Room to play games

The Eisteddfod (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

March 14 – 24

Just as is the case where name recognition means that some novels have author names appearing bigger than the book’s title, so too when promotion of a play’s title includes the playwright’s name, there is implication that the show is going to be something special. This is the case with “The Eisteddfod”, the first play from multi-award winning playwright Lally Katz, being presented by Room to Play Independent Theatre at Metro Arts. Not only is Katz the voice behind the work but the occasional narrator that begins the play with a voice over prologue of sorts introducing its two brother and sister characters, Abalone (Matthew James French), Gertrude (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

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The children spend their quiet lives playing make-believe games, shielded from the world by protective parents. When, in their late teens, their parents are killed in a freak accident, the siblings are left grief-stricken with only their games of pretend as comfort for their agoraphobia. The parodies of suburban dreams and nightmares takes the audience through to adulthood, where Gertie desires escape from their childhood trauma. While her interest in imaginary worlds is waning, Abalone remains passionate about amateur dramatics and so asks Gertrude to be the Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth at The Eisteddfod, first prise for which is a trip to Moscow. All the while, their dysfunctional fantasy world is enacted, often in the crudest of terms with erotic games, domestic violence suggestions and memory of a suicide, as Gertrude fantasises about a masochist lover. It is an illogical story of characters out of harmony with their own existence, which is reflected in stagecraft with impressive lighting awashing the action in a spray of colours and adding intimacy to scenes conducted with only the touch of torchlight.

Clearly the dark, comic fantasy is theatre of the absurd. Though its response to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century through question of the nature of reality and illusion, has clear currently climate connections, absurdist theatre is still an acquired taste so its just under an hour running time is perhaps the perfect length to maintain audience engagement given its challenging content. Indeed, the success of this show rides on the intelligent choices made in all areas of the production, on and off stage. While the confronting themes are tempered by comic moments, there isn’t a lot of relief. Gertrude and Abalone’s world is not an easy place to visit, but experience of it is enriched by the expressive performances of Tucker and French, which do justice to the multifaceted layers of their complex characters. Tucker projects Gertrude’s tortured yet optimistic nature, at once childlike and old-soulful and French is a brother full of bravado in the precision of the physicality of his performance.

“The Eisteddfod” is a well-produced piece of theatre, though it will not be to everyone audience member’s tastes. For the theatre-curious, however, its journey will result in much post-show discussion about Gertrude and Abalone’s broken, suburban world, because rather than giving answers and telling audiences exactly how to respond, it challenges them to find their own way through the work.

The disarm of domestic despair

Red Sky Morning (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Taylor King Gallery

March 29 – April 8

“Red Sky Morning” begins simply; an everyday, likeable-enough country man (Wayne Bassett) chit-chats in conversation. He appears to be an ‘ordinary’ bloke, living an ‘ordinary’ life in an ‘ordinary’ Australian town. But what is ordinary anyway? This is one of the questions that soon emerges as the harrowing drama continues with introduction of his wife (Heidi Manche) and daughter (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

After a missed moment of marital passion the night prior, the day proceeds as usual; the man goes to work and the girl heads to school, while the woman waits for them to leave so she can begin drinking. This is their normal, but it is an understanding never acknowledged as the characters never connect, verbally or physically as the play is told through three internal monologues presenting character’s reflections and desires. Each monologue is autonomous, an emphasis of each character’s isolation however, they are cleverly weaved together with perfectly-timed interjections, in nod to their yearn for connection. This is the craftedness of Tom Hollowy’s script, and it is seamlessly executed by the show’s three performers who present the complex interplay of synchronised silences, continuations and overlaps with perfect timing.

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These are flawed characters, not always likeable but, under Beth Childs’ direction, all the more real because of this. Kennedy-Tucker, in particular, gives a strong performance as the Girl, whose schoolteacher crush belies a painful yearning of her own.

“Red Sky Morning” is a big drama of little moments missed and as such, after a somewhat slow start, it takes audiences on a demanding ride from trivial talk of schoolgirl crushes and night-time dreams to the traumatic possible consequences of dissatisfaction unshared. This is particularly so as the story progresses and monologues are delivered atop each other, in competition for audience focus.

The Taylor King Gallery offers opportunity for an appropriately-intimate, disarming production and the simple staging serves to effectively emphasise the internal isolation experienced by the three characters who never move from their immediate space, despite the story’s transition to work, school and churchyard.  It is left to Lauren Salloway’s lighting design to journey the narrative, taking audiences from the pink of a pre-dawn sky to white sunlight and then the burnt orange of a day almost over.

“Red Sky Morning” packs a lot in its 70 minutes running time. It is a poignant and very real look at the reality behind domestic routine and reminder that layers exist in every relationship. However, it is more than just a tragedy of family miscommunication and its exploration of the bleak effects of depression offers a wise advocacy for communicating, staying connected and having meaningful conversations with those around us.

Miss M Inspirations

Becoming Bette (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Paddington Substation

August 11 – 13

“Becoming Bette” is exactly as its label promises. Although its focus and namesake is Bette Middle , it is not a show of impersonation or impression in homage to the Divine Miss M, but rather a share of her inspiration in Elizabeth Scales’ life. And the result is an immensely entertaining one woman show as audience members are guided through the stages of her divadom.

As Scales tells of her life’s iconic moments and beasts of burden, the the adage that you should write what you know proves true. Through show of family photos to provide context to the narrative of sorts, she tells of her early anti-pink persona and Pugsley ‘professional amateur’ performance days. The authenticity and intimacy of these sometimes self-deprecating stories make them the most appealing of the show’s segments and her later life reminiscence of travel tales seem token by comparison.

Scales is an enthusiastic, genuine performer who has created a gem of a show in “Becoming Bette”, sure to shine brighter with each performance polish. As with her 2016 Anywhere Festival work “Tragedy”, the show makes much use of multimedia in support of and conjunction with on-stage action. Although its opening scene of a samba dancing ‘Miss Brazil’ (cue some topical Rio Olympics references), the through-line for which is not clear until well into the show, does not entirely work in cohesion with what follows, the inclusion of video snippets of silver screen monologues of Scales assuming iconic Bette Davis roles is another highlight, showcasing her performance range.

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Scales shines, not only in dramatic delivery, but in the show’s many energetic comic scenes and song and dance moments (which even feature an audience sing-a-long). Her ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ number, for example, is so fantastic as to see audience members demanding an encore.

While this is a physical show, it also features lots of light and shade, especially as focus moves to its key message about the divinity of woman as unapologetic, spirited and strong, and highlight of the Bette in everyone. “Becoming Bette” is full of wonderful moments; at only just under an hour’s length, it has little time to drag and generally buoyants the audience along in Scales’ journey of self-discovery in becoming Bette. With development of its core concept of persona anecdote, you can Betty White your life that it will only get Bette(r)… a long as the coconuts aren’t cut.

Cautionary comedy

Tragedy! (Ease Productions)

Room to Play Independent Theatre, Paddington Substation

May 8 – 16

When writer, director and performer Elizabeth Scales takes to the stage in “Tragedy!”, toga-glad and statuesque as she parades about, the tone is set for her attempt to save the modern world from self-destruction. The, in-effect hour-long monologue begins with Sophocle’s “Antigone” recognition of the wonders of man and the need to honour the laws of the land and justice of the gods. She is the Godess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, sent down to the summonsed audience member mortals of Brisbathenia. Clearly, the gods are angry at our affluence, given her shrill chastise about the obsolescence of gods in the modern, first world. Or perhaps this is just her dissatisfaction at having to act as messenger, rather than attend the important meeting going on to restructure the gods.

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Content-wise the work raises many valid considerations about the continued existence of humanity into the next millennium and modern day mortal consideration of fate, as evidenced by memes that claim ‘your future is as yet unwritten’, which are clearly ignorant of the reality of predestination at the hands of the gods, she points out.  And as Artemis laments the irrelevance of gods in a climate in which OMGs are thrown about far too easily, there are many funny moments. Of note, particularly are sections which see her interacting with projected images of her slaves, whose disobedience in not feeding her, brings new meaning to the phrase ‘grapes of wrath. But some overly-lengthy pauses and repetition of lines beyond for effect, indicate that some more judicious editing could have been beneficial and ironically, given that the she comments on how the modern day mortal doesn’t like a shouter, there is little light and shade in delivery of early dialogue.

Conceptually this is an interesting piece, but it takes some time to signal its destination about it being time for Godly changes. It gets there eventually, but it is care of a random Dolly Parton number and bit-too-long Tina Turner clip dance along (and no Bee Gees number is sight.)  To sustain the energy of an over-hour-long one woman show, is no easy task and unfortunately, in this regard, “Tragedy”! ebbs and flows through its sometimes strange sequence of events.  With a clearer focus and snappier pacing, its intent could be more successful realised, because there is indeed validity in its commentary and cautions of pop culture saturation, narcissism and vanity.

You can find all of my Anywhere Festival reviews on the festival website.

A fine five farce

One Was Nude and One Wore Tails

Room to Play Independent Theatre, Paddington Substation

May 5 – 14

A garbage man, a flower seller and a policeman, meet on the street. It’s not start of a joke, but it still has a very funny outcome, along with its comment on the pretensions of social class, identity and status. This is the beginnings of the premise of Dario Fo’s one-act farce, brought to life by independent theatre company, Room to Play. Throw in a naked ambassador who has taken refuge in a rubbish bin and you have the ingredients of a very funny show.

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It begins with two council workers, played by Matthew Filkins and Colin Smith, passing the time with an in-depth discussion about divinity. While one is being charmed by a woman (Elise Grieg), the other discovers a naked man (Jack Henry) hidden inside his rubbish bin, forced as the stowaway has been to take refuge during rapid escape from the scene of a love affair. All sorts of silliness ensues when an oblivious policeman comes upon the scene in the form of Ben Warren, complete with pig snout and snorts to punctuate his dialogue.

Each of the five cast members is impressive in performance, particularly as things progress to all sorts of crazy chaos, never missing a beat in their banter. Colin Smith anchors the show as the most everyman of the over-the-top characters, playing particularly well against Ben Warren, who is, himself, notably impressive in his physicality and necessitated over-the-top characterisation.

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Although it starts with philosophical ponderings about how being a nothing, makes one the beginning of everything, and thus divine, don’t be fooled that “One Was Nude and One Wore Tails” is not going to provide anything but mayhem in its tightly-woven 50ish minutes running time (a palatable length even for non-farce-fans). From its opening ocker moments of song to cement it within its Australian context, this show is out outlandishly out of control (#inagoodway) and while consideration of its themes about the role of clothing in definition of our treatment within society can result, this focus in not necessary for its appreciation and enjoyment. Indeed, with its clowning, slapstick and vaudeville sensibility, the show has much to offer all range of audience members and, as such, serves as an Anywhere Festival highlight.

You can find all of my Anywhere Festival reviews on the festival website.

After Anton

Afterplay

Room to Play Independent Theatre, Paddington Substation Gallery

October 15 – 18

Room to Play’s production of award-winning Irish dramatist’s Brian Friel’s one act work “Afterplay” is muted and minimalist, with limited staging, which is entirely fitting given its poky Paddington Substation Gallery setting and the misery of its early 20th Century Russian literary source material. Yet despite this initial gloom, it is not short on wit and its intimacy only increases the immediacy of its impact as audiences are reintroduced to two of Anton Chekhov’s characters, 20 years after their original plays.

It is 1920s Russia when concert violinist Andrey from “The Three Sisters” (Wayne Bassett) meets strong-minded spinster estate owner Sonya from “Uncle Vanya” (Emma Skelton) in a Moscow café. As they share details of their lives and consequences of stories now long passed, it is immediately apparent how equally unhappy they are in endurance of life. It provides both fascinating and forlorn fodder for what is, in essence, a fly-on-the-café-wall audience experience, however, there is an engaging eloquence to the words as Sonya laments the ‘tundra of loneliness’ that lies ahead and Andrey considers the impact of living one’s life ‘in a waiting room’. And Basset and Skelton create some moving moments in delivery of such beautiful writing. Although likeable, however, Basset’s Andrey is bumbling and blathering in his nervous attempts to be effervescent for Sonya, to the point of distraction in the work’s initial scenes.

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In many ways, the simplicity of the premise of “Afterplay” makes it the perfect show for an independent theatre group, yet in others the text represents an ambitious choice given that in conventional terms, nothing really happens. With vodka, bribery and lukewarm cabbage soup this is very much a Bolshevik Russian experience and of course it is a perfect show for those who love all things from the cult of Chekhov. However, prior knowledge is neither assumed nor needed as prerequisite for appreciation of its ingenuity, especially as intertextual references lie not only with the Russian plays but also Italian opera c/o Puccini and “La bohème”.  And best of all, unlike Chekhov’s original works, its running time is a much more reasonable 60 minutes.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/roomtoplaytheatre