Reminiscent reminders

Minefields & Miniskirts

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 8 – 29

By the mere nature of their subject matter, shows about war are more-often-than-not solemn affairs. From its initial ‘Sprit in the Sky’ musical opening, it is clear that this is not the case with “Minefields & Miniskirts”. The representation of real-life reminiscences of women in the Vietnam War, adapted from Siobhan McHugh’s original book, does include some poignant moments in talk of the shocking sights they have seen, but ultimately the feel is one of celebration of the stories from this important piece of Australian history.

Experiences have been shaped into interleaving, thematically-themed monologues from five different women from various walks of life (a correspondent, an entertainer, a nurse, a volunteer and a veteran’s abused wife), from the culture shock of arrival in a land they can barely find on map, to their sense of the Vietnamese experience as bystanders in the Western war.

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Cultural references take audiences to a familiar place, from Nancy Sinatra hair to Carnation Milk and Crème De Menthe mentions, with many of the era’s archetypal songs punctuating the monologues. The almost-acoustic accompaniment from Matthew Malone serves the show well, but at times competes with the vocals. Indeed, while vocals are not strong, in this case this works as its adds to the folk-song feel of numbers like ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and Carole King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’

As a nurse bored working in a hospital at home and in want of some excitement, Libby Bancroft gives a charismatic performance. Tanya McCall, too, brings in-love vulnerability and later motherly determination to the role of the veteran’s wife, waiting for her husband to return from war and then dealing with the effects of his post-war trauma and lack of societal welcome or regard for his experience.

Ensemble performers, dressed in the camouflage-print miniskirts of the title don’t contribute a lot to the narrative and while they are key to the musical numbers, these are sometimes of such clichéd choreography that they slow the Act Two pace to a drag. As the work’s final aftermath and legacy chapters stretch out with repetitive monologues in tell of the chaos of returning home and the long-term effects of war, it seems the show could easily have ended a number of times over.

Still, overall, “Minefields & Miniskirts” is a compelling night of theatre thanks to the power of its truth. These are thought-provoking stories from real people, whose voices are so often silenced in the narratives of war. And with Anzac Day this week, it is wonderful to have such a timely reminder of the extent of war’s legacies, even when the war is a conflict.

Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29

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In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

Getting Jarrod Duffy

Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead (Applespiel)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

April 20 – 29

Have you ever had someone in your life at one time, who you lost contact with?

Someone you cared about.

How many years has it been since you’ve seen them?

Do you know where they are now?

If you did, what would you do?

Have you ever had someone who just…vanished?

It’s Wollongong, 2010 and two weeks before performing in an honours show, Jarrod Duffy, friend and member of the performance collective, Applespiel, doesn’t show up for a rehearsal. He’s disappeared, leaving behind the furniture at his house and no answers from phone calls, emails and Facebook searches.

“Jarrod Duffy Is Not Dead” is the story of that disappearance and Applespiel’s hunt to find their missing friend. It is important to know this essential premise before attending the show, because of the poignancy it brings to the photographs that are shared on-screen at its beginning as audience members sit in thought of the memories that lie behind the images and the emotions evoked by their recollection. Those most affected, however, are those who lost a friend, the members of Applespiel who begin the podcast section of the show with overlay of dialogue about Duffy’s character.

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This initial section is particularly engaging in its authentic recreation of an episodic series, utlitising the genre’s features and respecting its usual structure. As it progresses from recollection of ‘good times’ antics, last conversations, speculative concerns for his safety and possible hints to the idea of leaving, to memories of the initial days after his first disappearance, it becomes clear that ‘memory is shitty’, allowing the audience to share in Duffy’s friends’ frustrations at initially dismissing his disappearance with stories of his flakiness and of how over time, blurred memories create amalgamated stories and even more uncertainly. But things are not all as they seem, as the audience realises in a second half that sees standup, song and appearance of the titular Duffy c/o cardboard cut-outs and then some.

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As essentially a show of two halves, “Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead” is an ambitious work of anthropological storytelling that shows how sometimes you need to tell a story to have others ‘get it’. The resulting exploration of truth is both complex and compelling as we are posed questions about the meaning of ‘normal’, when a story exists and the need for narrative closure.

There is audience manipulation around original premise with its mention of figures of long term missing persons and the notion of bystander apathy, but deliberately so. As such, the show represents the fundamental nature of Metro Arts’ programming and championing of contemporary arts practice. As a part theatre, part live podcast show, “Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead” is far from a typical theatre experience. But that is its appeal. Its blend of live action and digital imagery is sure to give audiences much to talk about in terms of its artform as much as its message, provoked by its evocative final question of ‘do you get it?’

Live and kicking

Trainspotting Live (In Your Face Theatre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

April 19 – 22

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Attendance at “Trainspotting Live”, In Your Face Theatre’s award-winning production needs to come with a lot of advice. The first recommendation is to arrive early, not to choose a seat (thought that is an important decision too… and positioning near the toilet is discouraged), but to enjoy the start-of-show experience that places the audience authentically in an Edinburgh rave circa late 1980s, glowsticks at the ready. Indeed, music features a key component of the entire “Trainspotting Live” experience, booming its ‘80s trance-rave soundtrack (including songs from the namesake film’s soundtrack) in reverberation around the Powerhouse theatre stage that serves as the show’s location.

This is immersive theatre at its most immersive, especially for those audience members sitting in sections around the edge or on the stage itself. In fact, nowhere is really safe as personal space is invaded, drinks are spilled, sheets are soiled and the contents of the worst toilet in Scotland are shared. Every possible pre-show warning is realised in this ‘in-yer-face’ production; it contains full-frontal nudity, violent sexual themes and imagery, heavy drug/needle use and simulated smoking. And its course language is aggressive and relentless. But fans of Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” novel and/or Danny Boyle’s film adaptation, would expect no less. Those unfamiliar with these cult classics, meanwhile, can expect to be shocked.

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The adaptation of Welsh’s brutal novel tells the story of heroin addict Mark Renton and his circle of friends living in the Scottish capital. Although “Trainspotting Live” omits some of the original text’s aspects, its attention to detail and inclusion of key scenes ensures that its essence is maintained. The 21st anniversary production is more than just a homage to the tragicomedy; in the hands of the dedicated Scottish cast, it feels fresh and engaging, especially in its initial comedy and audience interaction. And when things become more serious, it is without audience realisation that the tone is changing, such is the subtly of its move towards its powerful conclusion with confronting moments of violence against women and then eloquent narration of the organismic effect of heroin on users, making for a surprisingly heartbreaking final section.

The cast of Scottish performers of course bring an authenticity to their character’s thick accents and distinct vocabulary and although its sounds are initially cumbersome on the ear, understanding soon increases as things progress. As long-term junkie Renton, Gavin Ross is engaging and ultimately empathetic, especially in his attempts at cold turkey. And Greg Esplin is impressive in his commitment to the physical nuance of Tommy’s heroin addiction.

“Trainspotting Live” is perfectly suited to its Powerhouse Theatre stage setting, with its graffiti former PowerStation walls making for an easy aesthetic transition to the grungy, squalid world of the story. The seating may not be comfortable, but this is far from comfortable show. The fact that nothing is taboo makes for an absolutely unique night out, kicking with energy and gritty nostalgia. It is certainly easy to appreciate its sold out-runs as part of the 2015 and 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival programs and fans of the cultural phenomenon need to make sure they experience its choose life realism before ‘they f**k off’.

Varekai impressions

Celebrations across the miles (aka Scotland) always lead to gift-giving dilemmas, especially when it involves wanting to please ten-year-olds. So for Christmas last year, having just seen “Kooza” in Brisbane, I bought my twin nephews (and thus their 40-year-old parents too) tickets to see the UK Arena Tour of “Varekai” (meaning ‘wherever’ in Romani language), Cirque du Soleil’s kid-friendly show about the destiny that awaits a reimagined Icarus when he falls from the sky into a lush forest full of exotic creatures. This is a review of the show from Matthew and Henry’s ten-year-old perspective.

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Varekai (Cirque du Soleil)

SSC Hydro, Glasgow

March 15 – 19

Before we went, we thought it would be clowns like a traditional circus, until we looked at the official trailer and then we thought it might be a bit creepy and weird because of the masks and costumes. We were excited but we didn’t know what to expect.

Before the show started, as we were going to our seats, there were clowns doing naughty things like dusting a bald man’s head and putting their arm around a girl in the audience. That was one of our favourite bits; it was hilarious. That was like a traditional circus, but the clowns’ magic, songs and tricks with the audience interrupted the main story. We liked this because it would have been boring to have just the same thing for the whole time.

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One of the first sections was where Icarus fell from a trapeze in the sky and landed in the forest. There were lots of other segments during the show, such as a girl who did a dance trapeze high in the air. There was also an awesome guy on crutches, the Limping Angel, who used them to swing about. He was so skilled sliding around the stage. And there were men who got inside big hoops and twisted around, which looked really hard.

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Our favourite part was the wedding scene finale when there was a trapeze act. They swung and jumped off the swings to do backflips, front flips and somersaults into two big nets at the back of the stage. They flew very high in the air and it was good to look at from every angle. It was worth waiting for and left us wanting more. All the performers were athletic and flexible like gymnasts; imagine if they were in the Olympics.

The costumes were unique, quirky and vibrant, especially Icarus’ impressive mythical wings; they were huge and when he landed, he did a good job of acting like a bird who had lost its wings. The clowns weren’t dressed as clowns which was good because it was not obvious what they are going to do. The music was dramatic and they used the whole space and stage, including the ceiling, to bring the audience into the story.

“Varekai” was magic and amazing; impressive is the word to describe all of it. We didn’t read about the story beforehand so during the first half we couldn’t really follow what was happening, but after mum showed us the summary on her phone at interval, it all made sense, especially because we already knew the story of Icarus. It would have been better if there was more speaking to explain the story. We’d go to another Cirque du Soleil show because “Varekai” was good and it was fun to watch and it would be good to see different tricks and performers.

Grease is still the word

Grease – The Arena Experience (Harvest Rain Theatre Company)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 7 – 9

Thanks to the 1978 cult classic movie, “Grease” is a show with which audiences have an intimately familiar relationship. So staging a musical version for Australian audiences is a pretty safe bet. Even so, in its Arena Experience, Harvest Rain Theatre Company does not rest on its laurels, combining nostalgia and freshness to show how Grease is still the word.

For those few who don’t know how the story goes, usually cool-cat Danny (Drew Weston) and goody-goody Sandy (Meghan O’Shea) enjoy a whirlwind summer holiday romance, expecting to never see each other again…. until they both start their Senior year at Rydell High, a school comprised of cliques like the T-Birds and Pink Ladies.

As a musical, it is a challenge to stage, especially in an expansive arena; musical numbers emerge from character dreams and desires so the between-song scenes are needed to advance the narrative. With limited props and backdrops (although the size of the arena stage does allow for appearance of Kenickie’s restored ‘Greased Lightning’ car), it becomes the job of costumes and lighting to set the scenes of 1950s American in all its rock and roll glory. And in this regard the production delivers, with colour and movement aplenty thanks to its youth ensemble cast of over 800 performers, which makes numbers likes like ‘Greased Lightning’ (minus the usual peppering of profanities) a spectacular salute to the hot rod’s promised joy.

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‘Shaking at the Highschool Hop’, too, is an irresistible Act Two opener, as the hundreds of teenagers fill a space bigger than a school gymnasium. Indeed, it is scenes such as this and ‘Born to Hand Jive’ that showcase the production’s tight choreography as the mass ensemble join in the complicated pattern of hand moves and claps with impressive synchronicity.

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Certainly, the most durable and iconic part of “Grease” is the music and its appeal in this regard is obvious from the outset with some audience members singling along to its famous soundtrack from start to finish. After a shaky vocal start with ‘Grease is the Word’, ‘Summer Loving’ soars thanks to O’Shea and Weston’s vibrant vocals. The two are both versatile vocalists and O’Shea’s delivery of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ is appropriately angelic. Also of strong voice is Ruby Clark as the feisty Pink Ladies leader, bad-girl (Betty) Rizzo, especially in her mockery of the wholesome Sandy in ‘Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee’.

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The most memorable musical numbers, vocally speaking, are of the jukebox musical type that were absent from the film version, such as ‘Those Magic Changes’, ‘Mooning’ and when at Marty’s (Emily Monsma) pyjama party, she tells of a long-distance courtship with a Marine in ‘Freddy My Love’. But it is Dami Im’s ‘Beauty School Dropout’ that is the absolute highlight. In her first musical theatre role, as Teen Angel, Im owns the stage as she delivers the advice to Frenchy about her next move in life, mesmerising the audience in a way that exemplifies all that there is to love about musical theatre. In terms of individual performances, however, apart from Weston’s Danny swagger and O’Shea’s girl-next-doorishness as Sandy, it is difficult to comment beyond vocals as the arena setting (literally) distances the audience from any character connections.

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Messing with a musical theatre classic is a brave move and mostly in this instance, the dialogue tweaks and song reordering, especially adding the movie’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ (Olivia Newton-John’s contractually-entitled vocal solo) to the musical set-list and moving it from Sandy’s slumber party over her feelings towards Danny, despite his earlier behaviour, to when she is separated from him at the High School dance, works particularly well from a narrative perspective.

Harvest Rain’s “Grease” is a celebration of many of both the movie and musical’s iconic movements, recreated and wrapped in neon to both celebrate and invigorate them in a fresh and exciting way. Its celebration of the sprint of the show is not only nostalgic, but entertaining, ensuring an infectiously good time on stage and in the stalls alike.

Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey

The disarm of domestic despair

Red Sky Morning (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Taylor King Gallery

March 29 – April 8

“Red Sky Morning” begins simply; an everyday, likeable-enough country man (Wayne Bassett) chit-chats in conversation. He appears to be an ‘ordinary’ bloke, living an ‘ordinary’ life in an ‘ordinary’ Australian town. But what is ordinary anyway? This is one of the questions that soon emerges as the harrowing drama continues with introduction of his wife (Heidi Manche) and daughter (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

After a missed moment of marital passion the night prior, the day proceeds as usual; the man goes to work and the girl heads to school, while the woman waits for them to leave so she can begin drinking. This is their normal, but it is an understanding never acknowledged as the characters never connect, verbally or physically as the play is told through three internal monologues presenting character’s reflections and desires. Each monologue is autonomous, an emphasis of each character’s isolation however, they are cleverly weaved together with perfectly-timed interjections, in nod to their yearn for connection. This is the craftedness of Tom Hollowy’s script, and it is seamlessly executed by the show’s three performers who present the complex interplay of synchronised silences, continuations and overlaps with perfect timing.

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These are flawed characters, not always likeable but, under Beth Childs’ direction, all the more real because of this. Kennedy-Tucker, in particular, gives a strong performance as the Girl, whose schoolteacher crush belies a painful yearning of her own.

“Red Sky Morning” is a big drama of little moments missed and as such, after a somewhat slow start, it takes audiences on a demanding ride from trivial talk of schoolgirl crushes and night-time dreams to the traumatic possible consequences of dissatisfaction unshared. This is particularly so as the story progresses and monologues are delivered atop each other, in competition for audience focus.

The Taylor King Gallery offers opportunity for an appropriately-intimate, disarming production and the simple staging serves to effectively emphasise the internal isolation experienced by the three characters who never move from their immediate space, despite the story’s transition to work, school and churchyard.  It is left to Lauren Salloway’s lighting design to journey the narrative, taking audiences from the pink of a pre-dawn sky to white sunlight and then the burnt orange of a day almost over.

“Red Sky Morning” packs a lot in its 70 minutes running time. It is a poignant and very real look at the reality behind domestic routine and reminder that layers exist in every relationship. However, it is more than just a tragedy of family miscommunication and its exploration of the bleak effects of depression offers a wise advocacy for communicating, staying connected and having meaningful conversations with those around us.