Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Lingering letters

Love Letters

Brisbane Arts Theatre

February 3 – 14

A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” is the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the now old-fashioned medium of handwritten letters. The epistolary work is a unique theatrical experience, not quite a play reading and not entirely a play, but very much an unforgettable event.

For those unfamiliar with the play, its premise is quite simple; two actors read their character’s letters to each other to the audience, and, in doing so, fill the gaps of time that pass, unspoken, between two lifelong friends, Andrew (Ray Swenson) and Melissa (Gloria Swenson). Through this lifetime of correspondence, the Pulitzer Prize finalist not only presents a bittersweet but compelling story, but explores the complexity of life, love and relationships.

It begins quaintly, but without over-sentimentality, with childhood birthday party thank-you notes and summer camp postcards and develops, despite budding artist Melissa’s preference for pictures over words, into letters. Although initially banal with childhood recount of mundane details, the resulting letters reveal much about their contrasting personalities, but also family dysfunction and parental expectations and as the two travel from passing notes in class to the boarding school times one would expect of those born to such East Coast American wealth and position, we are witness to their negotiation of adolescence and exploration of life’s dreams and disappointments.

As the actors read their letters aloud, the character studies take shape, creating an evocative, moving and frequently funny play that is very much of its intended time in attitudes indicated by throw-away lines. Without any physical interaction between characters, the play’s success relies significantly on is script, which is quite clever in its subtle foreshadowing and hint at the progression of time with changing content, tone and language. Clearly the two rely on each other, despite using the letters to present themselves as the person they want the other to see and as we head into intermission, we are left wondering if this will be enough.

Act Two takes us through the victories and vices of Melissa and Andy’s adult lives as overseas adventures, loss and other loves see them drift apart, while all the while remaining reliant of each other, even through their times of radio silence. As the couple traverse the milestones, melodramas and minutia of their real, everyday lives, their characters are more humanised with authentic feelings and flaws. And audience members experience every emotion along with them, such is the power of not just the script itself but the considered delivery of it.

The setup means the script is read as letters, enacted entirely from two separate desks and chairs. Indeed, it is the simplest of premises; in the words of the author, it “… needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance”. Yet it is quite absorbing, especially in the intimacy of the Brisbane Arts Theatre. Adding to this appeal is the fact that the play is being presented (as is often the case) by a real-life couple, married for over 40 years, which adds an authentic beauty to lines about being the heart of each other’s lives.

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Gloria Swenson is full of optimism and effervescent energy as the unbridled Melissa and her reactions while ‘reading’ and hearing letters alike not only emphasise their light-hearted digs and despairing revelations, but add another level to the evening’s entertainment. As her sensible diamond in the rough Andy, Ray Swenson has more to say given that his character loves writing so much. (“I feel like a true lover when I’m writing you. This letter, which I’m writing with my own hand, my own pen, in my own penmanship, comes from me and no one else, and is a present of myself to you”, he proclaims.) At times his latter delivery is a little fumbled, however, this is quickly recovered and lines are rarely lost. However, his, final, most eloquent letter, delivered almost as a monologue about how much they have meant and have given to each other over the years, packs such a powerful emotional punch that none of that really matters. Despite having seen a previous production of the show so going in fully aware of where the narrative was taking us, like many in the audience, I again exited the theatre with a face full of tears.

“Love Letters” is a simple, honest and honestly lovely piece of theatre. It will perhaps be an acquired taste for those who like their shows full of colour and movement, however, the charm of its exploration of both the beauty and tragedy of human experience is so poignantly real, that its touch will surely linger long for many members of its audience.

The longing of letters

Love Letters (Christine Harris and HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

June 24 – 25

“Love Letters” is the sweet, funny, heart-warming story of two people, who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters. Its premise is simple: smart mouthed, sassy, spoiled Melissa Gardner and her loyal faux-beau Andy Ladd have been writing letters to each other since they were young. What follows is a beautiful, witty and very human story of two people who will never love anyone the way they love each other, as the audience is taken on their complicated, almost 50 year relationship at the heart of each other’s’ largely separate lives.

The most modest of staging suits the show’s premise; the narrative is delivered by the two characters standing at separate lecterns, from which they read their letters. And although there is no other movement on stage, (they don’t step out from the lecterns and rarely even look at each other), it works, proving that simplicity is sometimes the ultimate sophistication.

Act One focuses on the pair’s youthful postcard and thankyou note correspondence, as they share stories of summer camps and poison ivy, boarding school tales of roommates, rowing and dances and the burgeoning sexuality of their College years. Act Two sees the pair of now ‘two uptight old wasps’ sharing the trials and tribulations of their adulthood of travel, loss, love, career, family, vices and regrets. And still their connection remains, a resilient bond that seems to exist more in letters than in reality. In the end, they both realise the importance of their letters to each other and what the correspondence has meant in their lives. As a stuffy, reserved lawyer/politician and a free-spirited, impulsive but needy artist, Andy and Melissa are an odd couple, however, through their flaws, they are hugely endearing in their individual humanity and enduring affection towards each other.

Even without physical movement, real life partners Huw Higginson (“The Bill”) and Hannah Waterman (“Eastenders”), convey the emotion of their story in a way that forges an immediate connection with the audience, especially in the straight-from-the-heart monologues that pepper the production. Waterman is beguiling in her girlish joy, while Higginson is assured in his adult profundity. And the chemistry between the two is charming.

“Love Letters” is not only a celebration of the art of writing, but an entertaining love story about a bittersweet romance. Indeed, it will leave you not only relishing the power of the written word, but also a little tearful in longing to have a Melissa or Andy in your life.

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