Seaing simplicity

Sea Wall (That Production Company)

Metro Arts

June 22 – 25

There is an essential simplicity to That Production Company’s multi-award nominated, critically acclaimed production of “Sea Wall”, beyond just it being a one-man show. Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre staging is appropriately the most unassuming it has ever been, for a beautiful and brutal show that is all about its words and a disarmingly powerful performance from Steven Rooke as a character whose life has similarly been stripped bare.

There is an endearing everyman-ness to photographer Alex as he tells us about ex British infantry solider Arthur, who we discover is his wife Helen’s father and therefore grandpop to now-eight-year-old Lucy, as well as being a key player in the tragic events that beset Alex’s most recent annual family visit to Arthur’s home in a French seaside village.

Near to the village is the terrifying sea wall of the show’s title, running under the ocean, deceptively near the shore, which also serves as a symbol for how Alex’s life has been shattered. We learn more slowly as the story progresses in monologue form, craftedly transitioning from anecdotal frivolity to tension filled trauma, largely due to the accomplishment of its script, penned by award-winning writer Simon Stephens (Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time) for Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Fleabag).

Effective writing, it is said, comes from showing not telling through the smallest of details and “Sea Wall” is a masterclass in this, using potent imagery and evocative language to precise effect, whether in exploration of domestic dilemmas of market vs supermarket merits or in recall of the routines of relationships, as much as its bigger picture contemplations courtesy of recalled conversations about god and the need for reason. Early in the show, Alex explains the importance of capturing the humanness of portrait subjects through light. It is just one line, yet it perfectly captures the essence of what is a provocative piece of theatre in its expose of the despair that runs deep after a tragic life-changing event.

Directed with assurance by Timothy Wynn, “Sea Wall” is a tight show of less than hour running time, but that’s all Rooke needs to captivate audience members to moved, emotional responses. Pace and pause are used compellingly, including to allow us to sit in the deliberate discomfort of its confronting descriptions of events one day in France, as much as the poignancy of its protagonist’s pain. Alex’s conversational style is enhanced by all range of natural gestures, movement about the stage space and rhetorical questions delivered by Rooke like they are aimed directly at you. It’s a sophisticated performance enhanced by Sound Designer Brady Watkins’ subtle soundscape

“Sea Wall” is a stunning show whose return, Brisbane season is set to be over all too soon. This is a moving, intimate piece of theatre that illustrates how one actor can hold an audience spellbound. Indeed, its power derives from the strength of its solo performance, making it a must-see for those yet to have the privilege.

Photo c/o – Tom Antonio

Highlights of hope

Oliver! (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

18 June – 2 July 

A lot of Savoyard’s production of the musical “Oliver!” happens in the shadows; the dark and dramatic visit to Victorian London’s murky underworld begins with its cast of downtrodden workhouse orphans marching from the stalls onto the stage in want of food, glorious food and it does not shy away from the story’s gritty violence. Yet the reimagining ultimately shines a light on just how timeless the musical is, particularly in terms of its brilliant score, which is full of favourite numbers.

Based on the Charles Dickens’ classic novel, “Oliver Twist”, the musical is a story about holding onto hope in the darkest of times in its tell of the story of the young orphan, Oliver, and his struggles against the, often cruel world within which he lives. After daring to ask for more food at the workhouse where he is lodged, he is sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker before escaping to London where he finds himself accepted by a bunch of thieves and pickpockets, led by the elderly Fagin. Unsuited to a life of crime Oliver soon discovers that leaving Fagin’s gang and starting anew won’t be so easy.

With a multi-generational cast of over 50 performers, the show features an abundance of talent. Jeremiah Rees is wonderful as opening night’s eponymous hero, ethereally good-natured in juxtaposition to the squalor of his environment, but also plucky with moral determination. His pure, angelic voice epitomises his innocence, as evidenced in his main ballad, ‘Where is Love’ in which he longs for love and the mother he never knew.

Under David Harrison’s artistic direction, the production is layered with vivid characterisations. Warryn James is well-cast as Fagin. His performance is compelling in its energy and humour as he plays games and jokes with his pickpocketing students, often through song. Priyah Shah is also a standout in the range she brings to the kindly character of Nancy, member of Fagin’s gang and sympathetic lover of the sinister antagonist Bill Sikes (Raymond Gillmore). Her lead of Act Two’s opener ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’, makes the rollicking old tavern song infectious to us as much as the boisterous low-life ruffian customers on stage in a “Les Miserables” ‘Master of the House’ type way. Her strong vocals are no better seen than in Nancy’s torch song, the powerfully despairing ‘As Long as He Needs Me’, in which she attempts to convince herself of Bill’s love, leaving the audience spellbound. Indeed, her shows of strength but also vulnerability ensure that Nancy is presented as a complex character to be considered beneath the veneer of her defence of brutal Bill’s abuse.

Oliver Dobrenov gives us a charismatic, cockney child-gang leader, Artful Dodger, confidently leading many ensemble numbers and Rod Jones and Phillipa Bowe are gloriously hyperbolic in their early show play off each other as the self-important beadle of the poorhouse where the orphaned Oliver is raised and the sharp-tongued widow Mrs Corney, especially in their saucy interplay into ‘I Shall Scream’.

The show is filled with harmonious chorus numbers. The communal ‘Consider Yourself’ when the ensemble assembles together, is a glorious highlight. Unfortunately, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ when Oliver is introduced to Fagin and his boys falls comparatively short on Opening Night, courtesy only of significant microphone issues that plague things from Fagin’s entrance. James does well to not only work through the ongoing crackles and static, but persevere without amplification amongst a sea of other voices, which detracts from the animation of his triumphant recall of successfully executed crimes.  

Under Jacqueline Atherton’s considered musical direction, a lively orchestra advances the plot with songs and underscoring, utilising a range of melodies to represent the different characters, as well as reminding us of the virtues of the musical’s most-known tunes. Kim Heslewood and team’s costume design adds texture and movement alike, from the colourful toff pop of the Artful Dodger’s jacket to the petticoat ruffles of dancer dresses, while Lynne Swain’s makeup design contributes much to the gothic sensibility of early scenes, particularly those featuring the Tim Burtonesque funeral owners, Mr and Mrs Sowerberry (David Harrison and Hannah Davies). Carlie McEachern’s lively choreography includes its own detailed highlights, such as in the chimney sweep moves within an Act Two ensemble number and Sherryl-Lee Secomb’s set design makes good use of the space, allowing for locations to pop open from within its facades.

This is an excellent musical revival, full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience, including nod to the melodramatic imagery and rhetoric that characterised the Victorian stage of its setting. While finding the drama with the text means including its depictions of domestic violence and alike, this is handled well, making it still suitable for younger audience members, after some pre-emptive conversations. Social satire aside, however, what is most resonate about this “Oliver!” is its theme of resilience and hope that things will get better, which makes it at-once inherently British in its sensibility but also universal in its ultimate impact.

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall

75 summarised

Earlier this month I reviewed my 75th Queensland Theatre show. Over the almost nine year journey to that number, there have been all range of experiences from comedy to drama and even a musical here and there, including my following deserving dozen highlight (because top ten lists as so clichéd).

  1. Boy Swallows Universe (2021)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

2. FANGIRLS (2019)

Like a young adult novel set to music, 2019’s “FANGIRLS” was a funny, witty and relatable guilty pleasure of sorts, complete with important messages about gender-based hypocrisy within its celebration and vindication of misunderstood teenage fangirls.

3. Ladies in Black (2015)

Before they came back to wow us again, the Ladies in Black shopgirls first transported us to 1950s Sydney courtesy of catchy Tim Finn songs and fabulous frocks.

4. A Tribute of Sorts (2014)

“A Tribute of Sorts” stands of one of the company’s strangest, but most strangely rewarding shows as its black comedy introduced us to teenage cousins Ivan and Juniper and their variety show homage re-enactment of the 26 untimely deaths of a series of alphabetically named children.

5. Good Muslim Boy (2018)

A big-impact story of small moments, 2018’s “Good Muslim Boy” was both gripping and fascinating in its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ tell of Iraqi-Australian actor, comedian and writer Osamah Sami’s ill-fated pilgrimage to Iran with his father.

6. Triple X (2021)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

7. Return to the Dirt (2021)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home, was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment.

8. Disgraced (2016)

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning one act play “Disgraced” presented an exceptional provocative examination of socio-political themes in its intense New York dinner party and aftermath presentation.

9. Bastard Territory (2016)

The confessional drama of 2016’s “Bastard Territory” was a beautiful story about people more than just ideas as it transported its audience back in time to ‘60s PNG 1975 NT, and then Darwin in 2001, as the city sat poised for political progress.

10. Brisbane (2015)

Brisbane’s namesake show gave its audience a historically nostalgic representation of the city in an epic story of its changing 1942 world that was about sensibility as much as its setting and characters.

11. Country Song (2015)

Michael Tuahine was every part the good-natured, clean-living ‘Gentleman Jim’ in 2015’s fictionalised “Country Song” story of the music and life of pioneering Australian country music star Jimmy Little.

12. Jasper Jones (2018)

Striking staging effectively took audiences to all the key scenes of Craig Silvey’s award-winning modern Australian classic novel “Jasper Jones” as part of the company’s 2018 season.  

Humanity’s hope

Control (Observatory Theatre)

Queensland Multicultural Centre

June 8 – 11

In spite of its big ideas, science fiction does not really exist as a genre in theatre the same way it does in other artistic spheres. Perhaps this is because of its assumed reliance on visual aspects of its bold storytelling. As Observatory Theatre’s “CONTROL” illustrates, however, this is not the only ingredient necessary for sci-fi success.

Keziah Warner’s “CONTROL” is an epic sci-fi story. Told across multiple decades at a time, the dystopian tale begins in 2030 through a reality tv lens. A Big Brother style show is set on a space ship travelling to an exclusive utopia hospitality encampment on Mars. Four C-grade celebrities of the time, ridiculously pregnant ex-ballerina Laura (Nykita O’Keeffe), strong and independent pop princess Elizabeth (Triona Calimbayan-Giles), a bitter divorced puppeteer Andrew (Egan Sun-Bin) and a tv detective of sorts Jake (Matt Domingo), are constantly filmed as they co-exist in their pod. Incentivised by the potential financial rewards that come from successful completion of secret challenges, their performances for the camera are far from boring and wonderful to watch, even if the many early short and sharp scenes make it difficult to connect with their characters. Over time, the performers’ vivid portrayals do invigorate our investment in their stories, however, by then the story is moving on from any ‘tv show or science experiment’ considerations.

Under Timothy Wynn’s direction of the play’s Queensland premiere, three loosely-connected narratives of appropriately equal length offer opportunity for consideration of the moral ambiguities around power and control. The second story, takes place in 2050, in what is retrospectively known as the riot era. On the eve of a revolution, two women, Nicki and Caroline, played by O’Keeffe and Calimbayan-Giles, discuss the jobs at Brisbane’s Museum of Childhood public storage bank where childhood memories are externally stored and commodified. As they interact with their AI superior Alex (Sun-Bin), conversation turns to the have and have-nots of client access to either the system’s full or limited free versions. Enter dissatisfied customer Xavier (Matt Domingo), half-brother of Jake from the Mars pod of two decades prior, with request for deletion of his captured memories and we are given further glimpses into the potential dangers of relinquishing control.  

Thirty years later, on a clean slate New Earth, we meet Nicki’s daughter Isabelle (O’Keeffe), tutor to humanoid AI Esta (Calimbayan-Giles), who is learning to become a teacher. As Isabelle manually adjusts Esta’s levels of emotion and ability levels to create a perfect primary school teacher’s personality, Esta exhibits unusual flashes of humanity towards a building relationship between the two.  

While the first story is the most entertaining, with its frequent interaction of all four characters, the final of the trilogy is the most interesting. This is largely due to Calimbayan-Giles’ performance. While she does well to make each of her characters completely distinct, including through some good accent work, it is her perfectly pitched performance as an AI character that shines the brightest. Without overplaying what could have been a one-note take, she brings a real pathos to the role of Esta, elevating the dilemma created by the charming simplicity of her the functionality and her emerging independence of thought and feeling. Sun-Bin, too, leaves his mark, bringing much humour to the first story, sometimes without even saying a word, such as in conveyance of his frustrations of being unable to provide acceptable sound bites to Big Brother questioning about his biggest fear et al.

Although not always sparingly, Warner’s script uses dialogue to allow its audience to build the worlds of its three stories themselves, but their creation is aided by the work of the show’s creatives. Nathaniel Knight’s lovely lighting lushes over the first story in particular and Juleece Dawe’s sound design sets us firmly in the world of a 2050 Brisbane office.

Despite some of the 20th century’s greatest literature being set in the future, science fiction, sadly, remains largely underrepresented in the theatre. Thankfully, however, there are shows like “CONTROL”, which, offers up a clever tale for fans of the genre and general theatre-goers alike. Its intelligent script considers language carefully to guide its audience into contemplation of the ethics and morality of our future technological directions, without providing any definitive answers. Indeed, its big questions about the objectification of humanity are crafted around individual character dilemmas of their own with regards to how they are seen by others, meaning that its audience is left with much to contemplate about if there is hope for humanity in a world controlled by technology.  

Photos c/o – Geoff Lawrence: Creative Futures Photography

Meeting memories

Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club (Western Standard Productions)

Judith Wright Arts Centre 

June 10 – 18

Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club is having its very first meeting in the Judith Wright clubhouse and all ‘80s era fans are welcome. After pledging our allegiance, the show’s audience is moved through agenda items and commendations for watermelon carrying et al, to learn that Fran Grey (Melissa Western) is joining the executive committee. To serve, she needs to have her ‘80s movie climax initiation fast-tracked and we get to watch!

Blessed by the spirit of Swayze, this footloose foursome of girls just want to have fun and performers Helen Cassidy, Lizzie Moore, Neridah Waters and Melissa Western throw themselves into the show’s celebration of living our best lives. Western, in particular, is charming as shy spreadsheet enthusiast Fran, hesitant especially amongst the big personalities of her now fellow board members.

As Act One continues we learn of the fictional club’s foundation in a random, prolonged flashback to DFFCC’s founder and president, the right honourable Tracey Bacon’s (Neridah Waters) time working at the supermarket deli. It’s all a bit loose, but in the funnest clowning-about kind of way, including with audience involvement in a Hey Hey It’s A Knockout ‘80s movie quiz.

Things move more quickly in Act Two with its amped up audience participation courtesy of an en masse ‘Take On Me’ dance routine, testimonials and a audience club member raffle draw, punctuated by many memorable moments. Most notable of these, from an audience reaction perspective, is probably a difficult-to-describe “Labyrinth” dream fantasy sequence of Merchandise Coordinator Molly Estevez (Helen Cassidy), with a big helping hand (and then some) from Lizzie Moore as David Bowie’s Jareth the Goblin King.

Inspired by the spirit of the ‘80s, this cabaret-style comedy quasi-musical is, of course full of nostalgic nods to the era. Its iconic music hits are hinted at in dialogue and included in snippets, with a few featuring as longer numbers, such as an inventively choreographed ‘Maniac’. Recognisable pop culture props make appearance too, from “Flashdance” welding to tease of its water scene.

No ‘80s show, however, would be complete without a “Dirty Dancing” reference or two and “Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club” manages to achieve this with its own twist. Club Vice President Sam Sheedy (Lizzy Moore) gives us a sensual self-care ‘Hungry Eyes’ tribute to what every busy woman really wants and, at Western’s hilariously-animated lead, the talent-show-ending ‘Kellerman’s Anthem’ becomes a shared singalong of joined ‘hands and hearts and voices – voices, hearts and hands’. Indeed, each time the starting strains of a familiar ‘80s song fill the air, they are accompanied by the joyful sounds of nostalgic recognition from within the audience.

“Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club” may be a show inspired by Coles Radio electro synth escapism, but its nostalgia-inducing sentiments serve as proof that the ‘80s are ‘gonna live forever’ (and fly high) in all of the era’s scrunchied, crimped-hair, shoulderpadded and neon et al glory. Attendance represents an opportunity for those of a certain vintage to get their brat pack together, and potentially dress the part to take part in an infectiously-fun night of nostalgia-induced ridiculousness. Like Fran, you just might end up having the time of your life, to be send home to dance right through your life in revisit of the era’s great movie soundtracks.

Vulture Street voyeuring

Red Light Distancing

The Fate Container

June 10 – 11

“Red Light Distancing” is difficult to describe but easy to experience. The provocative two-night-only, site-specific work presented with the support of Arts Queensland and Chrysalis Projects, along with Shock Therapy Productions, exists like a terrarium, with rugged-up audiences experiencing it voyeuristically from the outside looking in. While soloists perform in rooms behind the glass of an urban shop front’s windows, audio from each room is simultaneously streamed via an app on audience member’s smart phones, allowing them to move their attention between dining, rumpus and studio rooms and the characters living inside each room, while hearing what the performers are listening to.

At times its 70-minute duration flies by in captivation of what is occurring on the other side of the glass as we choose our own adventure across the rooms and their occupants, which include a diverse range of talented performance artists from across genres, including Lachlan McAulay, Thomas E S Kelly, Lauren Watson and Sam Foster, amongst others. There are circus aerial acts that elevate the precarious of Janga to new heights and cultural storytelling alongside humour and burlesque feats not for the faint of heart. It’s quite fascinating at times and while the multi stream audio design supports some beautiful and intriguing moments, it could perhaps have enhanced audience engagement by the inclusion also of some snippets of the internal monologue type. Still, the part human art gallery, part sideshow, part performance art experience, imagined and directed by David Carberry, is rewarding in its uniqueness and opportunity to stop still in observation.

See it as a something-different discussion starter or as a because-art prequel to dinner somewhere in one of the endless West End eats options. Ticket purchase guarantees you access to the blocked off area and the audio stream, as well as the satisfaction of supporting local artists doing what they do best.