Begotten beauty

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Begotten (Minola Theatre)

With live theatre on hold, companies are having to find fresh ways to connect with audiences. Play readings and radio plays are a perfect way of achieving this, as Anywhere Festival and the UQ Theatre Festival have recognised in their 2020 online festivals, which have included Minola Theatre’s “Begotten”, available for download on a pay-what-you-will basis.

The appropriately-title “Begotten” is a powerful one-woman work in which playwright Bianca Butler Reynolds explores the complex, changing role of women over time… the 100-year history of a family, told through the eyes of five women: Alice, Eileen, Clea, Hazel and Laoise. Adapted into a five-part radio drama format specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic, the work, which is performed by Bianca Butler Reynolds, gives audiences glimpse into the feminine lineage and associated shattering and mending of lives and hearts alike.

We begin in 2019 with Alice on a bus, reflecting in monologue. As she considers her relationship and childhood, and takes us back to memories of her mother Eileen, it is through flippant feelings about beards, but big issues too. Then it is Eileen, reflecting on emerging troubles in her marriage, before her mother’s twin sister Clea assumes the story, then their long-suffering immigrant English wartime mother Hazel and, in turn, her Irish mother Laoise in 1919.  While the changes of perspective are not initially clear, they soon become easy to follow, especially for those familiar with the show’s blurb.

With no visual component, works such as this depend on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story. In this regard, “Begotten” is a powerful auditory force. The multiple one-womaness of its monologue retelling, makes its experience like that of an audiobook, authenticated by a richly textured soundscape of sound effects and ambient noise to assist in establishing the sense of place that is at the core of its contemplation of the idea of home (post production sound design and editing by Siobhan Finniss). Voices in character mimicry as part of the narrator’s retelling of memories and the use of pause to punctuate the story also aid with this. As well as locations, time is easily established through subtle mentions in hint as to its eras, like reference to the Seekers, the Vietnam draft and Blitz air-raids, which feed the imagination of the listener.

While human beings have been sharing information orally for tens of thousands of years, the distractions of our modern experiences make mental sojourns easily require the need to refocus our attention. Thankfully, “Begotten” is well-written, with the effective description of little details to evoke an authenticity that adds to its appeal. The work does come with a content warning as to its adult themes, coarse language and references to domestic violence. Indeed, its detailed descriptions of domestic violence are quite confronting and contribute much to the sadness that settles across the piece… sadness but also a satisfaction at the ultimate, beauty tapestry that emerges as the women’s histories strand together over a century. There is a particular intimacy in listening to a character’s thoughts with only your own imagination to build upon them and with five distinct characters in its story, the work’s 85-minute duration seems to fly by in the way that all good plays should.

Rise and respond

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We Will Rise (Topology)

Aria-nominated and internationally regarded Topology, is an established leader of musical creativity in Australia, renowned for the unique collaborations that determine much of the group’s distinct style. So the release, this month, of the vibrant local quintet’s 16th album “We Will Rise” is worthy of attention on pedigree alone. The fact that the concept album features ten tracks curated by the group’s members (John Babbage – saxophone, Robert Davidson – upright bass, Bernard Hoey – viola, Therese Milanovic – piano and Christa Powell – violin) from their 23-year back catalogue and new compositions, reflecting contemporary concerns, makes it worthy of particular attention. The compilation of original music from the late 90s through to the present day has been curated to empower, inspire, and support, making it an innovative journey through a variety of moods with the common theme of working through challenging times.

The album’s theme is evident throughout, but most obviously in its titular track ‘We Will Rise’ by Topology’s Artistic Director, Robert Davidson. The number, which features the group’s instrumental accompaniment interwoven with Prime Minister James Scullin’s inspiring 1931 address to the Australian people during the Great Depression, brings with it memories of the group’s 2015 show, “Unrepresentative Swill” which was inspired by famous speeches from Australian history. Giving the speech about rising out of difficulties and depression the Topology treatment, serves as showcase not only of skilled musicianship, but how the best speeches showcase a musicality to their structure and delivery. Indeed, the number not only empathises with the text’s insistent and deliberate motivating meter, but makes the energy of the speech’s cresendoing rhythm accessible with strings finding its natural stirs and melodic cadence.

 Just like in great speeches, there is a certain poetry to “We Will Rise”, giving people a sense of order in a life of current chaos. The work is interwoven with social messages as the group continues with their connection to community, even at this time in which the industry is taking a significant beating. ‘Drought Stories – Texas, a recently premiered work composed by John Babbage is an at-first slowed-down and tender, but ultimately upbeat testimony to resilience, inspired from the share of the honest stories of Texas locals from many visits to the rural Queensland town. Meanwhile, Bernard Hoey’s optimistic ‘One Day Gavin Stomach’ is a chaotic conclusion that sees musicians simultaneous playing atop an energetic MC Hammer baseline in different meters before unifying together in hope

While strings give flight and swirl to John Babbage’s Millennium Bug’, a number inspired by the anxieties surrounding Y2K, the piano features strongly throughout the album, in the energetic solo, ‘Glare of Fire and also ‘Rush’, which sees the controlled chaos of ten hands on one piano, in symbolism of the common experience of us all at the moment. In all instances, there is an obvious clarity and separation between the instruments, that makes for a crisp listening experience.

Topology’s “We Will Rise” not only captures a moment in time, but serves as a reminder that without arts workers there is no art. The album captures the Brisbane-based ensemble’s idiosyncratic blend of classical and contemporary sounds in its expressions, illustrating how music can communicate beyond just lyrics. The collection of music in response to the need for inspiration, strength, and collective healing, is available to stream and download now.

2020 aplenty

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While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

McCaw moments

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“Any Moment a new musical by Bradley McCaw” The Concept Recording, is a new work from award winning writer/performer and emerging composer Bradley McCaw. Set over the course of 24 hours, the work begins at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and moves throughout a single town, hearing stories from various individuals as the clock tumbles toward a New Year. Its inspiration from the famous John Lennon quote, ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans’ is clear in this narrative premise and through-line exploration of what a minute in time truly represents.

It starts as we meet four strangers; a young man running away from home, a woman at a party, a truck driver heading home to his family and a new mother with her crying child in the cresendoing ‘Twenty More Till​’, which tantalises with suggestion of the spectacle that sets great opening musical numbers apart from the humdrumness of others.

The recording is inspired by hit musicals like “Songs for A New World,” and “Closer Than Ever,” and the musical influence is seen across the familiar feel of its 11-song soundtrack. There is humour too, in, for example, ‘My Phone’, in which two strangers (Judy Hainsworth & Shaun Kohlman) sing about their most prominent personal relationship and Emily Kristopher’s cute rendition of the bright and breezy ‘Rovers Song’, in which she sings as a young girl explaining her parents impending divorce, to her dog.

It is the ‘big’ numbers, however, that are the most memorable especially in their feature of performances by some of the finest performers from our musical theatre stages. Kurt Phelan implores his character to move on, as his ex gets married at the Church across town in ‘A Church on Murphy Street’, a tender, emotional highlight, that is both sentimental and soaring. And Lizzie Moore is exhilarating in sassy Sutton Foster-esque vocal presence in the final song, ‘Hard to Keep a Good Girl Down’, in which a woman unpacks the ending of her marriage.

Across its track listing, “Any Moment a new musical by Bradley McCaw” The Concept Recording features much variety and many musical highlights dependent upon personal preferences. While the recording aims to not showcase a Complete Final Musical Theatre work, it provides us with enough hint as to what “Any Moment” could be, to only want more. Lucky Melbournians will get the exclusive first look at the new work in celebration of its release at Chapel off Chapel this June as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

and that’s a 2018 wrap

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A quick pre-Christmas trip to Melbourne this week has not only give me my favourite theatre experience of the year in Calamity Jane, but provided a chance to reflect on a theatre year now done. Although still in the triple digits, I saw fewer shows in 2018 than in previous years, because…. Netflix. And, as usual, there have been many highlights, making it difficult to providing a definitive list of favourites. But reflective lists are what the end of a year is all about, so here is my eclectic top 10 of the memorable, the musical, the moving and the mirthful, and some honourable mentions.

  1. Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)
  2. Hamnet (Dead Centre) as part of Brisbane Festival
  3. Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)
  4. Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)
  5. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)
  7. The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)
  8. Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects) as part of Brisbane Festival
  9. At Last: The Etta James Story (Brisbane Powerhouse)
  10. The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

And mention also to the following highlights:

Best performance:

  • Virgina Gay as the titular feisty frontierswoman in Calamity Jane
  • Paul Capsis as 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture.

Best AV – A Christmas Carol (optikal bloc for shake & stir theatre co)

Most thought provoking –- Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

Best new work – The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Best musical

  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  • Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
  • Bare (Understudy Productions)

Best cabaret:

Best music – The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)

Best dance – Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

Funniest – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Most joyous – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

Cleverest – North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

Most moving – Hamnet (Dead Centre)