Rocket Man memories

Your Song (The Little Red Company)

QPAC, Concert Hall

September 30 – October 1

The Little Red Company turns 10 this week and how appropriate it is to mark the occasion with return of one of their fastest selling shows, in one of Australia’s most spectacular concert venues. And the mood is certainly celebratory from the start of “Your Song” as ‘Benny and the Jetts’ leads into introduction of the performers returning from the show’s 2021 season at the Judith Wright Arts Centre, Luke Kennedy, Andy Cook and The Sunshine Club’s dynamic duo Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk.

Along with a world-class band (Mik Easterman on Drums, Michael Manikus on piano, OJ Newcomb on bass and Stephen Ward on guitar), the fabulous foursome reminds us of why the show was the 2021 Matilda Award winner for Best Musical or Cabaret. Far from being a typical tribute show (no-one takes on the role of Elton John) creators Adam Brunes and Naomi Price have crafted a unique verbatim musical theatre experience that merges the music and lyrics of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs with powerful true stories of heartbreak and hope, pain and passion, first loves, final moments and more.

Nuanced original musical arrangements by Maitlohn Drew, Alex Van den Broek and the cast capture not just familiarity of well-known numbers but the emotion at the core of each song in relation to its corresponding story. And the stellar cast of performers are all compelling as they gateway us into the power of Elton John’s music through the eyes of everyday people.

Andy Cook is again a standout. His stage presence is such that eyes are drawn to him throughout. Not only is his spirited energy infectious, but his strong vocals add a resonate depth to all range of numbers. While he enlivens a surprisingly poignant ‘Crocodile Rock’ to a big-voiced, spirited glam-pop celebration of life, music and memory, his astonishing voice also gives us the show’s highlight in an almost a cappella ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ with the barest of piano accompaniment, enrapturing the Concert Hall audience into mesmeric awe. It is just one of many moving moments evoked through reconsideration of songs’ simple and profound lyrics.

Lysiuk’s ‘Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word’ evokes the raw honesty at the heart of a reflection on loneliness and Corowa’s glorious voice layers his numbers with rich emotional texture, with his ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ serving as another highlight. Meanwhile, Music Supervisor Kennedy shows his versatility through both giving a beautiful rendition of the ballad ‘Daniel’ and uplifting us into the majestic chorus of ‘Tiny Dancer’.

Characteristically for the company’s shows, everyone is given a chance to shine, including, notably, Michael Manikus during the anthemic piano build of ‘I’m Still Standing’. All of Elton John’s well-known hits make appearance, if only in medley as part of the rousing on-your-feet sing-along encore. Even the show’s titular tune is wonderfully presented in a newly-imagined way with Lysiuk’s lean-in to its simple nativity with a surprise to-boyfriend share that is full of nervous, self-conscious energy showing why she was nominated for the Matilda Award for Best Female Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in last year’s debut season of the show.

The all-true, often deeply-personal stories and secrets presented take us through a range of emotions in reminder of the power of music to evoke associated memories… like (for those of us of appropriate vintage) where we were when we heard of Princess Diana’s passing. ‘Candle in the Wind’ not only does this, but with added emphasis in light of recent royal events. And the Concert Hall acoustics ensure that the group’s harmonies are as vivid as ever.

So authentic is the performers’ storytelling, that is easy to forget that these are in most instances not their own stories. And they are so seamlessly curated together with a craftedness characteristic of The Little Red Company works, that the show’s 90-minute duration flies by in an explosive experience of at-once heart, soul and distinctive Rocket Man camp.

Photos c/o – Stephanie Do Rozario

Super Girl sensitivity

Sunshine Super Girl (Performing Lines)

QPAC, Playhouse Theatre

September 22 – 24

There was a large group of school students in the audience at Opening Night of Brisbane Festival’s Sunshine Super Girl. Clearly unfamiliar with the details of its content, their investment in its story of Wiradjuri tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley AC MBE was such that the genuineness of their reactions to its unfolding were apparent to everyone around. It was wonderful to see, leading to ponder about why there is no film retelling of the tennis champ’s extraordinary tale, given how her sporting prowess as one of the world’s leading players in the 1970s and early 1980s inspired a nation and paved the way for future generations of Indigenous sportspeople (including Ash Barty, who cites her as a key influence and mentor).

Created from interviews with Goolagong Cawley, who was very much part of the play’s development, the fascinating work tells the story of the first Indigenous woman to win a tennis Grand Slam, the first mum in 66 tears to win at Wimbledon and a player whose formidable blend of offensive and defensive play saw her defeat other greats like Margaret Court and Billie-Jean King. The show’s biopic structure takes us on journey of the living legend’s career from small town tennis prodigy to iconic seven-time singles grand slam tournament winner (she also won six in women’s doubles and one in mixed doubles), beginning serendipitously with discovery of the previous owner’s tennis ball in her father’s broken-down-again car. From her humble origins as the third of eight children, whose first tennis outfit was made out of a bedsheet, we see the heart-warming support of her local community to get her to a Sydney tennis school after being scouted in Barellan, however, it is a story that is steeped in poverty, adversity, and racism.

Ella Ferris is magnetic as Evonne, asking ‘why me’? She is immediately endearing as she takes us in to the energetic and innocent world of seven-year-old Evonne, in excitement at the simple joy of discovery, such as when using a tennis racket instead of a wooden bat for the first time. She also captures her contemplative connection to country, as things open to Evonne breathing in the Murrumbidgee, and is charismatic even when taking us through career injuries and illnesses.

The supporting cast includes Katina Olsen, Jacqueline Compton, Lincoln Elliott, Kirk Page and Sermsah Bin Saad who work together to vividly create a range of characters in aid of the storytelling, including amusing John Newcombe and Martina Navratilova caractures (both from Compton) and even sheep to be shawn by Evonne’s father. Their dynamic physical performances work well with the play’s unique staging to enhance its engagement (set and costume design by Romanie Harper).

Atmosphere is created by transformation of QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre to a tennis court, complete with tiered on-stage ‘courtside’ audience seating facing out into the auditorium. Movement upon the court is used as a language with live and mimed ball play action as the sport is imaginatively represented in dance and movement (choreography by Katina Olsen and Vicki Van Hout). A standout scene comes when tennis postures are physically deconstructed in terms of body positioning in its return of a ball represented by a performer. The precision of its realisation is not only quite beautiful in and of itself, but coveys the consideration given to all aspects of the production.

The anecdotal quality to Andrea James’s writing warms us into the story’s sensitivities and the playwright’s love of the game is evident. Under her direction, the tribute is skilfully told to balance Goolagong Cawley’s ultimately triumphant story with its inherent poilticalness, because even though the tennis great thought of herself as apolitically just a tennis player, even this was a political positioning given the pressure of representation. Indeed, her achievements are made all the more impressive when we are reminded of the racism and sexism she showed strength to rise above, through reference to the social and political climate of the time and feature of 1962’s Commonwealth Electoral Act, the 1965 Freedom Rides, the establishment of the tent embassy in Canberra and South African apartheid. The balance this gives to the storytelling ensures that the powerful true tale ultimately serves as a celebration of sprit and passion over adversity, albeit with a distinctively Australian sensibility that makes it an entertaining 95-minute game, set and match.  

‘80s city heart

Queen’s City (Blak Social)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 21 – 24

Alethea Beetson’s“Queen’s City” is full of imaginative ideas that on their own could each easily sustain an engaging piece of theatre. Together, they are a lot, meaning that there is much to take away from this new theatre work inspired by missing narratives and rewritten histories in the story of ‘urban’ colonisation as often depicted in museum collections and archives

The provocative show is set in the nostalgic ‘80s in the titular fictional capital city location of Queen’s City, where dreams can supposedly come true. With Queen’s Coast theme parks just to the south and a boundary street division location about to be demolished to make way for culturally significant attractions, including a museum to celebrate the city’s history, as part of upcoming bicentennial celebrations, its resonance as Brisbane is barely veiled, and nor does it need to be.

The story mostly takes place in the heart of the city at All Ways Skate + Sing, which is run by local matriarch Truth. The karaoke bar and skating rink hot spot is a space of equality for all the mob, so when threat of losing it looms large from the government and state institutions on the other side of Restriction Avenue, its riff raff family of attendants Justice, Magick and Grace mobilise to try and save it.

This debut work from performance collective Blak Social (presented by Brisbane Festival, Screen Queensland and Queensland Performing Arts Centre Present) has been many years in the making, resulting in a finely-tuned craftedness to some of its aspects. It’s writing is clever and its humour is spot-on, particularly in its peppering of politically-toned potential pickup lines. While all performers give enthusiastic performances, however, varying dialogue vocal levels mean that impact sometimes fluctuates.

The creativity cresendos when the story sees characters transporting into the past courtesy of the Space Invader and Pac-Man et al arcade game machines that feature as part of its nostalgically neon set. The show is a long one though at 1 hour 40 minutes without interval and it sometimes feels it, as the time travelling storyline sees repeat of previously seen conversations.

Karaoke also features as a vehicle for its storytelling. Song keeper vocalists guide us through the story, signal the occasional song and keep the soundscape on-point beyond expectations of a ‘typical’ indigenous play. Their fourth wall breaks add yet another, this time meta-theatre, layer to all that is going on, however, their rocking original musical numbers both guide things along with plot information (helped by of-the-era karaoke style appearance of their lyrics on screen) and help to cement the show’s ‘80s sensibilities.

“Queen’s City” is a big work. Part gig, part theatre show, part political commentary, its multi-genre approach is all focussed on highlighting the danger of silence and showing how looking back is needed to move forward from our previously unbalanced, singular storytelling. Telling its first nations stories through the modality of the ‘80s works to not only make them accessible in new and interesting ways, but forces contemplation of if first nations art makers had the space then that they do now. And the fun of its ‘80s glam rock aesthetic adds another layer, building upon its visual nostalgia and its ‘Time After Time’ type of musical memories.

North Country resonance

Girl from the North Country (GWB Entertainment)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 8 – 18

“Girl from the North Country” is not your typical type of musical. Its premise has been seen before in its creation around a collection of Bob Dylan’s songs, however its realisation is far from the colour, movement and energy of typical musical fare. Instead, its aesthetic centres around a colour scheme befitting the depression era of its setting of Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, the north country of its title. The story, too, is quite Steinbeck in its sensibility as, we are introduced to Nick Laine’s (Peter Kowitz) rundown guesthouse, under threat of foreclosure. Not only is each member of his family dealing with their own turmoil, but there are also the characters staying at the guesthouse, who have their own challenges trying to get by in life.

With a large ensemble cast, there are lots of characters’ stories with which to engage as part of Conor McPherson’s story, none of them particularly joyous. Nick’s wife, Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) appears to be in the advanced stage of dementia, while their son Gene (James Smith), struggles with alcoholism and their adoptive daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) is pregnant and facing life as a single mother. Guests include a recently released from prison boxer (Elijah Williams), a shady bible salesman (Grant Piro), the widowed Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill) hoping to soon receive her husband’s estate, the Burkes (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore) who lost their money in the stock market crash, and their intellectually challenged adult son Elias (Blake Erickson).

It doesn’t take family physician Dr Walker’s (Terrence Crawford) assuring narration to tell us that things are grim. Staging and projected imagery set us firmly in the economics and social truths of the era, while Rae Smith’s costume design evokes both the era in time and its economic realities of the characters’ experiences. Mark Henderson’s lighting design bleakens things through the sepia-tinged tone of time, but also adds interest though lashing punctuation of the accents of numbers like ‘Hurricane’. Similarly, ‘Slow Train’ is elevated to be an early highlight thanks to the dramatic silhouetted shadowing of ensemble singers behind the main action.

Musical Director Andrew Ross leads a four-piece band shadowed at the back of the stage. Not only do they give us rich reproductions of Dylan’s tracks, but layer them with emotion to poetically journey the story along, with help from some lovely vocal harmonies. With 22 songs (11 in each act) from the American singer-songwriter’s back catalogue, rather than just the greatest hits of usual jukebox musical fare, there is much for Dylan fans to appreciate. And while tambourine and harmonica sounds flavour things as expected, some songs are especially noteworthy for their reimagination. A McCune-led ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (one of the show’s standout vocal performances), for example, allows us to see the song anew and is then moving in reprise before interval thanks also to its violin-induced emotion.

The entire cast give strong performances. Of note, is McGune’s nuance as Elizabeth, transitioning from catatonic detachment to childlike, exhibited outbursts with ease, but also commitment to the little details of her character’s attention. But with so many characters often on stage, it is difficult to find standouts beyond the interaction of Stone and Erickson in a finely balanced father and son dynamic.

Though “Girl from the North Country” is crowded with many characters and individual stories, they are united in a bleakness that makes us feel. Indeed, there is a real spiritedness to the production and a messaging about the resilience of the human spirit that resonates beyond its final curtain. McCune’s final moving share of 1974’s ‘Forever Young’ makes for a fitting conclusion as the story is epilogued with a tableau image of the family before foreclosure splinters their bonds. It not only tenderly captures the drama of this very un-musical type of musical, but ensure that its beauty resonate long afterwards.  

Mythical magic

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

QPAC, The Playhouse

August 29 – September 10

Dead Puppet Society’s latest work, in collaboration with Sydney physical theatre company Legs On The Wall is the inventive company’s most ambitious production yet, almost four years in the making. The world premiere staging of “Holding Achilles” as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival has come with its challenges, but also rich rewards for its audiences.

Coming off the back of 2021’s, “Ishmael”, aka “Moby Dick” in space, the design led theatre company is taking its storytelling back to the past with a queer retelling of Homer’s epic poem “The Illiad”. The scale of the undertaking is immediately evident in The Playhouse’s circular performance space, reminiscent of classical Greek amphitheatres with staging exposed to the audience (set co-design by Anna Cordingley). This, we soon see, is in contrast to the modern technology used to sometimes literally soar the story along. Aerial artistry is used to alongside the company’s trademark innovative puppetry to deliver the refreshing take on the myth of one of the ancient world’s best-known heroes and his not so well-known lover, with ARIA winning Australian singer-songwriter Montaigne performing its haunting score live on stage. It all combines in an exquisite world-class theatre experience.

Along with Homer’s “The Odyssey”, “The Iliad” is considered one of the oldest works in the Western literary tradition. It is a grand story about a fearless bond forged in the toughest of times and a narrative that survives due to its reinventions as much as its resonance. Even audience members with only a passing knowledge can follow the pathway of the show’s story. As a young exile taken in by Achilles’ father, Patroclus (Karl Richmond) faces hostility from the titular hero until they are thrust together to train under the centaur Chiron (Nic Prior), the tutor of all great heroes, and the two form an unlikely friendship. As Achilles (Stephen Madsen) considers his now-passed mother Thetis, Queen of the Myrnidons’ prophecy to become a legend, their relationship becomes something more, which sees them dream of a long, anonymous life together. But with the to-be brutal decade long Trojan war brewing, the two young men find themselves caught between their hopes for a future together and the realities of the world that faces them.

Appropriately, for a design-let piece of theatre, “Holding Achilles” is all about aesthetic throughout. Ben Hughes’ lighting is functional in transition through the phases of the duo’s training under Chiron and provision of simple palettes against which hand-to-hand combat sequences of the Trojan war are set, but also extravagant without overindulgence, beautifully toning re-enactment of Helen’s story and sparking the pre-battle night. When Achilles leaps from sea cliffs, only to be saved by Patroclus, smoke not only washes around him as water, but waves itself into the audience, and as the moon descends after pre-interval introduction of the Trojan war portion of the story, the sound of ocean waves fill the theatre, in punctuation of the armada of ships that has just been rallied by Agamemnon (Lauren Jackson) as part of the Achaean fleet.

Under David Morton’s direction, Act One is very strong in establishing the narrative, before the second part of the play turns things on their head with revelation of the political and economic machinations behind the abduction of Helen, in addition to what is occurring on the battlefield. While the scale and violence of the conflict are captured (including through the background sounds of battle of Tony Brumpton’s sound design), as things unfold, these are spoken to differently than anticipated, with challenge of the traditional notions of the nature of war and redefinition of heroism through a modern lens.

Although long, at 2 hours 30 minutes duration (including interval), experience of the slow flies through its series of highlights, including through the puppets and weapons-of-war type props created at Dead Puppet Society’s Fabrication Workshop in Brisbane. The puppet that is Hercules the bear is impressive by its adult bear size alone, standing at over 2 meters tall and requiring five actors operating as one to manipulate it. And every bit of its ferociousness is matched by the affection for its baby bear self. Audible audience responses illustrate how invested viewers are in the puppets as real characters, such is the attention to detail given to both their creation and realisation on stage.

Act Two is all about the Trojan War, which sees the intensity of the work’s high stakes stories backboned by its rich soundscape of sweeping ballads and thumping percussive beats, which progress the narrative along, with entire sections being given over to music (co-compose Tony Buchen). Emotional lyrical pieces sung by Montaigne (as the ghost of Thetis, Achilles’ dead mother), fulfil the role of a Greek chorus.

Under Joshua Thomson’s movement direction, the physical aspects are precise and full of intent, with choreographed combat sequences regularly reminding of how physical the show is for its performers. Legs On The Wall allows these humans to do unhuman things as they frequently defy gravity in hyperreal levitation. In particular, Madsen and Richmond perform some stunning, synchronised aerial work together, balanced by tender moments between the two characters as their days of training together soon morph into weeks. As centaur Chiron, Nic Prior is also particularly impressive operating in digitigrade stilts, entering and exiting scenes without miss of a beat and even bending down as if one knee while stilted.

“Holding Achilles” is a celebration of the craft of storytelling, with the highly imaginative, playful world of the show’s visual storytelling complemented by the rhythmic poetry of the dialogue of David Morton’s script. There are many clever visual and dialogue subtle nods to passages of time that progress the story along to its inevitable conclusion. There is humour too, enjoyable given its modern sensibility, most obviously in the interactions of the early hate-hate phase of Achilles and Patroclus’ pairing. Over time, we may see Patroclus’ love soften and gentle the brutish Greek Achilles, but Madsen still has big sandals to fill and he does an excellent job in providing some pathos to the most well-known warrior of all time, to show how heroes come in all shapes and shades.

While Morton’s story may be fantastically framed, its core concern with the real emotions of human experience is never sacrificed. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is the central driver and audience member reactions serve as testament to their investment in it. Indeed, the talented ensemble of performers convey depth and humanity regardless of their characters’ politics. Richmond brings a tenderness to Patroclus, which works well alongside Madsen’s Achilles. Thomas Larkin is especially commanding as Achilles’ father Peleus, while John Batchelor gives us a championing Odysseus. And, in addition to their significant puppeteering roles, Ellen Bailey and Lauren Jackson also give strong performances.

The Playhouse Theatre’s stage represents a big space to be filled by the imaginations of co-creators Dead Puppet Society’s David Morton and Legs On The Wall’s Joshua Thomson and this, they do in aesthetic abundance, with mesmerising movement and music elevating the mythical storytelling of “Holding Achilles” to theatre magic. More than just an adaptation or presentation of one of the Western canon’s oldest narratives through a queer lens, the multi-layered work speaks to a contemporary audience through its addition of shadows and shades to the original story. This means that, as well as big themes around the ideas of family, loyalty and legacy, it also speaks to the fractious nature of our here and now, giving it audience appeal on every possible level.

Photos – c/o – Dean Hanson

From Fourteen

Fourteen (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

August 27 – September 17

The Cremorne Theatre stage is packed with nooks and crannies to become the Yeppoon settings of Shake and Stir Theatre Company’s latest page-to-stage adaptation, the world premiere of “Fourteen”, as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival program. Dan Venz’s slick choreography ensures that places appear in a flash from amongst Josh McIntosh’s effective set design, with even characters emerging with blink and you could miss it precision. The show is fast moving from the outset, propelled along by a dynamic soundscape of not just ‘90s bangers of the angsty ‘Prisoner of Society’ sort, but atmospheric sounds of birds, between class movement and alike (sound design by Guy Webster), placing us firmly into the time and place of the show’s share of Shannon Molloy’s story, first told in the award-winning journalist’s 2020 best-selling memoir.

In many ways, period pieces can be contradictory, as we simultaneously reflect nostalgically upon pleasant point-in-time memories, while also giving thanks for how far we have hopefully have come as a society. In this instance, 1999 is seen through the lens of the trauma of Shannon’s (Conor Leach) childhood. Life is tough for young, gay and creative Shannon growing up in the Central Queensland coastal town, especially thanks to his attendance at its hyper-masculine, rugby-obsessed, all-boys school. From the first day of Year 9 we see his fourteenth year play out in a series of humiliations from entitled school bullies harassing him in suspect of his queerness, and so learn that he is in a dangerous place of struggle.

Fabian Holford’s costume design captures the story’s 1999 setting and, along with its of-the-era soundtrack, offers light in the darkness of Shannon’s bitter misery. Under Nick Skubij’s sensitive direction, however, “Fourteen” is ultimately about conquering trauma through family, loyalty, love and support, as well as a reminder of the importance of r-u-ok give-pause type moments in others’ lives.

The story’s darkness and light through hopeful moments are well balanced. There is a real discomfort and some potentially triggering moments to the heartbreaking honesty of the bullying and betrayal at the core of Shannon’s story (the play contains strong coarse language, mature themes around suicide and sexual identity, simulated violence and depictions of sexual abuse), however from the early action of his being bullied, we are subtly transitioned through the poignancy of the story’s latter parts to the optimism of its ultimate message. And there is a lot of laughter and late ‘90s nostalgia along the way.

So slick is the story’s initial unfold, that it takes a little while to realise that despite the number of characters making appearance, there are, in fact, only seven performers in its cast. The many swift and diverse character changes must represent a challenge to the actors and they all do well to establish the distinction of each of their characters through more than just their sometimes small costumes changes or additions, but rather the realisation of different physicalities of statue and gait. Johnny Balbuziente’s is particularly adept at this, transitioning with ease between characters such as Shannon’s protective older brother Brent and his brutish school bully.

Leon Cain shows incredible versatility as Shannon’s disconnected dad, an intolerant school teacher and also the overly-enthusiastic Andy, the school’s only out gay. Similarly, Helen Cassidy easily transitions between the disparate roles of Shannon’s protective older sister Trinity, one of his besties since Primary School Nicole and even a joyful, caring art teacher. The best scenes, however, come from Amy Ingram as Shannon’s other bestie Morgan, especially in her hilarious drunken party pash scene with Shannon (evidence, he thinks, that he may only be half gay).

Karen Crone anchors things as the rock of Shannon’s family, his down-to-earth mother Donna, but has her own break-out, audience-favourite high-energy Mambo No. 5 fashionista moment as Jessica, star of the fashion show Shannon is executive producing. And Mitchell Bourke makes Shannon’s first serious boy crash, Tom, at-once gentle, genuine and mischievous. This makes for Shannon’s ‘Kiss Me’ “She’s All That” moment, all the more lovingly received by the audience.

This is, however, Leach’s show. As first person narrator of the episodic narrative, he is barely off stage. With gentle mannerisms, soft voice and natural enthusiasm, he gives us a Shannon that is unapologetically, authentically himself, immediately endearing the protagonist to his audience and investing us in his emotional journey from hurt towards healing.

Unfortunately, experiences of bullying and feelings of isolation and alienation are just as current and relatable today as in the late ‘90s of the story’s setting, and the show offers resonance and reassurance to young people that from fourteen things are going to be fine.. great even. However, its appeal goes beyond just this demographic. Indeed, anyone who has experienced some part of their youth in the ‘90s or some section of the life as a teenage in a rural town where doing laps around the shopping centre represented the height of boredom-busting entertainment, will be able to identify with its all too real reminders of Lemon Ruskis, dial up modems and the Vengaboys intercity disco.

As a queer Australian story, “Fourteen” is not only important, but inspirational in its moving ‘don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top’ anthem messaging of resilience and hope. The verbatim ensemble piece is not only an exciting example of Australian contemporary performance, but a dope technicoloured trip back in time that should not be missed.

Photos –  David Fell