Room to play games

The Eisteddfod (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

March 14 – 24

Just as is the case where name recognition means that some novels have author names appearing bigger than the book’s title, so too when promotion of a play’s title includes the playwright’s name, there is implication that the show is going to be something special. This is the case with “The Eisteddfod”, the first play from multi-award winning playwright Lally Katz, being presented by Room to Play Independent Theatre at Metro Arts. Not only is Katz the voice behind the work but the occasional narrator that begins the play with a voice over prologue of sorts introducing its two brother and sister characters, Abalone (Matthew James French), Gertrude (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

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The children spend their quiet lives playing make-believe games, shielded from the world by protective parents. When, in their late teens, their parents are killed in a freak accident, the siblings are left grief-stricken with only their games of pretend as comfort for their agoraphobia. The parodies of suburban dreams and nightmares takes the audience through to adulthood, where Gertie desires escape from their childhood trauma. While her interest in imaginary worlds is waning, Abalone remains passionate about amateur dramatics and so asks Gertrude to be the Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth at The Eisteddfod, first prise for which is a trip to Moscow. All the while, their dysfunctional fantasy world is enacted, often in the crudest of terms with erotic games, domestic violence suggestions and memory of a suicide, as Gertrude fantasises about a masochist lover. It is an illogical story of characters out of harmony with their own existence, which is reflected in stagecraft with impressive lighting awashing the action in a spray of colours and adding intimacy to scenes conducted with only the touch of torchlight.

Clearly the dark, comic fantasy is theatre of the absurd. Though its response to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century through question of the nature of reality and illusion, has clear currently climate connections, absurdist theatre is still an acquired taste so its just under an hour running time is perhaps the perfect length to maintain audience engagement given its challenging content. Indeed, the success of this show rides on the intelligent choices made in all areas of the production, on and off stage. While the confronting themes are tempered by comic moments, there isn’t a lot of relief. Gertrude and Abalone’s world is not an easy place to visit, but experience of it is enriched by the expressive performances of Tucker and French, which do justice to the multifaceted layers of their complex characters. Tucker projects Gertrude’s tortured yet optimistic nature, at once childlike and old-soulful and French is a brother full of bravado in the precision of the physicality of his performance.

“The Eisteddfod” is a well-produced piece of theatre, though it will not be to everyone audience member’s tastes. For the theatre-curious, however, its journey will result in much post-show discussion about Gertrude and Abalone’s broken, suburban world, because rather than giving answers and telling audiences exactly how to respond, it challenges them to find their own way through the work.


Return to youth

This is Our Youth (Underground Broadway and Between the Flags)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

February 28 – March 4

Metro Arts’ converted cinema space The Lumen Room is not the most comfortable theatre for a long show. And “This is Our Youth” is far from concise, especially in Act Two when its conversations circle back over familiar dysfunctional territory as its privileged barely-beyond-teens bicker in between the drug consumption of their consequence free existence. But it is a show worth seeing for its thematic resonance and superb performances.


The story shares two days in the lives of three disillusioned youth as they run amuck in a New York City studio apartment. Warren (Jackson McGovern) has stolen $15,000 from his father, which captures the attention of his selfish and intimidating drug-dealing not-really-friend Dennis (Mark Hill), but provides Warren with the means to impress the quite clever and articulate Jessica (Bellatrix Scott).


It is the Reagan era 1980s we are told. We see touches of it in the set, but don’t always hear it in the dialogue. What we do hear, however, are the impressive cast accents. Thanks to Dialect Coach Melissa Agnew, the actors’ New Jerseyish twangs of diphthong vowels cements the show in place and add to its credibility.


The performers are all excellence. Hill gives Dennis an almost desperate, swaggersome arrogance, evident down to the smallest physical nuance and McGovern is touching as his dispirited ‘friend’ and whipping boy Warren so that we feel for him, his problems and his repeated blows, despite his privilege, and rejoice with him at hint of a relationship with Jessica. And Scott gives the fashion student a charismatic complexity as she moves from self-conscious, nervous interaction with Warren to political provocation with her observations about the nature of youth and its role in defining your later self. Indeed, it is a credit to both the script and its realisation that its clever allusions to political commentary of our time are more subtle than the usual written-to-order type of late.


In Act One, particularly, “This is Our Youth” offers up a razor-sharp comedy-drama about these three unsettled youngsters, who would now be (as it is observed in Director Tim Hill’s program notes), a privileged group of powerful while men today. The engagement it brings is not just through the quality of its performances, but its ask of great questions around these notions. Indeed, its success comes from it examination of the inherent questions in the work and interrogation of them in a way that only theatre can. As such, this deceptively-simple story of 1980s slackers deserves to be seen.


Counterpilot cleverness

Spectate (Counterpilot)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 7 – 18


Those who have encountered Counterpilot’s collective of interdisciplinary artists previously, know that their theatre is more experience than static show. And “Spectate” is no different. The all-encompassing work is immediately intriguing as, upon entry into the theatre, audience members are met with the sight of velvet red curtains in frame of a black and white film. With sounds of Dixieland-esque tunes soundtracking, it is evocative of a time almost a century ago when Harry Houdini was a marvel amongst men.


Through audience member headphones, we are told that we are at the show of the incredibly famous Austro-Hungarian-born American stage magician and stunt performer. The dimming light makes for a meditative start as an interior monologue is provided, describing the sensation of sitting in the theatre and typical pre-show contemplations, from practical consideration of if we missed getting a program to larger concerns like ‘what if I don’t get it?’ Through this headphoned narration, along with live projection, we are taken to the Houdini’s final, October 1926 Detroit show. We are expecting acts of magic, escapism and hopefully his vanishing elephant illusion. So the card ticks and straightjacket escape that follow are almost disappointing.


But Houdini (a beguiling Toby Martin) is looking pale and lethargic, occasionally clutching at his sides as foreshadowing for those familiar with the circumstances of the entertainer’s death less than a week later. Indeed, the waters run black for the master of mystery, worsening as he prepares for his famous Water Torture Cell trick.


Are we about to witness Houdinin’s death and how does this make us feel? This is what “Spectate” is really about in its challenge of the nature of audience roles as spectators. In doing so the interdisciplinary work prompts audiences to think, but also to feel in response to the beauty crafted on stage in realisation of Writer/Director/AV Co-Designer Nathan Sibthorpe’s ambition to construct a world of contemporary illusion through use of 3D printed performers, live video compositing and immersive audio. The result is both fascinating and entertaining. The layered projections of diorama and live action are not only interesting in themselves, but accompanied by the prompt of the headphoned voice inside audience heads, they assist in suspending audience experience between layers of reality and versions of truth and fiction.

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Narrative interjections occur also through cross to conversations with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and alike as Houdini pursues debunking psychics and mediums as part of his desire, as President of the Society of American Magicians, to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. There is surprise too when audience members are texted in conversation with a show’s ‘character’ and also in a final cameo-filled short film that, although quite hilarious, appears unnecessary and out-of-context.


“Spectate” is a ground-breaking new production that engenders fascination both in experience itself and in recollection afterwards. While the immediacy given to an experience from a century ago is intriguing, its legacy comes courtesy of what it contemplates about audience membership. Even without a vanishing elephant, it is spectacularly clever on so many levels, in a way probably never seen before.

Contemporary connections

Swallow (E.G. & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

May 25 – June 3

In story, “Swallow” is about when strangers cross paths. Thematically, however, the work gives audiences so much more to contemplate. And the result is a challenging but rewarding experience thanks to the excellent execution by all involved in the production.

Hermitted in her home, Anna (Elise Greig) is in need to focus, frenetically completing self-decided projects in search for peace, yet yearning to travel to places she will never go. For her, going crazy is busy business, especially when you’ve been shut up inside for a couple of years and who said smashing things up was a bad thing anyway? In an apartment somewhere below her, Rebecca (Julie Cotterell) is recovering, both physically and emotionally, from a nasty breakup with an arsehole ex, comfortable in her pain. Then there is Sam (Helen O’Leary), who has found identity but not acceptance. While each is struggling, having been smashed up by life, in discovery of each other, they just might be able to save one another.


The journeys of each of the three characters are fragmented, but as an audience we still engage with them, because of, rather than despite their flaws. This is thanks to the outstanding performances of all three cast members; their performances are so riveting to watch that we become invested in their stories even from the play’s enigmatic start.

Staging is sparse but detailed with jumbles of broken materials around each character’s initial space. Things are not static, however, with each character constantly moving, even when not directly involved in a scene. Lighting design builds from darkness in support of this, using shadows to create interesting shapes, which works with the appropriately evocative soundscape to create a memorable aesthetic. Everything is beautifully deliberate as character stories slowly intersect. Poetic monologues parallel and intersect through common and revisited metaphors and motifs of isolation and fragmentation of items and understandings alike, established in initial scenes before narrative interconnection is appreciated.

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Stef Smith’s writing is dense but also lyrical in is creativity and Kate Shearer’s directorial decisions are so detailed as to desire a further viewing to appreciate all of the nuances of choice, like to have fragile feathers falling as snow in reference to earlier dialogue mentions. Indeed, “Swallow” takes audiences to unexpected and unique places in its share of relevant messages around the importance of real relationships and the quality contemporary connectivity that lies elusively behind closed doors and smartphone screens.

In its clever storytelling and reminder to the person reflected in our mirrors to blink and breathe, “Swallow” provides a wonderful message for audiences to take away. Its holistic approach to storytelling and all-round excellent execution, make it a modern tale that everyone should see as reminder that theatre, like people, is not homogeneous, and is all the better for it.

Photos – c/o Nick Morrissey

Troubled travel tales

Europe Won’t Fix You (The General Public Theatre Company)

Metro Arts

May 11 – 13


With milk-crate furniture and clothes strewn about, the initial impression of “Europe Won’t Fix You” is very much of a story associated with a student demographic. Indeed, with the lone character beginning proceedings wearing Doc Martins and overalls, and a copy of Lena Dunham’s “Not That Kind of Girl” on the coffee ‘table’ alongside a travel guide, it seems to be a show of stereotypes. And it is, beginning with her indulgent opening solo dance number to the explicit-ridden ‘I Fink U Freeky’, before moving into a clever realisation of packing for a big rite-of-passage trip to Europe.

What follows is a series of vignettes taking audiences along on the arduous to-Europe plane trip to a Berlin rave and Parisian love affair. There is no real narrative thread apart from a revisited character’s poo log, which brings with it much humour. Indeed, in many ways, it is crass at times, because that that seems to make art edgy in an undergraduate type way, and, accordingly perhaps, it is easy to appreciate its festival success, having experienced sell-out seasons at the 2016 Sydney Fringe Festival and at this year’s Adelaide Fringe. Certainly many aspects ring true as audiences watch condoms being packed in anticipation of the adventures presumably awaiting along with experience of a white winter, before the later disillusionment of the Christmas in cold-arse countries and the yearn for some green vegetable goodness as opposed to meat and potatoes … again.

Cast members work well together, particularly in relation to the physical comedy aspects, but its troublesome structure means that there is little opportunity to connect with the characters represented. Tasha O’Brien has great comic timing and gives an engaging performance, especially in presentation of some of the show’s in-your-face content. And Caity Booth is very funny to watch, especially in fleeting role as an inflexible German encountered on one character’s European travels.

Those who themselves have ever quit their job and headed over to Europe, only to return broke and broken-spirited to their parents’ couch sometimes later, will probably find much to identify with in its subject matter. While those who have toured in other ways, may look knowingly upon the twenty-something’s ambitions from the comfort of their own recollections, for this is travel, warts and all (and maybe even some other intimate diseases). Indeed, “Europe Won’t Fix You” is a cheeky take of a travel tale you won’t find on Instagram… just an account that could be told better.

Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29


In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

Getting Jarrod Duffy

Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead (Applespiel)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

April 20 – 29

Have you ever had someone in your life at one time, who you lost contact with?

Someone you cared about.

How many years has it been since you’ve seen them?

Do you know where they are now?

If you did, what would you do?

Have you ever had someone who just…vanished?

It’s Wollongong, 2010 and two weeks before performing in an honours show, Jarrod Duffy, friend and member of the performance collective, Applespiel, doesn’t show up for a rehearsal. He’s disappeared, leaving behind the furniture at his house and no answers from phone calls, emails and Facebook searches.

“Jarrod Duffy Is Not Dead” is the story of that disappearance and Applespiel’s hunt to find their missing friend. It is important to know this essential premise before attending the show, because of the poignancy it brings to the photographs that are shared on-screen at its beginning as audience members sit in thought of the memories that lie behind the images and the emotions evoked by their recollection. Those most affected, however, are those who lost a friend, the members of Applespiel who begin the podcast section of the show with overlay of dialogue about Duffy’s character.


This initial section is particularly engaging in its authentic recreation of an episodic series, utlitising the genre’s features and respecting its usual structure. As it progresses from recollection of ‘good times’ antics, last conversations, speculative concerns for his safety and possible hints to the idea of leaving, to memories of the initial days after his first disappearance, it becomes clear that ‘memory is shitty’, allowing the audience to share in Duffy’s friends’ frustrations at initially dismissing his disappearance with stories of his flakiness and of how over time, blurred memories create amalgamated stories and even more uncertainly. But things are not all as they seem, as the audience realises in a second half that sees standup, song and appearance of the titular Duffy c/o cardboard cut-outs and then some.


As essentially a show of two halves, “Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead” is an ambitious work of anthropological storytelling that shows how sometimes you need to tell a story to have others ‘get it’. The resulting exploration of truth is both complex and compelling as we are posed questions about the meaning of ‘normal’, when a story exists and the need for narrative closure.

There is audience manipulation around original premise with its mention of figures of long term missing persons and the notion of bystander apathy, but deliberately so. As such, the show represents the fundamental nature of Metro Arts’ programming and championing of contemporary arts practice. As a part theatre, part live podcast show, “Jarrod Duffy is Not Dead” is far from a typical theatre experience. But that is its appeal. Its blend of live action and digital imagery is sure to give audiences much to talk about in terms of its artform as much as its message, provoked by its evocative final question of ‘do you get it?’