Over and over 100 out

With Covid still causing disruptions, I was surprised to ultimately make it along to over 100 shows again this year. Here are my highlights from the 2022 Brisbane theatre year.

1. The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

The Queensland premiere production of Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical “The Normal Heart” was absolutely absorbing and inspirational in its unflinching look at the horrific time in our history that was the start of the AIDS epidemic.

2. A Girls Guide to World War (Musical Theatre Australia)

Inspirational, also, was Musical Theatre Australia’s tell of the true story of some amazing women forgotten by our history. The February show, which was my favourite then for most of the year, was richly rewarding in both its entertainment and education about the courageous and compassionate real life humanitarian adventurers at the core of its story.

3. Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall)

My 2022 Brisbane Festival highlight, the grand Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall co-production was an exquisite world-class design-led theatre experience, as much a celebration of the craft of storytelling as a retell of one of the Western canon’s oldest narratives

4. The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical was a historical work of a particular time, but also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love.

5. 42nd Street (Queensland Conservatorium)

There was much to also love about Queensland Conservatorium’s massive musical production of “42nd Street” as its assured performances, quality orchestrations and show-stopping ensemble production numbers captured the spirit of the show’s era and also the grand musical genre.

6. Oliver! (Savoyards)

Savoyards excellent musical revival was full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience around the troublesome aspects of “Oliver!” to a resonance of resilience and hope.

7. The Last Five Years (La Boite Theatre Company) 

La Boite’s two-hander share (in two different directions) of the ill-fated five-year relationship of aspiring artists was certainly clever in its alternate musical narration, however, was also slick in its use of space and tight in its telling thanks to the moving performances of its charismatic performers and musical stylings of its varied, bitter-sweet score.

8. Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

The Disney spectacle that came to life on the Lyric Theatre stage was a celebration of imagination, and, thus, an unforgettable production that could easily be seen again and again, making for a “Mary Poppins” anew for the whole modern family.

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

Just before the floods came, there was this fierce and furious coproduction, sharp in its satire of cancel culture and appropriation in a viral world, but also wickedly humorous.

10. First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The hard-hitting storytelling of Queensland Theatre’s landmark blockbuster season closer was elevated by an epic soundscape and dynamic lighting to take us into a world not previously seen on stage…. the last days of Australian troop involvement in Afghanistan.

And of particular note….

Best Drama – The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

Also the most moving and thought provoking production of 2022, Ad Astra’s “The Normal Heart” allowed us to bear witness to each stage of the play’s centrepiece romance as it played out in unfiltered vulnerability, raw anger, complex beauty and undeniable love, against the backdrop of a community living in fear of AIDS.

Best Comedy – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

The one act “Hidden in this Picture” (from the pen of Emmy Award-winning playwright Aaron Sorkin), which appeared as part of Villanova Players’ intermezzo series, was full of over and over again laugh-out-loud moments emerging from the increasing hyperbole in share of what was essentially a duologue inset with simple interjections.  

Best Cabaret – Women in Voice

The 2022 outing of this Brisbane institution was the best yet in its curated program of different musical styles from its empowered female performers.

Best Dramatic Performance – Vivien Whittle – Gaslight (Growl Theatre)

Whittle was simply wonderful as the vulnerable, tormented and humiliated Bella, whether bustling about in fleeting, naive belief that all is well or blubbering in flustered confusion after being raged at by her psychologically-torturous husband Jack.

Best Comic Performance – Troy Bullock – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

Meanwhile, Bella’s gaslighting husband Troy Bullock gave the funniest performance as a first-time director Robert, intent on obtaining an Oscar-winning shot in for his movie’s final scene, until three cows make appearance along with the hundreds of extras.

Best Musical Performance – Priyah Shah – Oliver! (Savoyards)

Shah’s show of strength but also vulnerability ensured that her Nancy was not just a kindly, but a complex character and her strong vocals left the “Oliver!” audience equally impressed in rollicking tavern sing-a-long and torch song numbers alike.

Best duo – Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk – The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

The chemistry between Corowa and Lysiuk was not only evident in their protagonists’ duets, but warmed the audience into investment into the blossom of their childhood friendship in to more after his post-WW2 return to Brisbane.  

Honourable mention to Christopher Morphett-Wheatley and Darcy Rhodes – Into The Woods (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Morphett-Wheatley and Rhodes were audience favourites as they dynamically pranced about in pantomime-esque play off each other’s bravado energy as two-dimensional princes attempting to one-up each other in argument.

Best EnsembleHeathers: The Musical (Millennial Productions) 

Millennial Productions’ debut musical was a highly professional independent production, in part due to its strong performances, with nobody holding back even in edgier scenes. There were no vocal weak links as each performer was given an opportunity to shine and there was a clear level of focus in all performances, resulting in no missed beats within the show’s tight rhythm. 

Best Independent Production – Boy, Lost (Belloo Creative)

The years-in-the-making tell of the true story of one family’s loss and redemption was also an ensemble production with its actors playing multiple characters (including themselves at moments), jumping in and out of different roles with simple prop or costume enhancements, yet, as an audience, we always knew what was happening as we moved through its tightly-woven emotional journey.

Most fun – All Fired Up (Box Jelly Theatre Company)

The show so nice, I ended up seeing it twice to contemplate if a trip to the ‘80’s and a chat with your 15-year-old self really can solve a mid-life crisis? With a live band perfectly capturing the nostalgic energy of the era it was all incredibly feel good, fun and funny.

Best Staging – Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall) 

The mythical magic of “Holding Achilles” may have been multi-layered, but this was built upon a performance space reminiscent of classical Greek amphitheatres with staging exposed to the audience, in contrast to the modern technology used to sometimes literally soar the story along with aerial artistry.

Best Sound and Lighting Design – First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The sound and lighting design elements of “First Casualty” were likely worth the price of admission alone. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transformed the space and its surfaces to tell the show’s many multifaceted narratives, while sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS added to the onstage action, whether dynamic or subtle in tone.

Best Choreography – Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

Matthew Bourne’s and Stephen Mear’s “Mary Poppins” choreography (recreated for the Australian production by Richard Jones) filled the Lyric Theatre stage with a burst of moving bodies, brooms and brushes in spectacular, precise, fast-paced numbers like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Step in Time’.

Holly-time folly

A Very Naughty Christmas (Woodward Productions)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

December 1 – 17

Think you’ve been good this year? Well, “A Very Naughty Christmas” will soon fix that. Brisbane’s favourite adults-only yuletide comedy is back, more ridiculous than ever and now in its intimate new home of La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre.

A winter wonderland has never been so hot when, shadowed away, Brisbane’s sexiest carollers wholesomely tell us to have ourselves a merry little Christmas, before launching into a string of yo mama type jokes escalated to the extreme to get audience members into the unique franchise’s feels-so-good-to-be-bad holiday spirit. The 80-minute 18+ musical Christmas comedy show, is now in its sixth year, which means its traditions are well and truly established. From an Andrews Sisters type number with a twist to an all-male “Mean Girls” ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ intro tease into a pumping twerking type number, familiar nods are there for repeat offenders to appreciate. There is also a sacrilegious story time share of the real tale of Christmas, a long time ago in a galaxy far away, with audience ‘volunteers’ making its nativity scene amongst the most memorable parts of the evening.

The adults-only tone of the show also remains well and truly intact, with its political incorrectness, dirty language and low brow humour all crafted together with wonderful wit. Stephen Hirst again has a charming appeal as the cheeky Nick, and his pants are off almost immediately with his introductory, almost gospel-esque ‘Back Door Santa’ number. And later there is his cleverly-crafted, innuendo-laden, suggestive ho ho ho share about what Mrs Claus potentially gets up to at the North Pole et al.

The ensemble cast of scantily clad performers share in bringing us all sorts of salacious segments as cast regulars Hirst, Emily Kristopher, Aurélie Roque, and Shay Debney are joined by newcomers Ethan Jones, Em Whitefield and Taylah Ferguson. And while all performers are very good at what they each do, Debney is both a standout and an audience favourite as he scampers around as Santa’s poor put-upon elf, especially in his bounce about in ‘Six White Boomers’.

A live band (Dominic Woodhead on keys and guitar, Tom Collins on guitar and bass and Chris Evans on drums) helps in bringing to life the show’s soundtrack of Christmas classics as never heard before, and providing the bed upon which vocalists lay some splendid harmonies including in the traditional closer ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. Yaxley, in particular, showcases some strong vocals in ‘Never Fall in Love with an Elf’, delivering the number from the Broadway musical based on the beloved 2003 movie about Buddy the Elf with a combination of wry pizazz and heartfelt lament. And thanks to Kristopher, you will likely never listen to the Divinyls quite the same way again.

Things are updated in light of 2022 events with lyrical mentions of Elon Musk and an attempted Tik-tok type of rebranding of Santa. After we hear about how Santa discriminates according to socio-economic status in this time of cost-of-living concerns, there’s also a high-energy Christmas can-can reminder of the shopping centre and family lunch elements of the most wonderful time of year, cresendoing into a spelling out in choreography moves, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ style.

With numbers featuring burlesque, tap and even some riverdance moments, there is something for everyone in “A Very Naughty Christmas”… apart from the easily offended. If you like having a laugh, partial nudity and a mixed playlist of classic carols to modern pop, the irreverence of “A Very Naughty Christmas” is sure to get you in the mood for the silliest of seasons. Its mischievous celebration of the season of holly is full of filthy, frisky folly, making it the perfect escape from your festive season stresses, for return and newbie audience members alike.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Sistahood in the city

Tiddas (La Boite Theatre Company, QPAC and Brisbane Festival)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 5 – 24

Like “Sex and the City”, “Tiddas” is a frank and warm look at female friendship. Far from the hustle and bustle of New York City, however, the story is set under the blooming jacarandas of 2022 Brisbane, which makes its world premiere as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival, especially appropriate.   

The page-to-stage adaptation of playwright Anita Heiss’s best-selling novel tells the story of five old high school friends reunited to form a book club called vixens in acronym of their first names. The women, we learn have been best friends for decades, now meeting once a month to talk about books, but also, as bookclubs also are, life, love and all the rest. And so their candid conversations become a springboard for reflection of their differing journeys towards their forties and desire for the energy of their youth growing up together in the little smoke of Wiradyuri country’s Mudgee before over time all moving to big smoke of Meeanjin (Brisbane, created through the set and costume design of Zoë Rouse in work with Jason Glenwright’s lighting design and Wil Hughes’ sound design).

Recently divorced Veronica (Anna McMahon), the Switzerland and organiser of the group, just wants to be happy again. Meanwhile, career focussed in her ambitions to become Australia’s Oprah, Izzy (Phoebe Grainer) is a contrast to Xanthe (Shakira Clanton), desperate to have a baby and buy a Queenslander to settle down to her ideal life. Ellen (Chenoa Deemal) is fiercely single and loving her independence, while successful author Nadine (Louise Brehmer) appears to be living the dream.

There is much with which audience members of a certain similar age can identify from within and across their diverse characters, and indeed from everyone with regards to how almost comically little disagreements can escalate. While initially you might yourself identifying with one character (for me it was group organiser and post-it note prepared Veronica), as their stories unfold in all their real-life complexities, this soon shifts into realisation that we perhaps have a part of each vixen within us somewhere.

What elevates the story, however, is its integration of commentary on and contemplation of bigger issues stemming from the social political climate of the time. Discussion of reconciliation and identity arises from the women’s conversations about and consideration of possible books to read, with conflict emerging from this and also the secrets that exist despite the longevity of their friendships.

Men feature within the women’s story (in addition to Roxanne McDonald’s appearance in a couple of small roles, Sean Dow jumps in and out of playing all male roles), however, ultimately “Tiddas” is about its women. Through their support of each other through differing world views, we are shown the importance of sharing stories. And how wonderful it is to see a story on stage that would so easily pass the Bechdel test measure of women talking to each other about something other than a man.

While all actors are impressive in their commitment to such distinct characters, perhaps all unlikeable in some way at some stage during the story’s unfolding, comic relief comes primarily from Demmal as the straight talking Ellen. Yet she also brings some softness to the reasoning for her character’s survival and resolute determination. Clanton also gives a standout performance as Xanthe, bringing nuance and sensitivity to the extremes of her character’s moving emotional journey through the story of a year in their lives.  

We may have seen their dilemmas played out in stories before, but these are still characters who are both believable and authentic, strong individually, but stronger together, which befits the play’s title. (Tiddas is, as the program reminds us, a shared Aboriginal word for sisters, not just by blood, but as created by the strong bonds of friendship and love over years of lived experience and travelled journeys). While sometimes brutal in its bitter travel through the stretch of friendship bonds, under Nadine McDonald-Dowd balanced direction “Tiddas” is ultimately a celebration of the universal language of sisterhood, easy to watch and enjoy, especially with your old sisterhoods of strength.

Photos c/o – Farley Ward

Camperfied corruption

An Ideal Husband (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 18 – August 6

A ‘Barbie Girl’ and ‘Ice Ice Baby’ et al pre-show soundtrack immediately acquaints the audience at La Boite Theatre’s reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s social satire, “An Ideal Husband”, particular those who may be unaware of the concept behind the ‘90s aesthetics underpinning this Australian political romp. Fashion details of the era are also peppered throughout the play, with Chloe Greaves’ costume design reminding us of tiny backpacks, berets, chokers, plaid mini-skirts and alike. And with faxes, Microsoft’s Clippy and discmen, there is an authenticity that brings a comforting nostalgic familiarity to those of an appropriate vintage.

More specifically, or maybe not, the reimagining of Wilde’s drawing room comedy is set in 1996-ish, Canberra-ish, in the lead-up to the federal election. Sydney-based Arthur ‘Artie’ Whig (Will Carseldine) has been invited to the capital for his father to announce that Artie is being cut off financially; the only way to continue living entirely at his own pleasure is for him to find a job and get married. Enter Artie’s friend Mabel Lloyd (Billy Fogarty) who in response to her own matrimonial anxiety suggests they should be wed, given that her ideal husband is a homosexual she can trust.

When the two socialites attend an endangered lizard fundraiser, political dealings are revealed as we are introduced to both Artie’s friend, the Labour Member for Brisbane and Minister for the Environment Robyn Shi (Hsiao-Ling Tang) and her passionately-idealistic intern turned adviser turned romantic partner Gertrude Chiltern (Emily Burton).

Meanwhile journalist Douglas Harris (an endearing Kevin Spink) is on the hunt to validate a story tip-off and become more acquainted with Whig, until things are complicated by the appearance of extravagant and unpredictable former Prime Minister’s widow Dame Tara Markby (Christen O’Leary) and her recently returned to Australia relation Lucian Chevely (Patrick Jhanur), former lover of Whig.

Playwright Lewis Treston’s story of blackmail and corruption within the ‘complex business of politics’, is brilliant, not only through its queer makeover of the original text’s relationships, but its dip into contemplation of bigger, still relevant political ideas, including around ideas of gender and sexuality. And it is a joy to watch the work’s performers enliven the script and interact with each other’s characters through Neridah Waters’ choreography and Nigel Poulton’s movement, intimacy and fight direction.

The strong cast more than delivers on expectations. Indeed, there are no weakness amongst their pitch-perfect performances, which all display a sure sense of timing. As Shi, Tang appropriately captures the cadence of political rhetoric in her sound bite worthy speeches and responses to questions around her friendship association with mining magnate and major fundraiser donor Tina Topaz (Christen O’Leary). Carseldine conveys a charming easiness, befitting the protagonist’s leisurely lifestyle and O’Leary’s women’s brunch speech as a falling-apart former ‘first-lady’ is a joy to behold in its crescendoing hilarity. Burton, too, gives audiences a similar highlight in Gertrude’s indigent rant about the legitimacy of her school captain reign to former school colleague Chevely, who now works for Topaz.  

Things pace along, and not just through the biting Wildean wit within the dialogue of the story’s love triangle and political scandal plotlines. Under Bridget Boyle’s snappy direction, scenes almost overlap in terms of exits and entrances, which tempos things along even before Act Two’s avalanche of comings and goings and slammed doors bedroom farce antics. What elevates it beyond just these typical tropes, however, is the comedy also of its little moments, of looks and reactions, especially from Carseldine in response to the chaos of Act Two’s absurdity.

Jason Glenwright’s lighting design and Guy Webster’s compositions and sound design work together to fill the story’s world with an engaging vibrancy. Even scene changes become dynamic in choreography as comical John Howard clones coordinate setting changes. And Greaves’ creative set design staging allows for the creation of even a House of Representatives from which the audience can watch the work’s political debates first-hand. Justin Harrison’s video design also works to set the story in its ‘ish’ time and place. On screen additions set the context of, for example, flying with Ansett, and allow for an appreciated (and very funny) epilogue of what has happened to the characters after their worlds have exploded.  

Oscar Wilde’s sometimes savage witticisms flow naturally from everyone’s mouths, which gives a buoyancy to the play’s rhythm and this is balanced by the easier humour that comes from the recognisable character types of Artie’s National Party politician father and member for Dawson, whose speech is full of hyperbolic similes, and O’Leary’s Act Two appearance as the extroverted and ostentatious mining magnate Tina Topaz.

This energetic comedy of manners and morals is a wickedly funny show in its campy humour and political rompery, so much so that some lines are unfortunately lost under the resulting waves of opening night audience reaction, if laughing too much is really even a bad thing.

Photos – c/o Morgan Roberts

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.