Courtly comedy and cake

Let Them Eat Cake (Act/React)

Golden Pig Cooking School

May 11 – 13

madame.jpgUpon leaving “The Play That Goes Wrong” opening night last week, I didn’t think I could even laugh quite so hard at a show… then along came “Let Them Eat Cake”, a slice of silly improvised shenanigans presented as part of the 2017 Anywhere Theatre Festival. The work comes from the creative minds of those at Act/React, the improv troupe responsible for the smash, sell-out hits “Speed: The Movie, The Play” and “Titanic: the Movie, The Play” at the Brisbane Powerhouse and it is just as funny as its predecessor works, making it a clear Festival highlight. It is not a movie re-imagining this time though, but rather a farce which sees all sorts of French court characters revealed in all sorts of scandalous and hysterical situations.

Versailles can be a tough place, especially for a mime, we learn as the show begins with lone mime, Pierre (Dan Beeston) on stage. And though the front row of the audience may occupy his predominant interest, there really is no hiding anywhere as audience belongings are reappropriate to become the show’s religious relic props. It is soon apparent that he is not an ordinary mime.

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Pretty Pierre has the pottiest of mouths (despite never speaking) and he may have done pornography. He is servant to the ambitious widow Madame Celeste (Natalie Bochenski, with a wig as large as her dress’ bussle) and so, spends initial scenes penning a dictated letter to her niece. Madame Celeste has money problems so quests to wed a wealthy, but boring, aristocrat Hugo (Wade Robinson), who may be after a top level wife but settles for Celeste, despite her having a little bit of the plague.

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Gossipy court news travels fast and a Cardinal is soon also on the scene to stake his claim and confess his from-afar love for Celeste. It’s far from a France of polite parlour games with trickery, theft and bribery unfolding as audience suggestions contribute to the spontaneity of the largely ad-libbed show, ensuring that it travels in directions so random as to leave the actors themselves sometimes struggling to maintain composure. The deliberate overacting only adds to the exaggerated, improbable and farcical situations. But the absurdity is all part of the fun, especially when mention is made of chicken grenades.

Relent from the riotous laughter comes with interval, when, courtesy of the host venue, the audience is treated to rose water cupcakes, in honour of Queen Marie Antoinette’s supposed quote upon learning that the French peasants had no bread. The Golden Pig Cooking School is a wonderful venue for the experience too, full of atmosphere, enhanced by the show’s ongoing musical accompaniment from Richard Grantham on viola. Still, nothing is as memorable as the unfolding hilarity, thanks to the comic skill and timing of its players, vocally overemphasising where necessary as signpost to the weird and wacky directions of the plot and bouncing good-naturedly off each other and the audience. And in Dan Beeston’s hands, this mime needs no words to make many of the show’s funniest jokes.

“Let Them Eat Cake” is clever comedy all around. With its revisits to previous mentions and provision of associated puns, it shows that sometimes spontaneous can be best.  This is funny in its purest form as the dialogue, action, story and even aspects of the characters are created by the players and audience in collaboration and it is not only its abrupt ending that will leave its audiences wanting more. Hopefully Brisbane will see more of the show soon because as comedies go, this interactive farce really takes the cake.

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The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

A nautical night to remember

Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Plaza

March 2 – 19

‘Boy meets girl meets iceberg’…. turns out that the premise of James Cameron’s 1997 epic melodrama, “Titanic” is actually one laden with levity, as seen in “Titanic The Movie The Play”.  The love story of aristocratic Rose and poor artist Jack aboard the ill-fated passenger liner is making its maiden voyage at the Brisbane Comedy Festival courtesy of Act/React, the Brisbane-based comedy troupe behind the hit “Speed The Movie The Play”.

Although the movie’s source material is condensed from 3+ hours into a palatable 60 minute interactive 3-D experience, all of the key scenes appear in Jack and Rose’s fraternisation despite being passengers of different classes – Jack teaches Rose to fly, Rose poses nude for Jack’s sketching and then uses an axe to free him from his handcuffed confine and then there is that steamy sex scene signalled by hand to a car window. There is even appearance from Celine to croon of how her heart will go on from atop the impressive set, built from scratch by volunteers from the Queensland Maritime Museum.

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 Jokes are generated from more than just its movie namesake source material. Those familiar with Leonardo DiCaprio and Billy Zane’s respective film catalogues will find fun in recognition of the script’s many, clever inset references. Indeed, it is the smallest details that provide much of the show’s humour – from the Oscar stuffed in Jack’s bindle to the iceberg’s ‘How’s my driving?’ bumper sticker.

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Despite its watchmen’s best hair-dryer efforts, the rogue iceberg seems set to ruin the ocean liner’s unsinkable reputation and as audience members join the band of musicians, others are soon strapping on life jackets and abandoning ship into the three full sized lifeboats leaving behind Jack and Rose to try and remain afloat.

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In the hands of director and co-writer Greg Rowbotham  this shameless homage to the most epic romance of the ‘90s is high energy and heaps of fun (and not just in its ‘fun facts’) and therein lies its appeal. Audience interaction is positive and without pressure (although you might have to show off some signature dance moves).

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“Titanic The Movie The Play” is a hilarious heap of absurdism and great for a group outing that could be become every person for themselves with some ending up in first class and some in steerage. For a guaranteed night to remember of non-stop face-aching laughter, do not miss the boat in securing a place on board this most inventive voyage. It will not only serve as reminder of how fun theatre can be, but also the delight of the greatness that was Billy Zane.

Ready for the ride?

Speed the Movie the Play (Brisbane Powerhouse and Act/React)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Plaza

September 30 – October 17

Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?

Well, first you need to get on the bus in the first place, which is what we eventually do, after first experiencing the elevator and other initial scenes from the 1994 American action film “Speed.” This is interactive theatre at its most interactive and the result is a whole lot of fun for everyone involved.

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“Speed the Movie the Play” is, as the title suggests, a recreation of the crazy movie ride in which a young, hotshot cop must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph (or whatever that is in the metric system, we are told). Condensing the movie down to a 60 minute show length means that the tempo never wanes. Indeed, it is controlled chaos as audiences experience surround-sound-style Hollywood-ish special effects to inventively bring so many of the movie’s moments to plastic, cardboard and projected life.

The show’s accessibility certainly comes from audience familiarity with its source material. Jokes about Keanu Reeves’ career also feature throughout, however, the funniest thing of all, is Keanu himself. As protagonist pitted against the villainous former bomb squad technician played on screen by the late Hollywood legend Dennis Hopper, Dan Beeston does a perfect caricature of the hotshot Canadian actor Keanu Reeves, complete with over-exaggerated, dumbfounded quizzical looks and dopey delivery of lines “Bill and Ted” style. And every time he makes confused comment or gives witless look, especially in ad-lib to the unique audience reactions and comments of each show, he has the passengers in stitches.

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“Speed the Movie the Play” is indeed, a hilariously funny show. It is easy to see why the show’s 2015 Brisbane Comedy Festival season was a sellout. And from the size of the crowd gathered upon their other-show exits in the Brisbane Powerhouse Plaza in attempt to observe from afar what was happening on the vintage B59 Volvo, tickets are sure to be snapped up quickly again.

When it comes to movie homages, you probably can’t get more madcap. If you like your nostalgia ‘90s show, are sure to love every moment of this non-stop, riotous ride. But be ready to have a blast (#punintended) as you join in a narrative that features Keanu, Dennis, a Sandra and you. It’s sure to be an excellent adventure (whoops, wrong movie) if you are ready for the ride.