Friday, 26 December 2014

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2014 - Plays

If this year’s musicals had a large number of comedies then the plays went the exact opposite direction mining a much darker vein – incest, revenge, torture, the horrors of war, school shootings, suicide, mental illness. It was a veritable line-up of misery but never anything less than compelling theatre if somewhat confronting. The Blue Room had a very strong year as did the WAAPA third years. Dramafest was a success and community theatre continues to throw up excellent performances and a diverse range of shows. I was also impressed with the work coming out of Curtin and Murdoch Universities that were both very active in 2014.

To the Top Ten:

1. Great Expectations (WAAPA)
While the Dickens classic certainly has its dark moments this was such an entertaining production with the use of the revolving chorus a wonderful device. All you need to know about how well it was received was writ large in the grin on Andrew Lewis’ face in the lobby afterwards.

"If West Side Story is the crowning achievement of the musical theatre class in the red corner then the acting cohort in the blue corner have replied in stunning fashion with this production. To extend the boxing analogy, I had a ringside seat, front row centre, at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre. And what a view it was - a brilliant adaptation of the great novel, inventively staged and directed, with superb performances across the board."

2. Festen (WAAPA)
A gut punch of a play that was a majestic horror story that made me squirm and was utterly riveting. Contains the line of the year – “Because that’s all you were good for” – that had me gasping at the monstrosity of it all. 

"The performances are superb and all the more laudable because a more reprehensible bunch of characters you will not find – misogynists, racists, rapists – who are either emotionally brittle or utterly callous. They may not be likeable but it is a fascinating exploration of entrenched values within a family and how they infect each generation."

3. The Pillowman (Endless Theatre Company)
The introduction to Perth of this Irish flavoured production company couldn’t have been more impressive with this jet black exploration of the creative process itself.

"But most of all, surprisingly, fabulously, a play about stories, about writing and what it means to be a writer. About taking responsibility for what is written. About where stories come from, even the dark ones – especially the dark ones. About legacy. For what is a writer without their stories?"

4. Under Any Old Gum Tree (Dramafest)
A searing 50 minute monologue about the horrors of the First World War, stunningly delivered.

"Lastly, and fittingly, the final production of Dramafest was Noel O’Neill’s superb Under Any Old Gum Tree. Beautifully written and brilliantly performed by Kieran Garvey (with Rex Gray in support), this was powerful, moving, insightful, occasionally funny and a blistering exploration of the devastation the Great War caused on those who survived No Man’s Land."

5. Concussion (Ellandar Productions)
Subversively funny and self-aware, this was another jet black drama that had an excellent script that was embraced by a very talented cast.

"It’s deliciously clever, subversive and funny. Even the somewhat overwrought shouting match at the end I took to be a poke at the expectations usually contained within this type of tale. As a writer myself this was absolutely in my wheelhouse and I loved the cheekiness and audacity of the script."

6. The Standover Man (Subiaco Arts Centre)
Starting quite obliquely all the diverse strands slowly coalesce into a powerful narrative in this unusual underworld tale full of richly drawn characters.

"I couldn't have been more impressed. This is a beautifully written, performed and staged play. I am going to be a little oblique about the story because the writing is excellent and the play unfolds with great skill to reveal its secrets and mysteries. That journey really needs to be experienced first hand."

7. Closer (Fresh Bred Productions)
The pungent Marber dialogue is delivered with relish in this sexually charged production that doesn’t pull any punches.

"Take a razor sharp script, four talented and committed actors, a fresh approach from a first time director then add an original score played live and you end up with this excellent production of Patrick Marber's Closer." 

8. Punk Rock (WA Youth Theatre Company)
The young cast plunge into this dark, unsettling tale with impressive skill and energy. The sense of play in the performances left the stage in a state of total disarray, about the same as my nerves during the explosive climax.

"What unfolded at the Subiaco Arts Centre studio was a slow burn production that was shocking, uncomfortable and powerful. It elicited several visceral responses from the audience as it built to a brutal climax and then lingered in the aftermath to let us all breathe again. That the cast was predominantly made up of young teenagers was remarkable."

9. Giving Up The Ghosts (The Blue Room Theatre)
A carefully measured two-hander as two damaged souls find themselves confronting the unthinkable as they attempt to escape their ghosts.

"I said to Sarah I was intrigued how she was going to ‘stick the landing’ as it had to be handled sensitively given the undeniably dark subject matter but truthful to the characters that had been so expertly crafted and rendered. She and the actors, Georgia King and Paul Grabovac, thread that needle beautifully to bring a powerful piece of theatre to conclusion as the lights fade on these two damaged souls."

10. This Is Not A Love Song (The Blue Room Theatre)
This is an impressive writing debut by comedian Greg Fleet who lends a dry stage presence in this mature rumination about relationships and loss. I even knew pretty much all of the songs!

"I really enjoyed this show – the writing and acting is very good, the songs well delivered (at times I felt like clapping at the end of a number though This is Also Not a Musical) and the humour is genuinely funny amongst the underlying tone of regret."

Female Performer of the Year - Georgia King
A very subtle performance playing the agitated woman in Giving Up The Ghosts with a terrible purpose. I especially liked how well calibrated the physical interactions - or lack of them - were in giving insight into the character.

Male Performer of the Year - Kieran Garvey
Simply a towering performance playing a man damaged by the horrors of war in Under Any Old Gum Tree. Garvey grabs you by the throat from the very first beat and doesn't let up. Heartbreaking, devastating, superb. 

Special Mentions:

Beth Tremlett - Such an assured performance in a challenging role (Gish in Bremen Coffee) where the arc goes from battered housewife to ruthless murderer. Skillfully handled.

Luke Binetti - Only 17 years old, Binetti moves from good-natured nerd to something far more deadly in Punk Rock. "For that transformation and its consequences to be handled so convincingly is a testament to Binetti’s skill."

Jonny Hawkins - Devastating as the despicable male patriarch in Festen, Hawkins then changed gears to inhabit the lovable Joe Gargery in Great Expectations with equal skill. 

Adam Sollis - Front and centre in a thoroughly likable turn as Pip in Great Expectations but also prominent in Realism playing a surly cat and telemarketer with cerebral palsy. 

Scott McArdle - The driving force at Murdoch, deservedly winning Theatre Student of the Year, McArdle not only did lighting design, directing, acting, but notably is an excellent and prolific young writer whose three original plays and one musical I saw in 2014 were all high quality.

Again, thank you to all the actors, crew, key creatives and support staff on stage and behind the scenes who made 2014 such an excellent year for theatre in Perth. I'm sure 2015 will be equally stimulating!

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2014 - Musicals & Cabaret

It was a big year for musicals, especially comedy musicals. From trailer parks to roller skating rinks, from Transylvania to the vastness of space, and even the Hollywood of the future to alien invasions in 1950s American suburbia, it was a wild ride. WAAPA proved yet again why they are the pre-eminent training academy for musical theatre in the country while the Koorliny Arts Centre had another strong year. There was the further emergence of a local writing and performing duo whose audacious ‘holiday special’ presages a very bright future.

To my favourites:

1. West Side Story (WAAPA)
A spectacular production at the Regal Theatre boasting the combined might of WAAPA’s second and third year musical theatre students and a host of talented students from all other departments. Throw in a wonderful set, an orchestra in fine form, and one of the best ever musicals and it was a highlight of the year.

"It’s not a feeling I get often but the buzz around WAAPA’s mid-year showcase production at the Regal Theatre has been enormous and I was hoping, expecting, pleading for magic and that’s exactly what was delivered – magic of the most potent kind. If you had told me that baton was a wand I would have believed you."

2. Children of Eden (WAAPA)
A production that took me totally by surprise but left me thoroughly impressed as WAAPA’s second year students announced their arrival in exuberant style.

"I’m happy to report that any reservations I had disappeared almost immediately in what turned out to be a spectacular production. The second years were uniformly excellent; it is a beautiful score with wonderful songs; and the venue was comfortably configured and used to maximum effect. I walked away with a real sense of the ‘wow’ factor hence my delighted surprise."

3. Hair (WAAPA)
WAAPA’s third year students kicked off their final year with a bang with this performance of the rock musical that harkened back to the era of flower power and the Vietnam War getting the tone and atmosphere spot on.

"The main players were more than ably supported by the rest of the cast who had a wonderful sense of energy and chemistry as they genuinely enjoyed the playful choreography and playground style set. Then there was the eight piece band that was in terrific form led by musical director David King."

4. Oliver! (Mandurah Performing Arts Centre) 
You know it’s been a good year when this joyous production is only fourth on the list. One of the highlights of 2014 was the massed cast including some 40 children performing Consider Yourself.

"When musical theatre gets it right, when everything is firing on all cylinders – the performances, the vocals, the orchestra, set, costume, lighting,everything – it is a sight and sound to behold."

5. Merrily We Roll Along (WAAPA)
The final production for WAAPA’s sterling third year class who lapped up Sondheim’s musical in the more intimate Roundhouse Theatre.

"After the big, elaborate musicals of the last few days over in Melbourne this show was a pleasant reminder that a stripped back production such as this in an intimate setting with talented performers and musicians can be just as entertaining and memorable. And yes, Mister Sondheim, I was tapping my feet more than once!"

6. The Jones/Woods Holiday Special (Holland St Productions)
A retrospective greatest hits package as hilarious as it was audacious that featured Gravity the Musical that lampooned and adored Alfonso Cuaron’s film in equal measure.

"This company of talented performers clearly relished working with such quality material and, again, there was real chemistry between them all. The fact that the show was put together with something like only three weeks rehearsal time is testament to their abilities. The audience response was as enthusiastic as anything I’ve seen in Perth – foot stomping intensity in fact! "

7. Young Frankenstein the Musical (Koorliny Arts Centre)
The very first production I saw this year and what a way to start. The kind of craziness that only Mel Brooks could summon brought to kooky life down at Koorliny.

"Based on the Mel Brooks’ movie of the same name, it exhibits the typical Brooks sense of humour as it parodies the horror genre. The gags can be a little hit and miss but I generally found this very funny. It is also performed and directed with great verve and there are many wonderful set pieces."

8. The Great American Trailer Park Musical (Roleystone Theatre)
Another great surprise of the year. What a raucous, hollerin' and a stompin' good time this was with a lovely sweetness under all that big hair, outrageous costumes and trashiness.

"What impressed me most is that beneath the raunchy and crass exterior that poked fun at the ‘white trailer park trash’ stereotype there was an underlying sweetness and genuine affection for these characters."

9. Point & Shoot: A New Musical (Holland St Productions)
I was fortunate enough to see the additional performance that was added to this show's run at Fringe. I can see why there was such a demand as this is clever, funny, and wildly entertaining. 

"This is an hilarious and pointed satire of Hollywood and the filmmaking business with a clever plot ("twist") and biting lyrics. The four actors play multiple roles and instruments and all are in fine voice. The transitions are seamless and this rockets along at a frenetic pace."

Another show I was lucky to catch at the tale end of its run at Fringe. Based on Cosgriff's own experiences the songs here are pointed, funny, and insightful, delivered with real panache.  

"A front row seat meant I was only 2-3 metres away from Cosgriff who proved to be a vivacious, witty, and very charismatic presence as she combined original songs with insights into her life and that of her generation, those of the already nostalgic mid-twenties."

Female Performer of the Year - Suzie Melloy
In a spectacular show that did so many things so well, Melloy stood out as Anita in West Side Story. She "gives a star making performance as the feisty Anita – she is simply superb and a real charismatic presence."

Male Performers of the Year - Tyler Jacob Jones & Robert Woods
I am usually the first person to rail against ties but you can't really talk about one without the other when it comes to musicals. Jones and Woods as creative collaborators and performers are a potent combination with a huge future.

Special Mentions:

Rebecca Hetherington - Gives a fine performance as Mary, the heart and soul of Merrily We Roll Along. "Not only is her acting impressive but vocally she shines..."

Jesse Angus - A full tilt performance in Young Frankenstein where Angus "attacks the role (of 'Fronkensteen') with impressive energy and the appropriate level of mania."

Jon Lambert - Unrecognisable as Fagan in Oliver! after his stint as the Monster in Young Frankenstein. A very charismatic performance. 

Madeleine Shaw - Steals the show as the eponymous lead in Cinderella. The petite performer has a divine singing voice and confident stage presence.

Kohan van Sambeeck - seemingly ever present as a musician in many of the WAAPA productions, van Sambeeck also found time to be Musical Director for The Last Five Years and compose his first original score for the play Closer

An excellent year with many other great performances and a couple of shows unlucky not to make the final ten. Thank you to all the casts and crews, musicians, front of house staff and all the other people who make the magic of theatre come to life. I look forward to seeing you all again in 2015!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp - GRADS (13 December 2014)

Me? At a pantomime? A Christmas one no less? There’s a first for everything! I took a seat in my usual front row spot at Hackett Hall with much trepidation. What sort of impromptu audience participation was I signalling myself out for by sitting so close to the firing line? Thankfully, director Stephen Lee calmed my nerves with a pre-show assurance that no such shenanigans would be in order. Phew! I then settled in to watch a crazy show that was totally entertaining and a really fun (carpet-less) ride.

The first thing that struck me was that the tiered seating had been moved a long way forward from their usual spot. One common note at Dramafest was how far away the action was with such a deep stage. Here we were much closer and it was a really good choice. It was also great to see so many children in the audience and there was indeed a lot of group interaction with the usual boos as the villain appeared, a sing-along, and advice to our heroes.

The story itself? You know - Aladdin, a lamp, a beautiful princess, an evil Sorcerer, a Vogue-reading Genie, some Kung Fu fighting, lots of laundry, men in drag, women as men, Chinese-style Keystone Cops, and a propensity to break into song whenever a set change was required. Oh, and some self-inflicted cream pie in the face work. Your standard pantomime hijinks. It was lapped up by the enthusiastic audience – the show, not the cream pie – and everyone was having a really good time capped off by an elderly man with a white beard in a red jump suit gate-crashing the party.

To the performances!

Grant Malcolm was channelling some Jim-Broadbent-as-Ziegler type theatrics as the evil wizard Abanazar and was suitably over-the-top. He earned the hearty boos directed his way. Abanazar’s plans for world domination were somewhat altered on meeting the princess but who can blame him?

Jarrod Buttery made for a, ahem, handsome Widow Twankay and was thoroughly engaging in the role. Buttery used a droll sense of humour to great effect with plenty of asides to the audience, the slyer of which sailed over the head of the kids but were appreciated by the adults. I should also note that his beard nicely complimented the Widow’s various dresses!

It’s the first time I have seen Melissa Kiiveri on stage but she made for a radiant Aladdin in a spunky performance that was a real crowd pleaser. There was a cheekiness to her portrayal that I very much liked but, more impressively, a genuine tenderness in the romance with the Princess. 

That Princess  - Balroubadour – was played by Grace Edwards with naivety and innocence coupled with the odd regal temper tantrum. Edwards had the line of the night whilst wailing for her beloved Aladdin when she broke the fourth wall and bemoaned, “Three years at WAAPA, for this?!” Priceless.

Kate O’Sullivan gave a funky turn as the Genie of the Lamp with attitude to burn and a thick American accent that was a treat. Indeed, between O’Sullivan’s drawl, Lis Hoffman’s thick strine as So Shi, and Kiiveri’s pronounced English accent this was somewhat of a United Nations for the ear! I was bemused by the Deus Ex Genie to resolve a plot predicament (but really, who cared?) and O’Sullivan had a chance to shine with her rendition of Pharrell’s Happy which I believe is now mandatory for all new musicals, pantomimes, and cabarets to end with these days. Let It Go, people.

Of the secondary characters, fresh-faced James Parker played the straight man role of Aladdin’s brother Wishee Washee well. He had a good-natured vibe that worked very effectively. Hoffman, as mentioned, was the most unlikely of handmaidens bringing Ocker scepticism to her role and an unexpected development that I’m possibly still traumatised over! Judd Millner and Jennifer Van Den Hoek brought added comic relief as the Chinese policemen, Ping and Pong. Jonathan Beckett and Kerri Hilton rounded out the cast as The Grand Vizier and The Empress respectively. They amusingly had their own banter going on.

The ensemble was made up of a charming mix of young children and older performers who gave interesting interpretations of pop standards such as Kung Fu Fighting, Celebration and a re-imagining of Pinball Wizard (perhaps it’s just as well Pete Townshend is deaf!). The second act even commenced with a lovely ribbon dance performance by three members of the Chung Wah Dance Group.  

The highlight amongst all the madness though was an original song in the second act written by David Harries, Sarah Courtis and Arnold Wong called Forever and a Day that was beautifully performed by Edwards and Kiiveri. Finally, it was pleasing to see the cast come back out in costume to pose for pictures with the children. A nice touch.

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp is a colourful and funny show that is perfect entertainment for all the family in the lead up to Christmas. I not only went to a pantomime, I thoroughly enjoyed myself! Oh yes I did!!!

There are four more shows left at Hackett Hall in Floreat until 20 December.   

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Teeth 2 Tail - Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company (9 December 2014)

A story is told in the early going of this play written by Steve McCall that is delivered with such frenetic energy and charm that I was so caught up in the sheer entertainment of it all that I nearly missed that it was the key thematic blueprint for everything that was about to unfold. It was unusual insomuch as it served as an introduction to the character Harry played by Kane Parker and you normally wouldn’t expect such thematic heft in an opening salvo. Very nicely written and performed, Messrs’ McCall and Parker.

That story was a tale about the goings on at a watering hole in Kruger National Park where a herd of buffalo are surprised by a pride of lions and even a crocodile while tourists look on shocked. Remarkably, even though a ‘baby’ buffalo is snatched in all the chaos by a croc, the herd regroup and fight back…

In many ways the set is its own ‘watering hole’ where a series of characters in a strictly observed hierarchy interact and clash. Two sides fronting the audience are chain link fencing topped with barb wire; another side is the wall of the theatre with a platform where characters lurk and observe atop and under; the final side having the exits that are disguised by an arch like construction. It is wonderfully enclosed and cramped with holes in the fencing allowing characters, on occasion, to literally prowl right in front of the audience. The small performance space contains a couple of school desks, a drum, and a fridge built into a section of the arch, and adds enormously to the tone of the piece. It’s tight and grimy and you’re sitting up close and personal to the action. The actors, eleven in all, manoeuvre expertly through the set.

This story has its own animals both predatory and meek, set in a high school where Eva (Eloise Carter) is fascinated by her now deceased grandfather’s war service at Kokoda and her older brother Clint’s (Ryan Hunt) current participation in the armed forces overseas. She also wants to serve her country but is bullied by fellow students Cate (Gemma Middleton) and Sophie (Zoe Street) for being studious and, well, smart. Eva’s older sister Matilda (Violette  Ayad) is pregnant to resident drug dealer and punk ‘Turk’ (Sean Guastavino) while their mother Trish (Ashleigh Morris) likes her wine and the company of, allegedly, a series of men.

Added to this combustible mix is the school teacher Ms Carlton (Amelia Tuttleby) who tries to help Eva but is largely ineffectual in the face of particularly Cate’s defiance; the tough minded and sexually adventurous Paige (Holly Dodd); the sweet newcomer Lucy (Amy Johnston) who attempts to befriend Eva; and finally the naïve Harry (Parker) who will become an unwitting accomplice as Eva ‘regroups and fights back’ with tragic consequences.

In many ways this reminded me of the play Punk Rock but with a totally recognisable Australian voice. Yes, things escalate out of control and Eva proves to be an increasingly fierce adversary as she stands up to those who wrong her. Eloise Carter gives a tremendous performance as she moves from passive nerd to a far more calculating and ruthless presence. I almost passed straight by her after the show not recognising who she was and Carter admitted, tellingly, that she looked far less ‘psychotic’.

There are inserts throughout the play where Eva seemingly re-enacts with the cast events from her grandfather’s time at war with the Japanese. These seemed to me though, to be signposts of a sense of, perhaps not delusion, but certainly a lack of understanding of what war truly is. A point hammered home when her brother Clint returns from overseas and tells her a story about what warfare in places in Afghanistan is really like. That he is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome is a lovely juxtaposition to his sister’s state of mind as they both deal with the ramifications of her actions.

Excellent performances abound and there is a richness to each character in both how they are drawn and presented. Guastavino is a wonderfully physical and menacing presence as Turk and his callous treatment of Eva’s sister is in many ways the catalyst for the escalation in events that spiral out of control. Parker’s Harry is thoroughly sympathetic as he is drawn into something out of his ability to comprehend. Middleton proves to be a fiery antagonist but even her Cate is ranked below Dodd’s Paige who is perhaps the “alpha female” to Turk’s alpha male. Dodd ratchets up the wattage as she confronts Eva head on over Turk. 

Johnston’s turn as Lucy adds an element of genuine warmth and sweetness and her later scenes with Carter are particularly well handled. I also really liked Morris’ performance as the almost absent mother who really has no idea of what her youngest daughter is capable of. Hunt’s involvement as the brother whose return will make everything right is telling and he gives a sober rendering of a man with competing duties to family and country. Guilt is also rife throughout and how different characters deal with this is critical.

This is a thought provoking and thematically dense play with excellent writing and wonderful performances by all the cast. Mark Storen’s direction within the deliberately cribbed space is very good as characters rotate into their scenes then return to what felt at times to be silent observers in the background, like watchful eyes around a watering hole as the animals slowly tear each other apart...

Teeth 2 Tail has three more shows on at The Blue Room, finishing on Saturday 13 December and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Miranda - Garrick Theatre (7 December 2014)

Before we begin I must make a disclaimer. There will no aquatic puns of any nature, especially of the piscine variety, perpetrated in the writing of this review. I take my mermaids very seriously. There was that one time as the sun was setting on North Cottesloe beach where, if you tilted your head at just the right angle and squinted into the sunlight, I swear you could see the shimmering mirage of a mackerel with the head of Angelina Jolie. It was a formative experience.

Okay, it’s no secret to say that the invalid woman our good doctor Sir Paul Martin brings home after a fishing trip is in fact a mermaid. She’s on the damn poster for goodness sake! Yep, tail and all. This delightful creature, swaddled in a blanket to conceal her lack of ambulatory prowess, wants to see the sights of London – its museums and operas – whilst also enjoying the attention of the decidedly upright men who are ensorcelled by her.

There are only a few problems with this. First off, well, she’s a mermaid. Secondly, said men are actually bound by the mundane human concept known as a committed relationship. Yes, the good doctor’s wife Lady Clare is none too happy, and the engaged maid Betty and equally betrothed socialite Isobel aren’t exactly thrilled about their other halves’ wandering attention spans either. 

The setup is rife for a drawing room comedy of manners with a little upstairs-downstairs class structure thrown in for good measure and an outside disruption that is like nothing the rich and their servants have seen before. Set in London during the forties the action takes place in the Martin’s well-appointed living room. The comedy runs more to the one liner and pun variety where the unwitting players dance around Miranda’s true identity – yes, there truly is something “fishy” about this interloper.

But this was the major issue I had with the play – the construction of the narrative itself. The audience is well ahead of most of the characters regarding Miranda’s true nature and we’re basically waiting for them to play catch up. This means the natural expectation of seeing the tail and full extent of the mermaid persona has to be denied the viewer as it must remain hidden from the bulk of the characters. This felt contrived and slowed proceedings down for me. The effect it has on the type of humour deployed means we are laughing more at the characters for being so dim-witted - how could they not know what we know? - than, for the most part, genuinely comic entanglements.

However, there was much to like here. Natalie Aung Than, with impressive eyelashes and long blonde wig, is suitably beguiling as Miranda. She plays the ‘patient’ with a mix of wide eyed excitement at the wonders of London and a subtle knowing of the impact her charms have on the menfolk. When the blankets are finally cast aside in a lovely sequence she looks agile and sleek with the tail being an impressive piece of costuming. Rhett Clarke plays the doctor with a certain English foppishness that was kind of endearing as it precluded any sense of dubious intent. His Sir Paul was more the well-intentioned yet absent-minded professor archetype.

I was most impressed with Tayla Howard who really sparkles as Isobel, the hat store owner and willing gossip. Belinda Djurdjevic (Betty, a housemaid), Rodney Palmer (Charles, the manservant) , Christine Ellis (Nurse Cary) and Brendan Ellis (Nigel Hood) all give solid support which leaves the actual lead of the play, Mary Murphy as Lady Clare Martin. While Miranda may be the centre of attention the story is really about how Lady Clare deals with this intrusion and doubts about her husband’s fidelity before finally working out the real situation. In many ways it’s a thankless part as the character really is the foundation around which the exposition and showier roles are built upon. Murphy handles this well with a straight-forward honesty that is hard to fault.

The costuming (Lynda Stubbs) is very well done aside from the mermaid tail which is the highlight. There is a touch of class in the choices for both male and female which befits the higher strata of society the Martins and Isobel occupy. The play worked best for me when we see the ramifications of Miranda’s enchantment. At one point Charles and Nigel, having broken off their respective engagements to Betty and Isobel, arrive at the same time to propose marriage to Miranda. It is both funny and telling.

Miranda is a pleasant couple of hours with gentle humour and a charming conceit and has 4 more shows on at the Garrick Theatre in Guildford until 13 December. It was written by Peter Blackmore, Directed by Rodney Palmer and stars Belinda Djurdjevic, Tayla Howard, Mary Murphy, Rhett Clarke, Natalie Aung Than, Rodney Palmer, Christine Ellis and Brendan Ellis. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Extra Ordinary People - Second Chance Theatre (22 November 2014)

The presence of superhero themed entertainment, especially movies, has been all pervading in recent years as Hollywood unveils, reboots, and rehashes multi-billion dollar franchises with increasing fervour. These stories are far more sophisticated than I recall in my childhood - I am from the generation of comic books which have now been superseded by the far more ‘respectable’ (and thematically dense and generally darker) graphic novel. It’s interesting then to see what impact this has had on a generation immersed in tales of (mostly) good versus (mainly) evil where a dizzying array of filmmaking talent and special effect wizardry makes the most outrageous of superhero powers possible.

Fascinatingly, one answer to that question is an original superhero comedy musical, written and directed by graduating Murdoch University student, Scott McArdle. Even more so when it becomes very clear that this is, in fact, an anti-superhero comedy musical. To say that McArdle’s last student production is ambitious would be an understatement of heroic proportions – a two hour and fifteen minute running time, a twenty-one strong cast, an equally large production team, a nine piece band, all original songs and a thematically cohesive Book that dissects superhero mythology with laser-like precision.

The story in short, a barista called Polly decides to take a stand against the protector of Destiny City, the invincible Captain Astonishing, whose battles with The Destroyer claim innocent lives and disempower the local citizenry. Polly enlists the support of a couple of comic book geeks, a scientist, and an ex-cop, and holds a public protest to disastrous results while dodging the attention of secret agents and falling masonry from rooftop battles atop skyscrapers. Captain Astonishing has problems of his own, mainly of the slowly going out of his mind variety and indeed ends up living long enough to become the villain.

McArdle is steeped in superhero lore and there are plenty of in-jokes and references throughout as well as all the tropes and twists one would expect in such a tale – secret underground laboratories, shadowy government organisations, an indestructible superhero with an equally powerful nemesis, secret identities, and a climactic final confrontation. But unlike Man of Steel (nicely bitch slapped) the city still stands at the end as ordinary citizens regain a sense of purpose with the removal of a god-like figure to protect them. The most telling line is tagged with the “with great power comes great responsibility…” – “… and with no power comes choice.” While crime rates are at an all-time low and coffee remains readily accessible, the people of Destiny City are an unhappy lot, powerless in the face of the titanic struggle supposedly being waged on their behalf. Purpose, choice and destiny are within their grasp if only they would seize the opportunity and stand up to Astonishing. Polly is the catalyst for this revolution as the superhero becomes the enemy and ordinary people battle the extraordinary… with a little help from the wonders of science.

Shannon Rogers is excellent as Polly and gives a nicely grounded performance as the mayhem swirls around her. Rogers has a pleasant singing voice but it’s the acting chops here that are crucial as she essentially plays the moral anchor to the story even when things don’t go according to plan and Polly’s own secrets are revealed. She also has a deft touch with the physical comedy elements and occasional droll one liner. A demanding lead role that sees her battered from pillar to skyscraper rooftop with the bruises to prove it.

James Hynson gives an engaging performance as the ‘Einstein’ of Polly’s mock-resistance group and his character plays a pivotal role in coming up with the Plan B that saves the city. Rogers and Hynson work well together and, again, he gets moments of comedy but also imbues the scientist a strong moral conscience that gives Polly an additional nudge when required.

Second Chance Theatre regular, Emily David plays the fired cop, Stacy, with snarling intensity and has a little Ethel Merman going on with her singing which was a nice counterpoint to the other vocal talent. Then there are two pairs of comic foils – the superhero loving nerds Kirby and Frankie (Justin Crossley and Sophie Braham) who are all geek enthusiasm though clearly (and amusingly) delineated between different fandoms. Crossley has a nice dramatic moment when Kirby takes Polly and Stanley to task over discussing – spoiler alert – Frankie’s death as an abstraction whereas he actually knew her as a real person. The other pairing is secret agents Philson and Rodgers (Andrew Dawson and Launce Ronzan) who come from the Keystone Cops school of homeland security and are very good with a series of hijinks and pratfalls as they eventually bumble their way to the city’s defence. In smaller roles, Joel Sammels made the role of Polly’s Boss memorable, as did Rachel Doulton with the insistent Landlord.

This leaves one key character - Captain Astonishing himself. He makes an appearance at the end of the First Act though, of course, he’s been right under our noses the whole time. Played with relish by Sven Ironside with a jawline to die for and a costume maybe not to, he adds a real sense of unpredictability and energy. This is totally in keeping with the character’s mental disintegration and in service of the plot but it was more than that. Ironside’s first big number where he proclaims he will do things “my way” had the sort of energy and attack that the earlier songs lacked. That’s not to say they weren’t good but I had a sense that the musical performances were almost too careful and a little safe. Here, Ironside throws himself at the number and it elevates the material. The same could be said of the fine set piece extolling the virtues of science that had some Chicago-style pizazz and was playfully handled by the ensemble.

The piano driven score was good and the band played very well. There was an overall lack of songs for my musical taste with long stretches between numbers at times but those we had were well crafted. The set and lighting design was impressive and set transitions handled swiftly and economically. The show hit its straps in the Second Act and the climax was well handled.

This really was an impressive production on so many levels – the sheer audacity and scope alone is to be applauded but the writing here is well balanced between comedy and darker, more dramatic moments and is thematically compelling as a reaction to the adoration the world of superheroes and their exploits usually receive. My only question mark is that the nominal nemesis, The Destroyer, is only ever referred to in dialogue other than represented as a drawing on the café scrim. I never had a real sense that he was a worthy adversary to Astonishing. The songs are good though I think, for a two hour plus running time, there needed to be more of them and with a greater sense of verve in presentation. The ensemble work well and there are amusing walk-on parts and activity happening all the time as we see glimpses into the lives of Destiny City’s citizens.

Written and Directed by Scott McArdle, Music by Nick Choo, Lyrics by McArdle and Choo, with Musical Direction by Glenn Tippett, Extra Ordinary People is a fine way for Second Chance Theatre to end their stint as a student-based theatre company and to cap off a big 2014. I am eager to see what McArdle and his creative collaborators come up with in the New Year.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Big Casino - The Irish Theatre Players (9 November 2014)

Three ducks on the wall. A kitchen table. A squabbling family full of colourful characters. An outsider who throws a spanner in the works. Witty dialogue and various hijinks. Trademarks of a certain style of comedic play writer-director Noel O’Neill specialises in.  Seen earlier in the year with It’s All Greek To Me at the Old Mill and previously with Confetti from Graceland and its sequel Spaghetti and Graceland

Here the family is a bunch of crims from 1960s London comprising Bert (‘The Organiser’) and his two sons, the fiery Alan (‘The Hood’) and Harold (‘The Simpleton’). They’re joined around the ubiquitous O’Neill table setting by family friends Eddie ‘The Gambler’ who is on his last chips with the Big C(ancer), and suave Billy ‘The Jewel’. Yes, you know they’re all crooks because they have nicknames!  

It’s no coincidence that the centrepiece of all these plays is a humble domestic setting as this is where families bicker, fight, share stories, recall fond (or fraught) memories, hide secrets, and generally clash and makeup in an endless series of permutations. It allows for pointed banter and the divulging of exposition as there is a collective emotional knowledge and experience together.  The introduction of an outside force disrupts this self-contained eco-system and we get to watch the ramifications as individuals react in different ways.

The outsider is ‘Susan the Hostage’. Yes, the lads have gone and kidnapped the wife of a wealthy businessman so that they can ransom her off in order to get Eddie to the home of casinos, Monte Carlo, before he says the big adios. As you might imagine, such a harebrained scheme is ripe for complications on multiple fronts before having a happy ending in more ways than one.

Kim Taylor plays Bert and Noel the Playwright not only makes him do most of the heavy lifting with the bulk of the dialogue but Noel the Director foists a lisp on him as well. As he did in It’s All Greek To Me, Taylor provides the play’s bedrock as the patriarchal figure who, here, derides his sons and tries to do the best for his mate, Eddie. David Buckley impresses as the testosterone fuelled Alan who stands up to his father, mocks his brother, and resents Susan’s influence. Cameron Leese in some ways reprises his role from It’s All Greek To Me as the slow-witted one who interjects with innocent humour and is horrified to learn the true fate of his missing cat.

Emilio Evans gives Billy a certain smooth charm as he talks about ‘his Alice’ and his character seems the most sensible of the lot. Noel himself steps in at short notice to play Eddie and anybody who thinks just because you write and direct a piece you can slide easily into a role will be sorely surprised. He finds his feet in the second act and will be more in rhythm in the first with a few more run throughs before the next performance. In fairness, it’s a bloody hard thing to do but Noel is a consummate actor and handled himself admirably given the circumstances.

Then there is Clare Mulchinock as Susan who injects a shot of adrenaline into proceedings in the second act. Far from the demure victim she plays the hostage as feisty and practical with a few surprises along the way. If anything, her ‘unveiling’ at the start of the second act would have been better placed midway through the first. While the banter between the lads is entertaining enough there is an over familiarity to it all and the lack of plot progression means the story is marking time a little. 

Once Susan is let loose in the second half the dynamic changes and this opens up interesting strands and comic potential. Finally, the plot mechanics kick in as there is an awareness of what they’ve really done and what’s needed to fix it and still get Eddie his parting gift. It would have also given more time for Susan’s eventual arc which, while taking an unexpected direction, felt truncated within the confines of only one act.

I must mention that the Irish Club goes out of its way to create a really good atmosphere with a roulette table, fabulous raffle prizes, and a generous spread at intermission. The members and staff are all enthusiastic and friendly which added to the Sunday matinee experience.

If you enjoy fast talking crims, a little black humour, and a bawdy ending you’ll enjoy The Big Casino which is on at the Irish Club in Subiaco until 15 November. The play is written and directed by Noel O’Neill, starring Kim Taylor, David Buckley, Emilio Evans, Cameron Leese, Clare Mulchinock and that man O’Neill. He’s everywhere!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Cinderella - Koorliny Arts Centre (4 November 2014)

If the object of the story is to find Cinderella then the glass slipper fits snugly with the casting of Madeleine Shaw in the title role. The headline news out of Tuesday night’s final dress rehearsal down at the Koorliny Arts Centre is that the petite performer has a wonderful singing voice and a confidence that comes with it. Of course, no production is bigger than any single person but with Shaw director Ryan Taaffe has a bona fide star anchoring the show. That alone should guarantee a successful season for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the famous fairy tale but this is such a charming, family friendly effort that it will please children and parents alike.

Cast opposite Shaw in the role of Prince Christopher is Daniel Nixon who comes into his own in the second act (as did the show as a whole) especially with Ten Minutes Ago and Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? The ball is the strongest sequence and Shaw and Nixon work well together as the fledgling romance flourishes before being cruelly cut short.

Speaking of cruel, Tammy Miller gives a strong performance as the Stepmother doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the first act as the familiar tale kicks into gear. She is joined in this by Stacey Hollings and Grace Dennis-Sayer as the sisters who vie for the Prince’s attention and provide a lot of the comic relief. Dennis-Sayer in particular gives Joy a robust physicality with a most impressive snort. They have some nice pratfalls as they battle each other while being in thrall to their conniving mother.

Shelley Whiteaker is the Fairy Godmother who kicks off the tale and provides that little piece of magic that turns Cinderella from browbeaten servant girl to beautiful princess. The transformation is indeed magical with an ingenious piece of costuming design that was most impressive. Vocally Whiteaker is strongest in her final number at the end of the show. Indeed, most of the singers seemed a little tentative but that should shake itself out as they get into a rhythm over the run.

Of the other secondary characters, Mark Thompson provides additional comic relief as the Prince’s confidant Lionel while David Major and Pamela Ogborne play the King and Queen. Ashleigh Riley is an almost ethereal presence as the “Dove” that guides Cinderella at key moments and the children playing the four mice and a cat are delightful. There is also an ensemble of some 16 additional performers across all ages for the market and balls scenes.

The set is quite simple with minimal transitions as most of the action is either at the Stepmother’s house, the markets, or the palace/ballroom. The 13-piece band is located stage left fully visible to the audience and played well under the direction of Krispin Maesalu.

The first act moved a little slow but again, that should tighten with more performances and the energy levels will go up a notch with a bigger audience than simply me. The production certainly found a better rhythm in a second half that doesn’t outstay its welcome and has a crowd-pleasing happy ending and perhaps the stronger musical numbers. If anything, the show plays to its strength any time Madeleine Shaw has a featured number and there is a nice balance with the fairy tale romance, broad comedy, and an old-fashioned charm that is hard to resist.

Directed by Ryan Taaffe with Musical Direction by Krispin Maesalu and Choreography by Allen Blachford, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella opens at the Koorliny Arts Centre Thursday 6 November and runs until 15 November.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

WAAPA Showcase - Perth (3 November 2014)

At the end of the musical theatre section of Monday night’s Showcase the screen at the rear of the stage showed all the performers in a line, looking fabulous and in high spirits. As the camera pans across them it stops abruptly and 2014’s graduating class all look over their shoulder… at a Centrelink sign. It received a big laugh from the audience but there’s a sobering message underneath the humour. Things are about to get real and the stakes are high. On Saturday 18 actors and 20 MT performers will leave for the eastern states and two Showcase performances, one in Melbourne, one in Sydney. Agents and professional careers await. 

On the evidence of this performance the prospects are very good that all of them will find representation and be gracing our screens, both small and large, and stages throughout the world for years to come.

This gives me a moment of pause as I can’t possibly do justice to an evening that featured 21 pieces for the actors with another 23 musical theatre acts after intermission. However, I have decided to give general impressions and then list some of my personal highlights. Others will be making far more significant determinations in the coming days so my apologies in advance for the omissions. Let me say this though, it has been an absolute pleasure watching both classes throughout the year and this special Showcase performance for the Friends of the Academy was a fitting send off. I look forward to seeing your work in the coming years.

Okay, enough first act exposition! The evening was held at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre and I was fortunate to have a seat in the front row. The acting class was up first and their program was a mix of showreel scenes played on the big screen and live performances. The other aspect for both classes was individually filmed introductions for each actor/performer that were quirky and amusing to give a real sense of personality.    

The showreel scenes were directed by Andrew Lewis himself and looked terrific. My favourite was a beautifully nuanced piece between Holly Dyroff and Aleks Mikic who conveyed the subtext between their housemate characters superbly. Felicity McKay and Jane Watt had a fun scene that went in an unexpected direction involving a bathtub and, well, let’s just say, unusual interruptions. Joel Horwood and Harriet Davies were in a lovely ‘walk and talk’ scene that was understated and quite philosophical. What struck me through all the filmed scenes was the natural screen presence the actors had with Adam Sollis, Alexis Lane, Liam Maguire, Alex Malone and Emma Diaz also impressing.

Of the live pieces, Jane Watt gave a memorable performance as an over-eager participant in a fox hunt (Decadence); Holly Dyroff started proceedings with a bang in a scene from Venus in Furs with Jonny Hawkins; while Henry Hammersla and Felicity McKay attacked an excerpt from Enron in great style. There were a couple of 'classics’ thrown in with Stephanie Tsindos and Emma Diaz giving a new take on The Odd Couple while Joel Horwood and Alex Malone had fun with some Woody Allen style neuroses from Annie Hall. Aleks Mikic gave a really physical turn with a piece called Road. The riskiest act was written and performed by Adam Sollis and Jonny Hawkins who had a little fun with the whole showcase concept in a performance piece called We Are Acting that was amusing and clever.

Then it was all over. Friends and family were waiting in the foyer and there was a sense of relief and excitement. I congratulated those unencumbered by well-wishers and had a brief chat with Jonny who is always generous with his time.

Next up was the musical theatre class and there was a real Chicago vibe going on from Suzie Melloy featuring in Roxie to Jessica Voivenel’s Can’t Do It Alone and ensemble work to Overture/All That Jazz, Cell Block Tango and Hot Honey Rag. That suited me just fine! Sondheim also had a work out with Sophie Cheeseman giving a wonderfully moving rendition of Not A Day Goes By and Ben Adams reprising his star turn in Merrily We Roll Along with Franklin Shepard Inc. Daniel Berini was very strong with Finishing the Hat and Ashleigh Rubenach charming as she sang On The Steps of The Palace from Into the Woods.

Other highlights included William Groucutt’s crowd pleasing Boyband which is such a well-executed showcase of his talents. Similarly, Max Bimbi’s The Plane (is Going Down) always gets a laugh but is a demanding piece that he does very well. Rounding out the quirky quotient was Nick Eynaud’s To Excess which features quite disturbing lyrics if you stop to think about it but is presented with such goofy charm that we laugh anyway.

Perhaps my favourite piece was Lyndon Watts’ Le Jazz Hot, a stirring exhibition of his singing and dancing skills. It was very slick and yes, very hot. Du Toit Bredenkamp gave a stirring rendition of The Streets of Dublin then there was Rebecca Hetherington’s powerful No One Will Bruise where she didn’t miss a beat with the only blemish on the night – the woman next to me whose mobile starting ringing - come on people, it’s not that fucking difficult, turn the damn thing off or put it on silent! I very much liked Shannen Alyce’s With You and Sophie Stokes ended the evening with a terrific performance of On My Way. I should also mention the excellent work on piano by Kohan van Sambeeck while Groucutt and Bredenkamp provided occasional musical assistance.

Afterwards I had conversations with Suzie, Ashleigh, Sophie, Daniel, Nick, and Rebecca and again what strikes me is how generous they are with their time and how genuinely lovely they are. Interestingly, many expressed how much more nervous they were performing in front of their peers that afternoon. For many this is also their last week in Perth so it is a massive time of change and future prospects.

In all, an excellent night with some two hours of entertainment that is the culmination of three years of hard work, talent, and dedication that I can only but admire.

To the acting class of Julio Cesar, Harriet Davies, Emma Diaz, Holly Dyroff, Alexander Frank, Henry Hammersla, Jonny Hawkins, Joel Horwood, Alexis Lane, Liam Maguire, Alex Malone, Kristy Marillier, Felicity McKay, Aleks Mikic, Harry Richardson, Adam Sollis, Stephanie Tsindos, and Jane Watt; and the musical theatre class of Ben Adams, Shannen Alyce, Daniel Berini, Max Bimbi, Du Toit Bredenkamp, Eloise Cassidy, Sophie Cheeseman, Nick Eynaud, William Groucutt, Rebecca Hetherington, Miranda Macpherson, Stephen Madsen, Suzie Melloy, Ashleigh Rubenach, Sophie Stokes, Jack Van Staveren, Jessica Voivenel, Lyndon Watts, Patrick Whitbread, and Chloe Wilson I wish you all the best for the eastern states’ Showcases and your future careers!

Shows reviewed from this year:

Monday, 27 October 2014

Crave - Hayman Theatre Company (26 October 2014)

Four actors, four wooden chairs, one black box theatre. Two actors in white, the other pair in black. Male, female, black, white. Nameless, elusive, damaged. Short, precise lines picked up and carried by each actor as if thoughts tumbling in the breeze. Terrible words, terrible deeds, terrible legacy. Abrupt outbursts, anger, longing, obsession. Moments of eloquence, dense passages of intense monologue. Hurt. Futility. Abuse. Rape. Murder?

Confusion, annoyance, concentration. It’s Sunday night and I’m struggling. The fractured nature of the delivery and of the stylised writing forces me to pay attention. It is elliptical and obtuse. Initially it surprises me. Then it annoys me. Then slowly, awkwardly, its rhythms and darkness fascinate me. What is it all about? What does it mean? Why do I care? How should I respond? I feel emotionally distant as if watching an ugly transgression through Perspex. Is it even real?

Ultimately, did I like Sarah Kane’s writing? No. It was deliberately ambiguous, a verbal manifestation of that blurred object that refuses to fall into focus in the extreme of your peripheral vision. Far too much like hard work on a Sunday night. On any night.

What elevates the production is the fine work of all four actors who are very good with the exacting dialogue that requires precise timing; and the direction of Savannah Wood who keeps them in motion and interacting in striking pairings. Those actors are white-clad Caleb Robinson-Cook who gives a bravura extended monologue that was an emotional assault of rapid fire words that I later learnt took the better part of 12 weeks to nail in rehearsal. I can believe it. His black-clad male counterpart is Ryan Hunt who predominantly interacts with Annika-Jane Shugrue, also in black, while Emma Smith gravitates more to Robinson-Cook.  

All of them exhibit a range of emotions as they verbally joust over the most horrible of topics. This is full on and not for the fainthearted.  A couple of choice blood-curdling screams act as both punctuation points and a sonic slap in the face to make sure the audience’s attention doesn’t waver. The chairs are used as props throughout and there is a real physical nature to the performance that adds to the verbal conundrums. This is essential as a static presentation would have lost me in the more portentous meanderings of the writing.

At the end I could not help but admire the skill and precision that was used to bring a very difficult piece to life.

But what did it all mean?

My immediate reaction was that the black and white characters were different representations of a man and woman who were in a dysfunctional relationship with an exploration of the reasons for that dysfunction and its consequences. There were lines about generations passing on events and knowledge so I initially thought each embodied a family history of sorts. Talking to one of the actors afterwards he suggested they had tackled it as four separate characters, one pairing being the parents of the troubled couple. I had taken references to 'mother' as being more metaphorical but that’s the elusive nature of the play. Any interpretation might be valid with the non-specific stage directions in the script and the lack of clarity of who is talking to whom.

So I looked online for previous reviews from different productions and pretty much none of them offered a theory other than to list themes, general observations and exhibit a fascination with T.S. Eliot. At least I wasn’t the only one who found it hard work!

I can’t say I 'enjoyed' the play but it certainly was a fascinating if dark experience that was well performed and directed.

Crave was written by Sarah Kane, Directed by Savannah Wood and starred Caleb Robinson-Cook, Ryan Hunt, Emma Smith and Annika-Jane Shugrue. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Gasp! - Black Swan State Theatre Company & Queensland Theatre Company (25 October 2014)

Excited chatter went around the Heath Ledger Theatre as people realised that Ben Elton was in the audience for the opening preview of his play Gasp! The director Wesley Enoch gave a brief introduction including the right to stop the play at any stage if there were technical difficulties. Thankfully this wasn’t required as the performance went smoothly with opening night scheduled for this Wednesday.

Gasp! is a reworking of Elton’s first professional play (originally called Gasping) and has been reimagined specifically in an Australian context. It is a satire about the absurdity and ethical vacuum of big business as even air is commodified for profit. Great for those who can afford this designer air, not so good for the poor who slowly suffocate. 

The cast is made up of Greg McNeill as Chifley Lockheart, head of a resources company that has mined most of Australia and sent it offshore to the Chinese. Steven Rooke plays a seven figure executive, Sandy, who toadies up to the boss at every opportunity and lords over the six figure number two, Phillip (Damon Lockwood). Phillip has his heart set on asthma-ridden Peggy (Lucy Goleby) whose respiratory ailments give him the idea for Suck ‘n’ Blow, a device that sucks in the air, purifies it, and blows it back into classy establishments. But as Caroline Brazier’s high powered marketing executive, Kirsten, excels in selling this designer air, suddenly consumers are hording it until finally oxygen itself is just another product. The power of global market forces ensures it quickly becomes out of reach of the masses to devastating consequences.

The cast is excellent. Lockwood impresses as the man who wants to prove himself not only in the company but to the girl he tried to kiss ‘on the oval’. I have some issues about his character’s arc but this is otherwise a very engaging performance. McNeill has great fun as the blustering corporate heavyweight and gives a cheeky turn in more ways than one. Rooke has a difficult role as his character is largely a device to generate conflict and obstacles for Phillip but he does it well. Brazier gives the ballsy ad executive an air of supreme confidence and sexiness that works in direct contrast to perhaps the key role, Goleby’s Peggy. She plays the moral compass of the play with a natural charm that grounds proceedings as every other character deals in hyperbole and one-upmanship.  

Enoch’s curious introductory remarks make much more sense when you see the technical ingenuity of the set where sliding sections of stage floor meant scene changes were quick, seamless, and inventive. There is also a large screen on the back wall where images and charts are projected to give this a real visual flair. The recreation of an executive steam room was particularly well done. There was only one moment where Lockwood was left in darkness at the beginning of a scene a few beats too long but being most adept at improvisation his winking nods to the audience kept things moving nicely. There were some minor timing issues but that will shake out over the run as the cast adjusts to where unexpected or prolonged laughs and spontaneous bursts of applause land.

Then there is the writing. Blackadder certainly was a formative sitcom as I was growing up and that style of humour is replete here, especially throughout the first act. Witty and cutting asides on topics and persons of derision are trademarks but at times it felt like Elton was too eager to please a hometown audience. The local references are fast and furious and there is an immediacy that instantly dates this version. The mining industry and figures such as Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer, Twiggy Forrest and Rupert Murdoch are easy targets as is the obligatory Abbott jab. Then there’s a host of pop culture references including the Kardashians, the Minogues, and even a Russell Crowe gag. Sure, it’s funny but at times felt strained.

Enoch had also mentioned that the creative team would be watching audience reactions as they calibrated the show and performances. This becomes notable in the second act where there was an early sequence where the humour became questionable especially in relation to women and there was an outburst regarding indigenous Australians that had me gasping but for all the wrong reasons. It was in keeping with the character’s viewpoint but the fact it went unchallenged was a concern. The mood of the audience noticeably shifted and it was an uncomfortable stretch for a while.

The second act is problematic because the dilemma set up for Phillip is whether he’ll stay beholden to the company or follow his conscience as pricked by Peggy. At times he seems to resist the manipulations of Lockheart but then is complicit in the larger horror of the ruthless extension of the air industry. So Phillip’s moral compass wavers all over the place whereas it called for a more natural progression. Peggy’s fate is dealt with in perfunctory fashion which felt odd as she should have been the moral bedrock in any decision Phillip made. The ending acts only as that – an end to the play. It comes out of left field and is thematically disturbing – the only action to take in the face of a rapacious and out-of-control business conglomerate is one so extreme as to be horrifying on many levels. Yes, this is satire but it was too much of a dark twist for mine. In the words of the play, it needed another ‘dog turd’ to bring out the absurdity in the fabric of the premise.

Having said that, there is a lot to like here - very strong performances, a great set and, especially in the first half, the trademark sense of humour that has made Ben Elton a household name. However, it will be interesting to discover whether Messrs’ Enoch, Elton and co were indeed listening to the mood of the audience early in the second act as the lady sitting next to me openly pondered as the lights came up.

Gasp! opens on Wednesday night at the State Theatre Centre and runs until 9 November. Written by Ben Elton and Directed by Wesley Enoch it stars Damon Lockwood, Greg McNeill, Caroline Brazier, Lucy Goleby and Steven Rooke.