Top tram talk

2 Across

Brisbane Tramway Museum

May 9 – 12

Sometimes the best theatre stories are told through intimate interaction in real time, set in one location. And as locations go, you don’t get more intimate than sharing space on a tram. In the case of “2 Across”, it is an authenticity that only adds to the experience of this certainly Anywhere Theatre Festival show. And you even get to go for a ride!

It is early morning on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train from San Francisco’s International Airport when the both-married presumptuous, womanising Tom (really Josh) and straight-laced Rita (really Janet) find themselves as the only two riding in one of the cars. Polite conversation begins over share of their common pastime. But their attempts at completing the New York Times’ ‘sadistic Saturday’ crossword seem to be where their commonality ends. As a clear beginner (using a pencil gives it away), Josh doesn’t consider crosswords as life and death and could easily leave a puzzle incomplete given the equal appeal of the paper’s sports page. To Janet, however, exactness is everything. And given that she doesn’t suffer fools easily, it seems that their interaction might not progress much further. But maybe his loosey-goosey approach to life as a between-jobs advertising executive is just what she needs.

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Each has their idiosyncrasies; he has his favourite seat and she is one of those people who says bingo when not playing bingo, which are revealed as the audience voyeurs the unfold of their journey. It’s a journey not just of implied physical distance but of character changes, as the usually very proper psychologist Janet even breaks the rules enough to eat on the train. Indeed, as she attempts to make Josh more sure of himself in preparation for an upcoming job interview, she goes from gruff to giggly and it is clear that there is more at play that just a polite conversation about puzzle guidelines as talk turns to poetry and the intellectual affair that their potentially preordained meeting may have prompted.

With only really its dialogue to rely upon, the writing of a work like this needs to be something special. And it most certainly is, with many quotable observations such as how crosswords can serve as a metaphor for life. There is much wit too and cleverness in its frequent circles back to previous conversation mentions and it is easy to appreciate playwright Jerry Mayer’s seasoned television writer credits (including episodes of “M.A.S.H’ and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) in its pacing.

The dialogue-heavy work also means that there is nowhere to hide for its two performers and in this regard they both rise to the occasion. As the organised and sensible Janet, Candice Dittmann is a formidable performer. While Nathan Schulz is wonderful as the free-spirited Josh; even the occasional missed line can be forgiven, given how it becomes absorbed into the natural rhythm of their interaction. Indeed, the snappy delivery of dialogue and believable back and forth between the players makes for an engaging experience that seems to fly by. And Director Schulz does a top job in keeping the essentially static show (two people on a train along with the audience), visually interesting.

“2 Across” serves not only as unique theatre experience, very much in keeping with the Anywhere Theatre Festival focus on performance anywhere outside of a traditional theatre, but also evidence of how sometimes the smallest of stories can be the best. Although its two protagonist commuters may seem as mere ordinary folk, appearance often belies reality and as their conversation reveals the serious life problems and common vulnerability with which each is dealing, we cannot but appreciate the value of that their interaction brings, as well as wonder what might have been had he not just made it time through the closing doors at the train’s origin stop.

You can find all of my Anywhere Festival reviews on the festival website.

Burke Street brothers and brides

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Queensland Conservatorium – Performing Arts)

Burke Street Studio Theatre

May 6 – 13

The Queensland Conservatorium’s Burke Street Studio in Woolloongabba is not a great theatre location; the parking is terrible and it is an uncomfortable place to have to wait until the audience’s last minute entrance into the theatre is allowed. However, in the case of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” it all becomes worth it upon entry and hear of the preshow fiddling of its familiar soundtrack of songs.

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Presented by its 2nd Year students, this is an imagining true to its 1954 movie musical (and then much later Broadway show) roots. The plot is an adaptation of the short story “The Sobbin’ Women” parody of the Ancient Roman legend “The Rape of the Sabine Women” (rape meaning abduction). And, as stories, go it is pretty absurd (as most musical plots are). In 1850s Oregon Territory, a determined Adam Pontipee travels from his backwoods ‘bear country’ home to find a bride in the lower township, returning with new and unsuspecting wife Millie to the six rowdy younger brothers for whom his has cared since his parents’ passing. Although initially miffed at Adam’s oversight in non-mention of the brood awaiting their return, declaring that she is nobody’s slave, Millie soon bonds with her husband and takes it upon herself to civilise the unruly mob of men towards finding brides of their own. This become complicated, however, when the overenthusiastic brothers decide to kidnap their own brides from their families and beaus in the town.

This is show that is all about its music with a plot crafted to create situations to call characters into song and in which plot and character development occurs courtesy of its choreography and songs. And musically, it is excellent, thanks to the efforts of its skilled orchestra, anchored by Musical Director Trevor Jones on keys. Vocals come together well too, supported by some wonderful harmonies from the ensemble. From the rotating roles of its cast, Clayton Turner and Paige McKay are particularly excellent as an initial Adam and Millie pairing, with vocals that are of great compliment in numbers such as ‘Love Never Goes Away’. Indeed, as the spunky Millie with a store full of dreams, McKay is superb. She hits every note with ease, and the power behind her voice brings a strong-willed femininity to even the lighter moments of songs like ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’.

It is not all mournful lamentation, however, with comedy coming courtesy of the brothers’ own interactions and reluctant acceptance of their new sister-in-law. And Act One numbers like when Millie gives the brothers ‘a little feminine advice’ about ‘things you gotta know’ about how to court girls in ‘Goin’ Courtin’ and when, in ‘Sobbin’ Women’, Adam, realising that all the brothers are in love, tells them to follow the example in one of Milly’s books and do ‘like the Romans did with the Sabine Women’ and just take the girls (and a preacher to marry them).

While the lead performances are impressive, the choreography is by far the highlight of the show. Simple staging and practical set pieces make for swift transitions, but the small stage can become easily crowded in ensemble numbers like the final full company shotgun wedding number, ‘Wedding Dance’. Act One, however, is where most of the highlights occur. The spirit at the idiosyncratic heart of the musical is captured to perfection in the scene during which, at a town social, the brothers and girls’ town suitors square off in a rousing challenge dance which ends in a brawl and the brothers’ banishment from the town. There is so much to look at as nimble choreography is executed with energetic high kicks and scissoring legs.

To present a well-known and widely beloved musical such as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is certainly an ambitious undertaking and one, which, in this instance, is well-realised in its mindfulness of the story’s boisterous comedy and sense of fun. Those who love the movie will have their feelings cemented, while those unfamiliar will probably still leave with at least one song in their head, as is always the resonance of a great musical experience.

Singaporean shades of something special

Blue Bones (Playlab)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 4 – 13

“Blue Bones” may not be a local story, but as the story of Brisbane playwright/performer Merlyn Tong, it is just as engaging, thanks to the honesty at the heart of its turbulent journey. On stage, as in real life, the story emerges from Tong being told by a doctor of a crack in her spine – the result of trauma from many years ago. And so she recounts story of the scars left by her school-days ex-boyfriend, including exactly how he managed to get under her skin, taking audiences, in the process, back to Singapore and all of its idiosyncrasies and melting pot of cuisines.

The resulting stories of school days and friendships are filled with realistic, recounted dialogue and much early humour as Tong injects anecdotes into the personal story by enacting every character of her recollection, teachers and friends alike, each with their own idiosyncrasies and individual nuances, and jumping between their portrayals with ease.

Then romance begins in the an arcade game parlour; when the claw machine champ meets a Dance Revolution devotee, its meant to be. She has her own dance competition goals and after-school Burger King job, but she has never been kissed like that before so love soon follows. And before long they are their school’s perfect couple, filling their days with the fun of theme park visits and Mcdonalds meals. But behind perfection lies increasingly verbal and then physical abuse, necessarily uncomfortable it its recall.

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It is an emotional experience, as memory plays often are, especially in Tong’s recount of living every day at the edge of uncertainty. The descriptions of her seasons of abuse are evocative and Tong’s performance is often tortured in its truthfulness. Over the course of her 90 minutes alone on stage, she takes audiences on an intimate and very vulnerable account without over-play of its pathos.

Adding to audience engagement is the technical support of her story. Guy Webster and David Walters’ Sound and Lighting Design make for some haunting moments, particularly in work towards its cathartic conclusion. And the provision of backdrop photos and cartoon imagery of Singapore life that comes courtesy of Video Designer Nathan Sibthorpe enlivens the show akin to the appearance of a second character.

New plays are difficult because there isn’t a template to call upon. In her creation of a template in “Blue Bones” Merylnn Tong, along with Director Ian Lawson, has created a very special, outstanding theatrical work… original, idiosyncratic and ultimately uplifting. Indeed, this is an absorbing show that needs to be seen by as many young women (and men) as possible in reminder that whatever its shade, no bruise is okay.

Boylesque brilliance

Close Encounters (Briefs)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

May 4 – 7

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One of the typically-bad things about opening nights is that shows often start annoyingly later than scheduled (especially on a school night). One of the good things, however, is the anticipation that can build as an audience awaits the beginning. And with its pre-show soundtrack of Models, Mental as Anything, Jenny Morris, Eurogliders and Farnsy, the anticipation for Brisbane’s own boylesque troop’s “Close Encounters” is amped.

Surprisingly, the ‘80s Aussie rock continues into the iconic circus/drag/burlesque show itself, including in a contemporary dance number to the sounds of Australian Crawl’s ‘Reckless’, during which Thomas Gundry Greenfield mixes political messages with comment about pandas, courtesy of his disappearing layers of message-laden singlets. It’s a number which introduces a key and ongoingly-funny theme throughout the show… the lack of funding for independent companies that not even inclusion of a contemporary dance number can affect.

Still, while claim is made that Briefs’ “Close Encounters” has been made ‘on the smell of a drag queen’s knickers’, the result is impressive, especially in the technical aspects on display. Lighting, for example, is quite luscious in support of some mesmerising aerial rope and hoop acts. Costumes are interesting, inventive and practical, allowing for burlesques teases of flesh, especially in the Bowie-sque ‘Starship’ numbers that head the show to its finish. And thanks to Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, the music becomes an organic and very memorable component of the show, especially with numbers set to pumping ‘Ride on Time’ type tunes.

“Close Encounters” contains no narrative thread, but rather presents a melting pot of eclectic artistic ideas and numbers with nod to the traditions of burlesque. From a Kate Bush dance showcase to juggling for science, nothing particularly fits, yet everything works well. And performers all ooze appeal as well as skill in their particular crafts. Fez Fa’anana is a wicked and witty host(ess), beared, beautiful and far from the Rugby League player of parental preference, while Thomas Worrell’s aerial performances make for some spectacular and graceful hold-your-breath moments. Dale Woodbridge-Brown, meanwhile, presents as an engaging jester or sorts, initially moving about the cabaret-seated crowd in search of some strategically placed and precisely timed old school twin bell alarm clocks.

Audience interaction is nothing to be alarmed about, however, (#seewhatIdidthere) and is all in keeping with show’s self-deprecating sense of fun. And when a raffle ticket winner is taken on stage for receipt of her ‘something very special’ prize, not only is everyone ‘jealloous’, but in fits of laughter at her antics in interaction with the Briefs boys. It’s easy to appreciate why the fiercely Brisbane group of artists (beginning in 2008 in a West End speakeasy) has sold out their season of shows ahead even of opening night.

This is a ragtag group of multi-skilled performers (especially in heels) of which Brisvegas should be proud. Not only do the Briefs boys put the tease in strip, but their skills are astounding as they deliver on their start-of-show promise to blow audience minds. Filled with spectacle and provocation, the show is far from subtle, but this is what makes it both brilliant and absolutely infectious. With vaudeville, burlesque, clowning, circus and dance, there is sure to be something for everyone in “Close Encounters”, apart from those who may be easily offended. And the style of its substance is such that in watching, you will want to be up dancing along with them…. even on a school night.

When wrong is right

The Play That Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions)

QPAC, Concert Hall

May 4 – 14

Strangely, upon entrance to “The Play That Goes Wrong”, there is near-silence as everyone watches an audience member who has joined those on stage to assist with fixing the set’s mantelpiece. The oddness of it becomes apparent only later, not when the mantelpiece collapses mid-show, but upon realisation that these initial minutes are the only time during the entire evening that the Concert Hall is quiet, because barely a moment passes of its duration when the air is not filled with big belly-laughs and riotous roars (not giggles though, for this is a show so consistently hilarious as to foster more than tee-hee titterings).

After a quick introduction from the President of the Cornley Polytechnic Dramatic Society, the play within a play, ‘Murder at Haversham Manor’ starts with a bang… or maybe it is poison or strangulation that has caused untimely death of the Manor’s Lord, Charles Haversham (Darcy Brown as Jonathan Harris). This is what the cast of characters set out to uncover in their presentation of a murder thriller that is meant to be up there with Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”. Unfortunately, however, their attempts result in a show that is more chaotic than critically-acclaimed.

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Doors are locked, the walls of the lavish and intricate set wobble and objects fall to the ground. “This set is a bloody deathtrap!” observes one of the creatives. But, the show, as they say, must go on, so forgotten lines are improvised and missing props are replaced in hope that the audience may not notice, such is the actors’ determination that the play will progress, despite the bodies that are banged about in the process. The result is the most manic of farces, full not just of physical humour but a plethora of puns and malapropisms and, at one stage, a warped speed dialogue loop.

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‘Tom Cruise will not be appearing’, foyer signs remind us, but Brooke Satchwell does, as Sandra who plays the hysterical but still narcissistic Florence, fiancé to the deceased. And she is as funny as ever, especially when, as Sandra, she fights stage manager Annie (Tammy Weller), with all the combative manoeuvres and theatrics of a couple of pro-wrestlers. Indeed, all cast members offer incredible physical performances, never waning in energy for the show’s two hour(ish) duration. This leads to a cascade of comical scenes with setups as funny as their executions thanks to the show’s polished choreography and perfect comic timing. James Marlowe, from the London cast is excellent as Max (aka Cecil Haversham, the dead man’s brother), however, the most side-splitting moments emerge from the sight gags associated with the portrayal of Charles’ dead body.

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Of course there is a plot in there somewhere, but this show is about far more than a pesky plot. The story is, instead, incidental to the incompetence of those in whose hands the play goes wrong. Given the absolute hilarity of its slapstick style of comedy, it is easy to affirm the play’s 2015 Olivia Award for Best New Comedy. This is comedy done right, enhanced by a simplicity of concept that gives it a breath of all-ages appeal. While the show’s website may instruct you to ‘save money (don’t come)’, really, this is an infectiously funny show, not to be missed by anyone who wants to laugh until it hurts.

Photos c/o Jeff Busby

The linger of life lessons

Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 22 – May 14

If theatre is about making you think about life, then former QTC Artist Director Michael Gow’s “Once in Royal David’s City” (his first play in seven years) is theatre at its best as it takes audiences on a beautiful and emotional journey through life’s phases of hearing, living and telling stories, in exploration of what gives our life vulnerability, but also meaning.

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The play tells the tale of a mother and son dealing with the death of a loved one. Will (Jason Klarwein) is a Brecht-obsessed theatre director whose father has recently passed away. He wants to treat his mother (Penny Everingham) to a relaxing Christmas break so they can spend some quality time together. Yet, what sounds like a simple story becomes so much more as the non-linear narrative (with Will as narrator) spans time and location, taking audiences from West Berlin to Byron Bay and from the 1950s to the present.

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There are many nods to motifs of Gow’s seminal “Away” in that it sees a family holidaying by the beach at the typically-emotionally charged Christmas time (its title is that of a processional hymn about shattering perceptions of a picturesque nativity with reality, and its program cover is appropriately red and green in its design). However, its use of the Brechtian techniques sets it apart. Indeed, in early sections it seems that this is a show for drama folk, with its frequent references not just to the German director but to classic texts like “The Important of Being Earnest” and “Mother Courage and Her Children”, both of which have also appeared on the Playhouse stage in recent years. But as things progress, the references become more fused with contemporary realism, bringing with them considerations not ultimately appreciated until its final bookend ‘lecture’ on Brechtian theory and technique.

While the show is full of heartfelt moments and silences for audiences to fall into, with lip-biting, ‘I will not cry’ resolution in response to its challenging subject matter of saying goodbye to a loved one, there is a lot of light-heartedness too, including spontaneous song and dance numbers and amusing dialogue, with perfect comic-timing delivery of some early-show one liners.

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The ensemble cast is a strong one, led by Brisbane’s own Jason Klarwein in the complex leading role. As Will, Klarwein gives a riveting and finely-nuanced performance as a character dealing with emotional obstacles and the very human dilemmas of grief, loss, identity and an associated personal crisis of insecurity within a passion. As his ailing mother Jeannie, Penny Everingham is wonderfully spirited but ultimately vulnerable and Steven Turner, in particular, assumes multiple roles, all with equal ease.

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The talented creative team allows the actors to take centre stage. Stephen Curtis’s design is simple yet effective down to the smallest details, such as the hand sweep of curtains that sometimes signpost scene changes. The production benefits from an evocatively minimalist set and Matt Scott’s rich lighting design, which transports audiences between the stark fluorescence of hospital ward lighting to brilliantly backlit shadow play of a Marxist revolution, well-deserving of its opening night smattering of mid-show applause.

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As a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, “Once in Royal David’s City” serves as display of all the good things that can come from collaboration. In the hands of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong, in directorial debut with the company, it is becomes a sensitive and engaging take of a compassionate story. The wonderfully life-affirming work is surprising, sad and unexpectedly funny, and could only perhaps be better if it were being seen in the festive season itself.

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“Once in Royal David’s City” is a beautifully crafted show from one of this country’s best playwrights and, accordingly, there is much to be taken away from its experience, both intellectually and emotionally. Not only are there references to Marxism and Christianity to continue to consider, but its ubiquitous reminder of our mortality and the need to enjoy life to fullest and cherish those special to us are poignant enough to linger as lessons long after its conclusion. And Molly’s (Kay Stevenson) monologue about the blink-of-an-eye progress from carefree teenage skylarking to the increased doctors’ visits that come with age will certainly resonate with many audience members. Still, “Once in Royal David’s City” is an enigmatic show… the type you want to tell everyone you know to see, without revealing specifics about its at-once intimate and epic journey in answer to American physicist and children’s television presenter Dr Julius Sumner Miller ‘s ask, ‘why is it so?’

Photos – c/o Philip Gostelow, photographed at Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge, WA

Street beats

Untapped (Raw Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

April 19 – 29

Brisbane’s Raw Dance Company roared into QPAC last week with its “Untapped” adrenalin-filled show of family-friendly entertainment from five (male and female) dancers, a beatboxer and a percussionist. Co-choreographed by Jack Chambers (previous winner of Australia’s “So You Think You Can Dance), and the company’s founder Andrew Fee, the show is jammed packed with a variety of novel, charismatic routines. Indeed, from its early numbers, it is clear that this is a show with sass, unafraid of inventiveness; dancers begin a number with staggered stages of mobile phone conversation vocals to create an increasing, impressive rhythm, before they are placed ‘on-hold’ by the band’s jazz into a swinging ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. Before long, however, audience members are transported again as the show whips into a variety of tap numbers and even a flamenco-esque duet, such is its energetic approach and eclectic appeal.

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Dancers Kieran Heilbronn, Brianna Taylor, Martin Kay, Katie Struik and Owain Kennair are all skilled in their craft, (even when dancing in thongs and then later in flippers), delighting younger audience members, in particular, with classic stunts of the splits, handspring and headstand sort. However, it is the music that makes this show most memorable, particularly the genius of beatboxer Genesis Cerezo (“Australia’s Got Talent”). His ability to put multiple sound effects and unique voices in one performance is impressive to audience members of all ages and his ‘I Like to Move It’ medley is a real highlight of vocal acrobatics, as is his provision (from off-stage) some beats to allow drummer Brendan Ramnath to proceed sans drums , which makes for a nice comic moment.

Although it is conceptually lacking and has no narrative thread to join its numbers, “Untapped” is a slick show for adults and children alike. Its inventive routines, comic sensibility, and loud and live music, combine to make for a dynamic and absolutely engaging experience, albeit one that is over far too quickly (with under an hour running time). Apart from what felt like an abbreviated duration (especially after what felt like was going to be an encore), the only real issue is its venue; without tiered seating, the Cremorne Theatre offers compromised sight lines for many audience members in relation to the dancer’s feet, which diminishes full appreciation of its inventive choreography and its high-octane execution. Still, its raw energy and sassy celebration of all things tap, make for an undeniable, instantly-infectious mood.