Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The 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.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark 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.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (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.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Steinbeck superlatived

Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 2 – 18

For those unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men”, a strumming pre-show soundtrack accompanying the rustic bunkhouse staging (Bill Haycock, Designer) plants Ad Astra audiences firmly in its depression era California setting. Lighting also warms us into the tender take at the heart of the story as we meet is main characters, displaced migrant ranch workers, the intelligent but uneducated George Milton (Patrick Shearer) and the bulky and strong, but intellectually disabled Lennie Small (Francis McMahon).

The relationship and backstory of the cynical George and the childlike bear Lennie is soon revealed, cementing sentiment at the story’s heart; the itinerant workers, move from farm to ranch seeking opportunities to engage in casual labour, before quickly moving on when they encounter trouble. The trouble, it is soon apparent, tends to stem from Lennie’s fondness for stroking soft things (including pretty ladies’ dresses) combined with his lack of awareness of his own brute strength. So it is with a sense of foreboding that Lennie’s innocent view of the world is about to be corrupted, that we then follow the men into their new job, despite their determination to keep their noses clean.

Under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the story is well-paced, with the production allowing us to sit in the silences of its sorrow, but also in the anxiety of its fight scenes and what happens thereafter. And passages of time are cleverly crafted through the fast forward of scene stills, which, in moving things along, contribute much to the development and maintenance of dramatic tension. Those familiar with the story, know of the tragedy of its plot trajectory and as many were anticipating in pre-show discussions, those unfamiliar with how things are to unfold are walloped by the confrontation of its emotion, which is heightened by David Walters’ shadowed lighting hues and Ben Lynskey’s melancholic soundscape.

“Of Mice and Men” is an affecting show and experience of the performances in Ad Astra’s production serves as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but its endurance as a classic text. The talented cast take us to all edges of the character spectrum. Danny Brown steadies things as respected main mule team driver Slim, easily conveying the characters’ natural authority and essential empathy towards George and Lennie’s bond. As the boss’ bully of a son Curly, Andrew Lowe has a cocksure swagger that tells us about his character before he even speaks, so that his jealous over-protection of this wife that brings about much of the play’s antagonism comes as little surprise.

The tough-love relationship between George and Lennie is movingly drawn. McMahon’s performance as Lennie is touching in its tenderness and sensitivity, yet he also appropriately dominates the space when provoked into physical altercation. Shearer’s intuitive approach to accessing George’s character gives us the light and shade required by his both his protection towards and frustration with Lenny, and also contrasting commitment to a dream but also feeling of economic powerlessness integral to experience of the depression era. George is a complicated character whose conflicted empathy for Lennie is key to the plot’s impact and Shearer conveys this in an accomplished, understated manner through dialogue delivery that is viscerally charged with mumbles and pauses, in almost James Dean like style.

More than just being a story of its characters, however, “Of Mice and Men”, is clearly also a character study of its era. Audience members feel its pathos through the characters’ expression of simple pleasures like a comfortable chair as much as their bigger dreams of self-determination. Curly’s unnamed wife (Caitlin Hill) dreams of better things, beyond the loneliness at the heart of her flirtatious interactions with the men on the ranch and aging handyman Candy (Iain Gardiner) who, having lost his hand in an accident, fears for his future and so dreams of a life beyond the ranch.

Our protagonists’ shared dream is made clear from initial scenes of George’s wistful contemplation of aspirational independence. Their plan is to save the stake to buy a few acres and make their own farm life, with a big vegetable patch, chickens and some rabbits, Lennie keeps reminding with childlike sweetness. But harsh realities and a tragic turn of events see dreams shattered for as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley” (often go awry).

All things considered, this is a superb production of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, highly professional in all of its aspects and with a calibre of talent that could easily be showcased on the QPAC stage. Indeed, Ad Astra has created an accessible, engaging and powerful piece of theatre worth of all the superlatives. The fact that the limited season is being brought to Brisbane audiences by the creators of “Red” comes of little surprise given that the 2020 production similarly combined staging and performances with such excellence.