Scones and songs

Margaret Fulton – The Musical (Jally Entertainment)

QUT Gardens Theatre

April 13 – 14

Food and cooking writer, journalist and author Margaret Fulton OAM is an Aussie icon. The first of this genre of writers in Australia, she was an instant and international success whose The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, with hundreds of recipes, step-by step instructions, hints, tips and full-colour pictures, taught a generation how to make delicious, economical dishes and be creative with food and international cuisine. We are reminded of this from the outset of “Margaret Fulton – The Musical”, adapted from her book “I Sang for My Supper”, with its initial rousing anthemic musical number ‘The Book’ outlining the pre-Fulton repetition of the same old boring dishes of roast lamb and rissoles et al made in the same old boring ways.

The original Australian musical comedy outlines how the formidable Fulton took Australians through scones and pavlova to new ingredients in celebration of the culinary queen’s professional journey from home cook to household name, but also acquaints the audience with her lesser-known personal life and penchant for ‘decorative, elegant and useless men’. The fiercely independent Margaret’s (Judy Hainsworth) story is a sweeping one that takes shape as she sets out from Glen Innes (where the family moved from Scotland after Margaret’s birth) to Sydney. As she lives as a single mum in the Rocks district, we meet her friends and fellow tenants, a vibrant mixture of actors, artists, writers and musicians (ensemble cast members Conor Ensor, Clancy Enchelmaier, Zoë Harlen and Paige McKay) in Latin chorus number ‘La Vie Boheme’.

The hardworking supporting cast are all vibrant in their performances, which are often exaggerated caricatures in play for laughs. Enchelmaier, in particular, is vivacious in his portrait of despicable men, including Margaret’s philandering Irish second husband Denis. This animated approach is reflected also in the cheerful choreography the features in songs such as ‘Jam’ and ‘Bobby Limb’. In contrast to this jubilant tone, Jessica Kate Ryan cements the emotional backbone of the story as Margaret’s proud Scottish mother Isabella. It’s an emotional core that Hainsworth also captures, particularly in the musical’s later reflective tones. Indeed, Hainsworth easily conveys the journey of the story, from the passionate optimism of a strong-willed 18-year-old Margaret, through her career triumphs and personal defeats to late-in-life contemplations.

Musical Composer Yuri Worontschaks’ score is an accessible one. And as a biographical piece, the show is well written to incorporate nods to passages of time and some song lyrics (book and lyrics by Doug Macleod) are very witty. Similarly, its music spans various periods of history of Margaret’s life, even if frivolously-energetic, unnecessary numbers sometimes drag things along. And while the mixed bag of musical numbers includes no real post-show stand-outs, there are some memorable moments such as when she promotes a new appliance in an Andrews Sisters-style ‘Pressure Cooker’. The show includes a mix of high energy numbers and beautiful ballads, the latter of which allows the ensemble to showcase some lovely harmonies. Ensor’s touching vocals make ‘Beautiful’ a tender reassurance of third husband Michael’s adoration and Hainsworth’s vocal strength endures throughout, especially in occasional a cappella moments.

While much of the show’s entertainment comes from its easy comedy, there is also a strong feminist message to resonate it beyond just its target older demographic. John Bailey’s single-set stage design creates a nostalgic authenticity, appropriately complemented by colourful props including, of course, an orange crock pot. And like “Ladies in Black”, its Australian vernacular often adds to the charm of its humour.

“Margaret Fulton – The Musical” is a delightful musical romp through the life of a national treasure. Whether your knowledge of Fulton comes from her 1968 best seller or her more recent appearances as a judge on the reality television show MasterChef, this tribute to the famed cook will leave you entertained and uplifted.

All in the Aussie family

Spencer (Lab Kelpie)

Gardens Theatre

August 23 – 24

Spencer by Katy Warner.png

According to its marketing material, “Spencer” is the story of a gloriously dysfunctional but tight-knit Australian family. And there is definitely a touch of the Kerrigans to characters in the new Australian comedy-drama, matriarch Marilyn (Jane Clifton) and her three adult children, mouthy could-have-been Ben (Lyall Brooks), conflicted golden boy Scott (Jamieson Caldwell) and the wayward Jules (Fiona Harris). The titular Spencer is not on the scene; he is the infant child of youngest sibling and aspiring AFL star footballer Scott, the unexpected result of an encounter with a woman he barely remembers, set to visit for the first time in belated celebration of his birthday. And so the fractured family gathers in anticipation as the house is decorated, gifts are bought and Marilyn’s famous sausage rolls are prepared.


Single-mum Marilyn in particular is in a heightened state of expectation that is all too relatable as she tells her adult children to “stop f**king swearing”. Clifton is compelling as the fierce, family-driven Marilyn, juggling high hopes for one son with low expectations for another, but just wanting the best for her children. And she makes for both a convincing drunk and hungover next-day survivor in some of the best scenes.


As conversations are revisited and in-jokes shared, things spiral into the sibling sparring that represents an early highlight. Indeed, there is an authenticity to the ridiculousness of some of their arguments, meaning that they especially funny. There is a lot of set-up of characters and relationships meaning that things drag a little at times, however, when an unexpected and uninvited visitor (Roger Oakley) arrives just before the party, complex family dynamics and strained relationships descend into some very entertaining chaos.


The success of “Spencer” comes primarily from its performances. The wealth of experience brought by industry veterans Clifton and Oakley make their scenes together a joy to behold as they effortlessly create comfortable, credible and well-defined characters with idiosyncratic physicality and vernacular. And a comically-animated Brooks is a brilliant bogan Aussie, emotional to the extreme, passionate in in feelings towards coco-pops and determined to mischievous manipulate as many pre-party sausage rolls as possible out of his mother.


There is a clear attention to detail throughout the show, from the well-wornness of the suburban Australian home’s messy living room staging to the eclectic costumes, down to bum-bags, ugg-boots, crocs and the too-tight football get-up of eldest brother Ben, out of shape allegedly due only to an injury. Katy Warner’s script is full of fast humour courtesy of classic Australian vernacular and snappy dialogue.


While the show may be more comedy than drama, it comes with such realness to its characters, that one cannot help but be drawn into their tumultuous world. A range of emotions are evident of the course of the story introducing some darker material that is not really explored in depth, however, there is thematic resonance through consideration of the impact of expectations on aspirations and how much we are defined by our family. In short, “Spencer” is a show with a lot of heart, a modern story told in an engaging way, making for a highly entertaining night out with all of the members of this Aussie family.

Sarsaparilla style

The Season at Sarsaparilla

Gardens Theatre

August 8 – 13


There is a sense of “Cloudstreet” to “The Season at Sarsaparilla”, not just in its descriptor as ‘the great Australian dream realised in sweltering suburbia’ but in the way that, under Jason Klarwein’s direction, the realisation of Patrick White’s 1962 play is staged. The Australian classic, which concerns three households, the Pogsons, the Boyles, and the Knotts, in the fictional suburb of Sarsaparilla, is eloquent and textured in its exploration of the limitations of family and upbringing. The examination of the ordinary lives of the three families within Mildred Street is packed full of rich theatrical fodder; even though its themes befit the now sentimental satire on Australian suburban life, there is also an authenticity to its illustration of the effect of monotonous loneliness and the power of ambition to find contentment and purpose in life.

As our restless-soul, sensitive narrator of sorts, Roy Child (Grady Ferricks-Rosevear) reflects late in Act Two, “you can’t shed your own skin, no matter how it itches.” Indeed, universal themes transcend the play’s era of lino, lamb’s fry, hire purchase and new Mixmaster pride; these are everyday Australians who have worked hard for the post-war suburban dream, even if it comes with entrapment by the mores of the time. But ‘what are you going to do?’ especially as a woman, whose daily activity is restricted to passive aggressive commentary of what is going on in the neighbourhood.

A clear sense of containment is suggested in the sentiment of character dialogue and Roy’s commentary, which is emphasised by Anthony Spinaze’s dynamic set design of three bungalow box houses. The stylised production engenders a sense of voyeurism, although having the majority of the action set back on the stage distances the audience from the intimacy of some of its human stories. Digital projections of diorama recreations of the street’s dwellings add interest and work well to show the passage of time as day drags into night, with Glenn Hughes’ dynamic lighting dramatically signalling thematic moods.

The overlapping lives of the street’s residents present as a series of related sub-plots, however, there is one that drives the action more than others, thanks to some superb performances. Amongst occasional overdone ocker accents and exaggerated enunciation, Nicole Hoskins is a standout as the childless Nola who, despite being married to the good-natured Ernie (a likeable Jack Bannister) is tempted towards an adulterous affair with his larrikin mate Rowley (an appropriately beguiling and swaggersome Will Carseldine), with whom her husband fought in World War Two.

As a cultural artefact, “The Season at Sarsaparilla”, serves as tribute to a time deceptively regarded as simple, but as the QUT BFA (Acting) final-year students, supported by QUT BFA (Technical Production) students, show us, it is also a metaphor for so much more. Like the prolonged vowel-accented drawl of a broad ocker accent of old, the show is a long one and sometimes it feels that way, taking a while to establish households and relationships before getting into the action of the story’s conflict ahead of interval. Still, within this expanse there are many opportunities realised by cast members and creatives alike.

Sparkling sisters

The Sapphires (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

March 19 – 20

Inspired by a true story of four young Aboriginal country-singing women from regional Australia, “The Sapphires” is one of our country’s best-loved stories, thanks largely to the popular 2012 musical comedy-drama film based on the 2004 stage play of the same name. This is clear both from the capacity crowd at QUT’s Garden’s Theatre for opening night of the Brisbane leg of the Hit Productions’ tour of the gem of a story and the immediate audience response to the titular divas. Introduced as Australia’s deadliest entertainers who have gone on from performing on the back of trucks and at debutante balls to become a slick international musical act, the group’s four members Kay (Matilda Brown), Cynthia (Mindy Kwanten), Julie (Lorina May Merrypor) and Gail (Ngaire Pigram) certainly sparkle, making the show an overall entertaining experience.


Even though it takes a while for the production to settle into itself, the soul divas immediately display their vocal talents with ‘Heatwave’. And together, the ladies can certainly sing. The melody of their a cappella ‘Yellow Bird’ warm up for competition at the St Kilda Tiki Club makes this clear. It is at the club’s 1968 Search for Star talent quest where the sisters meet talent scout Dave Lovelace (Mike Smith) who forms them into the group, The Sapphires, to tour army bases in Vietnam to sing for troops during the war. Once there, individual stories unfold against the tumultuous backdrop. Things lag a little in Act Two though, especially with some drawn-out scenes of distracting load and unload of suitcases from a cumbersome truck and the performers do well to keep things bouncy even when the script loses its own energy.


The leading ladies, in particular, are all engaging performers. There is a familiarity to their between-sister comic banter of teasing and threats and when they do this in argument about whether Julie should join her older sisters in performance, it comes across as one of the most natural and comfortable scenes of the show.


It is easy to appreciate the family dynamics given the diversity of personalities of the sisters. As their leader of sorts, forthright and not-easily-managed Gail, Ngaire Pigram not only conveys the right amount of feistiness, but effectively manages her transition from scepticism to affection for Dave as a natural progression. Mindy Kwanten makes the ego-ed Cynthia appropriately larger than life in personality, however, as such, the character often dominates proceedings at the expense of the delicacy of her sister’s narratives. The supporting cast (Aljin Abella, Don Battee and Calen Tassone), meanwhile, add interest in a variety of roles to flesh out subplots as much as possible.


United in song the group generally comes together well, although ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, highlights that not all voices are as powerful. They certainly look the part though, with careful consuming establishing a sense of time and place in daywear contrast to the sequined-up razzle dazzle of the ladies’ concert attire. Lighting also works well both for function and to allude to the story’s changing thematic moods.

The small backing band (Mitchell Kwanten, Joel Macintyre and Jack Hickey) may be somewhat hidden away towards the back of the stage, however, they make their presence known, adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of the evening. And it is great to see them given their own musical moments to shine. However, the show is billed as a story with songs, so that the sudden addition of individual character musical-type numbers in Act Two unsettles things in terms of overall cohesion.


By its time and place setting alone, “The Sapphires” is in some way political. While this production touches on these themes, its essence is about more than just this and it feels like anything beyond what we see, would not be a good fit with the show’s essentially light-weight sensibility. After all, the appeal of “The Sapphires” comes mostly from its classic soul pieces and easy-listening music of The Temptations and The Supremes sort, which is sure to hit the spot for many audience members as this production tours to over 140 locations in Australia in 2019/2020, in theatres and ‘off the road’ on a special ‘Pop-Up’ stage for remote Aboriginal communities, hopefully improving in its consistency as it does.

Pub performances

Two (Ensemble Theatre)

Gardens Theatre

March 1 – 2

Jim Cartwright’s 1989 two-hander “Two” is set in a rural pub, familiar in its grubby glass and gaudy carpet staging. Its patrons have a familiarity too, as does its married-couple publicans (real-life husband and wife Brian Meegan and Kate Raison).


The couple’s association with the pub is part of their being; they met as children outside it, became engaged there and had their wedding reception there, before eventually buying the establishment. From the moment the show opens, they are bantering. Over time, however, it becomes clear that this is not the playful bickering of a couple in love as a traumatic event is hinted at and then drawn out in ultimate revelation though also initially unrealistically ambiguous dialogue.


Theirs is not the only story being shared, for on a typical night out in a place like this, everyone has a story. The twist is that all fourteen colourful characters are sharply played by either Meegan or Raison. The result may not capture anything of comradery of a night out at the local, but it does showcase a master class of acting particularly from Meegan who transitions between loveable, unlikeable, elderly and youthful characters with ease in the self-contained vignettes.


Just as there is no narrative arc, the character stories are told in a potpourri of approaches. Some are like monologues, others as if half of a conversation and one comes with some audience interaction. Often they come with deliberate padding, as is required between stories to allow for albeit quick character transformations backstage.


The extremes of patron stories are evident from the show’s early scenes, when we are taken from an aging woman enjoying a drink as repute from the physical and mental toll of caring for a husband in medical need, to the cheesy flirtation and daggy dance moves of man out with his long suffering girlfriend. The contrasts are also emphasised by the sometimes stark transitions. Indeed, the stories could perhaps be better curated together, not just to fit in with the course of an evening in the establishment; taking the audience from sentimental to shocking, via some humour, results in some audience members not always knowing how to react, which detracts from the impact of some of its more powerful scenes. Also, some clichés and an all-too-quick first step to relationship resolution are a little bothersome.


Jim Cartwright is one of Britain’s most prolific and well-known playwrights and “Two” certainly has a Northern pub feel to both its aesthetic and sensibility. Localising the play with an Australian flavour is perhaps not even necessary given the commonality of some of its stories and themes of human frailty and being trapped by circumstance. Its 1980s setting is, however, clear, from the 20-cent jukebox play price as much as its step-back-in-time celebration of the music if plays…. Not to mention the Riccodonna on offer over the bar. However, while the miming of props may be understandable in the case of imagined interactions of rapid-fire service from behind the bar, in scenes where the action moves to the tables and chairs at which patrons are drinking, pretend glasses are somewhat of a distraction from the quality performances of these two versatile actors.


The show is a tight 70 minutes duration, though it seems like longer perhaps due to number of stories shared. Like a short story collection, its anthology of tales will surely feature some favourites for individual audience members, which will cause its overall experience to ebb and flow. Ultimately, however, while its overall craftedness comes across as sometimes somewhat sloppy, its acting is undeniably excellent and perhaps worth the price of admission alone.

Playhouse provocation

Playhouse Creatures (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

August 28 – 29


It was a case of women of the stage meeting Queens of the Stone Age at Brisbane’s Garden’s Theatre on Tuesday night as Hit Production’s “Playhouse Creatures” delivered against a doof doof background underlay. The result was quite the juxtaposition as the sepia toned staging and solo cello sounds (courtesy of Director Jordan Best) charted audience travel back to the Restoration period of 1669 England, when women were first allowed to appear on stage, upon decree from King Charles II, recently returned from exile in France.

The podium-style staging, with changerooms downstairs was once a bear pit we are told by rough-as-guts, cockney attendant Doll Common (Liz Bradley), until it became to Playhouse upon whose stage the female troupe appears as the best thing to happen to theatre. They are a group of playhouse creatures of all sorts, passionate off stage and on, as they act with raised arms in woe (following a ‘hands of the clock’ emotive acting technique) as much as breast bared in fervour, playing out some instantly recognisable key scenes. (The witches’ ‘double double toil and trouble’ introduction from Shakespeare’s Scottish play towards the end of Act One is a particular treat).

On-stage the women play not Thane nor Moor or Prince, but have found roles just as substantial, only in legacy of when female roles were both written and played by men, as we see as Mrs Betterton (Karen Vickery) tries to rid herself of that damn’d spot as Lady Macbeth. Too often, they are rather relegated to the roles of unfaithful wife, whore and mistress.

After meeting Mrs Farley (Yanina Clifton), 16-year-old barmaid Nell Gywnn (Zoe Priest) talks her way into the theatre company of Mr Thomas Betterton through his wife and the leading actress, much to the annoyance of the essentially angry Mrs Marshall (Emma Wood). Nell just wants to be on stage so quests to overcome her performance anxiety to stand alongside the others, and in doing so catches the eye of the King. Regardless of their individual stories, however, the troubles of the women are clear as they work under constant personal threats while doing what they can to draw a crowd.

There is an enormous authenticity that adds to the appeal of this show. The characters have been enlivened from the inspiration of some of the most prominent actresses of the era, including Nell Gwynn and Mary Betterton, who performed on stage at a time when no ‘respectable’ woman pursued an acting career. Swearing and crass mannerisms capture the bawdy and troublesome time and two level staging adds interest when  the podium that serves as the era’s stage is not providing distraction of creaking sounds as they move about. Costuming is authentic, but also interest in seeing how the garments are put-upon the body, while all-the-time presenting a notable emphasis of the constraints of women.

There is a clear feminist theme throughout the show’s talk of female freedoms and the celebration of women working together rather than tearing each other down. But there are dark tones too as we are graphically presented with the reality of the sacrifices some had to make to be on stage. And as the self-described ‘old and eccentric’ at the end of her career veteran Mrs Betterton, retiring due to failing audience interest while her husband continues to act opposite her younger successor, Vickery gives a masterclass monologue about the allure and addition of acting.

In its at-once moving and comic account of the women’s precarious on-and-off-stage lives, “Playhouse Creatures” is a show of decent duration, however, its story is so fascinating and its performances so engaging that its experience seems to fly by. Generally speaking, it shows the role of initial provocation in provision of an ultimate lasting legacy. More resolutely though it reminds us of the courage of pioneering women upon whose shoulders we humbly hold our modern selves.