Future LOVE+ lives

LOVE+ (Malaprop Theatre Company)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 10 – 14

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Generally speaking, the Irish do great theatre; Brisbane Festival audiences have seen this in recent experiences of the Dead Centre sort. Continuing in the guise, the award-winning Dublin-based Malaprop Theatre Company, this year brings us “LOVE+”, a two-hander about the future inevitability of human/robot relationships and what it’ll be like when machines love us back.

The story tells of a lonely, hardworking woman (Maeve O’Mahony) who invests in a cyborg for day-to-day assistance. Before long their relationship develops beyond companionship, which leads the woman to be troubled by the cyborg’s inability to experience anything at a visceral level. (As we are told in the show’s initial scene, robots must obey orders given by humans and are restricted by the laws of not harming a human being or allowing them to come to harm… not ever, even a little bit).

The conflict (as much as one can have conflict without disagreement) caused by the robot’s inflexible virtues leads to touch on themes of human nature, consciousness, consent and the need for authenticity in emotional experiences. Morally complex as they might be, these themes are not new (think 2013’s Spike Jonze movie “Her” and Ian McEwan’s 2019 novel “Machines Like Me”). What makes “Love+” interesting is its realisation of the familiar tropes in a way that avoids cliché.

Caoimhe Coburn Gray is brilliant as the wide-eyed cyborg, sharply controlled in her every static movement and her unassuming delivery of in-unison dialogue with soundtrack sections is a highlight in its contrast to O’Mahony’s required over-animation. Indeed, her programed ‘characterisation’ of a non-human character is quite compelling to watch and together the two generate some tantalising, tender moments of intimacy between their characters.

“LOVE+” is smart and thoughtful theatre that offers much to consider about the ways technology is reprograming our romantic lives. With its coarse language and sexual references, however, it may not be to every audience member’s tastes.

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.

Youth truths

I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 26 – 29

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What do you get when you combine over 3000 responses, 18 young performers and a whole lot of confetti? It sounds like the start of a riddle, but the answer, “I’ve Meaning to Ask You’ is far from a punchline or non-committal response. The latest innovative work from experimental theatre collective The Good Room ensembles an eclectic group of young performers to pit their wonders against the explanations of the older generation. As such, it is a unique intergenerational show for adults that is full of questions asked by young people and answered by adults.

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Questions are more than just the perennial “but why?” of early infantry, rather ranging from the frivolous to the provocative. We start with ask as to favourite songs and drinks and then there are embarrassing moments and pop-up illustrations of go-to dance moves. From these emerge adult’s own reflections of youth with questions about at-school bullying and the real-world value of maths and then more global concerns about gender, power the environment and the future, which do not always come with easy answers.

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Age interacts though omnipresent experience in the revealing one-hour tell-all, as the group of eager early-teens are given agency to speak their truths. And they are more than up for the task, bringing big personalities that enliven and entertain in their energy. Indeed, all the young actors are impressive in the timing and perfect tone of their performances.

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It starts with them in line across the stage behind microphone stands. They aren’t still for long though as this is far from a static show; it is wonderfully dynamic, full of fun, colour, movement and pure joy. Its soundtrack is lively too, packed with sing and clap along moments to lots of fabulous retro songs of the Roxette, Bon Jovi and B52s sort.

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And still the surprises keep coming, starting with shift in tone courtesy of some lyrical choreography, Jason Glenwright’s intricate lighting and unexpectantly at-once striking and moving video design from optikal bloc’s Craig Wilkinson, which adds an entirely new dimension to the already extraordinary work, as audiences are guided towards some genuine compelling and poignant adult confessionals of insecurity and regret.

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The combination of notable performer stage presence and a stellar creative team led by Director Daniel Evans, means that the youth truths are dropped in the most wonderful of ways, including with entertaining little inset re-enactments and even additional audience involvement beyond just the initial contributions. And the result is perhaps the best The Good Room project realisation yet.

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In keeping with the popular formula that has served them so well with past productions, “I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You” has been created using audience and anonymous stories and the consequence is genuine audience engagement in ponder not only of its targeted central questions about, for example, what day you would like to go back and change, but the value of communication between generations that typically don’t interact with such honesty and consideration, and the benefit of wisdom and advice in our world. Indeed, after experience the night prior of the similarly world premiere production of Dog Spoon’s “A Coupla Dogs”, it seems that at this year’s Brisfest the Theatre Republic is the place for to be for Week Three think pieces.

Top dog theatre

A Coupla Dogs (Dog Spoon)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 25 – 29

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‘Two dogs, one kennel, five days”… the tagline of Dog Spoon’s Brisbane Festival show “A Coupla Dogs” perhaps conveys expectations of a playful night out, especially attractive in its palatable 60 minutes running time for those may be suffering from Week Three festival fatigue. The world premiere work by co-writers Director Andrew Cory and Sue Rider, is, however, so much more than just this promise as it takes its audience to some political and also poetic places all within its distinctive dog kennel setting.

It is, as it promises by its tagline, a tale two dogs, Old Dog (Ron Kelly) and Young Dog (Tom Oliver). We don’t know their names, but their personalities pretty quickly become clear. Old Dog is fighter who profanely tells it as it, in straight talk that sits alongside clever dialogue abundant with canine idioms. Immediately, he asserts his dominance over the newly-arrived ‘Christmas dog’, bursting with puppy, eagerness and naïve joy.

We meet them in simple but effective staging at ‘Beryl’s Kennels (Barb Lowing in voice over), a substandard private animal refuge where they await a fate. As they do, they discuss dog philosophy and life in general. And there-in lies the bite to its bark as all sorts of social issues are considered and alluded to, from media impartiality to treatment of our underdogs.

Despite Old Dog’s aggression and essentially pessimistic outlook, it begins quite light-heartedly as legs are humped and the dogs move from playing dead to venturing into the audience in search of tummy-rub-type affection. Then the tone shifts, aided by Jason Glenwright’s lighting design, and things become serious in analogy of the people problems being mirrored to the audience in contemplation of the way we all live and interact on this planet and how we treat our most vulnerable.

While the aesthetics signpost the show’s shift quite dramatically, Kelly and Oliver complement this also in their nuanced guidance towards the ultimately affecting ending. Kelly is memorable in his show of his softer side in contrast to early bravado, in talk of his relationship with his previous owner. And Oliver similarly shows an extensive range in his transition from bumbling puppy to determined enlightenment that every dog will have its day. Indeed, it is difficult to take your eyes off the duo, not just in impress of their obvious stamina and energy to act in entirety as dogs, but due to the engagement created by their physical performances, down to smallest touch such as holding hands as paws for the show’s duration.

There’s no bones about it; this new work is certainly unique, but it is so both in its concept and execution, which makes it interesting as well as entertaining. By using comedy to consider some of the planet’s problems, “A Coupla Dogs” not only leaves us laughing, but provokes its audience to after-show contemplation and conversation, which is exactly as it should be for a festival work.

Journeying with gin

Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin (Milke)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 18 – 22

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“Drink up; we are very entertaining when you are drunk”, Maeve Marsden tells audience members at “Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin” after an opening number of Dinah Washington’s jazzy ‘Me and My Gin’. It is a truth probably of all late night cabaret especially and if you join in on the show’s “1 2 3, drink” pre-chorus encouragement of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, you will surely find yourself especially having the time of your life in shared celebration of the mother’s milk that is gin.

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The hour long work of performers Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood, is certainly entertaining, but informative too as the duo, along with Jeremy Brennan on piano, guide the audience through the associated history of the spirit, back to the English gin craze of 1729, complete with government attempts at control of the epidemic of drunkenness and its associated debauchery, through to 1965 Brisbane when Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the public bar of the Regatta Hotel in protest of the law against women drinking in Queensland hotel bars. The explicitly feminist perspective should not come as a surprise though, Marsden and Wood are core members of the feminist cabaret team Lady Sings it Better, known for their reinterpretation and subversion of songs made famous by men. It’s quite interesting actually to those atoned to the tipple as we learn all about our gin who art in heaven, complete with clever song accompaniment.

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It’s a fast and furious journey from its juniper berry origins with 11th Century monks to meeting its best-known-partner, tonic, in 17th Century Peru to become the imperial cocktail. And admittedly it takes audiences to some surprising, somewhat disturbing places, especially in Wood’s reinvention of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ to describe in explicit detail the effects of malaria from mosquito bite to all sorts of emerging, unspeakable symptoms.

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One of joys of cabaret is often hearing long-forgotten favourite songs revitalised. The Pretenders’ haunting, melodic ballad ‘Hymn to Her’ is a lovely inclusion in this regard, sung a cappella, in elegy for women who have suffered, gloriously enhanced by the team’s vocal talents and beautifully melded harmonies. And Amy Winehouse’s ‘You Know I’m No Good’ is another early highlight.

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While Brennan provides honky-tonk piano accompaniment to many numbers, it is Billy Joel’s signature ‘Piano Man’ singalong that encourages the most organic of enjoyment. There is other audience interaction too, but it’s all part of the fun of a cheeky show that doesn’t take itself too seriously, despite leading audiences on a ‘wild ride’ through topics such as government control and sexist propaganda.

This feel-good appeal comes courtesy of the performers’ ease with the audience and each other, and also through its attention to the smallest facet of cocktail shaker maracas and the detailed set of an arrangement of assorted gin bottles.  Such aspects see it serve not just as a salute to gin, but to cabaret too as an art form in all its anti-homogeneous glory. Indeed, “Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin” proves that just like the perfect G and T, a great cabaret just needs the right ingredients – a distinctive concept, obvious talent and engaging stage presence to give people an enjoyable festival experience, even if the show includes its own special brand of ‘malarial burlesque’.

Photos of earlier seasons c/o – Anna Kucera and Jamie James

Double bill buddies

Fag/Stag and Bali (The Last Great Hunt)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 11 – 15

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According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, the term fag stag describes a heterosexual man who socialises with homosexual men. It’s an appropriate, provocative title for a theatre work that is uncompromisingly honest in its exploration of contemporary masculinity and what it means to have a best mate. “Fag/Stag” shares the story of heading-towards-30 best friends Jimmy and Corgan whose lives are filled with a mix of Tinder, Grindr, binge-drinking and half-hearted hook-ups. It’s companion piece, “Bali” similarly sees the boys (because that’s how their privilege positions their behaviour) on a whirlwind typical Bali booze-up of a trip, to join Corgan’s affluent mother in celebration of her 60th birthday.

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The unassuming double bill from Perth’s The Last Great Hunt is written and performed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs. Isaacs is the spoiled Corgan, pining over the loss of his ex-girlfriend in light of her looming wedding day, while Fowler is Jimmy, angst-filled and insecure about everything. (But their anxieties don’t stop there.) They have long been each other’s wingman; theirs is a friendship they have never questioned, assuming it will always stand the test of time, despite their differing emotional intelligences.

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Together they play Donkey Kong and share stories of hook-ups, without ever really talking; as Jimmy notes after breakup with his boyfriend, when attempting to turn to Corgan, “straight men can’t deal with feelings”. This is both the genius and joy of the works, especially “Fag/Stag”, as the characters tell the same stories from their own points of view. And this is literally the shows’ format – the two sit on stools and tell their tales. The result is thoroughly engaging and entertaining as the audience both appreciates and assesses what the unreliable narrators are reporting and what the truth in the middle of both of their perspectives might really be, switching empathy between the characters, such is the skill of the performers.

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The simplicity of the fast-paced productions and sharpness of their witty scripts are certainly assets that emphasise the skill of the performers, who serve as natural and engaging narrators. And when they finally look at each other rather than us, it with palpable poignancy that has us fearful that their relationship may not survive. There are actually many surprisingly tender moments, in both pieces, particularly when they each speak of their parents and realisation of their apparently sudden aging. It’s not all melancholic though; each hour-long show is filled with funny moments, mostly in recalled storytelling but also in a joyful “Dirty Dancing” dance number (sans lift). There is also apparent truth at the core of the stories, particularly in relation to big themes of toxic masculinity and homophobia, which give “Fag/Stag”, in particular, substance beyond easy laughs, especially in its climax, which sees the boys fallout after Corgan denigrates Jimmy’s sexuality, which is not overplayed to the point of demonisation.

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“Bali” has its drama too, especially for us, when Fowler breaks character to address the ongoing bad behaviour of a group of talkative and disruptive audience members (#whatiswrongwithpeople?). Regardless, however, “Fag Stag” is what establishes itself as dynamic, compelling theatre and comparatively, while it is still of worth, “Bali” seems to be an unnecessary and less engaging outing.