Austen attraction

Promise and Promiscuity (Penny Ashton)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 11

As if being a sole performer on stage isn’t difficult enough in itself, add in acting in multiple character roles and making it a musical and success is probably going to be no easy feat. Yet, in Penny Ashton’s hands in “Promise and Promiscuity”, the task appears to be a breeze.

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In parody of the novels of Jane Austen, the show follows the fortunes of husbandless writer Elsbeth of Brisbaneshire (in this instance) who writes thrilling stories under the male pseudonym Wilbur Smythe and would rather die an old maid than concern herself with frivolity in possession of foolish notions of love.

It begins with Elsbeth’s socially-ambitious mother lamenting over her aged 2 and 20 daughter’s lack of husband, but also excited by the family’s invitation to a ball at Quigley Manor. Things move quickly as Ashton clearly establishes characters with physicality and vocals. To her credit, each character, whether male or female, is well-defined and well-distinguished from each other with their own, unique physical quirks and characteristics, whether it be excitable younger daughter Cordelia or the aloof Mr Dalton, who is search of intellectual endeavour rather than romance. With such a crowded cast and quick changes, it takes time to ease into the show’s rhythm and unique Austen-like language. There is a veritable array of well-known Austen characters and although there are no wet shirts, male characters are the most memorable amongst the eight that Ashton plays, particularly, a snorting cousin Horatio, unable to offer compliment without also causing offence.

The script is full of witty incorporation of not just quotes for Austen aficionados but motifs that most people should recognise and double-entendre innuendo that nobody can miss. And the Ashtonisation of modern and pop culture references from Trump to Target and 50 Shades of Grey, add an often very funny touch to things.

Original music, composed by Robbie Ellis adds to the experience, especially when a dance partner must be sought from within the audience. Indeed, musical numbers that outline the importance of proper etiquette (to not be a strumpet) and the broken dreams of a family evicted from their cottage after accusations of wanton promiscuity (by writing as a male) could easy work in a mainstream musical.

“Promise and Promiscuity” may not be entirely proper in a Regency way, but it is genuinely good-natured. Ashton’s energy is infectious and, as a naturally engaging performer, she makes the show’s experience all the more delightful. While those familiar with the fiction of its source material, will appreciate its homage, its attraction goes to beyond audiences with this experience. It’s not so much a musical (as billed) but rather a play with some songs about the curse of being a woman in Austen’s world, yet it is still all sorts of wonderful.

 

Bush best

In The Warm Room – The Music of Kate Bush 1978 – 1980 (Electric Moon)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 9

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When a show is billed as “the voices of eight seasoned cabaret performers will shine Bush’s creativity, imagination and innovation”, expectations are high. Appropriately so, given Electric Moon’s previous shows, and as-anticipated, realised from its opening, beautifully-mournful number, ‘Moving’, by Josh Daveta, with ethereal additions from Bethan Ellsmore. And then there is Alison St Ledger who sounds just like the iconic and unique artist in the meta-music ‘Wow’.

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It is not all whimsical, however, with Daniel Hack rocking ‘Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak’. Indeed, there is something for everyone, from everyone; the stage is cluttered with collaborators (#inagoodway) and the show is all the better for it. The ten piece band, for example, does an excellent job in evoking a variety of moods and genre influences, as eclectic as its source songstress’ musical catalogue.

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Highlights include Daveta’s rollicking ‘Oh to be in Love’ and a haunting ‘’Oh England My Lionheart’ from an imposing (as always) Sandro Colarelli. And there is also Lucinda Shaw’s guttural ‘The Kick Inside’ and later symphonic post-apocalyptic ‘Breathing’, and a wonderful ‘Wuthering Heights’ from Bethan Ellsmore, in nod to Bush’s trademark cinematic and literary references and as example of Ellsmore’s vocal prowess.

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In each instance, the songs in the warm room are almost shared anew as the performers each bring something different to bringing out Kate Bush’s very best. But one would expect no less from Sandro Colarelli, Lisa Crawley, Josh Daveta, Bethan Ellsmore, Daniel Hack, Lucinda Shaw and Alison St Ledger… the best bringing out Bush’s best in make of an infectiously-entertaining evening.

Photos c/o – Lachlan Douglas

Ireland lives on

Ancient Rain (Paul Kelly & Camille O’Sullivan)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 13


Between Australian music legend and poet laureate Paul Kelly and Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, there is a proud Irish heritage, so it is appropriate that it is on WB Yeats’ birthday that they take Brisbane audiences on a journey through Irish poetry in “Ancient Rain”. The show, which combines original songs and music, together with spoken word, was inspired by more than a century of Irish writing and serves as both a reminder of its emotive poetry and range of themes.

It is a darkly beautiful show as it contrasts some of the most important events of Irish history, from the potato famine of the 1800s to the Easter Rising of last century with illumination of the evocative language of descriptions of lines like ‘October coloured weather’ which will linger long after shared. The lush musical arrangements transform the poetry into living art. In collaboration with composer Feargal Murray, Kelly and Sullivan have thread together a tapestry of tender moments of profound sadness at loss of language and country, but also celebration of survival. And lighting complements the mood and considered aesthetics of the elemental sounds of wind and thunder and the sensitive harmonies of the backing band, adding a theatrical feel to the show.


Kelly has a wonderful stage presence (as the country’s best balladeer with recognisable Aussie sounds, his vocals don’t always suit, but his voice is naturally suited to storytelling) and O’Sullivan is a compelling performer, whether in earthy or ethereal voice, meaning that together they are an irresistible combination, in complete command of the material. In Michael Hartnett’s ‘English Part Seven’, O’Sullivan soars in sing of ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’, while in Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ she tantalises with a husky voice in but a whisper. But it is Paula Meeham’s heartbreaking ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’ that represents the show’s pinnacle, at the end of Act One, as, draped in red veil she tells musical tale of the statue of the Virgin Mary, at whose feet a teenage girl gives birth before dying with her child.


“Ancient Rain” is a powerful project from two acclaimed performers that makes Irish history live again. While its tales are dark and melancholic in their heartache, they are very human stories, which means that everyone will have their own connection to its musical storytelling as they appreciate anew its old tales of war, rebellion and longing for freedom.

 Photos c/o – David James McCarthy and Sarah Walker

Politics at play

1984 (A new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 14 – 18

The Lyric Theatre filled with school groups for a 100 minutes long show with no intermission and complete lockout for its duration may not sound like a likely-to-work combination, but in the case of “1984”, experience of the show is so engrossing to the entire audience that none of these things matter. The new adaptation of one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” speaks to more than a literary audience, offering topical warning against allowing ignorance to be truth, confirming the accuracy of its own (paraphrased) words that it doesn’t matter when it is read, it can always be applied to the future.

It begins with members of a bookclub meeting in cozy, timber-clad reading room to discuss an intriguing text. Then reality is fractured into the text’s storyline, where life for citizens in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, is dictated by omnipresent government surveillance, overseen by the totalitarian party leader Big Brother. Protagonist Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is a member of the outer party, working in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism, to remove ‘unpersons’ from record.

diary.jpgWinston knows in his heart that the world in which he is living is monstrous. But giving voice to his thoughtcrimes, is another matter, especially if noting them in a diary, which is an individualistic, defiant act punishable by death. Risking everything, he begins a passionate relationship with Julia (Ursula Mills) who shares his loathing of the Party, until the Thought Police capture Winston along with Julia in their rented room and the two are delivered to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.

The initial differences from the source material at the outset may be ill-received by purists (this 1984 is defined by the creator’s interrogation of the novel’s structurally-important appendix), however any over-complication that this evokes is ultimately outweighed by the provocation of the renewed relevance of its themes. And by the time the audience bears witness to the daily Two Minutes Hate in which Party members must express their hatred for enemies of the stage, we are well and truly absorbed. While some aspects are initially overdone, like the overt foreshadowing on Winston’s psychopathological fear of rats, the production ultimately allows the audience to delve deeper into some of the novel’s central themes, while also allowing for appreciation anew of its simple yet eloquent language in show of how language shapes the way we think.

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Staging is slick and impressively sophisticated, both visually and in execution of seamless scene changes as heavily armed police transform the quaint dwelling of early scenes to a hyper-real, highly evolved Matrix-like world of a white dimensionless, empty arena for torture. The soundscape, too, is startlingly loud, which suits the essential discomfort of the terror on show as we are asked to ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.

Conroy is excellent as everyman Winston, conveying with clarity the complicated internal emotions of one at once confident in his self-assurance that 2 + 2 = 4 and intellectually able to reason about his resistance, to one who is later so broken-spirited as to be forced into betraying the only person he loves, by his torture in Room 101, the chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear of phobia. And Terence Crawford makes for an aptly-duplicitous O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who poses as part of the counter-revolutionary resistance, The Brotherhood, made even more menacing in his unwavering calm and control than his power.

“The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening,” George Orwell wrote, decades before the smart-phone world of today. And contemplation of its prophecy is what makes “1984” such essential viewing, given its demonstration of the terrifying possibilities of totalitarianism and suggestion that ideology is indeed present in the modern, western world. While certainly Australian audiences are privileged to experience an international touring production of such quality, its work is ultimately in its comments about the death of individuality (emphasised by the faceless figure on the program’s cover) and how rewriting the truth is but a step away from eradicating history.

Photos c/o – Shane Reid

Meta-farce fun!

Noises Off (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 3 – 25

Playwright Michael Frayn’s classic meta-farce has been running all over the world since its 1982 beginnings, which is unsurprising given that until “The Play That Goes Wrong” perhaps, it was regarded as the funniest play ever.

The story is one of doors and sardines… good old fashioned sardines, told three times over with increasing hilarity. The three acts (performed with one intermission) all depict a performance of the first act of a play within a play called “Nothing On”. It’s all very British in its “Man About the House” innuendo and slapstick, with its pants down moments and storylines of tax inspectors and sex addicts. But that is just the beginning of its humour.

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Things begin with the mediocre actors clumsily floundering through a late-night dress rehearsal for the about-to-tour farce; Dotty (Louise Siversen) is unable to keep track of her props, as her dim employer, Freddy (Hugh Parker) needs reassurance as to his character’s motivation and as Roger, leading man Garry (Ray Chong Nee) is, ‘you know’ unable to actually commit to a finished sentence outside of the dialogue.

Add in the hard-of-hearing Selsdon (Steven Tandy) and his drinking problem, as the play’s burglar, and it is of little wonder that the pompous director Lloyd (Simon Burke) is impatient, though he is somewhat distracted himself, given his secret simultaneous romancing of the young, inexperienced actress Belinda (Libby Munro) and dowdy, over-emotional assistant stage manager Poppy (Emily Goddard). At least the show’s backwards set has been fixed.

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When Flavia (Nicki Wendt), Philip’s dependable onstage wife, comments on how she likes ‘technicals’ because everyone is so nice, it not just funny because it is a dress rehearsal but because of its foreshadowing of what is to come. In the second act, set a month later, thanks to the show’s intricate revolving set, the audience watches from backstage as the actors stagger through the same material with limited regard and a whole lot of passive (and not so passive aggression) in response to interpersonal secrets being revealed, jealousy being aroused and murderous rage erupting. This section is absolutely hilarious, despite there being virtually no words spoken, lest they disrupt the ‘on stage’ show.

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Fast forward three months and the funny continues as we watch as if we were members of the audience during the play’s final touring performance, which has by that stage descended into a whirl of slammed doors and missed cues as backstage passions spill onto the stage.

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Even with a clockwork script, farce relies not on language but precision of performances. And in this regard Queensland Theatre’s “Noises Off” more than delivers. Despite their countless cues, all actors are spot-on in their timing and commitment to the physical precision required to last the 3+ hour running time distance. As individuals, all members of the ensemble are hugely talented; together than bring their distinct characters to complementary, quirky life. Standouts include Louise Siversen, whose physicality punctuates all that the aptly-named Dotty does and Hugh Parker, particularly in Act One when in panicky but always-polite need of plot clarification and character motivation. And despite only initially appearing as a voice, Simon Burke adds much to the initial act, making even the shortest of responses, ‘no’, so very funny.

Although its length makes “Noises Off” quite the theatrical commitment, it is one that is worthy of the investment. The comedy of errors may not be sophisticated in concept, but under the direction of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sam Strong, it is infectiously energetic. And whether ‘off-stage’ or on, the shenanigans on show are full of meta-farce fun.

Swedish celebrations

Thank You for the Music – an ABBA Celebration (QPAC Choir)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 6

If ABBA ever was to reform, (and chance are “absolutely zero” according to Bjorn Ulvaeus) down under would be top of the list on their comeback trail. Australia was, as it seems, the first country that took ABBA to heart. And evidently, the love affair still lingers, forty years after the ‘70s super pop group first toured the country, visiting every state capital except Brisbane… well, at least for those in attendance at the QPAC Choir’s annual showcase ‘Thank You for the Music – an Abba Celebration” trip down memory lane to mark the anniversary of that landmark live concert tour.

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QAPC choirmaster and super ABBA freak Timothy Sherlock not only looks the part in bedazzled jacket, but conveys an infectious energy. And the 140-voice QPAC choir more than rises to the occasion, responding to the crowd’s ‘We Want ABBA’ introduction chants and glowstick punctuation with performance of a selection of some of the most popular ABBA songs, as part of the Queensland Cabaret Festival. Indeed, this is a show full of familiar tunes, each remembered as favourite until the next number in the setlist starts playing. And seeing the audience’s collective reactions upon recognition of each starting medley makes for a night of many shared joys.

‘Mamma Mia’ kicks off the first medley, featuring also ‘SOS’ and ‘Waterloo’, but there are lesser known numbers showcased too. In each instance the choir’s voices harmonise beautifully, creating a melodic ‘Super Trouper’ and an absolutely heavenly ‘Chiquitita’ in recognition of its significance as one of the most famous charity songs ever. They are most wonderful, however, when on show in stripped back numbers such as the QPAC Chamber Choir’s rich harmonic vocals in an acapella arrangement of ‘One of Us’.

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Appropriately, the eight-piece live band is also given its chance to sign, particularly in the instrumental ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ from ABBA’s self-title third album (the first of only two songs by the group not to contain lyrics). The orchestral rock tune is a perfect selection given its piano and guitar-led instrumentals and accompanist Tina Liu and guitarist Toby Wren are particularly excellent in share of its flamboyant sounds.

And if that is not enough fun, there is show on screen of the corresponding album covers as complement to its set list, which are entertaining in themselves for the fashion alone. And there are clips too, from the 1977 documentary film “ABBA: The Movie” about the pop group’s Australian tour, commercials featuring ABBA, including for the Japanese electronics manufacturer National (now Panasonic) and interesting titbits of information and trivia shared by Sherlock in emcee mode.

Special guests for the evening include 3rd year students from the Bachelor of Musical Theatre course at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University who begin with boisterous share of the title track from 1979’s disco album, ‘Voulez Vous’, providing the first of many opportunities for an audience clap along to the energetic but quite lengthy number. In absolute contrast one of this year’s graduating students Georgia Bolton presents a soaring ballad refection on the end of a romance in ‘The Winner Takes It All’, which was written by ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus after separating from wife and fellow band member, Agnetha Fältskog.

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“Thank You for the Music – an ABBA Celebration” is indeed a celebration of the band’s extensive, diverse catalogue of music, offering audience members the chance to sing and sway along (because it is difficult not to move in time to tuneful numbers like the hugely popular ‘Fernando’). The music has a timeless appeal and when the evening ends with the ‘Dancing Queen’ audience on their feet dancing, jiving and having the time of their lives, it is on the highest of highs. This QPAC Choir event captures the timeless magic and excitement of one of the world’s most successful and entertaining live bands and like someone in the Supertrooper’s sights, as one of its audience members, you will be surely be smiling and having fun.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Stories and song (lines)

Song Lines (Michael Tuahine)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 1

For aboriginal and Torres Strait island people, a song line is who you are and where you come from. Accordingly, in his Queensland Cabaret Festival debut, “Song Lines”, acclaimed actor and singer, Michael Tuahine takes audiences on quite the journey of his ’42 and single’ song lines, weaving in and out of each other as the most genuine of stories often do.

There is an appealing authenticity from the tale that follows, stemming from the stories of his proud and determined Central Queensland mother and New Zealand Special Air Service Maori father, told with photographic slideshow accompaniment to help in celebrating the history and icons that have shaped his story. The show’s soundtrack is impressive in its considered curation, from Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’ in tell of his mother’s life at Cherbourg Mission under total control of the Aboriginal Preservation Protection Act to Jenny Morris’ ‘She’s Has to Be Loved’ as chronicle of her journey, ‘waiting for some recognition’ to New Zealand, in search on her dreaming place.

There is much humour too, often at New Zealand’s expense. Indeed, Tuahine is a charismatic performer with a natural, comforting charm. The show is still a little rough around the edges; the live band accompaniment is competingly loud in, for example, in an otherwise outstanding ‘Great Southern Land’ opening number and there are few distracting sound and lighting issues. However, these a minor detractions from an otherwise absolutely entertaining cabaret experience.

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The Aussie and NZ soundtrack is a real treat, featuring as it does, songs from Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and Split Enz, alongside lesson known numbers like ‘Brisbane Blacks’ and of course a singalong ‘Slice of Heaven’. While there is light and shade within the show’s soundtrack, including a wailing performance of Rob Orbison’s organic ‘Crying’, Tuahine is best when with guitar in hand in share of country rock sounds, which serves as reminder of his wonderful work as Jimmy Little in Queensland Theatre’s 2015 celebration of the musician’s life and music, “Country Song”.

Although it is a one man show, “Song Lines” is so much more than just one man’s story. In its trace of ancestry through music, it presents a rocking story of family, identity and belonging, told with pride and love. Its only pity is that it is a one-night-only season, as the want to return with others is strong, such is its infectious appeal.