Grand final theatre

The Longest Minute (Queensland Theatre with debase productions and JUTE Theatre Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 26 – June 23

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Given their shared drama, theatre and sport are not that different. Yet rarely do the rituals combine. And even more infrequently do they fuse together to produce a work as significant as “The Longest Minute”, Queensland Theatre’s co-production with debase productions and Cairns’ JUTE Theatre Company, which centres around the final golden-point minute of the conclusive and premiership-deciding 2015 all-Queensland NRL Grand Final.

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After years of defeat, the seemingly impossible occurs when the North Queensland Cowboys claim their first premiership title in their twentieth year of the competition. This is Townsville, where life runs at a different pace and rugby league is a religion that, in mixed-metaphor, is heralded by King of the North, Johnathan Thurston. Our protagonist Jessica Wright (Chenoa Deemal) is a footy fanatic who wants to be a fullback like Hopevale legend Matty Bowen and play football (not netball or touch football) for the Cowboys and Queensland. It’s all her parents fault; not only are white mum Margaret (Louise Brehmer) and Aboriginal father Frank (Mark Sheppard), unwavering fans, but she was born on the night of the NQ Cowboy’s first Winfield Cup game at the then Stockland Stadium in 1995.

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Football is in Jess’ blood; her father is the locally-famous former Foley Shield player Frank ‘The Black Flash’ Wright and her introverted brother Laurie (Jeremy Ambrum) is a talented Academy player, despite having a deep-seeded disinterest in playing professionally. And so Jess dreams of playing in the Jillaroos Australia women’s national rugby league team, even though the rules are that she can only play locally in the mixed team until she turns 13. And so “The Longest Minute” is the simultaneous story of (as its tagline proclaims) one football club, one family and one unforgettable NRL grand final. As such, it is a uniquely Queensland tale but also ultimately a wider one, with automatic appeal to not only sunshine-staters but all regional Australians who perhaps rarely see themselves accurately represented on stages.

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Opening night sees a real sense of comradery, community even amongst the audience (many of whom are wearing Cowboys or Broncos supporter gear) as ‘Eagle Rock’ soundtracks a volunteer’s footy skills on a single-set stage that has been transformed into a grassy league field, with scoreboard to signpost the passing of years and the location of scenes.

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The striking lighting (Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright) and soundscape (sound design/composition by Kim Busty Beatz Bowers) is used effectively throughout, such as in establishing the thrill of being on the hill in perfect spot to watch your team lose (design by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesoreri). And when a ‘Queenslander’ chant commences before the siren signal of ‘game on’ for the start of the show proper, the palpable spirit and engery is unlike anything usually experienced in a theatre setting. Then the narrative begins with audio recording of that final minute, almost too tense to watch, which saw the Cowboys turn around 21 years of being a joke’s punchline.

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Even though the match in question is regarded as one of the greatest grand finals in rugby league history, it is the off-field drama that occupies the story’s attention. And like sport, the show is full of good times (and abundant hilarity) along with tension, and there is an uncertainty around the direction it takes to its ultimate outcome. Indeed, the craftedness of Rovert Kronk and Nadine McDonald-Dowd’s script is such that it takes audiences from riotous laughter in one moment to the shared silence of absolute shock in the next. These are real and complex characters for whom sorry is said through a stoic attitude as much as actual words of apology. As a North Queenlander, it made me feel so many things over its twists and turns… proud, sad and nostalgic for Phelan’s pies and follow of the quality players to come out of the Foley shield North Queensland league competition.

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In its touches on sexism in sport, racism, disparate small town (despite being a city) life and cultural identity, the show offers many moments of light and shade thanks to Bridget Boyle’s considered direction and the affecting performances of all cast members in roller-coasting the audience through the agony and ecstasy of its story. Deemal is fantastic as the feisty Jess, showing equal parts warmth and passion as she journeys from school girl to determined adolescent. Sheppard is especially wonderful in early scenes where he is full of ‘Black Flash’ bravado and as his down-to-earth wife Margaret, Brehmer is initially hilarious and later emboldened as a mother trying to ease family tensions and the aftermath of tragedy.

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A largely underused Ambrum brings physical comedy to his initial scenes as a toddler, but this is ultimately not where he leaves his mark. Lafe Charlton is stoical as a laconic Uncle Gordon from Cloncurry and, along with David Terry, he pops into the action with some hilarious moments as a variety of characters in the ensemble.

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Like any epic league match, the show’s emotional roller coaster is over in an hour and a half, but it is 90 minutes during which so much happens. In offering a perspective on the world in which we live beyond just a sense of humour, it also holds a mirror to our society whose image we might not necessarily find comforting. Like Rugby League itself, however, “The Longest Minute” will not only break your heart, but fill it with soul (and side-splitting laughs). Most importantly though, it tells one of our stories and widens theatre’s cultural landscape, making it accessible to audiences beyond just traditional theatre fans to those sports-lovers who think theatre is not for them, and for that it must be applauded.

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PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

Territory Truths

Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre Company and Jute Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 6 – 16

A male voice begins from beneath the cloak of darkness, asking what identity the audience can create from just its sounds. What follows this initial challenge is a very human account of the narrator, Russell’s (Benhur Helwend) search for self, set against the story of a city’s attempts to carve out an identity. Russell is determined to be more than just a Friday night drag show (although his Act Three Bassey-esque “This Is My Life” is as impressive as it is thematically appropriate). But he is conflicted by his past. He doesn’t know who his biological father is, his mother Lois (Lauren Jackson) disappeared when he was eight and he has been raised by a conservative father Neville, who carries his own demons from his time in 1960s New Guinea, before repatriation to Darwin.

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Over three acts, and with help from era-evocative costumes and soundtracks, the audience is transported back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and then the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as the city sits poised for political progress. With mentions of mahjong, TAA and apricot chicken, the Tupperware world of 1960s expats is established early in Act One. Newly-married, former hostie Lois doesn’t take naturally to the colonial plantation attitude of some within her new Port Moresby home, clashing deliciously in her interactions with the spiteful Nanette (played to perfection by Suellen Maunder), a woman initially loveably stereotypical in her delight in others’ business and later passively aggressive in her manipulations. With Lois’ public servant husband Neville (Peter Norton) forcussed on his work, she joins the ‘Moresby Arts Theatre’, where her mind is not all that is stimulated.

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Fast forward a stormy post-Tracey Darwin, when the kaftans and crème de menthe are both flowing to a soundtrack of Nana Mascuri and Abba and, unbeknown to Russell, the past arrives to catch up with his mother and tear her away from his life. Then it is 2001 and Russell and his partner Alistair have transformed Russell’s childhood home into a hip, urban art gallery by day, queer cabaret venue by night, much to the chagrin of Russel’s now elderly father.

It is a complex story, directed with precision by Ian Lawson, to account for the multiple roles of four of six actors in the cast. Helwend, in particular shows remarkable versatility, equally convincing in his varied potential father roles of draft-dodging artist, fierce freedom fighter and obliging houseboy, and also especially as his almost eight-year-old narrator self in Act Two. And Jackson captures the conflict of his mother, torn as she is between her need to nurture, want towards wanderlust and dissatisfaction with her lot in life.

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The standout performance, however, comes from the Country Party Minister Neville Senior (Steven Tandy) of Act Three, cutting in his comments to his son, accepting of his party’s impending loss of long-term power and cognisant of his own mortality

Like an anecdotal reflection “Bastard Territory” is not linear in its narrative, but, like memory, the saga jumps around a little in recall of events, all while maintaining a central focus on a flawed family. Stephen Carelton has created a story that is wry with humour, yet powerful and affecting. Some of its most commanding moments come from when dialogue is delivered in unison from the younger Neville, overlooked by his aged self.

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This is what makes the show so rewarding; the fact that at the core of the confessional drama is a beautiful story about people, not just ideas, brought to life by a superb cast. As such, it is well worth the investment of time to join Russell on his journey towards discovery of his truth.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography + Film