Combined craft connection

Heartland

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

September 23

Brisbane Festival’s “Heartland” sold out well ahead of its performance. Given the stature of its headliner, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist William Barton, this is of little surprise. Barton is widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players and composers. (The morning after the performance he is jumping on a plane for Melbourne to appear as part of the AFL grand final’s half-time entertainment.) It is not just Barton performing, but also powerhouse versatile violinist Véronique Serret. Together they combine crafts to share connected stories as traditional songlines and modern storytelling blend in a distinctive evocation of our uniquely Australian landscape.

Brisbane Powerhouse’s intimate Underground Theatre is the perfect location for the expansive but also at-once personal meditation that “Heartland” represents, with moments of poetry written by Barton’s mother Aunty Delmae Barton interspersed throughout the hour-long collaboration. At times, the recitations are almost like slam poetry thanks to Serret’s punchy, powerful delivery, which adds to their soaring emotion. Numbers are fluidly anthologised together and, as with songs of worship, there is not opportunity of need for punctuating applause. Rather the captivated audience is held silent in attention of the stillness of the show’s moments, which are enhanced by lighting normally only seen in the Powerhouse Theatre, which lushes us from the earthy tones of dusk’s glory to fresher emerald greens, for example.

The journey through Dreamtime stories and spirits of the ancient land of their mother country (their heart land) is not just a message of peace, but a showcase of talent. Barton’s virtuosic didgeridoo playing showcases his agility as its drone-ing sounds are interjected with percussive tapping. And when a late show number about the passing of cultures from generation to generation sees the addition of guitar and Barton’s traditional vocals, the unique melding of western music with the ancient sounds of the land uplifts the show’s ending.

Throughout the performance, numbers make use of an expansive sound pallet to vividly elevate their evocation of the resulting unique, meditative world, inspired by the Australian landscape and the power of connection to place. Barton’s didgeridoo mimicry vocalisation is evocative of animal sounds, while the sweet strains of Serret’s upper violin registers layer the musical stories to share a range of sounds and pure emotions. Indeed, there are a number of beautiful moments where earthy didgeridoo sounds are canopied by the sometimes soft touch of the more ethereal violin, along with Serrett’s gentle feathery vocals which rise away to sweet whispering lingers.

Serrett is a dexterous instrumentalist. The concertmaster of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is far from traditional in her playing, using all parts of the instrument. Short and separated staccato sounds add a dryness to the aesthetic, while playing the back of the violin creates vibrations that resonate in the air.

As audience members, we might not always know the specifics of the story being told, but were certainly recognise the sentiment that comes from the heart and soul at the core of this genre-defying share of connection to county. While the voice of the didgeridoo is a core part of storytelling and teaching, the violin is often said to be the instrument closest to the human voice, so it makes sense that they would pair so well together. United, they serve to elevate the sounds of the language of cultural identity, ensuring that it remains a legacy for generations to come

Slow Boat to history

Slow Boat (Playlab Theatre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 1- 10

As its title alludes, “Slow Boat” is an epic journey of a show. It is also an important one given its reveal of a little known chapter of Brisbane’s history. (The world premiere, occurring as part of the Brisbane Festival was inspired by the unexpected arrival of playwright Anna Yen’s father, along with 580 other Chinese men during World War Two.)

The war has been over for a month, we are told as the play within a play establishes its context, and welcomes its audience as distinguished guests. The Chinese workers are staging a theatre show at Brisbane’s Bulimba Dockyards to celebrate victory and their being alive, by luck of the draw (#literally), even though their future as wartime refugees in Australia is uncertain.

The multi-genre show follows the journey of six hardworking fictitious characters (based on inspiration and research into real stories), narrator of sorts, the ‘artisan’ Gong Saang (Julian Wong), natural leader ‘Big Brother’, Luhng Goh (Silvan Rus), ‘Humpty Dumpty’ Lign Giht (Jonathan Chan), family-oriented ‘Strong Man’ Waih Jai (Ming Yang Lim) and ‘Chef’ Ah Faat (Egan Sun-Bin). Their combined ensuing band if brothers journey takes us from poverty and war in rural China, through hard work mining phosphate on Nauru island, and a hasty evacuation to Australia to escape the Japanese, illustrating all of the challenges they overcome on the way.

As they did in history, during their scarce time off, the men hold concerts for each other, signposting the importance of cultural and theatre to their survival so far away from the families for whom they are working hard. And so, the play within a play opens dramatically with an improvised Cantonese opera (appropriately backdropped with painted scenery from artist Echo Wu), to explain the civil war and Japanese invasion of China that started them on their journey.

Multi genres add interest to the story’s retelling and also aid characterisation. Rus takes the lead in the melodramatic mix of mime and clowning that outlines how the six men came to meet on the docks of Hong Kong to sign up for the journey to work on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. It’s an effective and engaging early scene that illustrates the depths of talent amongst the cast with Chan also establishing himself as a comic favourite in his initial reluctance to sell himself ‘like a little pig’. Later, too, in the opening of Act Two, we see the versatility of the performers also when they jump into role as CWA type ladies (broad Aussie accents and all) meeting trains of hungry workers at each woop woop stop with cuppas and sangas hospitality.

It’s not all song and dance and comedy, however. Politics are peppered throughout with the idea of assimilation and the White Australia Policy’s dictation test running as an undercurrent threat to potential continued life in Australia. While differing perspectives of critical events in their story threaten to tear them apart, however, the revelation of this conflict comes a little late for audience investment in it.

“Slow Boat” is a long work at 2hrs 20mins including interval, and it sometimes feels like it could be edited a little more judiciously. But it is a beautiful work of beautiful art forms. Under Nicholas Ng’s musical direction, his traditional compositions are seamlessly integrated throughout, coming courtesy of instruments such as a Chinese plucked zither. (Musicians Yuren (Cara) Chen, Anna Kho and Zi Wei Wang). Indeed, it plays an integral role to much of the action, with Neridah Waters’ choreography of its conflicts, for example, opening in wonderful sync with the percussion in particular.  

It may be a blend of vaudeville, musical theatre, circus, Cantonese opera and martial arts, but, at its core, “Slow Boat” is all about story and its story is an inspirational one of triumph against the reality of our history. It’s also an interesting one, not just in relation to the Japanese occupation of Nauru, but of our own unfamiliar history, and the inclusion of authentic Cinesound footage from the era (with added voiceover by Bryan Probets), only serves to emphasise this. While it is about a specific time and place, it also has much to say from a bigger picture perspective, about humanity and how we treat each other. There is certainly a resonance to its resilient ‘band of brothers’ messaging, but at its heart is contemplation of how moments can change the course of lives.  

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Cabaret stylings and then some

Women in Voice

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

August 26 – 28

“Women in Voice” (WiV) has been a Brisbane institution since 1993. Surprisingly though, there are still some first timer audience members at the shows. With its diverse range of quality performers, the 2022 outing is sure to convert these to annual attendees. With Master of Ceremonies Sophie Banister as support and guide in journey through the varied sets, it soon become apparent that this year’s “Women in Voice” may well be the best one yet.

Banister is given her own musical moments, comically linked together by the theme of her thwarted quest to become a Brisbane 2032 Olympics opening ceremony performer in order to have her own Nikki Webster ‘Under Southern Skies’ moment. Metaphorically flying, however are the evening’s incredible performers, starting with Naomi Andrew, whose contemplative set highlights her soulful vocals, especially in impassioned share of Rose Royce’s ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’. Not only this, but the heartbreaking song also allows for first standout of the live band’s accompaniment, with Dr Bob Bass (bass guitar and double bass), Meg Burstow (piano), Musical Director Jamie Clark (guitar) and Paul Hudson (drums) swirling their sounds around the song’s hopeless sentiments.

The second, double-bill, segment sees regular performer Leah Cottrell, joining with Menaka Thomas in her “Women in Voice” debut, to showcase the intersection of traditional and contemporary music, drawing upon Thomas’ classical Southern Indian Carnatic musical origins. After whisking our troubles away with a sweet lullaby in her mother tongue, things become infectiously joyous with the audience clapping along to a fusion number featuring join-in from Cotterell in emphasis of the cross-cultural shared language of music at the centre of the show’s celebration. And when Thomas sings of Indian goddess Vata it is with a mixture of precision and emotion that elevates this year’s WiV to being amongst the franchise’s best, especially as it then transitions into a thumping, tempoed Cotterell-led ‘Rolling in the Deep’, complete with Vata rap and Indian dance off. It’s all very clever and lots of fun.

Not only do Cotterell and Thomas share the stage, but the featured songstresses often serve as support for each other, with assistance also from Mel Lathouras and Olivia Weeks, blending their voices together to create a harmonious bed upon which other performances can shine. Musical highlights aside, the show is also very funny. Banister’s musical recount of explanation of Brisbane to New Yorkers in terms of the most significant of films to ever be shot here, in so animated in its delivery and has such a catchy hook line, that it is difficult not to toe tap along with an accompanying smile. And her re-representation of Maria Von Trapp’s third youngest adoptive daughter Brigitta gives us an angstsy ten-year-old’s reimagining of the musical theatre classic “The Sound of Music” through the lens of unresolved middle child issues.

“Women in Voice” is about empowering women to share their voices. Accordingly, the program is curated so as to present a variety of experience levels and musical styles. Act Two features another WiV debutant, Irena Lysiuk giving a stunning operatic Italian-merging-into English version of ‘To The Moon and Back’. With trademark lush Powerhouse Theatre lighting and acoustics, it’s a commanding few moments as her flawless vocals introduce us to her proud Logan girl love of pop duo Savage Garden. In fact, the 1990s group’s popular songs make up her entire set list, albeit in reimagined forms, as she considers them through the perspective of a range of musical genres to take us through opera and a stripped back ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ to a musical theatre themed ‘Shake Me Break Me’ (with Clark punctuating things along in add to its dynamism) and a country styled ‘Affirmation’ complete with twang and a great hat. (#whatcantshedo?) And her between-song banter and share of her journey to becoming a singer (inset with Savage Garden trivia) is incredibly funny in its easy nuance, making her set another of the show’s high points.

Responsibility for rounding things out goes to larger-than-life fabulous cabaret diva Dame Farrar (Carita Farrer Spencer), who stumbles onto stage direct from her bedroom in Melbourne to give us a smashing ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. Her voice is powerful, she sure can hold a note and her commitment to the little jokes that contribute to the elaborate tapestry of her over-the-top, insult-laden characterisation throughout her set is commendable, resulting in circulating tears of laughter from the thoroughly entertained audience members.

With tight direction, cohesive tie together of ideas and finely tuned performances, the 2 hours + (including interval) duration of 2022’s “Women in Voice” has all the ingredients for a wonderful night out… extraordinarily talented performers, authentic stories, humour and songs we thought we knew presented afresh. Get tickets now … if you can

Celebrating spontaneous storytelling

Theatresports Grand Championship (Impromafia)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

May 29

Theatre sports is a fast paced, action packed, competitive team-based theatre competition which combines wit, humour and performance skill. If you have seen improvisational comedy television shows like “Whose Line is It Anyway” you may think you know how it looks. If you have been lucky enough to experience the competition on stage, you know how much better it is to see performers making up scenes and games on the spot before your eyes (and at your suggestion) in a fun-filled night of spontaneous, never-to-be-repeated hilarity.

Featuring at the culmination of the Brisbane Comedy Festival, the one-show-only event that is Impromafia’s “Theatresports Grand Championships” sees the very best of Brisbane’s talent take on the cream of the interstate improv challenge crop in a celebration of quick wits. The show’s later Sunday timeslot means there are some loose suggestions from audience members united in their rambunctiousness, which only adds to the fun that is theatre sports – no script, only the spontaneous brilliance of its impromptu performers at the mercy at audience’s ‘should have said’ (for example) shoutouts to reconsider character statements.

The Queensland crew of humble hometown hosts (Carla Haynes, Luke Rimmelzwaan, Jaz Robertson and Wade Robinson) and Team Southerners (from Melbourne, Sydney, and New Zealand, Brendon Bennetts, Emma Brittenden, Bridie Connell, Jason Geary and David Massingham) are all incredibly talented, with clear talents for improvisation, imagination, characterisation and teamwork. Not only are they able to find the humour in anything at a moment’s notice, but they show the cleverness to remember scenes such as when an almost-minute-long scene is then replayed in 30 seconds and finally in a frantic seven second reduction. And then there are the call-backs that feature throughout the show, in this instance to Coolangatta and relationship retreats to France. Queensland also features as a recurring theme, not just in the home-grown humourists’ attire, but location and alike suggestions for skits, cresendoing in a quintessential Queensland drama, ‘The Miner’.

Each moment is unscripted, unfiltered, and unpredictable…. apart from when a scene unfolds around one character reading script lines for Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godo”, done so well that we quickly forget that this is even the case. Audience members even get in on the act, in a way, such as in a film noire retell of a front row couple’s Cavill Ave nightclub meeting many decades ago. There is certain something for everyone when the teams take to the Powerhouse main stage. With an improvised opera testament to morning coffee and a skit enlivened by audience members demanding that characters ‘sing about it’ at pivotal times (in this instance giving us a very unique Australian Kurt Cobain, Clean up Australia tribute, ‘90s style), there is even some musical moments, realised by Kris Anderson who similarly improvs his accompaniment according to the needs of each scene. And without disrupting from momentum, explanation is given to the setup of games, for those unfamiliar with format, by hosts Siobhan Finniss and Ryan Goodwin. as well as the teams themselves, which only enhances audience enthusiasm to engage with their set-ups.

Boo-ing, however, is reserved only for the judges, Leica Baker, Roger Beams and Alexander Simpkins, for while fierce battle for improv supremacy on-stage occupies most of our attention, the night’s judges play their part too, including in banter with audience members disapproving of their allocations. This year, it is Team Southerners who come up on top in the battle for improv supremacy, not that it really matters, for it is audience members who are the real winners, leaving abuzz thanks to their experience of the best of the best from Brisbane and beyond and the very random eventualities of their spontaneous storytelling – from a gothic horror story, complete with Banjo soundtrack to step-sibling breakups with strange strings attached.

All day comedy antics

All Day Breakfast With Sophie And Thien

Brisbane Powerhouse, Rooftop Terrace

May 21 – 22

Everyone is welcome at all day breakfast. This is the mantra at core of the comedy cabaret show “All Day Breakfast With Sophie And Thien”. Food is better with friends, its performers, accomplished songwriters, musicians and performers Sophie Banister and Thien Pham (hosts of the monthly variety night, Brisbaret) remind us… and so is this show, full, as it is, of audience engagement and fun. While it may regard itself as a slapped together menu of random options, the Brisbane Comedy Festival show is not as haphazard as it might have its audience believe. Its songs and bits and all breaky-themed, but there is also the loose through-line of Sophie’s quest for the perfect poached egg.

If the best nutrients come from laughter, then audience members are well fed throughout the show’s 60-minute duration. Its all sorts of silliness includes a poached egg themed piece of performance art that, while very funny, slows things down by its setup and doesn’t necessarily require revisit. Every number is hugely energetic, especially its topical tribute to live-laugh-lovers, which sees audience members uniting to become the collective personal trainer to a pedometer-clad volunteer. And with Adelaide Festival segment results as motivation, there is huge investment in the competition.)

Audience participation comes courtesy of cue cards and collective games, like Substitute (of Spicks and Specks fame), which sees everyone attempting to guess the breakfast themed songs through the duo’s recitation of substitute words read from a cookbook text, however, the small stage seems a little crowded when it becomes the site of an egg and spoon competition with a difference, as part of the show’s Breakfast Olympics.

Things start strongly when, as teenagers, the duo shares an angsty song directed to the audience member mum ruining their lives due to her social media oversharing, however, momentum lags a little mid-way through as things get a political in a ‘Freedom’ number reminder of its safe space, and also Sophie’s musical explanation of her so many real emotions.

The two musical comics certainly work well together… like eggs and toast. Banister is infectiously effervescent and Pham is very funny, especially in his throwaway lines, in addition to his early upbeat and jaunty song about mortifyingly inappropriate snapchat posting. “All Day Breakfast With Sophie And Thien” is certainly a charming, feel-good show, down even to its optimistic reminder that its ok to feel like the world’s a bit much and to live for the small things… like breakfast at the end of the day.

Ancient history hilarity

Greece Lightning

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

May 10 – 15

Oddball Garry Starr’s “Greece Lightning” is a perfect festival show, full of crazy, chaotic comedy to leave its audience abuzz long after its experience. After a tongue-in-cheek “Grease” pre-show soundtrack, the Brisbane Comedy Festival work begins with explanation of Starr’s intent to boost tourism to save his Hellenic homeland from economic ruin. And, as he starts the share of props to audience stakeholders for feature in later scenes, so beings the riotous reminder of the main players of Ancient Greece, only not as we have ever before imagined them.  

“An overzealous idiot attempts to perform all of Greek Mythology in less than 60 minutes”…  it’s a proven formula that is, in and of itself, packed with comic opportunities as Damien Warren-Smith (aka Garry Starr) rushes us through a list of the many, varied Greek gods of Ancient mythology. Clowning about the stage, the personable performer engages and includes the audience from the outset, which establishes a collectivism that only enhances experience of this difficult-to-describe show. From jelly snakes to boxing gloves, inventive use of props only adds to the humour, as does his range (and eventual lack-thereof) costuming from his lightning bolt nipples to giant-eyed cyclops imagining and later ‘Under The Sea’ Poseidon-inspired mermaid presentation.

As it promises, “never before has Medusa been looser, Achilles more sillies, or Uranus so heinous”, and after Starr’s climate change themed number, you will also never listen to John Williamson’s ‘Rip Rip Wood Chip’ the same away again. While scenes may be random, they are underpinned by some clever structures. A German cinematic interpretation of the Trojan war contrasts its violent subject matter with light-hearted lyrics about its ‘killies’, the destructive story of Cronus is given a cherry Brady Bunch make-over and, with audience volunteer assistance, a masked theatre Greek chorus (of sorts) gives us a unique Zorba’s dance. And then there is his very M-rated ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ presentation of Oedipus as the OG mother-f’er.

There is never a dull moment in the anarchic energy and physical comedy of its creativity, meaning the show’s hour long duration flies by. Its erratic, increasing absurdity is certainly a lot, however, what elevates it beyond the comedy of its chaos is its craftedness. As Starr, Warren-Smith’s performance if full of subtleties of side looks and one finger movements. Its script too, is peppered with malapropisms, meaning that no comic opportunity is missed.

“Greece Lightning” is unique, witty and very funny show. Far from taking its too seriously, the one-man, many-god showcase of comedy, features flying fruit, water guns and full frontal nudity. A knowledge of Greek mythology is not a perquisite, but it will certainly enhance your experience, especially of its subtleties… as will familiarity with Sooty style puppetry. Do yourself a favour to find out why.