Ireland lives on

Ancient Rain (Paul Kelly & Camille O’Sullivan)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 13


Between Australian music legend and poet laureate Paul Kelly and Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, there is a proud Irish heritage, so it is appropriate that it is on WB Yeats’ birthday that they take Brisbane audiences on a journey through Irish poetry in “Ancient Rain”. The show, which combines original songs and music, together with spoken word, was inspired by more than a century of Irish writing and serves as both a reminder of its emotive poetry and range of themes.

It is a darkly beautiful show as it contrasts some of the most important events of Irish history, from the potato famine of the 1800s to the Easter Rising of last century with illumination of the evocative language of descriptions of lines like ‘October coloured weather’ which will linger long after shared. The lush musical arrangements transform the poetry into living art. In collaboration with composer Feargal Murray, Kelly and Sullivan have thread together a tapestry of tender moments of profound sadness at loss of language and country, but also celebration of survival. And lighting complements the mood and considered aesthetics of the elemental sounds of wind and thunder and the sensitive harmonies of the backing band, adding a theatrical feel to the show.


Kelly has a wonderful stage presence (as the country’s best balladeer with recognisable Aussie sounds, his vocals don’t always suit, but his voice is naturally suited to storytelling) and O’Sullivan is a compelling performer, whether in earthy or ethereal voice, meaning that together they are an irresistible combination, in complete command of the material. In Michael Hartnett’s ‘English Part Seven’, O’Sullivan soars in sing of ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’, while in Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ she tantalises with a husky voice in but a whisper. But it is Paula Meeham’s heartbreaking ‘The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks’ that represents the show’s pinnacle, at the end of Act One, as, draped in red veil she tells musical tale of the statue of the Virgin Mary, at whose feet a teenage girl gives birth before dying with her child.


“Ancient Rain” is a powerful project from two acclaimed performers that makes Irish history live again. While its tales are dark and melancholic in their heartache, they are very human stories, which means that everyone will have their own connection to its musical storytelling as they appreciate anew its old tales of war, rebellion and longing for freedom.

 Photos c/o – David James McCarthy and Sarah Walker

Politics at play

1984 (A new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 14 – 18

The Lyric Theatre filled with school groups for a 100 minutes long show with no intermission and complete lockout for its duration may not sound like a likely-to-work combination, but in the case of “1984”, experience of the show is so engrossing to the entire audience that none of these things matter. The new adaptation of one of the greatest dystopian novels ever written, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” speaks to more than a literary audience, offering topical warning against allowing ignorance to be truth, confirming the accuracy of its own (paraphrased) words that it doesn’t matter when it is read, it can always be applied to the future.

It begins with members of a bookclub meeting in cozy, timber-clad reading room to discuss an intriguing text. Then reality is fractured into the text’s storyline, where life for citizens in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, is dictated by omnipresent government surveillance, overseen by the totalitarian party leader Big Brother. Protagonist Winston Smith (Tom Conroy) is a member of the outer party, working in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism, to remove ‘unpersons’ from record.

diary.jpgWinston knows in his heart that the world in which he is living is monstrous. But giving voice to his thoughtcrimes, is another matter, especially if noting them in a diary, which is an individualistic, defiant act punishable by death. Risking everything, he begins a passionate relationship with Julia (Ursula Mills) who shares his loathing of the Party, until the Thought Police capture Winston along with Julia in their rented room and the two are delivered to the Ministry of Love for interrogation.

The initial differences from the source material at the outset may be ill-received by purists (this 1984 is defined by the creator’s interrogation of the novel’s structurally-important appendix), however any over-complication that this evokes is ultimately outweighed by the provocation of the renewed relevance of its themes. And by the time the audience bears witness to the daily Two Minutes Hate in which Party members must express their hatred for enemies of the stage, we are well and truly absorbed. While some aspects are initially overdone, like the overt foreshadowing on Winston’s psychopathological fear of rats, the production ultimately allows the audience to delve deeper into some of the novel’s central themes, while also allowing for appreciation anew of its simple yet eloquent language in show of how language shapes the way we think.

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Staging is slick and impressively sophisticated, both visually and in execution of seamless scene changes as heavily armed police transform the quaint dwelling of early scenes to a hyper-real, highly evolved Matrix-like world of a white dimensionless, empty arena for torture. The soundscape, too, is startlingly loud, which suits the essential discomfort of the terror on show as we are asked to ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.

Conroy is excellent as everyman Winston, conveying with clarity the complicated internal emotions of one at once confident in his self-assurance that 2 + 2 = 4 and intellectually able to reason about his resistance, to one who is later so broken-spirited as to be forced into betraying the only person he loves, by his torture in Room 101, the chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear of phobia. And Terence Crawford makes for an aptly-duplicitous O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who poses as part of the counter-revolutionary resistance, The Brotherhood, made even more menacing in his unwavering calm and control than his power.

“The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening,” George Orwell wrote, decades before the smart-phone world of today. And contemplation of its prophecy is what makes “1984” such essential viewing, given its demonstration of the terrifying possibilities of totalitarianism and suggestion that ideology is indeed present in the modern, western world. While certainly Australian audiences are privileged to experience an international touring production of such quality, its work is ultimately in its comments about the death of individuality (emphasised by the faceless figure on the program’s cover) and how rewriting the truth is but a step away from eradicating history.

Photos c/o – Shane Reid

Swedish celebrations

Thank You for the Music – an ABBA Celebration (QPAC Choir)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 6

If ABBA ever was to reform, (and chance are “absolutely zero” according to Bjorn Ulvaeus) down under would be top of the list on their comeback trail. Australia was, as it seems, the first country that took ABBA to heart. And evidently, the love affair still lingers, forty years after the ‘70s super pop group first toured the country, visiting every state capital except Brisbane… well, at least for those in attendance at the QPAC Choir’s annual showcase ‘Thank You for the Music – an Abba Celebration” trip down memory lane to mark the anniversary of that landmark live concert tour.

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QAPC choirmaster and super ABBA freak Timothy Sherlock not only looks the part in bedazzled jacket, but conveys an infectious energy. And the 140-voice QPAC choir more than rises to the occasion, responding to the crowd’s ‘We Want ABBA’ introduction chants and glowstick punctuation with performance of a selection of some of the most popular ABBA songs, as part of the Queensland Cabaret Festival. Indeed, this is a show full of familiar tunes, each remembered as favourite until the next number in the setlist starts playing. And seeing the audience’s collective reactions upon recognition of each starting medley makes for a night of many shared joys.

‘Mamma Mia’ kicks off the first medley, featuring also ‘SOS’ and ‘Waterloo’, but there are lesser known numbers showcased too. In each instance the choir’s voices harmonise beautifully, creating a melodic ‘Super Trouper’ and an absolutely heavenly ‘Chiquitita’ in recognition of its significance as one of the most famous charity songs ever. They are most wonderful, however, when on show in stripped back numbers such as the QPAC Chamber Choir’s rich harmonic vocals in an acapella arrangement of ‘One of Us’.

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Appropriately, the eight-piece live band is also given its chance to sign, particularly in the instrumental ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ from ABBA’s self-title third album (the first of only two songs by the group not to contain lyrics). The orchestral rock tune is a perfect selection given its piano and guitar-led instrumentals and accompanist Tina Liu and guitarist Toby Wren are particularly excellent in share of its flamboyant sounds.

And if that is not enough fun, there is show on screen of the corresponding album covers as complement to its set list, which are entertaining in themselves for the fashion alone. And there are clips too, from the 1977 documentary film “ABBA: The Movie” about the pop group’s Australian tour, commercials featuring ABBA, including for the Japanese electronics manufacturer National (now Panasonic) and interesting titbits of information and trivia shared by Sherlock in emcee mode.

Special guests for the evening include 3rd year students from the Bachelor of Musical Theatre course at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University who begin with boisterous share of the title track from 1979’s disco album, ‘Voulez Vous’, providing the first of many opportunities for an audience clap along to the energetic but quite lengthy number. In absolute contrast one of this year’s graduating students Georgia Bolton presents a soaring ballad refection on the end of a romance in ‘The Winner Takes It All’, which was written by ABBA member Bjorn Ulvaeus after separating from wife and fellow band member, Agnetha Fältskog.

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“Thank You for the Music – an ABBA Celebration” is indeed a celebration of the band’s extensive, diverse catalogue of music, offering audience members the chance to sing and sway along (because it is difficult not to move in time to tuneful numbers like the hugely popular ‘Fernando’). The music has a timeless appeal and when the evening ends with the ‘Dancing Queen’ audience on their feet dancing, jiving and having the time of their lives, it is on the highest of highs. This QPAC Choir event captures the timeless magic and excitement of one of the world’s most successful and entertaining live bands and like someone in the Supertrooper’s sights, as one of its audience members, you will be surely be smiling and having fun.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

When wrong is right

The Play That Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions)

QPAC, Concert Hall

May 4 – 14

Strangely, upon entrance to “The Play That Goes Wrong”, there is near-silence as everyone watches an audience member who has joined those on stage to assist with fixing the set’s mantelpiece. The oddness of it becomes apparent only later, not when the mantelpiece collapses mid-show, but upon realisation that these initial minutes are the only time during the entire evening that the Concert Hall is quiet, because barely a moment passes of its duration when the air is not filled with big belly-laughs and riotous roars (not giggles though, for this is a show so consistently hilarious as to foster more than tee-hee titterings).

After a quick introduction from the President of the Cornley Polytechnic Dramatic Society, the play within a play, ‘Murder at Haversham Manor’ starts with a bang… or maybe it is poison or strangulation that has caused untimely death of the Manor’s Lord, Charles Haversham (Darcy Brown as Jonathan Harris). This is what the cast of characters set out to uncover in their presentation of a murder thriller that is meant to be up there with Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”. Unfortunately, however, their attempts result in a show that is more chaotic than critically-acclaimed.

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Doors are locked, the walls of the lavish and intricate set wobble and objects fall to the ground. “This set is a bloody deathtrap!” observes one of the creatives. But, the show, as they say, must go on, so forgotten lines are improvised and missing props are replaced in hope that the audience may not notice, such is the actors’ determination that the play will progress, despite the bodies that are banged about in the process. The result is the most manic of farces, full not just of physical humour but a plethora of puns and malapropisms and, at one stage, a warped speed dialogue loop.

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‘Tom Cruise will not be appearing’, foyer signs remind us, but Brooke Satchwell does, as Sandra who plays the hysterical but still narcissistic Florence, fiancé to the deceased. And she is as funny as ever, especially when, as Sandra, she fights stage manager Annie (Tammy Weller), with all the combative manoeuvres and theatrics of a couple of pro-wrestlers. Indeed, all cast members offer incredible physical performances, never waning in energy for the show’s two hour(ish) duration. This leads to a cascade of comical scenes with setups as funny as their executions thanks to the show’s polished choreography and perfect comic timing. James Marlowe, from the London cast is excellent as Max (aka Cecil Haversham, the dead man’s brother), however, the most side-splitting moments emerge from the sight gags associated with the portrayal of Charles’ dead body.

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Of course there is a plot in there somewhere, but this show is about far more than a pesky plot. The story is, instead, incidental to the incompetence of those in whose hands the play goes wrong. Given the absolute hilarity of its slapstick style of comedy, it is easy to affirm the play’s 2015 Olivia Award for Best New Comedy. This is comedy done right, enhanced by a simplicity of concept that gives it a breath of all-ages appeal. While the show’s website may instruct you to ‘save money (don’t come)’, really, this is an infectiously funny show, not to be missed by anyone who wants to laugh until it hurts.

Photos c/o Jeff Busby

The linger of life lessons

Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 22 – May 14

If theatre is about making you think about life, then former QTC Artist Director Michael Gow’s “Once in Royal David’s City” (his first play in seven years) is theatre at its best as it takes audiences on a beautiful and emotional journey through life’s phases of hearing, living and telling stories, in exploration of what gives our life vulnerability, but also meaning.

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The play tells the tale of a mother and son dealing with the death of a loved one. Will (Jason Klarwein) is a Brecht-obsessed theatre director whose father has recently passed away. He wants to treat his mother (Penny Everingham) to a relaxing Christmas break so they can spend some quality time together. Yet, what sounds like a simple story becomes so much more as the non-linear narrative (with Will as narrator) spans time and location, taking audiences from West Berlin to Byron Bay and from the 1950s to the present.

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There are many nods to motifs of Gow’s seminal “Away” in that it sees a family holidaying by the beach at the typically-emotionally charged Christmas time (its title is that of a processional hymn about shattering perceptions of a picturesque nativity with reality, and its program cover is appropriately red and green in its design). However, its use of the Brechtian techniques sets it apart. Indeed, in early sections it seems that this is a show for drama folk, with its frequent references not just to the German director but to classic texts like “The Important of Being Earnest” and “Mother Courage and Her Children”, both of which have also appeared on the Playhouse stage in recent years. But as things progress, the references become more fused with contemporary realism, bringing with them considerations not ultimately appreciated until its final bookend ‘lecture’ on Brechtian theory and technique.

While the show is full of heartfelt moments and silences for audiences to fall into, with lip-biting, ‘I will not cry’ resolution in response to its challenging subject matter of saying goodbye to a loved one, there is a lot of light-heartedness too, including spontaneous song and dance numbers and amusing dialogue, with perfect comic-timing delivery of some early-show one liners.

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The ensemble cast is a strong one, led by Brisbane’s own Jason Klarwein in the complex leading role. As Will, Klarwein gives a riveting and finely-nuanced performance as a character dealing with emotional obstacles and the very human dilemmas of grief, loss, identity and an associated personal crisis of insecurity within a passion. As his ailing mother Jeannie, Penny Everingham is wonderfully spirited but ultimately vulnerable and Steven Turner, in particular, assumes multiple roles, all with equal ease.

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The talented creative team allows the actors to take centre stage. Stephen Curtis’s design is simple yet effective down to the smallest details, such as the hand sweep of curtains that sometimes signpost scene changes. The production benefits from an evocatively minimalist set and Matt Scott’s rich lighting design, which transports audiences between the stark fluorescence of hospital ward lighting to brilliantly backlit shadow play of a Marxist revolution, well-deserving of its opening night smattering of mid-show applause.

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As a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, “Once in Royal David’s City” serves as display of all the good things that can come from collaboration. In the hands of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong, in directorial debut with the company, it is becomes a sensitive and engaging take of a compassionate story. The wonderfully life-affirming work is surprising, sad and unexpectedly funny, and could only perhaps be better if it were being seen in the festive season itself.

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“Once in Royal David’s City” is a beautifully crafted show from one of this country’s best playwrights and, accordingly, there is much to be taken away from its experience, both intellectually and emotionally. Not only are there references to Marxism and Christianity to continue to consider, but its ubiquitous reminder of our mortality and the need to enjoy life to fullest and cherish those special to us are poignant enough to linger as lessons long after its conclusion. And Molly’s (Kay Stevenson) monologue about the blink-of-an-eye progress from carefree teenage skylarking to the increased doctors’ visits that come with age will certainly resonate with many audience members. Still, “Once in Royal David’s City” is an enigmatic show… the type you want to tell everyone you know to see, without revealing specifics about its at-once intimate and epic journey in answer to American physicist and children’s television presenter Dr Julius Sumner Miller ‘s ask, ‘why is it so?’

Photos – c/o Philip Gostelow, photographed at Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge, WA

Street beats

Untapped (Raw Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

April 19 – 29

Brisbane’s Raw Dance Company roared into QPAC last week with its “Untapped” adrenalin-filled show of family-friendly entertainment from five (male and female) dancers, a beatboxer and a percussionist. Co-choreographed by Jack Chambers (previous winner of Australia’s “So You Think You Can Dance), and the company’s founder Andrew Fee, the show is jammed packed with a variety of novel, charismatic routines. Indeed, from its early numbers, it is clear that this is a show with sass, unafraid of inventiveness; dancers begin a number with staggered stages of mobile phone conversation vocals to create an increasing, impressive rhythm, before they are placed ‘on-hold’ by the band’s jazz into a swinging ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. Before long, however, audience members are transported again as the show whips into a variety of tap numbers and even a flamenco-esque duet, such is its energetic approach and eclectic appeal.

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Dancers Kieran Heilbronn, Brianna Taylor, Martin Kay, Katie Struik and Owain Kennair are all skilled in their craft, (even when dancing in thongs and then later in flippers), delighting younger audience members, in particular, with classic stunts of the splits, handspring and headstand sort. However, it is the music that makes this show most memorable, particularly the genius of beatboxer Genesis Cerezo (“Australia’s Got Talent”). His ability to put multiple sound effects and unique voices in one performance is impressive to audience members of all ages and his ‘I Like to Move It’ medley is a real highlight of vocal acrobatics, as is his provision (from off-stage) some beats to allow drummer Brendan Ramnath to proceed sans drums , which makes for a nice comic moment.

Although it is conceptually lacking and has no narrative thread to join its numbers, “Untapped” is a slick show for adults and children alike. Its inventive routines, comic sensibility, and loud and live music, combine to make for a dynamic and absolutely engaging experience, albeit one that is over far too quickly (with under an hour running time). Apart from what felt like an abbreviated duration (especially after what felt like was going to be an encore), the only real issue is its venue; without tiered seating, the Cremorne Theatre offers compromised sight lines for many audience members in relation to the dancer’s feet, which diminishes full appreciation of its inventive choreography and its high-octane execution. Still, its raw energy and sassy celebration of all things tap, make for an undeniable, instantly-infectious mood.

Loverly lady acclaim

My Fair Lady (Opera Australia and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 19 – April 30

Since its 1956 Broadway debut to critical acclaim, Lerner and Loewe’s musical theatre classic, “My Fair Lady” has captured audience imaginations through a popular film version and numerous revivals, including the 60th anniversary production collaboration between the Frost company and Opera Australia, directed by its original Broadway (and later London) star, Dame Julie Andrews. And it is entirely appropriate that opening night of the oft-described perfect musical is met by applause of acclamation, not only in recognition of Andrews’ entry into the Lyric Theatre but as a deserving final ovation.

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Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion”, the beloved musical tells the tale of a Cockney Covent Garden flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Anna O’Byrne) who takes speech lessons from the brilliant but demanding phoneticist Henry Higgins (Charles Edwards) so that she may pass as a lady fit to work in a flower shop and be presentable in the high society of Edwardian London. The culture clash leads to much witty dialogue; indeed, under Andrews’ direction the production elicits much humour in what is a faithful reconstruction of the original, drawing on elements of the original set designs and costumes.

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There is an immaculate attention to detail in the show’s aesthetics, including an impressive symmetry between Cecil Beaton’s costumes and Oliver Smith’s sensational set of revolves, high ceilings and delicately painted backdrops the add depth and detail. From the beauty of the black and white Ascot scene where characters have the poise of Parisian boutique mannequins thanks to Christopher Gattelli’s impeccable choreography, to the pretty pastels of the Embassy Ball which serves as Eliza’s introduction to proper society, everything is superb. Authenticity to the original means more curtain closes and set change blackouts than what is now the norm, which slows things down, however, when the stage is transformed for the ball scene before audience eyes, it is a moment worthy of the resulting applause.

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The show also features an absolutely stellar cast. O’Byrne easily takes Eliza from squawking squashed cabbage leaf to being stylish and smart as paint, capturing with equal aplomb both her cockney and later polished accents and showing a charisma and flair for comedy as the only person who cheers on a horse at Ascot, becoming fully engulfed in the hysteria of the race.

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Edwards makes the snobbish academic Higgins’s disinterest in people almost endearing as the bumbling, ineffectual romantic lead delivers many a foot-in-mouth moment in his obvious inexperience with women. And equally impressive are the supporting cast which includes the legendary Reg Livermore as Eliza’s dustman father, Tony Llewellen-Jones as the compassionate Colonel Pickering, with whom Higgens makes bet that he can transform Eliza and grand dame of Australian theatre Robyn Nevin as Higgens’ mother, at once composed and comical in her astute advice to her son.

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Also of merit is the orchestration the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under musical theatre maestro Guy Simpson, which anchors the production, setting the scene from the opening minutes of the overture and continuing in creation of a sense of nostalgia through its diverse range of tunes.

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There is a vaudevillian appeal to many numbers, including Livermore’s completely cockney ‘With a Little Bit o’ Luck’, long for a lack of responsibility. And when he leads the ensemble in ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ as plea to his friends not to let his drunken merriment affect his need to be prompt to his own wedding, it is one of the show’s standout numbers, joyous in its full scale celebration of song and dance.

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O’Byrne is also expert in delivery of her eclectic numbers, from the feisty frustration of ‘Just You Wait’, in which she dreams of different ways to kill Higgins, from sickness to drowning to a firing squad, to the glorious soar of ‘I Could Have Dance All Night’, which showcases her operatically trained soprano sound as Eliza floats ahigh after a major breakthrough in her linguistics lessons. And Mark Vincent’s moving, emotional declaration of love to Eliza as socialite suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill is captivating in the simplicity of its splendour.

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Everything about the show is absolutely loverly (as Eliza would say) and although it is long, this “My Fair Lady” is a first-rate revival, sure to engage long-time and fresh fans alike with its charming comedy, stunning aesthetics and masterful musicality. And it is certainly easy to understand how in its opening Australian season the production sold more tickets than any other in the history of the Sydney Opera House.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby