Sigh no more maaate

Much Ado About Nuthink (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 16 – May 28

“Much Ado About Nuthink” is a classic tale of mischief and romance where ‘he said she said’ takes on a whole new meaning, all set in and around a modern-day Queensland country pub. The localised take on Shakespeare’s iconic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” takes place in the Royal Hotel, home and cosponsor of the league champion Messina Mongrels. And with a background soundtrack that includes Aussie classics like ‘Khe Sanh’ and ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ the Brisbane Arts Theatre production is very much Shakespeare, but not as you know it.

Things begin with the footy boys boistering back into town after their grand final victory, to be welcomed to the hotel by Leonato (Dominic Tennison), its licensee and president and of the local Chamber of Commerce. Heros on the footy field, halfback Claudio (Sebastian Woulff) and star player Benedick (Jayd Kafoa in his first production with Brisbane Arts Theatre) lead the charge into the comedy’s dual narratives, the young love of Claudio and Leonato’s sweet and virtuous daughter Hero (Leah Mustard) and the bickering-enemies-to-lovers story of Benedick and Beatrice (Natalie Shikongo). With the former halfback, the bastard Don John (Gautam Abhyankar) scheming to undermine his sister, Donna Pedro (Cathy Stanley), the local mayor, generous patron of the Mongrels and self-proclaimed matchmaker, the stage is set for a lot of fuss over intertwined misunderstandings and misleadings.  

The adaptation of William Shakespeare’s original text by director John Grey is effective and fits Shakespeare’s story nicely, even if it is more rom-com than balanced with the original work’s darker turns. While it still includes the problematic poem/song ‘Sigh No More’ which advises resignation in the face of male infidelity, the story has been effectively modernised as watchers capture phone footage of Hero’s infidelity with Borachio (Colin Ginger), in mistaken evidence of Don John’s claim that she has been false to Claudio.

Shakespeare’s original dialogue is maintained for the most part, although with addition of occasional modern obscenities, however, there are changes, beyond just those pronoun etc mentions necessitated by gender-swapped characters (appropriate for such a feminist play). Changing the arbor of Leonato’s orchard, where characters hide in eavesdrop of others to the beer garden, for example, works a treat. The production also maintains the bawdy innuendo and adolescent humour that envelopes Shakespeare’s wit, deception and slander. Charlotte Pilch is clearly enjoying breathing life into the seemingly minor character of the spirited and playfully flirtatious Margaret, whose biting wit is no better shown than when she banters with Beatrice on the morning of Hero’s wedding to Claudio, teasing her about her changed personality and implying that now Beatrice too desires a husband.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s few plays written in prose rather than the usual iconic iambic pentameter. Its dialogue is fast-based and, as this production shows, still accessible to a modern audience, thanks to performers who are delivering the words without the usual Elizabethan accents, with Ginger in particular, making the Australian style distinctive in the phonological speech patterns, intonations and syllable stresses that he gives the conspiratorial Borochio.  

The soul of the story is, as always, Beatrice and Benedick and there is an expected delight in the way Kafoa and Shikongo trade their merry war’s fast-paced insults about one another’s looks, intelligence, and personality. Shikongo makes Beatrice’s outspoken, fierce independence vividly clear in declaration that she has no interest in love, however, her wit is not always balanced with softness. And there is little sense that the two have a long-standing history.

The standout has to be Kafoa as class clown Benedick. Indeed, his performance is one of the highlights of the show. His witty wordplay dialogue rolls off the tongue with such ease that it is easy to forget that we are listening to Shakespearian English. He delivers the character’s soliloquies with a smooth but still dynamic rhythm, making them appear as if part of a conversation with the audience, such as when laments his inability to write poetry in attempt to write to Beatrice in accordance with the conventions of the time. And it’s his comic energy that brings the gulling scene to life as Claudio and Don Pedro, conspire with Leonato to trick Benedick into falling in love with Beatrice by staging a loud conversation about Beatrice’s love for him, making sure that that he overhears them from his ‘hiding’ spot behind a pot plant.

The play’s other two lovers, the shamed Hero and her beau Claudio, are presented as a nice counterpoint to Benedict and Beatrice, despite both couples’ romances being fraught with miscommunications and interruptions. And after interval, Gordon Wyeth and Henry Marsh delight with the slapstick physical comedy that comes with pantomime-eque appearance of the shambolic Senior Constable Dogberry and his Constable Verges. Hilarity comes not only from the duo’s physical escapades but from the mangled malpropisms that arise from Dogberry’s overconfidence. Little details also add to the joy of the play’s expereince, as we notice pub patrons checking in with the venue’s QR codes and a misspelled home-made banner advertising a ‘masked costume praty tonight’.

This is a busy play for a small stage and while initial sections fly by buoyed by its splendid cast, ensemble numbers see central dialogue sometimes competing with background noise and its Aussie pub soundscape. While it is long, this is a confident production that maintains audience attention. More than a comment upon the patriarchy, the production is a celebration of Beatrice and Benedick’s unacknowledged love, which appears to be appreciated by its audience. Indeed, while the play’s broad humour is highlighted at the expense of its serious undertones, there is much to like about “Much Ado About Nuthink” and its sharp, witty dialogue and humorous misunderstandings.

Earnest endurance

The Importance of Being Earnest (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

January 22 – March 5

Brisbane Arts Theatre has begun its 2022 mainstage program with an impressive production of an ambitious classic play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Oscar Wilde’s famous satirical comedy of English manners tells the tale of two Victorian era idle young society gents seeking marriage through the subterfuge creation of alter egos and imaginary helpers in order to escape their social obligations. And it is in the staged stately surroundings of Algernon Moncrieff’s (Peter Van Wekhoven) flat that we meet him and his best friend Jack Worthing (Alexander Simpkins), who, as Earnest has come from the country to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Emilia Povey) providing her formidable mother Lady Bracknell (Peta Townend) approves.

The light plot is immediately brought to life by the impressive interplay between Van Wekhoven as the more assured Algernon and Simpkins as the excitable Jack. The silliness that ensures between Simpkins and Povey as Gwendolen also soon establishes them as an entertaining pair, later matched only by the giddy enthusiasm of adoration between Jack’s 18-year-old ward, the heiress Cecily Cardew (Eleni Koutsoukis) and Algernon, who beats Jack back to his country estate to pose as his imaginary brother Earnest before Jack has opportunity to kill him off.

While on paper, the complication of the story’s plot can be difficult to follow, this production clarifies any potential confusion through its approach and the compartmentalisation that comes with having three distinct acts, each separated by a short interval. Indeed, this breaks what is quite a long play up enough to ensure continued engagement in its dialogue heaviness to allow for appreciation of the clever craftedness of its tangled tale. The divided stage settings of Act One’s flat and Act Two’s manor house garden also works efficiently and George Pitt’s lighting design supports things by, for example, darkening a face-of between Gwendoline and Cecily who each believe themselves to be betrothed to Earnest, and later highlighting Jack’s ultimate titular realisation as part of Wilde’s convenient tie up of the plot’s loose ends.

“The Importance of Being Earnest is a celebration of language and with so much dialogue, it can be easy for productions to lose its key lines and thus so much of its humour, however, this production’s traditional take on the material allows Wilde’s unparalleled dialogue to shine. Even at times when the preview night dialogue lapses or over-the-tops itself, this never distracts from the characterisation.

Wilde appropriately subtitled the play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” and as trivial matters are treated with sincere seriousness and important issues are essentially discarded, it is really all about the wit. And while the play was first staged on Valentine’s Day in 1895, only two months before Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace, Brisbane Arts Theatre shows how very funny its dialogue remains today, when delivered well.

All members of the cast work hard to make to their characters distinct. Koutsoukis captures Cecile’s youthful idealism and precocious contradictions. Cathy Stanley is appropriately prim and proper as the hapless Governess Miss Prism and her deliberate flirtations with Reverend Chasuble (Alastair Wallace) are deliciously delivered. Townend is gloriously assured as the fearsome Lady Bracknell, uttering every hilarious line straight, using pace, pause and emphasis to perfection in her overbearing Act One interrogation of Jack as a prospective suitor for Gwendoline and horror at learning of his adoption after being discovered as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station, which results in spontaneous audience applause upon her scene exit.

Simpkins gives us a petulant Jack, frustrated with the idea of clever people in civilised life and his interaction with Van Werkhoven as Algernon is often hilarious, such as when the comedy of errors first arises upon Jack’s return to the country with calamitous news of the death of his brother Earnest, unbeknowing of Algernon appearance as such. The facial expressions of the exasperated Jack and smug Algernon in interaction during the scene keep audience eyes upon the duo even when they are an aside to other actions.

While the characters are all shallowly self-obsessed, everything they say and do is carefully measured for its effect on others and the simple approach of this production does well to highlight this, bringing out the meaning of their declarations, even if the tone sometimes ventures towards pantomime territory. Ultimately, therefore, Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” allows for appreciation of both the biting wit and observational intellect of the classic text in and of itself, but also the comfort in which it still endures in the modern world, making it an absolute delight from start to finish. 

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.