Sexism, satire and suggestion

NSFW (Underground Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 13 – 22

“NSFW”, the final 2016 work from Underground Productions, at first seems enigmatically titled, until its acronym is explained. NSWF stands for Not Safe For Work and refers to the kind of online material employees should not be accessing in the workplace. It is a grubby premise reflected in its opening scene in the offices of Doghouse men’s magazine, fit out, as they are, with sporting equipment and memorabilia, and provocative cover posters of bare-breasted posers. The employees swear and make sexual suggestions, all within just the opening few minutes … but that’s all ok, because it is all just a joke right?

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To the entitled employee Rupert (Kell Andersen) who claims of discrimination against his privilege and upends furniture in temper tantrum, it is all light-hearted.  Maybe not so for Charlotte (Olivia Hall-Smith) who lies to her woman’s group about where she works; it is not her dream but it’s something for her cv, it pays the rent and she just likes working. Tactical repositioning of the brand is put aside when it is revealed that well-meaning junior Sam (Matt McInally) has accidentally okayed topless cover shots of ‘local lovely’ Carrie, who is in fact only 14.


As Rupert relishes in Sam’s error, it evolves that this is an unappealing story of unlikeable characters, not improved when Carrie’s job seeker dad (Greg Andreas) arrives to be callously manipulated into accepting a payoff from the magazine’s smooth operator boss Aiden (Rijen Mulgrew).


The commitment of all performers is admirable. Andreas brings a modest realism to the role of Carrie’s dad, distanced from his daughter thanks to divorce and fully aware of her faults but wanting to protect her nevertheless. McInally is excellent as the awkward but essentially good buy Sam, sacked from Doghouse after the incident. His after-intermission monologue about the appeal of a sharing his life space with his girlfriend is moving in the honesty of its delivery.


After a rushed resolution to this starting story, the audience follows Sam to the show’s second story, when, after months of unemployment he is being interviewed for another low-paid magazine position, this time at women’s glossy Electra. It initially appears to be another world to that of Doghouse, filled with champagne, free samples and a readership who ‘likes to think’, but before long it emerges that things are not so different after all.

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Here the corruption of values is embodied by editor Miranda (Jessica Palfrey) who, like any great mean girl, manipulates others into submission of agreement. The belief at Electra is that perfection is isolating and that any anxiety is valid. Accordingly, to qualify for the job, Sam is required to look at pictures of famous women and identify their physical flaws.


From here the show staggers to its finish, with some scenes dragging a little past attention, such as when Miranda (yes, the script features a Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda), is going through ritual of getting ready in her office to a longer-than-needed Whitney Houston soundtrack. There are times too when more attention is needed to moving Lucy Kirkwood’ work from its UK origins, as references to the Broncos and Bulldogs for example, only highlight the still-Britishness of mention of UK make-over queens Trinny and Susannah.

Although inconsistent in its engagement, “NSFW” is more than just a satirical attack on the world of magazine journalism. Its juxtaposition of the brash world of Doghouse and Electra’s more passively aggressive approach, not only highlights the hypocrisy of sexism, but suggests that there is still much to talk about in relation to sexual harassment and the media’s objectification of women.

Photos c/o –

TS truths and then some

Backstage in Biscuit Land (Tourettes Hero)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 19 – 23

When the audience is led in a pre-show round of ‘heads, nipples, knees and toes… (knees and toes)’ by Jess Mabel Jones it is not even the strangest bit of the beginning of “Backstage in Biscuit Land”. The stage is cluttered with a range of random items, picked by its star, Jess Thom in the show’s planning stages … an anvil, circular saw, picture of Mother Teresa, a cartoon-faced bin with a cape and more.

Soon things are in the safe but unpredictable hands of Thom, artist, writer and part-time superhero who has the neurological condition Tourette’s Syndrome, which means she has movements, sounds (such as saying the word biscuit… which she does 16 000 times a day) and tics she cannot control. The show allows her to share her unique perspective on life it has provided her, through comedy, puppetry and song.

Thom’s assistant Chopin (Jess Mabel Jones), is also on stage to help out and do her best to keep things on track, a near impossible task as things venture to all sorts of strange places, from repeated lamppost abuse to talk of marriage to an egg, trigonometry teachers, toadstools, Trump bashing and a flirtatious Swiss talking wheelchair … which make for some interesting signs from Auslan interpreter Melinda Bush. There are poignant parts too as Thom, speaking from her wheelchair (necessitated by her tics) and beating her chest involuntarily, talks about what her tics feel like, recounts the upsetting experience of being unwelcomed as a theatre-goer and creates some strawberry stage carnage as she shows the difficulty she experiences in eating.


“Backstage in Biscuit Land” is an absolutely unique theatrical experience, beginning as it does with explanation of what to do if the performer has a fit on stage. And the result is an absolutely wonderful, though occasionally obscene (but only amusingly so) show from a vibrant, engaging performer. Thom not only achieves her ambition of demythologising the stereotype of Tourette’s but in doing so, she gives audiences an hour of unrestricted fun … even if it is at the expense of a family secret and accidental talk of Chopin’s mum’s tits. The best thing is that all shows AUSLAN interpreted and every performance is ‘relaxed’ to welcome people who find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre behaviour, making for a more dynamic theatrical experience.. at once crazy, surreal, uplifting and moving. And if that is not enough, there is even some biscuits on offer.

Photo c/o – James Lyndsay

Streetcar satisfaction

A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 15 – November 12

Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an epic work. With the addition of musical accompaniment and interludes, La Boite’s version of the classic pushes out to almost three hours, which becomes a big ask as Act One languishes towards its 90 minute conclusion. Although it competes with opening scene dialogue, the music (featuring vocals by Crystal West) adds to the sultry atmosphere of Louisiana featuring as it does original songs composed by Guy Webster, mixed with more well-known numbers, such as (like in the 2014 London revival) a perfectly placed ‘Wicked Game’…. But it seems like an unnecessary addition to a work that already sizzles with laden dialogue and a tension-filled Act Two in which its performances ultimately prevail in ensuring audience absorption.


The Pultizer Prize winning story begins with the unannounced arrival of faded and damaged but well-put-together southern belle Blanche Du Boise (Bridie Carter) from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella (Ngoc Phan) and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley (Travis McMahon) in their claustrophobic two bedroom New Orleans flat. Uncomfortable in the surrounds of her sister’s low-rent address, delicately-mannered English teacher Blanche talks feverishly, self-obsessively and insensitively about Stella’s circumstance. ‘I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it!’ she says, along with explanation that she has left her employment mid-term, at the suggestion of her school superintendent, due to exhaustion induced by her nerves. From the outset, however, Stanley suspects that there is more to Blanche’s story and sets upon a quest to cruelly expose her genteel façade.


The sense of a stifling New Orleans abounds. The raked stage is canvas to the rhythmic shadow of a languidly rotating ceiling fan and Guy Webster’s sound design regularly sends streetcars clattering past, even during intermission, which is a nice touch. Ben Hughes’ lighting design adds an initial warm to the two basic rooms of the Kowalski home, but also later lyricism to Blanche’s dreamy-blue, attempted seduction of an uncomfortable young man who comes to the door to collect money for the paper, turning the text’s evocative stage directions into a distinct experience.


All of this play’s iconic characters have their flaws and the diverse, talented cast brings them all to well-formed life, even down to their distinctly Southern accents, thanks to accent and dialect coach Melissa Agnew. La Boite newcomer Phan is excellent as a Stella torn between her diametrically opposed husband and sister, but ultimately in love an loyal to Stanley and his coarse behaviour. And her anguish in the final scenes is heartbreaking.


Self-delusional and highly-strung Blanche is one of the great tragic figures of the modern stage and Carter certainly does her justice in a portrayal that captures both her breezy pretension and desperate loneliness and hurt. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, this increasingly unkept Blanche is both fragile creature and feisty fighter, and Carter conveys each layer perfectly, especially in her doomed monologue to sensitive suitor Mitch (Colin Smith) about her desperate desire for magic.


McMahon brings a rough primitivism to the (by his own admission) unrefined, simple and straightforward Stanley, both in his rowdy poker game participation and by bellowing ‘Stella’ into the night after striking his wife and causing her to flee upstairs to apartment building owner Eunice (Parmis Rose). Although initially more bogan than brutish, he brings personality and clarity to the text to illustrate Stanley’s contrast to Blanche’s demure demeanour, making some early lines feel as fresh as if they are being said for the first time.


And from his first brief line in Scene One, Smith is simply lovely as the gentlemanly Mitch, more sensitive than Stanley’s other poker friends, obliging to Blanche’s every vain whim, despite never having gotten more than a goodnight kiss in return.


“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a tough play of complex relationships and almost 70 years after it was first written, it still leaves audiences with much to consider in assessment of whether it is Stanley or Blanche herself who is more to blame for Blanche’s ultimate ruin. In addition, the relevance of its themes of domestic violence and mental health issues, so problematic in our modern society, makes it resonate strongly. By adding a little humour to its ultimate despair, this production makes it an accessible, albeit lengthy show, sure to leave audiences satisfied.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans Photography

D-mark dangers

Hamlet (heartBeast)

Spring Hill Reservoirs

October 7 – 21

At 4000 lines, “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is Shakespeare’s longest and most demanding play. So to have audiences in effect stand for its 2.5 hour duration is asking a lot. Luckily the location of heartBeast’s latest work provides numerous nooks and crannies to add interest in support of its staging, initially at least.

With the world at war, underground, the monarchy of D-Mark faces its final desperate days. In their bunker, audiences come face-to-face with the characters of Shakespeare’s story as they follow its action through the gothic spaces of the Spring Hill Reservoir. It is an engaging premise, organically immersive in the way that characters perform amongst an audience that moves with them between the historic underground chambers to witness each scene and eventually travel full circle back to where it all began, only this time shaded with the silence of a slain protagonist, and others. More than voyeurism, the premise allows audience members to control the level of intimacy, choosing as they may to perch up-close upon the various stools and crates scattered about the space or stand back to observe not just the main action but the other character interactions continuing in the backgrounds.


Ambiance arises from the unique and sometimes shadowy surroundings of the almost 150 year old venue, unused for 50 years until 2014. The reservoir’s acoustics suit, for example, Prince Hamlet’s (David Paterson) shouty Act One angry damnation of his mother Gertrude (Adrienne Costello), who has married his uncle Claudius (Patrick Farrelly) within a month of his father’s death and allow for an effective ghostly intervention from the slain King courtesy of an effective acoustics and lighting mix.

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Eerie lighting and reverberating sounds suit its futuristic dystopian setting, made clear from Jaqueline Kerr’s punk-inspired Mad Maxish garbage bag costumes. Although Paul Young’s sound design adds tension, unfortunately the soundscape sometimes competes with the language and action on stage, such as in Hamlet’s ‘to be or not be’ soliloquy contemplation of death and suicide, which in interesting in its delivery as he lies upon the floor.


All cast members do a decent job in this physical work. Every Hamlet has a different truth and Paterson’s Hamlet is brattish rather than bitter from the beginning… hardly likeable and eliciting little audience empathy. In contrast to his self-proclaimed teenage misery, his over-the-top enactment of his intent to act ‘strange or odd’  in feign of madness in order to confuse and disconcert those around him, is more droll than determined, contrasting with Jane Schon’s bewitching Ophelia, especially in response to being ordered to a nunnery by her then misogynistic potential husband.


Farrelly brings a particular presence as antagonist Claudious, playing him less as conscientious politician and more as passionate man fed up with his nephew, now step-son’s corruption of his newly-created world, at times consuming the space with his reverberating vocals. And James Trigg is a determined Laertes, showing impressive stagecraft in his final avenge of the deaths of his father and sister.


To some degree, any “Hamlet” can be a dangerous undertaking. While, ambitious, this one seems to be a wasted opportunity to bring a traditional Elsinore Castle to life in the aesthetically accommodating surroundings of the Spring Hill Reservoir space. Rather than being absorbed by the skilful language in shape of the story’s reality, audiences can easily be distracted by the unnecessary dystopian devices that see, for example, weapons alternating between modern firearms and those of traditional swordplay. Still, the spirit and energy of the piece are enough to win over many with its up close and personal presentation of this new take on Hamlet’s world.

Perfect Pulitzer provocation

Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presents a Melbourne Theatre Company Production)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 14 – November 6

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“Disgraced” starts as a sophisticated evening, even down to the pre-show jazzy sounds of Kurt Elling. It befits its setting of a cozy, cocooned New York elite high-life that exists in at least the beginning of this sharply-paced 90 minute, one-act play that won its first-time playwright, novelist and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

On track for partnership in a Jewish law firm, high-flying lawyer Amir Kapoor (Hazem Shammas) lives with his artist wife Emilyh (Matilda-Award winning Libby Munro) in a spacious Upper East Side apartment. As a lapsed Pakistani Muslim, he is critical of Islam, even though his Anglo-American wife champions Islamic achievements in history and uses its motifs in her artwork. Urged by her, he responds to his nephew Abe’s (Kane Felsinger) pressure to support an imam accused of raising money for terrorism, an act that does not come without consequences.


The fallout occurs at a dinner party that includes initially easy-flowing intellectual small talk until the cardinal rule is broken and over fennel salad, conversation turns to politics and religion, as the couple is joined by Amir’s African American work colleague Jory (Zindzi Okenya) and her Jewish art dealer partner Isaac (Mitchell Butel) who has been inspecting Emily’s work with view to its potential inclusion in a lucrative exhibition.


Despite beings set in America, “Disgraced” is far from an American play, thanks to Akhtar’s confronting and dramatic yet witty script, which not only creates robust conversations, but simmers tension in the group’s interpersonal dynamics. So crafted is the script that the cleverness of its inter-connectedness of ideas is perhaps best realised after post-viewing contemplation about the similarity of Amir and Isaac, both striving to exist in rebellion to their upbringing, yet returning to the beliefs of their family’s faith in their argument’s full flight.


In exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudice around Islam, “Disgraced” is as contemporary as drama gets. Yet its exploration of identity brings an added relevance through its insight into human nature and the gaps between what we consider as our truth and what we censor to enable our existence in the modern world. And given the crisis of identity upon which our Australian national self is arguably built, there is much to reflect upon in consideration of intrinsic notions of race.

Under Nadia Tass’s direction, a stellar cast makes this confronting contemporary political drama truly absorbing; they all give measured performances of characters that might, in lesser hands have been simple stereotypes and their realisation of the different New York accent details (thanks to voice and dialect coach Suzanne Heywood), for example, add a musicality to the dialogue delivery. Shammas is brilliant as Amir, as he becomes the antithesis of what he has believed himself to be. And his interaction with Okenyo’s spirited Jory, brings incredible realism to their co-worker dynamic.


In a play about relationships shaped by bigger issues, Munro takes the audience on the biggest journey and she shines in the role, lighting her character’s passion about her artwork from within and rising to the articulate occasion in defence of accusations of her work, influenced by the mosques of Moorish Spain, being orientalist. And her compassionate interactions with Felsinger’s Abe, whose appearances bookend the play, gives her character another appealing dimension and humanity.


A strong aesthetic creates a powerful performance space. Indeed, the design team has created an atmosphere that doesn’t ever distract from the actors or arguments. Shaun Gurton’s single set stage design is detailed to realistically represent the apartment in which Amir and Emily would live – from its shelves packed with hardcover art and architecture books, the scotch on the sideboard and tagine on a kitchen or butler’s pantry shelf way in the background.


And staging is well-supported by Russell Goldsmith and Daniel Nixon’s cinematic soundscape of New York noise and a lighting design (courtesy of designer Nigel Levings) whose evocation is most apparent in its stunning conclusion, focusing the audience on a final image of a tragic hero of mythic proportions, undone by equal parts circumstance and his own weakness.


In the examination of socio-political themes such as Islamophobia and Muslim-American self-identity, “Disgraced” offers much provocation to further discussion of the prejudices towards Islam that exist in even the most enlightened cultural circles and it is easy to appreciate its Pulitzer Prize receipt. It is an exceptional play that serves as an important reminder of why the world needs theatre, brilliantly realised to create an intense and absorbing experience for its audience members.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography

Coming out celebrations

24 Ways to Say I’m Gay (Studio B)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast, The Space

October 7 – 8

“24 Ways to Say I’m Gay” packs a lot into its hour(ish) running time; the show sees eight actors becoming 55 characters as it takes its audience on a sometimes humorous, sometimes confronting look at what it means to be gay through its presentation of a kaleidoscope of stories on coming out.. And it is entirely fitting that the show, which is an abridged version of award winning Australian Playwright Wayne Tunks’ play “37 Ways to Say I’m Gay”, appears as part of the Gold Coast’s Glitter Festival, now in its second year, an arts event that embraces and celebrates diversity, and encourages freedom of expression.

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 Over its 17 short plays, the show presents a range of sometimes revisited stories that vary in setting and sentiment, taking audiences from Dave the Caveman to modern day gym junkies via Ancient Egyptian innuendo. Whether rural or urban, or set in church, hospital, farmhouse of the halls of political power, the range of relationships on display showcase a variety of different dynamics, including a lot from within family groups. This leads to some poignancy amongst the extensively young male stories, such as when a young gay man’s suicide is covered up and when an AIDS patient clinging to life is rejected by his disapproving family.

Overwhelmingly, however, the stories are upbeat, helped by the joyful song snippets of the Spice Girl and Backstreet Boys breed that punctuate the stories. And there is much humour to the larger groups scenes especially, such as interview of an ‘are they or aren’t they’ boy band and expose of homophobia within gym members.

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Performances all show emotional sincerity, staying on the right side of the often fine line between character and caricature. Taylor Seage is engaging as a school captain speaking out about inequality in a topical scene and Johnny Haselam is very funny in straight man role (no pun intended) as a clergyman in the concluding scenes. While Gabriella Flowers and Jacob Langmack, work well together, displaying a good dynamic in different mother and son scenarios.

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“24 Ways to Say I’m Gay” is a simple, yet honest production about issues that in the current national climate have perhaps never been of more relevance. Far from being stereotypical, superficial portrayals, its gay characters represent hints of discrete, rounded characters, which cements its artistic importance as an opportunity to educate and celebrate in relation to important social issues.

Death, daughters and dysfunction

The Memory of Water (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

October 7 – 29

Like many great tragicomedies, the action of New Farm Nash Theatre’s “The Memory of Water” revolves around dysfunctional family members reunited in a time of high emotions. In this case it is a funeral as three sisters, with little left in common, reunite in their childhood Northern-England home in mid-winter to bury their mother. As the trio attempts to confirm funeral arrangements and pack up her things, they banter and bicker, often over whose memories are the truest, which links to both the work’s title and theme of memory.

The title of the award winning play comes from the principal behind homeopathy that water can ‘remember’ the properties of a substance even after it has been diluted. While it is declared early in the play, that ‘all memory is false’, it is soon apparent that, as far as the sisters are concerned, it is perhaps preferable for some memories to stay hidden.

The eldest of the three, bossy Teresa (Carrie O’Rouke) is predominantly practical and responsible (until a few swigs of whisky loosen her lips about some family secrets). The most intellectual, educated and complex of the characters, middle sister Mary (Debra Bela) is a doctor, specialising in neurology but is haunted by spectral vision of her green-taffeta dressed mother Vi (Samantha Townsend), a ‘virtual’ character that exists only in Mary’s imagination of how she was thirty years earlier. And as the play’s central character, Mary, perhaps appropriately, has the sharpest dialogue and is very witty in her sarcasm.

Free-spirited Catherine (Anna Ibbotson) is the youngest. Her self-obsessed life is one of inhibition, drugs and alcohol but little social awareness, making her intrinsically comical, especially in her ongoing aim to attract particularly male attention. Teresa’s long-suffering second, shouty, husband also Frank (Gary Kliger) appears, as does Mary’s married lover (Renaud Jadin).


The result is much comedy, particularly from Teresa and Catherine’s often outrageous antics, but also some moments of pathos such as when Teresa makes mention of how mother’s memory was ravaged by Alzheimer’s and when in her final ghostly appearance, Vi longs for one last dance (even if, all things considered, her character’s appearances do not add a lot to the play). Mary’s preoccupation, however, is with finding a tin containing evidence of secrets shared with her mother even from her father, revealed to the audience as propriety unravels.

Under the direction of Sharon White, Renaud Jadin and Gary Kliger both give restrained and polished performances in their minor roles, but the play belongs to the women. As the smart-mouthed Mary, waiting for her Spring, Debra Bela is a particular standout, entirely credible in accent and inflections and giving great delivery of the clever comments that pepper her dialogue. And Carrie O’Rourke warms up to a very funny drunken scene.

Fighting one minute and laughing the next, the sisters seem to gang up on each other as much as they rally together against becoming versions of their mother, conveying a sincere family dynamic. This is especially evidenced in a glorious scene that begins with bagging up the contents of Vi’s wardrobe for charity, but ends with the three, dressed up in the vintage costumes, collapsed on the bed in collective mirth. As should be the case for a play that was named Best New Comedy at the 1996 Oliviers, the dialogue is very funny, right from Teresa’s recall of when news of Vi’s death was received.

The entire play takes place in Vi’s dated bedroom (complete with symbolic crack in its wall), where Mary is sleeping (but only with the light on and in secure knowledge that her mother did not die in the bed), with significant use of duologue scenes to develop each character’s story and only one significant time shift to allow Vi’s coffin to be brought to the house. This leads to the biggest disappointment of its staging, as, placed front of the stage, the coffin then blocks some audience member’s views of the characters in conversation and interaction in the set behind. Audience members are also alienated by the opening scene between Mary and Vi as it is not immediately clear that Vi is Mary’s recently deceased mother, despite her costume and the garish green lighting that accompanies her supernatural scenes.

Shelagh Stephenson’s “The Memory of Water” is an accessible and very entertaining work and Nash Theatre’s production more than does its excellent script justice. In its realisation of the story of the three sisters attempting to deal with the fallout of their shared, but differently remembered, family history, it presents Brisbane audiences with a theatrical experience that is both provocative and hilarious.