Scones and songs

Margaret Fulton – The Musical (Jally Entertainment)

QUT Gardens Theatre

April 13 – 14

Food and cooking writer, journalist and author Margaret Fulton OAM is an Aussie icon. The first of this genre of writers in Australia, she was an instant and international success whose The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, with hundreds of recipes, step-by step instructions, hints, tips and full-colour pictures, taught a generation how to make delicious, economical dishes and be creative with food and international cuisine. We are reminded of this from the outset of “Margaret Fulton – The Musical”, adapted from her book “I Sang for My Supper”, with its initial rousing anthemic musical number ‘The Book’ outlining the pre-Fulton repetition of the same old boring dishes of roast lamb and rissoles et al made in the same old boring ways.

The original Australian musical comedy outlines how the formidable Fulton took Australians through scones and pavlova to new ingredients in celebration of the culinary queen’s professional journey from home cook to household name, but also acquaints the audience with her lesser-known personal life and penchant for ‘decorative, elegant and useless men’. The fiercely independent Margaret’s (Judy Hainsworth) story is a sweeping one that takes shape as she sets out from Glen Innes (where the family moved from Scotland after Margaret’s birth) to Sydney. As she lives as a single mum in the Rocks district, we meet her friends and fellow tenants, a vibrant mixture of actors, artists, writers and musicians (ensemble cast members Conor Ensor, Clancy Enchelmaier, Zoë Harlen and Paige McKay) in Latin chorus number ‘La Vie Boheme’.

The hardworking supporting cast are all vibrant in their performances, which are often exaggerated caricatures in play for laughs. Enchelmaier, in particular, is vivacious in his portrait of despicable men, including Margaret’s philandering Irish second husband Denis. This animated approach is reflected also in the cheerful choreography the features in songs such as ‘Jam’ and ‘Bobby Limb’. In contrast to this jubilant tone, Jessica Kate Ryan cements the emotional backbone of the story as Margaret’s proud Scottish mother Isabella. It’s an emotional core that Hainsworth also captures, particularly in the musical’s later reflective tones. Indeed, Hainsworth easily conveys the journey of the story, from the passionate optimism of a strong-willed 18-year-old Margaret, through her career triumphs and personal defeats to late-in-life contemplations.

Musical Composer Yuri Worontschaks’ score is an accessible one. And as a biographical piece, the show is well written to incorporate nods to passages of time and some song lyrics (book and lyrics by Doug Macleod) are very witty. Similarly, its music spans various periods of history of Margaret’s life, even if frivolously-energetic, unnecessary numbers sometimes drag things along. And while the mixed bag of musical numbers includes no real post-show stand-outs, there are some memorable moments such as when she promotes a new appliance in an Andrews Sisters-style ‘Pressure Cooker’. The show includes a mix of high energy numbers and beautiful ballads, the latter of which allows the ensemble to showcase some lovely harmonies. Ensor’s touching vocals make ‘Beautiful’ a tender reassurance of third husband Michael’s adoration and Hainsworth’s vocal strength endures throughout, especially in occasional a cappella moments.

While much of the show’s entertainment comes from its easy comedy, there is also a strong feminist message to resonate it beyond just its target older demographic. John Bailey’s single-set stage design creates a nostalgic authenticity, appropriately complemented by colourful props including, of course, an orange crock pot. And like “Ladies in Black”, its Australian vernacular often adds to the charm of its humour.

“Margaret Fulton – The Musical” is a delightful musical romp through the life of a national treasure. Whether your knowledge of Fulton comes from her 1968 best seller or her more recent appearances as a judge on the reality television show MasterChef, this tribute to the famed cook will leave you entertained and uplifted.

Celtic comfort and comedy

Come From Away

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 26 – May 9

5 days, 19 animals and 7000 stray come from aways…. This could be a summary of the fast-paced 100 minute (no interval) acclaimed sleeper hit “Come from Away”, however, it is one that perhaps undervalues the rich tapestry of the Tony and Olivier Award winning Canadian musical’s beautiful storytelling. The remarkable real-life tale is of stranded September 11 passengers and the small edge-of-the Atlantic island town in Newfoundland (off the far north east coast of Canada) that welcomed them when 38 planes were ordered to land there unexpectedly as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon to ensure that potentially destructive air traffic would be removed from United States airspace as quickly as possible.

You might expect that a story about this most infamous of terrorist attacks would be a sombre, depressing experience, but the reality is far from this and it is easy to appreciate the show’s oft-given description as being a September 12, rather than a September 11 story. Plus, there is the fascination that comes with its basis on real people and their experiences. (Award-winning husband and wife authors of the book, music and lyrics David Hein and Irene Sankoff travelled to Newfoundland to interview thousands of locals and compile their stories).

It begins with a rousing opening number, led by the Mayor of Gander (Gene Weygandt) introducing the audience to the town. With ‘Welcome to the Rock’ we are, however, not just familiarised with the Newfoundland location but its residents, who explain what they were each doing on what began as just an ordinary day in September 2001. As the toe-tapping music continues, under the direction of local teacher/emergency management officer Beulah (Emma Powell) the less than 10 000 townsfolk frantically prepare for the arrival of some 7000 travellers. From previous experience of the musical, I remember the emotion and poignancy that its story brings, however, from here there is easy reminder of just how funny its comic relief moments are, as everyday people react to the extraordinary circumstances unfolding around them. It is not just the townsfolk either, as the feel-good story includes the tales of the travellers from around the world, afraid and initially unaware of what is happening or the extent of events.

“Come From Away” is a crowd pleaser of a show thanks to its incredible heart and the way it simultaneously honours what was lost while commemorating what was consequently found. Indeed, the best thing about a return visit to the musical is being able to share in the experience of others encountering it for the first time and even though we may have all been wearing masks on an opening night that was at the time unknown to be right before Greater Brisbane was sent into lockdown, you just knew that everyone was smiling beneath their face coverings. 

While “Come From Away” is comfortable show (#inagoodway), it still comes with its standout moments, including the moving and memorable ‘Me and the Sky’, one of the show’s two solos, in which Beverley Bass (Zoe Gertz) shares her love of flying and the career pathway that led her to become American Airlines’ first female captain. Its sit alongside a whole-company crescendo number only adds to the poignancy of its reminder that this is a story of real individuals and their individual experiences. Its contrast is ‘Screech In’, during which the Newfoundlanders host a party for the ‘plane people’ complete with a ceremony involving a shot of the province’s 40% alcohol rum and other traditions, the second of its fiddle-filled drinking songs.

The 12-member cast, many of whom are reprising their performances as part of the original Australian company that first debuted in 2019, are all on stage for almost the entire time. Even so, they are vibrant and incredibly versatile in playing the many roles of people on the planes and flying the planes, as well as the residents of the town, including with all the associated distinctive characteristics and accents. As he has done previously, Kolby Kindle brings much humour to the role of jaded New Yorker Bob, initially suspicious of everyone and everything, perfectly timing and accentuating his every to-audience commentary on the brave new world of Newfoundland and its inhabitants. Sharriese Hamilton again gives a moving performance as Hannah, mother of a missing Manhattan firefighter, delivering a soulfully emotional ‘I Am Here’, in reflection of the isolation and helplessness she feels not knowing of his fate. And Powell projects infectious energy as the warm-hearted and empathetic local Beulah who bonds with and supports Hannah. 

Appropriately the end-of-show standing ovation continues beyond acknowledgment of the cast to celebration of the on-stage band members. The musicians represent the bedrock of the show through provision of the foot-stomping accordion, fiddle and Irish flute type of Celtic folk rock motifs that feature alongside fast paced choreography which sees buses, planes and bars emerge from the swift changes of formation of its minimalist staging of 12 chairs (scenic design by Beowulf Boritt).

All elements work together to make “Come From Away” deserving of all the “amazing” and “incredible” et al superlative exclamations heard amongst the crowd after its experience. The celebrated lend-a-hand humanity of Australian mateship may give the show additional down-under appeal, however, its themes are clearly universal as we reflect on the compassion and care that sees strangers generously extending kindness to others in the darkest of times. And when its upbeat but powerful closing number treats us to a resonate reunion of the Newfoundlanders and their plane-people guests 10 years later, its description of empty airports in the weeks following 911 rings true anew, reminding us of how inspiring themes related to the triumph of human decency will always be.

Photos – c/o Jeff Busy (Original Australian Production 2019)

Keeping up with the Joneses

The Realistic Joneses

Ad Astra

March 26 – April 17

Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses” begins with American suburbanites Bob (Gregory J Wilken) and Jennifer Jones (Jacqueline Kerr) sharing a drink and discussing possibly painting their house over the summer. They will only have to do it again sometime in the future after that, but ‘that’s what people do’, they decide. The other thing people do is small talk… other people maybe, but not Bob whose still waters run deep. Understandably then, the couple’s new neighbour, the animated and talkative John (Robert Wainwright) is not going to be Bob’s cup of tea (or glass of wine).

Bob is not so much stoic, but in a kind of denial we learn as details of his degenerative neurological disease are revealed by Jennifer’s confides with John, which occur unbeknownst to John’s wife Pony (Claire Argente). As the two couples’ lives intertwine, John’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic itself, and it becomes apparent that Jennifer and Pony share some challenges, notably how to communicate with men unaccustomed to being open on anything but their own terms.

Far from being bleak, however, the show is quite lively and very funny, thanks mostly to Wilken’s Bob. From his first scene response to his new neighbours’ drop-in introduction, we learn so much of his malaised and temperament approach to life through his non-verbals of crossed arm reactions, shrugged shoulders of disapproval and eye-roll responses to John’s enthusiastically clichéd contributions. Indeed, John has a response-for-everything way of offering assurance (even later as a haiku), meaning that when the two come together as ‘just a couple of fellas’ at the start of Act One, it is not only unexpected in its tenderness but appreciated for the vulnerability that is only briefly seen, due to the work’s lack of resolution. This scene also serves to empathise Wilken’s range, because easy laughs obviously take a lot of work and in later scenes particularly, while Bob is in ‘one of his moods’ he provides a lot the play’s humour through his wide-eyed wonderment and earnest, emphatic declarations with deadpan delivery.

Kerr and Wilken perfectly capture the nuances of a long relationship’s journey in their portrayals of Jennifer and Bob, bringing a genuine warmth to their characters that encourages audience affection, even when they are disagreeing with each other. Kerr makes Jennifer the most rational of the characters, meaning that we both feel her frustration and recognise the strength behind her sad eyes. In contrast, Argente’s Pony is the most contentious of the four, hyperbolic in her emotional reactions and scatological, often incomplete explanations, and while it is exhausting trying to figure the character out, Argente’s energy in making her so, cannot be denied. And Wainwright brings a decisiveness to John’s words and actions, that reveals exactly why the couple is such a good match.

Really, not a lot happens during the two hour (including interval) play as the bulk of it relies on idiosyncratic and sometimes witty (but also frustratingly encircling) dialogue between characters trying to keep up with each other in the depths of small talk. Things start very strongly as the two couples initially meet and intact with nervous chatter, choreographically dancing around each other and differing spots of Bob and Jennifer’s outdoor dining setting, although some slower scene transitions drag momentum a little in latter scenes.

The generic nature of the couples, who share the surname of Jones and the repeated positioning of their concerns against the bigger described imagery of the sky above and wildlife sounds around them work to convey the text’s message about the life’s banalities. “They discuss their lives, giving an inside look at the people who live next door, the truths we think we know and the secrets we never imagined we all might share”; this is how the show’s blurb sums up its focus. Though in realisation, “The Realistic Joneses” may not unfold with the expected ‘everyday-ness’ to its narrative, its revelation of the similar secrets being kept in its characters’ suburban lives, delivers some worthwhile messages about the importance of what is left unsaid as much as what is shared and of the need to not just listen more, but to listen better to each other.

Rabbit rule

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

Brisbane Powerhouse

March 13

As part of the global movement of Let There Be Theatre, a celebration of hope and inspiration during this time of uncertainty and isolation, the ground-breaking 2010 work “White Rabbit Red Rabbit”was performed worldwide on 13 March 2021 to commemorate the day, a year prior, when most theatres shut due to COVID restrictions. In Brisbane Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre, being as it is in Australia with audiences again able to share in 100% capacity theatre events, 99 of us gathered for its unique and rewarding experience. We know this as its initial minutes see us counting off our numbers, which is how we will be known for the purposes of audience participation. It is a way or organising volunteers to act out the play’s initial allegorical story of an animal’s visit to the circus.

Soon thereafter, the play becomes about much more as a solo performer, in this case the formidable Andrea Moor, reads the words of its Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who, when he wrote the play in 2010, was unable to leave his native Iran, imprisoned as a conscientious objector for refusing to complete the nation’s compulsory military service. The highly original piece, now one of the most widely performed plays in the world, is told with no rehearsal, no director and jus this solo actor, performing the script sight unseen. It has appeared in Brisbane previously, appropriately as part of the 2013 World Theatre Festival at Brisbane Powerhouse, however many may not be aware of this, given that the first rule of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is that you don’t talk about “White Rabbit Red Rabbit”.This also makes it a difficult show to review without spoiling its content, which could broadly be described as a discussion of freedom and its constraints, through animal allegory. It is definitely a work worth seeing any time the opportunity arises the tone of the evening changes with each performer, making each experience particularly unique. And its interactivity means that the audience is always attentive and engaged throughout.

As its actor does not see the script prior to the performance, their reaction to sensitive material is like ours as analogies are drawn through the white red rabbit anecdote of its title which comes from a laboratory experiment that is described in detail. Ultimately, however, it is the audience members who find themselves working together in response to the dilemma posed by the script’s required decision making and it is this which resonates most strongly in after show discussions. Indeed, it is a very meta-theatrical 70-minute journey, with the playwright often directly addressing the audience through Moore as his onstage messenger.

Since its first performance in 2011, this theatrical experiment has served as a powerful reminder of the transformative capacity of theatre. Though there is no linear story, there are clear themes around legacy, writing and theatre… also, bigger, overarching ideas of freedom and freedom-of-choice, that are perfectly nurtured by its minimalist staging and the intimacy offered by The Brisbane Powerhouse’s Visy Theatre performance space.

It’s not all contemplative consideration, however, as the show’s exploration of the boundaries and distinctions between actor and character also leads to some light-hearted moments of audience involvement and the comic highlight of seeing Moor acting as an ostrich. Ultimately for me though, the biggest take away is how, nearly a decade after first experience of the experimental solo work, it has continued assurance as a unique enigmatic and thought-provoking theatre experience.

Collective Conviction

Conviction (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 17 – 27

There’s something exciting about standing at the brave new world of the start of story we are told during Zoey Dawson’s “Conviction”, the final in new company The Hive Collective’s trilogy of works at Metro Arts. The truth of the statement is clear from the very start of the thematically rich and clever piece of independent theatre. It’s morning as a young woman, Lillian (Emily Burton) describes the surroundings of what we later know is her messy lounge room in Brunswick East, where she intends to write a play – an important play, an instant classic, a story that matters.

Before this, we are given an explanation of need for risk-taking to get started writing, especially when your all day can be so easily filled with distractions. As performers (Burton and Luisa Prosser, Kevin Spink and Jeremiah Wray) list through almost overlapping thoughts it’s difficult to determine their interrelationships and discovering them in forthcoming scenes becomes part of the show’s ongoing joy as the ideas interestingly blur the outlines of each section in a way that makes them easier to sink into. Indeed, it’s a clever device that threads all sections together allowing for an added depth to audience appreciation.

The divisive potential of this unconventional work is realised from its very first scene of the four performers standing on stage in darkness. This is also the initial of many times when Anna Whitaker’s sound design and Christine Felmingham’s lighting design serve as production standouts, especially in support of scene transitions. Quite different to the Collective’s earlier works, “Conviction” is risky in its dramatic structure. It’s clearly the most unconventional of three, not so set in Greek mythology, but still, like “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” and “Elektra/Orestes” very dynamic, thanks to Kate Wild’s sharp direction. On the way to this, however, things get quite odd and also dark at times in its dense but taut approximately 70-minutes duration.

True to its absurdist meta-theatre black comedy promise, the non-linear story goes first to colonial Australian, or farce thereof given the intentionally contrived representational character realisations. With the writer’s convict drama unravelling, all is not as it seems and not just because of its jarringly progressive and self-aware strong female protagonist who is conscious in her rejection of old fashioned cis gendered male sentiments of supremacy around women.

Aware of the big issues beyond her own story, Lillian is sympathetic to the plight of the first peoples and eager to see their stories told and all types of things that challenge our conception of historical drama. And it is here in mockery of the Australian canon (and the playwright’s own artistic ambition), where each cast member is at their deliberately melodramatic best, especially Burton who hits every note needed for maximum comic effect as the convict plot line unravels us deeper into the psyche of the playwright.

This is the strongest of sections which then shift us back to the mundane of the flat in which her partner returns from his day’s work to discover and discuss how she has spent her time and then the harsh dystopian conclusion of confronting imagery that also stems from Lillian’s writer brain, in contemplation of the journey a writer goes on trying to express themselves and what can work against it.

Things pace along perfectly until the final section of what could easily have been overly self-indulgent work about what being ‘just’ a writer means, the process of writing and the self-doubt that characterises a lack of conviction. Besides this interrogation of the creative process, “Conviction” is also about the darkness and light within us all, however, any universal themes are burdened by its daring, experimental style of independent theatre that may be challenging to audience members with preference for clearer narratives the experience of which requires less effort.

As the rollercoaster work crescendos to its conclusion, a voice over shares the creator’s hope that it all makes sense and that we understand everything exactly the way we are meant to. Clearly, The Hive Collective creatives are confident storytellers, especially in exploration of themes around the social inequality of the sexes and Brisbane audience can now only anticipate what the company might bring us next.

Photos – c/o Stephen Henry

Triple eXcellence

Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

March 6 – April 1

“Triple X” is the brand-new Australian story and world premiere that audiences have been waiting a year for, given that the co-production between Queensland Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company made it only to a second preview performance before being devastatingly shut down due to COVID-19 in 2020. And the anti-romance is most definitely been worth the wait. The funny play is an honest and moving love story that is both powerful in the way it reflects society back to us, but incredibly entertaining in its unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Scotty (Josh McConville) is living the dream. A successful Wall Street banker, he is about to marry his beautiful and very rich girlfriend. On the eve of their wedding, his family descends of his recently purchased multi-million dollar Tribeca loft. While the philosophical differences between Scott, his just-returned-from-Nepal socially-conscious lesbian sister Claire (Contessa Treffone in a Queensland Theatre debut) and his straight-out-of-Kentucky conservative mother Deborah (the multi award winning Christen O’Leary) are clear, this conflict is just beginning. Behind the brash excess of the ‘player’ masculine veneer he bounces off his friend Jase (Elijah Williams), Scotty is really existing in internally-conflicted quiet desperation, wondering what he is doing with his life. As an audience, we come to realise this through flashbacks to his months beforehand initial interaction and then ongoing affair with charismatic trans drag performer Dexie (Glace Chase), a self-proclaimed typical stop on men’s journey to their destination sexuality.

Just as Lady Gaga synopsised, Scotty and Dexi are soon caught in a bad (but raunchy) romance, reflection on which causes Act Two to pivot in its flashbacks, including explanation of why Deborah is triggered into an out-of-nowhere rant in Act One. With his secret on his mind, Scotty must make a choice between the comfort of familiarity and the fulfilment of a future he never envisioned.

Not only is this vital work a unique story, but it is told from the unique perspective of its straight male protagonist. And McConville is excellent in the role of Scotty, giving a performance that reflects that different layers of his character as he makes sense of the attraction he and Dexi share and then navigates their resulting out-of-bounds love affair. It is playwright, Glace Chase (who is originally from Australia but left almost a decade ago for New York) however, who not only gives audiences the first Australian mainstage love story involving a transgender person, but also a phenomenal performance. Chase is magnetic as the candid Dexi, bold but vulnerable and funny, except when trying to be on stage in her club act. She is likeable and genuine and someone you want in your orbit. Indeed, she and Scotty are both presented as very real characters, complex in their multi-dimensions, sometimes unpleasant but always identifiable through their inner conflicts, which makes the show’s laid-bare moments so emotionally affecting. O’Leary, too, gifts Scotty’s mum a familiar authenticity as she expresses everything she is thinking, continuing with conversations when others have moved on and assuming an apparent ignorance-is-bliss acceptance of convenient explanations that align with her own wants.

Designer Renee Mulder has provided a stylish split level set to authentically locate the action in Scotty’s home and flashback transitions are all smooth. In fact, the whole experience is well-paced, including its insertion of Dexi’s Candyland club performance as part of transitions between present and flashback scenes. Rather than existing merely as filler, these offer an additional perspective as to the truth of her character as her adorable awkwardness of often not quite nailing it only enhances our favour.

The production is filled with carefully-curated attentions to detail, down to the level of the strangest of interval song versions, whose meanings becomes clear when we return to Dexi’s club act soon after. Its outstanding script also sees themes of toxic masculinity, societal expectations, gender politics and love intricately woven together. Indeed, multitalented and multiple award-winning playwright Chase’s clever, honest writing takes us from absolutely hilarity courtesy of O’Leary’s physical comedy of alarm to shocking and sad moments that audibly reverberate around the audience, all within the duration of only just a few scenes.

“Triple X” comes with a list of warnings; it contains blackouts and the use of herbal cigarettes, but also frequent strong language, nudity, adult themes including domestic violence and references to suicide, drug use, sexual references and sex scenes. And the production’s Intimacy and Fight Director Nigel Poulton’s hand hoovers over many sections. Under Paige Rattray’s direction, however, things never sit too long in the story’s trauma. Rather, the thematic focuses are balanced and the audience is left with a lasting message of the importance of focussing on hope, although the work does include transphobic language and acts of violence that may be triggering for some audience members.

“Triple X” may be severe in some of its themes, but it is also a dynamic and hysterically funny story, meaning that its 2 hours and 30 minutes’ duration (including a 20-minute interval) seems to fly by in what feels like the shortest of time. Its honest commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality may initially appear to make it a show not for the light-hearted, however, the spring of its opening night audience to their feet in standing ovation for three curtain calls ongoing even as the house lights came on, shows how it is about so much more than this. Wickedly funny, moving and provocative, this is excellent theatre which appropriately had its opening night audience raving and which theatregoers everywhere should see.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman