Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Trilogy triumph

Revelations (Tangram Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 13 – 14

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James Rowland is quite the storyteller. The first two shows of his Songs of Friendship trilogy are testament to this and in “Revelations” this tradition continues, with Rowland making expert use of alliteration and evocative language to paint the perfect picture with words so as audience members we can easily fill in any gaps with our own imaginations. The story this time is of what happens when James’s friends Sarah and Emma ask the essential man-child for his sperm to start a family.

While Rowland’s storytelling trilogy to an extent shares the same cast of characters and an element of autobiography, there’s a deliberately blurry line between fact and fiction as we are taken through the opening words of “Team Viking” “I’m going to tell you a story and all of it is true” to “A Hundred Different Words for Love”, which starts with assurance that “none of it is true”.

Wonder around authenticity aside, “Revelations” is a crafted piece of theatre, like the others in the revelatory storytelling cycle about love, life, friendship and death. Through-lines are threaded together not just throughout this work but those that have gone before it (though this does not serve as a barrier to stand-alone viewing), from little touches of apparent throw-always statements to the epic impact of its big themes of the search for faith sort. Indeed, it is a real treat to see how Rowland interweaves seemingly such unrelated strands as snow days, foxes, friendship and Christian youth camp recollections, with a sprinkling of nuanced pop culture references for added humorous effect.

Audience interaction is utilised in this show more than its predecessors, beginning with audience record of a song for Rowland’s niece’s birthday and continuing as ‘volunteers’ pray in tongues and catch him when falling as hint at the approaching apocalyptic-esque crescendo ending, like that prophesised in its biblical namesake. Its conclusion represents a burst of release of emotion as Rowland becomes preacher of his own sermon. Again, this shows how he is a master controller of ebb and flow and the power of evocative pause in the show’s combination of story, comedy and song – each accompanied by his own music live on stage. And he is clearly committed to the performance, even if it involves disrobing all of his clothes.

With a direction that is far from predictable, “Revelations” represents an engaging and energising theatrical experience of its own merit, but also serves as a triumphant and cathartic end to a humorous but heartfelt trilogy that we are lucky to have hosted as part of this year’s Brisbane Festival.

Rowland’s words words words

A Hundred Different Words for Love (Tangram Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 12 – 14

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“A Hundred Different Words for Love” is a show about love, but it’s maybe more about words, words, words …. including consideration of it they still matter if not true. Thankfully, James Rowland is a master of words; he is a gifted storyteller who is adept at using beautiful language to make even the mundane interesting, evoking the figurative language of the script in a nuanced physical performance. Indeed, the show also demonstrates Rowland’s conviction as a performer through the things he will do for the affirmation of audience laughter. Gimmicky antics, however, are not necessary as the story is full of genuine humour, as the audience is led through an exploration of love and why one word is just not enough.

At its core, “A Hundred Different Words for Love” is about the pitfalls of being unable to express one’s feelings as we see Rowland recount meeting, wooing and falling for a girl to whom he ultimately cannot bring himself to say that big little word. At his retelling, including assumption of any necessary additional roles, we are taken through the usual romantic comedy milestones of first date, weekends away, a break-up and possible make-up, without cliché. As they appropriately are in his other of Rowland’s Songs of Friendship trilogy works, James’s friends feature throughout the story, which allows opportunity for him to jump out of the main tale to pepper it with memories and anecdotes of their bonds, without disruption to the cohesion of the show. And while there is less plot than in the initial work of the trilogy, “Team Viking”, the story is still well crafted in its call-backs to earlier not-so-random mentions.

Rowland is a vibrant and commanding, yet humble performer; it is difficult to deliberately deliver casualness but his mastery of this is what creates so much of the show’s engagement. While not the triumph of “Team Viking”, his ode to a lost friend, this is a charming show that will endear itself into audience affections. In an intimate venue such as his La Boite Studio Brisfest home, this connection is only amplified and shows that the best storytellers do not need all the extras of staging and props to enliven audience imaginations. (The only real addition to its spoken word performance is Rowland’s live keyboard playing, looped and overlapped with story-telling). “A Hundred Different Words for Love” is observational comedy in its richest form that, in the hands of this skilled performer, easily takes its audiences from humour to hope.

Team Viking truths

Team Viking (Tangram Theatre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 10 – 14

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Team Viking…. It’s not just the name of James Rowland’s Brisbane Festival show but what James and his best friends since forever, Tom and Sarah, called themselves when growing up in middle class suburban Middle England, playing Vikings, inspired by the 1958 film with Kurt Douglas and Tony Curtis.

Reunited for the funeral of James’ father, they revisit the idea with suggestion that send-offs should be huge and memorable enough for people to tell stories about. ….. a conversation that none of them realise the significance of until 25-year-old Tom is not long after diagnosed with aggressive, terminal heart cancer and shares his last wish of wanting to be given a full Viking burial. What follows (after some introductory housekeeping about potentially uniquely UK show references) is the remarkable story of how James and Sarah actually gave their best friend the send-off he wanted.

This work is part of Songs of Friendship, ‘a revelatory storytelling cycle about love, life, friendship, death – and the ridiculous, sublime muddles of everyday existence’. And the hour-long solo show is all of these things as Rowland (who Brisbane audiences saw in 2017’s similarly beautiful “Every Brilliant Thing”) delivers what is essentially a monologue journey through all the emotions despite its narrative veer to the absurd. Rowland is an engaging performer who easily takes audiences along the ride from riotous laugher to tragedy of the most heartfelt sort, with just a single line or perfectly-placed pause, but also bouncing about the stage using subtle changes in posture, gesture and vocal stylings to establish the additional characters that drop into the story.

And what an extraordinary story it is! I cannot remember ever having my mouth so many times agape in a show, as its true-life twists and turns unfolded from hilarious recall of a Christmas pudding ritual gone wrong and the obscure thefts required to facilitate a Viking farewell, to tears about its tragedy and appreciation of the deep love of long-time friends.

There are touches of audience interaction within its early stages, which seem entirely natural given the engagement of both Rowland’s captivating storytelling, cleverly crafted in its overall journey and the call-backs that are peppered along its way, and the extraordinary, epic story itself. Indeed, it’s the type of show that sneaks up on you with its truths to become one of the most joyful, funny, moving and evocative pieces of storytelling you are every likely to experience.

Despite its subject matter of grief, “Team Viking” is not overly-sentimentality or self-indulgent and it is easy to appreciate its overseas success (the show was a breakthrough hit at the Edinburgh Fringe). It is an accomplished piece of storytelling, perfectly constructed to unpack its every emotional possibility in swell to a spectacular, satisfying conclusion and we are fortunate to have it appearing at this year’s Brisbane Festival in an Australian exclusive.