Reindeer revelations

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 7 – 16

“Naughty is the new nice” we are told as “A Very Naughty Christmas” begins with Pentatonix’s ‘Good to be Bad’. From here, the show follows snippets more so than stories the little family that surrounds Santa (Stephen Hirst), the scantily clad Saint Nicolas who sizzles onto stage with a swaggersome ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’, Elvis style.

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Featuring a live band, ten performers and Christmas songs as you’ve never heard them before, this is a Christmas at its most salacious. And its winter wonderland is never as hot as when the dryly-humourous Vixen (Aurélie Roque) shares a filthy and fabulous ‘Jingle Bells’. Apparently, animosity runs through the reindeers’ ‘classic office dramas’. Not only is Vixen regretful of her romance with Nick, but Comet (Claire Owen) hates the oft put-upon Rudolph (Jason Bently) for trying to steal her role as head navigator, so is determined to seduce Santa to let her light the way. And the scampy Prancer (Adwan Dickson) is somewhat inhibited by his Judaism.

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The show is cleverly constructed to combine santa-mental yuletide songs with reimagined Understudy Production’s unique and far-from traditional takes. An all-ensemble finish with Tim Minchin’s contrarian carol, ‘White Wine in the Sun’ is perfect in its universal emotion and inclusive sentiment as much as its melodic delivery, leading into Mariah’s merriful ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ to fill even the most bah humbug of souls with the sprint of the season. The lovestruck Dasher (Lachlan Geraghty) and anxious Dancer (Monique Dawes) also share a lovely ‘Last Christmas’.

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Certainly “A Very Naughty Christmas” showcases the abundance of vocal talent within its cast. More roadie than reindeer-like, Cupid (Chris J Kellett) delivers a strong, melancholic initial traditional take of ‘White Christmas’ before transporting it to a tongue-in-cheek more literal, bigoted bogan place of reminisce. Ruby Clark showcases strong vocals in her sing of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ to equally naughty Donner (Emily Vascotto). And when Rudolf is finally given his moment to shine, shine he does, courtesy of Bently’s vibrant vocals. This is all of course due in no small part to the wonderful work of the on-stage band of Keita Neralic on guitar, Dan Smith on drums and Elliot Parker on bass, under Musical Director Tnee Western-Dyer on keys.

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With everything from classic carols to modern pop and even an all-male “Mean Girls” bit, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is the perfect experience to get audiences in a holiday mood. Though there are some political pokes, everything is light-hearted. Indeed, there is a tap number and even a ‘Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer’ singalong. With sugar and spice and all things both naughty and nice, it is a wonderful celebration of the sentiment of this special time of year, full of delightful fun and rather-not-know revelations like why Santa needs to get the sleigh reupholstered so often.

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Wolfgang women

The Wives of Wolfgang (Hannah Belansky & Co)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Platform

December 1 – 3

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“Three women: the cat, the wife and the mistress, meet in the wake of their mutual lover’s death to ensure that he doesn’t take all his secrets with him to the grave.” Certainly “The Wives of Wolfgang” is enigmatic in its self-promotion as a sexy and entertaining cabaret of songs, burlesque and dark comedy to awaken the senses… and the dead. In execution it is just as enigmatic, but in a beguiling and intriguing way.

‘What’s the time mister wolf?” its three female characters chant in combined question to Wolfgang (Michael Whittred). The occasion is the lone-wolf’s funeral, where the three unacquainted ladies meet, set upon solving a few mysteries and share some secrets. When they do so in poetry, it makes for a wonderful artistic experience, especially as lush lighting compliments the stylised, sexy movement of stage. It is an aesthetic that is established from even before the show starts, with Wolfgang frozen in stance on stage alongside his coffin, but one which is unfortunately not always maintained throughout the show’s realisation, as comical moments of dialogue parroting contrast to the sophistication of others, created a confused rather than coherent tone. The show’s music, however, is a standout, especially the numbers featuring Composer and Performer Whittred on guitar. And his vocals, in particular, resonate richly, particularly in a number sung to his wife in admission of wrong doing but belief still in their relationship.

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Jessica Kate Ryan has a beautiful voice but even in a catchy, melodic introduction to her cat character, the lyrics are not always clear in competition with the soundtrack. Writer and performer Hannah Belanszky gives a committed performance as the perfect wife, self-indulgent and better in all that she does, while Caitlin Hill exploits every comic possibility from her role as the mistress in search in validation. They are all strong, yet flawed, complex female characters, which is superb to see, even if at times it seems like we only scratch the surface of their characters in what feels like a rush through their stories. Although its aesthetic is generally mesmeric, things could be clearer. The cat metaphor, for example, creates some unnecessary complication and has audiences potentially urging for the simplicity of less elements, all given opportunity to excel, as opposed to the woe of mismatched content and sensibility.

As cabarets go, “The Wives of Wolfgang” is certainly original in its sensory experience. And although overt references, for example, clang against its generally sexy and seductive tone, it is, on the whole, entertaining. Its “The Stepford Wives” meets “Chicago” description is absolutely apt and something worth focusing on without distraction for its potential to be realised.

Calendar Girls day out

Calendar Girls (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

November 17 – December 9

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The British comedy film “Calendar Girls” may be almost 15 years old, but as Nash Theatre Company’s final production for the year shows, its fascinating yet true story is still familiar enough and its themes resonate enough to engage 2017 audiences.

When Annie (Lindi Milbourne)’s husband John (Chris Carroll) dies prematurely from leukaemia, her close friend and Women’s Institute branch co-member Chris (Carrie O’Rourke) hits upon the idea of an annual calendar alternative to the usual Yorkshire bridges and landscape scenes to raise funds to purchase a more comfortable sofa for the visitor’s lounge in the hospital where John was treated. The WI group decides to do modest nude (as opposed to naked) poses for the camera while engaging in traditional WI activities such as knitting and baking, with strategically placed props covering their exposed body parts. As their bras come off for the new settee, conflict follows both from within the WI organisation and amongst the ladies themselves as the calendar causes massive media attention from across the nation and the world. In Nash Theatre’s hands, the ensemble piece presents broad comedy and poignant drama in equally measured doses. Indeed, despite some initially problematic accents, the production is like a Yorkshire ray of sunshine, especially delightful for a summer-day-out matinee.

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All the female characters have an immediate natural rapport, understandable given their later disrobing. And the comprehensive script (at 2+ hours running time) allows each character their transformative moment in the sun. The timid and easily anxious Ruth and prim and proper President Marie Smith Jones are almost caricatures, however, Annie is simply lovely and Lindi Milborune conveys both kindness to her increasingly fragile husband and steadfast loyalty following his passing. Carrie O’Rourke is another standout as both outspoken advocate and caring friend, even when morphed by insensitive and selfish dogmatism. Together they convey a strong sisterly bond even as their characters have very different reactions to their new-found celebrity status.

Like the sunflower that serves as its ongoing motif, “Calendar Girls” trumpets joy. While some cultural references are now dated, the show still contains many genuinely humorous moments. Choreography is carefully considered during the scene in which the women manage to strip down and strike strategic but suggestive poses while never revealing too much. And their crafty humour is nicely magnified by the painfully embarrassed reactions of the calendar’s amateur photographer (Mervyn Marriott).

As it is in life, “Calendar Girls” has its happiness and sadness, however spending time in the company of its ladies makes for a wonderful couple of hours. Its script is tightly executed to accentuate the positive without too much labour and its sweet, witty and good-humoured comedy is genial and not overdone. Indeed, it offers the rare treat of an ensemble of female talent all on stage at the same time. The fact that it contains some seasonally jubilant scenes, only adds to the joy of its experience.

Courageous capabilities

Humans (Circa)

QPAC, The PlayHouse

December 6 – 9

Given the way they are heralded around the world as an exciting and innovative physical theatre company, Circa is surely one of Queensland’s great cultural exports. And it is always wonderful to have them perform to a home-town crowd, as they will now be doing as part of a multi-year partnership with QPAC, beginning with share of their show “Humans”, an ensemble journey of celebration of what it means to be human.

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The work sees 10 acrobats exploring the human form in expression of the essence of the human body’s extraordinary possibilities. As such, it is one of the company’s stripped-back and more organic pieces, which even in the Playhouse Theatre still feels like a more intimate experience than some of the company’s previous works. Mostly the show is floor work but there are still some beautiful aerial displays of trapeze, rope routines and straps segments. This is a wise decision as the limited use of apparatus allows concentration on the performers and the amazing things they can do with their bodies

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It begins with a woman twisting out of her clothes, before the entire ensemble join her, spread out around the stage, each in their own space. It’s an engaging introduction that has audience members spoiled for choice in where to look as performers transition from individual movements to working collaboratively in tumble atop and under each other, layering the scene with highly-skilled gymnastic movements. Clearly, this is a work of substance more than showmanship and it is all the better because of it. Even the muted costume tones contribute, adding to the aesthetic without detracting from appreciation of the skills on show. And as its soundtrack transitions from evocative violin to feisty fiddle numbers, this only escalates as bodies are thrown around in tumble, twirl, slide and smash into the floor, in an energetic display to contrast the blank performer faces.

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The high energy scenes are dynamic, but there is vulnerability too and many instances where gasps and applause are equally audible from the audience, in response to the innovative choreography as much as the feats of balance and strength themselves. We see a human jump rope, a performer walking and then rolling across a row of the others’ heads and a three-performer-high human pyramid on which a woman balances one-handed. And when the pyramid is inverted, it sees one man, supporting the weight of five people…. astounding stuff. There is laid-bare and beautifully poetic vulnerability too when a man moves around a female performer as if she’s a limp doll needing to be bent into position.

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The inventiveness extends also to the soundtrack, which features an eclectic mix of world sounds such as jaunty gypsy stylings, upbeat electronica, sultry jazz and a folksy Joanna Newsom’s ‘Does Not Suffice’ to finish things off. And ‘The Impossible Dream (The Quest)’ is the perfect accompaniment for a revelry routine in which performers all try, through different contortionism, to lick their elbows. Not only are moves cued to music but the use of tempo works well to draw focus. And so, when speech is used, just once, it seems holistically out of place.

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What matters here is just the human body on display and it is a spectacle easily appreciated, particularly as performers freeze in place in the show’s later moments. There are no characters or discernible narrative here, which makes it easy to become lost in the experience of each routine. The show runs for only 70 minutes but it sometimes feels much longer (#inagoodway), given how much is packed into its experience.

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“Humans” is an astonishing show that reconfirms Circa’s acclamation as one of the world’s top contemporary circus troupes. Indeed, its experience will have you at once amazed and honoured in acknowledgement of its home-grown success. The playful and powerful physical strength, grace and flexibility of its top-of-their-game performers is as mesmeric as it is breathtaking. In Circa’s hands we can truly see the incredible physical feats of which humans are courageously capable.

Histrionic history

Elizabeth 1 (Monsters Appear)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 1 – 3

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Elizabeth 1st, the Virgin Queen is of such infamy that she is recognisable by image alone, so from its pre-show marketing, we know that she is to be the focus of the new one woman show from the award-winning Monsters Appear, “Elizabeth 1”. It’s office setting, complete with bulky desktop computer et al, suggests that this new comedy is not of her era. The setting is, in fact, East Sydney pharmaceuticals circa the late 1990s. Emily Burton is Elizabeth Templeton and this is her tale…. or is it?

The initial loyal pharmaceutical employee’s story is a sad one of ineffectual alarms, missed buses and too-hot coffee as she plays with her pug dog, reads about famous monarchs and looks forward to an after-work Halloween costume party. And Burton is magnificent in her realisation of her flighty character as much as her later transformation into a Queen with the heart and stomach of a king. She glides around the stage in glorious Elizabethan garb and hits every cue with precision in merge with sound and lighting. The stylised result is at once dramatic and memorable, as they accompany the ghost-like vision of the Tudor monarch in take of the audience on a shamelessly theatrical trip inspired by the poems and future visions of Good Queen Bess herself, as well as the words of her famous 1588 Speech to the Troops at Tibury in preparation for the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.

“Elizabeth 1” has Director Benjamin Schostakowski all over it, from its opening title sequence to blast of a Cutting Crew contemporary soundtrack, but, short as it is on narrative, it feels more experiment than complete work, running significantly shorter that its advertised 60 minute duration. Indeed, while its histrionic tackle of history takes audience members to many different places and periods in the show, in its current form, the journey is more intriguing than engaging.

Actually argued

Love/Hate Actually (Act/React)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 20 – December 3

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The film “Love Actually” was on free-to-air tv last week, which was of luck for the makers of “Love/Hate Actually”… although maybe not particularly coincidental given the 2003 romantic comedy’s place as a seminal Christmas favourite. As implied by the show’s title, having a familiarity with the film is needed, but let’s face it, who doesn’t, given its place as the most noteworthy Christmas movie of the modern era. Turns out though, that not everyone is a fan of its saccharine sentimentality. Indeed, even within friendships it can cause disagreement all around.

Amy loves it. Natalie hates it. Who’s right? Amy thinks the film “Love Actually” represents everything good about the human experience of love while Natalie believes it to be unrealistic and manipulative crap. These two long-time creative collaborators are staking their friendship on the ultimate test – an audience vote. In doing so they take the audience through recall of the ensemble cast and their ten separate but interlinked stories in consideration of whether they are simply lovely or shallow and pointless plotlines.

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Natalie Bochenski is purposely persuasive in her use of logic and reason to outline the film’s manipulation and overall awfulness courtesy of an actively annoying Kiera Knightly, but an admittedly watchable Colin Firth. And in her pie chart expose of the script’s almost 100 distinct scenes, she is very convincing in expose of its problematic continuity and uncomfortable content of unlikely scenarios, stalkers and fat shaming. Richard Curtis disciple Amy Currie is contrastingly emotional in her gushing about what she considers to be a heart-warming romantic comedy encapsulating all that is wonderful about the festive season.

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The respective arguments that follow allow opportunity for much humour, however, some of the biggest laughs come from when concerns are given further consideration through trademark Act/React audience involvement in segments such as ‘Art of Porn?’ As always, this ‘volunteer’ participation is not confrontational, but well-supported and still very funny. Our male Mia was particularly entertaining is sexy show of what is not appropriate when it comes to workplace behaviours and office dialogue.

Even if do not think of love as surprise trombones, you are sure to find “Love/Hate Actually” thoroughly entertaining as each performer throws herself into her passionate presentation. With turtlenecks and bit with signs, it is sure to appeal to Colin Firth fans and Hugh Grant groupies alike (especially in its ‘All we want is Colin and Hugh’ musical number). And its reminder of the movie’s gaping logical flaws of post 9/11 airport security lapses and the gift of a CD to a woman who, as a Joni Mitchell fan would assumedly already own it, will only validate those who share in the frustrations.

Whether you are Team Natalie or Team Amy, is a decision that in itself if full of merriment as the audience decides who is right. … not that it really matters because the joy of this loving tribute/savage takedown of the best/worst rom-com of all time, is more about the journey than the destination. Hopefully it is an experience that reappears on our stages again soon, regardless of if it is Christmas season.

Free range comedy

Organic (Arj Barker)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 1 – 17

The audience in the Powerhouse Theatre for opening night of Arj’s Barker’s tenth Australian show is eclectic and wide-ranging in its age demographic. This not only stands as testament to the American comic’s Australian popularity, but the accessibility of his material, which is not controversial or confrontational, but still very, very funny.

In talk of relationships and marriage, Uber and television spoilers, “Organic” is filled with hilarious commentary. Although early references to Benny Hill and the tv show “Monkey” are more appreciated by those audience members of a similar vintage, the well-structured set features a free-range comic style with something for everyone, satisfying for all.

There is only token reference to current affairs and US politics from the Californian and the show is all the better because of it. Instead, the comedian draws upon his knowledge of our politics and culture to build an instant rapport with the Bris-vegas audience as he tries to trademark his own new Aussie saying, peppering the work with hilarious one-liners and throw-backs to previous content in show of the subtle craftedness of the experience. A finale titular song ‘Organic’ is an excellent example of this, even if it ends the show on a whimper more than a bang.

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Barker is an animated and energetic, but still charming performer and it is easy to appreciate his popularity as even when audience members are called out, his humour is such that is seems like he is laughing with, rather than at, them. This connection is the most endearing component of his comedy. And when he philanthropically announces at show’s end that $1 from every ticket is going to the charity Doctors Without Borders, his integrity is heart-warming.

The show’s title emerges from Barker’s discussion of recent lifestyle changes towards eating organically and going gluten free. This leads to perhaps the show’s funniest segment, where he throws himself into presentation of his caveman bread theory, which is infectiously passionate and well-timed.

If comedians are the new rock stars, then Arj Barker is a supernova of the Australian comedy landscape and with a two week show-run, there is plenty of opportunity to do your face a favour and check out a show that will have you laughing loudly and smiling from start to finish.