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.

FANGIRLS fineness

FANGIRLS (Belvoir and Brisbane Festival co-production)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 7 – October 5

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“FANGIRLS” begins with a couple of criminals on the run. The scene is one of 14-year-old smart, scholarship-girl Edna’s (Yve Blake, who is also responsible for the world premiere musical comedy’s book, musical and lyrics) imagining; she is the Beyoncé of fan fiction according to her online friend Saltypringl (James Majoos), specifically that written in tribute to Harry (Aydan), lead singer of the world’s biggest boyband True Connection. Edna knows she is destined to be with Harry and will do anything to achieve this. So when the band announces a tour stop in her home city, she sees this as her chance to meet Harry and convince him of their destined life together. But just how far is she prepared to go in the name of love?

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Clearly, nobody understands extent of Edna’s devotion and commitment to do anything – ANYTHING – in the name of true love, especially her single mother (Sharon Millerchip) who just wants to talk about priorities. Luckily Edna has a shared world of escape in the safe online space of fandom for the UK boy band, formed after its members individually auditioned for a reality tv show…. sound like a familiar direction? (#punindended) She also has her friendship with schoolmates Briana (Kimberley Hodgson) and Jules (Chika Ikogwe), which allows for inclusion of the usual teen focus of not being the last in the grade to get a boyfriend and having parents literally ruining their lives, in addition to its exploration of the power of young female passion. Even so, the celebration and vindication of misunderstood fangirls takes us to some dark places in Act Two.

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The show’s success also comes courtesy of its vibrant performers, all in debut at Queensland Theatre. Blake is triumphant as the determined Edna, whose facial expressions and reactions add nuance to her various scenes, and, as her friends, Hodgson, Ikogwe and Majoos are absolutely hilarious. This is a hardworking cast; when not playing primary parts they are mostly still on stage in other roles thanks to some slick costume changes. And they also play characters on the Internet in online interactions within the Harrysphere.

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“FANGIRLS” is a Trojan horse of a show; while it may on the surface appear to be making fun of its subject matter, specifically fangirls of boybands, it is cleverly crafted so as to sneak them into your heart. Indeed, those without regular experience of youth may not realise how true-to-life it representations are (the work is based on real interviews with teenage fangirls) through its revelations of the experiences of adolescent insecurity in navigation of the difficult distinction between being hot and thirsty, as well as the pain of feeling friendships drifting apart.

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The dialogue is literally authentic, like literally! And it certainly captures hyperbolic nature of teen obsession. The hyper-real experience of its aesthetic complements this. There is a freshness to its high-energy realisation, not just through the humour of its script and songs, but its multi-screen show of the disparate connectiveness of even modern fandom communities.

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The show’s soundtrack is dynamic, packed full of clever, cohesive songs (a program songlist would be been appreciated) that are realised like pop concert music, with striking harmonies. ‘Nobody’ is a catchy early number in which Edna tells Harry of her inability to eat and sleep because ‘nobody loves you like me’, while‘Tonight’s Gonna Be (The Best Night of My Life)’ is an infectious take to interval in culmination of the girls’ months of anticipation and outfit planning for the concert. When we return for Act Two, it is to an authentic True Connection concert experience, with help from David Muratore’s musical production, Justin Harrison’s AV design and Emma Valente’s lighting design, especially for those in the front rows.

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“FANGIRLS” is a fine example of a quality new work, experience of which generally flies by in what seems like the shortest of time, like a young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with confetti cannon. And while the story may be of Edna’s journey towards attempted realisation of an imagined relationship, we can still apply its characteristics to our own experiences in revisit of the exhilaration of the expression of youthful obsession, even if it is now distanced from the show’s digital lense (fan fiction might not have always been a thing, but fangirls have always had way of sharing love.) The result is a funny, witty and relatable guilty pleasure of sorts, complete with important messages about gender-based hypocrisy and the way the world looks at young female enthusiasm, to hopefully inspire rethink of gendered definitions of what is reasonable. Its legacy of the power of community and finding your tribe, is an uplifting one, which should have audience members leaving the theatre empowered to love what they love without apology or fear.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry