Woodfine herself has perhaps the most fun on stage as the flighty, feisty Ado Annie who is in the terrible fix of trying to decide between cowboy Parker and a Persian traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Mike Zarate).

The significance of “Oklahoma!” as a musical milestone in its integration of songs and dances into the story often leads to consideration of only its quaint numbers, however, it is a show full of dark undertones. Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Oklahoma” touches on this, through presentation of ranch hand Jud as more menacing outsider than misunderstood loner. Despite his fearful character, however, Clark allows his voice to shine through. Equally excellent, Hawkins brings a naturalness to his moments as the affable and charming cowboy Curly. His rich and resonant vocals are reminiscent of matinee-idol Howard Keel himself and they provide a solid base for blend with Paterson’s accomplished sound in the romantic duo’s playful duet, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’.

Ultimately, “Oklahoma” is all about the music and some songs work better than others and are rightly reprised. While ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ sets the sunny tone that sweeps the audience into the score, ‘Poor Jud is Dead’, where Curly goes to the squalid shack where Jud lives to talk with him, is despicable in content, with Curly’s suggestion that since Jud does not feel appreciated, he could hang himself. Not only does the scene potentially stand in direct contradiction to any unknowing audience expectations of lightweight entertainment, but it drags an already-long Act One out even more.

Act Two emerges as a livelier affair, uplifting, warm and full of infectious energy. While its fight scenes sometimes fail to connect (#literally), there is much wit to its rousing, brass-filled opening chorus number, ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’. Indeed, the second act zings with humour and song, including the titular celebration of the territory’s impending statehood, which stands as a show highlight thanks to Hawkin’s gusto lead vocals.

Although lighting evokes the varied emotions of the end-of-Act-One dream becoming nightmare sequence that sees a confused Laurey imagining a life with Curly and then Jud, its leisurely choreography is now more nostalgic than innovative. Though not a choreographic highlight like the social dance inspired ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’, the dance still tells a story, so remains necessary for the narrative’s progression.

Although the show is longer than the usual musical length, at over three hours duration, Act Two’s action at least zips along under Mardi Schon’s direction. As such, the tribute to the American frontier seems very much like a show of two distinct halves, dark and torrid subtext and folksy romanticism and optimism of community spirit. The poise between respect and irreverence may not convey a precisely defined vision, but the show’s stylish orchestrations provide a fitting homage, contagiously celebratory in its special anniversary conclusion which, in matinee performance, saw many of the Group’s 1978 cast members joining on stage with the large cast of contemporary counterparts.

Always right on Q

Avenue Q

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 10 – December 22

Before there was “The Book of Mormon” the equally delightfully-offensive “Avenue Q” was wowing musical audiences with its witty combination of childlike whimsy and adult issues. The hilariously vulgar puppet show of sorts features similarly skilful lyrics in its balanced and catchy soundtrack, from the upbeat catchy sounds of ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ to the sentimental reflections of ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College’.

We first meet just-graduated with a B.A. in English, puppet Princeton, he is longing to find his purpose on Avenue Q, a fictional street in an outer-outer New York borough. His neighbours include a number of fun adult and puppet characters, from the sweet Kate Monster to the offensive, reclusive internet-obsessed Trekkie Monster (and no they are not related – you racist). As if living under the control of superintendent, Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) isn’t enough, everyone is struggling with the challenges of life; slacker Nicky and his best friend, Republican investment banker fusspot Rod (who is totally not gay) are having Bert and Erniesque roommate issues, while Princeton’s romance of kindergarten teaching assistant Kate is shaken by skanky chanteuse Lucy the Slut and the temptations encouraged by a couple of bullying Bad Idea Bears.

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The foul-mouthed puppets are operated and voiced by neutrally dressed puppeteers, who are always in full view of the audience, mingling with three human actors. However, the strength of the puppet characterisation and the complexity of their unobtrusive operation mean that the audience quickly forgets about their operators. The cast delivers superb character performances, clearly comfortable multitasking across multiple roles (and multiple puppets). Joshua Moore is particularly effective in his animation of the Ernie-esque Nicky and Cookie-Monster-type Trekkie.

The three ‘human’ characters Christmas Eve (Jordan Boyd), Brian (Matt Shield) and Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) integrate and interact with the puppets with ease. Mead, in particular, nails the sarcasm of her Gary Coleman both vocally and physically. William Toft and Kate Routson are lovely together as protagonist couple Princeton and Kate Monster. Routson’s sweet and tender vocals suit the pure sunshine of her idealistic puppet character and her Act One closer, ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’, in which she responds to commitment-phobic Princeton’s panic with a vow to no more waste her time, serves as a wonderful illustration of this

As with its format, the show’s colourful staging serves as a tribute to familiar children’s shows with a Sesame Street sidewalk of exposed brick New York terraces, however, familiarity with the homage is not essential to the entertainment value of the show. Similarly, dated jokes of a time when the internet was only on desktops and Gary What-you-talking-about-Willis Coleman was still alive still come across as funny. Clever and quirky details also add visual interest throughout, while some details (cue extended, energised puppet sex scene) can never be unseen.

Despite its raunchy hilarity, from its magical opening number, there is a warmth and humour to “Avenue Q”. And it seems that it’s a combination that right up Brisbane’s street, with the loveable furry friends making their fifth and final (for now) outing as one of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s biggest hits. As winner of the ultimate Tony Award trifecta of Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book, the irreverent show is a clever and engaging must-seem perfect for the whole family… if you are okay with your kids seeing full puppet nudity, hearing naughty words and witnessing a furry sex scene. See what the fuzz is all about again until December 22.

Bespoke beauty

Bespoke (Queensland Ballet)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 9 – 17

As the saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” For me, this is especially the case when it comes to the art of dance; I don’t have familiarity with the vocabulary of ballet moves, however, I can appreciate the overall aesthetic of the art form. And aesthetic is what Queensland Ballet’s “Bespoke” is all about.

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In illustration of the company’s varied repertoire, the creative intersection of art forms sets out to challenge assumptions about what dance is, what dancers can do, and how dance is experienced. And in its three-work 2018 attempt to achieve this, it more than succeeds, creating an experience of contrasts for audience consideration.

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Three distinct works by three different choreographers each explore unique themes. But the on-stage works represent just some of the night’s sensory dance experiences. Before even entering the theatre, there is Cass Mortimer Eipeer’s dance film about duality, ‘Brute’ and a photographic exhibition of dancers emerging from darkness, in the Brisbane Powerhouse foyer spaces. The positioning of the contemporary dance program against electronic media is an integral part of the intent of the experience and represents much of its success. This is particularly evident in the evening’s first and most substantial work ‘Parts per Million’ (concept and choreography by Craig Davidson), which looks at human behaviour patterns and the idea of change.

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The vision is of poetry in motion as dancers glide across the stage in formation within lines of light, like the disinterested, indifferent subjects of John Brack’s iconic ‘Collins St, 5pm’ muted oil painting of urban Melbourne’s repetitive nine-to-five office life drudgery. Though there are some visually impressive moments as dancers cannon in movement, the most impressive moves are when they break free from the uniformity in partner and solo work, sometimes in struggle, before ultimately conforming again to what appears to be their pre-determined course.

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Movement is lyrical, yet deliberate with dancers all showing disciplined, statuesque control in execution of traditional pointe-technique type moves amidst the essentially contemporary dance sensibility that is signposted by a soundscape (composer Nicholas Robert Thayer) of evocative strings rising through dramatic percussion to a jazzy resolution.

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There are some powerful moments too as lighting (Cameron Goerg Designer) is used to create stunning silhouettes against the industrial backdrop of the heritage-listed location. Light and shade are used metaphorically and literally throughout the work, such as when the ensemble dance in the dark, in a scene of added interest, that could have been enhanced beyond just a front-row treat by having at least low lighting on dancers’ feet.

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And when light shines its awareness to force change from conformity, structure and content are subverted, especially when a portable screen is glided across the stage as part of the action.

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The second work, Jack Lister’s ‘B-Sides’, is a contrast of colour and Creole opening sounds as dancers shimmy and shake their way through a selection of popular artists from the 1960s, complete with retro vinyl end-of-record sounds. Taking advantage of the large Powerhouse Theatre space, three art installation type block colour rooms of yellow, blue and red serve as settings for some of number’s stories.

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The narrative through-lines are easy to follow; a woman in red anguishes about in angular angst in reaction to spying a man in similar coloured dress, sultrying with a woman in blue to Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’. Again, expectations are subverted though, with share of an alternative point of view as attention switches to the assumedly cheating woman’s partner in blue, alone.

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Behind the imagined closed doors of the coloured rooms, a lot is happening as a male dancer dons the cheating woman’s dress in lyrical plea to ‘just let me be yourself’, to the exhilaration of ‘You Don’t Own Me’. As partners are mixed, physical strengths are showcased as dancers ascend and hang from compartment walls. Despite the provocation of duets within the confines, the overriding feeling is one of vibrancy and fun with New Orleans colour and movement touched by tango and step dancing dynamism.

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The final work, ‘Carbon Field’ also makes excellent use of the vast stage space. The collaboration between Queensland Ballet and Expressions Dance Company showcases both steely strength and subtle fragility in its exploration of duality. Hued together, the masse of dances ebb and flow like the ocean, spilling in ripples and crashing in pattern on the stage before netting themselves outstretched across its expanse in joined limbs.

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There is an immediate organic feel to Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography as the dancers dome together tightly like a diamond before relaxing vulnerably into the carbon of all living things. The continuous movement means everything is interesting, even the effect of the work’s muted common costumes of grey, black and white, with individual details.

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With such rich aesthetic interest, “Bespoke” is not only an engaging experience but a provocative one. And while its two interval format may be to enable to substantial set changes required for each number, it also provides wonderful opportunities to discuss personal reactions to and interpretations of the works’ intended messages.

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Everything about the evening is high calibre and the fact that it comes at such as accessible ticket price can only be an added bonus. Indeed, “Bespoke” represents all that needs to be celebrated about contemporary ballet and Queensland Ballet should be commended for not only producing high quality, beautiful dance such as that on show in this program, but also for their contribution to the landscape of the art form through the ongoing creation of new and impressive works.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Romeboy reimagining

Julius Caesar (USC Theatre and Performance)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 7 – 10

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Before its traditional opening festivities of Roman commoners celebrating their ruler’s defeat of the sons of his military rival, Jo Roth’s “Julius Caesar” begins with a song. As Soothsayer Lucinda Shaw’s smoky ‘Never ‘til Now’ lures the audience into her fortune tell to the great Roman general and senator to beware the Ideas of March as a prophesied death day. It is a surprisingly intimate and still start to the show as the characters group together on stage before flurrying into the nooks and crannies of the opened-up Visy Theatre’s post-apocalyptic setting, for contemporary civilisation as we know it has collapsed and amidst the ruins, a group of storytellers present Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to examine where humanity went wrong.

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Though there is never really as sense of anarchy, the story’s aggression and energy soon emerges despite the typically-testosterone-charged play being presented with gender-blind casting. With a dystopian aesthetic emphasised by Mad-Maxish dark costumes of buckles, boots and leather accents, this is clearly not a traditional take of the historical psychological drama of tragic hero Brutus’s conflicting honour, patriotism and friendship. Musical additions, especially ongoing instrumental guitar compositions performed by Daley Smith create an evocative soundscape but are unnecessary distractions.

Appropriately, however, the music stops once Brutus is persuaded by the other senators to join in an assassination plot to murder Caesar before he can become a tyrant. The beautifully stylised assassination scene, is a highlight, bathed in the red as perfect illustration of how lighting guides the audience through the emotions of story’s themes of fate and free will, even if it is less effective in its initial rudimentary representation of the mighty-god fire of a thunderstorm raining lightning fire over Rome.

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Michelle Lamarca makes for a striking Caesar from her initial Act One entrance, showing composure and vocal control befitting a military leader. However, the play isn’t so much about Caesar himself, but the effect of his dictatorship and conspiracy plan through assassination to aftermath. And the other performers convey the story with passion. Ross Miller, in particular, is excellent as the impulsive nobleman Cassius. The play’s Shakespearean language sits conversationally in his mouth as he changes pitch and tone to make meaning and emotion clear without the sometimes overly-laboured phrases of some others. His delivery is precise yet flexible, not only vocally but through his inhabit of movement and gesture and another highlight is his early conversation with his friend, Brutus, in attempt to persuade him that, in the best interests of the public, Caesar must be stopped from becoming monarch, even if some second-night slips from Brutus (Angel Kosch) detract from their later interactions.

The show’s most impressive performance moment comes courtesy of Rainee Skinner as Mark Anthony, Caesar’s most loyal supporter, imploring his friends, Romans and countrymen to lend their ears. The grand oration scene is impressive in both delivery and design; Skinner is perfectly simmering in share of Antony’s most famous political achievement, conveying an engaging light-and-shade approach to its energy and emotion. It’s an impressive section of the play as the eight-person cast successfully conveys a sense of mob mentality as they enter into the audience to hear Brutus’s defence of his own actions and then Mark Antony’s subtle and eloquent reminder of Caesar’s humility and trust of those who turned on him.

“Julius Caesar” is a play of great lines, containing some of the most famous of Shakespearean quotes and this production is a quality showcase of, not only the play’s great moments, but its endurance, because as the closest thing Shakespeare wrote to a political thriller, the tale of “Julius Caesar” still has things to say to a modern audience, especially in its illustration of how tyrants don’t recognise their own oppression. Indeed, there is much to enjoy in the play and this reimagining alike; its accessibility is appealing to those new to the story and its highlight performances of key scenes are satisfying to Shakespearean purists and lovers of language alike.

Gap year ardour

Neon Tiger (A La Boite Production in Association with Brisbane Powerhouse)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 27 – November 17

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“Neon Tiger” is billed as the ‘adult gap year you never knew you needed’ and set to the beat of Bangkok, the musical love story promises karaoke, travel and romance. Rather than presenting a hustle and bustle travel tale of the tourist mecca, however, the two-hander tells an intimate account of an arduous and relatable relationship. Brisbane girl Andy (Lisa Hanley), is a struggling indie singer-songwriter working in a Bangkok nightclub, the titular Neon Tiger, when she meets holidaying Thai American woman Andy (Courtney Stewart). They are both searching for something beneath the surface and so, in the heat of the city they explore together, they fall in love, despite their individual character contrasts.

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It’s a charming enough story that is well-paced to play out in what feels like a personal experience. Its examination of human nature under pressure serves as a celebration of emotions rather than intellectual notions or ideological positions, which makes for an easy, entertaining theatre experience. Easy does not mean predictable though and its refreshing take of the tried-and-true odd couple story is appealing as it offers a sober assessment of the relationships of youth without a clichéd conclusion. And while what is ultimately presented is a love story, it is far from just froth and bubble as the show also touches on big issues such as sexuality, culture and racism.

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The script is authentic too in its loyalty to the language of the protagonists rather than heightened, witty or poetic musings, which brings about laughter, especially as the characters banter back and forth in one-liners to the audience as they each recount their contrasting individual experiences and interpretations of common events. And although initially, switches between dual narration and conversational dialogue are jarring, ultimately, they work as a way into later emotional conflict.

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Courtney Stewart and Lisa Hanley are successful in portraying the stories of these two very different women, aimless avoider Andy and the controlled and controlling Arisa. Whether you find them familiar or frustrating, the fact that they are real enough to evoke such responses is a testament to the talent of both actors.

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Although the work was commissioned and developed by the Brisbane Powerhouse, in its La Boite Theatre world-premiere season, “Neon Tiger” works well in the in-the-round space. Indeed, the story is enhanced by a simple, yet versatile, stage design (Set and Costume Designer Sarah Winter); the multi-leveled contemporary set is at-once functional and atmospheric, allowing for recognisable scenes of night life in the Thai capital in combination with Lighting Designer Andrew Meadows’ lush colour palette. Indeed, its strong sense of place is one of the production’s biggest strengths, understandable perhaps given that the work is the result of a 10-day creative research trip to Bangkok by playwright Julia-Rose Lewis, Director Kat Henry and musical comedian Gillian Cosgriff.

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Eight original musical numbers composed by Cosgriff, generally enhance the texture of the show, although an early hip-hop number feels jarringly out of place. There is a good balance of drama and music, meaning that when Hanley picks up a guitar to share Andy’s version of events in sometimes-quirky song, it seems entirely natural.

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While intellectually-challenging and emotionally-stimulating theatre can be invigorating, there is also always a place for theatre for entertainment’s sake. The warm and endearing “Neon Tiger” stands both as testament to this draw-you-in appeal and evidence that with regards to its 2018 season, La Boite has certainly saved the best for last.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

First nation circus conversations

Chasing Smoke (Casus Circus and Cluster Arts in Partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

October 23 – November 3

Contemporary circus as an art form is a notion pioneered in Queensland. Its ongoing fashion is also certainly evident, especially in works such as Casus Circus’ award-winning “Chasing Smoke”, featuring Australia’s only Indigenous contemporary circus ensemble led by Casus co-founder Netano Faanana. The 2017 Green Room Award winner for Best Contemporary Circus delivers upon the expectation that comes with this acclaim in many ways as it presents tales from the world’s oldest living culture, told passionately by dreamtime story descendants, re-imagined through circus and comedy for a 2018 context.

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The first Australian circus performers, Lara Croydon, Ally Humphries, Harley Mann, Jack Sheppard, Dylan Singh and Pearl Tia Thompson are certainly talented, embodying an impressive balance of grace and power in their striking aerial, dance and floor-based routines. This is particularly the case when joined together as an ensemble, pyramiding atop each other or walking, as one performer, does, across the heads of a line of others. Individually, they demonstrate a range of skills, from Dylan Singh’s gymnastic circus core strength and controlled energy to Ally Humphris’s beautifully-lyrical dance flexibility. Indeed, the show’s standout sequences come courtesy of individual routines, as performers attempt to answer the show’s essential thematic question ‘who am I?, as they each move to the soundtrack of a pre-recorded monologue share of their connection to country. More than just this, these deeply personal and often moving moments, also reveal pain and family trauma in their explanation of the multi-generational effects of government policy.

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What isn’t quite as successful are the show’s sketch comedy sequences, which feel comparatively heavy-handed. Comedy does work on some occasions, however; for example, when initially confused song content choices are quickly revealed to be quite clever as Pearl Tia Thompson expertly lip-syncs and circuses the audience through an eclectic mashup of songs from artists like Kermit the Frog, Destiny’s Child and Midnight Oil, all the while with running costumes changes.

Certainly there is an infectious energy to many of the show’s segments, however, in curation together, they sometimes lack fluent cohesion, which results in a confused overall identity (ironically, given the show’s intent). The opening and closing scenes of “Chasing Smoke”, in particular pull no punches in their discomforting thought-provocation, directly addressing clichés of Aboriginal life and concluding with a cooking segment as a metaphor for racial prejudice. However, such overt self-awareness serves only to starkly contrast the tone of other sections sandwiched in between.
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In its examination of identity, adversity and achievement, “Chasing Smoke” is a good show. It could, however, be a great show with a more paired-back and edited approach, rather than a more-is-more onslaught of ideas, especially given its only hour-long duration. Still, while it is not the slickest of shows, its enthusiastic and talented cast give it a core appeal that allows its share of personal stories through circus, comedy and physical theatre to either ignite or re-engage conversations around its issues.