Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Learning to live with the dead

Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 16 – November 6

“You have to write everything down,” newbie funeral director Steve (Mitchell Bourke) is told by a colleague on his first callout. Thankfully for theatre-goers, Toowoomba born playwright Steve Pirie has done exactly that, with “Return to the Dirt”, winner of the prestigious Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (QPDA), the largest playwriting award in the country, which sees a guaranteed Queensland Theatre production of the winning play. The work, which has been inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home is not only one of the best ever QPDA winners, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment.

In it, a playwright called Steve invokes a version of himself as he recalls his one year in Toowoomba where he traded his unemployed life as a struggling theatre artist for work in a funeral home as an undertaker. It is two weeks before Christmas in 2014 and Steve and his fiancé Claire (Sophie Cox) have a wedding to pay for, and so we see the story literally rotate, courtesy of the revolve stage design, through scenes from waiting room anticipation of his interview, and then the realities of his induction to the calling that becomes his day-in and day-out.

The narrative is framed by Pirie himself as The Playwright, recounting the events in asides to the audience while also critiquing the big business approach of the funeral industry. The credibility of the show’s commentary is enhanced by the device, however, it also enables his reflection on who he was and how he dealt with issues around mental health. And we see this complemented by creative choices such as the oversized suits that reflect young Steve’s youth and sense of never feeling fully at fit within himself.

The play brings with it big themes not just around death, but about finding one’s place in the world, the power of personal redemption and humility. Renee Mulder’s design elements mean that we are immersed into intimate experience of and connection with the story, not just through the stage’s proximity to the Bille Brown Theatre audience that could otherwise be lost in a big space, but also through its Act Two projections, which provoke active audience engagement towards appreciating the age range of deaths in the city, for all sorts of reasons.

While the work deals with a number of heavy themes, “Return to the Dirt” is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offers a refreshing take on a young man’s story, in what could easily have been clichéd. It is littered with identifiable small town allusions, not just to Toowoomba but regional areas everywhere and very real characters like there-for-everyone Deb (Jeanette Cronin), Steve’s older funeral director mentor. Every workplace in every town probably has a Deb; she tells her truth sometimes without consideration of social etiquette, and we love her because deep down it’s maybe ours too. And Cronin’s performance highlights her compassion and matter-of-factness in equal measure, effectively breaking the tension on many occasions to balance the show’s tone.  

The show is well-acted throughout, by performers who are all making their Queensland Theatre debut. Onstage for almost the entire time, Bourke is excellent as the young Steven, in increasing conflict between his personal demons and the psychological price of collecting and caring for bodies and interacting with grieving family members. The small ensemble handles the show’s revolving door of characters and props with ease, adding many moments of perfectly-pitched comedy, that ensures that even a well-timed background character wink can erupt the audience in laughter. And vibrant Act One scenes, in which The Playwright shares information about embalming, funeral insurance and alike, provide a buoyant balance with the pathos that follows after interval.  

“Return to the Dirt” is a big, layered play of two halves, however, under Lee Lewis’ direction, it rarely feels long until its bunny-hops to a conclusion. It is fascinating, confronting and comforting in its examination of what it means to die in the 21st century and with its universal themes and engaging presentation it can easily transfer to a season in any location. With “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” now postponed until next year, it also serves as perfect conclusion to the 2021 Queensland Theatre season, in thematic bookend with its opener “Our Town” in its universally human consideration of who we are and how we measure our lives.

Photos c/o – David Kelly