Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles - ARENAarts (30 March 2014)

Ever popular, Sherlock Holmes seems to be everywhere lately – Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptations, competing small screen versions on both sides of the Atlantic, and now he’s treading the boards in Belmont, played by actress Amanda Watson no less. Yes, The Hound of the Baskervilles has come to community theatre via ARENAarts and a “very silly adaptation”.

That may actually be an understatement. The script throws pretty much everything at the story of Henry Baskerville travelling to the moors of Dartmoor from Canada as the only living heir to the family fortune after the death of Sir Charles Baskerville under mysterious circumstances. There is physical comedy, skits, pranks, high farce, and constant asides to the audience; the actors breaking character to comment on events, deliberately missed cues, a marauding stage manager, groan inducing jokes, running gags, sight gags, and inspired mischief with props and sound. The comedy is of that particular English vein of pantomime meets Benny Hill meets Monty Python.

Does it all work? For me, no - the humour is very hit and miss at times but the writers of the adaptation, Steve Canny and John Nicholson, know this and pepper their version with self-aware commentary about the more suspect gags, the acting, the script, the crew and staging. So much is thrown at the wall, however, that plenty of it sticks and I was laughing throughout.

The story stays true to the spine of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic with suitable exaggeration for comedic effect. I will admit it was all a little too scattergun for me during the first act but the second act starts with a bang and by the end I was sold on all the silliness.

This is in no small part to the work of the three actors - Amanda Watson, Bree Vreedenburg, and Rachael Maher - who were all excellent in a physically demanding production. Playing multiple characters with rapid scene and costume transitions with an array of sound cues meant that they were certainly kept on their toes.

Watson is very good as Holmes (I love the irony!), to such an extent that I missed this onstage persona in the second half of the first act as the story focusses on Doctor Watson and Henry Baskerville’s journey to Dartmoor. Here she plays an array of characters – Stapleton, Cecile, Barrymore and his wife, a weird yokel (with a very funny Godfather sight gag) and a hermit. Not to say she’s not good at these (she is) but I loved the confidence and drollness Watson exudes as Holmes.

Bree Vreedenburg in many ways grounds the whole production as she is allowed to play Watson throughout with only one other character change (another yokel). There is an earnestness and naivety here that is endearing amongst all the lunacy. Vreedenburg’s Watson also acts as de facto narrator and the butt of many of Holmes’ jibes (face palm).

Rachael Maher also has multiple characters – initially Sir Charles Baskerville, Doctor Mortimer, the cabbie and another yokel but it is in the main role of Sir Henry Baskerville that she really shines. Maher has a gift for physical comedy and was a delight as the sometimes preening, sometimes lovelorn, sometimes pant-less Henry.

They are given great support by Jane Sherwood as the Faceless Stage Manager who not only moves props around but audibly corrects the pronunciation of names and has her own moment of craziness as she provides the sound effects and movements that accompany the reprise of the first act.

This is where it all clicked into place for me – the second act starts with Amanda Watson (as Watson not Holmes… stay with me here) haranguing the audience and then demanding the first act be restaged to prove a point. This compressed retelling is hilarious and really propels the story to its climax as the dastardly fiend is uncovered and the hound slain.

The set is ingeniously designed to allow for swift scene transitions with a simple backdrop for the moor and a back wall that had panels that could be moved to represent Baker Street or Baskerville Manor. There was even a subtle sight gag when the moor backdrop was only partially raised - revealing two thirds of Baskerville Manor - where the two actors crouched to the adjusted level.

The sound effects were playful, being out of synch a lot of times with the actions on stage. The music was full of appropriately silly pop culture references from Stars Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Godfather.

But the stars here are Watson, Vreedenburg and Maher who give full tilt performances and embrace the overriding absurdity of it all with great energy and charm.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is directed by Simon James and is on at the Latvian Club in Belmont with shows Thursday through Saturday, 3-5 April at 8pm.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Standover Man - Subiaco Arts Centre (26 March 2014)

I attended opening night of The Standover Man which is on at the Subiaco Arts Centre as part of the Independent Theatre Festival and runs until Saturday.

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.

Suffice to say, it is a set of stories that collide in various ways:

A standover man (Mario Piccoli) who hears the voice of Joan of Arc, takes in an angry teenager (Esther Longhurst) who wants to fight the world.

An accountant (Nick Maclaine) who is also a hitman for the mob, starts a relationship with a divorcee (Laura Hopwood) after they have a minor car accident.

Then there are the two tales narrated by Joan of Arc herself (Laura Hopwood). Theo Messenger gives added support in various roles.

I admit, at first, I was a little unsettled and confused about the narrated tales but their purpose and significance slowly become crystal clear to devastating effect. The introduction to each character and their predicament is handled with a "knock" (the standover man coming to collect money from the teenager), a "bang" (the accountant and divorcee exchanging details after a minor bingle), and a "smile" (the accountant capably dispatches a nightclub owner for his "boss"). Swirling around this are the machinations of the underworld as a merger is threatened by the rash actions of the teenager. It all barrels towards a surprising climax and a subtle yet telling punctuation point of a reprise that hints that this tale will forever be ongoing.

The performances are very good. Esther Longhurst is outstanding as the teenager who has a point to prove and will take on anyone to do so. Nick Maclaine turns on the charm as he woos the divorcee but is nothing less than businesslike carrying out his underworld duties. Mario Piccoli's eponymous character is an interesting mix of menace with a softer side (the fastidious care of his precious rose bush) with a dash of "crazy" as he responds to the Joan of Arc in his head. Laura Hopwood shines as the uncertain single mother and the imploring French historical figure.

The latter character is an unusual but inspired choice as a real curve ball that adds another dimension to the type of seedy criminal setting we've seen before. There is also a healthy dash of black humour.

The staging is inventive with interesting use of lighting - hand held torches give mood and atmosphere as characters are cast in shadow or highlighted accordingly. Lots of darkness and stillness as well. The stage itself is economical with the bed doubling as a car (again with the use of simple lighting props), a kitchen table, a picketed back section and a side wall with door. The transitions between scenes are seamless.

This really is impressive - a tight script, wonderful performances, all immaculately staged. With only three more performances remaining I highly recommend The Standover Man.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Townspeople and the Plague - Murdoch Theatre Company (23 March 2014)

I arrived early at Murdoch University for the 12pm matinee because, having never been to the Drama Workshop before, I wanted to make sure I had time to find it on campus. Turns out this was pretty easy. However, this meant I was the first one there and was let in by the play’s director, Kate Willoughby. I had a good chat with Kate and members of front of house as they arrived – about the background of the Murdoch Theatre Company, the selection of the play, their theatre interests and ambitions, even a discussion about the WAAPA productions I’d seen during the week. It was a relaxing and interesting preface to the performance.

There were notes about the play from Kate and the writer, Anthony KJ Smith on a pin board along with a cast list (should have paid more attention Richard) and some photos. I hastily read the playwright’s notes where he himself admits this is a “wanky piece of theatre".

Okay, he’s not going to get an argument from me on that score. This has been deliberately written to be obtuse and to play with and subvert audience expectations. Overlapping dialogue, self-referential ‘stage directions’, asides about storytelling devices, nonsensical monologues, an inexplicable vaudeville number, a slither of plot, plenty of slapstick and even a minute’s silence for no apparent reason. Yet it all kind of works because the actors commendably commit to the material and largely play it straight. If this had too much “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” the show would have collapsed under the pretensions of the script.

Indeed, there is more than a healthy dose of Monty Python here – with the dramatic entrance of ‘The Fucking Plot’ (also known as Imogen) we get a monologue introducing a tale that could be straight out of a Python-esque universe. Edgar the Fourth, however, turns out not to be the protagonist of this tale. That falls to Proxy-shit who fights the good fight for someone or another against something or another with fabulous success and/or failure… I can’t recall. But that’s of little interest to the writer who also plays with faux philosophical discourse and musings. I mean, one of the characters is even a Viking, played with scene stealing intensity by Rhianna Hall. Oh, there’s even a werewolf… and a dance number… and very large genitals. Yes, it’s that kind of play.

The narrator, Sylvia, dispenses actual stage directions in a suitably droll fashion and we even have a little Avenue Q style hand puppet work going on. A stagehand occasionally features, interacting with the cast and determining the fate of the moon. Yes, it’s all very self-aware and clever but there are genuinely funny moments as well as the ‘what the hell am I witnessing’ excursions.

As a young woman behind me remarked to her friends after it had all finished, “I really liked it… I just don’t know why.” That actually sums up my feelings as well. This is absurdist and perhaps trying far too hard to be clever but it has a committed cast giving good performances with many funny and entertaining moments. Just don’t ask me what it all means. From the gist of the writer’s notes I don’t think he even knows and I suspect that’s the point!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Hair - WAAPA (19 March 2014)

The power of any good performance art is to transport an audience to another time, another place; to immerse that audience in the world of the story and its characters; to shed light and understanding on that world and its inhabitants whether it is a vision of the future, a reflection of the past or even pure fantasy. Hair is neither science fiction nor fantasy but it does represent a specific period of time and place that may be as foreign in many ways to a modern day audience as the most outlandish of tales that grace our screens, small and large.

The hippie culture with its celebration of freedom and love within the context of the Vietnam War and the ever present threat of conscription and overbearing authority is unique and vibrant. Around it swirled the sexual revolution, a formative era of rock and roll where icons were forged, and the celebration of drug culture. It was also a time of war and the questioning of America’s moral authority and indeed of authority figures as a whole.

I write this as a preface because I was not there. Well, barely around when the original production first opened on Broadway in 1968. I was, however, certainly there on Wednesday night. And that is a great tribute to all involved with this excellent production. I was taken to that time and place. I did experience a window into this culture and its inhabitants. I saw the joy, the love, the confusion, the anger, the tragedy. I also witnessed a group of wonderfully talented third year musical theatre students from WAAPA strut their stuff and, oh my, how they strutted and cavorted and danced and sang and entertained.

The cast was uniformly excellent from Daniel Berini’s charismatic Berger to Du Toit Bredenkamp’s conflicted and ultimately tragic Claude; Sophie Stokes was in fine voice as Sheila Franklin with the superb ‘Easy to Be Hard’ and ‘Good Morning Starshine’,while Shannen Chin-Quan gave a lovely rendition of ‘Frank Mills’. Lyndon Watts (Hud) and Stephen Madsen (Woof) were also prominent with Eloise Cassidy a convincing “earth mother” as the pregnant Jeanie. Chloe Wilson threatened to steal the show with her hilarious Margaret Mead a highlight. But there were many of those from wonderful renditions of ‘Aquarius’, ‘Hair’, ‘Where Do I Go?’ and the joyous ‘Let the Sunshine In’ that concludes the show to the drug trip sequence and the tasteful handling of the trademark nudity as the cast strip down in the face of the horrors of war projected behind them.

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.

This really was a superb production that showcased a very strong third year class. Congratulations to director (and choreographer) Tanya Mitford and all the crew and support staff. Kudos especially to the cast comprising: Max Bimbi, Nick Eynaud, Ashleigh Rubenach, Stephen Madsen, Sophie Stokes, Daniel Berini, Chloe Wilson, Suzie Melloy, Du Toit Bredenkamp, Lyndon Watts, Patrick Whitbread, Rebecca Hetherington, William Groucutt, Ben Adams, Jack Van Staveren, Shannen Chin-Quan, Eloise Cassidy, Sophie Cheeseman, Miranda MacPherson and Jessica Voivenel.

In closing, I bumped into a friend who saw the Australian production in 1969 that featured Marcia Hines. He remarked that some 45 years later all the songs came flooding back and that WAAPA had done a wonderful job in recreating the feeling of that time.

Yes, for a couple of hours we were indeed transported to a different time and place…

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Beach - WAAPA (18 March 2014)

There is perhaps no more iconic an Australian image than a sun drenched beach at summertime. A place where Australians of all descriptions and backgrounds come to frolic, to play, to escape the unrelenting sun; sometimes to reflect, sometimes to dream of a better future.

Timothy Daly’s sprawling play examines the beach’s place in Australia’s national conscience from the time of the first white settlers until the present day. It is a presented as a series of vignettes - some that intertwine, most that explore an aspect of our heritage. It has a strong multi-cultural flavour and touches on political issues, notably the prejudice against those who come to our shores to share such blessings.

This version has been fortunately edited down from the original’s script of 300 pages and, I believe, 130 characters, to a more manageable running time. With a cast of 20 second year musical theatre students there is still room for some 80 characters. In other words it’s a big undertaking. The set is simple – a rostrum and a sand pit – with three separate entry points for the actors in the Enright Studio.

Talking to the director afterwards, this was the acting debut of many of the students in front of a paying audience. There is some singing – enough to be excited for future musical productions – but this is mainly a mix of comedy, drama, and skits. I’m not sure it entirely worked for me as a coherent play but it did showcase the talent of the second year musical theatre class. Everyone had an opportunity to shine and the production went without a hitch.

The first act ends on the impending doom of the 2004 tsunami which was a strong, emotional climax as multiple story strands came together in that moment. But also highlights the problematic nature of the piece which became more apparent in the much darker second act where I was unsure of the thematic relevance of several scenes. Allegations of rape, the continuation of a (deliberately) uncomfortable story strand that involved a young girl and an older ‘friendly’ man (the conclusion of which was subtly handled), a drug overdose, other revelations and reversals. There was even a moment where the drug victim is confronted by an early settler only to realise she is now a ghost. This was an interesting development but came late and was soon discarded.

Other strands were forgotten like the fate of Harold Holt – the second one that is, playing the part of the famously missing Prime Minister, who himself went missing. What these darker moments did do, however, was give the actors real drama to sink their teeth into and these scenes are well handled. If this is the acting debut of many in the cast then their efforts were all the more impressive.

A narrator is deployed but breaks the fourth wall soon after the buoyant opening sequence to directly welcome the audience to Beach but this seemed late and a technique sporadically and half-heartedly used - not by the performer I hasten to add but in the writing itself.

There is plenty of humour throughout, particularly the discovery of the joy of “picnics” by an otherwise chaste settler; and the fate of a screenwriter on location at the beach for the adaptation of his own novel was of personal amusement - “I am the creator of the piece”, he protests as he is escorted far, far away by security!

At its best Beach is a joyous celebration of a unique aspect of Australian life and is a most promising beginning to the year for this class of students. I very much look forward to seeing their future productions.

Directed by Michael McCall and featuring the WAAPA second year musical students: Alex Thompson, Baylie Carson, Callum Sandercock, Chris Wilcox, Daniel Ridolfi, Harrison Prouse, Heather Manley, Jacob Dibb, Jess Phillippi, Joe Meldrum, Joel Granger, Kate Thomas, Matilda Moran, Matthew Hyde, Megan Kozak, Morgan Palmer, Rosabelle Elliott, Tanele Storm Graham, Taryn Ryan and Tayla Jarrett.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Subscription to Love - Playlovers (15 March 2014)

This is a new, locally written play by Will Dunlop that had a three night run at Playlovers in Floreat. I must apologise in advance as I saw the production on its last night and they had no programs left so I am unable to name the actors. The good news, as the gentlemen behind the bar informed me, is that they had not expected such a strong audience turnout over the run, hence the lack of programs. Indeed it was a full house for the last show.

At its heart Subscription to Love, as the title suggests, is a story about the romantic entanglements of two pairs of friends – Claire and Anna, Jamie and Elliott – who meet at a Sunday session. The girls flirt with the boys with Claire attracted to newly single Jamie while Anna talks with a struggling Elliott who is gay but determined to be the “wingman” for his friend who he is in love with.

Billed as a “modern day tragi-comedy” it’s curious then that it was written in iambic pentameter or, as one lady during intermission described to her friends, “they all talk like Yoda”. This, at times, sat uncomfortably with the actors, especially early where lines were often stumbled over. A few of the actors delivered the dialogue at breakneck speed so it also made it difficult to follow the flow. I had a sense that lines were being recited rather than a character being inhabited. That may have more to do with the wildly ambitious nature of the writing than the actors themselves. A lot of the play was also constructed as soliloquies which fits the language but not the modern day setting as much.

There were moments though where the choice of language worked nicely – Jamie’s jilted ex-lover Jessica imploring Claire to mention his name which she finally does after playfully avoiding the fact in rhyme. And the waiter at Claire and Jamie’s first ‘sober date’ intervening to ensure things go smoothly. There was some sly humour using the form though overt distortions of Shakespeare, particularly something as iconic as “To be or not to be” flirted with dilution by comparison.

A Shakespearean style narrator of sorts was also deployed – Harold the Hobo – who kicks the play off but then becomes a major player and is a catalyst for the tragedy that unfolds late. This was performed with theatrical flourish which tended to grate late in the play and also was at odds with more understated performances such as Jamie. I’m not entirely sure what a lot of his commentary contributed and this is a major issue I had with the play. Added to the story of the two friends was a raft of unrelated scenes where characters gave stand and deliver style dissertations on political issues - everything from the mining boom to asylum seekers to indigenous reconciliation to gay rights and even shark culling.

This was jarring to say the least regardless of what your politics may be (Abbott and Barnett come in for typical condemnation). One character, the barfly, was purely a device to facilitate these diatribes. The indigenous barmaid was her ‘wingman’ in this regard though she does have some involvement in the late second act complications. I had the distinct feeling that this was the writer talking directly at the audience. The problem with this is threefold – I don’t go to the theatre to be lectured at; it took up valuable time - this play ran about 2 hours 10 minutes on a slim premise as it was; it was very specific and localised (additions must have been made to the script within the last week or so to incorporate current hot topic issues) which will date the play.

There was even an early soliloquy by (the fit looking Jamie) about obesity which was reprised but left me confused as there was no hint of this in his opening scene where he seemed the more confident of the two friends.

His friend Elliot has the most interesting arc and is generally well played by the actor. He befriends Harold (though why we need a lecture on early Australian explorers was a mystery) who responds to his “benevolence”. Of all the intrusive political commentary, at least the question of gay rights has some relevance as Elliott struggles with his feelings for Jamie and the quest to find love.


Strange then for a play that bluntly trumpets a certain political viewpoint, that it is the gay man, Elliott, who is king hit coming to Harold’s aid (in response to a late, random act of thuggery) and subsequently dies. He was on his way to a date with Michael(?) the waiter having finally found the possibility of love. Claire and Jamie are seemingly reunited by this tragedy by the end of the play. This is after Jamie’s ex, Jessica, had accosted both Jamie and Claire declaring herself to be pregnant thus causing Claire to withdraw. Jessica later commits suicide by throwing herself under the train Jamie was on. We never see Jamie’s reaction to this, indeed all he appears to know is that the train has been annoyingly delayed.

In summary there is great ambition here but it is unfocussed. The play seems to begin as a possible Closer style relationship drama but then is diffused by unrelated political commentary. The running time is far too long and characters such as Anna disappear for an eternity only to be brought back as the late tragedy unfolds. I should have twigged early when Anna declared she was an emergency nurse. Harold has his moments but tends to overstay his welcome. Ultimately I don’t know what the play is saying about love – Elliott is ‘punished’ for finding love whereas Jamie seems ‘rewarded’ by ending up with Claire with no discernible effort. The plan that was hatched by Elliott and the barmaid to bring Jamie and Claire together comes to nought as the tragedy takes precedence.

It is here where I would concentrate – the spine of the story between the friends and their entanglements – and downplay the political discourse which, while passionate, distances and distracts.