Symphony of selves

Toy Symphony (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

April 21 – May 14

Experience has proven that Ad Astra is not only to be commended for its interesting production choices, but its often inventive staging of these, especially given the company’s intimate performance space. Michael Gow’s critically-acclaimed “Toy Symphony” (the play was awarded Best New Australian Work at the 2008 Helpmann Awards), stands as testament to both of these truths.

Blackboarded walls featuring graffitied quotes, allow audience members the satisfaction of seeing how they are woven into the essential fabric of the story, while trunks and suitcases stack about the stage to become a range of set pieces. They provide appropriate imagery for these is a lot to unpack in the story of playwright Roland Henning (played to perfection by Gregory J Wilken), a character who appeared in Gow’s earlier play “Furious”.

The play’s central protagonist is a complex character who, like Gow himself, knows how to use language. Indeed, he is, by all intents, a representation of the playwright himself (Gow has publicly acknowledged the somewhat autobiographical nature of the work). And through his tale, the play considers not only the nature of language and theatre, but essential elements of the human experience, such as the power of formative experiences to shape our later selves.

Following a legal victory in response to accusations of plagiarism, at the encouragement of an unseen friend, Roland reluctantly begins psychoanalysis. While he assures psychiatrist Nina (Caitlin Hill) that he does not have writers block, and therefore does not need therapy, he is clearly in denial about something and their session soon leads to a self-reflective journey through his troubled past in search for the writer he once was. Within his ensuing therapy sessions, Roland recalls real and imagined characters from his childhood, including his compassionate Year 5 teacher Mrs Walkham (Bernadette Pryde), at whose urging he funnelled his fertile imagination into a play called “Toy Symphony”.

Things momentum along through a combination of real-time and flashback storytelling, thanks to the inclusion of magical realism and larger-than-life representations in illustration of Roland’s imagination of historical figures such as Alexander the Great and alike, alongside his 1960s classmates, school bully (Sam Webb), the sweet t Mrs Walkham, intimidating school principal (Greg Scurr) and his personal champion, Nick. Although details of his childhood home in the southern Sydney suburb of Como are explored in lengthy classroom scenes, overall, these sections serve well to highlight the versatility of the dynamic cast who transition seamlessly between characters. Indeed, Act One is textured with a colorful set of characters, which the ensemble cast bring to glorious life. Hill, in particular, is excellent as both capable therapist Nina and an excitable Year 5 student, while Pryde is simply wonderful in anchor of everything as the doting Mrs Walkham, always offering warmth and assurance to Roland.

Act Two takes a turn as Rowland, now a successful playwright, faces the consequences of his past along with the loss of his parents, the combination of which spirals him into the writer’s block that prompted his therapy. From being a bullied youngster, he has now become an intimidating oppressor himself and it is uncomfortable to watch his evisceration of university student and wannabe actor Daniel (Jonathan Weir), such is power of Wilken’s performance. At times intense, and others turmoiled, he evokes both psychological depth and emotional range in his realisation of all of Roland’s selves, from his schoolboy energy to the despair of a layered man who is at his rock bottom. And his one-sided phone conversation soliloquy serves as a magnificent celebration the play’s language and its show of the human of humanity.

“Toy Symphony” shows that there is more to Australian playwright and director Michael Gow that his most famed 1986 work “Away”. The stylistically-distinctive work may touch upon similar tones in its 1960s setting, but its discussion of the merit of theatre over other art forms and attempt to understand creativity. elevate it as a clever, challenging and entertaining look at the world of the imagination. It is also very funny at times, particularly through Scurr’s Act One appearances as Rowland’s Latvian childhood friend Nick, whose hyperbolic declarations of love of beautiful women are matched only by his profane exclamations of excitement.  

While it may be a neglected work, the play’s themes and inherent theatricality will hopefully ensure its longevity. Magical elements, along with Gow’s poetic writing and trademark classical allusions make “Toy Symphony” an entertaining, albeit underrated Australian play, and under Michelle Carey’s direction, Ad Astra has presented audiences with a very fine production of it.

Rabbit Hole hope

Rabbit Hole (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

March 24 – April 9

While children’s books and puzzles feature among the everyday items of the New York State home of Becca and Howie Corbett, when we drop in on their story, it is to see Becca (Janelle Bailey) packing up children’s clothes. As her sassy sister Izzy (Vanessa Moltzen) retells the story of a recent night out, we learn just as much about Becca as we do the storyteller. As the pair bounce off each in easy conveyance of their sibling dynamic, it is clear that Becca is probably the older more responsible, sensible and settled of the pair. What also is soon apparent, is that this is a family that has nearly been ripped apart due to a months-earlier tragedy.

Becca and her husband Howie (Stephen Hirst) are grieving their four-year-old son Danny, who was run over by a car outside their home while chasing after the family dog. The story follows the couple’s navigation of the initial phases of life without their son, searching for what is still possible in an everyday existence after such unimaginable pain. Both are in different places with their anger and sadness, making it difficult for them to connect. And while Becca busies herself with baking and trying not to concentrate on the recollections all around her, due to the distress the comes with the familiar, Howie finds comfort in trying to maintain the memories by watching home videos. Cracks of responsibility and recrimination soon begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of a grief therapy group and Becca reaches out to the teenage boy responsible for the tragedy (Fraser Anderson).

At almost 2.5 hours (including interval) “Rabbit Hole” is long, but it is good… very good. The study of grief written by David Lindsay-Abaire was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007. Lindsay-Abaire’s cohesive script is well-written, full of naturalistic dialogue and dramatic intensity. And Mikayla Hosking’s restrained direction builds upon this with an approach that is characterised by quiet moments to add to character introspection and emotional tension, which ultimately makes its experience more moving than depressing.  

While character accents may be initially jarring, things soon settle into realisation that there are no weak links in this production. Moltzen quickly moves Izzy on from what could have been an abrasive caricature, while Bailey and Hirst each give powerful performances, particularly when an accidental loss of memories leads to an honest discussion of their different ways of dealing with grief. And in his brief appearances, Anderson gives an equally moving performance, enlivening Becca’s read aloud of his initial apology letter with meaningful use of pace, pause and emotive emphasis, which aides in laying bare the story’s moving brutality. Given the complexity surrounding the tragic emotions being explored, there are also appreciated moments of respite, including through the humour of Becca’s mother, Nat’s (Julia Johnson) obsession with the Kennedy curse during birthday party conversation.

Staging, sound and lighting are simplistic almost to the point of being subdued, which grounds the story and compliments its realism roots. After interval, when the kitchen calendar has moved from March to May, stage dressing disappears as the couple attempts to move on. Diligent direction from Hosking shows how little details do matter, as characters eat the food that is prepared and the pages of a Becca recipe shared with her sister indeed include instruction as to how to make the lemon slice in question.

“Rabbit Hole” is compelling, well-performed drama. The play represents a powerful portrait of a family experiencing the most heartbreaking of griefs and through this, an exploration of what it is to be human, with an intensity heightened by Ad Astra’s intimate traverse staging. While some momentum is lost in Act Two, its concluding moments bring things to a satisfactory finish. Indeed, the honesty of Hirst’s final ‘where to now’ monologue leaves a lasting legacy, punctuating the play with an offer of hope.

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.  

Truth interrogated

Death and the Maiden (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

November 19 – December 4

Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s 1991 play “Death and the Maiden” is a lot. Named after Schubert’s dramatic quartet, the moral thriller is about former political prisoner Paulina (Sandra Harman), who believes that a stranger who comes to her beach house home is the man who, under the country’s former military dictatorship, brutalised her many years prior.

The story, said to be based on events in Chile (though it could be in any South or Central American dictatorship) opens to a detailed set representing the home of Paulina and her husband Geraldo (Gary Farmer-Trickett), a human rights lawyer in a country that is in transition from dictatorship to democracy. She is waiting nervously, even pulling a gun when another car arrives after Gerardo’s vehicle has broken down and he has been offered a lift by a friendly doctor, Roberto (Tom Coyle). Though she never saw him at the time, due to being blindfolded, Paulina is convinced the voice she is now hearing is that of the state agent responsible for her rape and torture 15 years earlier. She knows it is him.

Roberto is bound and gagged at gunpoint as Paulina interrogates and demands that he confesses his crime against her or else. It is a tense setup that brings a lot of intrigue as the audience is forced to consider if he did it and if she will do it. The three act play contains dense dialogue more than action, meaning that its success rests very much with its performances. Harman captures both the mania and fragility of the deeply traumatised and angry Paulina. In particular, her monologue recall of the horrific event is riveting. The story’s dramatic development is also aided by the physical commitment of the production’s actors. Coyle spends the majority of the play struggling against being tied to a kitchen chair and when his gag is removed, he layers the character so that we both think he may be capable of perpetrating the sexual torture of woman, and also a potential victim himself. Meanwhile, Harman’s whole body physical reaction to hearing Roberto’s voice, adds to the intensity of the turning point, and Farmer-Trickett’s body language as Paulina’s husband Geraldo coveys some moments of support that gives a little depth to this least developed role.

The three-character piece contains a lot of confronting language and even some moments of amusement amongst the grim events. Ad Astra has created a considered, claustrophobic experience that appropriately metaphors the experience of characters in “Death and the Maiden”, who are all prisoned in their pasts. The daring choice also presents big themes for audience consideration. Indeed, the moral debate that arises from its ethical arguments around guilt, repentance and the value of vengeance leads to much post-show contemplation and question about who really is the victim.

Steinbeck superlatived

Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 2 – 18

For those unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men”, a strumming pre-show soundtrack accompanying the rustic bunkhouse staging (Bill Haycock, Designer) plants Ad Astra audiences firmly in its depression era California setting. Lighting also warms us into the tender take at the heart of the story as we meet is main characters, displaced migrant ranch workers, the intelligent but uneducated George Milton (Patrick Shearer) and the bulky and strong, but intellectually disabled Lennie Small (Francis McMahon).

The relationship and backstory of the cynical George and the childlike bear Lennie is soon revealed, cementing sentiment at the story’s heart; the itinerant workers, move from farm to ranch seeking opportunities to engage in casual labour, before quickly moving on when they encounter trouble. The trouble, it is soon apparent, tends to stem from Lennie’s fondness for stroking soft things (including pretty ladies’ dresses) combined with his lack of awareness of his own brute strength. So it is with a sense of foreboding that Lennie’s innocent view of the world is about to be corrupted, that we then follow the men into their new job, despite their determination to keep their noses clean.

Under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the story is well-paced, with the production allowing us to sit in the silences of its sorrow, but also in the anxiety of its fight scenes and what happens thereafter. And passages of time are cleverly crafted through the fast forward of scene stills, which, in moving things along, contribute much to the development and maintenance of dramatic tension. Those familiar with the story, know of the tragedy of its plot trajectory and as many were anticipating in pre-show discussions, those unfamiliar with how things are to unfold are walloped by the confrontation of its emotion, which is heightened by David Walters’ shadowed lighting hues and Ben Lynskey’s melancholic soundscape.

“Of Mice and Men” is an affecting show and experience of the performances in Ad Astra’s production serves as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but its endurance as a classic text. The talented cast take us to all edges of the character spectrum. Danny Brown steadies things as respected main mule team driver Slim, easily conveying the characters’ natural authority and essential empathy towards George and Lennie’s bond. As the boss’ bully of a son Curly, Andrew Lowe has a cocksure swagger that tells us about his character before he even speaks, so that his jealous over-protection of this wife that brings about much of the play’s antagonism comes as little surprise.

The tough-love relationship between George and Lennie is movingly drawn. McMahon’s performance as Lennie is touching in its tenderness and sensitivity, yet he also appropriately dominates the space when provoked into physical altercation. Shearer’s intuitive approach to accessing George’s character gives us the light and shade required by his both his protection towards and frustration with Lenny, and also contrasting commitment to a dream but also feeling of economic powerlessness integral to experience of the depression era. George is a complicated character whose conflicted empathy for Lennie is key to the plot’s impact and Shearer conveys this in an accomplished, understated manner through dialogue delivery that is viscerally charged with mumbles and pauses, in almost James Dean like style.

More than just being a story of its characters, however, “Of Mice and Men”, is clearly also a character study of its era. Audience members feel its pathos through the characters’ expression of simple pleasures like a comfortable chair as much as their bigger dreams of self-determination. Curly’s unnamed wife (Caitlin Hill) dreams of better things, beyond the loneliness at the heart of her flirtatious interactions with the men on the ranch and aging handyman Candy (Iain Gardiner) who, having lost his hand in an accident, fears for his future and so dreams of a life beyond the ranch.

Our protagonists’ shared dream is made clear from initial scenes of George’s wistful contemplation of aspirational independence. Their plan is to save the stake to buy a few acres and make their own farm life, with a big vegetable patch, chickens and some rabbits, Lennie keeps reminding with childlike sweetness. But harsh realities and a tragic turn of events see dreams shattered for as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley” (often go awry).

All things considered, this is a superb production of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, highly professional in all of its aspects and with a calibre of talent that could easily be showcased on the QPAC stage. Indeed, Ad Astra has created an accessible, engaging and powerful piece of theatre worth of all the superlatives. The fact that the limited season is being brought to Brisbane audiences by the creators of “Red” comes of little surprise given that the 2020 production similarly combined staging and performances with such excellence.

Our Town tones

Zigzag Street (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

July 23 – August 7

Before social media, one of the added devastations of being dumped was having to repeat your break-up story as you first see people and relive its angst over and over again. This is one of the dilemmas of newly and unhappily single 28-year-old corporate lawyer Richard Derrington (Samuel Valentine). So difficult is it for him to admit that Anna as left him, he can’t even tell the local Thai take away that his usual order is no longer under that surname. And so “Zigzag Street” opens to Richard alone on the couch of his recently-decreased grandmother’s Red Hill home lamenting about having basically blown his university days on one girl.

From its The Smiths song opener, the sensibility of Phillip Dean’s adaptation of Nick Earls’ bestselling ‘90s novel is recreated, with the scenarios revolving around Richard’s new cat and its sock puppet sidekick, soon making appearances. There are plenty of north side Brisbane references too, from traffic at the Normanby Fiveways intersection, shopping trips to Toowong Village and the evening haze above the iconic XXXX brewery, none of which really date the work.

While Richard is living at his grandmother’s house in the eponymous Zig Zag Street, he spends his time pretending to renovate the house in attempt to satisfy his mother … and not buying groceries. Nothing seems to go right for the hapless protagonist as he consistently contributes to his own woes as he tries to find his way again, dwelling on what might have been and struggling to see an end to his misery despite the advice of his friends and even the acquaintances whose paths he crosses. Sustained by his sense of humour and recognising that hindsight is no substitute for insight, he seeks clarity with a determination to stop defining himself in terms of his relationships… until he accidently knocks out a girl (Estelle Snowball as Rachel) and things start looking up.

The stage adaptation of Earls’ much loved fictional novel is an episodic play, made up of many short scenes which switch frequently between Richard’s grandmother’s house, his workplace, the local doctor’s office and various other settings. This ensures a pacey show, but also one which also seems to lag a little at times with its multiple entrances and exits and frequent costumes changes.

Valentine delivers a perfectly pitched performance as everyman of sorts Richard, endearing the likeable and sympathetic character to us immediately, despite, or perhaps even because of, his chaotic energy and very human character flaws. Never really off stage, he does well to articulate Richard’s inner turmoil, meaning that his narration shapes the show to sometimes appear more as a retelling from a trusted friend, so that in our hearts, like his friends, all we want is for him to be nice to Rachel and for her to be nice to him. And he tells Richard’s anecdotes with a humour that sits front and centre of the genuinely funny and engaging show.

Valentine is supported by a small cast of players assuming multiple roles. Alongside Emma Black and Lara Rix as Richard’s romantically off limits manager and bundle of infectious energy co-worker, Jason McKell showcases a great sense of comedy and timing as Jeff, Richard’s best friend, who has some of the play’s funniest lines around advice and in reaction to the silly situations of Richard’s life. And then there is Snowball as the decisive but quirky aged-care worker Rachel, who captures both the nuance of nervous initial date energy and the tenderness that comes from trepidation about showing vulnerability. And her outfits (Costume Associate Ashleigh Creeks) reflect her character perfectly.

Although condensed in plot and characters, Ad Astra’s “Zigzag Street” maintains the tone of its original text and Nick Earls’ witty authorial voice. Equal parts funny and insightful, its appeal comes from its articulation of everyone’s inner voice in an honest insight into human nature. And Mikayla Hosking’s sensitive direction, particularly in Act Two, allows us to sit in its pauses of real life. Indeed, amongst its humour are many are poignant moments, such as Richard’s (and later Rachel’s) reading of his grandfather’s letter, evoking his Somme battlefield experiences. And while it may cover six weeks of Richard’s life, by show’s end, it feels like we have known and loved him for a lot longer.