Fabulous family feuding

Black is the New White (Queensland Theatre presents a Sydney Theatre Company production)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 1 – 17

“Black is the New White” has been billed as being a new blend of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” which is a perhaps clichéd but totally correct descriptor of Nakkiah Lui’s fabulous new play about the discomfort of contemporary Australian life.


A joyous whirlwind romance sees successful Aboriginal lawyer Charlotte (Shari Sebbens) returning to a family Christmas at her parent’s lavish open-plan holiday home to introduce her new and very awkward experimental classical musician fiancé Francis. As the daughter of Ray Gibson, the self-proclaimed Martin Luther King of the Australian political landscape, Charlotte’s choice of partner couldn’t be worse. Forget that she is black and he is white; he is the son of Ray’s long-time, ultra-conservative rival Denison (Geoff Morrell).

Along with Dension and his wife Marie (Vanessa Downing), joining Ray and wife Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) for the festivities are Charlotte’s sister Rosie (Miranda Tapsell), returning from her successful fashion business in Los Angelas with her retired Wallaby captain husband Sonny (Anthony Taufa). Cue also charming nameless narrator/Christmas Ghost (an underused Luke Carroll) and the assembly is set to become an absolutely hilarious holiday from hell.


Act One begins with the comedy of embarrassment. With Francis fumbling through repeated foot-in-mouth politically-incorrect comments, and his failed attempts at jokes about the Stolen Generation et al often see audience members with hand-to-mouth in shared aghast reaction.  The action proper centres on a bigger series of conflicts, so engaging that intermission comes as an inconvenience to a thoroughly-absorbed and wanting-more audience. And when secrets spill out as characters’ journeys of identity are revealed in its final act, they are unsurprisingly surprising.

There is a serious side too as some big ideas are played out through the complex dynamics within the everyday scenario of family squabbles heightened by the festive season. Uncomfortable questions around class, social dynamic, cultural identity and male-privilege add complexity and intellectual rigour to its food flinging, secret-spilling comedy, making for a razor-sharp modern examination of whether race is a value like other social constructs.

Writing is clever and pacy, and Paige Rattray’s nimble direction allows for later tonal shifts to sneak up upon the audience. Indeed, it is superbly directed to exploit its frenetic pace. And while everyone on stage gives an excellent performance, it the ladies’ late-in-show monologues that stand out, prompting moments of spontaneous mid-show applause. Reynolds-Diarra gives a multi-layered performance as the down-to-earth, heart-of-her-family Joan and Downing is hilarious when she breaks free of her white passive aggression.

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“Back is the New White” is a very clever, original show, which appropriately left its opening night audience raving about it being the funniest in recent memory. Its edgy, energetic and quick-witted approach to a classic family comedy is modern and highly entertaining, and it is easy to appreciate its sold out world premiere season at Sydney Theatre Company last year. With confetti, male nudity, a figurative and literal lettuce war, a dance-off between political rivals and Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ anthem, it is certain to leave lasting memory of its joyfulness, but also hopefully its thematic heart about race, class and community changes.


Considerations of quality


A couple of months away travelling and a couple more laid up with pneumonia and I saw fewer shows in 2017 than in recent years (but still well into the double digits). Reflecting, it is clear that quality over quantity can be incredibly rewarding. And what quality there was on offer… so much so that my usual top five favourite, has been blown out to the following ten:

  1. Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
  2. Lady Beatle (the little red company, La Boite Theatre Company)
  3. My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)
  4. Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)
  5. The Play that Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  6. Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  7. Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (Nigel Kennedy, QPAC)
  8. Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  9. Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  10. Humans (Circa, QPAC)

And honourable mention to the UK’s National Theatre Stage to Screen show Yerma… Gut-wrenching, phenomenal theatre thanks to Billie Piper’s devastatingly powerful performance.

And mention also to the following highlights:

  • Best performance:
    • Elaine Crombie as a hilarious house-slave in Queensland Theatre Company’s An Octoroon.
    • Merlynn Tong in her intimate and vulnerable one-woman work, Playlab’s Blue Bones
    • Cameron Hurry as badly behaved brother Valene in the darkly irreverent The Lonesome West by Troop Productions
  • Best AV – Spectate (Counterpilot, Metro Arts)
  • Most thought provoking –- Octoroon (Queensland Theatre, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best new work – Merlyn Tong’s Blue Bones (Playlab, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Best Reimagining – Signifying Nothing (Macbeth) (Hammond Fleet Productions, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best musical – Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel in association with Cameron Mackintosh, QPAC)
  • Best cabaret:
    • Torch Songs (Mama Alto, Brisbane Powerhouse, Wonderland Festival)
    • Lady Beatle (The Little Red Company, La Boite Theatre Company)
    • Song Lines (Michael Tuahine, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
    • Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs (Alan Cumming, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Cabaret Festival)
  • Best music – Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi The New Four Seasons + Dedications (QPAC)
  • Best opera – Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza and the Classics (Lunchbox Productions, QPAC)
  • Funniest – The Play That Goes Wrong (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, QPAC)
  • Most fun – Let Them Eat Cake (Act/React, Anywhere Festival)
  • Most madcap – Chef (Persona Inc & Atobiz Ltd, Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most immersive – Trainspotting Live (In Your Face Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse)
  • Most moving – Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre)

2018 looks set to continue to showcase both the wonderful work of this state’s creatives and innovative works from both here and further afield. Festivals will continue to punctuate the cultural calendar, serving to oscillate audiences between feast and famine like a cultural bulimic… although with Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival moving to May (maybe at the same time as Anywhere Festival) it may be a shower than usual start to the year.

Behind the scenes satisfaction

Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 11 – December 3


Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) and Johan (Ben Winspear) are cosy in the comfort of their overly-scheduled, boring bourgeois lives … well that’s what they tell a magazine interviewer when being asked about their union. But what lies behind their façade and how long will it be before their imperfect love begins to dissolve? These are the initial questions at the core of “Scenes from a Marriage”, and the answers, as they unravel, are far from comforting.


Originally a 1970s Swedish television series by accomplished and influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes from a Marriage” is a beast of a play. The stage adaptation by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes audiences behind the scenes into the intimacy of a marriage as it tries to survive secrets and suffering in the shadow of a single event and over-time, innate animosity. With a focus on domestic relationships, it has all the emotional and cognitive ingredients for audience engagement. Yet despite being a polished and visually stunning production with a first-rate cast, its resonance is more satisfaction in a neutrally-beige type way, than standout amongst a sensational season of shows.


Even to those unfamiliar with the nuance of its Swedish creator, the production is noticeably Bergman. Staging screams Scandinavian in its simplicity, functionality and minimalism, opening as it does to a clinically white and sparely-furnished room. Even when, late in Act One, things open up to the reveal the reality of the couple’s conjoined life in a scene in the their holiday home, it is one of timbre tones affront a tree-lined lake backdrop. The aesthetics are quite stunning, enhanced by lighting that adds a theatricality to the sometimes shocking action on-stage.

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The authentic anatomy of a marital breakdown also comes courtesy of well-crafted dialogue that takes audience members from the light relief of predictable jokes through the devastating dynamics of divorce (and what comes next) and contemplation of if whether dislike is better than indifference.

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Real-life husband and wife Ben Winspear and Marta Dusseldorp are excellent in their respective roles, presenting the couple as two individual and complexly layered individuals. Their chemistry is clear… unsettlingly so in a physical fight sequence in one of the play’s uncomfortable scenes. Winspear’s glib Johan, shallowly self-assured and overconfidently narcissistic, allows Dusseldorp’s intense and ultimately vulnerable performance to take centre stage. And they are both well-supported by superb performances from Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary as the couple’s mutually, mercilessly bitter, married friends.


For most of the story, Marianne and Johan are unlikeable people curiously drawn to the mutual misery of their marriage, yet there are also sometimes glimpses of them as ordinary, suffering humans who love each other in their own way…. necessary for audience empathy and investment in their story. Like so often in life, there is no happy ending to “Scenes from a Marriage”, but its experience brings a satisfaction of sorts from the confrontation of its truth.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

Octoroon originality

An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 15 – October 8


An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.


The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).


It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.


In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.


Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.


Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.

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Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.


Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.


“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.

Jimi joy

My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 22 – August 13

Jimi Bani is a ‘remote area boy’ from Torres Strait (not PNG or Fiji). His home, Mabuiag Island, has a rich history and culture that Jimi and his family are trying to keep alive amidst the cultural chaos of the changing modern world. And ‘My Name is Jimi’ really is family affair as Jimi performs alongside his son Dmitri, mother Agnes, and grandmother Petharie with his brothers Conwell and Richard Bani.


As he draws directly on the experiences of his family and their role as leaders of the Wagadagam tribe of Mabuiag Island, through stories span the generations, Bani takes audiences on the most unique and appealing of journeys. Unlike any other theatre experience (#inagoodway), the show at once celebrates the legacy of Jimi’s father, an honoured chief, and promotes the need for preservation of cultural and family history.


The show is full of eclectic, but important little details, meaning that there’s plenty on offer to audience members of all ages or theatrical preferences. Dapper-suited, Jimi (and his brothers) give audiences some memorable booty-shaking dance moments in accompaniment of the show’s disco segment and action moves effortlessly about the stage as digital projections fill the blank back wall. Handheld cameras film live puppetry from richly-detailed dioramas situated either side of the stage, in share of some of the childhood fables of Mabuiag.


Song, dance and fire-side stories all add to storytelling and also, at times, humour. A highlight comes, for example, from within the show’s examination of contemporary cultural influences, as 15-year-old son Dmitri Ahwang-Bani demonstrates the reality of typical dress these days (because they ‘don’t get around in traditional clothing’), as if part of an anthropological exhibit. And yet there are also many engaging moments watching the family’s passion in performing in traditional dress.


With its important messages regarding the role of culture in identity, “My Name is Jimi”, has an immediate appeal to school groups, and much to offer younger audience members through the engagement of its varied theatrical devices. There is an honest appeal to the intimacy of its family stories, meaning that when Jimi’s mother and grandmother wave hello in introduction, audience members all around are waving back from within the darkness. And the show’s memorable final family image lasts beyond its close in reminder of what is important in life.


“My Name is Jimi” is story-telling is at its finest, personal, powerful and special beyond just its four generations of one family on stage together. Writer and lead actor, Jimi Bani is charismatic and the story he shares is charming, but also informative (beginning with its introductory glossary of names from family tree relationships) and important. Under Jason Klarwein’s instinctive direction, the cast’s generous, honest performances offer audience member contemplation of big issues but also joyous appreciation of their own family ties.

Photos c/o – Veronica Sagredo

Globalisation gets personal

Rice (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

June 24 – July 16

“Rice” is a deceptively simple story of two women working in the city: one is a struggling cleaner, while the other is a high flying manager; one a migrant from China, while the other is a second general Brisbane girl whose grandmother moved here from West Bengal. Yet, it in tale of families and friendships, it isn’t long before it becomes so much more.

It begins with ambitious ­corporate climber Nisha (Kristy Best), unhappy with the office’s Chinese cleaner Yvette (Hsiao-Liang Tang) for not disposing of her after-hours takeaway rubbish. ‘Indian princess and ‘Chinese cleaner’ is all they see when in confrontation with each other, however, although they are from different generations and different cultures, as time passes they find themselves helping each other navigate their complex lives.


This navigation is aided by the additional characters that the talented actors each adopt, never losing their essential chemistry, as they assume roles as diverse as hipster boyfriend, ungrateful daughter, Indian official and Russian cleaning crew supervisor. Certainly, the dramatic use of actors playing multiple characters is a bold theatrical device that can have its ups and downs and initial jumps are jarring, however, once accustomed to the style, audience members can easily appreciate the value this adds to the show’s momentum, which is readily maintained through its taut 90 minute duration, with characters volleying dialogue from across either side of the wide stage.

An abundance of Brisbane references add interest and a memorable soundscape enhances plot and thematic aspects alike, while its minimalist stage design rightly allows the show’s outstanding performances to bring Michele Lee’s script to life. The script is an impressive one, filled with humourous one-liners and realistic dialogue, but also a Brechtian self-awareness and acknowledgement of the presence of the audience a voyeurs. (“This is the part where we eat,” we are told, for example, as they share a Monday night meal in the office). And its lack or resolve is refreshing in its realism.

“Rice” is a fresh and refreshing show, worthy of its Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. While it is as its tagline promises, “an insightful story about the personal side of globalisation,” what it is really about is life through the lens of two equally strong and vulnerable women, which makes it an engaging show from which attention never wanes.

Meta-farce fun!

Noises Off (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 3 – 25

Playwright Michael Frayn’s classic meta-farce has been running all over the world since its 1982 beginnings, which is unsurprising given that until “The Play That Goes Wrong” perhaps, it was regarded as the funniest play ever.

The story is one of doors and sardines… good old fashioned sardines, told three times over with increasing hilarity. The three acts (performed with one intermission) all depict a performance of the first act of a play within a play called “Nothing On”. It’s all very British in its “Man About the House” innuendo and slapstick, with its pants down moments and storylines of tax inspectors and sex addicts. But that is just the beginning of its humour.


Things begin with the mediocre actors clumsily floundering through a late-night dress rehearsal for the about-to-tour farce; Dotty (Louise Siversen) is unable to keep track of her props, as her dim employer, Freddy (Hugh Parker) needs reassurance as to his character’s motivation and as Roger, leading man Garry (Ray Chong Nee) is, ‘you know’ unable to actually commit to a finished sentence outside of the dialogue.

Add in the hard-of-hearing Selsdon (Steven Tandy) and his drinking problem, as the play’s burglar, and it is of little wonder that the pompous director Lloyd (Simon Burke) is impatient, though he is somewhat distracted himself, given his secret simultaneous romancing of the young, inexperienced actress Belinda (Libby Munro) and dowdy, over-emotional assistant stage manager Poppy (Emily Goddard). At least the show’s backwards set has been fixed.


When Flavia (Nicki Wendt), Philip’s dependable onstage wife, comments on how she likes ‘technicals’ because everyone is so nice, it not just funny because it is a dress rehearsal but because of its foreshadowing of what is to come. In the second act, set a month later, thanks to the show’s intricate revolving set, the audience watches from backstage as the actors stagger through the same material with limited regard and a whole lot of passive (and not so passive aggression) in response to interpersonal secrets being revealed, jealousy being aroused and murderous rage erupting. This section is absolutely hilarious, despite there being virtually no words spoken, lest they disrupt the ‘on stage’ show.


Fast forward three months and the funny continues as we watch as if we were members of the audience during the play’s final touring performance, which has by that stage descended into a whirl of slammed doors and missed cues as backstage passions spill onto the stage.


Even with a clockwork script, farce relies not on language but precision of performances. And in this regard Queensland Theatre’s “Noises Off” more than delivers. Despite their countless cues, all actors are spot-on in their timing and commitment to the physical precision required to last the 3+ hour running time distance. As individuals, all members of the ensemble are hugely talented; together than bring their distinct characters to complementary, quirky life. Standouts include Louise Siversen, whose physicality punctuates all that the aptly-named Dotty does and Hugh Parker, particularly in Act One when in panicky but always-polite need of plot clarification and character motivation. And despite only initially appearing as a voice, Simon Burke adds much to the initial act, making even the shortest of responses, ‘no’, so very funny.

Although its length makes “Noises Off” quite the theatrical commitment, it is one that is worthy of the investment. The comedy of errors may not be sophisticated in concept, but under the direction of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sam Strong, it is infectiously energetic. And whether ‘off-stage’ or on, the shenanigans on show are full of meta-farce fun.