Thrice the naughty > nice

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 4 – 15

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“Get ready to have your stocking stuffed … Santa’s pulled a brand-new show out of his sack, and you’ll find something you love, whether you’ve been naughty or nice” …. so the advertising for the third year of “A Very Naughty Christmas” promises. Carols by candlelight it isn’t; this is low brow humour at it most improper (though it does include a punctuation joke). The sensibility is the same as its previous incantations, although there is no real narrative this time. Rather, the show is more cabaret style escapism featuring a range of musical styles and even a tap number, all with its trademark sense of cheeky fun.

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Aurélie Roque is every bit the bitter vixen in her share of a filthy and fabulous ‘Jingle Bells’ and Stephen Hirst makes for an exciting sexy and suggestive Santa, even in an almost disturbingly dark ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’. Naughtiness is all through the Visy Theatre house, not just through bauble shaking, but also in the show’s clever changes to the lyrics of popular Christmas songs to make them more mischievous (Standouts include a highly-suggestive and absolutely hilarious ‘Santa Baby’).

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Andrew Sisters with a twist take us from an upbeat ‘Let it Snow’ to a bouncy ‘Six White Boomers’ number. And it is particularly pleasing to see the return of a choreographically-perfect “Mean Girls” ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ routine, a clear audience favourite. There is even a Christmas story as cue for audience participation, with ‘volunteers’ making its nativity scene among the most memorable you will ever see.

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Rather than rely on laughs alone, the show also stands on its musical merits through the showcase of wonderful harmonies. Indeed, all numbers display the abundance of vocal talent within its cast and the live band (Chris Evans on drums, Elliott Parker on bass and Musical Director Jake Bristow on keys) is excellent in filling familiar songs with energy and interest.

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Elliot Baker showcases his incredible vocals in an alternative take on the traditional song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, with bombshell babe Emily Kristopher, and his Mr Bean-ish lead of the band in a jazzy ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, is a late-show highlight. And, as he has in its every outing, Stephen Hirst again slays it as the show’s deviant Santa (#punintended)

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This is Christmas as you’ve never seen before, unless you were lucky enough to experience the show in 2017 and/or 2018. Its only shame is that Santa only comes once a year…

Photos – c/o Joel Devereux

Bad Santa salaciousness

A Very Naughty Christmas The Second Coming (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 6 – 16

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, especially for new-to-the-workplace Joseph (Elliot Baker) who is keen to embrace the spirit of the season, especially with Holly (Sophie Christofis). And that isn’t the only of the shy little elf’s problems, as he struggles to keep his real identity secret. So begins Understudy Productions’ “A Very Naughty Christmas The Second Coming”, which rather than telling the story of Santa’s raunchy reindeers as it did in the show’s initial 2017 outing, gives us insight into the sex and drug-fuelled world of his elves, who despite stereotypes to the contrary are not super jolly all of the time.

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Although its cast is smaller, the adult only tone of the show remains the same; the 80-minute experience is full of political incorrectness, dirty language and a whole lot of skin. And sure enough Santa’s pants are off within the first five minutes. Indeed, this is a Christmas as you may have never seen before, even though it has all the hallmarks of a seasonal television special: The Night Before Christmas story re-enactment courtesy of audience ‘volunteers’ in reindeer et al roles, song dance breaks and even a tap dance number. Its more in-your-face than innuendo style of Santa-mental celebration is still shocking and very funny, but some jokes fall a little flat and overall the show lacks a little of its previous on-point, a little rough-around-the-edges salacious appeal. Still, the audience seems to love its every inappropriate moment.

Highlights include Aurelie Roque’s dry delivery of a tell-it-as-it-is song about the roasty-toasty weather the comes along with Christmas in Australia. And No-el’s (Austin Cornish) reappropriated ‘Winter Wonderland’ revelation of what is beneath his surface. Indeed, Cornish gives a dynamic performance physically and though his versatile vocals, seen for example in the show’s take on Saturday Night Live’s ‘My Dick in a Box’.

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Stephen Hirst has a charming appeal as the cheeky Nick, loving the attention of dirty girl Carol (Emily Kristopher) and in fact everyone who wants to ride on his sleigh. He is also once-again perfect in his nudge-and-a-wink nods to the audience, although you will never look at Santa the same way again. Indeed, if the movie “Bad Santa” was a musical, it would probably be something like this. There are no real morals to these stories, just lots of frivolity and indelicate amusement.

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Director Dan Venz’s choreography is full of colour and movement, and the live band (Chris Evans, Ellito Parker and Music Director Tnee Dyer) is excellent in filling familiar songs like ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ with energy and interest, meaning that whether you’re naughty or nice, you will likely enjoy this mischievous celebration of all things Christmas because just as last year’s smash success showed, the comedy cabaret’s unadulterated, frisky fun is undeniable.

Danish danger

The Hamlet Apocalypse (The Danger Ensemble)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 9 – 19

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“Hamlet” represents one of the stage’s greatest challenges. The complex work’s sense of reality is shaped by powerful, poetic words and language with some of the most popular lines ever written, and there is the challenge of its duration as the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. The Danger Ensemble’s contemporary performance about an ensemble of actors (Chris Beckey, Caroline Dunphy, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sara, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood) staging the play on the eve of the apocalypse may be much shorter (though still with room for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and a horse) than its source material, but is as complex as ever as the play unravels and more of the actors’ real-life personal revelations and fears begin to emerge; they have a version of “Hamlet” that they have rehearsed, but as a countdown gets closer to zero the show has to be abridged and personal issues sorted.

Presenting any derivative of “Hamlet” is always going to be a trial of strength. And “The Hamlet Apocalypse” certainly realises its intention of taking the play of ideas to a new and exciting place. Although it is probably best appreciated by those familiar enough with the original text to be able to follow the now-fragmented narrative, this can also work to its disadvantage as the loss of much of the play’s musical language and dramatic poetry is lamented.

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This is a “Hamlet” for the now generation, in which the line between fiction and reality blurs. It’s not an easy transition, however, the experimental work keeps a sense of tragedy in its performers’ breaks of the fourth wall. There is still touch on themes of the power of death and the value of life, but humour too, added to, rather than derived from within the text. Usually it works, such as in a hilarious group ‘imaginary eating’ scene. At other times, however, it is at the expense of key moments and emotional expression, such as when Hamlet’s Act Two share of his descent into worthless melancholy is overshadowed, visually and verbally by a background Claudius and Gertrude spitting wine over each other.

A show of such layering, theatricality and physicality, of course, needs a skilled cast and in this regard there are no weak links. Thomas Hutchins makes for a commanding new King Claudius, second husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caroline Dunphy) in contrast to his constant line-reminder interjections to others as ‘himself’. As the titular Hamlet, Mitch Wood gives a fine performance that provides feel more of frustration than introspection. And Chris Beckey gives a nuanced performance that makes for a memorable visual presence, often absorbed as one with the aesthetic.

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The show’s aesthetics are absorbing thanks to the sophisticated shading of Ben Hughes’ lighting design and Oscar Clark’s detailed, yet versatile costumes. Together, they make early scenes particularly stylistic in the slow-motion sensibility that acts in contrast to the big, hot mess of its conclusion (#inagoodway). Constantly we are reminded that we are watching a play. Indeed, never can the audience relax into the work, especially in the cresendoing chaos of concluding scenes as our attention is torn from ‘character’ to ‘character’ in simultaneous competition for our focus. And while the blinding visual flash and screeching soundscape countdown from ten to one that punctuates proceedings continues as novelty throughout, eliciting disruptive audience responses, this is probably the point.

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“The Hamlet Apocalypse” may be ‘Hamlet but not as you know it’, but it represents all that is interesting about experimental theatre and the essence of Director Steven Mitchell Wright’s characteristic vision, last seen the company’s wicked “Macbeth”.  Its rich all-encompassing aesthetic makes for rewarding theatrical experience. And in celebration of The Danger Ensemble’s ten year anniversary, it is an excellent choice of show for a return season.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Something very wicked this way comes

Macbeth (The Danger Ensemble)

Queensland Academy for Creative Industries

February 9 – 25

When The Danger Ensemble is involved with a presentation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, you know it is not going to be “Macbeth” as you know it. And given its feature of a sexy Mrs M, “Weekend at Bernie’s” type moment and even a Farnham number in support of its focus on ambition and ‘be your best self’ tagline, their current production certainly proves this to be true.

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This is “Macbeth” at its most hyper-real, featuring many intriguing changes to the original text, including emphasis on the larger-than-life passion between the power-addicted, murderous main couple (Chris Beckey and Elle Mickel) through not just their passionate reunion kiss but their laden physical interactions during conversation.

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Gender-blind casting sees a blithe Princess Malcolm (Cienda McNamara) as heir to the throne of King Duncan, in mercurial juxtaposition to the usually solely dark and dangerous dramatisation of the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power and consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. Yet, seasoned Shakespearean performer Sally McKenzie is sincere and powerful in performance as Macbeth’s foil, the pivotal avenging Thane of Fife, Macduff.

Similarly, in her first major production role, Mickel is strong in her approach to characterisation of the aspirationally-manipulative Lady Macbeth, bringing a fresh complexity to a role usually considered to be of an older woman by presenting her less of a crazed harpy and more of a woman grieving the recent loss on a baby. With Beckey as a solid and compelling titular protagonist, the couple’s central relationship becomes a gripping one that really works well on stage.

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This, however, is a show that is all about its aesthetic, precise in its every detail, down to the glowing green of a cigarette ember. Even the violent visuals are gorgeous and although there is no hand-to-hand combat in Act Five’s culminating confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth, there are interesting ways of representing the battle in its place.

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The QACI theatre’s expansive stage allows for some immense scenes and Act Three’s royal banquet presents a particularly memorable visual image of the Da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ sort. Striking too are early scenes that feature Jack Hutchinson as King Duncan, side of stage, dressed all in white, with Elizabethan ruff, strategising over a table of war figurines while drinking milk as white as the blood which many characters will later be shedding.

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Lasers also add to the Ben Hughes’ lush green lighting and silhouetted images, making the weird sisters’ prophecies unlike any version before seen. The soundscape emphasises the elemental forces that grip Macbeth, resounding the repetition of the hags’ chants, and amplifying the addition of the rarely-seen Witch Queen, Hecate.

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Co-designer Arnavaz Lindsay’s costumes are sumptuous in their rich detail and contrast from imposing ‘winter is coming’ coat to plastic wrapped performers. And music enlivens the narrative with a pumping, at-times familiar soundtrack.

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If the quality of a Shakespeare performance depends on the originality of the production and its new revelations regarding themes and characters, then The Danger Ensemble’s take on “Macbeth” is a work of excellence. Director and Designer Steven Mitchell Wright has created a smouldering celebration of the company’s tenth anniversary with a beautiful, powerful and very wicked production that proves the ongoing resonance of the Bard’s themes in relation to ambition and the corruptible nature of absolute power.

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Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

Let’s talk about sex

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

Whereas week one of Awkward Conversation had family as an organising centre, Week Two saw the focus move to sex… well gender to be precise. And it is no more finely seen than in David Burton and Claire Christian’s work “The C Word” about the f word… feminism. Though this is a predominantly static work, it is filled with fabulous lines of wit and wisdom from the women who take the stage. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, they are feisty in their frankness as they tell of Cleopatra, Beyonce and Julia Gillard and that misogyny speech (passionately shared to the injections of audience applause). Nobody performs teenager as well as Emily Burton and her delivery of a speech about feminism to her class is a show highlight that will have you hoping for more.

Notions of gender as also central to the wicked game that is “Salome”. Salacious in its lustful provocation of red and black, satin and lace, and full frontal nudity, it is derivative of other works from director Steven Mitchell Wright so not entirely shocking. “Salome” was written by Oscar Wilde in 1871 while imprisoned for crimes of sexuality, but things have changed, we are told; we live in the suburbs now. And what a strange mixed up suburbia it is.

Suburban horror also drives Martin Crimp’s “Fewer Emergencies”. Under the direction of Lucas Stibbard, this largely talky work evokes some strange visuals, but is particularly interesting in how it begins with narrators interjecting from within the audience before making their way to the stage to take the audience through a loosely connected series of violent events, even sharing a song to shatter illusions of fatherhood.

Music features strongly in Daniel Keene’s “The River”, the story of a down-and-out dad attempting to reconnect with his son. The protagonist is essentially an unlikeable character with little backstory to engender audience empathy, however, it is a testament to Ron Kelly’s skill in inhabiting the role of wayward, drunken father. Surely the work contains many life lessons and analogies, however, the most memorable aspects are its aesthetics with live music and some sublime lighting that sees the stage bathed in blue during a journey though “The Boys Light Up.”

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Together with Week One’s offerings, “Awkward Conversation” serves up exactly that – some discomfort, some interest and a whole lot to take away and talk about. This is part of the reason why collaborations can be so exciting, for collaboration allows fission as much as fusion. The juxtaposition of ideas offers different perspectives and opportunities for a contemplative conversation.

All dolled up

A Doll’s House (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 6 – 27

Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is a classic play, telling the story of how protagonist Nora’s seemingly happy marriage and family life becomes complicated by a series of secrets and lies. (Having broken the law by borrowing money, with forged signature and no male guarantor, she lives in fear of her secret being exposed.) And it is a timeless text for a reason.

“I think the best thing for me to say is as little as possible. I want to allow the work that Ibsen, Lallly [Lally Katz, the show’s playwright], the creatives, crew, cast and myself have done to speak for itself,” Director of “A Doll’s House”, Steven Mitchell Wright notes in his program notes. How odd it is, therefore, to then have the experience of the play hijacked by a final feminist manifesto from a modernised Nora, for while this seminal work has a certain contextual specificity, it also has an intrinsic universality. This is what has made it so enduring. So it in entirely unnecessary to sermonise as a lead-in to Nora’s famous door slam.

That aside, the show’s sterling touches are many. Ever the Steven Mitchell Wright show, the exaggerated, gothic-like aesthetic is rich in the opulence of Tim Burton-esque imagery, realised through internationally renowned Dan Potra’s design. The visual aesthetic is quite magnificent in its melodrama. Strung from the ceiling, the stage rotates though the three acts, tightening around the characters as Nora’s secret web of lies unravels their picture perfect lives.

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Victorian in demeanor, the characters are realised in hyper-realism. Hugh Parker is quite beguiling as the domineering, ambitious and moral patriarch Torvald Helmer, as patronising to his wife as the production’s conclusion is to the audience, but very much a product of his time. As his caged hummingbird, no longer singing, Nora (Helen Christinson) is presented as precious and porcelain-like, but broken (much like the three-legged chairs that corner the stage), all dolled up and delicate in her pink doily dresses.

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Chris Beckey as Nils Krogstad, from whom Nora has borrowed the money, is a compelling villain, equal parts cartoonish and evil and his scenes with Cienda McNamara as Nora’s tough, world-wise friend Kristine are appealing in their comfort, despite the lack of eye contact or genuine interaction that characterises virtually all of the show’s dialogue delivery.

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Ibsen’s text is one of the most performed plays in the world (his global popularity, it has been said, is second only to Shakespeare’s). As important as conversations about feminism are, however, “A Doll’s House” is about so much more than this. Despite its focus on Torvald and Nora’s spousal relationship, its themes regarding the loss of identify are relevant to any relationship. Indeed, Ibsen himself didn’t see his play as feminist; he saw it as humanist. He thought every person, man and woman, had a right to be who they wanted to be. Thus, the show should be about universal happiness more than feminist realisation. And to distrust the audience with this, not only undermines the show’s earlier sophistication, but disrespects the intellect of its members.