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.

‘60s summer stories

Away (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 25 – November 13

Along with “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”, Michael Gow’s “Away” is Australian Drama 101. The play is a classic work easily able to be revisited and seen anew through a contemporary lens, celebration of which is central to La Boite Theatre’s revival of the much-loved work.

The summer print of usher outfits and preshow of-era soundtrack of The Seekers’ ‘Georgie Girl’ et al, transports us to the story’s summer beach holiday represented simply on stage. However, while Gow’s memory play is of a childhood of idyllic summer holidays of this sort, when the night hues unsettle from their pre-show blanket of the stage, we are taken not to the beach of its 1967 setting, but rather the conclusion of a school’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which young Tom (Reagan Mannix) has starred as Puck.

The play serves as punctuation to the school year before families depart for summer holidays appropriate to their respective status. Class conflicts are evident as Tom’s immigrant parents, still full of wonder around the novelty of a summer Christmas, are condescended to by the strict mother of his classmate Meg (Billy Fogarty). Middle class Gwen (Emily Burton) is appalled that the working class English migrants will be spending their holidays in a lean-to-tent, as opposed to their prime caravan park spot. Meanwhile, school headmaster Roy (Bryan Probets) is flying his wife Coral (Christen O’Leary) to a glitzy Gold Coast resort for some rest and recreation, in hope to snap her out of her all-consuming grief over the recent death of their conscript son in Vietnam.

From its opening scene, issues of its time of social upheaval swirl around the play’s smaller, personal and human stories, for all three families have their own turmoil and are struggling in some way. When a force of Shakespearean proportions forces their respective vacations to fall apart, their crises are brought to a head by their intersection. As their secrets are shared, relationships are forged and repaired and new hope is fostered.

Mannix gives a brilliant performance in his professional debut, easily illustrating his character’s development from enthusiastic schoolboy to mature, mindful young adult and Fogarty’s conveyance of Meg’s stoicism serves a strong complement to this. Alongside them, a talented who’s who of Brisbane theatre fills out the cast. Ngoc Phan and Kevin Spink capture their character’s immigrant optimism in their easy-going attitudes in mask of the painful reality they know they will be facing in the future. As Meg’s father Jim, Sean Dow gives us patient character counterpoint to the blunt force that is his wife Gwen. Burton is brilliant in making Gwen immediately unlikeable as the highly strung woman always in need of a Bex and a bit of a lie down. However, while her manner is obviously hiding a deep hurt, her dialogue is so brittle and snipes so viciously spat out that some of the impact of her emotional journey is lost by the suddenness of her character change.  

Proberts is excellent as stoic headmaster Roy, delivering one of the play’s most moving monologues in reflection of the price needed to be paid for the life we have, in defence of his son’s conscription to Vietnam. And O’Leary is mesmeric in her delicate realisation of his fragile and frayed wife Coral, ready to retreat into the darkness and shadows that appear as metaphor for her grief.

A textured aesthetic suits the magical realism at the centre of director Daniel Evans’ vision. A swelling soundscape and sepia-toned nostalgia takes the audience into the post-holiday realities that end the play. Shakespearean references abound as a tempest of a storm catalyses a change for each family. Indeed, Brady Watkins sound design and composition, and Ben Hughes’ lighting design effectively combine to storm us through new year’s eve to 1968 and into interval.

Of era props and some exquisite 1960s gowns, assist in transporting audiences away into the on-stage world. Indeed, Sarah Winter’s set and costume design reveals an attention to detail even down to the shell cases that surround the stage lighting of the central stage. The round stage works well, not just for in-the-round audience engagement, but to represent the divide in families as conversations occur from across its sides. And Liesel Zink’s choreography is impressive, both in the initial ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ segment, and in the show’s creative considerations of all the opportunities of space to give levels from which observers can look down upon the action.

At 140 minutes duration (including interval), this “Away” is a long one, with not only inclusion of a play scene within a play, but an end of season campground concert performance, which although provide a comic balance to the heavy themes of the narrative’s drama, do drag things a little. Mostly, there is a delicate balance between the show’s tones, as fantasies and dreams explode from its domestic naturalism, however, some moments don’t land as well as others, such as when audience laughter continues without recognition of the mood change coming from the urgency of Tom’s desire to lose his virginity to Meg, meaning that the production isn’t as moving as it should be in some moments.

“Away” is a political and social time capsule story about reconciliation, acceptance of life’s obstacles and the need to move forward. Yet, in its exploration of suspicion of outsiders and fear of change, it still has a lot to say about who we were, through the lens of who we are now that we are more grown up as a nation, making it a worth a visit, especially for anybody yet to experience this classic and widely produced work from one of our country’s most significant playwrights.

Photos c/o Morgan Roberts

Bow wow wow!

Let’s Be Friend Furever (The Good Room)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 16 – 25

For the uninitiated, The Good Room’s productions can be difficult to define. The celebrated independent company founded by Daniel Evans and Amy Ingram creates unique theatre experiences, often from community crowd-sourced content. Continuing on from its previous Brisbane Festival successes, “Let’s be Friends Furever” follows a familiar format to craft together a celebration and commemoration of all breeds of dogs, meaning that if you ever have or ever plan on owning a dog, this is the show for you.

The work, which has been developed in partnership with fellow Queensland independent theatre makers, The Little Red Company, features faces from social media and even video appearance from Australian writer and presenter Marieke Hardy. There are also everyday stores of everyday people and their extraordinary pets, as every pet dog is extraordinary to somebody… and it is celebration of this that is at the core of the show.

From the very first in the world premiere production’s parade of pooches, you will be hooked as it’s real recollections and stories are recounted on stage. After introduction to retired special ops attack dog Guge, retired Special Forces commando Steve shares story of how he built a bond worthy of gaining Guge’s respect. And as he tells us of this most important relationship of his life with his warrior brother, it is quite moving eliciting more than one audience ‘awwww’. As Afghan show dog Ava takes the stage with owner Jan who tells us all about the unique breed, and amazingly-still-a-puppy, Great Dane Rollo rocks in with his owners Siobhan and Pete, it is quite a transformational experience taking me from pre-show statement of not really being an animal person to mid-way declaration that “I love them all!”

The heartfelt homage to our four-legged friends is about transformation too as owners discuss how their lives have changed for the better through their dog ownership, even sometimes in retrospect, as later scenes respectfully take us into the raw emotion of having to farewell a furever friend after discussion from vet Matt about the multi-faceted nature of his job.

The show’s live sections are often innocently joyous, such as when 11-year-old Henry makes his theatrical debut to deliver a song about his ‘not that bright’ (and apparently eager-to-escape) best friend Cocker Spaniel Roscoe and when we meet the tenacious tongue-out fussy Austin Terrier social media sensation Mr Peanut and his owner Sam. And then there is the high-flying Frisbee hijinks of Blitz and Zoe. As light-hearted and fun as things initially are, however, it’s certainly not all PG-13 as naughty rescue dogs ‘f**king Brett’ and his brother Steven are the first to send things a little awry on opening night.

Punctuating the live guest segments are videos (video production by Optikal Bloc) about dogs and from the company’s hundreds of hours of interviews across Australia.) The segments of love, loyalty and laughter are from dog walkers, obedience trainers and alike, as well as dog owners in discussion of things like their dog parenting styles, the origins of their pets’ names and the fortunes they have spent on spoiling their greatest loves, as well as recall of their funniest experiences. And under the direction of Daniel Evans, everything is seamlessly curated together to maintain momentum and audience engagement. Mike Willmett’s dynamic sound design beds things and the mostly omnipresent ringmaster of sorts Hugh Parker keeps segments moving, with his comic commentary and questioning interaction with and response to what is happening on stage allowing for emphasis of some common themes of resilience in discussion of what people’s dogs have taught them about themselves and their purposes in life.

The Good Room’s “Let’s Be Friends Furever” is a real treat. Its ambitious examination of people’s relationships with their faithful companions and best friends is both fascinating and affirming, and it represents the perfect work with which to introduce someone to the world of what theatre can now be. They might even also end up squealing with wowed delight at the appearance of six-week-old old puppies in its conclusion.

Photos c/o –  Atmosphere Photography

Elephant absurdity

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The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

Queensland Theatre’s Play Club continues to find ways to connect with its audiences through the emerging form of online presentations, for the foreseeable future, of great Australian plays. Most recent of these intimate renditions to inspire collective imaginations is the live play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” by Stephen Carleton over Zoom webinar.

The work’s description of a “shockingly black, black, black political farce” that is “urgent, contemporary and perilously close to being real” is on-point. The colourful story is set in an Australia of the near future, but it could be any first world country such is the universality of it now-more-than-ever important themes. Melbourne has flooded, temperatures are regularly around 50 degrees, more animals are extinct, the last ever snow is melting. The typhooned world is at a tipping point, meaning that environment resettlement refugees and natural disaster tourists have become the norm.

The world into which we are dropped, however, is that of a wealthy Sydney socialite and Macquarie family matriarch Augusta (Andrea Moor) who heads up a conservative movement which denies the human impact of climate change, but who has a climate change refugee, Visi (Nicole Hopkins) as her new maid. While Melbourne is being evacuated and citizens of other cities are in mass panic, Augusta’s place is a formidable fortress of sanctuary that the billionairess shares with her niece Basra (Violette Ayad, in a Queensland Theatre debut), a wannabe aspirational blogger advocate for sustainable change. Enter Augusta’s sister, Aunt Olympia (Barb Lowing)…. and what an entrance it is, despite its occurrence off screen.

While The Cultural Front for the Environment is protesting government action, with undercover operatives ready to resort to attempted murder, there is a proposal to move the country inland and to higher ground. The sisters’ interests are piqued when charming American corporate-type Jeff Cleveland (Thomas Larkin) smooths in with memorable display of mutual affection with Olympia, before offering a ticket out through his Brave New World ‘New Eden’ plan to rebuild humanity from the ground up. Given how disease is wiping out some cities, the timing is particular urgent and so a philosophical conflict ensues. The battle back and forth between Augusta and Basra over climate change is one of self-proclaimed pragmatist vs idealistic moralist and it soon becomes clear that not only is natural selection is to be determined by wealth, but the end of days represents to barrier to making money.

Flamboyant Olympia is a gloriously hedonistic character of operatic excess, enthusiastic for the apocalypse, as long as she can be a voyeur to the world’s environmental collapse. And, uninhibited by the play reading format, Lowing vividly inhabits her flibbertigibbety in every gesture, movement, facial expression and reaction. The sisters are both outrageous characters, obviously fun to play and seeing Moor and Lowing together for the first time ‘on stage’ is certainly worth the wait. One sister doesn’t hear unwanted things, while the other doesn’t see them. Together they are a real treat, bringing to life the playwright’s clever, perfectly-pitched dialogue. There is clear wit to its detail, replicated, in this instance, in costumes and simple props that add immeasurably to the unique, pseudo-stage experience.

Across 11 fast-paced scenes, the changes of which are signalled by Brian Lucas as a masked figure, the story is an absurdist sprint in a “Rhinoceros” sort of way. The elephant of its title ‘appears’ early but resonates throughout as a metaphor of what is happening in the dying world’s room right now. In fact, the titular elephant, is the most vital character, requiring only audience imagination and personal directorial choice in its realisation.

“You’re all crazy!” Visi screams at point and indeed this is true, but what would be the fun otherwise? And Daniel Evans’s direction both maintains the required momentum and balances the ridiculous absurdity and intelligent sublimity of the work’s wild script and wonderful characters, making for a thoroughly entertaining work that we will hopefully see realised on stage proper again sooner rather than later.

Although it was written in 2016, “The Turquoise Elephant” is particularly pertinent at this point in time. It is clearly stuffed with social commentary about global capitalism and climate change denialism, and coincidental current political references that show how we really all should be crying like the elephant.

Seminal sisterly sorrow

Three Sisters

QUT, The Loft

March 10 – 14

Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is a seminal text, which probably explains the number of school groups in attendance at the recent production featuring QUT BFA (Acting) Third Year Students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical) Production students. The presence of so many secondary students within the audience also serves to illustrate the challenge that presentation of the classic text poses, given its 2.5 hour+ length. With this particular share of such a fresh new version, however, its experience was engaging from start to finish.

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Interest is immediately established in the show’s staging, which sees audience members seated around a stage of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together, affording the feel of immersive theatre without need for audience involvement. Everything is fragmented with incomplete door frames (courtesy of Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design) et al. The scattering of books, opulent flowers and chandeliers hint to the esteem of the family. Amongst the subdued palette, however, are design element hints as to character’s Act One relationships; while the sisters drink Moët while tottering about in heels and jewels, their servant Anfisa’s (Sidney Shorten) outfit is completed by sandshoes and their brother Andrei (Ben Jackson) stands out in striking red jacket as the head of the Prozorov household, despite his life as put-upon partner to the awkward Natasha (Jeanda St James).

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The hopeful but bored titular sisters, matriarchal Olga (Lucy Heathcote), quick-tempered Masha (Isobel Grummels) and idealistic Irina (Imogen Trevillion) are trapped by circumstances in the small town of an unidentified Russian province where their late father was stationed far from Moscow in 1901. Olga fears losing herself as a teacher in the local high school, Masha is trapped in an unhappy marriage to fussy teacher Kulygin (Egan Sun-Bin) and the optimistic Irina yearns for opulence. For now, though, it is a time of celebration in honour of easily-enchanted middle sister Irina’s ‘name day’ (also the first anniversary of their father’s death), which means visit from soldiers, led by the gallant Vershinin (Tate Hinchy), bringing with them a sense of noble idealism. With army officers visiting often, the sisters have company, however, it soon becomes apparent that this is insufficient. What follows from there is a study over time of unrequited hope amongst Russian’s pre-revolutionary privileged class as each character tries desperately to eke some happiness out of their drab day-to-day existences and unrequited longing to return to Moscow.

In the QUT students’ hands “Three Sisters” is very much a play of two distinct halves. While audience members leave the theatre, interval transforms Act Two’s staging to a stark contrast to its former self, bare but for a few pieces of furniture and scattering of withered leaves in metaphoric emphasis of its change of season. Now, years later, Andrei and Natasha are married. His red jacket is gone but Natasha is garishly bejewelled and gleefully despotic as she enters Olga and Irina’s shared room (in sign that she has taken over the household). Sound (Jack Alcock) and lighting design (Jason Glenwright) convey a panicked aesthetic that is dominated by a fire in the town. In terms of the narrative, however, things are a slow burn. While its character studies are engrossing and of their own merit, however, moments of humour are welcomed as attempts at love are frustrated at every turn.

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Successfully translating the narrative of “Three Sisters” to the stage needs to bring the drama of its human motivations to the surface. This is achieved through both Daniel Evans’ tight direction and the impressive work of all ensemble members. Heathcoate anchors things with a solid performance as the brave-faced and dutiful Olga, while Trevillion brings a radiant energy Irina’s deflation from optimism to disillusionment.

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Jackson, meanwhile, is well cast as Andrei. While he is not often on stage, the subtlety of his performance as he gambles away the family’s future security is still noteworthy. And, St James shows incredibility versatility in her presentation of Natasha, credibly taking her from timid, dishevelled speaker of the most sense in Act One call-out of the others’ frivolous lifestyles to tables-turned wielder of obnoxious power. Also of note, as the drunken Doctor Chebutykina, Rachel Nutchey brings a consistent energy, and much comic relief through her well-timed word play and innuendo, cresendoing to an alcohol-fuelled existential crisis.

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“You talk and talk the whole day long,” Masha complains to her brother Andrei late in the play. This is, indeed, a play full of people willing to talk, but who are rarely willing to listen. While it may be a long journey, in the hands of these creatives, it is more than just a study of boredom. While the motif of Chekhov’s gun appears in Act Two after an earlier firearm mention, for example, so too does a soundtrack of songs like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ as an appropriate take into interval. While the stage is sometimes frenzied with three sections being used simultaneously and a dozen characters appearing at once, this is tempered by some lovely stylised moments of slow-motion movement and alike.

Whilst on one hand, “Three Sisters” is an ominous study of sisterly sorrow and the consequences of captivity, it is also an examination of the affecting distance between dreams and reality. This production celebrates the play’s status as a cerebral work of conversations and contemplations, but does so in such a dynamic way as to make the work as accessible as ever.

Celebrating shes

That’s What She Said (The Good Room)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

February 11 – 15

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Metro Arts’ Sue Benner Theatre showcases a striking aesthetic upon audience entry to The Good Room’s “That’s What She Said”. The awash of pink hues brings with it the hint of an early Valentine’s day vibe, but, in fact, it is signpost of something far more urgent. And so the show begins with an assault of sound bites that would be shocking if we hadn’t unfortunately already heard their vitriolic misogyny as part of modern media norms. However, the rhetoric soon gives way to more inspiring examples of empowerment and reminder that there is no better place for this show than this theatre, a place that has always been one of storytelling.

Like previous The Good Room shows, this Metro Arts commissioned work is based on the general public’s responses to, in this case, 100 provocations about women, many of which appear as projections to thematically shape the show’s progress through passionate words of wisdom, ambition, regret and the complicated reality of life in all of its ages. There is a real craftedness to the show as a whole as ideas deliberately loop around in its progress and a touching musical motif is revisited. The deceptively simple space is used to utmost effect as props emerge from hidden away nooks and crannies only to also later make reappropriated appearance later in the production. Attention to detail is everywhere, including in a pop of pink bow here, a pink belt there and Margi Brown Ash’s fabulous pink tumble of tulle skirt, while Jason Glenwright’s lighting design both buoys us in celebrations and helps to take us along into the shadows of some sorrowful stories.

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Even if only in snippets, the show’s stories are fascinating and it easy to become enthralled in them, given the engaging skill of the female storytellers (Margi Brown Ash, Stella Charrington, Andrea Moor, Keira Peirce, Ngoc Phan, Naioni Price, Leah Shelton and Emily Tomlins, with a rotation of guest performers each night). The primary performers each have significant monologues that are all powerfully delivered. Within the space of only a few minutes, for example, Emily Tomlins takes us from the frustration of the oxymoronic expectations of being a woman to reminder of our capacity for achievement. And her witty delivery of many of the dryly humourous one liners that pepper the show is a real treat. Margi Brown Ash also shares a memorable monologue, uplifting and inspiring in its statements about the potential for change. Like Naomi Price, she appears as a noticeably generous performer who is thoroughly engaged in what others on stage are sharing, particularly the show’s younger performers.

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“That’s What She Said’ stands as testament to the mantra of truth being more entertaining than fiction. Its experience will illicit laughter and maybe even some tears but also engender a smile on your face, regardless of your gender. This is a dynamic show about broads, matriarchs and mentors, bosses, divas and dames, of all ages, from all sorts of places … women who disappoint, change lives and have a thing or two to say. But more than just this, it stands as a homage to being human. While it is at its core a celebration of the shes we love, it is ultimately a show for everyone, especially those interested in discovery of how sex is like swimming.

The Good Room always does good stuff and under Daniel Evans’ direction “That’s What She Said” is no exception. It is not just a show that the world needs now but one it will hopefully see in a return season subsequent to this Sue Benner Theatre send-off.

Photos – c/o Darren Thomas