Jellicle joy

Cats (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 25 – November 3

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is a show that polarises musical theatre fans; people either love it or hate it, but are rarely ambivalent, which alone makes it an ambitious choice for any production company, aside from it being so heavily grounded in dance. On the heels of their accomplished “Annie”, Queensland Musical Theatre are, however, more than up for the task, given its expandable cast of different age groups.

Based on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the anthology-style, fully sung-through musical takes place over the course of one night, telling the story in song and dance, of the annual junkyard gathering of Jellicle cats, during which one special cat is selected to ascent to the Heaviside layer. Most people probably know the musical, however, because of its operatta-ish ‘Memory’, one of the only songs that doesn’t come from a T.S. Eliot poem and one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous compositions, which represents the story’s climax as the character Grizabella, engages in a melancholic remembrance of her glamorous past as a plea for acceptance. And, appropriately, the numbers stands as one of this production’s standout moments as Alison McKenzie’s deeply rich and mellow take, moves the audience to goosebumps in its power and impressive key-change sounds during the number’s Act Two reprise.

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The show’s music is a significant part of its success. From the overture, the band, under Conductor Julie Whiting, is excellent in its execution of the eclectic score, even if, on opening night, things were a little loud at times, making it difficult to understand performer lyrics in the softer moments. Still, ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ is a magnificent introduction to the multi-faceted but melodic score, full of layered tones that take audiences from playful prance to poignant dignity and back again.

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Any good “Cats” has to create a visual spectacle, and with over 40 performers on stage at times, this is certainly the case with this production, starting with its cats’ purr-fect pre-show audience interactions as they sneak and strut throughout the stalls, making the memory of my first experience of the show on London’s West End live again. Schonell Theatre’s large stage allows for Jo Badenhorst’s dynamic choreography, which is strong and engaging but general enough to allow for all levels of participation. Still, numbers ebb and flow as each individual cat tells the audience their backstory.

This “Cats” is characterised by an impressive attention to detail. Costumes capture the individual characters of the cats, beyond just their different fur patterns, especially in the case of the befallen Grisabella, however, no costume (except maybe a cane prop addition) can make the wise patriah Old Deuteronomy appear appropriately elderly when he is moving so nimbly across the stage.

The complex set, which serves as the backdrop for the entire musical, is complex, with built-in entrances and exits, and also platforms and levels on which the performers can stand and move around. The oversized junkyard staging also contains many Easter-egg details like graffiti from the mystery cat Macavity (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley), a monster of depravity of which there is no like, and a book pile that includes ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and The Bible (the musical is full of religious symbolism beyond just the Moses-like leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy’s share of name with the fifth book of The Bible). London mentions are effectively peppered through things, but the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’s number is oddly over-accented, meaning that the athletic and playful young cats’ antics as knockabout clowns and quick-change comedians are overshadowed by lost diction

As anyone familiar with the contentious show knows, its structure is quite unique, as an anthology rather than through-lined plot, with each cat getting opportunity to introduce themselves and share the story of their life, loosely tied together by narrator and second-in-command of the Jellicle tribe, Munkustrap (David McLaughlin). As the storytelling tomcat, McLaughlin is able to direct audience attention at will, thanks to his commanding voice and physicality, even when just in unmoving stance.

It is the leather-clad Darcy Rhodes as rebellious alpha loner ladies man and lime-light lover Rum Tum Tugger, however that gives the most engaging and memorable of performances, and not just in his song, ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ and his ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees’ number, which both radiate with infectious energy (and vocal talent). Even when he is not center stage, he absorbs audience attention in his unfaltering commitment to his flirtatious, swaggersome character, down to the littlest nuances of gesture, movement and stylised changes of position. And how wonderful it is to see him returned to rockstar status after the 2014’s revival’s reimagining of him as a ‘street cat’ rapper. Also noteworthy is the delightful, measured performance of Eric James as Asparagus, (Gus) the elder Theatrical Cat with shaking paws, reflecting with reverence upon his life on the stage.

It is so unfortunate that, on opening night at least, the cast was let down by the show’s lighting and especially sound, which, dropping in and out as it did, effectively ruined Act Two’s ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ music hall drama tribute as part of Gus’ reminiscence about his favourite role in the old-fashioned melodrama, as well as sections of other songs. For audiences unfamiliar with the musical, the lyrics lost due to microphone lapses in early numbers would assumedly make the story more difficult to access.

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There are still some standout numbers, however, such as Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat’s (Jonathan Taufatofua) tell of being unofficially in charge of the night train to Glasgow, during which a moving locomotive train is formed out of objects in the rubbish dump. The ensemble number is not only full of fun, but it represents the energy and spectacle that is at the core of this production, which is visually lavish and joyously dynamic in intent and realisation… mostly.

Annie appeal

Annie (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

June 5 – 9

Little Orphan Annie has been a part of American pop culture since first appearing as a 1924 comic strip. Although the story became a hit Broadway musical, “Annie” in 1977, it is probably its 1982 film version that is its most widely known and recognised realisation, whether that be because of the titular Annie’s iconic red party dress, her loveable mutt Sandy or the inspired casing of Carol Burnett as orphanage matron Miss Hannigan. And from the moment that Queensland Musical Theatre’s production of “Annie” opens in overture, we are reminded not only of this, but of its enduring soundtrack thanks to the 14-piece orchestra’s brilliant realisation (Conductor Trenton Dunstan). The show is packed full of musical highlights from the early ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ and anthemic ‘Tomorrow” to ‘NYC’ and ‘I think I’m Gonna Like It Here’ and their orchestral arrangements are a wonderful reminder of why the musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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The excellence continues into the show’s opening orphanage scenes where we meet the energetic Annie (Jade Kelly). Although living in the orphanage under the care of the happiness-hating Miss Hanigan (Lisa Mellor), Annie refuses to accept that she is an orphan, believing that one day she will be re-united with her parents. Kelly’s flawless voice and beautiful high range are showcased in the plucky ‘Tomorrow’, sung in comfort to ‘her’ friendly stray dog Sandy. She also embodies the kind-hearted protagonist when offered the chance to spend Christmas with billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Nathaniel Currie), softening the sophisticated entrepreneur, as well as US President FDR towards his optimistic new deal.

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The youth cast of orphans is outstanding. In addition to Annie, of particular note is Tia Godbold as the littlest orphan, Molly, who loves making her friends (and the audience) laugh. Not only is she gorgeously precocious and full of personality, but she shows impressive professionalism to cope with a mid-scene dis-attached microphone dilemma.

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Meanwhile, Currie embodies the role of the charismatic Warbucks and he sings like a dream; his Act Two ‘Something Was Missing’ where he shares his realisation that he’s spent his whole life building up his empire without allowing time for love in any way, is simply beautiful.

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Annie’s stay at the billionaire’s mansion, however, is not all gifts and good times with Warbucks and his faithful secretary Grace (Abby Page), as she is left vulnerable to fraudsters, including the rough and tumble brother to Miss Hannigan, Rooster (Darcy Rhodes) and his egotistical gold digger girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Ellen Axford), who pose as Annie’s parents in attempt to get their hands on Warbuck’s advertised reward. As convict Rooster, Rhodes is the show’s absolute standout. His razzle dazzle performance is expressively larger-than-life as he exploits all of its comic possibilities, making it impossible to divert your eyes in his every on-stage appearance. He also helps to make the jazzy ‘Easy Street’ another Act One high point, full of energy and showcase of on-point harmonies.

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There are many performance highlights in this professional production. The large cast means that there are busy ensemble numbers featuring over two dozen performers on stage, such as when, in escape from the orphanage, Annie comes across New York’s Hooverille, where people made homeless by the Great Depression have come together a community. Projected backdrops establish the era, with suffering all around.  Costumes are well-chosen, however, some props not of the era, even if added for joke value, detract from the otherwise careful attention to detail. And sound lapses in microphone cues cause some minor distraction, as does an annoyingly very wobbly set door. Still, it is easy to understand why the Schonell Theatre is at audience capacity, for this not only a musical with wide appeal, but a production of immense worth, obviously enjoyed by all, given its rapturous curtain call applause.

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Although it is set at the ‘hard knock life’ time of the Great Depression, “Annie” is far from downbeat. Instead, its affirmation of the unyielding hope of tomorrow makes it a buoyant family friendly favourite. While the story has cute and cheeky orphans to appeal to youngsters and the guaranteed awe of appearance of a dog onstage, there is adult attraction too, through dialogue humour around the politics and personalities of the time. In many regards, this is a triumphant production of the classic rags-to-riches story that will have you leaving with smile on your face, warmth in your heart and its catalogue of catchy tunes in competition in your head.

Big Brother betrayal

1984 (4 Stage Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 19 – 22

Undertaking an on-stage production of George Orwell’s bleak dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is always going to be an ambitious undertaking, especially so given its recent appearances on Brisbane stages through shake & stir’s frantic and fearful take and Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s hyper-real warning against allowing ignorance to be truth. Comparative to these works, however, 4 Stage Productions’ “1984” languishes in the classic text, although not always in a good way.

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Lighting evokes an ominous foreboding in the pre-show illumination of desks and chairs that are spaced out across the stage in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. A large telescreen towers centre-stage in guard against thought crime amongst the superstate’s citizens and in order for the Ministry’s workers, like all citizens, to view newscasts, engage in a daily two minutes of hate session against enemy of the state Goldstein and his brotherhood of traitors, and all hail and receive verbal directions from party leader, (in this case a not-so-menacing) Big Brother. A now-female Parsons (Ashley Rae-Little) is being moved to the Bureau of Hate, despite being an utterly loyal and thus ideal member of the Outer Party. The reason why is not of her concern, she is told, because in this dystopia Ignorance is Strength, just as War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery.

When Comrade Winston Smith (Christopher Batkin) arrives, he is the only one who remembers the former occupant of the empty space next to him who has become an unperson, the newspeak descriptor for someone who has been killed and no longer exists in any record, as he explains to replacement employee Julia (Jessica Stansfield). This alteration of Julia’s introduction from the original text’s plot allows for exposition about the propaganda and historical revisionism purposes of the Ministry and unnecessary additional foreshadowing of individual fears to later shape experiences in Room 101, the basement torture chamber in the Ministry of Love, in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia with the object of breaking down their resistance.

The story follows Outer Party member Winston falling in love with Julia.With the help of an Inner Party co-conspirator O’Brien (Richard Lund), the couple manages to hide away from Big Brother, the cult of personality party leader until they are captured by the Thought Police in their rented room and are delivered to ‘the place where there is no darkness’, for interrogation.

Although as the enigmatic Julie, Jessica Stansfield never seems truly engaged in in relationship with Winston, Christopher Batkin is excellent as the everyman protagonist, perpetually paranoid and diminutive in physicality, but also harrowing in confrontation of his feared Room 101 reality. As the deceptive O’Brien, Richard Lund is imposing in his lead of Winston’s interrogation from double-plus ungood arithmetic to admission that two plus two is five. Ashley Rae-Little embraces the character of Parsons with almost excessive gusto, making the naïve and suggestible Outer Party member unlikable from the start, while Tony Nixon lays a steadying hand across all of his scenes as Winston’s intelligent language-specialist colleague, Syme, whose insight in the authoritarian and controlling measure of the government of Oceania serves as explanation of the principles of the restricted grammar and vocabulary of Newspeak in restriction of freedom of thought, personal identity, self-expression and free will.

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Not only does the production impressively include 3 D holographic projections, but it makes good use of all parts of the stage. Repeated motif mentions and character question and answer and paraphrasing repetition slow its pace. Indeed, its over-explanation seems like an unnecessary telling rather than showing of the story, especially as the text is seminal enough for audience members to have even the passing familiarity that is required to follow the narrative.

4 Stage Productions’ “1984” is a show of much potential, but one in need of an edit, especially in supporting scenes such as the couple’s rent of a shabby room above an antiques shop and when Winston attempts to share with his love the contents of Goldstein’s heretical book outlining the history and ideology of the party. Although its journey is sometimes arduous, however, this “1984” still takes us to an unambiguous place, with its fake news ending showing how horribly relevant Orwell’s dystopian vision of a surveilled and totalitarian world is to modern audiences.

Relationship rewards

Stop Kiss (Underground Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

May 17 – 20

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Diana Son’s Off-Broadway hit “Stop Kiss” begins in the enviable Manhattan apartment of Callie (superbly played by Didi Leslie), a radio traffic reporter who agrees to look after the cat of Sara (Adrienne McManus), who has just arrived from St. Louis on a fellowship that has her teaching at a public school in the Bronx. Although they are very different characters, there’s an immediate rapport and a strong attraction that allows their acquaintance to morph into more. It is new territory for both; Sara left a long-time boyfriend back home and Callie has a long-term casual arraignment with a male friend, and in the hands of Underground Productions, it unfolds as a thoroughly engaging, effortlessly-updated story thanks to chemistry between the two leads and the strengths of their respective performances.

Watching the relationship of the two main characters develop is a real treat. Under the direction of Matthew Ambrose and Keya Makar, both characters are fully realised and absolutely endearing. Indeed, their relationship is portrayed in a lovely manner, full of small and touching, tender moments of deepening connection that often say so much more than the conversation that is occurring around them. As Callie, Leslie is excellent and there is a natural rhythm to her scenes with McManus as Sara. Alex Budden is also notable in his performance as Callie’s friend-with-benefits George, especially in delivery of many of the show’s funniest lines.

But “Stop Kiss” is more than just a well-written love story and, as audiences, we know this from the beginning as it alternates between scenes in the past when Callie and Sara first meet and scenes in the present that showcase an investigation into a gay-bashing incident of the pair (by an attacker we never meet) and time in the hospital focussed on Sara’s recovery. Even knowing what happens, we are engaged in their endearing awkward flirtation and the brutal reality of the aftermath of their admission of feelings, because the attack is just one incident and their relationship is about so much more than just this one moment.

The inventive structure and the reporting rather than dramatisation of the horrific attack (eventuating after the kiss of the title), does not come without a price. Lengthy scene transitions lag the run-time to a two hour endurance. There are some problems too with articulation and voice projection, especially from Sophie Edwards, as an interrogating police detective, but also sometimes from others in competition with the New York City soundscape or over the soundtrack of background music.

“Stop Kiss” is funny, romantic and rewarding in its transcendence of the plot’s specifics for engagement of broader themes. It is quite enigmatic even in its juxtaposition of a very modern story with more traditional tale of tenderly-observed love, and it is easy to appreciate its selection as part of Underground Production’s 2017 season, especially given the company’s history of sharing edgy, interesting shows that have experienced considerable success overseas.

Skin-deep satire

The Ugly One (Underground Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

March 2 – 11

The greatest thing about attending Underground Production works, apart from returning as alumnus to UQ, is the always-interesting show choices. Continuing in this tradition, the university’s resident theatre company’s first 2017 production, German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg’s “The Ugly One” is certainly through-provoking. Indeed, as Director Taylor Davidson notes in the program, the play is at-once complex, confusing and confronting.

The story, is of an engineer, Lette (Tom Wilson), a man whose face is so ‘unacceptable’ that he is forbidden by his firm to promote his latest industrial invention. Following confirmation of his unsightliness from his wife (Angelinque Asselin), who he realises has never looked directly at him (but adores him despite his physical failings for he is ‘a beautiful person inside’), he seeks out a surgeon who gives him an Adonis-like face which makes him sexually irresistible to his wife, female fans on the lecture circuit and a much older corporate boss and her gay son (Matt Steenson). Celebration, however, turns to despair when the surgeon repeats the operation on others and the world is suddenly filled with Lette lookalikes.

Although it is quite a simple story, a lot happens in the show’s just over an hour running time with four actors playing seven parts, on a largely-bare, clinical stage, not always to desired effect; as switches become increasingly swift, effort is sometimes needed to keep track towards the show’s end and there is discomfort from seeing mother and son characters also as lovers.

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Faced with the series of lightning scene changes and an avalanche of matter-of-fact dialogue, performers all rise the occasion energy-wise, with Wilson, as an initially-vulnerable aesthetically-challenged protagonist giving a particularly strong performance as anchor to the chaos. Of note too is Brittany Hetherington who, as the scalpel wielding doctor, gives a consistent performance of little details, steeled in determination ‘to start with the nose,  because it’s furthest from the face’.

Certainly the core challenge of “The Ugly One”, that human perception of beauty in relation to identify and success, is not new, yet still its comment on conformist notions of physical perfection, narcissism and the fleetingness of fame have a modern resonance. And it not only gives the audience things to think about, but also a lot of laughs in its comedic satire of society where individuality can easily be lost to conformity.

Sexism, satire and suggestion

NSFW (Underground Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 13 – 22

“NSFW”, the final 2016 work from Underground Productions, at first seems enigmatically titled, until its acronym is explained. NSWF stands for Not Safe For Work and refers to the kind of online material employees should not be accessing in the workplace. It is a grubby premise reflected in its opening scene in the offices of Doghouse men’s magazine, fit out, as they are, with sporting equipment and memorabilia, and provocative cover posters of bare-breasted posers. The employees swear and make sexual suggestions, all within just the opening few minutes … but that’s all ok, because it is all just a joke right?

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To the entitled employee Rupert (Kell Andersen) who claims of discrimination against his privilege and upends furniture in temper tantrum, it is all light-hearted.  Maybe not so for Charlotte (Olivia Hall-Smith) who lies to her woman’s group about where she works; it is not her dream but it’s something for her cv, it pays the rent and she just likes working. Tactical repositioning of the brand is put aside when it is revealed that well-meaning junior Sam (Matt McInally) has accidentally okayed topless cover shots of ‘local lovely’ Carrie, who is in fact only 14.

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As Rupert relishes in Sam’s error, it evolves that this is an unappealing story of unlikeable characters, not improved when Carrie’s job seeker dad (Greg Andreas) arrives to be callously manipulated into accepting a payoff from the magazine’s smooth operator boss Aiden (Rijen Mulgrew).

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The commitment of all performers is admirable. Andreas brings a modest realism to the role of Carrie’s dad, distanced from his daughter thanks to divorce and fully aware of her faults but wanting to protect her nevertheless. McInally is excellent as the awkward but essentially good buy Sam, sacked from Doghouse after the incident. His after-intermission monologue about the appeal of a sharing his life space with his girlfriend is moving in the honesty of its delivery.

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After a rushed resolution to this starting story, the audience follows Sam to the show’s second story, when, after months of unemployment he is being interviewed for another low-paid magazine position, this time at women’s glossy Electra. It initially appears to be another world to that of Doghouse, filled with champagne, free samples and a readership who ‘likes to think’, but before long it emerges that things are not so different after all.

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Here the corruption of values is embodied by editor Miranda (Jessica Palfrey) who, like any great mean girl, manipulates others into submission of agreement. The belief at Electra is that perfection is isolating and that any anxiety is valid. Accordingly, to qualify for the job, Sam is required to look at pictures of famous women and identify their physical flaws.

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From here the show staggers to its finish, with some scenes dragging a little past attention, such as when Miranda (yes, the script features a Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda), is going through ritual of getting ready in her office to a longer-than-needed Whitney Houston soundtrack. There are times too when more attention is needed to moving Lucy Kirkwood’ work from its UK origins, as references to the Broncos and Bulldogs for example, only highlight the still-Britishness of mention of UK make-over queens Trinny and Susannah.

Although inconsistent in its engagement, “NSFW” is more than just a satirical attack on the world of magazine journalism. Its juxtaposition of the brash world of Doghouse and Electra’s more passively aggressive approach, not only highlights the hypocrisy of sexism, but suggests that there is still much to talk about in relation to sexual harassment and the media’s objectification of women.

Music by numbers

Adding Machine (Underground Production)

Schonell Theatre

September 6 – 13

Everyone has their breaking point and for Mr Zero it is 25 years of mediocrity in life, work and marriage. And upon learning that he has been replaced by an adding machine, the anti-hero murders his boss in a vengeful rage. This is not a musical geared towards optimism, however, in its Australasian premiere, it is one presented as a delightful mixture of the bleak and the comical.

Adapted from Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist allegory, “Adding Machine” presents a simple enough narrative. Episodic scenes reveal the underlying stress points in Zero’s life: first his wife, then his workplace, where his boss states that, after 25 years in the same job (the same spot in fact), he is being replaced, not promoted.

It begins with “Something To Be Proud Of”, a surly, shouty and shrill opening number by Gabriella Flowers, as bitter wife Mrs Zero, unhappy in her life, lost dreams and loveless marriage. However, things soon improve with “Harmony, Not Discord”, a memorable musical expression of workplace tedium where Zero and his male associates mutter their daydreams aloud as their female assistants read out long streams of numbers in counterpoint rhythms. It is a number that is impressive in its musical precision, testament to the ensemble’s skills and enthralling to experience. Before long, the inventive and eclectic score has changed to follow Zero’s journey to the afterlife in the Elysian Fields where he is met with one last chance for romance and redemption.

In this Underground Production’s realisation, “Adding Machine” delivers, albeit intermittently. Staging is interesting, with askew furniture appearing like post-impressionist realisations (think ‘Van Gogh’s chair’) and clever use of lighting to create shadows and silhouettes, often as additional characters. Ultimately, however, it falls short of the piece’s possibilities. To have the initial action set so far back on the spacious Schonell Theatre stage does little to assist with audience engagement, especially comparative to the intimacy achieved when Act Two action moves forward.

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Music by Numbers? “Adding Machine” is a difficult show to describe and an even more difficult experience to evaluate. It is savage and satirical in its humour, but carries with it a mournful message about mankind’s state. Part socialist rant, part existential contemplation, the play has always been difficult to define. It is not the escapist type musical of most popular favour, but as a show of murder, racism and suicide, it makes no promises to be anything but what it is.

No one’s worthy of audience affection in this nightmare story, but therein lies its appeal, because this is a tale of ordinary (albeit exaggerated), rather than idealised, characters. And it is the performances that bring these characters to life. As the denigrated and overlooked protagonist, Chris Kellet gives a strong and convincing performance as Zero. Taylor Davidson, too, as Daisy, is endearing in her musical lamentations and daydreams about Zero (who remains impassive to her doe-eyed adoration).

I’ve seen shows I’ve immediately loved, some I’ve only liked, some I’ve disliked and others that I’ve absolutely hated from the first number. But “Adding Machine” doesn’t fall distinctly into any of these categories. Rather, it just… happened. And bizarre as it was, I think I’m glad it did.