Thousand tops

With 2020 being largely taken out of the mix, it has taken me just over 8 years to review 1000 shows as Blue Curtains Brisbane. And my top 10 favourites from within them, appropriately feature shows from 2013 to 2021… a mix of comedy, cabaret, musicals, theatre and festival fare.

1. Delectable Shelter (The Hayloft Project)

The Hayloft Project’s 2013 out-of-the-box black comedy, “Delectable Shelter” literally took place in a box as bunker at Brisbane Powerhouse in its claustrophobic tell of five doomsday survivors planning a utopian society. With ‘80s power ballads and hilarious homages to their ancestors from later descendants, there was so much by which to be entertained in the anarchy of its apocalyptic storytelling, making it my absolute favourite.

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theatre of Great Britain)

In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain provided QPAC audiences with an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition with their acclaimed production of Mark Hadden’s much-loved novel. Inventive, imaginative stage design which saw the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, provided many visually memorable moments authentic to experience of the show’s London production.

3. All My Love (HIT Productions)

HIT Productions’ sensitive “All My Love” chronicled the fascinating and little-known relationship between the larger-than-life writer and poet Henry Lawson and the radical socialist and literary icon Mary Gilmore, taking its audience along an evocative journey about the people beyond their words, but also their passion in a “Love Letters” type way.

4. Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre)

The musical so nice, Queensland Theatre programed it twice. With stunning visuals and costumes, a soundtrack featuring over 20 original Tim Finn songs and humour, the Helpman-Award-winning musical took audiences into both the glitz of a high-end 1950s department store shop floor and the personal lives of its employees with infectious wit and charm.

5. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The Curator’s 2021 drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

6. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company)

In 2016, Daniel Evans’ gave meaning anew to Shakespeare’s depiction of the Machiavellian King Richard III through bold exploration of its story’s silences, gaps and biases and dynamic discovery of new character depths and unexpected provocations.

7. Hamnet (Dead Centre)

As part of the 2018 Brisbane Festival, Ireland’s Dead Centre used audio visual technology in combination with live performance to give us the perfectly-pitched and movingly thought-provoking story of Shakespeare’s one son (just 11 when he died), knowing that he is just one letter away from greatness.

8. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

My favourite ever Queensland Theatre show…. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the company’s landmark 2021 production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

9. California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French)

The 2016 Spiegeltent saw audiences treated to the first Brisfest appearance of the cool-cat cabaret crooners of the “California Crooners Club”. The energetic and charming show from genuine, generous performers (led by concept creator Hugh Sheridan), was a marvellous mixed bag of old, new and original numbers curated together and harmonised like familiar favourites.

10. Forthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

And….

Special mention to La Boite Theatre Company’s “Still Standing”, which in 2002 and 2003 presented a music-filled immersion into the Brisbane rock scene of the 1980s as counter-culture to the repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime that although I saw before starting reviewing, still stands as my favourite ever Brisbane theatre experience.

Spiegeltent swellegance

California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French)

The Courier-Mail Spiegeltent

September 8 – 16

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Opening night of the Brisbane Festival was certainly a swellegant affair thanks to the infectious cabaret stylings of California Crooners Club. The group, featuring ‘that guy from “Packed to the Rafters” singing’ is all swinging swagger and style as its members groove and move audiences through a dynamic party of a show, packed with personality.

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The smash hit, which was born of late night chat in the jazz clubs of Hollywood, returns after a sold-out season at the 2016 festival, with a newly configured show featuring new members added to its lineup, including its first female Crooner. And from its Latin-infused ‘My Heart is in Havana’ opener, it is clear that the show’s sounds are still as smooth as ever.

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As its early number blends suggest, this show sees less numbers of the traditional old school crooner sort, though there is still some Sinatra et al; a new take of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is sensational, especially in its showcase of newcomer Johnny Manuel’s stunning voice. Also new to the group is Maiya Sykes, whose powerful, soulful vocals command attention in Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. Meanwhile, Emilie Welman’ textured voice continues to complement with comforting Bulble-like sounds, especially notable in the summery jam, ‘I Like It’, while Hugh Sheridan still brings incredible energy and charm, both vocally and in front man banter. Supporting the tight harmonies are an accomplished group of musicians and it is great to see their talents particularly showcased in early Cuba-fied numbers like ‘I Like Me Better’ and brought to the front of the stage for a jazzy hip-swaying ‘Uptown Funk’ encore.

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Like previously, the show features some original California Crooners Club numbers, including the wistful and reflective ‘Dreamer’ written by Sheridan as a ‘I Still Can Australia Home’-type tribute to Australia. While these are pleasing in themselves, the absence of peppy pieces like ‘I Need You’ and/or ‘Just a Little More’ is disappointing. Indeed, while more mellow numbers of the ‘Halo’ sort are beautiful and affecting in their controlled delicacy and show how the group certainly knows how to croon, the vitality of the upbeat numbers are most appreciated by the audience.

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As Sheridan himself tells us, this is the first time they have ever done this show, which makes it more exciting as neither the audience or performers really know what is going to happen; this is true and while sequencing makes for some startling transitions in song sentiments and tempos, nobody in the enthusiastic Spiegeltent crowd really seems to mind. As with any California Crooners Club experience, the show is a guaranteed good time as its performers bounce about in playful banter with and in serenade of audience members, dancing with them in the aisle and bringing them up on stage in an ending that comes way too soon.

The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Cool-cat cabaret

California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French)

Aurora Spiegeltent

September 3 – 11

Conceived by Australian television star Hugh Sheridan, “California Crooners Club” was born of late night banter with talented mates Emile Welman of South Africa and Kansas’ Gabe Roland backstage in the jazz clubs of Hollywood. The idea of starting a band to merge their love of jazz classics with their varied styles of singing, seems simple in its premise. The result, however, is something incredibly special, beyond definition apart from declaration that the show is a must-see.

Expectation is of a playlist treat of traditional tunes of the Sinatra sort of croon. The classics make appearance with ‘I’ve got you under my Skin’ and a ‘Come Fly with Me’ medley, but beyond its jazzy opening, it is quickly apparent the show is simultaneously not like what was expected, as, backed by a band of excellent musicians, the trio breaks into a bouncy take on Bieber’s ‘Sorry’.

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If cabaret hates rules, then “California Crooners Club” is cabaret at its best with its marvellous mixed bag of numbers serving as one of its most engaging aspects. The mix of old and new is just right, featuring, as it does, tributes to Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse alongside a Cole porter medley, Ray Charles number and Sia’s soaring ‘Chandelier’. The program’s curation is ingenious, no better evidenced than in move from ‘The Bare Necessities’ to ‘Jungle Boogie’. And boogie they do, sometimes along with audience members grabbed to dance in the aisles.

This is an energetic yet still charming show from genuine, generous performers, thanks to its playful banter and serenades to audience members. There are lots of laughs courtesy of some obligatory “Packed to the Rafters” puns and Adelaide digs in acknowledgement of Sheridan’s home town, making it sure to send audience members home with the biggest of feel-good smiles.

Original numbers are a highlight, including a standout ‘I Need You’ (garnering immediate audience calls to play it again) and the equally-peppy newly-released single ‘Just a Little More’. Together Sheridan, Welman and Roland’s sounds harmonise to make even these unfamiliar songs feel like old favourites, with voices that are brightly individual but also rich in depth and accord.

Clearly, “California Crooners Club” is one of the highlights of this year’s Brisbane Festival. The only negative is that its 75 minute running time flies by far too quickly. With all the dapper swing and style of The Rat Pack, even in rap, these cool cats cast their spell so successfully, that getting up to return to the real world seems initially impossible.