Thousand tops

With 2020 being largely taken out of the mix, it has taken me just over 8 years to review 1000 shows as Blue Curtains Brisbane. And my top 10 favourites from within them, appropriately feature shows from 2013 to 2021… a mix of comedy, cabaret, musicals, theatre and festival fare.

1. Delectable Shelter (The Hayloft Project)

The Hayloft Project’s 2013 out-of-the-box black comedy, “Delectable Shelter” literally took place in a box as bunker at Brisbane Powerhouse in its claustrophobic tell of five doomsday survivors planning a utopian society. With ‘80s power ballads and hilarious homages to their ancestors from later descendants, there was so much by which to be entertained in the anarchy of its apocalyptic storytelling, making it my absolute favourite.

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theatre of Great Britain)

In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain provided QPAC audiences with an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition with their acclaimed production of Mark Hadden’s much-loved novel. Inventive, imaginative stage design which saw the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, provided many visually memorable moments authentic to experience of the show’s London production.

3. All My Love (HIT Productions)

HIT Productions’ sensitive “All My Love” chronicled the fascinating and little-known relationship between the larger-than-life writer and poet Henry Lawson and the radical socialist and literary icon Mary Gilmore, taking its audience along an evocative journey about the people beyond their words, but also their passion in a “Love Letters” type way.

4. Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre)

The musical so nice, Queensland Theatre programed it twice. With stunning visuals and costumes, a soundtrack featuring over 20 original Tim Finn songs and humour, the Helpman-Award-winning musical took audiences into both the glitz of a high-end 1950s department store shop floor and the personal lives of its employees with infectious wit and charm.

5. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The Curator’s 2021 drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

6. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company)

In 2016, Daniel Evans’ gave meaning anew to Shakespeare’s depiction of the Machiavellian King Richard III through bold exploration of its story’s silences, gaps and biases and dynamic discovery of new character depths and unexpected provocations.

7. Hamnet (Dead Centre)

As part of the 2018 Brisbane Festival, Ireland’s Dead Centre used audio visual technology in combination with live performance to give us the perfectly-pitched and movingly thought-provoking story of Shakespeare’s one son (just 11 when he died), knowing that he is just one letter away from greatness.

8. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

My favourite ever Queensland Theatre show…. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the company’s landmark 2021 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.

9. California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French)

The 2016 Spiegeltent saw audiences treated to the first Brisfest appearance of the cool-cat cabaret crooners of the “California Crooners Club”. The energetic and charming show from genuine, generous performers (led by concept creator Hugh Sheridan), was a marvellous mixed bag of old, new and original numbers curated together and harmonised like familiar favourites.

10. Forthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

And….

Special mention to La Boite Theatre Company’s “Still Standing”, which in 2002 and 2003 presented a music-filled immersion into the Brisbane rock scene of the 1980s as counter-culture to the repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime that although I saw before starting reviewing, still stands as my favourite ever Brisbane theatre experience.

Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

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.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

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.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

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 at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Top and tail treats

Rather than jinx things again with a post about the shows I am most looking forward to seeing in the year to come (at least we got Emerald City and Be More Chill), I take this time of year as an opportunity to reflect on the theatre year that mostly wasn’t. From its top and tail months, these have been my highlights of the 40 rather than usual 140(ish) shows seen:

Best dramatic performance

  • Richard Lund’s layered, contained performance as recent art school graduate Ken, assistant to abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko in the two-hander Red from Ad Astra.
  • Jayden Popik’s bold and powerful Queensland Theatre debut, as Declan in Mouthpiece, the company’s must-see return to the QPAC stage.

Best Staging

  • Set Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the Ad Astra’s small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, in John Logan’s Red.
  • Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together for QUT’s early-in-March presentation of Anton Chekhov’s seminal Three Sisters.

Best Video Design

  • Nathan Sibthorpe’s stunning video projections, creating a sense of immersion into Queensland Theatre’s world premiere production of David Megarrity’s The Holidays.

Best Musical

  • Phoenix Ensemble’s dynamic September strut out of the super-fun 2012 musical Kinky Boots.

Top moment

  • When the rollicking Pirates of Penzance in Lynch & Paterson’s In Concert production sneak up on the Major-General’s house with Catlike Tread while singing at their top of their Tarantara lungs in the eponymous parodic Gilbert and Sullivan song.

QSO ’21

Orchestral music is back in full force in 2021, with Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) last week unveiling a season of 18 concerts, all to be performed in the Concert Hall at QPAC, including three commissioned world premieres and headlined by the acclaimed Maestro series; a collection of 10 world-class classical celebrations. 

The season fittingly will open in February with a special event, “QSO Favourites”, celebrating favourite pieces as nominated by audience feedback. From Mozart’s Overture from “The Marriage of Figaro” to Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” and Ravel’s unforgettable “Bolero”, this promises to be a wonderful program for both avid listeners and those looking for a life-changing experience alike.

Another revisit is coming courtesy of April’s “Cinematic – Heroes and Heroines” special event concert featuring a mix of blockbuster movie music and tunes from films as diverse as “The Avengers” and “The Man From Snowy River”. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays will again provide the inspiration for a blockbuster Music on Sundays in May, “Shakespearean Classics – Music Inspired by the Bard”, including Mendelssohn’s iconic music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Prokofiev’s extraordinary ballet music for “Romeo and Juliet”.

Also, in May, will be “Musical Theatre Gala – Broadway to West End” featuring soloists sopranoLorina Gore and tenor Simon Gleeson (along with two emerging Musical Theatre soloists from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University), with the full power of a large orchestra, treating audience members to the music of theatre favourites such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” and the more recent “Frozen”.

In an Orchestra first, three world premieres will be staged in 2021, commissioned by QSO and all by Australian composers.Over the weekend of 30 April and 1 May, QSO musicians Irit Silver and Alison Mitchell, will perform a world premiere double concerto for flute, clarinet and orchestra, by Australian composer Gordon Kerry during the “Pictures at an Exhibition” performances. In June, “Epic Sounds” will feature the world premiere of a new work by acclaimed Australian didgeridoo player and composer William Barton, in a performance that also features Wagner’s dramatic Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” and the “Symphony No.5” by Sibelius. Fittingly, too, Season 2021 will also see Queensland Symphony Orchestra again travel throughout Queensland to perform, educate and inspire, an important part of the company’s commitment as the state orchestra. 

Soloists performing with the QSO in 2021 include one of the greatest pianists Queensland has ever produced in the internationally acclaimed Piers Lane, revered didgeridoo artist William Barton, dynamic young violinist Grace Clifford, one of Australia’s leading woodwind playersoboist Diana Doherty, organist Joseph Nolan, and Australian sopranos Emma Pearson, Lorina Gore and Rebecca Cassidy (Opera Queensland Young Artist). Queensland Symphony Orchestra musicians will also, of course, take centre stage with solo performances for Concertmaster Warwick Adeney, Section Principal Flute Alison Mitchell, Section Principal Clarinet Irit Silver, Principal Tuba Thomas Allely and Acting Section Principal Cello Hyung Suk Bae.

Leading the conductor line-up is the Orchestra’s celebrated Conductor Laureate Johannes Fritzsch, together with dynamic Australian conductor Dane Lam, Umberto Clerici, Elena Schwarz, Benjamin Northey, Max McBride, Alexander Briger, Benjamin Bayl, and of course hosting Music on Sundays, the irrepressible Guy Noble. Celebrated Conductor Emeritus of the Seattle Symphony Ludovic Morlot will also join the Orchestra as the only international artist for the season to make his Queensland Symphony Orchestra debut to conduct “Song to Symphony” in November and the Season Closing Gala, “Four Last Songs”, in December.

As previous QSO concerts have shown, listening to a live orchestra concert is not only a captivating aural experience, but it is one that can take audience members on an emotional journey along with its sweeping musical arrangements. For those wanting to join in the season’s celebration of live performance and its power to inspire us and draw us together, subscription packages are on sale now online at http://www.qso.com.au Single tickets, meanwhile, are on sale from Monday December 14.

2020 2.0 and more

It seems fitting that whether coincidently or otherwise, the day after Queensland Theatre welcomed audiences back to previews of Kieran Hurley’s “Mouthpiece”, the company has unveiled plans for the brave new world of theatre in 2021. The program, the first from Artistic Director Lee Lewis is certainly a season for our times, filled with love, laughter, tragedy, triumph and connection, starting on January 30 with Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Our Town”, a big but simply-told story of people in a country town that Lewis, as its director, cites as one of her favourites.

The bold program promises not to disappoint with its feature of four world premieres including the much-anticipated staging, in conjunction with Brisbane Festival, of Trent Dalton’s raw, honest and full-of-heart hit novel “Boy Swallows Universe”. The 1980s Brisbane coming of age story is not the only familiar production returning from the 2020 season that never quite came to be. “Triple X” by Glace Chase (who also stars as the lead), will try again in March after having only just begun previews when the COVID-19 lockdown saw theatres closed. The 21st century story from the pen of Australian-born, New York-based playwright, comedienne and performer Glace Chase, is hilarious, honest and an emotionally affecting look at entitlement, hypocrisy and the realities of love. (And it features one of the most eye-popping sex scenes in recent theatre history).

Also re-joining the line-up is human rights lawyer-turned-playwright Suzie Miller’s tour de force indictment of the legal system, “Prima Facie”, a one-woman show which sets about exposing the shortcomings of a patriarchal justice system where it is her word against his.

Discussions of gender will also be front and centre in May as Director Damien Ryan finds a way for classic comedy of complication, “Taming of the Shrew” to live in the new world as the company’s first Shakespeare in the Bille Brown Theatre. By transporting the divisive play to a time in which Kate is less of a problem and more of a promise of great women to come, the work suggests discussions of the world today alongside its glamour, romance, song, laughter… and a plane.

Of similar social currency will be Anchuli Felicia King’s new play, “White Pearl”, a comic portrait of the corporate culture of beauty (and casual racism) that ends up being about so much more, including the complexity of pan-Asian relations and the legacy of colonialism in the region.

And, as a world premiere, will be another new play, the first staging of the 2020–21 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award-winning “Return to the Dirt” by, (and also starring) Steve Pirie. The play, about death and trying to live promises to be all sorts of funny and not just through its setting in a funeral home.

November 20 will see the finale of the 2021 Season in the form of a very special, specifically-commissioned theatre experience, the world premiere and strictly limited season of “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook”, available only for subscribers. While there won’t be any ‘Khe Sanh’, the Australian legend will be celebrating the way song has shaped our national identity, including through the lens of acknowledgment of the great writing of our first nations people.

In another first, the company is partnering with Australian Theatre Live to produce digital versions of three productions: Taming of the Shrew (available 14 to 20 June), Return to the Dirt (available 22 to 28 November) and Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook (available 13 to 19 December). Like their popular online Play Club digital readings (which will continue with six live events in 2021), this will allow theatre to be shared beyond just the company’s Brisbane home base.

With seven mainstage events, including some familiar productions from 2020 as well as new works and tried-and-true classics, there is much to anticipate about Queensland Theatre 2020 2.0. While the company is excited to share the 2021 Season with in-person audiences, seating in line with COVID-19 physical distancing requirements means that fewer than usual seats will be available, so secure yours now with purchase of a season package and then await the approaching reminder of the essence and essentialness of theatre.

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.