Shining bright again

The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 9 – 30

“The Sunshine Club” opens in the summer of 1946 with World War II just over. Ambitious Aboriginal solider, former boxing champion Frank Doyle (Marcus Corowa) has spent years fighting for freedom shoulder-to-shoulder with troops from all over Australia. Despite its opening number, ‘Lest We Forget’, the war, however, does not set the narrative tone of Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical.  

Frank thinks the world can be different, but upon return to his hometown of Brisbane, quickly realises this isn’t the case when he is denied entry to the Lord Mayor’s Victory Ball to see his childhood friend Rose (Irena Lysiuk) sing at the Cloudland ballroom. In this not-that-long-ago era, systematic discrimination of indigenous Australians is all around, including through curfews and travel restrictions. Hopeful in want of a better life, where he can be more than just an exception to the rules, Frank sets up his own dance hall, the fictitious The Sunshine Club, where everyone is invited and he can dance with Rose, daughter of Reverend Morris (Andrew Buchanan), for whom his Aunty Faith (Roxanne McDonald) has worked for many years as housekeeper… cue catchy titular song ‘The Sunshine Club’, which sets the mood of what is a defiantly joyous musical experience. What follows is spirit-soaring in its entertainment, making its 2 hours 30 min duration (with interval) fly by in move through Frank and Rose’s story towards an operatic climax and meta-theatrical ending that reframes the work with call upon the audience to reflect on how far Australia has come, and how far the country still has to go, towards Reconciliation.

Directed again by Enoch, who wrote the book and lyrics of the Helpmann Award nominated 1999 original, which also played at The Playhouse, the revival includes a number of creatives from the original production alongside a new generation of First Nations artists, many of whom are making their Queensland Theatre debut. Marcus Corowa is outstanding in the role of protagonist Frank Doyle; his vocals are powerful and he effectively emotes Frank’s varied responses as he works through his return to an unchanged society and then optimism about moving forward in a romantic relationship with Rose. Lysiuk, gives the girl of Frank’s dreams feistyness and well-intentioned naivety, but also endearing passion. She looks and sounds the part, especially in her celebration of potential love in the brassy ‘Let It Rain’, which soars with her gorgeous soprano sounds.

The heart and soul of the show, however, is undeniably McDonald, in reprise of her role as Aunty Faith, after more than 20 years. A clear audience favourite, she makes the strong-willed cyclone of a matriarch’s quips very funny, but balances this nicely with her caring nature, always looking after the strays and loving her family fiercely. And while Faith may have to rely on others at times, such as Rose to read Frank’s wartime letters home, she knows of the reality of the world, often speaking the most sense. Buchanan similarly gives Rose’s strict Christian Reverend father a considered light and shade, which is of particular credit given how easily the role could have been realised as an antagonistic caricature.

Naarah makes the spirited Pearl Doyle a moving juxtaposition to Rose, of similar talent and ambition for the future, but limited comparative opportunity. Not only is she a commanding performer dramatically, but her strong vocals are showcased in tormented tribute to the tragedy of lost dreams, the powerful ‘Passionfruit Vine’. And Beau Dean Riley Smith makes her lovesick admirer Dave Daylight a loveable larrikin, more than just an askew-dressed slacker cannery-worker.

A five-piece onstage band (Mika Atkinson, Stephen Newcomb, Katie Randall, Michael Whitaker, led by the original production’s Music Director Wayne Freer) fills John Rodgers’ score with brass-filled of-era sounds with songs about subjects like the door-to-door sales of Pearl’s ‘Sellin’ Man’ love interest Peter (Trent Owers), and of course love, adding much to the atmosphere of the dance club scenes, along with Jacob Nash’s set and property design. There is an infectious energy to the lively numbers, enhanced by the Yolanda Brown’s dance choreography and numbers like the jazzy ‘Strictly Saturday Night’ allow for showcase of individual instrumentation.

‘Dancin’ Up a Storm’, during which the characters kick up their heals while a Brisbane summer storm threatens the sky outside, is incredibly catchy and even the more subdued dreaminess of the ‘We Danced’ duet between Corowa and Lysiuk sways the audience beautifully tinto interval. ‘Shadow Dancer’, a duet of assurance between the two lovers serves as a clear highlight, thanks to the precision of both vocalists. Corowa’s vocal range, in particular, is outstanding and gives a serenity to texture atop angst in his attempt to understand his post-war frustrations and want for the world to change in ‘Homecoming’.

Internationally acclaimed Nunukul and Ngugi playwright and director Wesley Enoch AM directs the work with a dexterity that allows statements about first nations people in the world to be layered within its dialogue rather than overtly signposted in and of themselves. The humour and optimism that cushions their confrontation allows for reminders such as the lack of aboriginal franchise (until 1962) to be shared in, for example, the swinging ‘Sit Down Mr. Menzies’ and moving ensemble finale ‘If Not Now Then When’ in response to Frank’s ask of “when is my time?” National issues aside, however, “The Sunshine Club” is very much a Brisbane story, full of location landmark mentions and thanks to Richard Roberts’ costume design, ‘40s era evocation. While it is a historical work of a particular time, “The Sunshine Club” is also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love, and then also consider in terms of its still-powerful messaging celebration of resilience.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Life’s legacy live

The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (Queensland Theatre)

June 2

If you are missing live theatre productions since the advent of social restrictions, then it is time to join the club… Queensland Theatre’s Play Club to be precise, which in its most recent event featured a live reading of “The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table”, Wesley Enoch’s universal love story about the destructive and restorative relationships between generations.

In the 1870s a girl is born under a tree — her birth tree — chosen to give her strength and wisdom. When the tree is cut down she follows it into the white man’s world, working as a cook for the big house on the island. Her tree has become a miracle kitchen table, one she will pass down through successive generations as a legacy — a way of carving out her family stories. Now, generations later, a young man and his mother fight for ownership of the table and audiences get to hear all about it in a lived streamed play reading of a domestic drama spanning four generations of a Stradbroke Island family’s history.

The titular table serves as a solid motif throughout the work, as a symbol of sharing but also separation. And the play is crafted to be equal parts beautifully-moving and wickedly-funny as it unravels what is essentially a universal story about the relationships between generations, at times heartbreaking in its emotions. The three-hander is full of flashbacks and stories of the past, and even without staging in support, the story sits easily between eras, thanks to the skill of its performers under direction of Isaac Drandic.

Despite not being buoyed along by audience reactions, the actors all play off each other expertly, capturing the moments of their relationships despite their few rehearsal opportunities. Their pacing also reflects their characters; in her share of extended family stories, Roxanne McDonald’s god-fearing Faith is considered in juxtaposition to her energetic but also damaged daughter Annie, (the spirited singer who has been estranged for many years) but is also fiery in confrontation of her daughter’s parenting. McDonald captures the essence of grandmotherly care and concern, but even in memory all is not necessarily as it seems as daughter Annie’s stories embellish their way around the underlying secrets that create the story’s tension. Indeed, there is more than one side to a story and as we work through the layered tale. Even with just her words, Ursula Yovich gives a charismatic performance, complete with precise comic timing in banter with her bureaucrat son Nathan, (an assured and versatile Guy Simon), the last in the family’s line. Her pitch-perfect delivery procures comic potential from every line, especially in her frank discussion and questioning of her son’s sex life.

Abandoned by his mother Annie and raised by his grandmother, Nathan left the island for university and a government career, until his grandmother’s funeral brings him back to country and family for the first time in years, evoking themes akin to those of Enoch’s “The Seven Stages of Grieving”. Whereas Annie just wants her son to talk to her, he just wants the table and won’t stop asking about it. Cue the conflict and insult trades of the ‘I brought you into the world and I can take you out’ type, but also realisation, for audience members, of the similarity of their stories and reasons for turning away from their island home.

“The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table” is entertaining but also thought-proving theatre and, even in this format, it is easy to see why the play won the 2005 Patrick White Playwrights Award. The fact that its powerful storytelling transcends so easily into the virtual realm is testament to the universality of its themes of legacy, lineage and life’s memories and also serves a topical reminder of the inter-generational legacy of past traumas.

 

The Darkness divide

From Darkness (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 7 -28

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Just as all families are unique, it is probably a safe bet to say that all have their own individual issues and, accordingly, suburban family life has long been the fodder for the focus of theatrical works. In the case of “From Darkness” Steven Oliver’s take comes with humour but so much more; the darkly funny drama is, at its core, about bigger issues than just inter-generational disconnect as it explores a spiritual force and a family’s need to connect with it.

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The story begins on the anniversary of Vinnie’s death. His brother, 17-year old Preston (Benjin Maza) is being visited by spirits— seemingly tormenting him while he sleeps. His sister, Akira (Ebony McGuire) buries her pain in her phone. Their father, Eric (Colin Smith), is in denial and their mother, Abigail, is numbing her pain with ‘Jim, Jack and that Southern mob’ companionship.  Under Isaac Drandic’s direction, things pace along meaning that once force-of-nature Nan (Roxanne McDonald) arrives on the scene the family’s disconnect unravels swiftly in banter that becomes less playful and more accusatory, filled with explicit language, included not for shock value’s sake but to give authenticity to its dialogue.

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There is power in the momentum as its storyline paces along, meaning that the show’s 70-minute duration seems to fly by from dinner preparations to sitting down to share the family meal. While we are only provided with a snapshot of the family member’s lives, without full resolution there are enough steps towards solution to see us satisfied as audience members in reminder of how the first step to changing minds is healing hearts.

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The production’s cast is each stellar in its portrayal of characters with inner turmoil manifesting itself in interpersonal conflicts and a family divided. Of particular note, Roxanne McDonald is a joy as the family’s dynamic Nanna matriarch; perfectly timed in her sassy, whip-smart observations, she has the audience repeatedly in hysterics of laugher, which serves as an obvious juxtaposition to the pathos of Colin Smith’s Eric, trying his best to keep the peace between his wife and mother, while remaining stoic in his paternal grief.

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From the show’s initial scenes, it is clear that there is a spiritual force present in the house. Alongside an understated set, beautiful visual, sound and lighting design (Keith Deverell, Guy Webster and Ben Hughes) combine to paint a wonderfully evocative imagining of the something otherworldly that Preston is experiencing, making experience of the show quite moving.

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More than just providing a contemporary view of an Aboriginal Australian family, “From Darkness” offers exploration of the individualistic nature of grief and the ripple effect of tragedy which gives audiences much to contemplate. Its theme of connection too, is one that easily resonates, beneath any initial reaction to its sharp humour. Indeed, its ability to insert so many laugh-out-loud moments into such an otherwise dark storyline, is a testament to Steven Oliver’s script. And its focus on spirituality rather than politicisation evokes a wider consideration of modern Aboriginal Australian life.

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“From Darkness” is a quality new and important Australian work of a story that could be anybody’s. The world premiere of the La Boite and Brisbane Festival co-production brings a breadth of theatricality and engaging performances to provide audience members with a thoughtful and entertaining experience.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry

Roving recollections

Rovers (Belloo Creative)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 11 – 15

One of last month’s Melbourne Writers Festival unorthodox special events, Second Last Rites, saw Australian actress, comedian and writer Magda Szubanski giving over to the one party she never thought she could attend, her own funeral.  Katherine Lyall-Watson’s “Rovers” is a little like that. It’s a wake though, not a funeral, we are reminded, so serves as celebration of a life lived… in all of its roving yet intertwined memories and experiences, the beginning, ending and everything in between. Some are real and some are creations, but in the hands of two of Brisbane’s best-loved and most accomplished actors, Roxanne McDonald and Barbara Lowing, all are quite entertaining.

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Immediately the new comedy-drama from all-female company Belloo Creative is quite meta not just in its outline of the wake theme and warning about the possibility of ‘copping an eyeful of middle-aged flesh’, but also mocked berate of Technical Manager Jeremy for turning out the lights and the ongoing appearance of the stage hand allegedly responsible for the less than perfect prop appearances. It is all very playful and lots of fun as a kaleidoscope of recollections collide, as they do in life. This is especially so in its early scene recall of the childhood memories of the Bogeyman and ‘when-I-grow-up’ ambitions, more intense now than ever with age. And the show’s minimalist set design and stirring soundtrack means that we imagine a lot, as tyres become horses and alike.

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It begins with Lowing descending from a desert water tank to meet up with McDonald and from there, the journey through their memories unfolds as the ‘two old girls’ reunite on-stage after more than 20 years. It is a trip through the heart lines of their own lives in revisit of the adventure of the women who made them who they are today, including Barbara Toy (Lowing’s namesake great Aunt) who crossed deserts and warzones in her trusty Land Rover, Pollyanna.

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It’s a journey, too that has storytelling at its core, unique due to its personal nature and weave from the tapestry of truth. And the dynamic duo present it as quite the yarn. Indeed, their warmth and genuine enjoyment in its share, emphasises the sincerity of its sentiment and rather than making it overly sentimental, its intimacy only adds to its appeal.

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At its core, “Rovers” serves as a reminder that Australia breeds its women tough. But behind the strength is also an essential and enticing charm; these are characters with whom you’d love to have a cup of tea and a natter, or maybe share a hip flask swig. There is a real authenticity to its dialogue and lots of humour too, especially courtesy of McDonald’s straight-talking observations as the fearless Jessie Miller in her fashionable hat.

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They may not, as they tell us, do it for the money, but we are certainly glad that they do and under Caroline Dunphy’s direction, the hour-long share of outback tales of trailblazing women flies by as audience imaginations are invigorated and inspired to be, know and raise strong women. It’s like “Thelma and Louise” in terms of defiance, only with an uplifting ending – charming, comforting and colourful, with even a few surprises.