Sunday, 27 July 2014

Lovers: Losers - The Irish Theatre Players (27 July 2014)

Firstly, I must apologise to the cast and crew of the second play under the Lovers banner, Winners. I had felt unwell during the first play and a dash outside for some fresh air during intermission – bypassing what I’m sure was a lovely supper – didn’t improve the situation. Discretion became the better part of theatrical valour as I headed home. It turns out I am a Loser…

Which is a, um, nice segue to the first play presented at the Irish Club in Subiaco…

Andy (Rory Buckley) is cursed by his mother-in-law, the widow Mrs Wilson (Clare Wilson), who has been firmly ensconced in the upstairs bedroom since her husband died three (or was it four?) years ago. She has the infuriating habit of ringing a bell whenever Andy and his wife Hanna (Katie Toner) are too quiet for her liking. This sits none too well with Hanna who resents being at her mother’s beck and call. It also means the married couple need to find creative ways to spend some quality time together which involves the loud recitation of poetry whilst engaging in less literary activity. Not that the pious widow and her equally religious friend, Cissy (Siobhan Wright) would condone such things. Andy takes great delight in the news then that Saint Philomena, Mrs Wilson’s idol (in more ways than one), has been disgraced leading to a drunken and humorous confrontation. But in the end this frustrating arrangement survives making everyone a loser of sorts.

The set is basic with a couch depicting the downstairs lounge room and a bed (hidden by half the stage curtain when not required) representing the upstairs bedroom. Buckley directly addresses the audience as Andy tells his tale of woe and while he gives an amiable enough performance I found his Irish accent very thick. I suspect I also missed some of the subtlety in the humour with references I was unsure of. Wright and Wilson are very much supporting players but are suitably chaste and aghast as required. Toner injects some real zeal as Hanna, a role I believe is written to be much older. Having seen her in So Much To Tell You it’s clear she is very good at playing feisty which is what is required here as well. While talented, I would be very interested to see her in a ‘quieter’ role next outing with more subtlety and less bluster.

It was a full matinee audience and with many Irish accents in evidence I’m sure the play resonated more strongly with the locals. The only downside with the numbers was that the seating arrangements were pretty tight and a tad uncomfortable getting to and from. There were appreciative chuckles throughout the play but it was neither a true comedy nor drama, rather a wry exploration of a couple’s misfortune which seemed to have no end in sight. But then that appeared to be the point.

Written by acclaimed Irish dramatist Brian Friel and directed by Bobby Greaney, Lovers (Losers) starred Rory Buckley, Katie Toner, Clare Wilson and Siobhan Wright.

The Jones/Woods Holiday Special - Holland St Productions (26 July 2014)

Back in a time before digital music downloads there used to be something called an ‘album’. This was a collection of songs played in a pre-determined order. Quaint, I know! This led to what was known as the Greatest Hits album where the best songs of a band or artist over their career were brought together onto the one record. Or what young people today call a ‘playlist’. Usually, to release a greatest hits album, you’d have to have a sustained period of success…

How audacious then for Messrs Jones and Woods to put together a showcase of their ‘greatest hits’ for two performances only at the Hackett Hall in Floreat. Billed as The Jones/Woods Holiday Special the evening was a collection of original musical theatre songs written by Tyler Jacob Jones and Robert Woods and performed by them with a little help from their friends. Except audacious is a perfect word to describe this duo and they have both the talent and material to more than pull off such an evening. In fact it was a stunning and hilarious night that had the audience stomping and clapping in approval.

I was fortunate enough to see the final show of Point and Shoot at this year’s Fringe Festival, a musical that deservedly won the Artrage Theatre Award for Best Theatre Production and the coveted Martin Sims Award for Best New Western Australian Work. They had taken out the Artrage award the year before for Falling to the Top, a musical featuring The Divalettes, a group on the comeback trail with their appearance here (a chapter that will surely make its way into the annals of pop music history). I had also been impressed with Jones’ Finley Award nominated role as the lead in the musical Curtains as this very venue last year. It’s fair to say my expectations going in were high. It’s also fair to say they easily cleared that bar.

Three things that immediately struck me during this show – the showmanship on display (the chemistry between Jones and Woods is impressive as they introduced each segment, bantered, mock-argued, made-up and, at times, genuinely amused each other); the brilliance of the songs which are smart, incisive, clever, and outright funny; the absolute affection they have for not only musical theatre but also - and this was what I didn’t know but should have guessed at from Point and Shoot - feature films. There is a perfect fusion here between those two passions – film and musical theatre – and it’s a potent mix.

This was highlighted with a punctuation point in the closing section of the evening when they presented a new, short piece Gravity the Musical, a film Woods described as the greatest ever and bemoaned the fact it didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. Brianna Williams gave a pitch perfect performance as ‘Sandy’ with St John Crowder as ‘George’ and Jones himself as the third astronaut whose name nobody remembers and, donned in a blonde wig, Sandy’s daughter. The lyrics here are so incisive as they lovingly pay homage to the film but also mock it mercilessly (the lack of ‘Sandy’s back story other than she had a daughter… who died; and the massed company imploring  Sandy that “she can do it” satirising the film’s ropey second act turning point). This is a Fringe Festival show and lawsuit waiting to happen. But, oh my, it was jaw-achingly funny.

There were so many other highlights as the duo presented their back catalogue – a Japanese version of Lookamalips from Falling to the Top performed by kimono-clad Ichina Parker while The Divalettes looked on unimpressed; Jones singing the witty You’ll Do from Zombie Girlfriend, and an aching lament to Ashley Judd for never winning an Oscar; a roaring 80’s style pisstake, One Heart, from the duo’s Moviefest Extra entry Dragon Conquest, belted out by Ann-Marie Biagoni with a little help from Robert Woods and an over-the-top dual saxophone solo that was hilariously on point; the wistful Absolute Perfection from Point and Shoot which is perhaps my favourite of their songs, beautifully sung by Tamara Woolrych; You’re Insane from Robert Woods’ solo musical theatre exploit, Delicious House, featuring Timothy How and Tamara Woolrych; Paul Spencer’s rendition of Astronaut as a rhyme-challenged Woodsman; and Woods singing an excerpt from Jones’ Year 12 essay on the film American Beauty chosen at random by an audience member.

Phoebe Jackson was featured in two numbers, I Want To Fly (from undoubtedly the definitive Peter Pan adaptation) and Awful Folk from The Amberly Show. The Divalettes (Breeahn Jones, Kimberley Harris, Mariaelena Velletri and Claire Taylor) also had their moment to shine with a sassy reprise of Lookamalips. The ensemble from Point and Shoot (Jones, Woods, Woolrych and a wonderfully zany Erin Hutchinson) ran through four songs from that show and perhaps the biggest applause of the night was for youngster Rhylan Bush who played Captain Hook in I Want to Fly. David Gray rounded out the ensemble with vocal support on numbers such as the deliciously black Zombie Girlfriend and, if I'm not mistaken, was on keyboards at one point. 

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! 

Robert Woods and Tyler Jacob Jones are a duo to watch. They are touring the eastern states in a couple of months and I expect that they will break and break big – there is too much creativity, invention, and sheer chutzpah for them not to. On the evidence of this fabulous showcase theirs are names we’ll be hearing a lot of in the future. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Trials of Robin Hood - Murdoch Theatre Company (19 July 2014)

Robin Hood has been an enduring figure for centuries; through ballads, poems, stories and more recently, a raft of films and television series. From Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner, from Mel Brooks’ shtick in Men in Tights to the dour treatment by Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe who managed to make one of the most famous outlaws in history grim and dull. He is nothing less than fascinating and perhaps the ultimate anti-authoritarian symbol.

But who really was Robin Hood and what was the actual reason he stole from the rich to give to the poor? Thankfully, Ridley and Russell aren’t involved in this very amusing, Rashomon-style exploration of the myth, the legend… and the man who made Lincoln green a fashion sensation.

The ‘trial’ is presided over by King Richard (Mike Casas) newly returned from The Crusades. The ‘stout and lusty’ Robin Hood (Michael Davies) stoutly and lustily recounts his exploits from the time the King left for the Holy Lands and includes all the well-known moments as Prince John (Scott McArdle) runs amok, the Merry Men are assembled in Sherwood Forest, the rich are relieved of their wealth, and Maid Marian (Harriet Fettis) becomes the object of Robin’s, um, stoutliness and lustiliness-ness. Yes, this play surely must hold the record for the use of the words ‘stout’ and ‘lusty’ and variations thereof!

In this version, Robin paints himself as the just yeoman who defies the tyrannical John and his henchmen led by The Sheriff of Nottingham (Tom Dimmick). Robin is ultimately responsible for freeing the King from his captors, raising the King's ransom by infiltrating Nottingham and winning an archery contest... and, of course, winning something far more precious - Maid Marian herself. 

But wait!

Marian isn’t quite on board with all these details. In her version of the famous tale, it’s Robin’s infatuation with her beauty that drives him to acts designed to impress the fair maiden and ultimately win her hand. A lovelorn Robin mopes around Sherwood Forest until inspiration arrives in the form of the, not so much merry men, but Marian’s hand maidens in disguise. The whole redistribution of wealth thing was simply a ploy you see… in the name of love. Cue Bryan Adams lyrics.

Not so fast!

As the King himself notes, The Sheriff of Nottingham hasn’t come off too well in the previous versions. He sets the record straight in the final telling of the story. When the King sets off for Jerusalem, Prince John is left in charge and immediately raises taxes and prohibits the killing of the King’s Deer (Claire Tebbutt). According to The Sheriff, Robin is a simpleton who shoots the deer (to the lawman’s howls of anguish) and becomes an unwitting part of a ploy to nobly free the King. Such an environmentally conscious and loyal man this Sheriff is!

Ultimately the King addresses the audience and the true version is decided by their applause. At today’s matinee it seems the last few centuries of storytellers owe The Sheriff of Nottingham a huge apology, Robin Hood you dumb schmuck.

It’s all great fun with women disguised as men; Robin at one stage hilariously disguised as a woman called, well, Robin; kung fu fighting nuns; lustily fought battles with bamboo sticks; plenty of wordplay and puns; modern day musical cues and attitude and, generally, crazy antics all round.

Michael Davies is excellent as Robin playing three very distinct roles – the hero, the lovelorn sap, and the simpleton. He is a real crowd pleaser and received enthusiastic applause at closing bows for his engaging portrayal. Scott McArdle gives a wonderfully scenery chewing performance as the over-the-top Prince John while Harriet Fettis is a delightfully commanding and feisty object of desire not only for Robin but also Guy of Gisbourne (Hock Edwards who gives a funny, gangster style flourish to the rival suitor). Tom Dimmick quietly excels as The Sheriff and his Pacino-style-Godfather Part 3 howl of anguish over the deer’s death was a highlight. The supporting cast all give amusing performances with all kinds of inspired against-type casting such as Shannon Rogers as Friar Tuck and Chelsea Kunkler as, yes, ‘Willa’ Scarlet. Tebbutt’s deer was funny in each strand even though her demise is assured every time and Phillip Hutton has his moments as the Herald and human archery target.

Director Rachel Doulton and her crew have put together a fun show with colourful costuming and energetic staging with simple use of backdrops and lighting to create the world of Sherwood Forest and Nottingham. It is funny throughout and the conceit of having three separate points of view adds freshness to the well-known story.

It was great to see such a good crowd at the Saturday matinee with many children in attendance. There was a lovely moment after the show when an excited young boy rushed up to Scott McArdle who was still in his Prince John costume. That the boy’s sister scooted straight past Scott to greet Harriet Fettis in her stylish gown was even more delightful!

Written by Will Averill, Directed by Rachel Doulton and starring Michael Davies, Harriet Fettis, Mike Casas, Tom Dimmick, Scott McArdle, Hock Edwards, Jack Connolly, Kyle Blair, Ryan Partridge, Tym Sanders, Launcelot Ronzan, Chelsea Kunkler, Tarryn McGrath, Tijana Simich, Shannen Precious, Phillip Hutton, Claire Tebbutt, Jess Serio, Meagan Dux, Bob Morshidi, Shannon Rogers, Jenia Gladziejewski & Karen Hansord, there is only one more show left at Murdoch University’s Nexus Theatre, Sunday 20 July at 1pm.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Confessions of a Pyromaniac - The Blue Room Theatre (10 July 2014)

The power of expectation is a curious beast.

‘Confessions of a Pyromaniac’ is such an evocative title especially in a country where deliberately lit bushfires cause havoc and tragedy every fire season.

The poster is intriguing.

The synopsis I read online refers to a ‘recovering pyromaniac’; ‘confessions’ promises revelations and secrets.

All elements that are like dry tinder waiting for a spark to ignite them into action.

A spark that never comes.

Sometimes expectations can be misleading.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid play but it’s not anywhere near what I expected based on the title, the poster and the synopsis.

Sure, there is a phrase that is repeated a few times, “Light it up or burn it down” but that’s the extent of the pyromania.

Instead, this is a story about sibling rivalry and the conflict between talent and mediocrity. The ‘pyromaniac’ in question is Chris (Stephanie Somerville) who has lobbed unexpectedly at her brother’s place in Sydney. He is Max (Matthew Cooper), a published writer of children’s books who is having trouble finishing his latest fantasy installment. She is a washed out playwright who drinks too much and has no time for people who tolerate the mediocre like (according to Chris) Max himself and his fiancĂ© Sarah (Katya Shevstov). Then there’s David (Calen Tassone), a university student and photographer who lives with Max and Sarah. He fancies Chris and she quickly leads him astray as she disrupts the normal state of these people’s lives.

In some ways this reminded me of Zak Hilditch’s feature film The Actress, famously made for only $700, where a disruptive force causes chaos in a shared house arrangement. Yet where the antagonist in that story was deliberately manipulative and calculated, Chris is more an annoyance that rubs everyone up the wrong way. She tells David he doesn’t need to go to university to unleash his talent and that he should travel the world instead. She is scornful of Sarah’s office job and most of all she mocks her brother’s writing talent.

She rebukes him after he (amusingly) suggests that they write together – his fantasy worlds full of dragons and her penchant for politics and violence unlike anything seen before! [Congratulations to the audience member sat behind my left ear who whispered ‘Game of Thrones’ in case anyone didn’t get the joke.] He constantly pleads to know “how it ends” and we discover that their dead father was, according to Max, a storyteller and is the author of the “Light it up or let it burn” phrase. Chris has a different interpretation on what their father was and blames Max for leaving her behind in Perth when he went to Sydney.

This is well acted with Cooper (also the writer) a charismatic presence; Somerville’s Chris both dismissive and impulsive; Shevstov’s Sarah a concerned and practical foil; and Tassone imbues the young university student with wide eyed naivety and sweetness.

The changes in the relationships and the power hierarchy, however, felt too abrupt and too clinical. Chris starts as the woman who always needs a drink in her hand to the one who refuses a toast as Max descends into booze and pills. Their diametrically opposite character arcs are almost too perfectly constructed. The angry rift between Max and Sarah felt manufactured to generate maximum conflict and David’s change of allegiances was somewhat jarring. This may be due to the fact that at only an hour’s duration it’s difficult to convey such seismic shifts organically.

The other query I have is around the Chris character. She may be the Amadeus to Max’s Salieri but there is no evidence of this until late in proceedings when she receives a paid commission for a new play. I never saw the talent that gave her the moxie to belittle those around her.

Having said that, the dialogue is good and there was much to like here including the acting and a sparse but effective set that looked like a typical back porch in some outer Sydney suburb. While the play was not what I expected it did provide an interesting look at a sibling rivalry that revolved around writing and storytelling and that is to be appreciated.

Confessions of a Pyromaniac, Produced and Directed by Shakara Walley, Written by Matthew Cooper, and starring Matthew Cooper, Katya Shevstov, Calen Tassone, and Stephanie Somerville is on at The Blue Room until 19 July

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Giving Up The Ghosts - The Blue Room Theatre (9 July 2014)

There I was enjoying a cider at the upstairs bar talking to some local theatre luminaries when an innocuous question floats across the conversation, “what did you think of the production?” As you’re about to discover, I was quite impressed by the show and said so. Then it hits me, the person who has introduced themselves only as Sarah is… the writer of said play? Indeed she is. We then proceed to have a fabulous discussion including a ‘deleted scene’ re-enactment, the history of a beautifully written and performed sequence that nearly didn’t make the play, and a wonderfully awkward screenwriter-talking-to-first-time-playwright miscommunication over jargon, the gist of which was about how carefully constructed Giving Up The Ghosts is.

That writer, Sarah Young, is also a stand-up comedian so it was a thoroughly entertaining and interesting discussion, especially when the real life inspiration for one of the characters is briefly introduced and I discover that the stage manager is possibly on a one way trip to Mars (yes, really!). It pays to be a “straggler” (as Sarah put it) at the bar after a show at the Blue Room.

To the play itself - two people meet for the first time by a disused factory near the woods in the middle of the night. They have connected over the internet and have a terrible, shared purpose in mind. The 35 year old woman is Ruth is all wide-eyed, nervous agitation as she waits for seemingly affable truckie Steve to arrive. She has the chemicals and he has the duct tape to make sure the car is airtight.

What follows is a deftly written and performed character piece that has clearly defined ‘movements’ that inform tone and provide the context for the pairs’ interaction. There is the awkward phase as the two meet; a light comic sequence as they are interrupted by amorous youngsters with other things on their mind; a revelatory strand as the reasons for their separate decisions to be at this place bubble to the surface; and then the final sequence that exposes the ‘ghosts’ these two can no longer carry with them which is harrowing yet beautifully handled.

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.

The set is very simple – a stylised ‘tree’ in one corner with two battered car seats centre stage and leaves scattered across the floor. What is really impressive is the rhythm of the play. The use of silence, awkward pauses and moments of reflection add much to the credibility and seriousness of the situation and the character’s understanding of what they intend. But there is humour and humanity here that elevates the whole endeavour.

When I was talking about ‘movements’ Sarah indicated she approached it as if someone was on death row - last meal, last words, last rites - and you can see this in conversations and actions throughout. But there is so much subtlety – Georgia King’s Ruth initially will not let Steve anywhere close let alone touch her so those brief moments of physical contact and who initiates them are critical as their relationship slowly changes. Likewise, when she tells a lame story and later a ‘joke’ they are pivotal character moments. Grabovac’s response is telling as the joke is exposed and doubts encroach. They both play off each other so well and their character’s traits and reasons for being there are expertly conveyed. 

It really is an impressive fusion of intelligent writing and subtle performance. A telling factor is that this felt much longer than its 56 minute running time which is a testament to how well the writing, acting and the understated direction holds up – it never wanes, never loses your attention, indeed it is enthralling throughout.

Written by Sarah Young, Directed by Joe Lui and starring Georgia King and Paul Grabovac, Giving Up The Ghosts finishes at The Blue Room Theatre this Saturday, 12 July. 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society's Production of Macbeth - Darlington Theatre Players (6 July 2014)

One of William Shakesbear’s most famous plays is, of course, the great comedy McDuff, also known by superstitious actors as The Polish Play; going on stage with scuffed footwear being terribly poor form likely to bring bad luck. It’s the hilarious story of a general manager who rises to become CEO of the Scottish Bank… or something like that. I can’t seem to find that page in my notes. Anyway, for the purposes of this review the details don’t really matter. This production sees the combined forces of the Darling Scarp Players Association and The Farnsworth Amateur Women’s Bowls, Bingo and Abseiling Club on full display at the recently renovated Marloo Theatre in Donnybrook, now featuring running water and heating!  

The title role is played in convincing style by Sally Ketteringham with able support by Gail Storm and Greg Boyd. The set is a work in progress - think Olympic stadium in a third world country a month before the Opening Ceremony - though the costuming was quite accomplished given the amount of curtains, drapes and bed linen used. The director has clearly encouraged the use of improvisation and the entire cast respond magnificently to the challenge. The play also features the best use of fishing rods since last years’ spectacular Fly Fishing The Musical at the neighbouring Garlic Theatre Club. There was quite the controversy, however, when a female reviewer stormed on stage at the end of the play and insisted on giving a full blown critique right there and then. Allegations have also been made that the raffle at intermission was rigged. All in all though, a satisfying afternoon’s entertainment…

Ricahrd Hyde, Film Critic

Okay, there may have been one or two inaccuracies in the above review…

In every instance all amateur or community theatre productions do their utmost to put on the best show possible. They may not always have the resources or sheer talent available but they substitute this with passion, ingenuity and a genuine sense of camaraderie. This play throws that all out the window with one simple premise:

What if the worst amateur theatre company ever tried to put on a production of Macbeth?

The result is a funny and charming show as every conceivable mishap befalls the production – missing actors, disabled actors, actors who forget their lines, actors with inflated egos, actors with laryngitis, a set that falls apart with a decent shove, props that don’t appear, props that mysteriously appear, sound cues missed, overly loud sound design, you name it. It’s very much a farce that delivers consistent laughs throughout; the charm coming from a throwback sensibility to English comedy of the sixties and seventies. In other words it’s all good fun with some iconic Shakespearean moments sabotaged in glorious fashion, especially “Out, damned spot!” (a moment that plays with the agony of ‘corpsing’) and “Double, double, toil and trouble” turned into a dance routine!

Siobhan Vincent is very good as Thelma who plays Macbeth in most earnest fashion as everything collapses around her until finally she has had enough before rallying to return for a glorious death scene. Rodney Palmer is also a standout as the stand-in for the missing actress slated to play Lady Macbeth, drag and all. The three witches - Alyssa Burton, Rachel Vonk and Taneal Thompson - cackle away merrily whilst bickering amongst themselves, with Thompson starting off in crutches and eventually becoming wheelchair-bound after a series of unfortunate off-stage ‘accidents’. She also plays McDuff while Burton doubles as Duncan. Fi Livings is Minnie Small who plays Banquo with a particularly amusing set piece involving a shopping trolley as she haunts Macbeth. Richard Coleman is the play within a play’s producer who is pressed into service on stage as circumstances deteriorate. Ray Egan gives an Are You Being Served? style spin to the big city adjudicator George Peach with his surname a running gag as mangled (or is that sliced?) by Neroli Burton’s Chairwoman of the Guild who tries valiantly to keep things on track. The fourth wall is constantly broken which is all part of the gag – we recognise elements of inadvertent disaster from shows we’ve seen in the past, just not all at once.

It’s an oddly constructed play with Marjorie De Caux starting proceedings as a pianist ‘playing’ various tunes for quite some time (with the stage curtain closed behind her) before the play begins proper. The traditional community theatre raffle is incorporated into the start of Act Two and it ends with the extended critique by Egan’s Peach before the actors take their bows. I enjoyed it though and laughed throughout. While it takes pot shots at bad theatre it does so almost lovingly in its over-exaggeration which makes it quite endearing.

For the record, Sallie Ketteringham actually did the costuming (with De Caux) and handles the show’s publicity; Gail Palmer is the Director; and George Boyd is one of the stage managers. The show is on at the Marloo Theatre in Greenmount until Saturday 19th July.