A show about a dog… and more

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 12 – 24

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“I’m here to see a show about a dog,” an audience member obviously unfamiliar with Mark Haddon’s much-loved novel was overheard saying pre-show at opening night of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. Dogs do bookend the show’s narrative, but the National Theatre of Great Britain’s acclaimed production is about so much more than this, or even the unusual event of its title.

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The story is of Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins), a 15-year-old boy from Swindon, England with autism spectrum disorder and a passion for mathematics, who finds his neighbours’ dog Wellington, dead on their front lawn, impaled by a garden fork. This kick-starts a series of events as Christopher makes it his mission to solve the crime of Wellington’s murder. While detectiving, he notes his findings in a journal that his teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) has encouraged him to write. When his frustrated father Ed (Stuart Laing) confiscates the diary, a determined Christopher not only recovers his writing, but letters that reveal previously-unknown information about his dead mother.

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Rather than tell the story in first-person narrative, like the original novel, the segmented story is largely recalled by his teacher in share of Christopher’s writing, inset with moments in illustration and explanation of his unique world view, presenting like a play-within-a-play. This bring much humour as Christopher explains his dislike of metaphors and need for truth and predictability, and pathos too as he matter-of-factly describes how he hates being touched as much as the hates the colour yellow.

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Just like its literary source material, the play provides an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition. In its original, award-winning London production in West End’s Gielgud Theare, the show had an essential intimacy that suited the story of the socially–challenged young man finding his place in the world. However, even within QPAC’s Concert Hall, its subtle soundtrack allows for moments of audience absorption, such as when Christopher’s dad tells his story.

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In many ways, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a small story, conveyed in a big show and, accordingly, Act Two is much louder… deliberately so in contrast to the comfort of Christopher’s familiar life as his internal experience of catching a train to London with his Pet Rat is captured in an aesthetic offensive thanks to remarkable Lighting (Paule Constable), Sound (Ian Dickinson) and Video (Finn Ross) Design that has not decreased in its impact in the six years of the show’s life.

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Trains feature as an ongoing motif. In Act One, while talking to his teacher and us as an audience, Christopher progressively constructs an impressive train set around the stage, despite the quick scene transitions that occur throughout the show. Mathematics as a way of understanding and describing the world also features throughout the production. It not only serves as one of Christopher’s strengths but also becomes a perfect metaphor for his quest to make order and make meaning out of a confusing world.

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Like in the novel, Christopher uses drawings, diagrams and equations to explain himself. On stage this comes courtesy of Bunny Christie’s impressive design, which sees the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, meaning that Christopher can draw all over the set through the power of video projections. In one of the most visually memorable moments, Christopher’s attempt to escape his isolation through the imagined experience of flying as an astronaut in space, is impressively brought to life through incredible lighting and projections.

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Inventive, imaginative staging later sees boxes within the boxed-in stage transform into train seats, luggage and alike. And the ensemble of performers not only often operate with stylised movement, but become props themselves, serving as everything from a door to an ATM.

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Each member of the touring cast is solid in their variety or roles. Debra Michaels endears Mrs Alexander, an elderly resident of Christopher’s street, with warm, grandmotherly tendencies and Julie Hale is wonderful as the teacher all teachers want to be, caring and compassionate in her response to Christopher’s unique needs.

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Stuart Lang gives a measured performance as Christopher’s patient and protective, but emotionally-devastated single father and, as the boy’s mother Judy, Emma Beattie has us feeling at her inability to touch her own son. But “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is Christopher’s story and Joshua Jenkins gives a perfect performance down to the protagonist’s smallest nuance. He not only captures the part’s physicality and dialogue verbosity, but infuses it with honesty and great heart.

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Sometimes what, over time, what one builds up in recollection as the best theatre show ever experienced, upon revisit, ultimately leads to comparative disappointment. Four years after seeing the show in London, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” remains the best theatre I have ever seen. The Australian touring production may not celebrate the prime number seats within its audience, but it still has a treat in its tail, worth staying for beyond the curtain call.

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“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” treats audiences with an unforgettable viewing experience. With props and pyrotechnics that, although impressive, do not overpower its story’s emotional core, it represents a perfect combination of theatrical ingredients in a page-to-stage retelling that is both true to its source material but also adds so much more. And it is easy to appreciate how it won both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Play, Director, Actor, Lighting and Set Designs. Although Christopher only understands what is immediate and what is the truth, experience of his show will certainly linger long for fortunate audience members.

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Sounds of the city

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

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 12 – 16

Australian alternative rock band The Go-Betweens is part of the architecture of this city – not only culturally, but literally, courtesy of the inner city Brisbane toll bridge named in their honour. The indie band found cult fame (but no fortune) with their idiosyncratic music, focussed on the personal rather than the political at a time of political turmoil in the state (the band formed at UQ when Queensland was halfway through Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s almost two decades as Premier). It is appropriate, therefore to have the band’s songs tell the story of a generation and a city that shaped it, which is the tag-line for the world premiere collaboration between acclaimed Brisbane theatre and music companies Now Look Here and Electric Moon, “The Sound of a Finished Kiss”.

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At its core, the show, which is written and directed by Kate Wild, is a celebration of the band’s rich musical legacy, frozen in time within the early ‘90s era. It begins however in the less distant past; it is 2016 when one of a now-far-flung group of friends finds a mixtape that transports her from London back to the endless empty days of Brisbane in 1991, when their collective potential still had possibility for fulfillment.

Becky (Kat Henry) has just moved from Toowoomba to the sophisticated big smoke city of Brisbane for university. At O-week she meets Zed (Lucas Stibbard) who has similarly relocated from Mackay, only with a more personal reason driving his desire for a fresh start. For the next two years they hang out as Becky works down a list of coming-of-age milestones and through a series of monologues interwoven with the songs they loved, we see them relive the events which shattered friendships and scattered the four friends of their group across the world. Like the music itself, their stories navigate an array of emotions, from the euphoric to the painful and many moments of humour as snippets of the different perspectives of relationships reveal their distinct characters.

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One thing Brisbane does well is tell its own stories, whether in words, through music or on stage. “The Sound of a Finished Kiss” combines all three of these. The show is full of referential fondness for the city and its locations, in descriptions of West End traffic and changes to its landscapes, our slow brown river, its Story Bridge, Queen Street Mall and The Beat. And description of a party in a verandas-all-around-Queenslander in all its swampie, fire-twirling, goon-bladder drinking, literary discussion glory is like a step back in time to a life with a different group of people, with time to spend and squander.

The show’s 90-minute running times flies by, despite the simplicity of its narrative, which is appropriate given that at the age of its characters, everything seems immense. What is big, however, are the sounds of the show’s live five-piece band and four talented actor/musicians. Musical director James Lees of Electric Moon effectively unites the music of The Go-Betweens with Wild’s original story. Although some songs go on a little bit longer than necessary, they all fit effectively into the narrative, especially given the different song writing styles of the band’s two front men, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. As an opener, the heartfelt ‘Cattle and Cane’ for example, written by McLennan as a longing for his boyhood Rockhampton farm home while homesick after relocation to London, evokes an identifiable recall of wanting to venture forth to a bigger, brighter world and later nostalgia for what has been left behind, in words like ‘I recall coming home through fields of cane… the sky a rain of falling cinders’, especially to those, like me, whose own hometown memories include the evening haze of cane fires and their black cinder burn off.

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All members of the ensemble cast deliver in every respect. Kat Henry is a naively-optimistic Becky in counter to Lucas Stibbard’s eyes-downcast, hands-in-pocket loner, Zed, yet together they make ‘Right Here’ an at-once cutesy and heartfelt duet.Lucinda Shaw is a tour-de-force as Karla, Becky’s indie spirit guide. And vocally she is magnificent, moving from husky smokiness to screaming heights in the post-punk B-side ‘Karen’ (written by Robert Foster as a tribute to University of Queensland Library staff). And her later ‘Bye Bye Pride’, about the humility of healing and moving on with life is a memorable combination of vulnerability and vocal power.

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As the self-assured and almost larger-than-life Mike, Sandro Colarelli is just as compelling. In ‘Drive for Your Memory’, a song Robert Forster wrote reflecting about his break-up with the band’s drummer Lindy Morrison, he is an irresistible force in description of how Mike is affected by a love that couldn’t be, yet almost was… ‘Deep down I’m lonely and I miss my friend’. And in ‘The House Jack Kerouac Built’, recognition of a bad situation becoming worse, his rich, tremulous modern-day crooning sounds are delicious in their Morrissey shades, especially as he laments his loneliness in the number’s final lines. The song is also unforgettable due to its full band arrangement and it is wonderful to often see its musicians Ruth Gardner, Richard Grantham, Brett Harris, James Lees and Karl O’Shea revealed from behind the back-of-stage scrim screen in some numbers.

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Like the breezy, melodic mid-tempo number ‘Spring Rain’ which looks back on living in Brisbane suburbia and ‘driving my first car, my elbows in the breeze’ “The Sound of a Finished Kiss” has an essentially-beautiful simplicity to its experience. As celebration of The Go-Betweens’ rich musical legacy, it is worthy enough in its revisit of Grant McLennan’s melodic genius and Robert Forster’s evocative lyrics. But with its backstory of the city and some of its people, it is simply superb.

The music conjures up the past, as only music can do, beyond just the summer sounds of their most commercial hit ‘Streets of Your Town’. As a then NQ swampie who road-tripped from Mackay to Brisbane in a Datsun Sunny listening to The KLF for life-anew at the University of Queensland, it not only made me sentimental, but left me lamenting about youth being wasted on the young. Indeed, so powerful is its evocation of era, that it can make theatregoers nostalgic for a time and place they didn’t personally encounter.

Regardless of your experience, or otherwise, of Brisbane’s unique subculture in the early 1990s, however, it still offers examination of some resonate, universal themes that will leave audiences with urge to reconnect with friends from long-ago lives. This is a show with an all-too-short initial run whose virtually sold-out season stands as testament to its need to return its sounds of our city to a stage. In the meantime, we can await another viewing with revisit of old ‘Tweens albums and re-read of “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand” and “Zigzag Street”.

Principles at play

The Mathematics of Longing (La Boite Theatre Company, Gavin Webber and The Farm, and Suzie Miller and The Uncertainty Principle)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

June 3 – 23

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The letter i is the square root of -1, which cannot occur; it is impossible, not because it doesn’t exist as much as because it makes no sense. It is a metaphor, perhaps for theatre, but even more so for experience of “The Mathematics of Longing”, a co-production between La Boite, The Farm and The Uncertainty Principle.

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The above-mentioned imaginary number concept is played with in a scene between a physicist father (Todd MacDonald) in conversation with his daughter (Merlynn Tong) about the world of complex numbers and apparently beautiful equations. The new work comes courtesy of multi-award winning playwright Suzie Miller, who, inspired by her father’s love of maths, want us to see its formulas and equations in a more positive way. The result is a strange and poetic ‘play’ that appears full of contradictions: it is only an hour in duration, but it feels like longer and although it contains a lot of ideas, there is not much of a narrative. Its experience is similarly contentious, with opinion divided even amongst audience member groups as to its merit.

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In its examination of the possibility within uncertainty, “The Mathematics of Longing” is certainly a courageous work, and, its feature of collaborative talents, including those of Gold Coast contemporary dance company The Farm and Ben Ely of Regurgitator (composition and sound design), makes it one of great promise. However, in its mostly-talk and little action approach it does not deliver on this suggestion.

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It begins with the audience being verbally bombarded with ideas, with performers speaking at once before racing us through Newton’s three laws of motion and explaining dark matter and the ultimate, all-encompassing theoretical framework that links together all physical aspects of the universe. From there, ideas merge and a parallel story (or rather, stories) starts to come together, only not in a linear way, introducing us to the synchronicity of lovers (Kate Harman and Gavin Webber) forced together by the intensity of their respective needs and a couple in turmoil (Ngoc Phan and Todd MacDonald, who are equally excellent in their scenes together).

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Each story is based on a formula or scientific principle and later it is illustrated how, in another universe. Some resonate more than others; the theory of separation show of how a splitting couple will always be merged together is a highlight, but one that is over too quickly. And in another high-point, we are offered quick comfort in consideration of how Einstein’s most famous theory of relativity could allow souls to reach infinity. Although the development from scientific principle into story is welcome, however, it not necessarily enough to make the self-described postmodern and post-dramatic work accessible for main-stage audiences.

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Just as the space between two human beings, we are told, can be nothing or everything, this unusual project lends itself to contention. It is a physical work in many ways, featuring as part of this, a series of musical and dance moments. In some respects, the aesthetic works, with installation artist Ross Manning’s set design and Ben Hughes’ lighting uniting in moments of visual artistry to illustrate the layers to the world and our experience within it. More frequently, however, gentle soundscape strains, silences between dialogues and dance sections seem indulgent. Although it does convey a sense of how small and insignificant we are in the vastness of the universe and paradoxically how big we are in the centre of our own lives, its examination of so many theories makes for confusion rather than clarity.

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“The Mathematics of Longing” is an intellectual work full of big considerations about construct vs reality concepts and what may be beyond what we know, and like imaginative algebraic numbers, it won’t make sense to all audience members. I don’t get maths (few English teachers do) and after seeing “The Mathematics of Longing”, I still don’t get it, let alone understand its ‘beauty’, yet I can appreciate that this exists for some. Hopefully, those willing to take the leap of faith in seeing this show will fall into this category.

Grand final theatre

The Longest Minute (Queensland Theatre with debase productions and JUTE Theatre Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 26 – June 23

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Given their shared drama, theatre and sport are not that different. Yet rarely do the rituals combine. And even more infrequently do they fuse together to produce a work as significant as “The Longest Minute”, Queensland Theatre’s co-production with debase productions and Cairns’ JUTE Theatre Company, which centres around the final golden-point minute of the conclusive and premiership-deciding 2015 all-Queensland NRL Grand Final.

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After years of defeat, the seemingly impossible occurs when the North Queensland Cowboys claim their first premiership title in their twentieth year of the competition. This is Townsville, where life runs at a different pace and rugby league is a religion that, in mixed-metaphor, is heralded by King of the North, Johnathan Thurston. Our protagonist Jessica Wright (Chenoa Deemal) is a footy fanatic who wants to be a fullback like Hopevale legend Matty Bowen and play football (not netball or touch football) for the Cowboys and Queensland. It’s all her parents fault; not only are white mum Margaret (Louise Brehmer) and Aboriginal father Frank (Mark Sheppard), unwavering fans, but she was born on the night of the NQ Cowboy’s first Winfield Cup game at the then Stockland Stadium in 1995.

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Football is in Jess’ blood; her father is the locally-famous former Foley Shield player Frank ‘The Black Flash’ Wright and her introverted brother Laurie (Jeremy Ambrum) is a talented Academy player, despite having a deep-seeded disinterest in playing professionally. And so Jess dreams of playing in the Jillaroos Australia women’s national rugby league team, even though the rules are that she can only play locally in the mixed team until she turns 13. And so “The Longest Minute” is the simultaneous story of (as its tagline proclaims) one football club, one family and one unforgettable NRL grand final. As such, it is a uniquely Queensland tale but also ultimately a wider one, with automatic appeal to not only sunshine-staters but all regional Australians who perhaps rarely see themselves accurately represented on stages.

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Opening night sees a real sense of comradery, community even amongst the audience (many of whom are wearing Cowboys or Broncos supporter gear) as ‘Eagle Rock’ soundtracks a volunteer’s footy skills on a single-set stage that has been transformed into a grassy league field, with scoreboard to signpost the passing of years and the location of scenes.

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The striking lighting (Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright) and soundscape (sound design/composition by Kim Busty Beatz Bowers) is used effectively throughout, such as in establishing the thrill of being on the hill in perfect spot to watch your team lose (design by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesoreri). And when a ‘Queenslander’ chant commences before the siren signal of ‘game on’ for the start of the show proper, the palpable spirit and engery is unlike anything usually experienced in a theatre setting. Then the narrative begins with audio recording of that final minute, almost too tense to watch, which saw the Cowboys turn around 21 years of being a joke’s punchline.

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Even though the match in question is regarded as one of the greatest grand finals in rugby league history, it is the off-field drama that occupies the story’s attention. And like sport, the show is full of good times (and abundant hilarity) along with tension, and there is an uncertainty around the direction it takes to its ultimate outcome. Indeed, the craftedness of Rovert Kronk and Nadine McDonald-Dowd’s script is such that it takes audiences from riotous laughter in one moment to the shared silence of absolute shock in the next. These are real and complex characters for whom sorry is said through a stoic attitude as much as actual words of apology. As a North Queenlander, it made me feel so many things over its twists and turns… proud, sad and nostalgic for Phelan’s pies and follow of the quality players to come out of the Foley shield North Queensland league competition.

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In its touches on sexism in sport, racism, disparate small town (despite being a city) life and cultural identity, the show offers many moments of light and shade thanks to Bridget Boyle’s considered direction and the affecting performances of all cast members in roller-coasting the audience through the agony and ecstasy of its story. Deemal is fantastic as the feisty Jess, showing equal parts warmth and passion as she journeys from school girl to determined adolescent. Sheppard is especially wonderful in early scenes where he is full of ‘Black Flash’ bravado and as his down-to-earth wife Margaret, Brehmer is initially hilarious and later emboldened as a mother trying to ease family tensions and the aftermath of tragedy.

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A largely underused Ambrum brings physical comedy to his initial scenes as a toddler, but this is ultimately not where he leaves his mark. Lafe Charlton is stoical as a laconic Uncle Gordon from Cloncurry and, along with David Terry, he pops into the action with some hilarious moments as a variety of characters in the ensemble.

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Like any epic league match, the show’s emotional roller coaster is over in an hour and a half, but it is 90 minutes during which so much happens. In offering a perspective on the world in which we live beyond just a sense of humour, it also holds a mirror to our society whose image we might not necessarily find comforting. Like Rugby League itself, however, “The Longest Minute” will not only break your heart, but fill it with soul (and side-splitting laughs). Most importantly though, it tells one of our stories and widens theatre’s cultural landscape, making it accessible to audiences beyond just traditional theatre fans to those sports-lovers who think theatre is not for them, and for that it must be applauded.

Fortune’s favour

Wheel of Fortune (Troy Armstrong Management, Optic Archive and Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

May 31 – June 9

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From the heights of the perhaps now iconic Wheel of Brisbane, a 360-degree panoramic view shows the Brisbane river snaking through the city. It is an imposing visage that contributes significantly to the character of the city so represents an apt location to feature in some degree, throughout many of the stories of the hybrid of stage and screen production that is “Wheel of Fortune”.  It begins late at night with a woman (The Public Servant – Meg Bowden) being followed along a riverside walkway by The American Marine (Richard Lund). From their one-night-stand interaction, the story continues through a revolving door of sexual encounters, such is the distinction of “Wheel of Fortune”, a play about playing in the city.

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It begins with video image of the South Bank skyline’s Wheel, which is a wonderful metaphor for the show’s experience as, like a Ferris wheel ride, you will eventually end up back where you started. The story has ten scenes between different pairs of lovers, with a character from each scene moving to be part of the next, until the final interaction includes one of the characters from the first pairing. It’s a case of nine degrees of separation as we are taken along the journey of one night stands, fantasies, affairs and alike, featuring characters like an Irish Au Pair (Jacqui McLaren), a 17-year-old school boy, (Brendan Lorenzo), recently-married Biology teacher (Jacqui Story), her lawyer husband (Ron Kelly) and a newly elected politician (Stephen Hirst), amongst others. As skin is bared and sexy scenes enacted, the truth of the statement that we seldom know what is really happening in others’ bedrooms shines through (or in this case anything but, as, in the play that is all about sex, not one scene is set in a bedroom).

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Although all members of the ensemble class do a decent job, some pairings are more memorable. The scene featuring Elise Grieg as The Portrait Photographer and Veronica Neave as The Stage Actress is a real highlight. Neeve, in particular, is excellent as a double-Logie-winning, now stage actress of self-declared undesirable age, bringing control, charisma and intelligent wit to not only this scene, but her there-after seduction of a local politician. Also worthy of particular mention are the performances of Ruby Clark as The Socialite and ambitious social-media influencer and Meg Bowden as The Public Servant whose stories bookend the show, leaving us watching the sun rise on another Brisbane day as she offers advice to the full-of-regret politician.

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Although the vignettes traverse many emotions, thematically taking audience members to some sometimes uncomfortable places, they include many humourpus moments thanks to their clever scripts, written by Richard Jordan, Jacki Mison, Troy Armstrong and Krystal Sweedman. Interest is also added through the work’s integration of audio and visual screen work by Optic ArchiveCombining the mediums works well to a degree. Film is used to effect to introduce scenes and to provide backdrop to the live action by showing familiar city locations, but is at odds with the dialogue as there is a clear and sometimes jarring distinction between stage and screen sounds. The combination is more settled in later stories which are less heavy handed with the device.

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In its adults-only steaminess, “Wheel of Fortune” shows how in the heat and humidity of a Brisbane high-summer, it is easy to lose control. Its episodic nature makes for an easy-to-digest theatre experience, especially for those who may be deterred by the perhaps daunting length of traditional theatre works. And once its narrative structure of linked vignettes is realised, there is added engagement in how the stories are going to not only merge, but ultimately loop together over its 90-minute duration. This peek behind the city’s closed doors is not only about the politics of who is sleeping with who, but an illustration of how easily people can be connected. In its stories of Brisbane and those who play in it, “Wheel of Fortune” is both an interesting reflection on the contemporary world and a reminder that our city’s theatre scene is far from barren. For something new and interesting, do yourself a favour and check out its newly-told stories to warm up your winter.

Bursting Bare

Bare (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 24 – June 3

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Understudy Production’s “Bare” is one of those much-buzzed-about shows whose run has been pretty-much sold out since before its opening night, and so its packed audience is filled with anticipation. Thankfully, it is an expectation that is realised in a slick production bursting with talent.

Since the pop-opera debuted in Los Angeles in 2000, before its 2004 off-Broadway production, it has become a contemporary cult classic. Its shades of “Holding The Man” story is of star-crossed lovers Peter (Shaun Kohlman), who is preparing to come out to his mother (Jenny Woodward), and resident golden boy Jason (Jason Bentley), who desperately wants to keep their attraction secret. The boys are among Catholic boarding school students rehearsing for a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while struggling with their own ideas around religion, sexuality and identity. So emotions are running high when the boys’ romance gradually comes to light (finding echoes in the drama club’s production) not just for the boys themselves but those around them, including Jason’s sharp-tonged and self-deprecating sister Nadia (Sarah Whalen) and the popular Ivy (Jordan Malone) who has been cast as Juliet to Jason’s Romeo in the play, but whose feelings transcend the stage.

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The show is, indeed, an emotional one of much light and shade. Act One explores the characters and the cast connect well with each other, however, Act Two is the standout as it takes a heartbreaking turn thanks to the consummate performances of the cast’s principle players. Kohlman brings depth and emotional range to the vulnerable Peter. He not only has tears running down his cheeks at times, but evokes them in audience member eyes also in response to the show’s tragic final moments. And Bentley has a strong stage presence as the popular athlete Jason who fears losing his family and status. His charisma effectively conveys not only Jason’s natural charm, but his complexity, making him difficult to dislike despite his poor decisions and treatment of the tender Peter. Malone gives a strong but tender performance as the troubled Ivy, who has her sights set on Jason, at her best in ballads such as ‘All Grown Up, which vocally capture her heartbreak.

Also of note is Sarah Whalen whose perfect comic timing makes Jason’s outspoken sister Nadia’s biting wit, hilarious in its tell-it-as-it-is put-downs of Ivy for her pursuit of her brother. And Melissa Western is superb as the school’s sassy, no-nonsense drama teacher, Sister Chantelle, who also appears to an intoxicated Peter as a vision of the Virgin Mary, complete with backup Angels, to sing a funky gospel number about how he needs to come out to his mother (‘911 Emergency’).

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There are no weak links among ensemble performances either. Fresh from his run as Collins in “Rent”, James Shaw is committed in his performance of the Priest’s Old Testament judgment and makes his Act Two song ‘Cross’, during which, at confession, he advises Jason to deny his natural feelings, vocally very strong. And Maddison McDonald and Trent Owers are delightfully authentic in their moments on stage as the frisky teens with attitude.

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The show’s sung-through score features a variety of melodies, from rock numbers to soaring ballads and even a rap about rave drugs (‘Wonderland’), and, accordingly, it is easy to appreciate its sometimes-description as the artistic child of “Rent”. The band is excellent throughout. In Act One, in particular, Musical Director Luke Volker creates a solid rock sound, while when souls are bared in Act Two, with Jason struggling through his problems with Ivy (‘Touch My Soul’) and Peter deciding to come out to his mother (‘See Me’), musical moments are softened with some exquisite string sounds courtesy of cellist Kate Robinson.

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The musical pace, is, however, relentless. With 36 numbers in total, it becomes difficult to recall standouts beyond sassy Sister Chantelle’s belting ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’ during which she shows intuitive sensitivity and New Testament compassion to calm Peter’s fears of losing his great love. Aside from the final number ‘No Voice’ which represents a beautiful combine of ensemble voices, it is the solo numbers in this production that are most affecting, beginning with duet between Peter and his mother which features as a turning point in the show’s tone, given its raw emotion.

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The complex conversations set to music in many of the show’s numbers give their words an appealing honesty and the integration of Shakespearean prose as lyrics adds another, wonderful layer to an already impressive aesthetic. Versatile use is made of the Visy Theatre space, with a stained glass backdrop and benches shaped together as a cross, not only achieving an intimacy in spite of its large cast, but reminding that religion is always present. And the choreography is excellent, making the relatively small stage seem anything but, yet never impinging of the enthusiastic energy of ensemble rock numbers. Only some missed microphone cues clunk up an otherwise perfectly polished, professional production.

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“Bare” is no breezy musical experience. Its weighty subject matter of turmoil and moral hypocrisy amidst the breakdown of institutions like religion, education and the family make for an emotionally charged, tension-filled story. The pop-rock chronicle of ill-fated gay love at a co-ed Roman Catholic boarding school may be an ambitious undertaking, but it is an aspiration resolutely realised.

As an important piece in its portrayal of those still struggling to be heard even in today’s yes-vote world, it is perfect for inclusion in the Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture. The honest and real story of teenage love and loss confirms Understudy Productions not just as a rising star, but a company with a prominent place in the Brisbane theatre scene, and, as such, should not be missed.

Love songs reclaimed

Coupling

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

May 19

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The number 13 may have unlucky connotations for some, but for Camerata – Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, it offers only excellence as 13 of its musicians begin “Coupling” with string sounds of what is revealed to be ‘Believe’ from the messiah herself, Cher. The show/queer love mix tape which features at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture, is a musical collaboration of the most entertaining sort as it reclaims great love duets of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s for same sex couples.

Thanks to Trevor Jones’ impressive arrangements, the show offers exciting new takes on old favourites. With such an extensive repertoire from which to draw, the playlist covers a range of emotions and various stages of relationships, from Kylie and Jason’s much-loved number-one ‘Especially for You’ and Elton John and Kiki Dee’s Mowtownish ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ to Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond’s ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ lament of heartbroken lovers who have drifted apart and Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s ‘Separate Lives’. Ultimately, however, there is a huge rejoice in love at the organising centre of both its songbook and life’s experience alike.

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Not all songs are the perhaps expected sweet ditties or yearning ballads. In amongst the smooth grooves and sexy beats, is a rousing ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, theme song to the greatest of guilty secret favourite films “Dirty Dancing”.  And special guest vocalists Sean Andrews, David Ouch, Luke Hodgson, Greg Moore, Monique Dawes, Emily Gilhome, Jessica Mahony and Ellen Reed all do much to make each number distinctive from its source material, beyond just their reappropriation as same sex couple duets. David Ouch makes ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’ particularly provocative, and entertaining, and Greg Moore gives audiences an early highlight courtesy of a raunchy ‘Islands in the Stream’. There is comedy too, for example in an epic love duet sing off melody featuring, amongst others, a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ vs “Home and Away” theme battle.

As is always the case with Camerata, the music is both beautiful and flawless. Striking string sounds soar songs like ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and ‘Leather and Lace’. Indeed, one of the most marvellous things about Jones’ arrangements is the opportunity they provide for the Camerata musicians to display their skills, not just in complement to the vocalists, but in showcase instrumental sections. Vocal performances are strong from the start. Ellen Reed is a particular standout throughout, in songs from ‘Suddenly’ to ‘You’re the One that I Want’. And in unite, the eight vocalists work wonderfully together in reminder that love can withstand the struggles of a relationship and make it stronger ‘Up Where We Belong’.

“Coupling” is a celebration of so many things: songs, music, love and vocal talent. In its journey through showcase of all of these aspects, it may take audience members to some unexpected places, such as the “Family Ties” theme song, but this just makes for an all-the-more-fun ride. With clap and sing-along opportunities galore, there is certainly a mood of celebration, with smitten audiences clearly wanting for more at the end of its 70-minute duration. “Coupling” may be like a daggy mix tape, but it is compilation crafted with nothing but love, and it serves as a real highlight of this year’s Melt festival. By simultaneously celebrating music nostalgia and giving the associated sentimentality new scope, it speaks musically and lyrically to audience members of all persuasions and preferences, musical or otherwise, making everyone believe in life not only after, but before and during love.