‘Ella anew

Cinderella (Myths Made Here)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

April 26 – May 5

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Myths Made Here’s “Cinderella” is not about princes, princesses or even a step-sibling, but it does feature a lost shoe as result of our protagonist single, late 30s woman Ashleigh’s (Amy Ingram) startle at seeing the approach of an internet date. Ashleigh is certainly not your typical fairy tale heroine; she’s a bit of a klutz, though not in a neurotic Bridget Jones type way, but she has a unique charm. She’s a little insecure, sure, but also organised with band-aids in her purse and tissues up her sleeve… a real-world representation of one guise of a modern woman.

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From its initial disaster, the evening of her intended date unfolds, after a stranger (Thomas Larkin) chases her to reunite her with her abandoned footwear. And so, as audience members, we voyeur their night together from first encounter through dinner and afterwards until the couple retreat back to her place for a romantic entanglement. Initially this makes for an unhurried narrative as the ultimately likeable characters navigate the awkward banter of favourite movies and dreaded dream recollections. Through the little looks and slight movements of their hesitations, we laugh both with and at them. Indeed, in this regard, things are not overplayed, but rather realised to their full, uncomfortable potential; while Larkin plays smitten moments to coy perfection, Ingram uses every aspect of physicality to show the anxious insecurity of her character’s second guess of herself and her potential new beau’s motivations.

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Playwright Matthew Whittet gives us a very funny but real one act first date in all of its affectionate awkwardness, but also poignancy too as the inevitable midnight comes around. Certainly by showing rather than telling so much of its story, it presents as a story that is intimate and individual, but also universally relevant in its contemporary considerations, for this is Cinderella anew complete with themes of love, loneliness, loss and social anxiety.

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The 70-minute romantic comedy is dynamic from start to finish, as is so often the case in Daniel Evans directed works, making clever employment of a revisit soundtrack of pop classics, vibrant lighting and smart use of its boxed stage space. While, as a two-hander, “Cinderella” may be more intimate than Evans’ other works, it is still entertaining and enjoyable, in a quirkily quaint way, with its talented two performers keeping the audience engaged for the duration of their evening’s emotional journey.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Monumental Miller

Death of a Salesman (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 9 – March 2

Rightfully regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of Salesman” is an unquestionable classic of the theatre, largely due to its enduring resonance, and Queensland Theatre’s production of the mammoth work leaves audiences with little doubt as to why the play remains so beloved, even 70 years (to the week) after it was first performed on Broadway.

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“Death of a Salesman” comes with all the ingredients of a great tragedy. Its narrative follows 63-year-old salesman Willy Loman (Peter Kowitz) as he struggles to accept his failures and wrong dreams. In his earlier life he experienced some level of success, but now he is a broken man, both professionally and personally, plagued by memories of missed opportunities. Long gone are the days of his sons Biff (Thomas Larkin) and Happy’s (Jackson McGovern) hero worship and shared sniggers at the book-smart neighbour boy Bernard (Ilai Swindells) and his knowledgeable and successful father Charley (Charles Allen). Instead, Willy’s twilight-years reality has become one of scheming towards redemption, while relying on Charley’s generosity to only-just survive, but never succeed. It is an unforgiving existence in which Willy also refuses to relinquish his dreams for this eldest son, despite Biff’s rejection.

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There is a lot of pathos to the story’s exploration of big human-nature themes such as pride, guilt and hope and it is very dialogue-heavy in its apparent exploration of Henry David Thoreau’s succinct observation that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Arthur Miller’s script has, at its core, a sensitive craftedness infused with imagery, allegory, multi-level titular meaning and the symbolism of planting seeds to thrive as a legacy.

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The last time I saw this play it was in a cosy Greenside theatre on Royale Terrace at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was an appropriately intimate experience of a traditional work of realism. While Queensland Theatre have set the story where it should be in the late 1940s time of hats and handkerchiefs as business attire, the realisation is far from one of conventional realism, which works wonders in bleeding Willy’s time into itself.

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The story’s time and place setting is seen in props, costumes and character accents that inhabit Set Designer Richard Roberts’ deconstructed doll-house staging. World class production values bring multifaceted flashbacks and reminiscences to realisation, as for Willy the past is alive. The flashbacks not only provide psychological insight into his character, but add interest as Willy retreats into idyllic family memories and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (Kevin Hides).

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Verity Hampson’s lighting design takes the audience through transitions of the everyday and into memories in emphasis of the gap between myth and reality. Indeed, perfectly executed lighting transitions transform scenes from sepia-toned of-the-time settings to stylised flashbacks behind multi-use scrim screens. Justin Harrison’s soundscape is also quite superb, whether as subtle suburban street sounds or to signpost the assault of a vivid flashback. Even intermission music is of the era, reflecting the attention to detail that is at the core of this show’s success.

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The cast is uniformly excellent as the story’s almost-all flawed characters. The success of any production of “Death of a Salesman” depends ultimately on the portrayal of its lone man protagonist, battling for purpose and recognition and Kowitz is outstanding as the titular merchant, whether full of false pride and delusion, boastfully bravadoing to his boys or submissively stooping towards his mental and emotional decline. It is a slow-burning performance, not pitiful, as it could easily have been, but poignantly honest and therefore emotionally engaging.

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But Willy’s is not the only hero’s journey being examined. Larkin brings a layered sensitivity to the challenging role of Biff, a man with his own yearning to overcome his adversity and live on the land in opposition to his father’s expectations that be also become a businessman. However, the most powerful performance is probably that of Angie Milliken as Linda Lomen, Willy’s emotionally-supportive but worn-down wife, trying desperately to at-once understand and help her doomed husband. Her resolute monologue defense of her husband’s character to their children is moving enough to hold the entire absorbed Playhouse Theatre audience in her grasp. Despite such dramatic moments, however, the production is not all dourness as suggested by its title, with some light moments and comedy serving to alleviate sombre scenes.

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As the company’s Artistic Director Sam Strong notes in the show’s program notes, “Death of a Salesman” speaks across time to the love and lies at the centre of families. And this character universality is at the core of the success of this production. While there is criticism of American capitalism evident, its currency comes more from its every-man human themes of triumphs and disappointments. It is a long show, as classics often are, but this is because it has so much to say, beyond just its portrait of the promise of ‘the west’ and the Great American Dream that appears in so many of its culture’s literary classics.

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Just as Willy believes that success is defined by money and reputation (“the only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell,” “be liked and you will never want”, he says), the currency of likeability and stories of self-promotion that form the fabric of his life represent the essence of people’s modern online selves, meaning that in 2019, as much as ever, the play still has much to say about the idea of self-perception. Yet while this theme offers resonance it doesn’t overwhelm the play’s essential story. Jason Klarwein’s direction is one of command, but also restraint, in not trying to force the play to be something it is not. And so, its celebration of the old style magic of theatre makes this monumental first installment in the company’s Season of Dreamers, one to which attention must be paid.

From forgiveness

I Just Came to Say Goodbye (The Good Room)

Theatre Republic, The Block

September 13 – 23

plane.jpgLike their earlier shows, “I Should Have Drunk More Champagne” and “I Want to Know What Love Is”, The Good Room’s “I Just Came to Say Goodbye” is derived from a deceptively simple premise; shared, anonymous submissions of fragments and memories, confessions and admissions, become the basis of the script. This time it is forgiveness and regret, with the true contributions of forgiveness yearned, earned and unfortunately absent, filing the spaces between tell of a bigger real-life story from recent history. And this is where the show’s strength lies… its basis in truth, even if it is initially diluted by a superfluously long dance sequence by an ensemble of stagehands. Although it is to establish that we are all on a flight together, it’s more dodgy than dynamic and a foil to the force of the story that follows, though that is probably the point.

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When, in 2002, two planes collided over Germany due to human (air traffic controller) error, Vitaly Kaloyeu lost his wife and two children amongst the killed passengers. It is this tragic story upon which the work hangs, leading to an extreme aesthetic experience of full black out, terrifying crash sound blasts and brutal lighting courtesy of Composer/Sound Designer Dane Alexander and Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright.

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Things are fast and furious with an apocalyptic sensibility, but also, at times, tender in heartfelt vulnerability and visually quite stunning as, through share of the anonymous contributions, the audience is sucker-punched with an array of emotions in scenes of anger, intimacy, humour and tragedy, from heavy-duty stories of assault and aids infection to more lighthearted tells of school dance disagreements and karaoke song theft.

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The ensemble cast appropriates every opportunity for connection from the material. Amy Ingram’s forthright delivery of details of the DHL cargo plane and Russian passenger jet collision allows the audience to bring their own emotion to its story. In contrast, Caroline Dunphy is tender in her description of the before and after of the crash site, but powerful too in her share of people’s sometimes shocking contributions. Thomas Larkin and Michael Tuahine bring a dynamic energy to the ensemble’s physical scenes, especially a spectacular, complex fight experience (choreographed by Justin Palazzo-Orr).

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In Director Daniel Evans’ hands, “I Just Came to Say Goodbye” avalanches the audience in sound, lighting and emotion, with a pumping soundtrack to boot. Some moments lag a little indulgently, but when it is at its ferocious best, it is a beast of a show that deserves experience more than just read of its description. As is often the case with the best theatrical events its craftedness is only really appreciated upon reflection of its heartening final, positive message about the power that can come from forgiveness and the importance of finding ways to move forward.

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The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Brotherly brilliance

True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box)

Brisbane Powerhouse

August 17 – 28

Often I judge a show’s engagement by how long it is into its duration before I am tempted to check the time. By this criteria (and in fact by any gauge), “True West” is brilliant, so searing as to only warrant a watch look in hope that it might not be over quite so soon.

It begins with Ivy-league educated Austin (Julian Curtis), a respectable professional working as a Hollywood screenwriter on a movie project and minding his mother’s house in California during her trip to Alaska. His intentions are soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his anti-social brother, Lee (Thomas Larkin), a petty-thief fresh from three months living the desert. As the contrasting civilised and savage men, the two represent opposite sides of the American Dream, but share in desperation to escape the story of their unseen, alcoholic father.

Seedy drifter Lee burgles houses for a living, living rough out of necessity. Grubby in attire, he either cannot interpret or is ambivalent towards social cues and expectations, showing his short temper through eruptions of violence that shock the audience on more than one occasion. When he mocks the material comfort of neat houses and manicured lawns, however, it is clear that this normality is what he desires. In fact, the brothers each crave the other’s life, however, when it seems like this may be happening as Lee seals a deal to sell a cliché-clad movie premise of his own to Producer Saul (Charles Allen), the reality is different from the desire. And when the tables are turned (literally) the result is the controlled chaos of a mesmerisingly messy, physical show as the good boy and outlaw face off in the story of whose story it’s going to be.

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Playwright Sam Shepherd is known for his creation of complex and real characters and this is certainly seen in this production. You can feel the tension between the two leads from the strained interaction of the introductory minutes as the disparity of the opportunities afford to them growing up becomes clear. The on-stage exploration of the consequential emotions makes for a searing study that is both gritty and often very funny, moving smoothly from humour to pathos in an instance. The writing is superb, and, in Director Marcel Dorney’s hands its dialogue is allowed to tumble naturally over itself in contribution to its vigorous pace, while still maintaining the strain of the brothers’ estranged relationship. The juxtaposition is simply spellbinding to watch.

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This is a play of epic roles and Curtis and Larkin exploit them for all that they are worth. Larkin is excellent as he inhabits the arrogance of the deliberately-guarded but brutal Lee, from his slouched-shouldered stance to his aggressive walk and intimidating demeanour. His performance is layered beyond just the character’s physicality too, enabling the audience hint at a suspected secret respect for his comparatively successful brother. Particularly in Act One his presence is a force that can only be appreciated through experience in person, shrinking the audience to eye-contact avoidance as he speaks.

While much of Act One sees Austin seething silently in reaction to his brother’s emerging opportunist success, his Act Two drunkenness is riotously funny, especially when he returns with the spoils of Lee’s dare that he could not steal as successfully as him. There are many possibilities for physical humour within this section of the show and Curtis doesn’t miss any of them. Solid in support is Allen as lounge-suited smick Hollywood producer Saul and Christen O’Leary as the boys’ out of touch mother, returning home to their hostilities in the final scene.

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There is nothing to fault in this production. Even the music accompanying scene transitions is in keeping with the Western motif. Designer Genevieve Ganner’s staging sets the scene of a naturalistic but dated living room setting, complete with ‘70s laminex, which is basked in an overall, warm lighting glow. Lighting (c/o designer Jason Glenwright) also creates intimacy in enveloping a rare tender sibling interaction as Austin shares the story of how their father lost his false teeth in a Mexican bar.

“True West” is an absolutely engaging exploration of life and family. But there is much more to its themes that its sibling narrative. And as the brothers smash about, it is the destruction of their dreams that resonates more beautifully than their mess onstage. At once funny and deeply unsettling, it is an experience sure to stay with audiences long after leaving in knowledge that they have witnessed what is sure to be one of the best works to hit the Brisbane stage this year.

Wider Earth Wonder

The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 9 – August 7

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“The Wider Earth” shares the adventure story of a gentleman botanist on a grand and ambitious adventure. It is a tale we might think we know as it imagines 22-year-old Charles Darwin’s trip on the H.M.S. Beagle’s maiden voyage around the world to survey and primarily chart the coastline of South America. During the trip Darwin recorded many findings and collected a variety of specimens in discovery of evidence leading to his theory of natural selection in a time of religious-reigned science, making him memoir it as being the most important event in his life and determinate of his entire career.

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It is a remarkable tale of forests, oceans and volcanoes told in flashback recollection to his love Emma Wedgwood (Lauren Jackson) and in the hands of Dead Puppet Society, the result is faultless theatre, including a suite of over 20 astonishing animal puppets, great and small, from tiny beetles to a mighty whale.

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Unlike last year’s “Argus”, the animals do not appear in every scene, however, they play integral roles in the narrative, lending themselves so easily to the story given the number of places around the world that the voyage visited.

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From the curious creatures of the Galapagos to a personality-filled companion beagle, Polly, each one is authentic in behaviour and movement. All actors also serve as occasional puppeteers, such as when the stage is besieged by butterflies in the Amazon, a beautiful scene that belies the calamity to follow.

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This is an intimate yet epic production, deceptively simple in its staging. A rotating wooden structure gives versatile shape to hills, houses and also the ship deck, cabin and rowboat.This is supported by a wide panoramic backdrop screen onto which is projected the visuals commissioned of Brisbane artist Anna Straker and filmmaker Justin Harris. Always in motion with various landscapes, it works with narration of an older, reflective Darwin voice-over to support the story and transport audiences to locations like the Andes and the Amazon, and also with lighting to transition mood to conflict, representing the most exquisite visual imagery. Magical music also supports the visual storytelling, enchanting in its original score by acclaimed, ARIA-award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Lior and producer Tony Buchen.

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Under David Morton’s superb direction, every aspect of “The Wider Earth” is perfection. Cast members are all strong. As the young Darwin, Tom Conroy is an engaging protagonist, taking the audience from youthful curiosity to eloquent defence of his emerging philosophy in wonder of the wider earth. Anthony Standish is a powerful, hot-tempered Captain Robert Fitzroy, with whom Darwin clashes. And Thomas Larkin makes for an imposing first mate and friend to Darwin as the Scotsman John Wickham, later first magistrate of Moreton Bay, after which Brisbane’s Wickham Street is named.

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“The Wider Earth” is Dead Puppet’s Society’s biggest production to-date, three years in the making and it is an ambition magnificently realised. Indeed, the production is a gentle balance between the comfort of a familiar classic and the challenge of a cutting-edge work, providing a refreshing take on a story audiences assume to know. Its subtle presentation of the theme of evolution is thought-provoking rather than dogmatic, serving to inspire further independent reading and research as to the scientific luminary’s visionary ideas and life’s work. This is storytelling at its most charming, demanding of audience attention and absorption to the point of becoming lost in the story animal world… everything that theatre should be… making it one of Brisbane’s most definitive theatrical pieces of recent years.