Talented truths

The Last Five Years (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse

October 7 – 17

strings.jpgWhen the opening music of “The Last Five Years” mourns with string sounds it suggests that Jason Robert Brown’s acclaimed 2001 musical is far from a happy story. This may ultimately be accurate, but in its tell of the doomed romance between lovers Jaime, a writer whose career is on the rise and struggling actress Cathy, it is certainly an honest and engaging one and not just in its inspiration from Brown’s failed marriage. And in Wax Lyrical Productions’ hands the musical two-hander is certainly heartbreaking as it traces their relationship from opposite ends.

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Initially it takes some effort to follow what is happening, without knowing of its complicated chronological twist, that sees Jamie’s (Kurt Phelan) story moving forward in time, while Cathy’s (Lizzie Moore) is portrayed in reverse. Once comfortable in the format, however, the show’s 90 minute duration flies by, through love at first sight to marriage breakdown and all that goes in between and it is easy to become absorbed in the musical storytelling, which provides an intimate look at the rise and fall of a relationship from infatuation to disillusionment.

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There’s not much of a plot, with only its melodically rich soundtrack and no dialogue. The sensational score requires performers with endurance, emotional range and soaring vocals. And in this regard, Phelan and Moore are spot-on, bringing clarity to the narrative and engagement to its storytelling.

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As aspiring actress Cathy, the multi-talented Moore moves from lament of the end of her marriage in ‘Still Hurting’ to the show’s most memorable number, the witty and upbeat ‘A Summer in Ohio’ parody of showbiz life and the exquisite torture of waiting for Jaime to visit.

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As Jaime, Phelan is charming, charismatic and vocally compelling from his first appearance onstage to share song of his excitement at encountering the ‘shiksa goddess’ of his dreams, moving through time towards the unhappiness of his unravelled marriage. His versatility is engaging, particularly in characterisation within ‘The Schumel Song’, where, as they celebrate their second Christmas, he tells Cathy of a new story he has written about an old tailor, in which he shows his gift for comedy. Indeed, whether the song is comic, gentle or agonised, Phelan creates an unforgettable experience through his outstanding performance, meaning that while you may see the show for the music, you will tell others to go to see him knock it out of the park.

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Live on-stage music (courtesy of Shanon Whitelock, Joel Woods, Ruth Donovan, Wayne Jennings, Ruby Hunter and Conall O’Neill) draws upon a number of musical genres to provide emotional resonance, while Jason Glenwright’s lighting design transports audience members from moments of triumph to turmoil and tenderness, including when at a single point in the middle Jaime and Cathy’s stories converge and we see them happy and singing together in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ after Jamie has proposed. Countless (necessary) costume changes also contribute to the sensibility of each relationship phase. Indeed, under Zoë Tuffin’s direction the production is packed with nuanced nods and subtle suggestions as to the passage of time, which is appreciated in contribution to audience understanding.

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With humour, heart and a triumphant combination of cast and creative talent, Wax Lyrical Productions’ “The Last Five Years” certainly does not disappoint. In fact, it will probably stay with audiences long after the actors have left the space, in contemplation of whether we are more Jaime or Cathy or a little bit of both, such is the universal appeal of its thematic truths.

Photo c/o – Joel Devereux

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Master Chef madcappery

Chef: Come Dine With Us1 (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 9 – 16

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South Korea’s “Chef: Come Dine with Us!” is crazy…. crazy AND crazy good. The madcappery is shaped around the loosest of plots manifested in the most manic of ways – two rival sous chefs are competing live on stage in the ultimate cooking show. Green Chef (Taemin Jung) and his rival Red Chef (Seongmin Oh) are in the culinary showdown with help from their motley crew of assistants, each infectiously enthusiastic in their entertainment.

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From the simplicity of glow in the dark puppet fish to a simple rubber chicken, conceptually, no creative possibility is left untapped. The smorgasbord of segments provides treat after treat for audience members of all ages; the show includes slapstick, song, dance, beatboxing, breakdancing, acrobatics, opera, puppetry and plenty of laughs. Every aspect is slickly delivered, beginning from the flawless synchronicity of beatbox sound effects.

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Indeed, “Chef: Come Dine With Us!” is an energetic as it is enigmatically absurd, thanks, in part, to a pumping feel-good soundtrack. Swift prop substitutions also add to the animated aesthetic of the experience and a kaleidoscope of colour palettes the stage through cartoon-like costumes.

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So much happens in this 75-minute extravaganza, and every moment of it is captivating, meaning that when beatboxers, Rhythm Chef (Seongjun Park) and MC Chef (Daehan Wii) perform an amazing encore solo you won’t want things to end. It is appropriate that the show’s title/instruction ends with an exclamation mark, because the instances of audience interaction come not at request but instruction (#inagoodway). As is often the case, these ‘volunteers’ provide some of the show’s funniest moments, enhancing appreciation for the immensely talented ensemble cast. Don’t be offput by the mentions of audience interaction though; sit up the front and you will have prime position for the pillow fight, which has youngsters and adults alike in hysterics of laughter.

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“Chef: Come Dine With Us!” really is, as advertised, an all-ages show, boisterously engaging from beginning to end. It is inspired escapism of the very best sort. It is random. It’s weird. It’s funny. It’s fun. And, as such, it represents everything there is to love about Brisfest. See it now or lament missing one of the most original shows to appear on the Brisbane stage.

Get your tickets at www.brisbanefestival.com.au

Making right out of wrongs

The Sublime (No Interval Actors Theatre Co)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 30 – September 2

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Brendan Cowell’s “The Sublime” is a very Australian play, unfortunately not in a good way. This, however, is a reflection of what is wrong in our contemporary culture rather than comment on the controversial work itself, which is a sad, shocking and formidable theatre experience that crams much into its unrelenting and absorbing 70 minute running time.

25 year-old Dean (Tom Yaxley) is a Brownlow-bound AFL star, seemingly single-minded in his devotion to his sporting career because there will be plenty of time for life and a wife after his time at the top. His more happy-go-lucky brother Liam (Bradley Watt) is a league player of some controversy, trying to come back after a suspension, but easily led-astray by his new captain and NRL superstar, Nick. Despite their differences, the two brothers are united in emotion towards their respective games, because ‘footy’ is the name for whatever code you follow.

As the more responsible older brother, Dean not only obliges their mother’s request for him to watch over the laddish Liam, but seems like a sensible mentor for 17-year-old Olympics-bound athletics star Amber (Ellen Bailey) so much so that her parents suggest that he takes her and friend Zoe along on the boys’ rowdy end-of-year footy trip to Thailand. Although Dean’s intentions towards Amber are apparently innocent (he’s attracted to her athletic ability and determination), she is not looking for him to be a mentor. As an audience, we recognise the concern oblivious to Amber’s footy-fan parents and sure enough frivolity soon turns to a rip and tear tale of good times gone bad. Yet, the story takes still further turns as, after Liam rapes the ‘up for it’ teenage Zoe, the complicated fallout threatens to destroy all of their futures.

The play is well cast and the three performers are all superb in their comic timing and compelling commitment to flawed characters. Bailey is engaging as the chameleon-like Amber, juvenilely-naïve, but not-so, initially a victim but later instigator in the complicated media game. And Yaxley, is memorable as the seemingly-sensible but ultimately-troubled Dean. It is their skilled performances, in particular, that succeed in shifting audience sympathies throughout the show.

The simplest of staging makes the play even more unsettling as the story is told as three intertwining monologues from Amber and the brothers, each seated at a spot-lit table and chair. The writing is excellent. The anecdotal nature of the early dialogue delivery, for example, allows for a natural humour to engage the audience. It is initially light and playful banter about footy code rivalry, Sydney vs Melbourne preferences and the complexity of AFL scoring. But this is all in belie of its disturbing later scenes. When it does go there, there it is with contrasting offensive language and confronting imagery that fits the intensity of its narrative.

“The Sublime” is a powerful piece of storytelling that offers audiences much to think about around hypocrisy, moral corruption, the media, sporting hero worship and rape culture. It is far from thematically simple, leaving audiences conflicted by grapple with questions about the extent to which circumstance can create victims and anger about the complicity of all of its players. Yet it is this moral ambiguity that makes it so worthwhile. Indeed, if theatre is valued by its incite of audience reaction, then “The Sublime” is theatre done right.

The mirth of mediocrity

Disappointments (Judith Lucy and Denise Scott)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 19 – 30

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Comedians Denise Scott and Judith Lucy are at that age now where they can’t be bothered doing anything, especially if it involves being present and mindful. As such, they are more into lie-down than stand-up comedy, welcoming the audience to “Disappointments” from the comfort of on-stage beds, with oversized wine glasses alongside (thank-you bendy straws).

The mirth that follows allows the pair to reflect on their lives, full as they are of disappointments, focussing on oversharing about the crushing discontent of being of that certain age. No topic is too taboo, especially when they venture out into the nervous audience for ad-libbed chats around arthritis, dick pics and menopause, amongst other topics.

Scott also talks of her days on television’s “Winners and Losers” and gives amusing accounts of being mis-recognised both in Australian and abroad, while Lucy  shares a clever riff about nostalgia, taking particular aim at Rick Springfield’s 80’s hit song ‘Jessie’s Girl’. And then things descend into a volley of insults to each other, before changing into their notorious (and hilarious) nude suits. For all the show’s self-loathing and self-doubt, however, what resonates is its celebration of life (including the saggy bits) and essential ponder as to why we hate ageing but love nostalgia, evidenced as they take aim at the idolisation of youth in our culture.

Comedy doesn’t get much better than these Aussie treasures telling it as it is, bounding off each other and the audience with razor sharp wit. While there is a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, there is also an essential message about embracing life’s disappointments and the distinctions that exist between our social media selves and real life experiences. As such, “Disappointments” will leave you not only face-aching from laughter but fit to fist pump the sky “The Breakfast Club” style, in embrace of your own aging mediocrity.

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.

Sappy song satisfaction

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Thetre

June 16

Alan Cumming is a versatile performer, as well known for his role as cunning political consultant Eli Gold on TV’s “The Good Wife” as for his Tony Award winning turn as the debaucherous “Cabaret” emcee. And versatility, appropriately, characterises “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs”, which contains a perfect balance of songs and stories.

brisbane-powerhouse-Alan-Cumming-3-1178x663.jpgCumming is the consummate cabaret performer and an engaging storyteller (not just because of his ‘soon-to-be-independent’ Scottish accent), creating an intimate connection with the audience, despite the Powerhouse Theatre’s vast size, through his vulnerability in share of personal stories. The show allows Cumming to share some of his favourite songs, looked at anew. “Take off your judgey hat,” we’re told early on, and, as promised we do hear them in a different way, from fellow Scot Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’ as opener to a mid-show mash-up of Adele, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, ‘because they are kind of the same song right’? In each instance Cumming finds the emotional heart of the songs, sharing it as his own, but engaging too through gossipy between-number anecdotes with tell of Liza Minelli, a regretful tattoo, and a retro online commercial he made with Ricki Lake for Trojan condoms.

There are serious times too as Cumming touches on personal traumas that those familiar with his best-selling memoir “Not My Father’s Son”, will recognise. Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ is dedicated to his combat-traumatised grandfather and Rufus Wainwright’s ballad about father-son estrangement, ‘Dinner at Eight’ is delivered in reference to his abusive father, createing real poignancy.

The band (Lance Horne, piano; Eleanor Norton, cello; Chris Jego, drums) is excellent in musical support, adding to the linger of numbers like Hue and Cry’s ‘Mother Glasgow’, a tribute to the second city of the empire and its perpetual succour, at first comically but then movingly shared. And Cumming sure can sing, as seen in his rousing finale, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from the Broadway musical “Company”.

In Cumming’s charismatic hands, this is cabaret as it should be: emotional and personal, yet also chatty and with an easy charm (and sometimes bawdy humour). Indeed, “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs” is old fashioned entertainment from a master showman, easily able to take the audience from laughter to tears through the passion and pathos of his stories and songs. As such, it is not only a treat for Brisbane audiences, but up there amongst the most satisfying ever of Brisbane Cabaret Festival shows.

Austen attraction

Promise and Promiscuity (Penny Ashton)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 11

As if being a sole performer on stage isn’t difficult enough in itself, add in acting in multiple character roles and making it a musical and success is probably going to be no easy feat. Yet, in Penny Ashton’s hands in “Promise and Promiscuity”, the task appears to be a breeze.

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In parody of the novels of Jane Austen, the show follows the fortunes of husbandless writer Elsbeth of Brisbaneshire (in this instance) who writes thrilling stories under the male pseudonym Wilbur Smythe and would rather die an old maid than concern herself with frivolity in possession of foolish notions of love.

It begins with Elsbeth’s socially-ambitious mother lamenting over her aged 2 and 20 daughter’s lack of husband, but also excited by the family’s invitation to a ball at Quigley Manor. Things move quickly as Ashton clearly establishes characters with physicality and vocals. To her credit, each character, whether male or female, is well-defined and well-distinguished from each other with their own, unique physical quirks and characteristics, whether it be excitable younger daughter Cordelia or the aloof Mr Dalton, who is search of intellectual endeavour rather than romance.

With such a crowded cast and quick changes, it takes time to ease into the show’s rhythm and unique Austen-like language. There is a veritable array of well-known Austen characters and although there are no wet shirts, male characters are the most memorable amongst the eight that Ashton plays, particularly, a snorting cousin Horatio, unable to offer compliment without also causing offence.

The script is full of witty incorporation of not just quotes for Austen aficionados but motifs that most people should recognise and double-entendre innuendo that nobody can miss. And the Ashtonisation of modern and pop culture references from Trump to Target and 50 Shades of Grey, add an often very funny touch to things.

Original music, composed by Robbie Ellis adds to the experience, especially when a dance partner must be sought from within the audience. Indeed, musical numbers that outline the importance of proper etiquette (to not be a strumpet) and the broken dreams of a family evicted from their cottage after accusations of wanton promiscuity (by writing as a male) could easy work in a mainstream musical.

“Promise and Promiscuity” may not be entirely proper in a Regency way, but it is genuinely good-natured. Ashton’s energy is infectious and, as a naturally engaging performer, she makes the show’s experience all the more delightful. While those familiar with the fiction of its source material, will appreciate its homage, its attraction goes to beyond audiences with this experience. It’s not so much a musical (as billed) but rather a play with some songs about the curse of being a woman in Austen’s world, yet it is still all sorts of wonderful.