Questions of criticism

The Critic

Studio Theatre and Café

February 12 – March 26

Alan Fisher (Dallas Fogarty) has always wanted to be a playwright. So when, despite receiving somewhat of a standing ovation on opening night, his latest, comeback work is savaged by Karl ‘The Axe’ Anderton (Gary Kliger), the most destructive critic in theatre, he does not take it well. Now that it has been labelled the worst Australian play in recent memory, no theatre in the country will touch it, and he holds Anderton responsible. However, revenge is a game for two and as the action unfolds from confrontation to confinement and retribution, audience members will find their sympathies shifting between the revered critic and the wronged writer.

BURN REVIEW

“The Critic” by Alex Broun is a provocative play full of interesting ideas as it explores complex concepts such as the subjectivity of art and objectivity of criticism, leaving audiences left to consider questions such as ‘why have critics?’ ‘what makes a critic qualified?’ and ‘does it matter what critics write?’ It is a script of the highest quality, evidenced, for example, in its easy inclusion of an impressive array of literary references. The work is, however, quite wordy, making it at times cumbersome for the performers to carry its verbosity with equal flair, leading to some stumbles.

Befitting such a dialogue-dominant play, there is little room for movement within the crowded one-star hotel staging (the location to which Anderton has been lured to an in-wait Fisher), which is perhaps a good thing given the lack of sincerity to some of its physical fight scenes. Yet, the work maintains interest, with a few twists and an unanticipated revelation in Act Two. Kliger is a convincing critic, displaying a natural cadence to his dialogue delivery in contrast to the Fogarty’s overplayed and initially jarring performance as playwright Fisher, full of misplaced exaggeration and excessive emphasis.

Although not a big or flashy production, “The Critic” is a first-rate work of Australian theatre to engage audiences on a cerebral level through its verbal exchanges exploring questions about the role of the critic and worth of a world without reviews. It is an intense work, full of emotion as the power play unfolds between a man with everything and one with nothing to lose, and it is well-suited to the intimacy of the Studio Theatre and Café space. While it does not provide many answers, it raises an array of questions to linger long after experience of the show has ended, as well quality theatre should.

The balance that is Bel

Ich Bin Ein Belinda (Belinda Hanne Reid)

Studio Theatre and Café

November 29

One performer, many characters…. It is a common cabaret concept explored this time in a five-woman (and one-man), one-woman show. But rather than separate characters, the personalities are all part of the one identity, for they all come from within performer Belinda Hanne Reid. So when we audiences are welcomed to the cabaret inside her head, it is an appropriate greeting to open the one-woman show. Fitting too it then appears is the show’s cumbersome name “Ich Bin Ein Belinda” (I am one Belinda).

Firstly we are introduced to the repressed, romantic, pearl-wearing Bel, who wants the kind of love that’s worthy of song key changes. In simultaneous compliment and contrast to her, are a drunken, hanky-panky, hedonistic, pleasure-seeking friend and the ‘fat one’ waiting to break out. There’s also the raunchy ‘sometimes friend’ who takes care of practical tasks like taking telemarketer phone calls and can wield a lethal fork, and the misogynistic man who lives darts and driving fast, and is not afraid of spiders. Certainly they are not all entirely likeable, but they can all sing.

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From classics like ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘It’s a Man’s World’, to a wonderful stripped-back mashup of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’, Reid is both passionate and poignant, and never-faltering in voice. Characterisation is clear, with altered voice and mannerisms enhanced by the use of simple props to establish the different parts of herself. Dialogue is filled with that easy, predictable type of humour that includes Tasmanian jokes, Tony Abbot quips and sexist stereotypes, but the show doesn’t take itself too seriously, even including an audience participation game of Belinda Says.

Although it would be nice to see some of its snippets more fleshed out, particularly in transition, “Ich Bin Ein Belinda” is an enjoyable trip to inside the head of a talented performer. With bathrobes, handcuffs and donuts, it takes audiences to the oddest of places, but in doing so, it never strays from good fun in its reminder that everyone is a balance of their parts.

Broadway brightness and bust

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Studio Theatre

June 19 – August 1

“A musical spoof about musicals” is how Studio Theatre’s “Broadway or Bust” is enticingly described. And this is certainly true as the show weaves its way through all kind of familiar musical melodies, starting with ‘Find Your Grail’ from “Spamalot”. This opening number serves not only to set the tongue-in-cheek tone of the production but also to establish its narrative theme as members of an amateur theatre group spend the following two hours both searching for a show for their production and ultimately on quest to find their individual musical callings.

Despite their director (Damien Lee)’s urging, no one wants to do “Romeo and Juliet” and the company of seven instead decides to create a show of their own – a musical to be written by group member Tony, who unfortunately only writes children’s plays. By Act Two’s (unnecessary in purpose beyond inclusion of a number from “Cats”) play within a play pantomime presentation, farcical chaos ensues, thanks also to the personality clashes within the company.

Hasbeen Felicia (Heloise-Laure Ruinard) is every bit the stereotypical diva (body by Versace, mind by Mattel), while wannabe Dutch/German Ingra (Brooke Williams) is clueless in her questions and unintentional sexual statements. While their characters clash, their times together on stage are show highlights, particularly their Act One ‘Anything Goes’/’Anything You Can Do’ tap duet. Indeed, it is the show’s musical numbers that reveal the most promise. Even if there are some pitch issues with singers not always hitting and holding notes, the music itself is catchy. The choreography has been cleverly determined to account for the non-dancer male members of the ensemble, however, is optimistic in its use of such a small stage that is perhaps not quite comfortable enough for cartwheels.

In true melodrama style, “Broadway or Bust” is a spoof of silliness, full of dad jokes, dodgy wigs, political incorrectness and sexual innuendos, that, through repetition of the same jokes told different ways, eventually serve only to detract from the cleverness of the script’s construction and incorporation of musical references. Dated as it may now well be, however, the humour was appreciated by the distractingly chatty matinee audience, especially the inclusion of inset token local location jokes (think Woodridge, Boondall, the usual stuff).

“Broadway or Bust” is an ambitious show choice both in genre and the execution demands of songs such as Barbara Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ and Peter Allen’s seminal ‘Don’t Cry out Loud” and while the production doesn’t always hit the mark, there is a clear musical rhythm to its pacing, especially evident in its Act One closer, ‘What You Want’, from “Legally Blonde”. The show is far from a complete bust and certainly has some bright moments, and Broadway lovers may well like to give it a look for musical nostalgia and a few laughs.

Business is good

The Business of Murder (Sharmony Productions)

Studio Theatre and Café

June 3 – 13

The story of “The Business of Murder” centres around the interlocking cat and mouse relationship between three characters: successful TV playwright Dee Redmond, Detective Superintendant John Hallet and a mysterious Mr. Stone. They are all in the business of murder, one way or another, but probably not in the ways you think.

The story is from the pen of Richard Harris, a master of the genre. On the West End, the play enjoyed a successful eight year run, such is its enduring appeal. Although there is only a cast of three, the plot is thoroughly engaging. Twists come early and are plentiful in this intriguing narrative, whose two acts take place over one afternoon and evening. You would think that with such a small ensemble it would be easy to figure out the twists – but it’s not, and the show leaves you guessing until the end thanks to multiple red herrings.

By mere nature, “The Business of Murder” is a wordy show as clues are revealed in explanation to the characters (and thus the audience). And the bulk of them come from Paul Careless. As the ordinary, average, non-descript middle aged man Stone, Careless is initially quaintly old fashioned (in a bumbling George Roper type way) and then increasingly creepy and malignantly minded as he festers with plans for revenge. His self-pitying and ultimately pitiful portrayal conveys a genuine commitment to the role, causing the audience to oscillate between considering him as protagonist and antagonist. This is the skill of his commanding performance; he is barely off-stage and his energy never wavers. His character presents a full range of emotions and controls most of the action, so it really is his show. And he more than does the psychological thriller justice with his performance.

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Rob Harvey too is impressive as Hallet. As an arrogant policeman and a bit of lad, he is suitably sure of himself and old school in his methods and language, dropping some cockney rhyming slang to add to characterisation. There is much humour from Hallet in particular and although lines like “insanity; it’s heredity. You get it from kids,” may be groan-worthy, they are comfortably so.

The story is set in a small but pleasant enough early ‘80s North London flat’s sitting room and is suitably British in feel (including thanks to some spot on accents). And while there are some wobbly wall moments, the intimate space of the Studio Theatre stage has been used to great effect, creating depth of design in its detailed touches and décor.

In an independent theatre landscape almost saturated with youth focussed companies, it is refreshing to see the fledgling Sharmony Productions now on the scene to produce small cast plays to showcase the talents of more seasoned performers as well as up and coming actors. And the result is an inaugural show of immense quality. “The Business of Murder” is, quite simply, a jolly good story, told by three talented actors who are absolute in their ability to hold audience attention.

Sinatra sings

Once in My Life: The Man, The Music, The Legend

Studio Theatre and Cafe

March 28 – May 31

As someone who grew up watching MGM musicals, I’m ashamed to admit how little I really know about Frank Sinatra, given that his “On The Town” is probably my favourite of the era’s movies. Studio Theatre and Café’s “Once in My Life: The Man, The Music, The Legend” is the perfect showcase of, as its title suggests a journey through the life and work of this American singer, actor, director and producer and, as such, is the perfect solution to my dilemma.

Whether you have passing familiarity or are a full-on fan, “Once in My Life: The Man, The Music, The Legend” has much to offer as it explores the timeline of a man who was loved and feared in equal measure. Almost like a live version of VH1s “Behind the Music”, the show is presented as part cabaret, part documentary as the live performance of Sinatra’s classic hit songs is integrated with a multimedia presentation of original interviews and historical news footage, which makes it both interesting and entertaining. This allows the audience to be taken through Sinatra’s childhood and early career with The Hoboken Four and Tommy Dorsey, as much as his later Rat Pack shenanigans at Vegas’ Sands Hotel. Indeed, the video segments that punctuate the show’s soundtrack provide both humour and insight, especially those of the improvised on-stage lounge act interaction with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jrn, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

As Sinatra himself says in one of the show’s clips, songs need to tell a story. And the songs selected to soundtrack his life story are proof of this. Whether it be finding fame as king of the bobby-soxers, achieving Academy Award winning movie stardom, McCarthyism suspicion of un-American activities or his multiple marriages and son’s abduction, there is a song that fits as perfect thematic accompaniment. All the favourites are there, from ‘Strangers in the Night’ and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ to ‘Luck Be a Lady’ and ‘Mac the Knife’. And Damien Lee does an excellent job in bringing them all to toe-tapping, flinger-clicking life with his strong vocal presence, culminating in a razzle dazzle ‘New York, New York’ and a mighty fine ‘My Way’ finale. His sound is smooth, whether in gentle song or soaring loudly. He is clearly singing straight from the heart and his passion is infectious. Unfortunately, his part-time back-up singers seem, by contrast to lack conviction, with vocal weakness that is sometimes distracting but largely just a signpost of Lee’s true talent.

As one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra is an icon of the industry, worthy of tribute of this sort. “Once In My Life: The Man, The Music, The Legend” is the perfect vehicle for sharing his story from Hoboken Kid to Ol’ Blue Eyes. And it is the perfect Mother’s Day present for those with mums of that vintage wanting to share in a wonderful afternoon or evening of the songs and stories of the Chairman of the Board.

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Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/

Stories, songs and scornful banter

Friends with Benefits

Studio Theatre and Cafe

March 28

‘If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends’. So sings ultimate spicy girl Natasha York and her cabaret co-divas in the opening number of “Friends with Benefits”. As its title suggests, however, this is a show about friendship with that little bit more. Joined by friends Natalie Mead, Chloe-Rose Taylor and Stephen Dorrington and accompanied by immensely-talented Musical Director Ben Murray, Melbourne-based songstress York examines if it better to be friends or have real feelings, through a bewitching mix of music, hot stuff dance moves and even some balloon tricks. Indeed, this is a show that depends on the audience; the audience is often the protagonist though frequent participation segments, including a quick quiz show bit pitting lucky-in-love spouse against lucky-in-love spouse. But ultimately, this is York’s show and her compelling voice and charismatic charm don’t let you forget it.

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Perhaps the most important consideration when selecting songs in cabaret is perhaps the lyric and, in this regard, the songs really do shine. “Friends with Benefits” gives chance to revisit some ‘90s classics of the Britney sort, stripped back to tell a different story than you might otherwise have realised and from Alanis to Rihanna, there really is something to satisfy every taste… and not just dirty ‘90s mashups but musical theatre staples and vintage flavours on party favourites and movie classics (Mead makes appearance as Marilyn for a sultry rendition of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ for example). However, there are some fresh tunes too thanks to Dorrington’s pubaret performance (a fusion of pub rock and cabaret). Delivering funny, catchy and even touching original songs about being, amongst other things, a dancing man and driving a shit car, he’s dashing, delightful and definitely a talent to watch.

In a musical theatre world in which bigger is often seen to be better, it is sometimes refreshing to see quality intimate musical experiences and “Friends with Benefits” captures the essence of cabaret without slipping into cliché. Its segments ebb and flow, however, its atmosphere is full of fun and shared enjoyment of the stories, songs and scornful banter. And for a fabulous night out, what more can you really, really want…. #nostringsattached.