and that’s a 2018 wrap


A quick pre-Christmas trip to Melbourne this week has not only give me my favourite theatre experience of the year in Calamity Jane, but provided a chance to reflect on a theatre year now done. Although still in the triple digits, I saw fewer shows in 2018 than in previous years, because…. Netflix. And, as usual, there have been many highlights, making it difficult to providing a definitive list of favourites. But reflective lists are what the end of a year is all about, so here is my eclectic top 10 of the memorable, the musical, the moving and the mirthful, and some honourable mentions.

  1. Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)
  2. Hamnet (Dead Centre) as part of Brisbane Festival
  3. Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)
  4. Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)
  5. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)
  7. The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)
  8. Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects) as part of Brisbane Festival
  9. At Last: The Etta James Story (Brisbane Powerhouse)
  10. The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

And mention also to the following highlights:

Best performance:

  • Virgina Gay as the titular feisty frontierswoman in Calamity Jane
  • Paul Capsis as 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture.

Best AV – A Christmas Carol (optikal bloc for shake & stir theatre co)

Most thought provoking –- Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

Best new work – The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Best musical

  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  • Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
  • Bare (Understudy Productions)

Best cabaret:

Best music – The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)

Best dance – Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

Funniest – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Most joyous – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

Cleverest – North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

Most moving – Hamnet (Dead Centre)

Youth truths

I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 26 – 29


What do you get when you combine over 3000 responses, 18 young performers and a whole lot of confetti? It sounds like the start of a riddle, but the answer, “I’ve Meaning to Ask You’ is far from a punchline or non-committal response. The latest innovative work from experimental theatre collective The Good Room ensembles an eclectic group of young performers to pit their wonders against the explanations of the older generation. As such, it is a unique intergenerational show for adults that is full of questions asked by young people and answered by adults.


Questions are more than just the perennial “but why?” of early infantry, rather ranging from the frivolous to the provocative. We start with ask as to favourite songs and drinks and then there are embarrassing moments and pop-up illustrations of go-to dance moves. From these emerge adult’s own reflections of youth with questions about at-school bullying and the real-world value of maths and then more global concerns about gender, power the environment and the future, which do not always come with easy answers.


Age interacts though omnipresent experience in the revealing one-hour tell-all, as the group of eager early-teens are given agency to speak their truths. And they are more than up for the task, bringing big personalities that enliven and entertain in their energy. Indeed, all the young actors are impressive in the timing and perfect tone of their performances.


It starts with them in line across the stage behind microphone stands. They aren’t still for long though as this is far from a static show; it is wonderfully dynamic, full of fun, colour, movement and pure joy. Its soundtrack is lively too, packed with sing and clap along moments to lots of fabulous retro songs of the Roxette, Bon Jovi and B52s sort.



And still the surprises keep coming, starting with shift in tone courtesy of some lyrical choreography, Jason Glenwright’s intricate lighting and unexpectantly at-once striking and moving video design from optikal bloc’s Craig Wilkinson, which adds an entirely new dimension to the already extraordinary work, as audiences are guided towards some genuine compelling and poignant adult confessionals of insecurity and regret.


The combination of notable performer stage presence and a stellar creative team led by Director Daniel Evans, means that the youth truths are dropped in the most wonderful of ways, including with entertaining little inset re-enactments and even additional audience involvement beyond just the initial contributions. And the result is perhaps the best The Good Room project realisation yet.

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In keeping with the popular formula that has served them so well with past productions, “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You” has been created using audience and anonymous stories and the consequence is genuine audience engagement in ponder not only of its targeted central questions about, for example, what day you would like to go back and change, but the value of communication between generations that typically don’t interact with such honesty and consideration, and the benefit of wisdom and advice in our world. Indeed, after experience the night prior of the similarly world premiere production of Dog Spoon’s “A Coupla Dogs”, it seems that at this year’s Brisfest the Theatre Republic is the place for to be for Week Three think pieces.

Hairspray happiness

Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular (Harvest Rain)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 8 – 10

Harvest Rain’s “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” is everything it promises…. It’s big, fat and full of fun, perfect for the final days of school holidays. With a mass ensemble of 900 young performers (some as young as nine years old), the Brisbane Convention Centre is often filled to the point of never knowing where exactly to look, which is perhaps befitting for a show in which the bulk of the characters are teenagers themselves.

The musical has evolved through various incarnations, from the 1988 John Waters’ big-screen original to a Tony Award winning Broadway production and subsequent 2007 film. The plot here remains the same as the audience is taken to segregated 1962 Baltimore. Fiesty teen Tracy Turnblad (Lauren McKenna), a big girl with a big heart and even bigger hair, has only one desire – to be a dancer on the popular Corny Collins TV show. When her dream comes true, Tracy is transformed from social outcast to sudden star alongside her teen idol, Link Larkin (Dan Venz), but it is a transition that doesn’t come without its problems as her social conscious compels her to spearhead a campaign to racially integrate the show.

It is a production filled with movement and energy from its opening moments. After a rousing ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ in which Tracy muses about her fondness for her hometown, her love of dancing, and her desire to be famous, the pace pumps with a toe-tapping introduction to the Corny Collins TV cast, the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’. The mass ensemble adds interest to the aesthetic when synchronized in their choreography and while a full scale ‘The Madison’ is a little overwhelming, the tsunami of performers that floods the stage for the show’s famous final anthem ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ makes for a memorable conclusion. The optikal bloc projections across the screen (bigger that the biggest IMAX in the world) also enhance the explosion of colour created by staging and costumes.

McKenna (seen recently as Martha in “Heathers”) is fabulous as the ever-optimistic Tracy, big on voice and personality. And her comic performance in swoon over Link during her Act One ‘I Can Hear The Bells’ dream about what life would be like if she pursued a relationship with him, makes her all the more infectiously likeable. She is supported by a strong cast, including Venz as teenage heartthrob Larkin and Emily Monsma as Tracy’s dorky and devoted best friend Penny. Indeed, Monsma embraces every opportunity provided by the side-kick role, making it very much her own and stealing every scene in which she appears. Simon Burke is touching in the classic cross-dressing role of Tracey’s house-bound, fearful mother Edna, who makes for an endearing double act with on-stage husband Wilbur (Wayne Scott Kermond). Their performance of ‘You’re Timeless to Me’ is at once tender and comic-filled.

Tim Campbell is perfect as the peppy Corny Collins, with sensational voice and smooth dance moves that leave the audience wanting to see more. And as Seaweed Stubbs, Barry Conrad (perhaps best known for his time on “X-Factor Australia” in 2013) showcases some outstanding vocals. Amanda Muggleton seems to delight in the dastardly role of station producer Velma Von Tussle with Cruella de Vil like glee, bringing a cartoonish villainy to the larger-than-life character. And as the self-described big, blonde and beautiful Motormouth Maybelle, host of The Corny Collins Show’s Negro Day, Christine Anu brings attitude and then some. Her soulful rendition of the musical’s most serious-minded song, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ makes for a powerful and inspiring anthem.


So skilled and entertaining are the core cast that it almost makes you wish for the usual theatre stage experience where intimacy and character connection have not been sacrificed in creation of the record breaking production, as like in 2014’s “Cats”, the spectacular’s scale is sometimes alienating to full appreciation of individual lead performances.

“Hairspray” is a happy musical of good humour and fun. With the addition of 900 excited youths, the joy within the “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” eventatorium is infectious. With buoyant performances and toe-tapping ‘60s-style musical numbers, there is certainly much to smile about both during and in memory of the experience of being welcomed to the ‘60s.

Ringside in the Roundhouse

Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 5 – 26

Perhaps never has there been a show more suitable for La Boite’s unique theatre in the round staging than “Prizefighter”, a new Australian work which sees the Roundhouse Theatre transformed into authentic boxing ring, complete with Vegas razzle dazzle spectacle of ushers acting as ring card girls, holding over-heard oversized cards bearing the seating bank numbers, an assortment of training routines happening before the audience’s eyes and a pumping pre-show soundtrack to set the scene and invigorate the crowd.

Far from the MGM Grand, however, the setting is the mythical Luke’s Gym in West End. After four years of training at the gym, rising star and refugee Isa, a talented young Congolese boxer is preparing for the most important fight of his life. Undefeated with 15 fights and 12 knockouts, he has fists of iron but haunting demons, explored through between-round flashbacks to the violence of his early life in The Democratic Republic of Congo where he was orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier.


While not linear in chronology, the story is not a challenge to follow as it transcends time and location, thanks to its cleverly crafted script (and debut work) by former Congolese refugee Future D. Fidel, with arcs and revisits to notions of killing and victory tempered by the universal humour of uneasy flirtation and brotherly banter. Indeed, despite its weighty themes, this is an accessible production thanks to its use of boxing (authentically choreographed down to the finest of details thanks to Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton) as a metaphor for Isla’s journey through trauma.


The story is brought to provocative life by a versatile all-Brisbane cast who portray all range of character role with nuanced commitment. As Isa, Pacharo Mzembe brings sensitivity to the text, always remaining on the right side of the empathy/sympathy tightrope. While the ever-feisty Margi Brown-Ash is a little like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey Goldmill in the “Rocky” movies (the extent of my boxing knowledge), intense in demeanour and faith in Isa as she urges him to get his head right and focus on his dream.

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This is a show that pack a lot of punch (#punintended) into its hour long running time. As characters become casualties of the brutality of the volatile Congolese war, it is, at times, a highly charged emotional experience, with many emerging from the theatre wrenched by the extremities that only human tragedy can invoke. Music and David Walters’ lighting choices are central in establishing the mood and the pace of the journey, taking the audience through ebbs and flows of a narrative that requires both vibrant sounds capes and silences to speak volumes. And optikal bloc’s exciting projected imagery is essential in the audience immersement into the hype of a prize fight event.

As recent events have shown, it is far easier to condemn groups of people when they are given no human face. And while only inspired by the playwright’s own story of fleeing the war torn country, “Prize Fighter” presents Australian audiences with a confronting story that is clearly grounded in a experience that is achingly true for so many. As such, “Prize Fighter” is an important piece of theatre, worthy of inclusion as one of the headliners of the Brisbane Festival as part of its Congo Connection series. To bring stories such as this from the margins into the mainstream is one of theatre’s great privileges and while it may not exactly be a show to ‘enjoy’ as much as appreciate, its profoundness means it is definitely one to be seen.

Jimmy’s journey

Country Song (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 4 – August 8

Front and centre of the Cremorne Theatre stage is a lone microphone, which is entirely appropriate given the promise of “Country Song” to celebrate the music and life of Australia’s Jimmy Little, the pioneering artist who journeyed from poverty and personal tragedy to become a country music star, inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame. However, it soon emerges that this introductory image is one that belies the show’s much bigger thematic tale of indigenous inspiration and hope.

Act One begins by taking the audience through past times in sensibility and song in presentation of Little’s life story from his youth with vaudeville parents in Cummeragunja to becoming the first aboriginal entertainer to be seen regularly on television. It is a journey enhanced by projected optikal bloc imagery to provide context and meld story and action. From the textures of the natural Australian landscape along the banks of the Murray River to RSL dressing rooms, the imagery and soundscape combine with subtle transitions to help bring the story to bolder life and although initially audiences may wonder why the screens are not higher, reasoning is gloriously revealed in Act Two’s rousing musical finale.


As the essentially passive protagonist, Michael Tuahine is every part the good-natured, clean-living ‘Gentleman Jim’. His dulcet, delicate tones are perfectly suited to delivery of the singer’s signature tunes, like number one chart hit, gospel track ‘Royal Telephone’, however, it is his incredible rendition of Johnny Cash’s ‘Burning Ring of Fire’ that serves as pre-interval highlight.

Aside from Tuahine, all members of the cast serve multiple roles. As Little’s mother and then also as his wife Marg, Elain Crombie is another standout. Her clear and precise performances of both characters are engaging and touching. However, Act Two belongs to Megan Sarmardin as the angel of country music Auriel Andrew. Her rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ is just beautiful and cements the worth of her inclusion in the most recent Women in Voice showcase of talented female vocalists at QPAC as part of the Women of the World Festival. In his many roles, David Page is a comedic force; from Elvis to Slim Dusty (and with help from some ludicrous wigs), he shows a spirited energy to his characterisations, which results in many hilarious scenes.

With moments such as these, “Country Song” could easily be just a frolicsome little show through the landscape of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, complete with appropriate costumes and hair, however, Director Wesley Enoch is architect of a much bigger narrative through these times of discrimination and change. Whereas Act One focusses on Little’s story, Act Two shares of his legacy, in particular the stories of singer Auriel Andrew, political activist Bobby McLeod and boxing champ and sometimes singer Lionel Rose.

Although a fictionalised story, “Country Song” has many important things to say as it shines a light on Indigenous Australians who have contributed to the musical and social legacy of this nation. And as it weaves through the political and social landscape, the show’s pacing ebbs and flows through a wonderful soundtrack of music from a range of artists in a journey that will surely have audiences revelling, whether it be in memory of their parent’s collection or nostalgia of their own.

Connecting the Pale Blue Dots

Pale Blue Dot (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 19 – August 9

There are a number of tell-tale symptoms that you may experience if you have been abducted by aliens, many of which are most notable after a night of drinking, the “Pale Blue Dot” pre-show announcement tells the audience. This is exactly why you should purchase anti-abduction insurance, especially if you live in Toowoomba. As the show reveals, the Darling Downs region is a significant destination for our space brothers and experiences an unusually high number of disappearances due to the large amount of granite in the area, which the crafts use for navigation.

16 year old ‘alien freak’ school girl Storm (Ashlee Lollback) knows this all too well. The science nerd loner claims to have been taken from her formal party and transported to Roma. Her domineering German immigrant mother Greta (Caroline Kennison) is determined to claim upon her policy; she knows what she is talking about given that her husband was also ‘taken’ three years ago.

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So what happened to Storm? And how did she wake up in an empty field 200km from home? Enter skeptical insurance fraud investigator Joel Pinkerton (Hugh Parker) who is juggling his case involvement with frustrations closer to home from his wife Holly (Lucy Goleby) and their newborn baby girl.

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Although “Pale Blue Dot” includes a gallery of characters, each wrestling with their own psychological alienations and fear-motivated desire for escape, their realisation (and much of the show’s humour) includes reliance of a number of comfortable stereotypes. Parker gives an understated and engaging performance as Joel, very Colin Firth like in his manner and mannerisms. And Kennison demands audience attention as the fierce and determined Greta, fearful of losing her soon-to-be-adult daughter, both literally and metaphorically. This is a show about relationships, between mother and daughter, husband and wife. However, while there is realism to each coupling’s arguments, the chemistry of affection is sometimes lacking.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a new play by Brisbane actor and playwright Kathryn Marquet, the result of La Boite Theatre’s playwright-in-residence program. More than anything, however, it serves to showcase the work of optikal bloc, whose projections combine with the staging and soundscape to produce a hyper-reality highlight. The minimalist stage is beautifully bathed in the blue hues of Jason Glenwright’s cutting edge lighting design, while the stage itself is dominated by concentric circles of varying depth. Atlhough this design is striking and versatile, the creaking sounds of characters moving about on its levels are initially a little distracting.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a show of both personal dramas and big themes, which is perhaps to its detriment. The jumps back and forth from intergalactic intrigue and conspiracy theories to humans struggling with their insecurities and insignificance confuse its identity and the end result of trying to connect the dots (pun intended) is baffling and unsatisfying.

The play’s title comes from the title of a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe, from a record distance of six billion kilometres from earth. It shows the Earth as a fraction of a pixel against the vastness of space, emphasising its insignificance in the vast cosmic arena. It is an apt title for a play that has at its core consideration of Arthur C Clarke’s statement that “Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Regardless of your thoughts on Ufology, however, you don’t have to be a rocket man to get the best view in the universe; as “Pale Blue Dot” concludes, all you have to do is look up at the stars that every person who has ever lived has also looked upon.

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