Comedy cabaret compilations

Bigger & Blacker (Steven Oliver)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

March 8 – 27

“Bigger & Blacker” begins with its star, Steven Oliver’s iconic line from ABC’s “Black Comedy”. It is appropriate, given that the Cloncurry-born writer and actor is probably best-known for his sketch performances in the fast-paced, provocative and bold foray into race relations, however, as his autobiographical comedy cabaret shows, there is much more to this self-proclaimed faboriginal descendant of the Kuku-Yalanji, Waanyi, Gangalidda, Woppaburra, Bundjalung and Biripi peoples.

The double-marginalisation of being a minority within a minority gives Oliver clear fodder for a content, especially in early sections, during which he combines comedy and contemplation with saucy stories, however, the show, which is currently playing at La Boite before touring nationally is equal parts cheeky and charming in his commanding showmanship and also touching in its emotional honestly as he talks about kinship, connection and affection for his mob, and poignant in his candid reflection on the downside of fame.

Music, like life, is a journey Oliver explains to the audience as he contextualises the cabaret’s creation through songs about his lived experiences, written over many years. And this is exactly what the show is as we are taken on not so much a narrative, but an insightful emotional trip through Oliver’s life since he performed in first professional acting gig in Brisbane in the early 1990s. The original songs showcase hiss talent as a songwriter, filled as they are with clever lyrics and rhymes, especially in the expected risqué numbers. Indeed, Oliver is a multi-talented songwriter and, consequently, the original score of the cabaret’s compilation runs from the perky pop to urban rap to lilting lullabies advertised in its descriptor.  

With a disco ball, tap routine, rap and ass shaking (there’s even a song about it), there are plenty of opportunities for Oliver to showcase his infectious energy. This is enhanced by the banter between him and his on-stage companion musician, Musical Director and Helpmann-Award winning cabaret star in his own right, Michael Griffiths, (who also provides back-up vocals and harmonies), meaning that you’re guaranteed a night full of hip-swinging, maraca moments and clap along celebration of storytelling and song.

Humour comes not only from the cabaret’s songs, but Oliver’s very funny bridging conversations with the audience, explaining, for example the linguistic flexibility of the semi-jovial term gammin as lead in to a quieter, affecting number on guitar, ‘Get Me’. Through heartfelt moments like this, the audience is given highlights, initially unexpected in their personal emotion, as Oliver explains how starring in a hit comedy show can lead to great sadness. Similarly, songs like ‘You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Just Like Smoke’ offer lovely declarations of love and reflections on rejection that balance nicely with the unashamedly faberet initially sections.

“Bigger & Blacker” certainly takes its audience to some interesting, unexpected places, including revelation of why we were hearing Whitney Houston amongst its pre-show songs. And when its variety of musical styles takes us to the melodic ‘Are You Okay’ and powerful encore spoken word call to action, ‘I’m a Blackfella’, opening night audience members are soon leaping to their feet in acclamation.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

The Darkness divide

From Darkness (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 7 -28

5

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