Back with bite

Naked & Screaming

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 6 – 28

“You’re doing really well… I love you so much,” Simon tells his partner Emily as “Naked & Screaming” opens to a familiar birth scene scenario, apparently full of irony given the story that will unfold in the following 80 minutes of the show that marks La Boite Theatre’s return. Naked and Screaming may well describe how their baby Dylan has entered the world, but it also is a fitting account of how new parents Emily (Emily Burton) and Simon (Jackson McGovern) end up experiencing their first year of parenthood, emotionally exposed and silently screaming for help as their frank and difficult conversations about the imbalance of their new roles and the consequences of failing to meet expectations transform into the misfortune that can evolve from the share of the thoughts usually kept buried down deep.

The world premiere of the new Australian family tragedy from award-winning playwright Mark Rogers features dynamic direction by Sanja Simic, starting snappily with a quick move from Emily’s labour to the couple leaving hospital and facing the reality of responsibilities beyond. These early scenes are very funny in the hyperbolic familiarity of their domesticity and the couple’s clueless interactions with the invisible baby Dylan, even if on opening night, the couple’s volleying dialogue is sometimes lost underneath audience laughter.

Things move fast and as the pair’s passive aggressive erodes to outright snipes at each other, it is clear that the new parents are struggling. When Simon heads overseas on a three-week work trip, we watch left-alone Emily’s frustration initially still through the lens of humour until things shift. The clever script ensures that the laughs subtly recede as it is made clear that the sleep-deprived new mother is barely coping. And then an incident occurs that catalyses an unravelling of the couple’s relationship beyond just their new parent dilemmas about losing a sense of self, into a new realm of mistrust and resentment.

The fact that this is a two-hander means there is nowhere to hide on stage, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the performers’ detailed approaches to the physicality and interaction with their not-really-there baby, which is made all the more impressive by their effortless quick shifts from scene to scene and the associated, contrasting tones and emotions. And while it may take a moment to adjust to the invisibility of baby Dylan, even beyond its practicalities, this is soon understandable as this is a story about the dramatic twists and turns of the couple’s relationship and the raw emotions that these generate.

Staging is also effective in its apparent simplicity. La Boite’s in-the-round stage is one of neutral palettes upon which the chaos of laundry and toys soon paints an identifiable scene, with a giant mobile casting its hand over the domestic setting that set and costume designer Chloe Reeves has created. Ben Hughes’ lighting design works with Guy Webster’s sound design to chronicle passages of time and illuminate the couple’s most honest conversation before darkening their turn towards the worst of human nature. And while the story’s climax may not necessarily be what is anticipated from its enigmatic teaser blurb, it is still emotionally devastating.

While the play’s events occur in a Queensland setting with a scattering of location et al references, the universality of its themes means that its location is of minor significance. Indeed, this is a work that should resonate widely, not only with parents, but with anyone who has navigated the complexity that comes from intimate relationship connections. The fly-on-the-wall audience experience not only makes the dramatic thriller all the more compelling in its honesty, resulting in some audible audiences gasps of sorrow in the searing imagery of its final scene, but it memorably presents its biting commentary of societal expectations, leaving audiences with much to think about after the show’s end.

Photos c/o: Morgan Roberts

Boho Boom!

Tick, Tick… Boom! (That Production Company)

Crete Street Theatre

March 12 – 14

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Like Bobby in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”, struggling artist Jon (Jackson McGovern) is grappling with a 30s birthday. As many do, he considers this as a turning point in life, as he sees those around him all appearing to be settling down. Especially, he is filled with pre-mid-life-crisis self-doubt around his decision to be a composer, given how his musical theatre career has stalled. Exploration of this is what makes up the 90 minutes of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, the musical by “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson, an autobiographical work that Larson performed on-and-off as a solo show prior to the debut of his magnum opus musical.

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In 2001, five years after Larson’s death, a revised, three-character version of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, premiered off-Broadway. Even expanded to a three-person show, this remains an intimate piece of theatre. More reflective rock monologue than musical, it traverses a range of somewhat obscure song inspirations, with numbers like ‘Green Dress’ and ‘Sugar’. The songs are written by Jon as part of this story about ambitiously writing a show, the dystopian musical Superbia. And while he is waiting on tables and trying to write the “Hair” of the ‘90s, those around him are equally at odds with their lives; his girlfriend Susan (Stephanie Long) wants to get married and move out of New York City, and his best friend Michael (Josh Whitten) is making big bucks on Madison Avenue.

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Whitten is delightful as Jon’s fabulous friend Michael who relishes the lavish Gucci lifestyle he enjoys living in Victory Towers in contrast to that of his composer friend-since-summer-camp-days. And he contributes immensely to the humour of two particularly memorable scenes, when Jon takes up Michael’s offer to work at his advertising agency and during the dance break of ‘No More’. Similarly, Long jumps in and out of numerous roles with ease and showcases incredible vocals in the musical-within-a-musical’s show stopping number, ‘Come to Your Senses’. And McGovern is excellent in the demanding role as the passionate protagonist Jon, one that sees him on stage for the show’s duration. His energetic almost frenetic performance projects an authentic sense of time running out, that sits well with the show’s themes.

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It is unfortunate that “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is performed so infrequently. The style that eventually blossomed into “Rent” is certainly evident. ‘No More’, for example, has a real ‘Rent’ fast-paced rock sound. A range of emotions is covered in its soundtrack of diverse styles (Larson took much pride in being able to write music in a wide variety of genres) and subjects, with witty lyrics like those of Jon’s idol, Stephen Sondheim. ‘Sunday’, for example, is about the boorish patrons of the diner in which Jon works, while ‘No More,’ is a humorous ode to materialism.

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‘30/90’ is a catchy opening rock number in its build to an explosive chorus, immediately showcasing the small, but talented band (under Luke Volker’s musical direction) hidden from view high above the stage. And Daniel Anderson’s lighting evokes an array of emotional palettes and settings in complement of Lachlan Van Der Kreek’s vision design, capturing the beauty that lies at the core of this thoughtful work.

Its themes are familiar to those in the ‘La Boheme’ no-day-like-today know, as Jon laments the difficulty of being idealist and original in the unimaginative early 1990s (as a solo show it was initially known by the title “Boho Days”). Indeed, when Jon explains how he believes that his brand of rock music could change Broadway, one cannot help but think of their prophecy in relation to Larson’s revolutionary rock opera “Rent”, one of the industry’s most influential works from even its hugely successful off-Broadway run.

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While “Tick, Tick … Boom!” has no musical numbers as memorable as those of the latter “Rent”, it does include hint enough to tantalise the taste-buds of Rent-heads and newbies alike. It is an entertaining boho-ish show, experience of which flies by in what appears to be the shortest of times, thanks to Timothy Wynn’s tight direction. Whilst it is a must-see show for all the lovers of “Rent”, That Production Company’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is also a compelling show for musical theatre fans in general, superbly realised, as always, by a company that never disappoints.

Return to youth

This is Our Youth (Underground Broadway and Between the Flags)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

February 28 – March 4

Metro Arts’ converted cinema space The Lumen Room is not the most comfortable theatre for a long show. And “This is Our Youth” is far from concise, especially in Act Two when its conversations circle back over familiar dysfunctional territory as its privileged barely-beyond-teens bicker in between the drug consumption of their consequence free existence. But it is a show worth seeing for its thematic resonance and superb performances.

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The story shares two days in the lives of three disillusioned youth as they run amuck in a New York City studio apartment. Warren (Jackson McGovern) has stolen $15,000 from his father, which captures the attention of his selfish and intimidating drug-dealing not-really-friend Dennis (Mark Hill), but provides Warren with the means to impress the quite clever and articulate Jessica (Bellatrix Scott).

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It is the Reagan era 1980s we are told. We see touches of it in the set, but don’t always hear it in the dialogue. What we do hear, however, are the impressive cast accents. Thanks to Dialect Coach Melissa Agnew, the actors’ New Jerseyish twangs of diphthong vowels cements the show in place and add to its credibility.

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The performers are all excellence. Hill gives Dennis an almost desperate, swaggersome arrogance, evident down to the smallest physical nuance and McGovern is touching as his dispirited ‘friend’ and whipping boy Warren so that we feel for him, his problems and his repeated blows, despite his privilege, and rejoice with him at hint of a relationship with Jessica. And Scott gives the fashion student a charismatic complexity as she moves from self-conscious, nervous interaction with Warren to political provocation with her observations about the nature of youth and its role in defining your later self. Indeed, it is a credit to both the script and its realisation that its clever allusions to political commentary of our time are more subtle than the usual written-to-order type of late.

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In Act One, particularly, “This is Our Youth” offers up a razor-sharp comedy-drama about these three unsettled youngsters, who would now be (as it is observed in Director Tim Hill’s program notes), a privileged group of powerful while men today. The engagement it brings is not just through the quality of its performances, but its ask of great questions around these notions. Indeed, its success comes from it examination of the inherent questions in the work and interrogation of them in a way that only theatre can. As such, this deceptively-simple story of 1980s slackers deserves to be seen.