It might be love

Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 14 – August 21

Before Oasis triumphed the British working-class, there was Madness, the prominent ska Camden Town band of the late 1970s and early 1980s, who, if you are of a particular vintage, you may know from their appearance in two episodes of the cult BBC sitcom “The Young Ones”. Beyond this, the prominent band is known for its ‘nutty boys’ fusion of traditional Jamaican ska music with elements of punk rock and new wave, resulting in a run of hits and madcap music videos… all of which are captured in the award-winning jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of the chart-topping group.

In Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands, the musical starts strongly with two of the group’s biggest hits, ‘House of Fun’ and ‘Our House’, which serve to orient the audience to the story through well appropriated lyrics. ‘House of Fun’ is about coming of age, telling the story of a boy on his 16th birthday trying to buy condoms at a chemist and it is here where we meet the lad in question, Joe (Oliver Childs). With a book written by playwright Tim Firth, the story then follows the life of the schoolboy from that night when he makes the decision on a whim to break into a building development overlooking his North London home to impress his girlfriend, Sarah (Kyra Stratford). When the police arrive, Joe has to make a decision that will change his life. Overseen and narrated by Joe’s father (Shaun King), events are shown through a “Sliding Doors” lens as Joe embarks upon two alternative paths of seven years from that fateful night, that of the ‘good’ Joe who gives himself up and the ‘bad joe’ who leaves Sarah to escape. The ensuring tales of love, loss and growing up are explored as he navigates right and wrong to the music of Madness. It is a combination of the silly and serious enhanced by lyrics that often make thoughtful observations on the everyday concerns of working-class London, making it, at times, more of a morality tale than a romantic comedy.

The very talented Childs gives an authentic portrayal of the story’s likeable protagonist, realising the two Joe Caseys with a consummate skill that means he is just as believable as the smooth-talking and shallow scammer as he is when playing the unfortunate underdog loner Joe. His voice works well for Madness songs like ‘The Sun and The Rain’, and he is full of enthusiastic energy, in spite of the many characterisation changes and quick costume swaps needed in accordance with his alternative realities. Indeed, in Act Two, he deftly takes us from jubilation to desperation in the blink of an alternative reality eye. There is also an endearing comradery evident between Joe and his friends and surrogate brothers Emmo (Oliver Catton) and Lewis (Devon Henshaw). Catton, in particular gives a charming performance as the simple-minded but good-natured and boisterous Emmo.

Natalie Mead is another standout as Joe’s loyal and loving Irish Catholic mother Kath. Like Stratford as Joe’s kind and gentle girlfriend Sarah, she showcases strong vocals in Act Two’s dramatic moments. The entire ensemble is infectious in its energy, making Act One’s closer, ‘Baggy Trousers’ a highlight. The ode to school days is an organised mayhem of rolling school desks and high-energy rebellion of the “Matilda” ‘Revolting Children’ sort.

The use of a half circular revolve stage as part of the set allows for the efficient inclusion of different locations (such as when Joe takes others driving in his ‘not quite a Jaguar’ car) and swift set piece transitions allows scenes to progress smoothly with quick and clever changes showcasing the two stories’ scenarios. Indeed, Kiel Gailer and Tim Pierce’s design is quite clever in its realisation, working with Fiona Black’s lighting design which themes the respective stories and Frances Foo’s detailed costume design, which coordinates the colour palettes of each story, even including 2 Tone label black and white check motifs.

Directed and choreographed by Ava Moschetti, with assistance from the company’s artistic director John Boyce, the show includes many vibrant numbers the platform the band’s enthusiastic signature distinctive jerky dance moves. And with the accompaniment of the accomplished band (Musical Director Gabby Fitzgerald), it is all a lot of fun. Even the quirky little love song of ‘It Must Be Love’ is given a delightful duet realisation.

While “Our House” may explore themes of love, loss, family, responsibility and growing up, it is a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, including a number of nods to Madness music videos, including ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ red fezzes and an ‘Our House’ bearded housewife. Clearly, this is an easy show at which to have such a very good time, even if its Madness songs often sound quite similar. Despite winning the 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, it received lacklustre critical reviews, which may explain why it is so rarely seen on stage. (The rescheduled 2021 Arts Theatre production represents its Queensland premiere). Yet, it is definitely worth a visit. Not only will you be supporting the iconic Brisbane Arts Theatre in its much publicised face of an uncertain future, but you may be surprised at how many Madness songs you actually know, beyond just those from “The Young Ones” … and the result might just be love.

Streetcar superlatives

A Streetcar Named Desire (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

January 31 – February 29

The 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a significant one, the most celebrated of Tennessee Williams’ works. The classic drama, is poetically symbolic but also grimly naturalistic, which is represented in the detached but detailed staging of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production. Staging works well in emphasising the play’s symbolism through its use of glassless mirrors and also aesthetically as lighting invites its audience into both the sweltering New Orleans temperatures and the tiny, tension-filled, rundown, clearly lived-in, two-room tenement apartment of Stanley (Reagan Warner) and Stella (Claire Argente) Kowalski.

Ryan McDonald’s lighting design transitions time and also reflects the work’s darker themes of shattered illusions. Erin Tribble’s costumes capture its post WW2 era and distinct characters, while Zoe Power’s sound design authenticates it’s setting with the echoes of passing New Orleans French Quarter streetcars. It is one of the Desire line cars that Blanche Du Bois (Victoria Darbro) takes to visit younger (but-not-really) sister Stella and her common Polack husband Stanley, seeking refuge after the loss of her family estate, the symbolically named Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream).

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What follows is a passionate but brutal story of toxic relationships and troubled people as Blanche finds Stanley brazen and abusive, while Stanley’s suspicious of both Blanche’s motives and her past increase towards cruelty. Like the languor of a steamy Louisiana afternoon, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a long show of just over three hours’ duration (including two 10-minute intervals), which only makes the efforts of its performers all the more impressive.

The cast is excellent. Warner, who gave a commanding performance as John Proctor in 2018’s “The Crucible”, makes for a youthful Stanley but is otherwise up for the job as the chiselled and animalistic antagonist. His presence on stage is undeniable, even as he finds the script’s humour in search through Blanche’s trunk of precious costumes and jewels on a Napoleonic code quest of discovery and mention of his many acquaintances who deal with ‘this sort of stuff’. Laughs soon give way, however, to more sombre sentiments in the Kowalski’s abusive marriage and the collapse of Blanche’s world toward reliance on ‘the kindness of strangers’.

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Darbro is compelling as the fragile, faded belle Blanche, even if her delicate mental condition is apparent from the outset, leaving less room for her later fall. Still, her passive-aggressive, too-good-to-be-true refinement and nervous anxiety as the demure, pampered Southern belle leaving behind a life of loss in small-town Mississippi, is one of the best I have seen. Her accent is integral to her performance, rather than serving as a distracter and she handles a costuming slip-up without missing a character beat, although her monologues are not always as powerfully delivered as they perhaps could be.

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Argente does justice to the complicated role of Stella. Passionate in contrast to Blanche’s cool detachment from reality, but also calm and practical in the midst of chaos, she also captures the complex sensuality of Stella’s relationship with Stanley. Indeed, Argente and Warner are magnetic on stage together as the troublesome couple, whether fighting or reuniting. And solid in support is Jon Daabro as the decent and trusting Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, the most mannered, but also meek, of Stanley’s poker-playing friends who shows Blanche kindness, but is blind to reality as he feelings are trifled with, meaning that we feel thankful when he gets to say exactly what is on his mind.

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A production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a formidable undertaking; not only is it a southern Gothic masterpiece, but it has integrated into popular culture, meaning that even those new to its experience on stage will likely have some familiarity with its most famous quotes, courtesy of pop culture staples like “Seinfeld” or “The Simpsons”. This is no museum piece though; the searing reality of the play on stage is an intense experience, especially given its explosive depictions of domestic violence. And in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands it is an intensity that results in superlative excellence all around.

2020 aplenty

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While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

The silliest of season shenanigans

Spamalot (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 23 – January 18

Based on the 1975 classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, a cheeky Camelot spoof on the legendary King Arthur’s quest to find the elusive treasure, the musical “Spamalot” is a pretty silly show, just look to its “I fart in your general direction” sort of dialogue. But silly is not as easy to do as it might seem. Thankfully, “Spamalot” sees Brisbane Arts Theatre giving audiences nothing but an immensely fun and highly entertaining show of satire, slapstick and irony, as memorable (and quoteable) as its source material.

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The story (book by Monty Python’s Eric Idle) is pretty irrelevant to proceedings, but goes as follows… In the 10th century A.D., the self-assured King Arthur (Alexander Thanasoulis) travels England with his servant, Patsy (Oliver Catton) seeking men to join the Knights of the Round Table. Members of the fellowship ultimately come to include Sir Robin (Lachlan Morris), Sir Galahad (Ben Kasper), Sir Lancelot (Damien Campagnolo) and Sir Bedevere (Liam Hartley). Arthur’s belief in his destiny as ruler of England has come from having been given the Excalibur sword, Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake (Laura Fois). Still, when he receives a message from God tasking him with finding the Holy Grail, he embraces the mission and its ensuing extensive search by him and his knights. As any Monty Python fan knows, a whole lot of nonsense follows, including a host of encounters with eccentric characters, taunting of the English knights by French soldiers, and an additional challenge set by The Knights who Say Ni, who will only allow Arthur to pass through their forest if he puts on a musical (‘but not an Andrew Lloyd Webber’).

It’s all quite ludicrous, but in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands, it actually makes sense. The lead performers are all excellent. Thanasoulis brings an appealing, assured stage presence to the role of King Arthur, the very versatile Matthew Nisbet is incredibly funny in all of his multiple character roles and, as ‘Brave’ Sir Robin, Morris is wonderfully animated and expressive, both and dialogue and songs like Act Two’s ‘You Won’t Succeed On Broadway’. Fois is vocally very strong as Arthur’s ‘watery tart’ diva love interest, especially in ‘The Song that Goes Like This’ parody of generic love songs that ‘start off soft and low and end up with a kiss’. Most notably, though, in every instance it is clear that everyone is enjoying themselves and the fun is infectious.

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“Spamalot” may be shorter than usual musical fare, however, this is barely noticeable, packed full of laughs as the highly irreverent parody is in its execution of that quirkily individual Python-esque style of humour. There is a lot from which to draw laughs, with absurd situations and nonsensical expressions peppered with puns, dad jokes and ridiculous rhymes.

The music is entertaining, even if the numbers are not that memorable, however, the musical numbers, in particular, make good use of the small stage space. Television screen projections add interest and it is wonderful to see them used to enable full line of sight access to all audience members. And the production does well in its realisation of key sketch moments such as the Black Knight’s ‘tis but a scratch flesh wounds and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

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When it comes to putting the silly in this end-of-year season, “Spamalot” is a perfect show to have you smiling the whole way through to its ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ final singalong. It makes good use of the comedic talents of the cast who also showcase strong harmonies across the score’s range of musical styles. Its exuberant shenanigans certainly cannot be taken too seriously, however, this is still a show only really suited to those who have familiarity with the comedy troupe’s idiosyncratic style, lest they just find the whole thing bafflingly bonkers.

Cuckoo’s Nest character

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 22 – July 22

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“This world… belongs to the strong, my friend! The ritual of our existence is based on the strong getting stronger by devouring the weak,” Harding tells anti-authoritarian protagonist Randle McMurphy in attempted explanation of how powerless they are as patients in a mental institution in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

It is a signpost to the universal theme of institutionalised control vs human dignity that runs throughout the story of what happens when rebellious convict Randle P McMurphy (Shaun King) has himself transferred for evaluation from a prison farm to a mental institution assuming it will be a less restrictive environment. While many of the patients are there voluntarily because they find freedom in its confinement, McMurphy is provoked by the captivity into a battle of wills with the inflexible, stiff and starched Nurse Ratched (Cat Shaw), which soon affects all the ward’s patients.

Ken Kesey’s legendary 1962 novel is a classic of literature, subsequently made, in 1975, into a now-classic film and winner of all five major Academy Awards. Many years after university study of the text as part of an American Literature 101 type unit, all I could recall in terms of its detail is character-based…. Jack Nicholson’s defining film portrayal of recidivist criminal McMurphy, the half-Native American long-term resident Chief Bromden whose childhood tongue-twisting Mother Goose nursery rhyme memory gives the story its allegorical title, and the infamous Nurse Ratched. And Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production only serves as reminder why.

The play’s main characters are distinctly drawn and well-realised by their performers. Shaw is excellent as the quietly-tyrannous, rigid Nurse Ratched, feared by patients and even some of the institution’s employees. The steely smiling assassin role would be an easy one to overplay, but her build of passive aggressive intimidation is perfectly pitched to engage audience frustration; there is something so cooly impersonal in her detached manner that we find ourselves forced into judgment of her.

King makes the easy-going McMurphy so charismatic that the audience almost forgets that the reason he ended up in prison in the first place was the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl (which he declares preposterous, given that his victim lied about her age and initiated the sexual interlude). He is a big character, but one to which King’s resilient, multi-layered performance does justice in his transition to leader of sorts, testing hospital regulations to the limits and pushing others to rediscover their potential. Still, his performance allows room for members of the ensemble to also shine.

Emile Regano brings a palpable vulnerability to the repressed and fearful Billy, not only through the character’s pronounced stutter but his initially reluctance but ultimate susceptibility to Ratched’s manipulations. And John Boyce adds emotional resonance to the role of the ward’s patriarch, Dale Harding, McMurphy’s most ardent supporter. Not only does he play a key part in defending him against Ratched’s assertion that McMurphy acts only out of self-interest, but he highlights to the audience the commonality of the patients’ experiences as victims of a matriarchy. (Everything bad that happens to the inmates is perpetrated by women: their mothers, wives and now, Nurse Ratched.) Others round out the group, each of whom have individual idiosyncrasies that allow for some of the show’s humour.

Act Two features less laughs as the story takes to its tragic climax and moving resolution. Though the action may be at-time chaotic, especially when, after bribing a night guard, McMurphy sneaks two women into the ward, for a night of partying, the stark set remains relatively static throughout the entire show. This seems entirely appropriate though for a show whose character is so much about its performances…. no big bangs and whistles, but just good theatre done well, which makes for an absorbing audience experience from start to finish.