Thousand tops

With 2020 being largely taken out of the mix, it has taken me just over 8 years to review 1000 shows as Blue Curtains Brisbane. And my top 10 favourites from within them, appropriately feature shows from 2013 to 2021… a mix of comedy, cabaret, musicals, theatre and festival fare.

1. Delectable Shelter (The Hayloft Project)

The Hayloft Project’s 2013 out-of-the-box black comedy, “Delectable Shelter” literally took place in a box as bunker at Brisbane Powerhouse in its claustrophobic tell of five doomsday survivors planning a utopian society. With ‘80s power ballads and hilarious homages to their ancestors from later descendants, there was so much by which to be entertained in the anarchy of its apocalyptic storytelling, making it my absolute favourite.

2. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (National Theatre of Great Britain)

In 2018, the National Theatre of Great Britain provided QPAC audiences with an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition with their acclaimed production of Mark Hadden’s much-loved novel. Inventive, imaginative stage design which saw the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, provided many visually memorable moments authentic to experience of the show’s London production.

3. All My Love (HIT Productions)

HIT Productions’ sensitive “All My Love” chronicled the fascinating and little-known relationship between the larger-than-life writer and poet Henry Lawson and the radical socialist and literary icon Mary Gilmore, taking its audience along an evocative journey about the people beyond their words, but also their passion in a “Love Letters” type way.

4. Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre)

The musical so nice, Queensland Theatre programed it twice. With stunning visuals and costumes, a soundtrack featuring over 20 original Tim Finn songs and humour, the Helpman-Award-winning musical took audiences into both the glitz of a high-end 1950s department store shop floor and the personal lives of its employees with infectious wit and charm.

5. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The Curator’s 2021 drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

6. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company)

In 2016, Daniel Evans’ gave meaning anew to Shakespeare’s depiction of the Machiavellian King Richard III through bold exploration of its story’s silences, gaps and biases and dynamic discovery of new character depths and unexpected provocations.

7. Hamnet (Dead Centre)

As part of the 2018 Brisbane Festival, Ireland’s Dead Centre used audio visual technology in combination with live performance to give us the perfectly-pitched and movingly thought-provoking story of Shakespeare’s one son (just 11 when he died), knowing that he is just one letter away from greatness.

8. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

My favourite ever Queensland Theatre show…. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the company’s landmark 2021 production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

9. California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French)

The 2016 Spiegeltent saw audiences treated to the first Brisfest appearance of the cool-cat cabaret crooners of the “California Crooners Club”. The energetic and charming show from genuine, generous performers (led by concept creator Hugh Sheridan), was a marvellous mixed bag of old, new and original numbers curated together and harmonised like familiar favourites.

10. Forthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

And….

Special mention to La Boite Theatre Company’s “Still Standing”, which in 2002 and 2003 presented a music-filled immersion into the Brisbane rock scene of the 1980s as counter-culture to the repressive Bjelke-Petersen regime that although I saw before starting reviewing, still stands as my favourite ever Brisbane theatre experience.

‘60s summer stories

Away (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 25 – November 13

Along with “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”, Michael Gow’s “Away” is Australian Drama 101. The play is a classic work easily able to be revisited and seen anew through a contemporary lens, celebration of which is central to La Boite Theatre’s revival of the much-loved work.

The summer print of usher outfits and preshow of-era soundtrack of The Seekers’ ‘Georgie Girl’ et al, transports us to the story’s summer beach holiday represented simply on stage. However, while Gow’s memory play is of a childhood of idyllic summer holidays of this sort, when the night hues unsettle from their pre-show blanket of the stage, we are taken not to the beach of its 1967 setting, but rather the conclusion of a school’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which young Tom (Reagan Mannix) has starred as Puck.

The play serves as punctuation to the school year before families depart for summer holidays appropriate to their respective status. Class conflicts are evident as Tom’s immigrant parents, still full of wonder around the novelty of a summer Christmas, are condescended to by the strict mother of his classmate Meg (Billy Fogarty). Middle class Gwen (Emily Burton) is appalled that the working class English migrants will be spending their holidays in a lean-to-tent, as opposed to their prime caravan park spot. Meanwhile, school headmaster Roy (Bryan Probets) is flying his wife Coral (Christen O’Leary) to a glitzy Gold Coast resort for some rest and recreation, in hope to snap her out of her all-consuming grief over the recent death of their conscript son in Vietnam.

From its opening scene, issues of its time of social upheaval swirl around the play’s smaller, personal and human stories, for all three families have their own turmoil and are struggling in some way. When a force of Shakespearean proportions forces their respective vacations to fall apart, their crises are brought to a head by their intersection. As their secrets are shared, relationships are forged and repaired and new hope is fostered.

Mannix gives a brilliant performance in his professional debut, easily illustrating his character’s development from enthusiastic schoolboy to mature, mindful young adult and Fogarty’s conveyance of Meg’s stoicism serves a strong complement to this. Alongside them, a talented who’s who of Brisbane theatre fills out the cast. Ngoc Phan and Kevin Spink capture their character’s immigrant optimism in their easy-going attitudes in mask of the painful reality they know they will be facing in the future. As Meg’s father Jim, Sean Dow gives us patient character counterpoint to the blunt force that is his wife Gwen. Burton is brilliant in making Gwen immediately unlikeable as the highly strung woman always in need of a Bex and a bit of a lie down. However, while her manner is obviously hiding a deep hurt, her dialogue is so brittle and snipes so viciously spat out that some of the impact of her emotional journey is lost by the suddenness of her character change.  

Proberts is excellent as stoic headmaster Roy, delivering one of the play’s most moving monologues in reflection of the price needed to be paid for the life we have, in defence of his son’s conscription to Vietnam. And O’Leary is mesmeric in her delicate realisation of his fragile and frayed wife Coral, ready to retreat into the darkness and shadows that appear as metaphor for her grief.

A textured aesthetic suits the magical realism at the centre of director Daniel Evans’ vision. A swelling soundscape and sepia-toned nostalgia takes the audience into the post-holiday realities that end the play. Shakespearean references abound as a tempest of a storm catalyses a change for each family. Indeed, Brady Watkins sound design and composition, and Ben Hughes’ lighting design effectively combine to storm us through new year’s eve to 1968 and into interval.

Of era props and some exquisite 1960s gowns, assist in transporting audiences away into the on-stage world. Indeed, Sarah Winter’s set and costume design reveals an attention to detail even down to the shell cases that surround the stage lighting of the central stage. The round stage works well, not just for in-the-round audience engagement, but to represent the divide in families as conversations occur from across its sides. And Liesel Zink’s choreography is impressive, both in the initial ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ segment, and in the show’s creative considerations of all the opportunities of space to give levels from which observers can look down upon the action.

At 140 minutes duration (including interval), this “Away” is a long one, with not only inclusion of a play scene within a play, but an end of season campground concert performance, which although provide a comic balance to the heavy themes of the narrative’s drama, do drag things a little. Mostly, there is a delicate balance between the show’s tones, as fantasies and dreams explode from its domestic naturalism, however, some moments don’t land as well as others, such as when audience laughter continues without recognition of the mood change coming from the urgency of Tom’s desire to lose his virginity to Meg, meaning that the production isn’t as moving as it should be in some moments.

“Away” is a political and social time capsule story about reconciliation, acceptance of life’s obstacles and the need to move forward. Yet, in its exploration of suspicion of outsiders and fear of change, it still has a lot to say about who we were, through the lens of who we are now that we are more grown up as a nation, making it a worth a visit, especially for anybody yet to experience this classic and widely produced work from one of our country’s most significant playwrights.

Photos c/o Morgan Roberts

Behind the Shakespeare scenes

Caesar (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 23 – August 7

“Welcome Julius Caesar” we see posted on a side-of-stage whiteboard before La Boite’s world premiere contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s political thriller “Julius Caesar” fills the space.  As the show begins, there are notices added, a rack of costumes wheeled into place and hand props put in the required locations of their table by the stage manager of the obviously play within a play, Billy Fogarty. Soon, the actors being arriving for their first rehearsal. Chenoa Deemal, Giema Contini, Bryan Probets and Will Carseldine, who are all playing versions of themselves, peel in with praise as to each other’s previous performances. It is an immediately engaging and very funny foreshadow of what is to come, with nods made not only to their respective bodies of work, but also the traditions of the stage courtesy of the Scottish play superstitions et al.

While some scenes from Shakespeare’s tale of a self-absorbed politician and the men conspiring against him appear within the ensuing rehearsals, examination of the complicated, traditionally-masculine work occurs through what is going on around its fringes, which opens up access to the text to the youth audience to which it is particularly pitched. In fact, we never get to see any of the company’s in-season performance of their take of the classic play, climate change angle and all.  When Bryan and Giema rehearse as the eponymous statesman and his traditionally submissive wife Calpurnia, tech week tensions heighten to a clash of creative approaches that reveals much more than just differences in is their processes, leaving us to ponder if perhaps Caesar is not the only potential beast without a heart. 

Like its source material, “Caesar” is about power structure, duty, honour and responsibility, all of which have relevance in a contemporary society, especially when applied to the idea of diversity and representation on stage. And when things fast forward to a post show-within-the-show discussion, we get the funniest scene of all, not just in its initial clichéd questions and answers, but its escalating chaos after exposé’ of outdated attitudes and the use of overly familiar language. In particular, the TikTok livestream of the collective discussion is absolutely hilarious in its every authentic detail as it swells towards calls for Caesar to be slain.

References from the Shakespearean play are peppered throughout “Caesar”. Recent drama school graduate Will, who is playing Brutus, considers Bryan to be a North Star, in ignorance of how Giema and particularly Chenoa feel about his automatic assentation to the lead role. And while monologues from the psychological drama feature within the work, it is one in which Chenoa decries the tone-deafness of prima dona Bryan that leaves the most lasting impression as Deemal powerfully summarises her character’s feelings in relation to worth and about how she is seen.

While clearly catering for a youth market, “Caesar” offers much for audience members of all ages to appreciate, thanks to the collective efforts of its talented cast, support by slick sound (Anna Witaker) and video (Justin Harrison) design. More than a riff of Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play trope, this is one of the most meta shows you are likely to ever experience. Its five fierce non-binary and female-identifying playwrights (Claire Christian, Jean Tong, Megan Wilding, Merlynn Tong and Zoey Dawson) have crafted a clever and entertaining clap-back that is fresh and funny, especially for those familiar enough to appreciate the Tiktok feed contributions from Hugh Parker fans, for example.

With themes of power, politics and the patriarchy, there is lots going on in “Caesar” and while its five distinct acts have strong independent voices, this leaves the work feeling more as a sum of its parts than a cohesive whole. Still, under Sanja Simić’s swift direction, it captures audience attention immediately and maintains it well into its 90-minute duration. More than just illustrating the heartbeat to Shakespeare’s words, “Caesar” asks its audience to consider what these words do. And refreshingly, its challenges about representation, politicisation and gender in the theatre are clear without being blatant, instead provoking critical thinking that continues beyond even the play’s conclusion.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Adolescent urgency

The Time is Now (La Boite Theatre)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 24 – June 5

“Real teenagers with real conviction … advocate for a better future” is how the marketing material for La Boite Theatre’s “The Time Is Now” is promoted. Its content is accordingly an expected socially-conscious examination of contemporary life through the urgency of young person’s lens… with a bit of Brechtian technique in its execution.

‘If you only had two minutes, what would you want to tell the rest of the world?’ we are asked at the outset of the work, which has been co-created by Ari Palani, Aleea Monsour and David Burton with La Boite’s Young Artist Company. From this, the setup of the show, is immediately clear as the young people gather in a citizen’s assembly or sorts where they are given this opportunity. The framework in which each of their two minutes of honest address around feelings of powerless when it comes to choice, is interesting in its shape, as each member of the often-depoliticised generational group proposes their suggestions for inclusions in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, written before they were born and without consultation with any children.

The performers telling the audience how it is through their eyes (Omalkire Akil Ahmed, Huda Akhlaki, Jessica Boyd, Joe Cranitch, Sophia Ferreira da Luz, Diali Kemp, Rachel Kennedy, Zander Pynenburg, Carys Walsh and Fujia Sarah Xu) range from 12 to 18 years of age and represent a range of diverse cultures, backgrounds and political views, which adds depth to their discussions beyond the as-anticipated climate change outrage and alike. In particular, memorable moments come from Carys Walsh in articulate examination about the power of privilege and how every young person everywhere has the right to be listened to, as well as audience-favourite Omal’s tell of her journey from not feeling like she belonged to becoming a fierce Muslim queen.

Regardless of their particular focus, the young people all speak with conviction, so much so that, at times their words become lost in a rush of outpour or lapses in articulation and projection. And through the sometimes-contradictory ideas, there is an undeniable passion at the core of their big, revolutionary dreams and want for a world that is kind. Indeed, their passion and energy in telling of their frustrations, fears and vulnerabilities, cannot be denied. Michael Berkman – Greens MP for Maiwar (as the show’s promised adult cameo appearance on Opening Night) assures them of this towards to show’s conclusion.

This inclusion of an adult voice (different for each performance) to almost top and tail the 70-minute work is just one of the many ways in which the show is made more dynamic than might be suggested by its premise. There script is peppered with light-hearted commentary around ice-cream and the importance of immaturity alongside responsibility, and recall of silly dreams alongside the scary ones. Transitions of dance and structured movement also work well to keep things pacing along between each performer’s solo sections.

The strength of “The Time Is Now” as a contemporary verbatim theatre work is ultimately, however, its provision of a platform for young people to share their often dismissed or disregarded voices on political and social issues, as discussions of domestic violence, harassment, suicide, and mental health feature alongside pleas for the disenfranchised and deconstruction of the impacts of bullying and social media in their lives. And in what is La Boite’s first ever all-teenage mainstage cast, there is a clear resonate message from across its topics about adults not taking responsibility for or trying to fix things, especially in one of the most interesting segments in which the performers all rush forth to answer the question of what they want adults to know. And while some may fear for teens growing up in a pressured, screen-based world, “The Time Is Now” offers not only empowerment, but illustration of how there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the generation that has so much at the forefront of their hearts and minds.

Photos c/o – Markus Ravik

Comedy cabaret compilations

Bigger & Blacker (Steven Oliver)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

March 8 – 27

“Bigger & Blacker” begins with its star, Steven Oliver’s iconic line from ABC’s “Black Comedy”. It is appropriate, given that the Cloncurry-born writer and actor is probably best-known for his sketch performances in the fast-paced, provocative and bold foray into race relations, however, as his autobiographical comedy cabaret shows, there is much more to this self-proclaimed faboriginal descendant of the Kuku-Yalanji, Waanyi, Gangalidda, Woppaburra, Bundjalung and Biripi peoples.

The double-marginalisation of being a minority within a minority gives Oliver clear fodder for a content, especially in early sections, during which he combines comedy and contemplation with saucy stories, however, the show, which is currently playing at La Boite before touring nationally is equal parts cheeky and charming in his commanding showmanship and also touching in its emotional honestly as he talks about kinship, connection and affection for his mob, and poignant in his candid reflection on the downside of fame.

Music, like life, is a journey Oliver explains to the audience as he contextualises the cabaret’s creation through songs about his lived experiences, written over many years. And this is exactly what the show is as we are taken on not so much a narrative, but an insightful emotional trip through Oliver’s life since he performed in first professional acting gig in Brisbane in the early 1990s. The original songs showcase hiss talent as a songwriter, filled as they are with clever lyrics and rhymes, especially in the expected risqué numbers. Indeed, Oliver is a multi-talented songwriter and, consequently, the original score of the cabaret’s compilation runs from the perky pop to urban rap to lilting lullabies advertised in its descriptor.  

With a disco ball, tap routine, rap and ass shaking (there’s even a song about it), there are plenty of opportunities for Oliver to showcase his infectious energy. This is enhanced by the banter between him and his on-stage companion musician, Musical Director and Helpmann-Award winning cabaret star in his own right, Michael Griffiths, (who also provides back-up vocals and harmonies), meaning that you’re guaranteed a night full of hip-swinging, maraca moments and clap along celebration of storytelling and song.

Humour comes not only from the cabaret’s songs, but Oliver’s very funny bridging conversations with the audience, explaining, for example the linguistic flexibility of the semi-jovial term gammin as lead in to a quieter, affecting number on guitar, ‘Get Me’. Through heartfelt moments like this, the audience is given highlights, initially unexpected in their personal emotion, as Oliver explains how starring in a hit comedy show can lead to great sadness. Similarly, songs like ‘You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Just Like Smoke’ offer lovely declarations of love and reflections on rejection that balance nicely with the unashamedly faberet initially sections.

“Bigger & Blacker” certainly takes its audience to some interesting, unexpected places, including revelation of why we were hearing Whitney Houston amongst its pre-show songs. And when its variety of musical styles takes us to the melodic ‘Are You Okay’ and powerful encore spoken word call to action, ‘I’m a Blackfella’, opening night audience members are soon leaping to their feet in acclamation.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

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