Believe the roomers

The Odd Couple (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 17 – November 8

Who would have thought that the comedy of the much-loved 1968 film “The Odd Couple” could be as fresh today as it ever was? Outgoing Queensland Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Wesley Enoch, that’s who. And the result is a stellar show of non-stop humour and a lot of heart.

It’s Friday night at Oscar Maddison’s (Jason Klarwein) place and an assortment of his friends are gathered for their ritual poker game. Talk soon turns to the absent Felix (Tama Matheson) and in particular, his artisan sandwiches. Clearly it is unlike him to be a no-show. And before long the reason emerges as to why. Suddenly single after his wife has kicked him out, the news journalist soon turns up on the doorstep of his friend. Cleary the men are absolute opposites in lifestyle and disposition; Oscar lives in a cigar-hazed Hawaiian shirt world away from Felix’s highly-strung mannerly presence of pastels and bow ties. Empathetically in response to his friend’s woe, Oscar offers Felix a room in support of his transition to new-found bachelorhood. Besides which, unlike Oscar, Felix clearly knows his way around a ladle so can save them money by cooking at home.

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And so begins the soap opera of their merged worlds of cold-cuts and coasters. Oscar thinks Felix needs to loosen up (even his hair is uptight), while control-fiend Felix just wishes Oscar would call if he’s going to be late for dinner. As the duo bicker like husband and wife the story gains momentum until after intermission when Oscar celebrates some payback for Felix’s first Act annoyances in quest for a breakup of their bromance. Initially their co-habitation conflict is passive-aggressive but things soon escalate almost into full farce and as truths are told, pasta is flung and the apartment upturned in a hilarious sequence of events

Christina Smith’s styling is deliberately ambiguous. Instead of cut off rooms, the retro renovated New York apartment set is open plan in nature, but still full of distinct sections and doorways to allow for slapstick elements. To also enhance its New York setting, all of the accents are consistent and easy-on-the-ear, particularly from the poker players Tim Dashwood as Roy, Steven Rooke as Speed, Colin Smith as Murray and Bryan Probets as Vinnie. Each represents a sliding scale between Oscar and Felix and they bring their different representations of masculinity to life in distinct but equally noteworthy performances, clearly comfortable in their individual and combined roles in the narrative. Indeed, the poker scenes are a real treat in their comfortable capture of typical male reactions to problems.

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As the ‘sweet bits of crumpet’ from the apartment upstairs, the two Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Lauren Jackson) and Cecily (Amy Ingram), in Oscar Wilde tribute,  appear almost like an over-the-top French and Saunders type giggly double-entendred caricature sketch, however, are gleeful editions to Act Two. Indeed, Ingram shows some of her best work when though mere glance or ordinary word she elicits some of the biggest audience laughs.

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Clearly, however, the show belongs to the charismatic coupling of Klarwein and Matheson sharing the stage again after 2013’s “Design for Living”. Physically the two project perfectly into the roles and their natural rapport and synergy is immediately evident. As the Mary-Poppins-male Felix Ungar, Matheson is simply fantastic:  fastidious, uptight and full of compulsive neurosis. And as happy-go-lucky but slovenly sports writer Oscar Madison, Klarwein is likeable, especially in his attempts to convince Felix that they need to get out and meet people, which reveals a certain vulnerability in his reflection that it is the lack of female company (“something soft”) that is getting to him most. Indeed, he brings a lot of charm to the role, despite being, at times, sarcastic and unapologetic, thanks to a high-energy performance that never wanes but rather goes from strength to strength as the story progresses.

Playwright Neil Simon is an American institution and there is certainly no doubting his position as one of the wittiest writers of the twentieth century. The fact that a show that is familiar can still generate such spontaneous laugher is a testament to this. And audiences will adore it accordingly. In this final directorial work, Enoch has created a charming piece of entertainment, full of nostalgia but also brisk and upbeat in nature, making it one of 2015’s highlights about which audiences are sure to be sharing suggestion with everyone they possibly can.

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.

The delight of Design

Design for Living (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 19 – November 10

I am always going to prefer a play that doesn’t need to dress itself up to convince me of how clever it is, so given that all the pre-season talk of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” has been focussed on its frocks and glamour, my anticipatory hopes of loving it were, admittedly, not high. Thankfully though, the English playwright’s witty dialogue is a ‘wink and a smile ’ winner. Indeed, it is, frightfully gay frolic, in the old-fashioned sense of the word with an Oscar Wilde deliciousness to its witty banter and observations.

Coward’s 1932 play focuses on three friends and artists. Initially, interior designer Gilda (Kellie Lazarus) is living with her beau, a painter named Otto (Jason Klarwein), but has had an affair with playwright Leo (Tama Matheson) who happens to be their good friend and Otto’s former boyfriend. Calling the three lead characters flawed would be an understatement; they are quite awful people. Despite her bohemian beginnings, Gilda, particularly is very much like Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan in the way she hides from reality behind the veneer of money and tongue-in-cheek manners. So while they may profess to love each other, the legitimacy of their proclamations is questionable.

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Even though the relationship around which the ménage-a-trois comedy is based is complicated and confusing, “Design for Living” is a terribly amusing delight due in large part to the performances of its two male leads. Jason Klarwein is highly entertaining as Otto; his energy is sustained and infectious. Though he has a David Wallamsish flare for the dramatic, his comedic timing is spot on. And Tama Matheson is hilarious as floppy-fringed Hugh Grantish Englishman. When paired together, they produce a palatable energy on the stage that endears the production above just its words, word play and wit to be a true celebration of Coward’s signature froth and bubble style. This is enhanced by Director Wesley Enoch’s fidelity to the text’s original structure of three acts with two intermissions, each announced by closing of the house curtain and delightful musical introductions, as enhancements of the nostalgic appeal of a production so firmly rooted in its time.

It seems that QTC may have saved the best until last when it comes to their 2013 season and it was wonderful to see some of Brisbane’s favourite performers within the supporting cast, including Bryan Probets and Fez Faanana of Polytoxic fame. Bring on 2014 I say!