Before, after and always Chekhov

Chekov’s First Play (Dead Centre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 21 – 23

From its at-door sign warning of loud, sudden noises, coarse language, nudity, sexual references, pyrotechnics and smoking on stage, it is easy to recongise that Dead Centre’s “Chekhov’s First Play” is going to be take audiences far from the usual Chekov places. Yet still, in its disassembling of the great Russian playwright’s work, as well as theatre itself, the play takes its audiences to some surprising but ultimately superb places.

The show begins somewhat traditionally, apart from the fact that audience members are all wearing headphones in order to obtain Bush Moukarzel’s audio director’s commentary. This allows, he claims, for him to unclutter the complicated work and, accordingly, his words include sippets of explanation of its play’s subtext, highlight the universality and thus modernity of its metaphors about property and clarify the dramatic concept of Chekhov’s gun… providing the cast don’t muck it up by accidently skipping a few pages of dialogue. There is humour too as he makes metatheatrical observations regarding the actors, such as in reaction to their underplay of lines, moving towards offer of his opinion of them, including their flaws.

The soap-opera story of Anton Chekov’s first play, “Platonov”, which he started writing ‘before he was Chekhov’ at just 18 years of age, is of the widowed Anna Petrovna who can no longer afford the upkeep on her giant house (represented by Andrew Clancy’s imposing and immaculate redbrick set) and the benefactor trying to woo her despite her love belonging to another, already married man. At five hours in unadapted form (thanks to 83 scenes) and with a 20 character cast and multiple themes, the ambitiously complicated play is generally accepted as unstageable.

But this is far from a traditional telling, and not just due to the headphones. Things begin to change towards the abstract when the obscure Platonov arrives on stage, with the actors slipping in and out of character. As they await and then laud Platonov’s arrival, the Chekhovian language begins to breakdown; as Chinese takeaway is ordered, mention of traditional superstition is googlised and talk even turns to Kim and Kanye. Chaos soon ensures as the show’s stately staging is wrecked (literally) and the gun reappears. And it works… mainly due to Platonov, the central character, who does not utter a single word as the world implodes around him. To say more would be to ruin the impressive imagery and pack-a-punch impact of the work’s modern application of its after and always themes of ownership, translated too within a feminist discourse. All cast members are impressive, whether performing the naturalism of Chekhov’s original script or when within the heightened melodrama of later lip-synced sections.

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“Chekhov’s First Play” is a hugely inventive work, not just in the realisation of its rebuild from the broken down fragments of its source material, but its concept of modern examination of a classic and show that the leading character can be any of us. Like “An Oak Tree” and Gob Squad’s “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good”, with a bit of last year’s “Confidence Man”, “Chekhov’s First Play” creates a truly memorable and though-provoking theatrical experience through its insightful reconciliation of Chekhov’s trademark naturalism with the commotion of our everyday world. Go for the comfort of its classic premise but stay for the challenge of its shattering of preconceptions. And then share your thoughts so that others might also join in the incredible privilege we have to be seeing such acclaimed work from this year’s ‘Irish Rebellion’ Brisbane Festival Artists in residence.

Photo c/o – http://brisbanepowerhouse.org

Limitation of life

Lippy (Dead Centre)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 14 – 17

Dead Centre’s “Lippy” is very much a festival show, fascinating in its inception and powerful in its execution, but far from everyone’s cup of tea.

Things begin on a slither of stage ahead of a projection screen. The setup of three chairs and a tech station (manned by Adam Welsh) on stage feels quite Brechtian in a way that suits its later meta-theatre mentions of the work’s one act approach (intermissions seem to be out of fashion these days). But it also suits its clever introductory premise of presuming people are gathered for a post-show discussion led by the work’s writer, Bush Moukarzel as a moderator of sorts. This is perhaps the show’s most interesting section as online and movie clips are shared by Mark O’Halloran in explanation of the nature and limitations of lip-reading (context is of considerable importance). And Moukarzel’s interjection references to the Dublin-based company’s first week Brisbane Festival work “Souvenir” make for a nice touch to those who are seeing the Irish artists in resident’s trilogy of shows.

As move is made from focus on putting fake words in powerful people’s mouths (as seen through a hilarious Mick Romney mashup) to the power of trying to put real words back into the mouths of ‘ordinary’ folk, the work’s premise becomes clearer.  Lip reader O’Halloran, talks about his work with police investigating the extraordinarily strange real-life deaths of four women, three sisters and their aunt, apparently by voluntary starvation after barricading themselves in the house they shared in Ireland in 2000. And when he does an onstage demonstration of his skill in interpretation the work merges into the multilayered women’s story, of sorts, through recreation of a crime scene to be inhabited by the women (Joanna Banks, Clara Simpson, Liv O’Donoghue and Ali White).

There are haunting scenes as the women appear to be attempting to destroy evidence of their earlier lives into garbage bags of shredded documents and shattered plates. When they seek to speak, however, their sounds are disjointed and ultimately overcome by white noise. Indeed, application of this reimagining of the family’s final days, is far from realistic. Staging is precise in its chaos, but intriguing in its imagery, for example, when perspective is played with by positioning a table setting, complete with characters around it, up against a wall. Supported by a dynamic soundscape, this creates some powerful moments, none more so than when performers are dragged about like mannequins.

In the hands of Directors Ben Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, there is immense effect in its silences too, as should be the case in a show of such few words. And often throughout its palatable 70 minute duration, audience members find themselves in shared shock within its economy of words and measured pace; it is uncomfortable, but compelling, almost-voyeuristic viewing.

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Things end as the show was conceived, through words, with a final soliloquy shared on screen as just a close up of one of the dead sisters, Catherine’s lips, stimulating memorable imagery (though drawing on Samuel Beckett’s “Not I”) through her evocative statements about being witness to the process as opposed to event of death and of the thoughts of her last living moments.

“Lippy” is far from a joyous work; anticipatory reading of any kind is sure to prepare the audience for its chilly content. And any show with consideration of tough themes like identity and death is sure to give its attendees much to take away in contemplation. The fact that it is based on real-life events, however, not only gives added weight to its ‘art intimating life’ themes, but proves the truth of the adage that truth is often stranger than fiction.

Photo c/o – www.qpac.com

Midsummer mayhem

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 9 – 17

It is a rare thing to be an hour into a show and still have no idea at all where it is going to go. And in the case of Filter Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this is a very good thing, given the absurdity with which the group has taken what is arguably Shakespeare’s most popular and transformed it into a giddy and gleeful postmodern romp.

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That said, it does start a little slowly with, like so many Shakespearean works, a prologue, delivered with true Irish charm, but of frantic pace by Peter Quince (Ed Gaughan). Drifting into tangents about the Royal family, for example, he tells audience members that they are about to enter the Ancient Athens of ‘fantastic architecture and thriving homosexual culture’. He promises that the part of Bottom is meant to be played by a famous actor, but a technical hitch means that an ‘audience volunteer’ may have assume the role. It is all in keeping with the clumsy craft of the play’s Mechanicals’ amateur dramatics, and, as the curtain rises on the Athenian court, Shakespeare’s society is represented in the play by three distinct class groups, lovers, mechanicals and fairies. A series of mix-ups orchestrated by king of the fairies Oberon (Harry Jardine) causes lovers’ quarrels between Lysander and Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, frantic chases and general chaos that needs to be resolved before King Theseus’s fast approaching wedding.

What the audience sees, however, is no ethereal forest setting with set design placing the action within a run-down public bathroom of white tiles, water leaks and paper-walls through which characters literally burst on to the stage. Staging is chaotically creative as pieces are destroyed and as Puck (Ferdy Roberts) flings blue liquid gel love juice around, to instant aphrodisiac effect. Oberon, dressed as superhero in all-in-one suit and cape, flies, falls and is covered in flour as part of an epic food fight (with audience involvement). Rather than unruliness, this makes for a hilarious experience that flies by without realisation of its near two hour duration. It’s not all froth and frivolous bubble, however, for as contrast to the mania of the Mechanicals, the lovers, speak only Shakespeare’s words.

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This is a high-energy and physically-demanding show and all the performers deliver accordingly. Francesca Zoutewelle is solid as Hermia, Cat Simmons is an initially dignified Titania and John Lightbody is sensationally smooth as the lustful Lysander, once transformed entirely from his former unassuming self in reaction to the love potion. And Demetrious (Karl Queensborough) makes music out of the Bard’s iambic pentameter. Another standout is Ferdy Roberts as grumpy, tattooed and mischievous rocker roadie/stagehand Puck, from his commanding entrance to the dignified delivery of his final wishes of good night unto all. And Fergus O’Donnell makes the scripted chaos of Bottom’s ascension to stage seem spontaneously improvised. Together, they provide a refreshing interpretation of the characters

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Despite its anarchy, in many ways, this “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” keeps with Shakespeare’s original text though its weave of comedy through all three of the plot strands and, in particular through the ridiculous mirth of the working class Mechanicals and their presentation to the audience of an abbreviated “Pyramus and Thisbe”, making us laugh at them rather than with them, in a way different to many other of Shakespeare’s jesters and clowns.

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Every comic device is evident in this fast-moving funny-fest. There are moments of stand-up (showing that apparently 20 years is in fact too soon for a Michael Hutchence suicide joke), celebrity impersonations, spontaneous songs, slapstick, clowning and innuendo. The greatest laughs come, however, from notice of the little details, like the lameness of a lion costume and Oberon and Puck’s pull up of picnic chairs and crack open of drinks to watch the lovers battle it out.

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Filter Theatre have made their reputation mainly for inventive takes on classic plays and this is especially evident in their sound innovation, and Chris Branch and Tom Haines’s sound design and original music is masterful . Music is effectively integrated into this production and the live band, doubling as Mechanicals, in break from their play of retro kitsch Barry White and The Ramones numbers, add the necessary magic to assist the audience in imagining the invisible fairies to life and suggesting Bottom’s transition to donkey by the sounds of coconut-shell hooves clapping. And a fight between Lysander and Demetrius is enacted as a video game, with Puck at the console, with the noise of gunfire and explosions.

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Although a modernisation of a Shakespearean classic is hardly a ground-breaking idea, Filter Theatre manages to bring something truly unique to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Characters and scenes are presented with new purpose, freshly realising, in particular, the text’s sexual innuendo. It’s not always cohesive, but it is superlatively funny in its gleeful irreverence. Cutting and adding so much text is filled with risk, but it is risk that exists at the foundation of all exciting art. And, in this instance, the liberties taken with the text make for not only a highly-entertaining, but a genuinely accessible version. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much in the theatre.

Crazy for Cline

Always…Patsy Cline (HIT Productions)

QUT Gardens Theatre

September 14 – 15

Despite her tragic death in a 1963 plane crash at only 30 years of age, American country singer Patsy Cline released over 100 songs in her career, so as tribute to the iconic star, “Always … Patsy Cline”, has many numbers from which to construct its soundtrack. Accordingly, songs occupy a substantial part of the show, in support of what is a relatively flimsy narrative; based on a true story, Patsy’s personal life is revealed though her unexpected friendship with a devoted Houston fan, Louise Seger (a story taken and expanded from a section of the Cline biography “Honky Tonk Angel” by Ellis Nassour).

While its lengthy Grand Ole Opry opening medley gets things off to a somewhat slow start, the audience soon learns more about the acclaimed vocalist through snippets of information about the hardworking and successful musical pioneer, including how she worked at a drugstore in her youth to help her mother provide for the family, while playing clubs at night in home-made cowgirl outfits. As Cline, award winning country music artist Courtney Conway tells us how she’s travelling soon to Vegas to do four shows a day seven days a week. It’s 1961 and she’s in Houston for a performance at the Esquire Ballroom, where, before the show, she meets Louise (popular stage star Mandi Lodge) in an encounter that turns into a correspondence that lasted until the singer’s tragic death. In their interaction, Cline reveals to Louise about her worries about attendance at the show and then, over late night bacon and eggs back at Louise’s house, the fading love of her troublesome second marriage. It is a close look into Cline’s daily life that continues as Louise reflects upon and rereads some of the later letters, always signed off with ‘Love Always…Patsy Cline’.

Even so, the show is not so much about the singer’s honky tonk merry-go-round life as its insight also into a fan’s genuine love. As the larger-than-life Louise, Lodge is engaging both on-stage and off, in enticement of audience members to dance along, and sections that see her tell of her excitement and planning to see Patsy on stage make for among the most entertaining moments, thanks to her effervescent characterisation. And her Texan accent is bang on with it y’alls and drawl. It is unfortunately that she is sometimes let down by lighting, which creates mood around the on-stage musicians but falls short in following as she mimes journeying in her ‘sexy dude’ Pontiac to arrive at the venue hours ahead of Patsy’s show.

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Technical lapses can, however, be forgiven as this is a show all about its music. And with over two dozen of her hits, you don’t even have to be crazy for Cline to enjoy the classics like ‘I Fall to Pieces’, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ and her signature song and biggest pop hit ‘Crazy’. Upbeat numbers are peppered in between the rawly-emotive works with ‘Stupid Cupid’ and ‘Gotta Lotta Rhythm’ also featuring as highlights. As anticipated, Conway is vocally strong as Patsy, nuanced in her share of the early 1960s Nashville sound; every number is rich in tone and emotional expression, and authentic in experience thanks to the live ‘Band of Bobs’ that provide musical accompaniment.

Directed by AFI award winning Denny Lawrence, “Always…Patsy Cline” is a wonderful showcase of the beautiful, classic songs of a musical icon. And it comes of little surprise to read in its program of its great success all over the United States, including a successful run off-Broadway. (It has been one of the most produced musicals in America according to American Theatre Magazine.) For feature of its marvellous music, charming comedy and some fabulous frocks as costume, country music fans, in particular, should do-si-do themselves a favour and make sure to catch this tribute to an industry pioneer.

Hanako honour

Hanako: Desire & Other Secret Weapons (Brisbane Festival, Brisbane Powerhouse and Belloo Creative)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

September 13 – 17

Like many a festival show, experience of Belloo Creative’s “Hanako: Desire & Other Secret Weapons” requires an open mind… and, also, in this case, some comfortable shoes as the initial section of the show takes place behind the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Visy stage, as audience members stand around in observation of a crouched, spot-lit girl with her head hung long. Silence eventually shrouds the scene as we watch and wait, interrupted only by the periodic passing train sounds from the stage proper. As she raises her head, her face flashes red lipstick and eye shadow as the only colour in an otherwise muted pallet of greys, before she collapses again having plunged a sword into her stomach in ritual suicide.

As audiences then move to their seats in the theatre, it is under instruction to search for the truth between reality and fiction… a search which is certainly realised by the end of this vivid, intelligent and intense work. Sparked by a classic Japanese tale of dominance and desire, Caroline Dunphy & Katheryn Lyall-Watson’s “Hanako: Desire & Other Secret Weapons” is a dynamic new performance that explores a girl’s battle to escape into the future while warring adults try to contain her in the past.

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It begins with Hanako (Kimie Tsukakoshi) as a flowerchild Geisha. Like Bette Davis, she’s precocious and she knows just what it takes to make a pro blush, but she is also very beautiful in character and expression. Some time later, Hanako is discovered by Loie Fuller (Caroline Dunphy) who is determined to make the actress the star of a Japanese touring company and deliver devastating death scenes in each performance in guarantee of a nightly showstopper. But when Hanako meets a music boy (Zachary Boulton), she no longer wants to perform, and so starts her precarious journey through a frenzied stage world where all of her creators fight to control her destiny.

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Much is packed into the contemporary production’s 65 minute running time as it takes this classic Japanese tale of Ota Hisa, a dancer and favourite model of Auguste Rodin, who created a series of masks of her, the largest number of portraits he ever made of a single person, into a new reality. Shades of other works feature strongly; indeed, the work represents a hybrid of styles from moments of “Madame Butterfly” to “Kill Bill” moves and even some Japanese game show sensibilities. From theatre to martial arts and urban fashion, there is something on offer for everyone, including even some mochi, served during a little break in proceedings.

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The production is helmed by an international cast. As the urban myth girl Hanako, Tsukakoshi is dynamic and commanding in her stage presence, particularly in pivotal moments like her dramatic on-stage suicide re-enactment. And she is also strong vocally in delivery of a powerful musical number. In balance to this, Boulton and Noriaki Okubo provide some light-hearted moments that work well in conjunction with the silliness of the ‘80s song snippets that sneak into the soundtrack without expectation. Working with Jason Glenwright’s vigorous lighting design, Dane Alexander’s imposing soundscape dominates scene transitions. But there are also moments of quiet too, such is the complexity of this fascinating but still nicely modest work (for the audience is reminded in its ending, truth is stranger than fiction).

mask.jpg“Hanako: Desire & Other Secret Weapons” represents all that is wonderful about festival works and the rich diversity of theatrical conversation that they generate. This is a show for the curious and creative alike. Like Belloo’s previous, acclaimed “Motherland” it sits comfortably in its text, but never forgets the honour of the truth behind mythology, making its World Premiere as part of Brisbane Festival something of which its local, all-female, award-winning independent theatre company should be immensely proud.

Photos c/o – Barbara Lowing

Cool-cat cabaret

California Crooners Club

Aurora Spiegeltent

September 3 – 11

Conceived by Australian television star Hugh Sheridan, “California Crooners Club” was born of late night banter with talented mates Emile Welman of South Africa and Kansas’ Gabe Roland backstage in the jazz clubs of Hollywood. The idea of starting a band to merge their love of jazz classica with their varied styles of singing, seems simple in its premise. The result, however, is something incredibly special, beyond definition apart from declaration that the show is a must-see.

Expectation is of a playlist treat of traditional tunes of the Sinatra sort of croon. The classics make appearance with ‘I’ve got you under my Skin’ and a ‘Come Fly with Me’ medley, but beyond its jazzy opening, it is quickly apparent the show is simultaneously not like what was expected, as, backed by a band of excellent musicians, the trio breaks into a bouncy take on Bieber’s ‘Sorry’.

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If cabaret hates rules, then “California Crooners Club” is cabaret at its best with its marvellous mixed bag of numbers serving as one of its most engaging aspects. The mix of old and new is just right, featuring, as it does, tributes to Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse alongside a Cole porter medley, Ray Charles number and Sia’s soaring ‘Chandelier’. The program’s curation is ingenious, no better evidenced than in move from ‘The Bare Necessities’ to ‘Jungle Boogie’. And boogie they do, sometimes along with audience members grabbed to dance in the aisles.

This is an energetic yet still charming show from genuine, generous performers, thanks to its playful banter and serenades to audience members. There are lots of laughs courtesy of some obligatory “Packed to the Rafters” puns and Adelaide digs in acknowledgement of Sheridan’s home town, making it sure to send audience members home with the biggest of feel-good smiles.

Original numbers are a highlight, including a standout ‘I Need You’ (garnering immediate audience calls to play it again) and the equally-peppy newly-released single ‘Just a Little More’. Together Sheridan, Welman and Roland’s sounds harmonise to make even these unfamiliar songs feel like old favourites, with voices that are brightly individual but also rich in depth and accord.

Clearly, “California Crooners Club” is one of the highlights of this year’s Brisbane Festival. The only negative is that its 75 minute running time flies by far too quickly. With all the dapper swing and style of The Rat Pack, even in rap, these cool cats cast their spell so successfully, that getting up to return to the real world seems initially impossible.

Slick social shocks

Viral (Shock Therapy Productions)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast, The Space

September 1 – 10

“Viral” begins as audience members enter the theatre; the scene unfolding is of a hospital room featuring a woman (Ellen Bailey) in delivery while the father-to-be (Sam Foster) preoccupies himself on his phone. A nurse (Merlynn Tong) is in initial care until she too poses in a photo for the husband to upload…. because sharing is caring, right? So it is pretty clear, even to those who haven’t familiarised themselves with the show’s blurb as to what its focus will be.

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The new work, written and devised by Shock Therapy Productions explores the role of social media and technology and how it impacts the way we record, communicate and think about events of racism, abuse, violence and sexual assault in the community. It is a thought-provoking, dynamic and entertaining piece that incorporates a range of performance styles and influences, fusing physical theatre, verbatim text, multiple role-sharing, multimedia and political theatre into an intense but highly entertaining piece.

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It beings light-heartedly; the narrative that frames the series of inset vignettes tells of two socially-isolated schoolboys (Writer/Directors Sam Foster and Hayden Jones), who spend lunchtimes alone glued to their smart-phone screens watching the latest viral video on YouTube. To ‘go viral’, is defined as achieving a least a million hits in a week we are told by a Siri as part of an opening announcement. But the boys think this is nothing and are convinced that they can do better, setting up their own YouTube channel and brainstorming what content will serve them best. Initially, the considerations are harmless amalgamations of popular clips featuring top 10s, fails, pranks and of course cats. Along the way they enact famous clips from Gangnam Style to Charlie Bit My Finger and even the more recent Chebacca Mom. They never miss a beat as the two jump in and out of character to mime along in these high energy and highly-engaging scenes.

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But the ‘clips’ become less comfortable as they highlight the lack of humanity of music festival goers filming a girl dying of an overdose, bringing tears almost to eyes. When audience members initially react with laugher, despite foreshadowing of the outcome, the most-through provoking aspect of the show is revealed. This is similarly so during an uncomfortable re-enactment of a rude and racist rant on a train. Indeed, there is much to complete in the both the show’s concept and realisation, and the cast and creatives more than do this justice, making for an absorbing experience the flies by as the boys make unwise content choices and suffer the significant consequences.

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When the work climaxes in a scene of humans, led by Kristian Santic, becoming vultures upon a human with horse head (Reuben Witsenhuysen), things go to a more macabre place, however, the provocation of its confronting imagery and meaning in juxtaposition to the earlier narrative structure is lost in the puns that pepper its narration by a reporting newsman.

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All performers are skilled in characterisation, jumping, within scenes even, between multiple characters of different ages and sensibilities with ease, always making it easy-to-follow thanks to considerations as simple as a collar turned up or down. Ellen Bailey, makes a particularly memorable transition between enthusiastic festival fanatic to stern school Principal with ease. But the works hangs on the excellence of Foster and Jones, and the vitality of their performances together make for the show’s most appealing aspect.

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“Viral” is a slick show, as you would expect in consideration of Shock Therapy’s previous, acclaimed works. It features a cracking soundtrack and vibrant sound and lighting design courtesy of Guy Webster and Jason Glenwright. Nathan Sibthorpe’s AV Design also serves the show well, particularly in delivery of a slam poetry masterclass on social change from Luka Lesson.

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Certainly “Viral” is aimed at younger audience members, although it does also cleverly contain early subtle comment on parental on-line role modelling. At the start of the show the audience is encouraged to leave phones on (silent) and take photos and videos (hashtag Shock Therapy Productions) and it is interesting to see the number and demographic of those that do. It is aspects like this that work so effectively with what is presented on stage to make the production one of such note, hopefully to also be brought to Brisbane in outing soon.

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 Photos c/o – Saffron Jensen