and that’s a 2018 wrap

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A quick pre-Christmas trip to Melbourne this week has not only give me my favourite theatre experience of the year in Calamity Jane, but provided a chance to reflect on a theatre year now done. Although still in the triple digits, I saw fewer shows in 2018 than in previous years, because…. Netflix. And, as usual, there have been many highlights, making it difficult to providing a definitive list of favourites. But reflective lists are what the end of a year is all about, so here is my eclectic top 10 of the memorable, the musical, the moving and the mirthful, and some honourable mentions.

  1. Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)
  2. Hamnet (Dead Centre) as part of Brisbane Festival
  3. Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)
  4. Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)
  5. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)
  7. The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)
  8. Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects) as part of Brisbane Festival
  9. At Last: The Etta James Story (Brisbane Powerhouse)
  10. The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

And mention also to the following highlights:

Best performance:

  • Virgina Gay as the titular feisty frontierswoman in Calamity Jane
  • Paul Capsis as 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture.

Best AV – A Christmas Carol (optikal bloc for shake & stir theatre co)

Most thought provoking –- Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

Best new work – The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Best musical

  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  • Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
  • Bare (Understudy Productions)

Best cabaret:

Best music – The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)

Best dance – Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

Funniest – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Most joyous – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

Cleverest – North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

Most moving – Hamnet (Dead Centre)

Cross-cultural comedy-drama

Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 12 – August 4

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Amongst the vibrancy of contemporary Australian theatrical works, “Good Muslim Boy” stands tall as one of merit. The Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre stage adaptation of the 2015 prize-winning memoir (and 2016 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards winner) of the same name by Iraqi-Australian actor, comedian and writer Osamah Sami is not set in Australia, however, but rather a wintery Iran where Osamah’s father has taken him on pilgrimage. The trip is Osamah’s father’s attempt to recharge and reconnect his son with his roots, in response to his failing arranged marriage and hedonistic Western lifestyle as judged by the suburban mosque community at which his father is imam.

The holy land holds little appeal for Osamah who, despite being born in Iran, speaks Arabic, but not fluent Persian. So while his cleric father is moved at The Imam Reza holy shrine in Mashad, Osamah is more interested in taking selfies and trying to catch up on sporting scores from back home in Australia. When tragedy strikes during the trip, there’s no time for emotion as Osamah attempts to work around the bureaucratic nightmare of pilgrim season Iran to return home to Australia without overstaying his visa.

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The life-changing and life-defining story is recounted by performer, cowriter and co-creator Osamah Sami himself, on stage, (along with Rodney Afif and Nicole Nabout, in a multitude of character roles). And what an extraordinary and absolutely absorbing story it is. Its 85-minute duration is one of sustained tension that remains wisely unbroken by an intermission, but is effectively juxtaposed by humour, frequently through the range of often comic characters identifiable to anyone who has travelled in the chaotic Middle East.

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The three-handed comedy-drama is realised in its energetic and compelling performances. As a young man torn between his obligation to be a good Muslim boy and his passion for the arts and the escape of storytelling evoked by his father’s tales, Sami makes audiences feel (rather than just feel for) his frustration as he is transformed into a stronger man. Aend his presence on stage leading us through his journey both creates a direct connection of shared moments and makes the show all that more special.

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Naout and Afif are clearly versatile performers in their swift switches in and out of countless both male and female characters (some who not even have any dialogue) that come into Osamaha’s story, presenting sharp delineation between characters, occasionally assisted by minimal, simple props. Although Nabout shows enormous range in shift, for example, from Osamaha’s eight-year-old daughter in Australia to a slow-moving octogenarian in Iran, Afif is particularly memorable as Osamah’s principled father. His measured performance makes his mix of dad jokes and wise words of regard for others most endearing, especially in his awareness and attempted support of his wayward son.

The solitary set belies its inventive staging as a perspex bus/tram stop shelter of moveable parts is changed at lightning speed into all sorts of locations. This not only allows the episodic story to pace along through its many short scenes, but it shows how the performer’s characterisation is primarily what drives the narrative. Ben Hughes’ lighting helps audiences along the emotional journey, warming into focus flashbacks in reminder of earlier situations, such as when Osamah’s father recalls life as an Iraqi living in Iran during the armed conflict between the two nations. Lighting also works well with Phil Slade’s composition and sound design to develop location and atmosphere such as in creation of a beautiful moment when Osamah awakes to a sunrise call to morning prayer.

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“Good Muslim Boy” is a big story full of small moments around its themes of family and relationship with faith. Indeed, there is a touching humanity to its minor moments, including share of an incident and explanation of how charity can destroy a poorer man’s pride. The autobiographical piece maintains the great heart that is the essence of the memoir that is itself dedicated to Osamah’s ‘father, confidant, friend and absolute hero’.

This is a little play that leaves a big impact, at once gripping and fascinating in its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ reality. Crafted by Janice Muller’s direction, the heavy subject matter is handled well and enhanced by a skilful comic touch of also light and lively scenes to sit alongside heavier ones in tell of a refugee experience, making for a dramatic and touching theatre event that will not only rivet for its duration but resonate long afterwards in memory of its insight into universal themes beyond the specifics of faith.