Fantastica farce

Plastica Fantastica

Backdock Arts

August 12 – 13

“Are you confused?” Jennifer Laycock, in role as Nunny asks the audience late into the one-woman absurdist comedy that is “Plastica Fantastica”. It’s a rhetorical question but an entirely apt one given the craziness that has occurred on stage in the show which is directed by Nicolas Angelosanto.

Nunny is a strange English girl who wants to one day become a mother to make school lunch for hypothetical child. She also dreams of being a Tupperware queen. The reason behind her obscure ambitions is her addictive love of plastic; she can’t get enough of the stuff to the point that she cannot imagine life without it. So when Nunny discovers that she is allergic to the very thing she loves, meaning no more single-use shopping bags or plastic straws, the ensuing course of events is akin to her worst nightmare.

The chaos of what unfolds is farcically funny, especially as Nunny hyperbolically recreates incidents of her childhood as explanation of how her love of and addiction to plastic started. Laycock is a confident performer who remains straight-face throughout, yet is also responsive to mishaps and the management of a very funny ‘volunteer’ audience participation segment. Her performance is layered by the nuances of the script with stories that are stuffed with malapropisms to accompany her physical comedy of exaggerated body movements and accompanying facial expressions, in realisation of Nunny’s essential awkwardness, amplified in hilarious attempts to navigate day-to-day life in a non-plastic world

Narration of the underlying message of the show is spelled out in its conclusion, which feels a little out of step with the tone of the preceding scenes and is probably unnecessary as it is an easily-interpreted lesson, especially through Nunny’s hilarious attempts at a scientific explanation of the effects of plastic straw use. In fact, as a character, Nunny is at her funniest, not in focus on environmental discussions, but rather in reaction to frenemy Rachael, who we all share in our dislike despite lack of a real reason why.

Clearly, this previous Short & Sweet Festival show winner is very much a festival type of show, whose odd hilarity easily wins over its audience members. And in two-show billing with “Lucy & Me” is represents a wonderful and welcomed respite from reality.

Bicycle bizarreness

Lucy & Me

Backdock Arts

August 12 – 13

As Brisbane returns to its theatres in the wake of South East Queensland’s most recent lockdown, BackDock Arts feels cosier than usual thanks to additional seating to allow for a socially distanced audience. Yet young German Sphenn (co-writer and performer Nicolas Angelosanto), still manages to take a bicycle ride around as entrance to the whimsical one-man show “Lucy & Me”. The bicycle is the Lucy of the work’s title, a beautiful 1974 Schwinnster in red, and together the two form the unlikely duo upon which the show’s loose narrative is based.

From Sphenn’s suitcase of surprises comes an array of props to assist in his share of the duo’s trips to the park, search for employment and resulting embark upon get-rich-quick schemes. A touch of childlike wonder saturates his storytelling and, as a result, we are all immediately on board with the world of absurdity that ensues around their daily shenanigans, which ultimately test the limits of their friendship. There is an engaging physicality to Angelosanto’s storytelling from the very start, which makes for some entertaining moments, especially in dance and crescendo into one of the strangest exercise routines you are ever likely to see. It is all very funny thanks to Angelosanto’s infectious energy, which is never too over-the-top as to disengage the show’s audience.

Obscure and bizarre as the story of Sphenn and Lucy is, however, there is a clear innocence to the essence of its simplicity Indeed, under the direction of co-writer Jennifer Anne Laycock, this is the type of theatre you don’t have to think too hard about or work too hard at in order to gain some reward. The step into the surreal story is brought to life by an incredibly talented solo performer, clearly relishing the opportunity to showcase the range of his skills in physical theatre, clowning, comic timing and accents, and even some unexpected puppetry (as he uses his knee to create a puppet retelling of how Sphenn and Lucy first met). And while it is certainly quirky, the result is thoroughly enjoyable.  

Premiere power

The Wide Night (A Moveable Theatre)

BackDock Arts

February 18 – March 7

A 100-minute show can be arduous for a two-hander and though the performers in Chloë Moss’s “This Wide Night” do an outstanding job in presenting a tender portrayal of two women trying to start again, the play is still hard work, especially as it is until interval before hinted-at narrative threads of the drama about two women trying to start their lives over again after their release from prison, really begin to tapestry together. That is not to say, however, that it is a commitment without reward.

On her release from prison, Lorraine (Julia Johnson) heads straight to her ‘little mate’ Marie’s (Shardé Anne). On the inside they used to share everything, but the friendship that once protected them now threatens to smother the fragile freedom they have found. Moss’s script never gives too much away. The writing is quite Beckettesque in its outlook on existence and experience, settling on small things and leaving the audience to infer the bigger concerns. The textured script is full of evasive early discussions and long pauses stretch out the space between more memorable scenes like Marie’s recollection of her heartbreaking growing-up raindrop racing game. And while the younger Marie seems to be more world-wise and seemingly stronger than the older Lorraine, appearances can be deceptive and things swiftly deteriorate in Act Two.

BackDock Arts’ theatre, the venue of the play’s Queensland Premiere, is an inescapably intimate location that is easily transformed into the shabby-without-the-chic setting staging of Marie’s messy bedsit (design by director Michael Beh), a room that becomes an enlarged version of the prison cell the women once shared. This suits the more-talk-than-action conversational realism style of show, yet still allows for the easy projection of images of women along with television static to signal play transitions.

The British play, which premiered in 2008 by Clean Break at Soho Theatre before a National Tour of theatres and Women’s Prisons, contains little real action, but, rather exists as a character study of two women, their relationship and how while they are not defined by their crimes, neither can they escape them. As such it unfolds as a story of the sense of isolation that they share and the vulnerability that this engenders. And it is in this, that the performers are able to excel, especially as the play finds its emotional strength after interval and we really come to appreciate the co-dependence that their isolation has instigated.

Johnson and Anne are equally excellent in their complex roles, encapsulating the ebbs and flows of the inter-dependence that comes from their shared sense of being strangers to society. Anne is compelling in her wide-eyed emotions and Johnson allows the audience space to sit in the trauma alongside her, especially as she describes the coat her son was wearing before being taken away, as part of her cling to hope that the now grown-up boy once given up for adoption will want to see her.

Characterisation calls for regional accents, that are well maintained, although initially a little distracting. Along with quintessentially British ‘innit’ idioms and references of the Greggs and Marks & Spencers sort, these set the story firmly in its origins (Chloe Moss based the work on women she met during a volunteering stint at Her Majesty’s Prison in the UK). However, given the universality of its themes, one wonders if they are necessary.

Not all questions are answered in this grim but poignant slice-of-life snapshot of the women’s stories. “This Wide Night” does, however, leave audience members with some serious contemplations. “If you shouted in space, even if someone was standing right next to you they wouldn’t be able to hear you,” Marie, for example, relays from a reference book Lorraine likes to read by torchlight before bed. It’s an almost throw-away line late in Act Two, however, it is a very powerful one given the work’s clear message about the isolation of prison not ending upon one’s release.

Rhumbo realisation

Hello, Gaz Rhumbo! (Lightning Bolt Creative)

BackDock Arts

January 22  – 31

“When Gaz dies, he’s forced to reflect on how he lived in order to find a place to rest” … this is the description of “Hello, Gaz Rhumbo!” an absurdist scramble through life, love and death in modern Australia, written and starting Willem Whitfield. The journey play starts in a frenzy, moving us quickly though the protagonist’s formative years towards his promised contemplation. It’s a fast-paced fill of humour from characterisations, dialogue and the addition of funny man Seinfeld skit allusions. Cue card directions for limited audience participation and prop heaviness add to the busyness. So despite the play’s minimalist approach to depiction of action, it’s a challenging orientation to what is an ultimately a multi-styled production.

Gaz, it is soon revealed is just ordinary person, with some issues arising from his relationships. And as things settle into his early adulthood story there is contemplation of some big questions about the nature and cost of happiness, as well as about life and what follows. Whitfield does an admirable job of carrying things and his chemistry with primary love Phoebe (Marisa Bucolo) fuels proceedings. Tenielle Plunkett tears in as more aggressive girlfriend Stacey, while Britainy London shows commitment to the animated role of Gaz’s always talking but rarely listening mother. From the supporting cast of multiple-role performers, Brenton Smith also impresses in his limited stage appearances, never missing a beat in his deadpan and consequently very funny delivery.

“Hello, Gaz Rhumbo!” is a new work of much potential probably easily realised in a more versatile space. The production does its best with BackDock art’s small stage area, but its realisation with such a large cast makes things seem unnecessarily claustrophobic, especially in early scenes. Its hectic, energetic Act One is also difficult to connect with due to its limited pauses to hold moments before transitions, depriving audience members opportunities to register and appreciate the full extent of its humour.

Stylistically, the absurdist Act One is very different from later sections of realism and post modernism and things are flipped after intermission in terms of pacing as its realisation quietens to just Gaz and Phoebe in couple interaction and then Gaz venturing into an afterlife conversation with Arsehole, a big character, effectively realised in a stylised performance from Virginia Gray that encapsulates the crazy while still allowing space for sensitive notes. While this is one of the show’s highlights, it’s distance from the work’s earlier sensibility muddies the clarity of overall identity, meaning that a less-is-maybe-more editing eye can could be applied, while still allowing for its unique story to be told in an exciting way.

There is no doubting that “Hello, Gaz Rhumbo!” is based on a clever idea that allows audiences to think about love and mortality for themselves rather than be constantly instructed by heavy-handed direction. In amongst its nudity, sex scenes and coarse language, character presentation of the truths behind our facades is an effective technique to lead the audience to appreciation of the role of intimacy in real understanding and consideration of how talk does not necessarily equate to communication… things which eventually resonate beyond the ready rhumble of its black comedy and physical theatre.

Spanish satisfaction

Smiley

BackDock Arts

November 19 -29

In emoji terms a ‘smiley’ face with a broad, closed smile is used to express genuine happiness and warm, positive feelings. In its namesake 2013 play written by Guillem Clua, it how chiselled Latin bartender Alex (Sergio Ulloa Torres) communicates his feelings to his lover the morning after, in hope that he feels the same … before a week of being ghosted, which is what leads to the unintended, upset phone messages to older architect Bruno (Matt Young), that set the Spanish gay romantic comedy in motion.

The two-hander, “Smiley” which is sponsored by Brisbane Pride in its Australian premiere, is a love story, pure and simple, but one that is authentically complicated by contradictions and insecurities. And Liam Burke’s adaptation and direction celebrates this, within the lens of connection courtesy of technology, without sacrificing momentum or comic opportunities or disrespecting the original text. Its central premise is based the red thread of destiny, a Japanese legend that states that when two people are destined to be together an invisible red thread connects them from the day they were born, no matter how different they may seem. Protagonists Alex and Bruno are perfect for illustration of the metaphor; they are very different, with little in common beyond both being gay men living in Barcelona. Yet, from the moment of that mistakenly dialed phone call, they are linked, despite an initial awkward (and very funny) first meeting and date. And the ensuing narrative serves as a wonderful tribute to some great romantic comedies.

Functional design facilitates a range of Barcelona locations, allowing the talented Torres and Young to give physically-demanding performances that maintain intensity around some well-timed comic moments. Torres is a magnetic performer whose sassy, energetic disposition works in balanced complement with Young’s relatable, seemingly more settled Bruno. A highlight of the versatility of Young’s skill comes in roles as Bruno, but instead as he transitions seamlessly through a string of Alex’s potential Grindr matches, each with their own unique and very distinct personalities.

The emotional truth at its core makes “Smiley” heart-warming and easy to watch. Rather than relying on clichéd comedy courtesy of Alex’s accented pronunciations, his funniest moments come from the ordinariness of his mini-rants about diet coke et al. But along with its humour comes a hopeful honesty that gives a reassurance as to the future, for romantics and pragmatists alike, ensuring that everyone leaves the intimate BackDock Arts theatre space with their own in-real-life smilies. Indeed, this is a play of universal themes of a time in which technologies have changed our lives. While it focuses on the experiences of the gay community, the longing of repeated voice message plays and desperate desire to discover digital clues and interpret the meaning of every emoji of even group message communications, make it a relevant as well as engaging work beyond this and, therefore, one that makes for a very satisfying visit.