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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Cosmic complexities

Constellations (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

March 9 – April 9

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Life is about choices right? Well, not really, according to British playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations”, which is based on the scientific notion that we might be living in one of many universes which are co-existing simultaneously. It’s something to do with String Theory or Doctor Who philosophy 101 about alternative universes that exist separated only by a millisecond of time and a nanometre of space, without ever having contact.

Every moment that Roland (Lucas Stibbard) and Marianne (Jessica Tovey) share is at the mercy of the universe, meaning that there are infinite possibilities of their two lives shared in consideration of everything they have ever or never done. When they first meet at a barbecue, he says he is in a relationship and she is just making conversation. The odds of them getting together are astronomical; he is a beekeeper and she is a physicist working in the field of quantum cosmology. But when their worlds keep colliding, all the possibilities of their life together are shared, from first date to final farewell, through conversations of both varying physical proximity and intimacy.

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It is an up and down relationship reflected also in the undulating stage of celestial blue pin-pricked by light apart from during the complete blackout between some scenes switches. Ben Hughes’ lighting design serves not only to complement Anthony Spinaze’s set design but fulfils a significant narrative purpose as sections of the stage are lit to border character interactions as hint of the underlying issue that will take things in a totally different direction to initial anticipation.

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This is a play about language and initially, especially, deliberate attention is needed before the narrative’s direction makes its latter half more absorbing. This is especially so because of its organisation of often short and sharp scenes that are immediately repeated, sometimes with only slightly different emphases, sometimes with wholly different resolutions. Once settled into its unique structure, however, it is easy to appreciate the cast’s nuanced performances and Kat Henry’s subtle directorial choices that combine in its success.

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Stibbard and Tovey are both excellent and their repetition of scenes with just the slightest of transformed touch, a testament to the craft of both. And their chemistry is ample. As the neurotic academic Marianne, Tovey carefully balances vulnerability with awkward bluntness in blurt of whatever is on her mind. Stibbard’s Roland, however, is vulnerable in a more traditional sense, lovable in his sometimes self-doubt, eyes alight with enthusiasm in speak of beekeeping and devastated in his yearn for things to be different.

“Constellations” is an intelligent and powerful piece of theatre that is both a beautiful love story and an emotional delve into the mysteries that remain in our understanding of the multiverse, perfectly timed at 80 minutes without interval and perfectly prepared for without prior knowledge of its narrative journey. Although it is a slow burn at first, its humanity will sneak up on you and leave you with much to contemplate about the complexity of life, the universe and everything.

Behind the screens

The Flick (Queensland Theatre in association with QPAC presents a Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre production)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

February 10 – March 5

One of the appeals of seeing a realist work is the implied authenticity that comes from voyeuristically looking upon the unfold of action from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. In the case of Queensland Theatre’s “The Flick”, however, it is not so much fly-on-the-wall as fly-on-the-screen, thanks to the play’s unique staging. Shaun Gurton’s minimalistic set sees the audience faced with banks of faded red plush seating in replication of an old movie theatre. As things begin with a light beaming from the projector box, realisation is made that the cinema screen is the fourth wall.

After the credits roll on the ceiling, the cinema house lights go up to reveal the empty auditorium of the play’s rundown theatre. This is a cinema in central Massachusetts, one of the few yet to switch from 35MM to digital film, where introverted new employee Avery (Kevin Hofbauer) is being shown the ropes by 35 year old, unfulfilled Sam (Ben Prendergast). Avery is passionate about film and his conversations with Sam and his six degrees of separation challenges (Michael J Fox to Britney Spears for instance) serve to break up the monotony of cleaning the theatre. As snippets of their characters are revealed, so too is Rose (Ngaire Dawn Fair), the projectionist. Each has their own sometimes-explained family failures of sorts and demons of everyday life, but like in a real-world workplace, these fade to mere anecdotal accompaniment to the meaningless banter of on-the-job business, the seemingly harmless hijinks of employee traditions and a developing love triangle.

Annie Baker, This is realism at its most realistic; the setting is deliberately ordinary and dialogue is of everyday vernacular, rather than heightened for effect. Indeed, the ‘everydayness’ conveys a clear tedium and almost Chekhovian yearning to the three quietly desperate characters. This is the complexity of the script by American playwright Annie Baker who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the off-Broadway hit. The pace is incredibly slow as they sweep and speak with long punctuating pauses, yet there are also moments of unexpected humour as they ridicule an unseen boss and wonder who would bring pudding to a cinema.

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For over three hours the audience is challenged to observe the monotony of the experiences of the play’s characters. And while things could adequately have ended a number of times towards the work’s conclusion, Act One’s threads pay off rewardingly after intermission. Also engaging are the performances of the three main cast members, all in their Queensland Theatre debut, who are stellar in bringing subtly to what could easily have been stereotypical characters. Hofbauer, however, is a standout; his sensitive performance as Avery elevates the production to a higher level.

With references to the upcoming release of “Django Unchained” and fears of digitalisation, “The Flick” could easily be regarded as a mere work of its time, however, the show also examines some resonate themes of ethicacy around the conflict between morality and self-interest, which makes it so much more. Movies are central to the narrative and cinema fans will enjoy the many mentions as part of Sam and Avery’s ongoing debate about if “Avatar” is actually a good movie or if there has been a great American film since “Pulp Fiction. Even those unfamiliar with the works, will appreciate the irony of Avery’s dramatic delivery of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Pulp Fiction” misquote Ezekiel 25:17 bibke exhortation about the path of the righteous man being beset by the inequities of the selfish.

In endurance terms, “The Flick” is more marathon than sprint, and despite the extra distance added to its end, it is most worth the audience effort. Although its American accents may be initially jarring to the ear and without hint of any of the low vowels distinctive of Massachusetts sounds, audience absorption into the tragicomedy of the character’s menial lives is such that this is soon forgotten. Indeed, beyond its brave, sometimes self-indulgent pacing the work serves as a slow burn, sure to leave a lasting impression of its love, loss and piles of popcorn.

 

LBD ladies live on

Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

January 28 – February 19

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The critically acclaimed “Ladies in Black” features over 20 original songs written by legendary singer songwriter Tim Finn, so it is of little surprise perhaps that 14 months after its debut season, its soundtrack is memorable even just in anticipation of its encore season as part of a national tour.

The story, adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, “The Women in Black” and brought to life by Australian screenwriter Carolyn Burns tells of an innocent and bookish but ambitious (against her father’s wishes) school-leaver, Lisa, who lands a coveted job on the sales team at one of Sydney’s most stylish department stores, Goodes, for the Christmas holiday period. It is the late 1950s and with the city contemplating cosmopolitanism, Lisa’s world is expanded as she befriends the unlucky-in-love Fay, the frustratedly childless Patty and particularly exotic European refugee, Magda of model gowns.

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The department story setting gives the show some stunning visuals. The costumes, which include a range of some 30 custom-designed and created dresses and suits, all created at Queensland Theatre, are spectacular, which is entirely appropriate for a store in which the dresses are not just beautiful but have their own names and personalities.

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Opulent drapery, glass and mirrored pillars evoke the glitz of a high-end department store shop floor. The use of revolving platforms allows for seamless scene transitions and David Walters’ lush lighting illuminates proceedings. Every aspect of the production is electrified with lively energy, and dynamic musical numbers, such as Act Two’s ‘Pandemonium’ illustration of the January sales onslaught on the shop floor, are enhanced by clever choreography.

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Every musical number is on-point in its combination of melody and lyrics, despite the soundtrack’s varied sensibilities. From the incidental music of background Christmas carols to the laid-back languish of ‘On a Summer Afternoon’ the live band is excellent in every instance and it is wonderful to see them at-times showcased on stage, behind a scrim screen. And the strings, in particular add enormous emotion to wistful numbers such as ‘The Fountain’. However, the most memorable of musical numbers are so because of their witty lyrics. ‘The Bastard Song’ shared tongue-in-cheek chastise of how all men as bastards is met with exuberant response, even when only in reprise. And Fay’s frank reflection ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ is an Act Two highlight in its catchy melody and humour as much as its still-relevant social commentary about Australian xenophobia.

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While there have been some cast changes since its first Brisbane outing, Sarah Morrison remains as ingénue Lisa, innocently wide-eyed but with a soaring soprano sound. Musical star Bobby Fox, who wowed audiences playing Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” also returns to nearly steal the show as Rudi (the ‘continental with whom Fay is sharing kisses) along with the award-winning Carita Farrer Spencer who plays Lisa’s torn-between mother.

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New to the cast for the 2017 Australian tour is Natalie Gamsu as ‘crazy continental’ Magda, who dominates the stage in her ever presence. Also joining the show are Madeleine Jones as Patty and Ellen Simpson as Fay. Jones, in particular, is of excellence voice, from start to finish, as evidenced in her ‘Try Again’ tell of attempt to start a family. And all characters bring believability to their roles, capturing the Aussie vernacular and accents of the time and bringing witty delivery to the script’s many dry-humour moments.

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“Ladies in Black” is an utterly charming show that represents the renaissance of the Australian musical and it is easy to appreciate its win of the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work. More than just a stylish frock fest, its experience is lots of fun with some inspiring underling messages about female empowerment. And audiences should be flocking to it either in remind of its greatness or as introduction to this wonderful Australian work.

The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Moliere’s modern mark

Tartuffe (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 12 – December 4

It has been said that what Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. And in Justin Fleming’s new version of the French playwright’s “Tartuffe” there are a number of dramatic parallels between the two greats. Shakespeare references appear peppered throughout the text and, although conflict is established early, the titular character does not make appearance on stage until Act Three.

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Ahead of the delayed introduction, there is much talk of Tartuffe, allowing the audience to build up a profile of the character that is far from complementary.  Posing as a spiritual advisor, houseguest Tartuffe (Darren Gilshenan) is selling salvation to successful socialite Orgon (Steve Turner), intent on ruining his lavish life by stealing away with his fortune and his wife Elmire (Alison van Reeken). Orgon’s family can see through the fraudulent opportunist imposter but head of the house Orgon regards the slick swindler as his salivation, to the extent that he and his mother (Jenny Davis) no longer take any action without first consulting him. Orgon even announces that he will marry Tartuffe to his daughter Mariane (Tessa Lind), already engaged to Valère (James Sweeny).

With Mariane distraught at this idea, the family devises a scheme to trap Tartuffe into confessing to Elmire his desire for her, however, all does not go according to plan with Orgon refusing to believe his wife, disinheriting his son (Alex Williams) and signing a deed of gift of all his property to the con-man before things end somewhat abruptly with a deus ex machine sudden surprise solution.

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In its satire of religious hypocrisy, “Tartuffe” is filled with witty dialogue, irony and timeless comedic conventions like overheard conversations. Richard Roberts’ set design not only transposes the 350 year old narrative to the contemporary world but allows for some fabulous French farce exaggerated moments of physical comedy such as attempts to hide behind furniture and furnishing. And the impressive rotating stage allows action to be taken both upstairs and outside to a balcony and patio, which adds interest to what is a lengthy work.

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Most noteworthy, however, is the text itself, which, in keeping with Moliere’s original work, is arranged in rhyming couplets. Although initially sing-songy as matriarch Madame Pernelle begins with an onslaught of insults upon her family, it soon settles to become more easy-on-the-ear in its rhythm, thanks to Fleming’s re-working of the script through use of modern Australian vernacular and clever incorporation of ockerisms within the dialogue. The result is inspired in its irreverence with sayings like ‘shut your crack Dorine’ sitting smoothly alongside more sophisticated language.

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Under the direction of Kate Cherry, there are no weak links in the stellar cast, however, the rhyming couplet dialogue seems to sit most comfortably in the mouths of Jenny Davis and Hugh Parker (as Cleante), especially in Parker’s final incantation as an ABC news reporter exposing Tartuffe’s regard of religion as sport. As the ‘monologue Queen’, family maid Dorine, Emily Weir is hilariously funny, particularly in scenes of interaction with the man of the house. Her often risqué lines are delivered with ocker emphasis of the “Kath and Kim” kind. And even though her over-the-top characterisation sometimes borders on too much of a distraction from her essential verbal and physical comedy, the first hour is riveting because of her presence and the second half suffers in her absence.

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As the self-proclaimed holy man Tartuffe, Gilshenan is transparently insincere and appropriately sleazy more than seductive in his rhetoric as his driving base impulses are laid bare (literally). His embrace of the conniving character’s negative charisma is so convincing that at encore, his curtain call is met with audience boos of the lecherous lascivious liar.

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In its day, “Tartuffe” was a controversial play; when first performed in the 17th century it was damned due to its attack on religious hypocrisy. Yet this production also leaves its mark in reveal of its resonance within a contemporary world in which opinion is currently divided about political salvation or damnation. Its overriding theme of appearance versus reality also resonates on a more intimate level with assertion that those who act only in self-interest should be regarded with suspicion. As the final show of the season, the play is perfectly pitched: light-hearted and not too thinky, but playful and funny to the point of snorts of audience laughter.

Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/qldtheatre/