Five years feels

The Last Five Years (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 30 – June 18

Often there is a delight to going into shows unprepared as to what is about to unfold. In the case of Tony Award-winning playwright Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” however, it is valuable to know of the work’s unique premise as this allows for full appreciation of the craftedness at its core. And under the dynamic direction of Darren Yap (with musical direction by James Dobinson), celebration of this remains central to La Boite Theatre’s return of the musical to the Queensland stage.

The 90-minute two-hander follows the ill-fated five-year relationship of aspiring artists, novelist Jamie (Robert Tripolina) and actress Cathy (Danielle Remulta) … in two different directions. Cathy tells the story from the end of their marriage; Jamie begins from when they first meet, and, as the musical unfolds, Cathy moves backward in time to the beginning of the relationship while Jamie moves chronologically toward its inevitable end. Their alternate musical narration is all very clever, not just in how the characters share space but not time, apart from a one-scene, mid-show point where the share a song at their wedding (‘The Next Ten Minutes’), but in overlap also of themes and lyrical motifs.

With Jamie’s experience of career success emerging in comparison to Cathy’s struggles, contrasts are soon apparent, and creative choices work well to enhance this through steely lighting of Jaime’s late show laments in juxtaposition to Kathy’s bright beginning (lighting design by Ben Hughes), cleverly also singing goodbye but with another meaning. Effective use of space allows for multiple entry and exit points for characters at all levels. In what is some of the Roundhouse Theatre’s best staging, we are even seasonally lit into the couple’s second Christmas. Props pop seamlessly into and out of the story and costumes changes are barely noticed, such is the slick momentum of its scene changes.

At the beginning Tripolina has the easiest job as emerging novelist Jamie, engaging the audience immediately with his joyful hope as he bounces through the jaunty ‘Shiksa Goddess’ about his delight to be dating outside his Jewish heritage. Tripolina is a charismatic performer who makes for a charming Jamie, even in later scenes as the older and wiser, then successful author must admit that his marriage is at an end. His performance is energetic and built upon a foundation of strong vocal talent. His upbeat ‘Moving Too Fast’ contemplation of life with Cathy seeming too good to be true is a rollicking rockabilly-esque highlight, especially as he grabs a guitar and heads to the heights of the space occupied by the live band of musicians.

Remulta has some moving moments as struggling actor Cathy, a woman betrayed by a divorce she is only beginning to understand, such when sitting along contemplating her emotions in contrast to Jamie’s move-on in ‘Still Hurting’. They are also both adept at delivering comedic moments which land well. ‘A Summer in Ohio’ allows for some entertaining characterisation from Remulta as Cathy writes to Jamie from Ohio describing her life and eccentric colleagues, and there is much humour as she shares the inner monologue accompanying a failing audition experience.

The show is full of insightful but also quirky lyrics, such as in Jamie’s catchy little Christmas story of Schmuel, Tailor of Klimovich, as metaphor for his support of Cathy. Brown’s bitter-sweet score features a variety of song styles. Musical director James Dobinson’s piano is the show’s lifeline, providing the heartbeat of Cathy’s number ‘See I’m Smiling’ and her determination to fix their marital problems, before leading us into Jamie’s move in with her and thankfulness as to how everything is going well.

Instead of the usual dramatic tension that comes with not knowing how things will unfold, music fleshes out and colours in the story’s drama through some rich orchestrations from violinist Annie Silva, cellists Dr Danielle Bentley and David Friesberg, along with Joel Woods on guitar and Patrick Farrell on bass guitar. This makes for a stirring soundtrack.

Production is tight, meaning that the show seems to be over in what feels like the quickest of times, such is its humour and the poignant honesty of all of its feels. Indeed, despite making such versatile use of the possibilities of the Roundhouse Theatre space, things still seem very intimate and emotionally moving in its prompt to ponder if perhaps it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

Photos c/o –  Morgan Roberts

Final five…

With just five days left to go, much-loved musical “The Last Five Years” is about to begin its 2022 run. The intimate and emotionally powerful story is about two 20-something New Yorkers who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. Their story, however, is presented through an unconventional structure that sees Cathy telling her story backwards, while Jamie shares his story in chronological order, with the characters meeting only once, at their wedding in the middle of the show.

Their navigations of the joyous highs and despairing lows of the on-stage relationship will be brought to life by recent Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University graduate Danielle Remulta, and returning home to Australia after wonderful success in the UK, actor and musician Robert Tripolino, both in their La Boite debuts.

“The Last Five Years” returns to Brisbane as a show of great pedigree; acclaimed American musical theatre composer Jason Robert Brown won Drama Desk Awards for the music and the lyrics after the off-Broadway premiere in 2002.  Under direction of Darren Yap, this La Boite production promises to be a relevant yet timeless tale, sure to strike the perfect chord when it plays at the company’s Roundhouse Theatre from May 30 to June 18… quite literally, given that the cast of two will be joined on stage by a live band.

Given the COVID-caused nostalgia for past lost loves perhaps as a warning against letting life’s complications get in the way, it promises to offer an aspect to resonate with everyone. Get your tickets here.

URL vs IRL celebrity style

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner (La Boite Theatre, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

February 24 – March 19

Award-winning British playwright Jasmine Lee-Jones’ provocatively-titled “Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner” appropriately begins in iPhone lighting. Newly-single student Cleo (Moreblessing Maturure) is lying in bed scrolling through Twitter when she comes across Forbes Magazine’s problematic AF celebration of Kylie Jenner as a ‘self-made billionaire”. Under the username @incognegro, she sets about getting Jenner cancelled for good. Sick and tired of wealthy white women getting credit for capitalist cultural thefts such as by bringing fuller lips into fashion, she spirals into death threats against the social media figure / entrepreneur with #kyliejennerfidead as accompanying hashtag. As bird app notification sounds sing out, things soon spiral, despite her closest friend Kara’s (Iolanthe) best efforts in attempt to talk her down.

The two-hander’s ensuing debates between Cleo and Kara fly fast with harsher stings that parallel the online amplification of Cleo’s tea spill. Accordingly, discussion goes from structural racism to past personal mistakes and apology demands. The two are not the only ones keeping receipts, however, and as  Cleo’s campaign goes viral and the online pile-on continues, a comb-through her problematic past posts not only threatens to expose her identify, but brings her to the brink of cancelation.

This is an immediately engaging and riotously funny 90 minute show as Cleo delivers her MLK truths and Kara attempts to dissect the motivation behind Cleo’s Twitter tirade. The duo’s speech is packed full of internetisms. Indeed, the show does not just integrate the language of social media, but makes it integral to its being, especially as the characters recreate the online world’s reaction of Cleo’s rants. As the actors enliven the tweets, over-exaggerated emojis and all, the result is fast-paced and incredibility entertaining, working in wonderful partnership with projections (Audio Visual Designer Wendy Yu) including said tweets and their accompanying iconic gifs et al. With acronymed TL speech occupying such a natural part of their IRL conversation, dialogue is incredibly fast paced, full of Twittersphere speak that naturally homes itself as a part of their everyday conversation.

Lee-Jones’ writing is sharp from start to finish, which may be at the expense of full audience appreciation. And while some knowledge of the Kardashian/Jenner celebrity phenomenon will enable IKR appreciation of references of the Jordyn Woods sort, even just a basic pop cultural familiarity will allow for recognition of common meme and gifs of the Nene, MJ and ‘Why You Lying’ sort. Even without this fluency, embodiment of the emotion at the heart of what is being said still speaks volumes, especially in the play’s tonal shift towards a passionate plea to remember past stories.

An essential craftedness ensures that the transition into deeper conversations about homophobia, colourism and the commodification of black women occurs without loss of momentum. Confronting content is handled with respect, including through straightforward description rather than depiction of images of racial violence. Such vivid exploration of the show’s universal themes comes also from the performers’ agility. And while Iolanthe’s energy is pitched to perfectly complement that of the protagonist, this really is Cleo’s story and Maturure’s show. She makes the straight-talking young black activist intelligent and passionate but also vulnerable; her late-show monologue outline of her feelings at finally being heard, conveys a palpable emotional exhaustion that results in deserving mid-scene applause.

TBH, this critically-acclaimed work is everything that theatre should be and should be doing. It’s sharp satire not only shines a light on cultural appropriation, but is wickedly humourous along the way. With dynamic co-direction from Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens, “Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner” is fierce, furious, funny and entirely deserving of the opening night audience’s leap up in curtain call acclamation.

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