More Minchin

Back (Tim Minchin)

QPAC, Concert Hall

April 9 – 12

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Tim Minchin’s new show “Back” begins suddenly with the internationally acclaimed Australian composer and musician appearing almost out of nowhere, spotlit in his seat at the centre-stage piano. A fumble at the beginning of one of his newer songs forces a restart so we get to see his (re)entrance after all. It is actually quite an apt beginning, indicative of the show’s organic, bespoke feel.

The responsible song is the metaphoric and meaningful ‘If This Plane Goes Down’, (“remember me as someone who cared, often, but not always, about his hair, self-righteous when shit wasn’t fair.”) Its sentiment is a theme that appears a number of times throughout the show, such as in the haunting ‘I’ll take lonely tonight’. As the show’s tag line of ‘Old songs, new songs, f*** you songs’ attests, the set list features a lot of retrospective focus, going back even so far as Minchin’s complicated beat poem ‘Mitsubishi Colt’ set to impressive improvised jazzy piano accompaniment.

All numbers of course showcase his penchant for puns and interesting deft phrase rhymes of the Cole Porter sort, only with swearing in their rhyming couplets. It is accurate assumption too that “Back” is polemical in its Ted Talk style touch on controversial issues of religion et al. While he talks of confirmation bias, increased tribalisation and the hypocrisy of assumed religious indemnity, ‘Come Home (Cardinal Pell)’ does not feature. ‘Pope’ and ‘Thank You God’ (“for fixing the cataracts of Sam’s Mum”) do, however, and are as wonderfully jaunty as ever, especially ‘Thank You God’, which features as an early show highlight in its lyrical avalanche of mockery of how prayer might mobilise religious response from an omnipotent ophthalmologist god.

“Back” is a mixed but still balanced bag of a musical experiences and laughs aplenty, full of sharp turns that take us from talk of George Pell to Minchin’s epic rock song opera ode to cheese and then the lovely ‘Leaving L.A.’ ‘Rock N Roll Nerd’ features a marvellous musical reveal that is worth the price of admission alone and things only soar higher from there. The absence of ‘Dark Side’ is disappointing, with encore instead featuring songs from his ill-fated Broadway musical adaptation “Goundhog Day” and also “Matilda”, for which he wrote the music and lyrics.

With an all-star band (including The Whitlams’ Jak Housden) in support, familiar songs like ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ are given a new, and in this case, sexy feel. Minchin himself is as skilled as even on piano, as is showcased in numbers like ‘Prejudice’ and from the opening song his voice is a smooth as ever in that ‘White Wine in the Sun’ sort of sentimental way, making us especially thankful for the Concert Hall’s impressive acoustics. Ever-talented, he takes to the guitar too in the closing anti-American anthem ‘Fuck’, another highlight in its hyper-real realisation.

“Back” tickets may set audience members back some decent coin, but they are worth every cent in every regard, even down to detail of lighting which enhances the little moments of songs as much as it awashes the stage with narratively-theme colours. But above everything else, after a seven-year stage absence it is just marvellous to see the multi-talented musical comedy genius touring our stages again. While his talk of his admittedly now rich white man privilege is tongue-in-cheek, there is an honesty too in his reflection about what has brought him home to Australia.

“I’m not saying I’m Jesus” Tim tells us in the lyrics of ‘Woody Allen Jesus’, despite his bare feet, long hair and bearded appearance, but he is a god of musical comedy cabaret and without doubt he is well and truly back. And given that his one sold out Brisbane show immediately morphed into a four night run, it seems audiences are excited by the prospect.

The joy of the show is infectious; for over two high energy hours (without intermission), Minchin is pure entertainer, jumping about the stage, squatting at his piano and posing atop it in his trademark bare feet, yet it feels like the shortest time. Indeed, while each evening may deliver a unique experience, it is sure to be an entertaining one…. Maybe less so for those unknowing audience members who were overhead after-show expressing their surprise at the ‘interesting’ religious focus of his repertoire, but from the standing ovation at show’s end, it seems they are in the minority.

Matilda magic

Matilda The Musical (Royal Shakespeare Company)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 25 – February 12

“Matilda” is why we love musical theatre. It’s the type of production that stays with you so long after your first experience that you grieve for that moment a little in subsequent acquaintances with the text. As soon as you enter the theatre, Rob Howell’s set design strikes you with its wonder, filling the stage and proscenium with an overflow of coloured Scrabble-like letter squares. Not just through staging, however, “Matilda the Musical” is an uplifting experience in every possible way. The winner of five Tony Awards and overseas hit, may have retained some of its English sensibilities with mentions of treacle and trousers, but the Australian production is much less panto-esque than its West End counterpart, which, despite the Christmas-holiday timing of its Brisbane run, is a good thing.

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Matilda Wormwood (played by Venice Harris on opening night) is a miracle child – a prodigy who read Dickens and Dostoyevsky, much to the chagrin of her self-centred parents. Only her teacher Miss Honey (Elise McCann) appreciates Matilda’s uniqueness. Unfortunately, her kindness is subverted by the school’s horrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (James Millar), a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion, who regards children as maggots to be ruled with iron-fisted punishment.

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As means of escape, Matilda evokes her own stories, including a fantastical tale that takes the role of story-within-the-story ‘The Acrobat and the Escapologist’, which she shares in snippets with the school’s enraptured librarian Mrs Phelps (an engaging Cle Morgan). While Peter Darling’s vibrant choreography is infectiously endearing, even the carnival-eque mime and shadow puppetry portrayal of Matilda’s ‘The Acrobat and the Escapologist’ story cannot save its distraction for the primary (and original Roald Dahl) narrative.

Even though it contains all the necessary musical elements, including refrains to earworm songs into your mindset long after the curtain comes down, the show’s songs don’t move the story along so much as offer emotional connection. And they certainly rise to this occasion. Act One’s ‘School Song’ is a highlight in its synergy of all the show’s creative aspects, as glowing alphabet letters emerge from the gates as children head to Crunchem Hall Primary School. And when the show’s ‘adult’ children soar on swings above audience heads singing ‘When I Grow Up’ early in Act Two, it projects a simplicity that captures the show’s essential spirit. It is a wonderful moment too in the way it unites the child and adult performers singing in harmony.

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Adults and children alike are perfectly polished in their performances. There is a delicacy to many of the characterisations thanks to adult performers who have honed their comic timing and delivery. As Matilda’s dismissive parents, more into looks than books, Nadia Komazec and Daniel Frederiksen are fabulously exaggerated. And Travis Khan is sensationally over-the-top when ‘in the zone’ as Rudolpho, Mrs Wormwood’s ‘part-Italian’ competitive dance partner.

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Millar is equal parts funny and fearful as the imposing Miss Turchbell, towering over everyone on stage. His relish of the spiteful, spirited character is of the traditional panto sort, bringing a great amount of glee to the children of the audience in particular, who delight as every attempted prank against the oppressive headmistress is enacted. And McCann is wonderful as the peachy Miss Honey, fragile as a character who has also suffered, yet robust in voice, particularly in stirring delivery of the touching ballad ‘My Home’.

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The dynamic energy of the show’s child performers is what impresses the most, especially given its ultimate display in the final ‘Revolting Children’ celebration of successful rebellion against the tyrannical Trunchbull, which Exodus Lale absolutely owns. Similarly, as naughty Nigel, Alfie Jamieson steals many scenes. On opening night, Venice Harris makes for a memorable Matilda, cheeky (#inagoodway) as she speaks up with ‘that’s not right’. Her commitment to the weighty role (that she shares with Izellah Connelly, Annabella Cowley and Eva Murawski) is absolute, even through the wild standing ovation that follows her performance.

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This is, however, composer/lyricist Tim Minchin’s show and his unforgettable melodies and his wicked lyrical wit are what raise it to the heights of the modern musical cannon. And as if his appearance on the red carpet for Brisbane’s opening night is not enough, to see him in a special curtain call with the standby cast, makes an already magical experience just that little more special.

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“Matilda The Musical” is full of fun and wicked charm, balanced with moments of melancholy and pathos in which you could ‘hear a flea burp’. Its ode to the power of story is so central to the wonder at the core of childhood experience that it cannot be anything but glorious, for children and adults alike. Rarely do shows live up the hype in such entirety, but in this case, it experience is so complete in its magic that whether you are new to the show or a repeat audience member, you cannot leave without a face full of smile and a heart full of feels.

The magic of Matilda

Matilda The Musical

Cambridge Theatre, London

From November 24, 2011

I know it is perhaps sacrilegious of me as both English teacher and former child, but I’ve never be a huge “Matilda” fan. Even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musical’s magical spectacle. From first glimpse of the Cambridge Theatre’s stage, the impressive set is apparent, setting the scene for the story’s fantastical world.

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The scale is both impressive and compelling as it brings to life Roald Dahl story illustrations and inventively provides a platform for players’ interactions. Everything is boxes and squares and books, with pieces seamlessly gliding into place to enable constant action. The choreography is energetic and incredibly precise, such as in ‘School Song’ when the cast add blocks to the set, which are climbed on in time to the corresponding words in the lyrics. Costumes also add to the fun and colour, creating picture book realisations that suit the storytelling style. Indeed, this is a colourful and cartoonish show, guaranteed to engage children and adults alike with its message that everybody needs to be a little bit naughty sometimes.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production is, basically, a timeless morality play of a feisty and intelligent (she reads everything from Dickens to Dostoevsky) young girl, Matilda Wormwood, who overcomes monstrous, negligent parents and a tyrannical head teacher through her rebellion, leadership and supernatural telekinetic and psychic powers. She does so with support from her lovely (but tragic) teacher Miss Honey (Haley Flaherty). Matilda escapes the reality of her world by telling stories and it is in these segments that the show drags, for sometimes too much is just too much.

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Performances are appropriately panto-esque, with over-the-top characterisation and dramatic moments. Indeed, the physical humour from the bitter and abusive Headmistress Miss Trunchball (Craige Els) serves as a particular highlight. Revolting as they might be, the children of the cast sure can sing. But as the titular Matilda, Lottie Sicilia is a little more gangster than genius, precociously outspoken, rather than the sensible and quiet girl of the novel.

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Regardless, I was there for the Minchin. And his distinctive irreverent whimsy is certainly evident in the tunes. Yet, apart from the lingering sentimentality of ‘When I Grow Up’, which is delightfully performed from a set of swings, there are no standout melodies. Ultimately, however, this is a show about story. Matilda survives through her stories and words clearly dominate (and not just from the set’s brightly coloured letter blocks). And if it serves to welcome children to either the worlds of theatre or reading, then it is, indeed, wonderful.

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Stage door success

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Nothing can top off a great night of theatre than the joy of meeting a star at the Stage Door. Of course it depends on if the theatre has an accessible Stage Door, encourages Stage Door stopping and if stars want to stop.  Sometimes, however, the stars align and you get the opportunity to personally congratulate an actor on their performance. Such was the case after Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” earlier this week, when Tim Minchin stopped for a chat, autograph and photos. Indeed, it was a show of unpretentious generosity to two fans and proof that good things can come to those who wait.

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Long Live Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Sydney Theatre Company)

Sydney Theatre

August 6 – September 7

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There are many reasons why “Hamlet” can justifiably be decreed as one of the greatest plays of all time. Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the young Danish prince holds an enduring appeal; the play provides incisive insights into life and the human experience. But there is comedy as well as contemplation. The way Hamlet mocks Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius by feigning lunacy, for example, is jocular.

But who exactly are these “Hamlet” bit-players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  This is exactly what Tom Stoppard’s “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” sets out to explore. And it is a superb premise for a very funny drama of confusion and word play, bringing together Tim Minchin and Toby Shmitz in a Sydney Theatre Company coup.

It is inspired casting. Schmitz is commanding in the role of Guildenstern, giving an outstanding performance of philosophical reflection with Jack Sparrowesque appeal, while Minchin’s innocent, naïve silliness as Rozencrantz charmingly presents the other side of the coin. Their camaraderie creates a clear connection and together they work wonderfully to perfectly present pun and pathos alike. This is especially evident in the scenes that see the characters playing a verbal tennis game where they lob questions at each other in an attempt to find order in the chaos. Words of wit and default wisdom tumble delightfully in a rhythmic cavalcade of double entredres, allusions and puns for the audience’s lingering consideration beyond the play’s poignant conclusion.

The protagonists have little memory, no understanding of what they are doing and a concern that life is pre-determined (aka scripted). They exist merely as accessories to another narrative, characters who pop in, do their bit and disappear again. What happens to them between scenes? As the gravediggers struggle to realise identity and purpose in a world that makes little sense, the play balances between absurdist theatre and slapstick humour in a manner that can be enjoyed by anybody and appreciated by “Hamlet” enthusiasts. This is complemented by the production’s bold staging. The set design is minimalist and post-modern, but incredibly interesting, using a steeply sloped stage and a series of tunnels into the wings through which “Hamlet” players enter and exit, which conveys the feel of being stuck in a piece of existential art.

“Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is a genius play as it builds upon the “Hamlet” concept of a play within a play by presenting a play on the periphery of a play (fragments of the actual action of “Hamlet” taking place in the background). Indeed, it is conceptual, verbose and quick-witted, resulting in captivating chaos, challenge and ultimately poignancy of the most entertaining order.