Imagination intensified

Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Queensland Theatre, Diane Cilento Studio

December 1 – 11

Experience of Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” is an intense one, elevated by its grounding in truth; the Australian premiere show is inspired by two true stories “Ghost Boy” by Martin Pistorius and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Baub, which both share about the experiences of living with Locked-In Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that sees a fully aware patient unable to move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes.

To create a piece of physical theatre centred around a character prisoned in his body and unable to move, certainly represents a creative challenge, however, under Veronica Neave’s considered and controlled direction, the company succeeds in its focus on movement rather than words as the main means of communication. This is emphasised through the dialogue of that patient’s wife (Hsin-Ju Ely) who does not speak English, which represents no issue, given that manner in which the show transcends language to compellingly illustrate the impact that such a condition can have on loved ones, in addition to the sufferer themselves, in terms of connection, communication, hope and loss of a relationship as they knew it.

Given the context of its story, “Locked In” is, appropriately, a delicate show of small moments and movements as it explores the physicality of stillness. The challenging role of playing the unnamed central character is assumed by Sam Foster. He speaks only with his eyes for most of the show, yet still says volumes in a very powerful performance. Testament to the essential empathy evoked by his performance is the fact that the show’s biggest audience reactions come in response to moments of casual cruelty of his carer‘s (Hayden Jones) mistreatment and manipulation of the instinctive trust that comes with the power dynamic of physical reliance.

For 75-minutes audience are treated to innovative theatre, in terms of both the show’s themes and execution of taking us into the mind of a sufferer of the syndrome, where the only key is imagination. The multidisciplinary production weaves together physical theatre, magic realism and contemporary dance to both give us a glimpse into this and invigorate the heavy work’s pacing. Vibrant video projection easily takes us from the harsh reality of a hospital room to the heightened experience of his internal existence, while sound and lighting lure us into the escapism of the vibrant fantasy world in which he can also hold his wife’s fingers and enact Mission Impossible style escapades.

“Locked In” is a unique, quality theatre experience, as inspiring as it might be harrowing. In its evocation of the empathy that exists at the core of the shared human condition, it provokes contemplation of how we communicate with each other through the lens of how we treat those in hospice care. Indeed, the exploration of this universal theme from such a particular story is what makes it such a thought-provoking piece, stopping audience members to sit for a moment after its experience as they collectively contemplate the immense weight of its ideas.

Undertow honesty

Undertow (Shock Therapy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

June 16 – 26

Metaphors abound in Shock Therapy Productions’ “Undertow”, beginning with its title. This is clear from the show’s start, which sees a school Principal addressing an assembly, clearly in the wake of difficult circumstances for the school community. Then there is school captain Connor (Sam Foster) struggling at footy practice ahead of grand finale, due to his academic and home life pressures. He is not the only one with a lot going on of course, because life can be harsh. The adults around him we soon see are under their own pressures, such as Constable Phil (Hayden Jones) who has been assigned to the school in response to its recent increase in drug related incidents. And then there is also Jessie, struggling to belong in his own skin as much as the world around him.

Things pace along as the audience is introduced to the characters and their struggles, both obvious and less, with all roles played by the Forster and Jones in a first-rate showcase of characterisation. In one segment, for instance, we see Jones transitioning from being and inflammatory Deputy Principal to a quiet and sensitive English teacher, a gruff football coach and then a mellow adolescent in almost the blink of an eye.

The work draws on a range of film conventions and physical theatre techniques. As such, it is highly energetic in its physicality, however, its pacing also gives the audience room to breathe amongst its weighty themes, with its humour (often around school experiences) appreciated by both school groups and adult mid-week matinee audience members alike. Foster’s scene as flirty school receptionist Karen, in particular, is a real hit.

Foster and Jones do an exceptional job in maintaining momentum across the show’s 60-minute duration, especially given the multiple roles that each performer adopts. With the aid of only small costume and/or prop additions, they transfer seamlessly in and out of roles, often mid scene while a companion of the conversation has a turn-away moment, with a skill that means there is never any confusion as to the characters. And Foster, in particular, gives a detailed, nuanced performance as Jesse, using body language to convey the teen’s vulnerability more than any words could, with consistently crossed arms attempting to envelope himself in from the world, hand always anxiously gripping at his shirt hem.

Careful construction is given to all aspects of this original work. Laura Jade’s vivid lighting design, punctuated by some striking strobe-lighting scenes works with Guy Webster’s evocative sound design of often foreboding instrumentation and a deliberateness to the soundscape that sees, for example, a school bell morph into the sounds of hospital equipment. And while there is some use of familiar stereotypes, the work cleverly subverts audience expectations of plot direction and character arcs.

Under the performers’ direction, “Undertow” is a taut show that packs a punch in its honest and powerful exploration of the themes of resilience, mental health, relationships, identity and empathy, without getting too dark or straying from its clear ultimate message about the need to breath and to always be kind and sensitive to each other even while focused on our own things, because you never really know what someone else is going through, no matter how calm things may seem on their surface. Not only is it an interesting take, but it gives audiences a realistic take-away about stress not just being an affliction of the young.

Slick social shocks

Viral (Shock Therapy Productions)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast, The Space

September 1 – 10

“Viral” begins as audience members enter the theatre; the scene unfolding is of a hospital room featuring a woman (Ellen Bailey) in delivery while the father-to-be (Sam Foster) preoccupies himself on his phone. A nurse (Merlynn Tong) is in initial care until she too poses in a photo for the husband to upload…. because sharing is caring, right? So it is pretty clear, even to those who haven’t familiarised themselves with the show’s blurb as to what its focus will be.

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The new work, written and devised by Shock Therapy Productions explores the role of social media and technology and how it impacts the way we record, communicate and think about events of racism, abuse, violence and sexual assault in the community. It is a thought-provoking, dynamic and entertaining piece that incorporates a range of performance styles and influences, fusing physical theatre, verbatim text, multiple role-sharing, multimedia and political theatre into an intense but highly entertaining piece.

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It beings light-heartedly; the narrative that frames the series of inset vignettes tells of two socially-isolated schoolboys (Writer/Directors Sam Foster and Hayden Jones), who spend lunchtimes alone glued to their smart-phone screens watching the latest viral video on YouTube. To ‘go viral’, is defined as achieving a least a million hits in a week we are told by a Siri as part of an opening announcement. But the boys think this is nothing and are convinced that they can do better, setting up their own YouTube channel and brainstorming what content will serve them best. Initially, the considerations are harmless amalgamations of popular clips featuring top 10s, fails, pranks and of course cats. Along the way they enact famous clips from Gangnam Style to Charlie Bit My Finger and even the more recent Chebacca Mom. They never miss a beat as the two jump in and out of character to mime along in these high energy and highly-engaging scenes.

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But the ‘clips’ become less comfortable as they highlight the lack of humanity of music festival goers filming a girl dying of an overdose, bringing tears almost to eyes. When audience members initially react with laugher, despite foreshadowing of the outcome, the most-through provoking aspect of the show is revealed. This is similarly so during an uncomfortable re-enactment of a rude and racist rant on a train. Indeed, there is much to complete in the both the show’s concept and realisation, and the cast and creatives more than do this justice, making for an absorbing experience the flies by as the boys make unwise content choices and suffer the significant consequences.

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When the work climaxes in a scene of humans, led by Kristian Santic, becoming vultures upon a human with horse head (Reuben Witsenhuysen), things go to a more macabre place, however, the provocation of its confronting imagery and meaning in juxtaposition to the earlier narrative structure is lost in the puns that pepper its narration by a reporting newsman.

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All performers are skilled in characterisation, jumping, within scenes even, between multiple characters of different ages and sensibilities with ease, always making it easy-to-follow thanks to considerations as simple as a collar turned up or down. Ellen Bailey, makes a particularly memorable transition between enthusiastic festival fanatic to stern school Principal with ease. But the works hangs on the excellence of Foster and Jones, and the vitality of their performances together make for the show’s most appealing aspect.

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“Viral” is a slick show, as you would expect in consideration of Shock Therapy’s previous, acclaimed works. It features a cracking soundtrack and vibrant sound and lighting design courtesy of Guy Webster and Jason Glenwright. Nathan Sibthorpe’s AV Design also serves the show well, particularly in delivery of a slam poetry masterclass on social change from Luka Lesson.

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Certainly “Viral” is aimed at younger audience members, although it does also cleverly contain early subtle comment on parental on-line role modelling. At the start of the show the audience is encouraged to leave phones on (silent) and take photos and videos (hashtag Shock Therapy Productions) and it is interesting to see the number and demographic of those that do. It is aspects like this that work so effectively with what is presented on stage to make the production one of such note, hopefully to also be brought to Brisbane in outing soon.

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 Photos c/o – Saffron Jensen

Brisbane’s Matildas

The 2015 Matilda Awards, held at QUT Gardens Theatre on Monday 29th February, shared more than just their timing with the Oscars, with a razzle dazzle opening number of ‘Viva Brisvegas’ from hosts performer Carita Farrer Spencer and fashion designer Leigh Buchanan in guise as their alto egos Larry Paradiso and Barbra Windsor-Woo and a controversial speech from outgoing committee member and awards co-founder Alison Cotes.

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Memorable moments also included, more poignantly, an appropriate standing ovation when celebrated Queensland actress Carol Burns was posthumously awarded the Gold Matilda Award for her contribution to the industry and body of work, including her final performance in Queensland Theatre Company’s “Happy Days”.  At the alternate end of the emotional spectrum, the biggest laugh of the often outrageous night came courtesy of the Lord Mayor Graham Quirk in reaction to the attention of Paradiso. There was also much enthusiasm in response to announcement of the future awards restructure of the technical categories, from beyond just Design (Set & Costumes) and Technical Design (lights, Multimedia & Sound).

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Putting aside the recent industry criticism of the awards’ format and judges, big winners on the night included Queensland Theatre Company’s “Brisbane” which took out three categories: Best Mainstage production, Best New Australian Work and Best Male Actor in a Leading Role for Dash Kruck. Kruck’s versatility was acknowledged in his receipt, also, of the Award for Best Musical or Cabaret for his one man show “I Might Take My Shirt Off”.

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Also, Gold Coast based Shock Therapy Productions’ “The Pillowman”  took out the win in three categories: Best Independent Production, Best Director for Sam Foster and Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role for Tama Matheson.

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Shake & Stir Theatre Company’s “Dracula” was also a repeat winner, taking out both technical categories for set design and lighting.

2015 GOLD MATILDA AWARD

Carol Burns
for an outstanding performance in Happy Days
and an exceptional body of work

 2015 SILVER MATILDA COMMENDATIONS

Brisbane
Best Mainstage Production
Queensland Theatre Company

Brisbane
Lord Mayor’s Award for Best New Australian Work
(Proudly Sponsored by Brisbane City Council) 
written by Matthew Ryan

The Pillowman
Best Independent Production
Shock Therapy Productions 
in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse

Dash Kruck
Best Male Actor in a Leading Role
Brisbane

Libby Munro
Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Grounded

Tama Matheson
Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
The Pillowman

Naomi Price
Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Ladies in Black

Sam Foster
Best Director
The Pillowman

Josh McIntosh
Best Design (Set & Costumes)
Dracula

Jason Glenwright
Best Technical Design (Lights, Multimedia & Sound)
lighting design – Dracula

Georgina Hopson
Bille Brown Award for Best Emerging Artist
Pirates of Penzance & Into the Woods

I Might Take My Shirt Off
Best Musical or Cabaret
QPAC in association with Queensland Cabaret Festival,
Jai Higgs & Dash Kruck

Shock storytelling

The Pillowman (Shock Therapy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 19 – 29

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“The first duty of storyteller is to tell a story,” the audience is told early on in “The Pillowman”. It is an important line, delivered as part of a writer’s interrogation by totalitarian state police about the gruesome content of his short stories which often depict violence against children, and their similarities to a number of local child murders. More than just defense of his innocence, however, it is a statement that encapsulates the essence of the show, which layers stories within stories from every character.

As contrast to the harsh reality of Katurian’s police interrogation while his brother Michal waits in the next room, his simply told fables are re-enacted and retold to the audience by characters stepping outside the action for delivery through monologue narration and shown through clever use of shadowplay and even puppetry that belie their horror. Indeed, there is a magic to the puppetry thanks primarily to the masterful efforts of puppeteer Anna Straker.

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Ben Warren brings a sympathetic portrayal to the impatient and arrogant protagonist Katurian, whose collection of unpublished short pieces of fiction shock the police and audience members, but not his disabled brother. Barely off stage, Warren gives a first-class performance to take audiences on a roller coaster ride of emotions as backstory is revealed. Tama Matheson, meanwhile, has the difficult task of playing Michal, the naïve, gullible and vulnerable brother who is slow to get things following years of abuse. With his shuffling gate, jutted jaw, dangling lip and often-agape mouth, he conveys an essential social ignorance in every aspect of his performance, eyes always darting away from contact. And although his mannerisms reflect a realism, the character’s language allows the audience disconnection enough to discourage discomfort in their laughter. The relationship conveyed between the childlike Michal and his brother Katurian is a real highlight, reflecting the intimacy that must exist in a fraternal relationship in which one sibling assumes a pseudo-parental role.

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As the good(ish) cop/bad cop duo of policeman and detective, Hayden Jones and Sam Foster provide immediate and enduring humour through their razor-sharp dialogue. Foster, in particular shows an assuredness on stage that adds much to the menace of the short-tempered, explosive, violent and vindictive Ariel, providing many of the show’s early darkly humourous moments, for as a comedy, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” is as black as they come; its laughs are of the type to be quickly followed by covered mouths and guilty looks around others in the audience of co-conspirators to appreciation of its delicious darkness

The show is long and even though you could easily walk away from the 90 minute first half entirely satisfied, the second instalment delivers a difficult to anticipate but quite satisfying ending as its intertwined intricacies are revealed amongst the twists and turns of its dark plot and uncomfortable imagery. Without doubt, Shock Therapy Productions has chosen an extremely complex and difficult choice of work in “The Pillowman”, but it is one that is delivered with extreme quality in every regard.

“The Pillowman” (which, it turns out is not such an elusive title after all) has much to offer, the narrative intricacies of which shouldn’t be spoiled in review beyond giving warning about its dark and disturbing content and description and portrayal of violence, a theme that often emerges in theatrical consideration of the darker side of human behaviours. Shock Therapy should be commended for resisting urge to ridicule its subject matter and, rather, being brave enough to show the audience the not so digestible aspects of violence that are, unfortunately, very much part of human experience. Although it may sometimes be at the expense of viewer comfort, the show’s central focus on storytelling shows just how gripping a well-told narrative can be. The addition of puppetry, physical theatre and shadow play in fusion, only serve to add to the appeal of this ingeniously disturbing show.