Bang-on entertainment

Bang Bang (TAM Presents)

The Courier-Mail Spiegeltent

September 18 – 23

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Stage legend Rhonda Burchmore is an old school entertainer and “Bang Bang” is a good old fashioned good time from the moment she walks in the joint in a razzle dazzle of legs and leather to open with Shirley Bassey’s ‘Big Spender’. The show, which is billed as being a sassy foray into the First Lady of Australian musical theatre’s wild side features a range of delicious enticements, including sexy shenanigans from golden boy guest star Rob Mills’ energetic ‘Sex Bomb’ along with dancers Dayton Tavares and Hilton Denis (who is also appearing each night in “Life – The Show”). Plenty of familiar old songs fill the Spiegeltent over the show’s vivid but compact 70 minutes, evoking nostalgic joy in those of their era, even if only at recognition of their iconic introductions, as with Dead or Alive’s ‘’You Spin Me Round (like a Record)’.

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The standout comes courtesy of Burchmore’s ‘Private Dancer’, not just in the soulful touch she brings to the Tina Turner’s comeback classic, but in its inverted take that sees her singing of stripped down dancer Caio Souza. Indeed, the song seems made for Burchmore’s vocal versatility in its ascent and constraint and, accordingly, she makes it a stunning number that easily serves the show’s highlight.

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Despite such stiller numbers, there is a lot going in the show. All performers are given their chance to shine, from Claire Walters and Geoffrey Winter in duet, to the band’s 17-year-old guitarist in punchy instrumental break. There is a lot of sultry stuff though and Burchmore especially engages when the pace is toned down in numbers of ache and grit, such as in her ‘Nothing Compare to You’ Sinead O’Connor mashup with Miley Cyrus showcase of her vocal strength and control. And when she merges Cher’s ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ with Lana Del Ray’s ‘Young and Beautiful’ the result is an intimacy not always scene in Spiegeltent shows.

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Visually, there are some interesting moments to complement the vibrant performances courtesy of quirky, but not always explicable, costumes, a mirror-balled spotlight and bubbles of delight. It’s a delicious, eclectic smorgasbord. And although its hasty ending falls a big flat, holistically, the show is satisfying in its entertaining range of numbers, especially when Burchmore and co give over to a swinging ‘In the Mood’ tap number.

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Among sultry standards such as Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ and Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Hello’ there are less impressive playful numbers like Kylie Minogue ‘Speakerphone’ and Mousse T’s ‘Horny’, which bookend the show. “Bang Bang” may not be cutting edge in its numbers or moves, but it is comfortable in its throwback feel and there are enough highlights to make the show an enjoyable Brisfest outing because when it works, it is bang-on entertainment.

Photos c/o – Josh Cook

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Double bill buddies

Fag/Stag and Bali (The Last Great Hunt)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 11 – 15

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According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, the term fag stag describes a heterosexual man who socialises with homosexual men. It’s an appropriate, provocative title for a theatre work that is uncompromisingly honest in its exploration of contemporary masculinity and what it means to have a best mate. “Fag/Stag” shares the story of heading-towards-30 best friends Jimmy and Corgan whose lives are filled with a mix of Tinder, Grindr, binge-drinking and half-hearted hook-ups. It’s companion piece, “Bali” similarly sees the boys (because that’s how their privilege positions their behaviour) on a whirlwind typical Bali booze-up of a trip, to join Corgan’s affluent mother in celebration of her 60th birthday.

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The unassuming double bill from Perth’s The Last Great Hunt is written and performed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs. Isaacs is the spoiled Corgan, pining over the loss of his ex-girlfriend in light of her looming wedding day, while Fowler is Jimmy, angst-filled and insecure about everything. (But their anxieties don’t stop there.) They have long been each other’s wingman; theirs is a friendship they have never questioned, assuming it will always stand the test of time, despite their differing emotional intelligences.

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Together they play Donkey Kong and share stories of hook-ups, without ever really talking; as Jimmy notes after breakup with his boyfriend, when attempting to turn to Corgan, “straight men can’t deal with feelings”. This is both the genius and joy of the works, especially “Fag/Stag”, as the characters tell the same stories from their own points of view. And this is literally the shows’ format – the two sit on stools and tell their tales. The result is thoroughly engaging and entertaining as the audience both appreciates and assesses what the unreliable narrators are reporting and what the truth in the middle of both of their perspectives might really be, switching empathy between the characters, such is the skill of the performers.

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The simplicity of the fast-paced productions and sharpness of their witty scripts are certainly assets that emphasise the skill of the performers, who serve as natural and engaging narrators. And when they finally look at each other rather than us, it with palpable poignancy that has us fearful that their relationship may not survive. There are actually many surprisingly tender moments, in both pieces, particularly when they each speak of their parents and realisation of their apparently sudden aging. It’s not all melancholic though; each hour-long show is filled with funny moments, mostly in recalled storytelling but also in a joyful “Dirty Dancing” dance number (sans lift). There is also apparent truth at the core of the stories, particularly in relation to big themes of toxic masculinity and homophobia, which give “Fag/Stag”, in particular, substance beyond easy laughs, especially in its climax, which sees the boys fallout after Corgan denigrates Jimmy’s sexuality, which is not overplayed to the point of demonisation.

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“Bali” has its drama too, especially for us, when Fowler breaks character to address the ongoing bad behaviour of a group of talkative and disruptive audience members (#whatiswrongwithpeople?). Regardless, however, “Fag Stag” is what establishes itself as dynamic, compelling theatre and comparatively, while it is still of worth, “Bali” seems to be an unnecessary and less engaging outing.

Drag Deliciousness

Yummy

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 12 – 15

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“If you don’t like what you see tonight, stay off social media”, the celebrity queen of corporate drag, Karen from Finance tells the audience of “Yummy”. Luckily, there is little to dislike about the delicious burlesque, circus, comedy and contemporary dance show. The drag cabaret celebration of feminism and femininity comes to Brisbane Festival from an acclaimed season at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe and, from the moment it begins with a burlesque number from Zelia Rose, it is clear that those in the show and audience alike are going to be having a blast in experience of the outrageous production.

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Although there are some darker later numbers, predominantly acts are full of fun, especially in their salaciousness. Like when going to see a retro concert artist, even number becomes your next favourite. There’s Jandruze’s (Australian dancer James Andrew) stint as a risqué sandwich filling and then human slinky and hula-hoop queen, Hannie Helden’s astounding multi-hoop routine, emerging from a perky ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ theme/ ‘Genie in a Bottle’ mashup. (The combinations of pop hits are ingenious).

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Spectacular stagecraft is on show across the board. Benjamin Hancock’s avant-guard numbers are intriguing, including one in which he dances solo, with a screen over his mouth lip-syncing to Paloma Faith’s twisted love song, “Only Love Can Hurt Like This. Every performer is always animated, despite the show’s integral physicality.

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Indeed, many of the more customary numbers have a Ru Paul Lip Sync for Your Life feel (with even a death drop) in terms of infectious energy as the performers ‘work it’ in the highest of heels. And tthen here are the unconventional ones, like when sweet little psycho Valerie Hex (Director James Welsby), takes us from princess tap dancer to evil hard rock thrasher, over the course of one number.

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Comedy comes mostly from the show’s iconic cartoonish emcee, Karen from Finance, complete with big hair and over-the-top office attire.  ne of funniest scenes sees the bad bitch with a heart of gold gloriously syncing to recorded audio about audience member Rachel’s debt from now months ago, despite a meantime pokies win, in lead-in to a musical mashup of ABBA and Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’.

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Exaggerated props are intricately absurd, which only adds the dynamic aesthetic and the show’s contemporary choreography is uniquely stylised, meaning that there are a variety of personalities showcased in individual numbers. Full ensemble sections are, similarly, an extravaganza eleganza visual feast of entertainment.

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The contagious vitality of “Yummy” never waivers throughout the pacey visual and physical production, thanks also to its snappy soundtrack. Certainly, its gender fluid celebration is fun and full of surprises. To paraphrase creator James Welsby, they’re here, they’re queer, and they’re sure to make you cheer, so get yourself along to Theatre Republic before they sashay away.

House party provocations

Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 12 – 15

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I thought I knew what I was in for with “Home” from its blurb…. “On an empty stage, a house is conjured from nothing. You watch it fill room by room as generations of inhabitants go about making the house their home.” I also knew that the Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects’ work contains virtually no dialogue, which had me concerned, given how easily my mind can sometimes wander from the on-stage action without words to keep it in-check. This was, however, far from the case, given the intrigue of the execution of its unique premise.

The dynamic show has an intimate introduction as a man (Geoff Sobelle) begins to build a house out of wooden frames on the bare Playhouse stage. Before long we are wowed by the appearance as if out of thin air (Illusion Designer Steve Cuiffo) of the beginnings of a bedroom, fragmented in memory. Then, magically, an open-fronted, two-story house is built on stage using an actual house frame (Set Designer Steven Dufala) and furnished for its everyday use and transformation into a home. Props appear and characters change almost instantaneously meaning that it takes some time to even fully realise how many performers are involved in its inexplicable construction. It’s an ambitious concept, especially when executed without words, but with it comes remarkable reward, as under the skilful direction of Lee Sunday Evans, the company creates a spectacle unlike any other you are likely to see on stage.

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The Illusion is, in part, achieved through the show’s sustained, astounding choreography (David Neumann). With French farce frenzy, performers are simultaneous in their timed entrances and in unison in action as they all duck and weave, for example, around each other in morning bathroom routine, as the multiple characters who have lived in the house at different times. As the sun rises and sets on new days, we see all of the house’s residents at once, going about their daily putting-out-the-rubbish type routines and suffering through the discomfort of summer heat and rainy weather alike. And the sentiment of the piece is clear as the home’s inhabitants celebrate, suffer and live, making the place their own with addition of photos on the stairway wall, adding their own design to the study and even just in going through their own unique morning routines. So while it is the story of a house, it is also about bigger thematic concerns about the stuff of life as we are provoked to considered what it means to create a home…. All without words. It is quite a powerful experience.

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Along with the everydayness of occupants’ routines come momentous events as a dinner party becomes a surprise birthday celebration and then a graduation, wedding, fancy dress do and finally a funeral. And as an audience we are invited along with mass audience participation of all sorts, not just in rig of the party lights over the Playhouse stalls, but on stage as partygoers and performers. And how appropriate, for me to have a QPAC stage debut featuring a scene under the covers in bed, given my preference for #septemberisnosleep as a Brisfest hashtag.

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Although it is without interval, “Home” is really a show of two halves. While it is initially thoughtful in its themes, around the question of what makes a house a home, it is also full of fun, appropriate billed as a ‘magical house party’. This is true, particularly in its latter section, because how can you not have a good time when there’s a Viking in the kitchen, Santa in the study and a penguin in the dining room, all to the accompaniment of a roving brass band. Its Australian premiere is certainly another coup for the Brisbane Festival, but its season is a short one, so get along quickly to challenge your ideas about what theatre looks like (#inagoodway), whether you make it onto the stage or not.

Roving recollections

Rovers (Belloo Creative)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 11 – 15

One of last month’s Melbourne Writers Festival unorthodox special events, Second Last Rites, saw Australian actress, comedian and writer Magda Szubanski giving over to the one party she never thought she could attend, her own funeral.  Katherine Lyall-Watson’s “Rovers” is a little like that. It’s a wake though, not a funeral, we are reminded, so serves as celebration of a life lived… in all of its roving yet intertwined memories and experiences, the beginning, ending and everything in between. Some are real and some are creations, but in the hands of two of Brisbane’s best-loved and most accomplished actors, Roxanne McDonald and Barbara Lowing, all are quite entertaining.

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Immediately the new comedy-drama from all-female company Belloo Creative is quite meta not just in its outline of the wake theme and warning about the possibility of ‘copping an eyeful of middle-aged flesh’, but also mocked berate of Technical Manager Jeremy for turning out the lights and the ongoing appearance of the stage hand allegedly responsible for the less than perfect prop appearances. It is all very playful and lots of fun as a kaleidoscope of recollections collide, as they do in life. This is especially so in its early scene recall of the childhood memories of the Bogeyman and ‘when-I-grow-up’ ambitions, more intense now than ever with age. And the show’s minimalist set design and stirring soundtrack means that we imagine a lot, as tyres become horses and alike.

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It begins with Lowing descending from a desert water tank to meet up with McDonald and from there, the journey through their memories unfolds as the ‘two old girls’ reunite on-stage after more than 20 years. It is a trip through the heart lines of their own lives in revisit of the adventure of the women who made them who they are today, including Barbara Toy (Lowing’s namesake great Aunt) who crossed deserts and warzones in her trusty Land Rover, Pollyanna.

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It’s a journey, too that has storytelling at its core, unique due to its personal nature and weave from the tapestry of truth. And the dynamic duo present it as quite the yarn. Indeed, their warmth and genuine enjoyment in its share, emphasises the sincerity of its sentiment and rather than making it overly sentimental, its intimacy only adds to its appeal.

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At its core, “Rovers” serves as a reminder that Australia breeds its women tough. But behind the strength is also an essential and enticing charm; these are characters with whom you’d love to have a cup of tea and a natter, or maybe share a hip flask swig. There is a real authenticity to its dialogue and lots of humour too, especially courtesy of McDonald’s straight-talking observations as the fearless Jessie Miller in her fashionable hat.

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They may not, as they tell us, do it for the money, but we are certainly glad that they do and under Caroline Dunphy’s direction, the hour-long share of outback tales of trailblazing women flies by as audience imaginations are invigorated and inspired to be, know and raise strong women. It’s like “Thelma and Louise” in terms of defiance, only with an uplifting ending – charming, comforting and colourful, with even a few surprises.

Exquisite Elixir

Gratitude and Grief (Brisbane Festival and Griffith University)

QPAC, Concert Hall

September 9

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“Gratitude and Grief” is not only the name of the newly released album in which Katie Noonan and Elixir explore every nuance of Michael Leunig’s poetry, but, for fortunate Brisbane Festival audiences, is also the title of the creative collaboration’s special first-weekend show. The fusion of music, poetry and art from multi-platinum-selling and five-time ARIA Award-winning singer/songwriter Katie Noonan, Australia’s ‘poet laureate’ Michael Leunig, Noonan’s ARIA Award-winning jazz trio Elixir (featuring Zac Hurren and Stephen Magnusson) and Camerata – Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra (under the baton of Iain Grandage) offers audience members a Sunday slow-down and sense of calm from its first string and woodwind sounds.

The focus, however, is immediately Noonan’s stunning, ethereal-as-always voice. That is until cartooner Michael Leunig joins the group on stage. Leunig, who has collaborated over four years with Elixir to reinterpret ten of his poems in song, speaks the poems live between the songs being played while he draws beautiful accompaniments to each piece live onstage in his trademark black and white, quivering line style. The trademark simple yet evocative images suit both the sentiment and the gentle character of the show, which represents realisation of Noonan’s ambition in starting Elixir, to explore Australian poetry and find a place for quieter acoustic music. ‘Gratitude and Grief’ for example, see the accompaniment of a profound image of parent cradling a child in their arms, while barbed wire surrounds and a fighter plane flies overhead, in accompaniment to words such as ‘in the cradle of his mother’s arms a baby lies warm and sheltered from the time when they will come apart’.

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The titular song also serves as standout though the beautiful Camerata string sounds, followed then by the simple message of ‘Peace is my Drug’, transporting the audience to a place of pleasant thematic contemplation. Although there is an intimacy to the entire program, after interval sees some humour too, with the quirky song ‘Magpie’ its appeal to the bird, “don’t put a hole in me” and the infectious generous sentiment of ‘Smile’.

Every of the concert’s numbers showcases Noonan’s soaring vocals and superb range, however, the most memorable come at the afternoon’s end in Elixir’s intimate and soulful arrangement on ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ and an even more tender and angelic ‘Rainbow Connection’ (because love is love). And Camerata Conductor Iain Grandage’s ‘Let it Ring’ and ‘The Path to Your Door’, likewise, fill the Concert Hall with outstanding musicianship, with evocative bird-like sounds and percussion, so that desire becomes only for the show’s exquisite experience to linger a little more.

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While festival shows so often take audiences on flights of fantasy, rarely do their worlds of whimsy offer opportunity for reflective pause amongst the painting-the-town-pink frenzy that Brisfest brings us each Spring…. that is the luxurious joy of “Gratitude and Grief”.

Strut & Fret spectacle

Life – The Show (Strut & Fret Production House)

The Courier-Mail Spiegeltent

September 6 – 29

“Life – The Show” comes with some words of warning, “This show contains drug references, full frontal nudity, attempted pyrokinesis (the purported psychic ability allowing a person to create and control fire with the mind, for those who don’t want to have to Google) and adult concepts”. The adult concepts are immediate clear as the bumbling protagonist of sorts (Dutch circus artist Goos Meeuwsen) laments about his going-through-the-motions life. It’s quite a sedate start compared to that of past Strut & Fret shows; this is the production house who has previous brought Brisfest “Blanc de Blanc” and “Limbo Unhinged”. Indeed, expectations of salaciousness are never really met. Instead, there is a lot of comedy and clowning in Act One as this central character takes us along his journey through life’s ups and downs of love, marriage and children.

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It is the show’s music (arrangement by Steve Toulmin) that immediately establishes itself as one of its main strengths. Its inspired choices and inventive mashups really work, though on paper they maybe shouldn’t. A clap-along, upbeat ‘Faith’ by Ariana Grande for example, morphs through a ‘Careless Whisper’ saxophone solo to become the percussion frenzy of a ‘Welcome to the Jungle’/’Whole Lotta Love’, GnR/Zeplin mashup. From the folksy ‘Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead’ to the evocative ‘People are Strange’, the soundtrack is full of memorable moments. And jazz singer singer Fantine Pritoula does a spectacular job in bringing the lyrics and melody of so many of them to renewed life, including a soulful linger of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and a resonating punch of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’.

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Clearly, this Strut & Fret shows has more narrative than the company’s previous works. Surprisingly, however, it seems to slow things down. And it doesn’t even necessarily make things less indiscriminate because everything is kind of random… take, for example, the cast’s colour fight at show’s end. The usual tricks are included in terms of acrobatics and trapeze artistry, but also a high flying saxophone player (Bliase Garza from Violent Femmes) and a dynamic tap number from Australian dancing sensation Hilton Denis.

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But it wouldn’t be Strut & Fret without bring of something new of the OMG spectacle sort. This time it is the amazing spectacle of acrobats Time Kriegler and Elke Uhd climbing up and falling within a giant plastic tube hanging from the top of the Spiegeltent, to the oohs and ahhs of mouths-agape audience members.

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With its stellar performer line-up, there is much to love about “Life – The Show” in segments, if not the sum of its parts. Its cocktail of entertainment certainly serves as celebration of what it means to be human, even if it is not as high energy or as risqué as the company’s previous Speigletent shows. And with sentiment and beat of its ‘Live is Life’ ending in mind, it is easy to float out with the ‘stand up and dance’ feeling of the people.

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