PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

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Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29

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In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

More Mockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 5 – 15

Shake & Stir’s award-winning play “Tequila Mockingbird” transports its literary classic namesake tale of racial prejudice and the law to small town, rural Australia and the result is both poignant and palpable… for while the Stanton of “Tequila Mockingbird” may be nowhere specific, it is apparent before long that its story is one that is sadly familiar in our modern experience.

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The story begins when a young Indian doctor Sameer Chavan (Shannon Haegler) relocates to the tiny town to work in the medical centre. While the its born-and-bred residents drown their unemployment sorrows in schooners at Sue’s hotel, their attitudes are more archaic than nostalgic in their throwback to times of old and the racial intolerance he experiences soon crescendos into him being wrongly accused of assaulting a young woman (Nelle Lee), who is instead the victim of abuse by her vicious boyfriend Joel (Ross Balbuziente). When the whole town turns against Sameer, lawyer Richard (Bryan Proberts) not only defends him, but attempts to protect him from the simmering social tension.

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It is a taut story whose engagement is enhanced through its delineation from chronological narrative presentation, showing the audience the true events of the night in question only in flashback as part of Sameer’s trial. And even though the violence is not enacted on stage, its effect is no less shocking.

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The aspect that engenders audience attention the most, however, is the show’s stellar performances. Reuniting under the direction of Michael Futcher, each member of the original cast is totally convincing. Nellie Lee brings depth to the role of Rachel, a woman as trapped emotionally in her relationship as she is physically in the town and Ross Balbuziente gives a powerful, intimidating performance as the abusive Joel, passively racist until under the influence of alcohol. Barbara Lowing, however, is outstanding as she brings to vivid life three diverse characters: well-meaning publican Sue (trying to increase revenue with international nights featuring food and cocktails like ‘Tequila Mockingbird), pretentious but well-meaning busy-body Karen and, most memorably as Joel’s drunken bigot mother Trish, utterly unlikeable but also very real in her xenophobia.

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Solid as ever, like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Bryan Proberts’ Richard represents morality, reason and what we all want to be, never having to rethink his position. His stern but fair attitude also characterises his solo-parenting style and there is a natural rhythm to his scenes with his mischievous son Charlie (Nick Skubij). Likewise, Shannon Haegler brings a gentle humility to the role of Sameer.

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Simple but versatile staging and impressive lighting supports the story’s different phases. While Richard’s story is softened by subdued beiges, the hyper-reality of pub politics is illuminated by vibrant neon shades. And spotlighting serves to make the court scene all the more harrowing.

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While the story remains the same, as well should be the case with an award-winning work, the 2016 show is enhanced by some nice touches of update, particularly within the earlier scenes that serve as juxtaposition to the horror that follows. Both Skubij and Balbuziente contribute much to the frivolity when, in one of their respective multiple roles, they make their own fun as teenagers trapped in a town without entertainment. There is of course, a moment when things transition from the laughter of adolescent hijinks to increasingly less-thinly-veiled racist taunts and observation of altered audience reactions is as interesting as the comments that cause it.

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“Tequila Mockingbird” is critically-acclaimed for good reason and given the current political atmosphere in Australia, its turbulent, tension-filled story is sadly now more than ever more authentic than stereotypical. Not only does it provide insight into how our nation is regarded in overseas perception, but it clearly illustrates what can happen when fear and ignorance combine unchecked. The saddest thing of all, however, is not that tragedy that the narrative outlines but how it afterwards fades into history as its rural townsfolk move on to their more usual worries of weather forecasts and rising beef prices. Hopefully, artistic works such as this will assist in ensuring that such outcomes are rendered far from reality.

More Motherland

Motherland (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 20 – 30

Sometimes the anticipation for a show is so great that its season sells out in advance even of opening night. For those who saw the initial 2013 Metro Arts season of “Motherland”, the fact that this has happened in advance of its Mainstage season at the Queensland Theatre Company, is, in this case of little surprise, given the epic, multi-layered story’s poetry, passion and ultimate intimacy.

Katherine Lyall-Watson’s “Motherland” is a sweeping dramatic retelling of actual events, based on years of research and writing. At the core is Nell Tritton (Kerith Atkinson), whose father owned Triton Furniture Emporium in George Street). After leaving Brisbane in the 1920s to work in Europe as a foreign correspondent, she fell for and, just before the outbreak of World War Two, married the exiled Russian Prime Minister, Alexander Kerensky, before returning with him to Brisbane in search safety. During earlier exile in 1930s Paris, she has an erotic friendship with fellow (and much more accomplished) Russian poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing). And finally there’s Alyona (Rebecca Riggs) who flees 1990s Russia with her son and her Australian businessman lover to Fitzgerald-inquiry focussed Brisbane.

The successful realisation of the complex three-generation story about these different but linked women requires precise direction and Caroline Dunphy’s deft hand ensures that things move fast with tight transitions between scenes. Timeframes and settings interweave and actors play multiple characters, which all add to its fast but satisfying pace. However, for some unfamiliar with Russian history key points, there may be initial confusion with regards to separation of stories and a few more strategically scattered references could have helped in this regard.

This is a story of strong women, appropriately brought to live by three talented actresses. Lowing, in particular, is captivating in her complex characterisation of the writer and academic Nina, particularly when returned to Russian in her twilight years, haunted by the ghost of her younger self. As the feisty 90-year-old with no patience for platitudes, Lowing shares both humour in her cantankerousness and humanity in her emotion. She could not shine as she does without the subtle, impressive work of Riggs and Atkinson’s compelling performance as the passionate yet controlled Nell. And then there are also Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy, both of whom transition effortless between multiple roles in support of the work’s female protagonists. Murphy is particularly engaging as Alyona’s son Sasha, confused, dissatisfied and initially frightened when left alone in a Moscow Pizza Hut as he mother goes to defend the barricades in the city’s 1991 coup.

The transportation of audience members through the annals of history is supported by simple staging and a vibrant soundscape, effectively used in combination with spotlights to convey the fear of military threat. And lighting efficiently illuminates the silhouetted bookcase backdrop of the Russian literary world to the comparative and deceptive brightness of Brisbane.

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“Motherland” is a sophisticated theatrical work, well-crafted to engage audiences in its intelligent and heartbreaking stories. Not only does it capture a moment of our city’s history in intriguing glory, but it also has universal appeal in its examination of notions of identity. With an accomplished cast re-united to take the audience on its emotional journey, “Motherland” anew is a monumental show that needs to be seen by those who like their theatre to encompass historical and cultural themes, and thankfully for regional audiences there is more “Motherland” to follow with its Queensland tour.

Streamers, songs and significant stories

Gaybies

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 3 – 6

Based on interviews conducted with the children of gay parents, the verbatim theatre work “Gaybies” draws on the experiences of a diverse group people, ranging in age from four to 40, with a cast of local performers and community members vibrantly adopting the personas of each.

The stage is set for a children’s birthday party, complete with cake, craft and a scattering of toys. From here, characters share their tales of teaspoons, pantyhose and dream catchers. The anecdotes are filled with humour, insight and some touching, collective ‘awww’ moments, making the show moving despite its essential lack of narrative.

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From early on, the central idea is clear… that all families are different, filled with their own problems, love and funny stories. This is particularly evidenced through the standout scenes from Rebecca McInstosh and Kurt Phelan as siblings sharing story of their lesbian mother Jac. Another highlight is a segment that sees some cast members assuming the personas of young children. Not only are their takes humorous, but, to see, for example, Margi Brown Ash as fairy-winged four-year-old wannabe princess riding a tricycle about the stage is simply adorable.

With so many stories and its large cast, it can, at times, be difficult to reconcile “Gaybies” many threads, however, Director Kris Stewart ensures that audience engagement rarely lags, thanks to the incorporation of music and songs from Lizzy Moore and Artistic Director of the Australian Voices, Gordon Hamilton. Barbara Lowing, easily engages the audience at every opportunity courtesy of her natural, responsive, sensitive dialogue delivery and attuned timing. And Brisbane Festival Artistic Director David Berthold is impressive both in initial mimicry of his gruff father and later as an uncooperative child.

Given the show’s context, emerging from debate about marriage rights of same sex couples, it is packed with political commentary, perhaps excessively so given the repetition of its endorsement of gay marriage. It is probably safe to say that preaching is to the converted who can come to the conclusion alone from the tender tone and varied but similarly-themed messages of the show’s real-life stories of children from same-sex parents, surrogate mums, donor dads, co-parents and guardians.

“Gaybies” is an important piece of theatre…. proudly personal, poignant and political. Helpmann Award-winning Dean Bryant’s work presents a funny, moving and accessible piece of theatre for young people as well as adults. (Although the evening show has a 12+ recommendation due to its course language, its 4pm matinee is specifically targeted at allowing families to attend a show during MELT).

Matildas Monday

I saw a lot of theatre in 2013, however, my 79 shows were obviously not enough, given that they did not include “1001 Nights” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which both scooped the pool at the 2013 Matilda Awards.

The Gardens Theatre event, which was hosted by Dash Kruck and Emily Burton as their bewildering “A Tribute of Sorts” characters Ivan and Juniper, featured a who’s who of Brisbane Theatre both in the crowd and being honoured for their work. And it was wonderful to witness the mutual respect on show, when, for example, the immensely talented Barb Lowing received a standing ovation upon her receipt of the Gold Matilda Award for her performances in “The China Incident”, “Tequila Mockingbird”, and “Motherland.”

The Matildas are awards which recognise excellence in Queensland (Brisbane) Theatre. To be eligible, theatre workers have to have made, in the judges’ opinion, a commitment to the State, for example, by either beginning their careers or living and working mainly here, or by having a strong identification with Queensland.

And aside from representing the chance to honour their work, the night also provided for some wonderful entertainment, both intended and accidental.  As Ivan and Juniper, Dash and Emily were hilariously nuanced in their portrayals of Ivan and Juniper and, as one of the few Brisbanites not to have seen “A Tribute of Sorts” during its 2012 run, I am looking forward to its season this May at QTC’s Greenhouse.  Juniper, in particular, had the audience in stitches with her roving reporter audience crosses and aggressive flirtation with Special Guest Presenter James Stewart.

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The expected comic repertoire was there, with references to the Campbell Newman line cut and shake and stir’s commercial success. What was missing, however, were categories allowing for particular recognition of achievement in opera and dance, so as to better reflect the diversity of work being produced. And it is disappointing the new category of Best Technical Design includes Lighting, Multimedia and Sound, rather than these being recognised as distinct disciplines with talented designers worthy of independent acclaim for their outstanding work.

Congratulations to all the winners, who now join artists of national and international stature who featuring among past recipients.  And indeed, to all of the nominees, thought as Ivan and Juniper cheekily noted, ‘we shall discuss them no further’.

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 2013 GOLD MATILDA AWARDS

 Barbara Lowing

for performances in The China Incident, Tequila Mockingbird, and Motherland

Jason Glenwright

for lighting Rumour Has It: Sixty Minutes Inside Adele, Out Damn Snot,
Blood Brothers, Oklahoma!, Next to Normal,
and Tequila Mockingbird

Andrea Moor

for directing Venus in Fur

shake & stir theatre company

for creating Tequila Mockingbird

Christen O’Leary 

for her performance in End of the Rainbow

2013 SILVER MATILDA COMMENDATIONS

Tequila Mockingbird
Best Mainstage Production
shake & stir theatre co.

1001 Nights
Best New Australian Work
Michael Futcher and Helen Howard (adapters)

Motherland
Best Independent Production
Metro Arts & Ellen Belloo

Dan Crestani
Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
1001 Nights

Libby Munro
Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Venus in Fur

Hayden Spencer
Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
End of the Rainbow

Louise Brehmer
Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Michael Futcher
Best Director
1001 Nights

Angel Kosch
Best Design (Set & Costumes)
Costume Design, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Phil Slade
Best Technical Design (Lights, Multimedia & Sound)
Musical Direction, 1001 Nights

Sandra Carluccio
Bille Brown Award for Best Emerging Artist
for creating This is Capital City

Rumour Has It:
Sixty Minutes Inside Adele

Best Musical or Cabaret
Judith Wright Centre & The Little Red Company

Revolution, relationships and real talent

Motherland (Ellen Belloo)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

October 30 – November 16

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It is fitting that Barbara Lowing’s character is the first to speak in “Motherland”, given that her involvement was what initiated my motivation to see the show. And she is in fine form, immediately engaging the audience with her feisty performance as a 90 year old Russian ‘cabbage with lipstick.’ And Lowing is just one member of what is a talented ensemble cast who each give measured, nuanced performances.

Performances aside, however, what is most engaging about this work is the beauty and intelligence of its narrative. “Motherland” is an epic account. In fact, it tells three stories, set in Russia, Paris and Australia, intricately crafted together. There is the intriguing chronicle of the marriage between Russian Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and Brisbane heiress Nell Tritton (Kerith Anderson) who lived in exile in our city of ‘Jacaranda eyes.’ There is also the story of poet Nina Berberova (Barbara Lowing) a Russian exile in 1930s Paris and Nell’s lover. And finally, bookending the play is the story of Alyona (Rebecca Riggs), fleeing to Brisbane from 1990s Motherland Russia with her son and her Australian boyfriend, only to be see him caught up in the Fitzgerald enquiry. This all initially makes for audience challenges to comprehend the multiple roles of Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy. However, once the interconnection of the stories is established, this confusion is diminished, allowing full immersion in what is a captivating narrative.

Cultural issues don’t get much bigger than revolution, yet as what is essentially the tale of three women, the story is about much more than this. It is also shares very personal stories in examination of how historical events can shape relationships and identity and, as such, it is emotional, moving and gripping. This is due largely to the talent of Australian playwright, Katherine Lyall-Watson and it is no surprise to read that the work was shortlisted for the prestigious 2013 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award.

Staging is effective in its simplicity with a just a white doilyesque spray upon the ground and asymmetrical white frames in which characters are often frozen, much like their stories in time. Indeed, the minimalist black and white aesthetic helps in creating a work that is both enigmatic and sophisticated, and enhances the show’s appeal. It was wonderful to experience the show’s world premiere run as part of Metro Arts’ Season of the Independents. “Motherland” is a story of fascination and a moving theatrical work which showcases the strength of both Australia’s stories and Australia’s talent.