Ambiguity’s absorption

Blackrock (La Boite Theatre Company and QUT Creative Industries)

La Boite Theatre Company, Roundhouse Theatre

July 22 – August 12

Since premiering in 1995, Nick Enright’s “Blackrock” has found a place in both the Australian drama canon and on high school drama syllabuses nationwide. And, 20 years after its first presentation of the play, La Boite Theatre Company’s 2017 production shows just how sadly still relevant its social themes of mateship, misogyny and violence are.

La Boite Theatre Company's Blackrock. Pictured Karl Stuifzand, Bianca Saul, Ryan Hodson. Image by Dylan Evans.jpg

From the show’s opening scene, the production explodes with energy as teens in the (fictional) Australian beachside working-class suburb of Blackrock welcome home the prodigal, dangerous, local surfing legend Ricko (Karl Stuifzand). After an unsupervised beach party soon afterwards, 15-year-old Tracy Warner is found dead, raped by three boys, her head bashed in with a rock. Having seen the incident and done nothing, proverbial good bloke Jared (Ryan Hodson) is filled with guilt yet remains silent, which leads to the breakdown of his relationships with both his girlfriend Rachel (Jessica Potts) and his mother Diane (Christen O’Leary). Events are made even more shocking by knowledge of the narrative’s origins, based as it is on the real-life rape and murder of a 14-year-old Newcastle girl, Leigh Leigh which occurred during teenage birthday party celebrations at Stockton Surf Club in November 1989.

La Boite Theatre Company's Blackrock. Pictured Ryan Hodson, Karl Stuifzand, Tom Wilson. Image by Dylan Evans.jpg

In a unique collaboration between La Boite and QUT Creative Industries, the play presents the impact of a violent crime on a close-knit community as an engrossing and moving experience thanks to powerful performances from a talented cast of established actors and QUT near-graduates alike. The script is action packed in its initial scenes as the talented cast brings Enright’s characters to vivid life, even if the deliberate colloquial language of g-dropping initially jars in its over-emphasis.

La Boite Theatre Company's Blackrock. Pictured Jessica Potts, Ryan Hodson. Image by Dylan Evans.jpg

Powerful performances from across the large cast make for a moving experience of a story in which everyone is a victim, with the third year QUT actors allows for fresh audience responses. Thomas Cossettini gives a considered performance as Toby, torn in his determination of the difference between a friend and a mate. So too, as the victim’s friend Cherie, Ebony Nave shows compassion and emotion, especially in an initial, absorbing monologue. And Christen O’Leary and Amy Ingram show their experience as Toby’s fraught mother Diane and Cherie’s well-meaning, bordering on overbearing, mother Glenys.

La Boite Theatre Company's Blackrock. Pictured Christen O'Leary, Amy Ingram. Image by Dylan Evans.jpg

Given its morally-ambiguous and thus compelling story, “Blackrock” is a demanding play to present and Director Todd Macdonald meets the challenge by giving the work plenty of pace. Transitions are swift and effective, and digital projections add much to the initial party atmosphere, however, while staging some scenes upon a raised wooden platform works well for those seated high in the theatre-in-the-round stalls, at other times it compromises vision and thus detracts from immersion in the play’s moments.

Sadly, twenty years after “Blackrock” was first published, its themes remain relevant, cementing its worth as a modern Australian classic, as shocking, emotional and confronting as ever and not in need to overt attempts to emphasise relevance with incorporation of deliberate Queensland references. In its exploration of the impact of the story’s brutal crime on a small community and, in particular, on the only witness as he wrestles with his conscience and the laws of loyalty considered sacred among male teenagers, the show offers audiences a gripping theatrical experience but also much to talk about afterwards regarding youth culture, cyclical violence, peer pressure and the objectification of women.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

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Streetcar satisfaction

A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 15 – November 12

Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an epic work. With the addition of musical accompaniment and interludes, La Boite’s version of the classic pushes out to almost three hours, which becomes a big ask as Act One languishes towards its 90 minute conclusion. Although it competes with opening scene dialogue, the music (featuring vocals by Crystal West) adds to the sultry atmosphere of Louisiana featuring as it does original songs composed by Guy Webster, mixed with more well-known numbers, such as (like in the 2014 London revival) a perfectly placed ‘Wicked Game’…. But it seems like an unnecessary addition to a work that already sizzles with laden dialogue and a tension-filled Act Two in which its performances ultimately prevail in ensuring audience absorption.

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The Pultizer Prize winning story begins with the unannounced arrival of faded and damaged but well-put-together southern belle Blanche Du Boise (Bridie Carter) from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella (Ngoc Phan) and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley (Travis McMahon) in their claustrophobic two bedroom New Orleans flat. Uncomfortable in the surrounds of her sister’s low-rent address, delicately-mannered English teacher Blanche talks feverishly, self-obsessively and insensitively about Stella’s circumstance. ‘I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it!’ she says, along with explanation that she has left her employment mid-term, at the suggestion of her school superintendent, due to exhaustion induced by her nerves. From the outset, however, Stanley suspects that there is more to Blanche’s story and sets upon a quest to cruelly expose her genteel façade.

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The sense of a stifling New Orleans abounds. The raked stage is canvas to the rhythmic shadow of a languidly rotating ceiling fan and Guy Webster’s sound design regularly sends streetcars clattering past, even during intermission, which is a nice touch. Ben Hughes’ lighting design adds an initial warm to the two basic rooms of the Kowalski home, but also later lyricism to Blanche’s dreamy-blue, attempted seduction of an uncomfortable young man who comes to the door to collect money for the paper, turning the text’s evocative stage directions into a distinct experience.

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All of this play’s iconic characters have their flaws and the diverse, talented cast brings them all to well-formed life, even down to their distinctly Southern accents, thanks to accent and dialect coach Melissa Agnew. La Boite newcomer Phan is excellent as a Stella torn between her diametrically opposed husband and sister, but ultimately in love an loyal to Stanley and his coarse behaviour. And her anguish in the final scenes is heartbreaking.

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Self-delusional and highly-strung Blanche is one of the great tragic figures of the modern stage and Carter certainly does her justice in a portrayal that captures both her breezy pretension and desperate loneliness and hurt. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, this increasingly unkept Blanche is both fragile creature and feisty fighter, and Carter conveys each layer perfectly, especially in her doomed monologue to sensitive suitor Mitch (Colin Smith) about her desperate desire for magic.

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McMahon brings a rough primitivism to the (by his own admission) unrefined, simple and straightforward Stanley, both in his rowdy poker game participation and by bellowing ‘Stella’ into the night after striking his wife and causing her to flee upstairs to apartment building owner Eunice (Parmis Rose). Although initially more bogan than brutish, he brings personality and clarity to the text to illustrate Stanley’s contrast to Blanche’s demure demeanour, making some early lines feel as fresh as if they are being said for the first time.

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And from his first brief line in Scene One, Smith is simply lovely as the gentlemanly Mitch, more sensitive than Stanley’s other poker friends, obliging to Blanche’s every vain whim, despite never having gotten more than a goodnight kiss in return.

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“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a tough play of complex relationships and almost 70 years after it was first written, it still leaves audiences with much to consider in assessment of whether it is Stanley or Blanche herself who is more to blame for Blanche’s ultimate ruin. In addition, the relevance of its themes of domestic violence and mental health issues, so problematic in our modern society, makes it resonate strongly. By adding a little humour to its ultimate despair, this production makes it an accessible, albeit lengthy show, sure to leave audiences satisfied.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans Photography

The mortal of the monster

The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 21 – June 11

William Shakespeare’s most famous historical play “Richard III” is a classic of the stage, revered by historians and Shakespeare purists alike and recognisable by the endurance of its protagonist’s valiant declarations. So when Naomi Price begins “The Tragedy of King Richard III” with the word ‘Now’, audiences may assume they know where things are going.

While the work does include some sections of Shakespearean dialogue, its opening lines are not authentic to the Bard’s iconic depiction of England’s last warrior king. But what does authentic mean anyway? This is, as Price implores, an imaginative experience. The raised rectangular centre stage needs to be reimagined as the municipal carpark in Leicester, under which the villainous monarch’s skeleton was discovered in August 2012. And who says that our reviled regard for him is deserved because, as Price surmises, nobody knows history due to stories’ silences, gaps and biases. And with this, the show’s title assumes meaning anew.

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This is not Shakespeare’s depiction of King Richard III’s Machiavellian rise to power and short reign (for a mere two years, two months in the 1480s) as a “tyrant rudely stamp’d”, “deformed, unfinish’d”. Rather the show sits in the divide of what Shakespeare wrote and who Richard actually was. And from the outset its creative choices show that there is a moral behind the monster. Rather than allowing the character to be defined by the lead actor’s physicality, there is no hunch or leg encased in a calliper splint like in Kevin Spacey’s realisation at London’s Old Vic. Rather, there is just an early visual impression of the deformity through clever use of shadow as projection of his body’s shape.

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Intent on bringing the narrative’s players out of the shadows, “The Tragedy of King Richard III” finds new depth in its characters. As Richard (a role shared with Peter Rowland), Atticus Robb is appropriately initially hesitant but after a while arrogant in his quest for the throne, yet so sympathetic is his portrayal when he unleashes his furious wrath in a standout monologue, that it is met with a whoop of support from invested audience members. His brilliance is made all the more impressive by the fact that this represents the young Brisbane actor’s (he was born in 2002) first profession stage performance.

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Although the fearlessly talented Atticus dominates the stage, this is far from a one-man show. The cast is excellence, as expected. Particularly as Richard (and England)’s Queen, Anne Neville, Amy Ingram confettis the stage with sass, bringing many of the show’s biggest laughs in articulation of her modern teenage sensibilities in initial interaction with a young Richard.

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Another silence filled in realisation of the show’s sometimes feminist discourse, is that of Margaret of Anjou, another English Queen, the wife of King Henry VI, whose husband was killed by Richard. Helen Howard gives a powerful, unrelenting performance, vehement in her passion but also cement of an angry feminist stereotype.

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Also commanding in her performance is Naomi Price, particularly as the show’s ringmaster of sorts, engaging audience members in her collective self-referential proclamations and reflections, and later as incantation of Queen Elizabeth 1st (granddaughter of Henry Tudor, Richard’s killer) in illustration of our proximity to the problem. And having Price in the cast allows for the wonderful inclusion of live musical numbers. Whether in Whitney Houston mode popping out soundtrack to a disco-balled dance off between the young Richard and Anne or belting in exploration of the nature of power in ‘No Church in the Wild’, she more than delivers vocally, adding another layer to the already intricate story.

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Todd Macdonald also shines with a superb performance, firstly as the father Richard barely knew and then later as Master Shakespeare at the Globe theatre, revelling in the power of his creative realisation of Richard III. His embodiment of the Bard delighting in his dramatic powers is energetic and invigorating as he leaps about with jester-like frivolity, drawing the audience into his verve. Then things turn darker as he morphs into the monster who created the monster, envisaging the king as a sinister comic performer just four coffins away from the throne.

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The fourth wall breaks in these scenes, indeed throughout the entire show, are not just for comic effect but add to the drama of the piece, enticing audience consideration of its core questions. And when Pacharo Mzembe and Robb discuss the representation of murder on stage, as themselves not their characters, it takes the audience to an intimate and affecting place.

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The technically ambitious design is captivating in its realisation, full of powerful visual imagery thanks to Jason Glenwright’s smooth lighting design. The stage is filled with blood and water in nightly ruin of its stunning costumes. This is physical theatre and dramatic movement at its best courtesy of Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton.

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And when Mzembe raises sword in final duel in a rainy Battle of Bosworth Field, it is an evocative experience. While the show is filled with bloody mayhem, however, its presentation of the violence and discomfort is deliberately desensitised, contrasting, for example, impression of animal torture against bubbly teen talk of Euro Disney in comment perhaps upon modern world sensibilities.

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While feasibly more enduring than the historical character, Shakespeare’s ill-famed Richard III is a fictional realisation, motivated by a playwright championing the King’s heroic vanquisher, Henry VII, as founder of the new Tudor dynasty which took England from the Middle Ages into our modern world of grim fascination. In challenging this, co-writers Daniel Evans (Winner – Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2014/2015 for Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and Marcel Dorney (Winner – Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2010/2011) provide a bold play packed full of stimulating ideas about how bad history often makes for the best stories. In lesser hands this notion could have been lost to subtly, but under Director Daniel Evans, “The Tragedy of King Richard III” emerges as a first-class theatre experience that exposes the truth of the statement that you don’t know what you don’t know.

While new work is always exciting, the appeal of this work is so much more than just its novelty. Its ideas are so invigorating that they almost demand a second viewing to fully grapple with the show’s unexpected provocations. It has been said that the best indicator of a show’s calibre is if a reviewer will return independently to see it again; I’m planning my next visit now.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans Photography

Mighty Medea

Medea (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 30 – June 20

For the over two thousand years since her story was first shared in Greek legend, the character of Medea has reigned supreme as a monster mother. Wronged by her husband Jason who abandons their shared history (and her sacrifices) when he marries Princess Glauce, Medea is exiled with her children, despite her impressive lineage. From here she plots a bloody vengeance against her husband and sets to poisoning his new bride and killing her own children in pursuit of revenge against her husband.

It is an epic drama that hinges of the portrayal of its titular character. And Christen O’Leary more than delivers in the role. Her portrayal is of a passionate woman, outraged, intense, driven and strong. So much more than just rejected wife, she is a powerful presence of her own accord as partner and co-conspirator with Jason (Damien Cassidy) in their joint empire building endeavours.

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O’Leary’s realisation of the psyche of a woman whose identity has been shattered, is incredibility controlled and impressive. From the minute she embarks on her first monologue, delivered almost as manifesto to the audience, through moments of humble vulnerability, self-contended humour and harrowing despair, she takes the audience along on her roller coaster ride of emotions. Helen Christinson too, as the nurse and Princess Glauce is similarly impressive and she transitions easily between the distinct roles of loyal servant and entitled and empowered princess.

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From first entry into the Roundhouse Theatre, the audience is saturated by the spectacle of its staging and a gothic sensibility that encapsulates the darkness of the text’s themes. There is an almost occult-like feel to the tableaux, as if Medea is an apothecary setting to menace her enemy with potions.

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The setting is art; it’s an incredible visual experience, hauntingly beautiful and rich is aesthetic detail, and although the design is minimalistic, every inch is used to effect. Surrounded by a circle of lit candles and melted wax, a gnarled tree sits atop a large wooden table, providing opportunity for characters to climb to its heights, while two diagonally opposite stair sets serve not only as entry and exit points, but, at times, as stages within themselves. Even the walkway around the top of the stalls is used, which serves only to increase audience attention in an already engaging show. And it is wonderful to see a truly in-the-round production again filling the space. This is complemented by a re-imaged Greek chorus in the form of a capella choir (The Australian Voices) who introduce the narrative, comment on the action and interact with the actors. This does much to enhance the requisite mood and their subtle incorporation of modern classics such as INXS’s ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, is inspired.

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Certainly, this is a difficult text for any theatre-maker to tackle. Medea is one of the great dramatic female roles and, as such, the work has much to potentially say from a feminist perspective. Because of this, there can be wide differences in its on-stage interpretations. At its core, however, “Medea” is a story about power and the struggle for power, themes which still resonate today and it is of enormous credit to both playwright Suzie Miller and director Todd MacDonald that this production is so easily able to convey this universality. While it remains a morally challenging tale to tell, this incantation has been crafted so as to afford not just judgement but an attempt to inspire understanding of motivation. The result is an intense night of theatre that is not trying to tell audiences how to think as much as it is just urging them to think.

Attention is a finite resource, but it is one easily surrendered to a production of this calibre. La Boite’s “Medea” need to be commended not just for bringing Euripedes’s tragedy to life, but for doing so in such a mighty manner. The result is a gutsy but beautiful show and one of the highlights of La Boite’s program, not just for the year, but of the past decade.

Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/LaBoiteTheatreCompany/

Gritty, gripping and game as Ned

Kelly (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

March 13 – 14

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“Kelly” opens in November 10, 1880. Ned Kelly (Steven Rooke) is in his prison cell, the day before he is due to be hanged, having been found guilty of the wilful murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. A priest enters to give him his last rites, however, the priest is soon revealed to be Dan Kelly (Kevin Spink) – Ned’s younger brother believed burnt to death at the gang’s final fateful stand against police at the Glenrowan Hotel. He has come to stay goodbye and set things right before fleeing to Queensland, seeking forgiveness from his older brother for his own cowardly part in the final confrontation with police. But first, Ned has some questions about how Steve Hart died.

Ned is unrelenting and defiant (“I choose the rope” … “I don’t want to pass quietly; I want to pass noisy as hell”) but also light-hearted in some of his brotherly taunts. Indeed, in his initial interactions with the prison guard (Anthony Standish) before Dan’s entry, he presents a barrage of blasphemous insults (“You’re so ugly that the loneliest dog in the world wouldn’t f**k your face”, authentically in keeping with his penchant for lyrical language and the tone of his 1879 Jerilderie Letter, dictated to Joe Byrne, in which he refers to the police as ignorant unicorns with puny cabbage heart looking faces.

Although this provides much of the play’s humour, it belies the depth of drama and consideration in this eloquent imagining. And there is much eloquence to Matthew Ryan’s script, which is witty, dramatic and thoroughly well-written, with clever foreshadowing in Ned’s pondering of possible final words and disgust with the death mask made after Mad Dan Morgan’s execution. And one can only anticipate what he comes up with in next month’s “Brisbane”, the play he has been commissioned by QTC to write about Brisbane during World War Two.

“So what’s this about anyway?” I amusingly heard someone in the row behind ask as the show was about to begin. Perhaps you do need some prior knowledge. History reveals that Dan and Ned disagreed and has also brought forth the myth that Dan survived Glenrowan and fled to Queensland (no less than four men claimed to be Dan Kelly at the end of their lives, the show’s program reveals). And there is also long-held rumour of a homosexual relationship between Dan and Steve Hart, another member of the infamous gang. The only thing missing is acknowledgement of the political nature of Kelly’s plight and his belief that that Irish Australians had to throw off the yoke of oppressive British colonialism to secure their rights, which is only hinted at in throwaway lines.

Under Todd MacDonald’s direction, “Kelly” is full of dramatic moments as Dan confronts Ned for putting a death sentence on the gang members’ heads through his actions at Stringybark Creek. And as the impulsive and full of self-importance Ned, Rooke is fearless, bringing the character to raging life, despite the barrier of shackled hands. “Read the newspaper,” he says with undeniable presence; “I’m a national hero”. Indeed, each of the three actors puts in a sterling performance, even Anthony Standish, who doubles and triples as backstory characters to present a layman’s view, as well as reappearing as the gleeful guard who taunts Ned with details of his impending fate

“Kelly” is certainly an intimate show and the staging is appropriately simple in its minimalism, with the action taking place in a wall-less raked box of a cell, almost like a boxing ring, about which the brothers dance around before they square off. This is enhanced by Ben Hughes’ beautiful lighting, which warms the moments of recollection in subtle transition from the reality of grey-tinged goal life.

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As the tale of a man whose story has outgrown his life, “Kelly” has all the elements of great tragedy and high drama, which makes it an entirely engaging theatre experience. Told with such intimacy, this take of the fractured band of brothers, serves only to remind audience members that this is the story of a young man (Ned was just 25 when he died). While initially Ned is positioned sympathetically, through recall of his heroism in saving a young boy from drowning, he is also presented as a character of little remorse, wanting burial in consecrated ground, not to save his soul but because he deserves it. (“You killed people!” Dan reminds him. “But they weren’t very nice,” Ned replies.) Similarly, the audience is presented with two possible, equally powerful versions of Fitzpatrick’s last moments at Stringybark Creek, allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions about Ned’s place as national hero or glorified horse thief. In doing so, “Kelly” boldly presents its hypothetical story in a gritty, gripping manner that makes it a must-see Australian work.

Photos c/o – http://www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/

Let’s talk about sex

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

Whereas week one of Awkward Conversation had family as an organising centre, Week Two saw the focus move to sex… well gender to be precise. And it is no more finely seen than in David Burton and Claire Christian’s work “The C Word” about the f word… feminism. Though this is a predominantly static work, it is filled with fabulous lines of wit and wisdom from the women who take the stage. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, they are feisty in their frankness as they tell of Cleopatra, Beyonce and Julia Gillard and that misogyny speech (passionately shared to the injections of audience applause). Nobody performs teenager as well as Emily Burton and her delivery of a speech about feminism to her class is a show highlight that will have you hoping for more.

Notions of gender as also central to the wicked game that is “Salome”. Salacious in its lustful provocation of red and black, satin and lace, and full frontal nudity, it is derivative of other works from director Steven Mitchell Wright so not entirely shocking. “Salome” was written by Oscar Wilde in 1871 while imprisoned for crimes of sexuality, but things have changed, we are told; we live in the suburbs now. And what a strange mixed up suburbia it is.

Suburban horror also drives Martin Crimp’s “Fewer Emergencies”. Under the direction of Lucas Stibbard, this largely talky work evokes some strange visuals, but is particularly interesting in how it begins with narrators interjecting from within the audience before making their way to the stage to take the audience through a loosely connected series of violent events, even sharing a song to shatter illusions of fatherhood.

Music features strongly in Daniel Keene’s “The River”, the story of a down-and-out dad attempting to reconnect with his son. The protagonist is essentially an unlikeable character with little backstory to engender audience empathy, however, it is a testament to Ron Kelly’s skill in inhabiting the role of wayward, drunken father. Surely the work contains many life lessons and analogies, however, the most memorable aspects are its aesthetics with live music and some sublime lighting that sees the stage bathed in blue during a journey though “The Boys Light Up.”

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Together with Week One’s offerings, “Awkward Conversation” serves up exactly that – some discomfort, some interest and a whole lot to take away and talk about. This is part of the reason why collaborations can be so exciting, for collaboration allows fission as much as fusion. The juxtaposition of ideas offers different perspectives and opportunities for a contemplative conversation.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/metroartsbrisbane

Ball games

The Button Event (QTC)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 18 – 27

Some months ago, Todd MacDonald put out an intriguing call for tennis balls c/o the QTC Facebook page, needed for his then upcoming show “The Button Event”. And upon entry into the Bille Brown Studio space to see the show realised, it doesn’t take long to appreciate how integral to the experience they are, in all range of guises – from the pre-show theatre of MacDonald trying to toss them across the vast stage space into a steel barrel, to the frenzy of them being shot at him from a tennis ball machine, as metaphor for life’s chaotic assaults. Indeed, they are an ongoing presence, even strung together as a costume coat and, most spectacularly, dropped from the ceiling to be illuminated in their floaty fluorescence in a sea of darkness.

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Props feature heavily in this high energy, one-man show, but never detract from its deeply personal narrative, which tells the true tale of MacDonald’s journey through his daughter’s diagnosis with Tuberous Sclerosis. Medical jargon features, but this is balanced with heartfelt emotion; there are many moments when the audience is collectively absorbed in the poignancy of the story and honesty of MacDonald’s performance, which shows both emotional range and physical endurance, including memorable delivery of an excerpt from Richard III’s ‘Now is the winter’ opening soliloquy and reflection that the time of unhappiness is past.

Affecting as “The Button Event” is, it is not a show of misery. Humour is an engaging feature, particularly in the introductory scenes where MacDonald recounts meeting and marrying his wife and the initial insanity of the whole new ball game of attempting to cope with twin babies. When the mood alters, the audience is well-prepared, thanks to the change in pace and lighting distinctions.

While big-ticket theatre spectaculars have their attraction value, there is also an organic appeal in seeing an honest and humble show that can make you think and feel. And, as a work driven by heart, “The Button Event” certainly delivers a solid and moving night of good theatre.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/qldtheatreco