Saturday, 26 December 2015

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2015 - Musicals & Cabaret

It was an outstanding year for musicals and cabaret in 2015. From big touring productions such as Les Miserables and Wicked to the continued excellence of WAAPA's world class music theatre course there have been many tremendous shows. This has been supported by independent companies such as Stray Cats Theatre Company and Fresh Bred Productions who are mounting big productions catering to different audiences. Black Swan even got in on the act this year with the rock musical Next to Normal and the Regal Theatre continues to host a range of productions.

This made finalising the list quite difficult but here is my Top Ten for 2015:

1. Urinetown (WAAPA)
I adored this show. From the moment it opened the satirical tone had me in its clutches and the ferocious choreography sealed the deal. Outstanding.

"What a thrill to have a show grab you by the throat from the opening moments and not let go until the cast is taking well deserved bows. This is a spectacular production of a very funny and irreverent musical and I have to say, it knocked my socks off."

2. Les Miserables (Crown Theatre)
What more can be said about the fabulous Les Mis? Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee headline a stellar cast, half of its number including Gleeson having graduated from WAAPA. 

"For rousing songs and sheer theatrical spectacle Les Miserables is hard to beat and this production has quality in every department."

3. Legally Blonde (WAAPA)
Such a colourful, energetic and joyous production, this showcased a fabulous graduating class to full effect.

"WAAPA’s mid-year musical theatre production has become a highlight of the Perth theatre calendar as they throw their considerable talent and resources – performers, musicians, set designers, costume designers, production department and many others into crafting a professional level experience both for its students and the audience. The results here, as with last year’s West Side Story, are impressive and wildly entertaining."

4. Next To Normal (Black Swan State Theatre Company)
I finally discovered that there is an orchestra pit at the Heath Ledger Theatre. And that Rachael Beck is a star. 

"Next to Normal stands out for the fact that its subject matter is challenging and under-serviced, certainly in musical theatre form. It demands that the acting from the performers is as good, if not better, than the singing requirements. The cast here deliver in spades with a potent mix of excellent songs, a great score, and a fully formed narrative arc for its central character that is as harrowing as it is gut wrenching."

The cast of Les Miserables doing a concert singing some of their favourite musical theatre songs? This only confirmed that the talent of that cast, top to bottom, is outstanding in a wonderfully entertaining evening. 

"Take the cast of Les Miserables, half of whom are WAAPA graduates; their musical director Geoffrey Castles along with four other members of the orchestra; throw in a little star power with event patron Ben Elton; add the enthusiasm and organisational skills of Eponine herself (Kerrie Anne Greenland) and you end up with what can only be described as a spectacular fundraising concert at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre. The sheer magnitude of talent on display was breathtaking."

6. Assassins (Midnite Youth Theatre Company)
Staged in the intimate studio space at the Subiaco Arts Centre I loved the full tilt approach to this most audacious of concepts for a musical. 

"What I loved about this production is that all involved attacked it with total commitment and absolute ferocity. There is incredible intensity in the darker hued characters that is matched by some standout comic performances as this rogues’ gallery improbably comes together, ultimately, in a wonderfully written sequence, to convince one of their confreres to commit perhaps the most famous assassination in American history."

Another Sondheim and this one was beautifully sung and played at the palatial Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre. 

"... this is a fine production of a tremendous piece of musical theatre. I understand months of preparation and rehearsal have gone into making this show a reality and it shows. Congratulations to all involved on taking a risk with such a huge undertaking for independent theatre and pulling it off."

8. Point and Shoot: Farewell Show (Holland St Productions)
After touring the production on the eastern seaboard to further acclaim, this farewell show before heading to Brighton was so tightly executed that it couldn't help but make its way to this list.

"It would be fair to say that after witnessing the show for a second time that it is my favourite piece of original content generated out of Perth (in all formats) for quite some time."

9. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Stray Cats Theatre & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre)
Completing a trilogy of big family friendly musicals after Oliver! and Mary Poppins this was an entertaining and fun show that exhibits all of director Karen Francis' signature traits - crowd pleasing, big casts, visually sumptuous and well performed.

"If one of the roles of community theatre is to engage with and entertain its local residents then these productions are among the finest examples we have in the state. Usually a run will only be four to five shows over one weekend but they are always well attended and sit comfortably in the spacious Performing Arts Centre."

10. Spring Awakening (Fresh Bred Productions)
Immediately after the completion of the show I went home and bought the original cast recording which has been on high rotation ever since. An outstanding collection of songs well sung in one of the most surprising adaptations to a rock musical ever.

"Matching the musicians was the vocal talent on display. This really was a strong cast from a singing perspective – the featured vocalists excelled and were given tremendous support from the ensemble."

Female Performer of the Year - Rachael Beck
Not only was Beck's singing excellent, it was her acting that really impressed in Next To Normal. She commanded the stage throughout but worked so well with the rest of the cast to bring a complex arc to life.

Male Performers of the Year - Simon Gleeson
A towering performance in the role of Jean Valjean and his Bring Him Home almost had me in tears. Again. Damn it!

Special Mentions:

Elethea Sartorelli - Excelled as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd with Cockney accent in place, and a real energy to her performance that threatened to steal the show.

Megan Kozak - A powerhouse turn in Urinetown was matched by an equally impressive performance as Brooke in Legally Blonde

Jacob Dibb - Another performance from Urinetown that was compelling. Dibb showcased a terrific voice and played Bobby Strong with a straight ahead earnestness that worked so well.

Madeline Crofts - A standout in Spring Awakening as Wendla Bergmann, Crofts also popped up as Johanna in Sweeney Todd and perhaps most impressively gave a hilarious and feisty performance in the original musical How We Ruined MacArthur's Markers.  

Kate Thomas - Thomas sank her teeth into the star role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She looked fantastic in Elle's signature outfits and sang beautifully in an assured performance. 

That's it for 2015. Hope everyone had a great Christmas and I look forward to seeing you all at the theatre in the new year! 

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2015 - Plays

One of the most pleasing aspects of this year's list of top ten plays is that it features original writing by five local playwrights - Tiffany Barton (Metalhead), Scott McArdle (Between Solar Systems), Tyler Jacob Jones (F**k Decaf), Will O'Mahony (The Mars Project), and Gita Bezard (In A Bony Embrace) with another entry by Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer. That is an outstanding crop of talent that augurs well for the future of locally generated stories. And what a diverse mix of entries we have this year ranging from searing dramas to witty observational comedies to a genre rarely seen on stage, science fiction. It also includes a genuine out of the box surprise that demonstrates the power of theatre to heal and transform.

The Top Ten:

1. Venus in Fur (Black Swan State Theatre Company)
The year started with a bang as this two-hander introduced 2014 WAAPA graduate Felicity McKay to the world in a brilliant professional debut.

"Venus in Fur is a cleverly written play that allows two talented actors to inhabit multiple personas in a provocative, insightful and funny exploration of a subject matter many consider taboo. It is a great start to the theatre season and the upcoming Fringe Festival of which it’s a part."

2. A Midsummer Night's Dream (Acacia Prison & The Actors Workshop)
A stunning theatrical experience that saw prisoners tackle Shakespeare's beloved comedy under the tutelage of Nichola Renton. An event that will not be quickly forgotten by all involved.

"These men, almost all with no previous acting experience of any kind, flung themselves at this with energy, with style, with commitment, and with their own sense of humour and spirit. It was raw, it was powerful, and it was bloody well funny as all get out."

3. All My Sons (WAAPA)
The intimate Roundhouse Theatre provided the perfect venue for the powerful Arthur Miller play, grounded by Brittany Morel superbly playing a woman three times her age.

"This is a carefully and expertly constructed play that really packs a wallop. I admit I was quite moved by the breadth of the Greek-like tragedy that unfolds. It is very well acted with Morel’s performance in particular a highlight."

4. Metalhead (Creative Collaborations)
I caught this play on a night when the entire cast was "on" and what a treat it was to see them go hammer and tongs at each other in such a harrowing drama.

"... I liked that this was a full tilt performance in every aspect – writing, performance, and staging. This was in your face and unapologetically brutal in spots. There were moments when the audience sat in stunned collective silence as the tension built."

5. Macbeth (WAAPA)
A modern interpretation of the Shakespeare classic that was an excellent showcase of all the disciplines WAAPA trains their students in, not only performance but the many departments that make a production come to life.

"All these elements gave the production great atmosphere and allowed for seamless scene transitions - this fairly hummed along. Having said that there were times, especially involving the witches, where there was a languid, at times hypnotic pace within a scene that was mesmerising."

6. Those Who Fall In Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon The Ocean Floor (Fringe World)
Delightfully performed, written and staged this was an inventive rumination on how the passage of time affects and informs our memories.

"I can see why Anchors did so well at last year’s Blue Room awards and I am glad I had a chance to see it after missing out on its 2014 run. It has an evocative and poetic script by Finegan Kruckemeyer that was well directed by Adam Mitchell and superbly handled by its cast."

7. Between Solar Systems (Second Chance Theatre)
The professional debut production for writer-director-actor-lighting designer Scott McArdle whose team transformed the Blue Room studio space into the interior of a spaceship to outstanding effect.

"To tackle a woefully under-represented genre for your first professional outing and to pull it off with such style and clarity is nothing short of amazing. Yet it doesn't surprise me in the slightest."

8. F**k Decaf (The Cutting Room Floor)
A well acted two-hander featuring a witty and insightful script by Tyler Jacob Jones that was funny and hugely entertaining in the small Frisk Bar space.

"My inescapable conclusion at the end of the performance was that a smart, well written script in the hands of (two) talented actors is a recipe for an excellent evening of theatre."

9. The Mars Project (WAAPA)
A sprawling original work that had to accommodate some 18 of the graduating acting class, this showcased a love of language that was immensely satisfying and built to a devastating final scene.

"The play started a little slowly but developed into an intriguing concept that really kicked into something quite special when the turning point comes. This was delivered with clinical precision as Harris’ Wren pivots the stakes into the stratosphere with a simple question with awful ramifications."

10. In A Bony Embrace (Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company)
The last play I saw in 2015 and an absolute treat. This was another ensemble piece that was off-beat and funny with a great student cast.

"This was a very well written, acted, directed and presented play with plenty of laughs befitting its sitcom DNA. I have seen plays before that didn’t seem to realise they were actually a sitcom and therefore failed but In A Bony Embrace knows exactly what it is and is expertly executed."

Female Performer of the Year - Felicity McKay
Having only graduated the previous November, McKay burst onto the scene in January with a sassy and bold performance that was utterly compelling as she slid in and out of various personas with consummate skill.

Male Performer of the Year - Clarence Ryan
One of the nicest guys you will ever meet, Ryan's performance in Metalhead was terrifying as he inhabited a character full of coiled anger and aggression. It was a brutally physical portrayal that was haunting.

Special Mentions:

Ben Mortley - While adeptly handling many diverse roles in 'Anchors' it was the heartfelt monologue explaining why his character was only now going on a first date that was a quiet highlight.

Gemma Cavoli - A nuanced performance that builds to another devastating conclusion in the hour long monologue of The List. 

Brittany Morel - The physical representation of a much older woman was excellent as is the change from deluded character to something far more potent. 

Zoe Street - A standout in the at times surreal Melancholy Play, the Curtin University student gave her character a fascinating world weariness that was poetic and languid. 

Elle Harris - As The Mars Project slowly unfolds, Harris becomes the presumptive lead who skillfully handles a complex arc that leads to an emotionally explosive climax.

There you have it. As always, thank you to all the performers, writers, directors, crew, front-of-house, technical and design staff for another excellent year of theatre. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

In A Bony Embrace - Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company (8 December 2015)

April is breaking up with Sam over breakfast because she simply doesn’t find him funny anymore. Sam doesn’t find this especially funny either as they work in the same office. An office where Harry (presumably short for Harriet) and Danny decide to spontaneously be in love. Except Harry is somewhat more intense about this development than one might expect. An office where Matt is interested in April but isn’t particularly well versed in relationships despite the example of his annoyingly in love housemates, Lila and Gavin. 

Then again, Lila and Gavin’s relationship is headed for prickly territory as a cactus called Calamity comes between them, literally and alliteratively. Meanwhile April is keen to “get back on the horse” despite the reservations of practical colleague Sylvia. Her date with Jaxon, a slick dude who isn’t exactly lacking in confidence, ends in disaster. All the while ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Sally’ pontificate about the universe, love, and death.    

If this sounds like the premise for a sitcom you would be absolutely right. These characters, some more grounded than others, intersect and collide in various ways in familiar settings – the office, the shared house, the club. It is very funny, sharply observed, with some bizarre tangents that fit the sitcom format perfectly. The set is predominantly bright pink but full of bold colours that reminded me of the Ewan McGregor, Renee Zellweger movie Down With Love, itself a homage to the ‘sex comedies’ of the 60s.

The script by Gita Bezard is excellent with several sly writer gags (always guaranteed to hook me), cracking dialogue, and interesting takes on familiar devices – a Greek Chorus that narrates actions that a character isn’t undertaking which is a refreshing change; the ten self-aware characters periodically commenting on the emotional state of their collective while jostling for attention in line; and the one actor (Jessica Nyanda Moyle) playing both parts of the Jimmy/Sally tandem while enigmatically clutching an empty glass jar. I took this variously to represent the universe at one point but also the intangible nature of their love.

The play fairly rattles along with slick direction by Adam Mitchell as he keeps the actors hovering in the wings when not featured in what really is a series vignettes that all weave together. The transitions are like cuts to a new scene as actors rotate into the next sequence effortlessly. The sitcom analogy is an apt one in construction, direction, and pacing. One of the actors even offered afterwards that he was channeling a famous sitcom character for aspects of his role.

Which brings us to the ten actors from Curtin University’s Performance Studies. With such good writing and direction their characters were all distinctively drawn and they brought them to life with impressive craft and great comic timing.

Chelsea Gibson is the confident April who dismisses Sam at the start of the play and who carries the main narrative thread. Gibson gives April a sense of self-worth and purpose even when faced with the obnoxiously ‘superior’ Jaxon, played by Sean Guastavino with cringe worthy precision that was funny and infuriating. She also has the key monologue towards the end of the play that reveals the meaning of the title and shows a tender vulnerability that was compelling.

Alexander Gerrans imbues the dumbstruck Sam with recognisable and escalating fury as he tries to comprehend his girlfriend’s decision to dump him. There is a simmering energy to his performance as the anger unfurls only to be casually batted away by April’s indifference. 

Beth Tremlett and Nathan Whitebrook move from clingy couple to something altogether more interesting as the cactus subplot spins them off into strange territory indeed. Whitebrook’s Gavin has a disturbing infatuation with Calamity that he expresses with serene contentment, genuine concern, and irrational outbursts. This only fuels Tremlett’s Britney Spears loving Lila’s incredulity and refusal to change her ways for a plant. They bounce off each other well and the whole thing spirals out of control as relationships can do over the most ridiculous of things.

Anna Lindstedt is the straight to the point Sylvia who plays the office confidant with no nonsense practicality. Daisy Coyle and Tristan McInnes make a dynamic couple in the throes of first love. Coyle allows Harry to unravel in spectacular fashion ending in a triumphantly over-the-top announcement to colleagues at the bar. McInnes deftly exhibits increasing levels of bemusement over Harry’s antics (as if to say 'she’s craaaaazy!') while still committed to the thought of Danny being in love with her. There was a restraint here that was fascinating.

Jessica Nyanda Moyle’s character is the one that sits outside the main story and whose function seemed more to serve a thematic purpose than narrative one. She manages to express both poignancy and humour while inhabiting dual roles with subtle voice and facial changes.

Then there’s Kane Parker as Matt who is the other half of the equation in the main story thread. His character is treated as a bit of a loser but Parker shows him more as someone lacking in confidence and self-esteem who is merely trying to make a connection. His work with Gibson at the end is a quiet highlight amongst the craziness.   

Love, loneliness and connection are certainly foremost in the minds of all these characters regardless of how bizarre some sequences may be; the cactus as surrogate child one of many subversions of usual expectations. The bold set design and lighting was very good in the intimate space and I very much liked the subtle sound design as well.

This was a very well written, acted, directed and presented play with plenty of laughs befitting its sitcom DNA. I have seen plays before that didn’t seem to realise they were actually a sitcom and therefore failed but In A Bony Embrace knows exactly what it is and is expertly executed. It is a late year surprise and definite highlight to cap off Curtin’s 2015.  It is on at The Blue Room until 12 December.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Rodeo Moon - WAAPA (16 November 2015)

The year is 1969. I know this because several characters seemed keen to tell me so. The other key year of note is 1967 when a Referendum question was overwhelmingly passed to remove references in the Australian Constitution that were discriminatory to Aboriginal people. Two years on though and change is slow to come to the outback. Racism is rife and there is a clearly established pecking order. You challenge it at your peril.

Things come to a head in the Pilbara where a combustible mix of forces converges – a rodeo swaggers into town full of machismo and sense of superiority; a ‘coloured’ girl (white father, aboriginal mother) who is a political student dares to stand up for the indigenous townsfolk who are understandably leery; three hippie activists escaping the Vietnam draft arrive; and, as improbable as it sounds, a certain pair of politicians about to fight a Federal Election rock up to check out conditions on the ground.

There is no doubt playwright David Milroy has a specific viewpoint to expound. That he does so in a “Jack and Jillaroo musical” which is full of songs and comedy is an interesting and entertaining choice. This is both a feel good show with everything from a drag act to hilarious bush poetry; to a serious drama that explores the harshness of life in such a rigidly stratified society, the edicts of faraway politicians be damned. It straddles that divide reasonably well though the tonal shifts can be abrupt.

For me the play works best when it focusses on the personal cost of the choices its characters make within the context of what is set up. That larger framework felt forced in the early going with characters delivering awkward exposition to describe the political and social climate of the time. Notably, John Gorton (Ben Jeakings) provides a searing indictment of the ‘politics of denial’ while being played largely as a buffoon. His partner in this unlikely comedy duo is Gough Whitlam (George Carter Zillessen) who will lose the election but manufacture a 7.1% swing to Labor that sets up his ascension as Prime Minister three years hence.

Within this construct there are two simple but quintessentially human stories. Political student Molly (Simone Detourbet) wants to meet a mother Pansy (Shanice Tabua) she has never known; and local indigenous girl Tilly (Teresa Moore) is sweet on star rodeo performer Knuckles (Conor Mavromatis) and wants to dance with him at the ball.

The personal obstacles both face resonate far stronger than any political ‘debate’ on hand. Molly’s father Wetherill (Nelson Baker) resists his daughter’s desire to see Pansy, out of shame and under pressure from rodeo boss Buckley (Jack Sheppard) who has very clear ideas about the place of ‘blacks’ (and women). Tilly’s quest is fraught with danger as it’s a line that if crossed comes with great risk. Both storylines arrive at happy conclusions but not without dramas along the way.

To the performances and Moore is a standout as Tilly. She has the best singing voice and uses it expressively while providing the character with real resolve and dignity. Detourbet has a fine scene with Baker as father and daughter clash in a dramatic highpoint while bringing feistiness to her character throughout. The interaction between Molly and Tilly, initially strained before they bond as allies in their separate causes, is the heartbeat of the piece and well conveyed by both actresses.

Props to Sheppard who gives what could otherwise have been a thoroughly loathsome character enough flair and energy to make his carnival barker Buckley engaging. James Schultz plays Molly’s brother Billy with impressive intensity as he carries a major dramatic thread to do with their mother. On the other side of that coin, Shane Pickett, Mathaias Kepa and Dakota Morrison, bring the laughs with their hippie draft dodgers. Kepa has a strong stage presence and good voice while Pickett threatens to steal the show as the most unlikely of rodeo queen contestants. Mention also to Brian Anau whose bush poem had me squirming and laughing in equal measure.

Musical Director Wayne Freer was also the solo musician on keyboard and guitar and the songs were a likeable mix of ballads, sixties style pop, and indigenous numbers. The majority of the cast were not particularly good singers but the character of their performances carried the day. The stage was red dirt on wooden floorboards with a tree stump, wooden fence posts, and a raised platform at one end. The lighting design accentuated that dirt to give a real sense of place.

This was a funny and entertaining production with a serious undertone that, if nothing else, had me looking up both the Referendum results and the 1969 election. But it was the human cost that people faced during those turbulent times (and in many ways still do) that struck a nerve. 

Rodeo Moon is written by David Milroy and co-directed by Rick Brayford and Eva Grace Mullaley with Musical Direction by Wayne Freer, and stars the Aboriginal Theatre students Jack Sheppard, Nelson Baker, Conor Mavromatis, James Schultz, George Carter Zillessen, Ben Jeakings, Shane Pickett, Mathaias Kepa, Brian Anu, Simone Detourbet, Teresa Moore, Dakota Morrison, Shanice Tabua, Katrisha Jackonia, Stephanie Binder, Aiesha Blurton, Nicole Brockman, and Meiching Riley. There is one final show at the Enright Studio on Thursday 19 November.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Acacia Prison & The Actors Workshop (13 November 2015)

“Close your eyes.

Now breathe in… and breathe out. Breathe in… and breathe out…

Now open your eyes.”

As I did so I saw sixteen actors arranged on a slightly staggered, three level stage.

I was at the theatre.

I was about to watch a play.

One of the most cherished comedies in the history of theatre:

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In that moment of breathing, eyes closed, all that had come before melted away - the long drive, the uncertainty of what awaited me, the security protocols, the screening, the escorted walk through the grounds of Acacia Prison to a building that normally would be a workshop, the guards.

Yes, this was the most unusual of settings and circumstances.

But none of that mattered now. I was about to witness something truly special. I was about to witness the transformative power of theatre, a magic as potent as the one Oberon wields in Shakespeare’s most whimsical of comedies.

I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. I was moved. I was transfixed. I was beyond impressed.

These men, almost all with no previous acting experience of any kind, flung themselves at this with energy, with style, with commitment, and with their own sense of humour and spirit. It was raw, it was powerful, and it was bloody well funny as all get out. The sly asides, the improvised lines, the odd fluff here and there, the occasional line read from the sidelines; all were incorporated with flair to burn. Above all, this was faithful to The Bard himself in a rollicking performance that drew a spontaneous standing ovation from family, friends, official visitors, and guards alike.

It was a simple stage with a painted backdrop that was flipped over to represent the woods after the initial Athenian scenes. You could see the actors and stagehands in the wings; the incomparable director Nichola Renton off to one side with script in hand giving surprisingly few line prompts. The makeup was done by one of the men in only 40 minutes before the show; the costumes were made by one of the staff. Musical inserts were a funny mix of everything from Chariots of Fire to the Benny Hill theme music. Other men were manning the sound and lighting desk at the back with something like a hundred cues. There were no airs and graces here. Everyone pitched in.   

The performances were all astounding, from a mischievous Puck to a commanding Oberon (the actor, who also played Peter Quince, learnt the lines in 4 days!); to a terrific set of Mechanicals (Bottom’s death scene as Pyramus is something to behold!); and a quartet of young lovers that pursued, evaded, flirted, fought and finally found their true loves in rousing fashion. The men playing Hermia and Helena did so without a hint of self-consciousness and played up to the audience with a wink and a nod that was hilarious. Everyone embraced their part and what I thoroughly enjoyed was seeing their response to the laughter and appreciation they were receiving. That magic symbiotic relationship between a cast and an audience when things are firing on all cylinders.

The Question and Answer session shortly afterwards was just as impressive. The men spoke with passion and sincerity about what this opportunity meant to them and how they had incorporated so many elements into coping with life outside the performing arts programme. One likened the experience to walking through the closet into Narnia which was as apt an analogy as you’re likely to hear. Many talked about the support and encouragement within the group and how they were a family; how they trusted each other and felt safe. Perceptive comments about learning how to read body language and how to use that back in the blocks; about how their days performing were like being out of prison. The camaraderie within the group was palpable as was the sense of humour. It was moving to see the reaction of loved ones in the audience as well.

This is no luxury programme, no gimmick. The benefits were there for all to see and everyone involved needs to be applauded and encouraged to continue and expand this. As an actor in the audience remarked, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and empathise with that character is an invaluable skill. The sense of teamwork and working together to achieve a common goal and support each other along the way is equally as important.

To mount a production, of Shakespeare no less, and pull it off with such success is a testament to the hard work and commitment of not only the men but the staff as well. Then there’s Nichola who spoke so passionately about working with and teaching this extraordinary cast. What an accomplishment!

This truly was a special day – memorable, moving, and funny. 

Is it the most polished performance I’ll see this year? Not even close. 

Did it the meet the requirement of theatre to entertain, to inspire, to move, and, for a comedy, to make me laugh?

You bet your arse it did.

In spades! 

The Maids - Tempest Theatre (11 November 2015)

Who at one time or another hasn’t thought ill of their employer? Who hasn’t fantasised about putting them in their place… or worse? Of course, for the vast majority of us, those thoughts remain a fantasy. We rail about real or perceived unfairness in the workplace and the ‘draconian’ conditions placed upon us but often do so in silence.

French dramatist Jean Genet, however, used the real life murder of an employer by two French sisters in 1933 as the dropping off point for this play. And so sisters Claire (Aisling McGrogan) and Solange (Kylie Maree) came in to being, maids in servitude to an unnamed Madame (Maree Grayden). What follows is an exploration of the power dynamics between classes and, as importantly, the sisters themselves with a touch of sadomasochistic role play and the hint of a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. It’s perhaps an overly clever piece of writing with plenty of reversals and an ambiguous ending as one of the key tenets is the blurring of fantasy and reality.

That makes it a tricky proposition both from a performance point of view and for an audience unfamiliar with the piece as the ground shifts constantly. In the opening scene for example the power dynamics simply didn’t ring true and I was quite perplexed until a reversal explained why that was the case. The sequence does set up the premise but left me a little flatfooted to begin with.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing to unsettle or intrigue an audience but there was a crucial element I never quite got my head around – tone. As a screenwriter I am always conscious of tone (a vital element of any screenplay) and here I wasn’t sure what sort of story I was watching. Was it a comedy, a drama, or a tragedy? That proved to be elusive as there were aspects of all of three but not a consistent approach throughout. Furthermore, the injection of the ‘murder mystery’ regarding Madame’s lover ultimately felt like a red herring.

I suspect the biggest reason for this inconsistency was a quite fascinating clash of acting styles. Kylie Maree was very grounded and natural as Solange, building towards an end monologue that showed how crazy and delusional the character (possibly) was. McGrogan, however, took a more melodramatic approach to Claire with a wide-eyed intensity that noticeably jarred – where she was all hand gestures and physical movement, Maree was still and measured. 

Maree Grayden’s Madame who makes a brief appearance in the middle of the play also felt more caricature than character. Those different styles muddled the tone as moments came across as comedic that perhaps should have been more understated. A sequence involving a tea cup was leached of any tension due to an almost sitcom style execution. Was I meant to laugh or was I meant to feel unease?

There’s no doubt that in the power hierarchy established by the play Claire is subservient to her sister and therefore can come across as whiny and pouty. However, there wasn’t a clear enough delineation between the ‘real Claire’ to when the character was merely role playing. There was a ‘sameness’ to the performance that undercut its effectiveness.

Kylie Maree did modulate her approach to Solange and there is a clear arc here as the more dominant figure emerges and finally flourishes into quite a disturbing profile of someone capable of murder. Whether she does or not is an entirely different matter that was being debated in the lobby after the show. Maree’s final monologue is all the more compelling because it is the continuation of a slow build up as the character is fully revealed. There is a fascinating scene between the sisters just prior to this as their role play threatens to spiral out of control as Solange exerts her dominance.  
The set was very well appointed and lit in the intimate studio space at the Subiaco Arts Centre – flowers and mirrors are key elements as are the gowns Madame prefers and the maids play with. Director Susie Conte maximises the space with the action up close and personal with no break during the hour plus production. The highlight is the closing monologue that Kylie Maree delivers in style before an open ended conclusion invites the audience to ponder the ramifications of what they have witnessed.

Written by Jean Genet, Directed by Susie Conte, The Maids stars Kylie Maree, Aisling McGrogan, and Maree Grayden. The final show is on tonight, 14 November, 7.30pm at the Subiaco Arts Centre.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Next to Normal - Black Swan State Theatre Company (10 November 2015)

2015 is proving to be quite the stellar year for musical theatre in Perth. One of the reasons is productions that tackle subject matters and themes you wouldn't immediately associate with the genre - shows such as Urinetown (pungent dystopian satire), Spring Awakening (repressed teenage sexuality), Assassins (killing US presidents!) - and now a rock musical about bipolar disorder and its effects on a family. I attended the third and final preview.

Next to Normal stands out for the fact that its subject matter is challenging and under-serviced, certainly in musical theatre form. It demands that the acting from the performers is as good, if not better, than the singing requirements. The cast here deliver in spades with a potent mix of excellent songs, a great score, and a fully formed narrative arc for its central character that is as harrowing as it is gut wrenching. It is clear why this is one of only a few musicals to have won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Horwood, Alyce, Beck & Cormick
Gary Marsh Photography
That lead character is Diana Goodman; wife, mother, and a woman struggling to cope with bipolar disorder. Rachael Beck is superb as Diana bringing impressive acting chops and a wonderfully clear and expressive singing voice to the table. It's a role that necessitates incredible highs and devastating lows and Beck embraces that range with skill, nuance, and incredible stage presence. You simply can't take your eyes off her - she is at the centre of everything - and Beck elicits such a strong emotional response from the audience. The songs deepen our understanding of that emotional landscape and are delivered in style, whether plaintive and heartbreaking; playfully raunchy; or full on angst. There is also humour and hope to be found here and it's well calibrated in that regard.

Medical treatment for bipolar comes under the microscope as the suburban housewife is forced to suffer varying forms of medication and procedures that take away her fundamental essence; her sense of who she is, good and bad. It also fails to address the possible underlying cause of her mental state as some memories cannot be erased by modern medicine no matter how invasive and powerful. You can only feel but empathy for the character as the writing and Beck's performance is first rate.

Diana's condition impacts those closest to her - husband Dan (Brendan Hanson), daughter Natalie (Shannen Alyce), and son Gabe (James Bell). Natalie has a new boyfriend, the stoner Henry (Joel Horwood), while Diana is being treated by Drs. Madden and Fine (both played by Michael Cormick). A total cast of only six and what a cast it is. Acting and vocal talent across the board is exceptional with everyone given their moment to shine.

Hanson has perhaps the most difficult role - Dan is described by Diana as stolid, steadfast, solid and stoic. In the early going his was the one character in danger of verging into caricature. But as the show progressed and Dan is forced to make increasingly difficult decisions regarding his wife that smoothed itself out until Hanson delivers a devastating punctuation point (I Am the One - Reprise) in the aftermath of Diana's final choice.

Shannen Alyce & Joel Horwood
Gary Marsh Photography
One of the highlights was seeing 2014 WAAPA graduates Alyce and Horwood in their first Black Swan production. They worked so well together (Perfect For You, Hey #1-3) and sang beautifully. Horwood gave Henry a sweet naivety and charm while showcasing an excellent voice. Alyce played the studious daughter who rebels in the face of the family issues aided by Henry's more carefree influence with a believable forthrightness that was compelling. There is a moment when she is onstage with Beck performing Everything where you see the consummate present and the bright future side by side that had me grinning in appreciation.

Cormick is memorable as especially Dr. Madden when Diana's fantasies are occasionally brought to life with a shot of rock 'n' roll style voltage. He has a powerful voice and an authoritative stage presence that matches Beck blow for blow as they duel both in acting sequences and numbers such as Didn't I See This Movie? with ECT looming.

The other standout for me though was James Bell as Gabe. It's the relationship between Diana and Gabe that is the heartbeat of this piece and Bell is simply electrifying. Gabe's presence carries so much emotional heft and Bell attacks the role with such energy that his impact is undeniable. Another tremendous vocal talent, his performance and its ramifications are pivotal to making this fly.

There IS an orchestra pit! Gary Marsh Photography
Another aspect, of course, is the music and I was curious to see how this would work in the Heath Ledger Theatre. I now know that there is in fact an orchestra pit and the sound balance and quality was excellent. The six piece band under Musical Director David Young (also on Keyboards) played very well. The show took off in a sequence of songs where it all clicked as a rock musical - I Am the One, Superboy and the Invisible Girl, Open Your Eyes and I'm Alive. It felt like a clear change of gears as the energy level ramped up but more than that I suddenly discovered 'the voice' of the piece. From then on I was all in.

Musical highlights abound but special mention to I Dreamed A Dance and How Could I Ever Forget?, two stunning sequences that fuse lyrics, music, direction and performance for maximum emotional impact. Only one criticism - given the quality of the songs it was disappointing they were not listed in the programme; an all too often and baffling omission for musicals.

Hanson, Bell, Horwood, Beck & Alyce
Gary Marsh Photography
Wisely, given the more intimate nature of the show, Set Designer Bruce McKinven halved the depth of the spacious stage space with curtains forming a 'back wall' for most of the production. There was a central revolve with an outer rim that rotated independently as well which director Adam Mitchell used to great effect. The main piece of set on the central revolve was a large wood-panelled block where the panels opened on each side to depict everything from kitchen sink to toilet to bathroom vanity.

Scene transitions were slick as the revolves ensured the pace never flagged. Lighting design by Trent Suidgeest was evocative and well judged while the sound design by Ben Collins was the best I've heard at this venue; the only minor quibble being that Hanson's microphone volume was noticeably lower in the early scenes but this was soon corrected.

This is an excellent production with everybody at the top of their game, on stage, in the orchestra pit and behind the scenes. Directed by Adam Mitchell with Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Musical Direction by David Young and starring Shannen Alyce, Rachael Beck, James Bell, Michael Cormick, Brendan Hanson and Joel Horwood; with Young on Keyboards, Michael Perkins (Drums/Percussion), Shane Pooley (Bass), Andrew Weir (Guitar), Brian Kruger (Violin) and Laura McGorgan (Cello), Next to Normal is a must see and is on at the State Theatre Centre until 22 November.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Fresh Bred Productions (31 October 2015)

What a way to spend Halloween night – attending a production dripped in revenge and obsession where a “demon barber” slits the throat of unsuspecting customers who end up being the filler for meat pies! Of course, this gruesome tale is blessed by the sublime music and lyrical dexterity of Stephen Sondheim with a dark-hued book by Hugh Wheeler.  

My first impressions as I wandered into the venue were, “what a spectacular theatre!” quickly followed by “what a cast!” as I looked through the programme. Indeed, St. Hilda’s Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre is a wonderfully appointed 940 seat theatre with all the mod cons – large performance space, orchestra pit, immaculate seating, all the high-tech gadgets, and beautiful lobby and facilities. It was impressive in every way.

As is the cast director Craig Griffen has assembled. I was immediately encouraged on seeing Ian Cross’s name - the standout in a recent production of Oklahoma! - in the lead role. His Jud from that musical was also a dark, tormented character whom he played with great intensity and menace. He excels here with another tightly coiled turn as the eponymous character showcasing a powerful voice and bringing a fierce energy and gruffness to the role. This is occasionally leavened by a softer approach in regard to Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Madeline Crofts), and a vein of jet black humour with his landlady and partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett (Elethea Sartorelli).

Sartorelli, who won a Finley Award last year for a supporting role in the musical Xanadu, is the perfect foil to Cross. Her Mrs. Lovett is cheekily amoral yet caring when it comes to young Tobias (Pete Martis). She sings beautifully, Cockney accent and all, and brings so much black humour to proceedings. Cross and Sartorelli work well together, the first act closer, A Little Priest, a highlight as they gleefully cavort while singing the gloriously mischievous song replete with trademark Sondheim wit and wordplay.

Michael MacCuish, who was good in a non-singing role in Spring Awakening, reveals a tremendous voice as Anthony, the sweetness of which works well in counterpoint to Cross. I enjoyed the sincerity he gives the love-struck sailor, another contrast to all the duplicity swirling around the character. Crofts displays yet another standout voice with Green Finch and Linnet Bird an early highlight as she stands perched upon a step ladder like a beautiful, fragile bird herself. Again, another pairing that works well with Kiss Me a memorable moment that is reprised in snippets throughout.

Martis plays Tobias with suitable naivety until the character stumbles upon the truth leading to an escalation of events. His Not While I’m Around with Sartorelli is quite effecting as the bleak subtext of the moment cuts right through the sweetness of the ballad. This is where Sondheim’s genius lies – another gorgeous song, Johanna, is sung so earnestly while Sweeney is dispatching men with his razor. The jarring contrast of lyrics and music with the brutal actions onstage makes such sequences layered and compelling.

It’s fair to say every character is well cast with singing ability at the forefront. Kimberley Harris makes for an ultimately tragic Beggar Woman who gives some cackling cheek as she intersects with various characters along the journey. Another strong voice, her warning cries in song become increasingly desperate as events spiral out of control. 

Cal Silberstein is carving out quite a niche with memorable, comic inspired characters. Here it is with Adolfo Pirelli whom Todd bests in a shaving competition and ultimately condemns to the meat grinder of the bakehouse. There’s a mischievous attitude about Silberstein’s performances that make them stand out no matter how brief.

Rounding out the principal cast is Simon Brett who gives Judge Turpin a creepy, obsessive air of his own and has a showpiece moment of self-flagellation in Johanna: Mea Culpa; Daniel Kirkby as Beadle Bamford who joins in the fun with Parlor Songs on the “partly singed harmonium”; while Thomas Owen is briefly featured as a doctor in the asylum where Judge Turpin hides his beloved Johanna whom he intends to marry despite her being considerably younger and his ward. There really are some disturbing aspects to this story beyond the murders!

The Ensemble is also in very fine voice as they reprise The Ballad of Sweeney Todd throughout and act as silent witnesses to events or incidental characters such as the asylum inmates. They are: Stee Andrews, Rebecca Cole, Jordan Dunne, Olivia Everett, Jackson Griggs, Crystal Haig, Niamh Nichols, Emily Semple, Shannon Whyte, Sam Widenbar, and Lauren Kingham.

Then there is the nine piece orchestra under conductor Joshua James Webb who play the challenging and exceptional score extremely well. From the opening Organ Prelude they are in fine form and the sound balance is spot on between performers and musicians. Indeed the sound design is excellent for such a large venue. I overheard Webb’s mentor talking to the director after the show and he was effusive in his praise of the musical quality. There is no doubt this is a superbly sung and played production. Well done Simone Bishop, Ben Hogan, Tadgh Pedder, Krista Low, Andrea Sitas, Blake Howieson, Laura Halligan, Tahlia Denn, and Ben Albert.

To the staging and the set is quite sparse with a lot of use of smoke and haze effects. This gives great atmosphere with the lighting often used to cast the performers in partial shadow to add to the eerie tone. I did have some quibbles – the use of scene locations – for example ‘Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop’ or ‘Sweeney Todd’s Tonsorial Parlor’ on large white sheets that descended into place tended to undercut the unsettling tone as they felt too obvious. This was also the case with the ‘19th Century London’ that unfurled at the start of the show to some mirth. These struck me as redundant as the spaces were clearly delineated by the props and the performances themselves.

It also felt a curious choice when the impressive lighting array was lowered to just above head height at the start of the show for one of the ensemble to literally ‘plug things in’ after which it would rise and descend for various scenes. This was a little distracting as if too eager to show off the technology but after a while settled down to a more traditional configuration.

In all, this is a fine production of a tremendous piece of musical theatre. I understand months of preparation and rehearsal have gone into making this show a reality and it shows. Congratulations to all involved on taking a risk with such a huge undertaking for independent theatre and pulling it off.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is directed by Craig Griffen with Musical Direction by Joshua James Webb from a Book by Hugh Wheeler; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and is on at the Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre in Mosman Park next Friday and Saturday the 6-7th November. 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Diva - Creative Collaborations (28 October 2015)

Warning: contains strong language, drug and sexual references.

There’s no denying any of that.

There’s also no denying the fact that this is a searing psychological profile with no less than a full-throated performance by Tiffany Barton. She completely inhabits the character of June, a former New York opera singer now stricken at the thought of leaving her apartment. 

Barton is fearless in exploring all the complexities of this larger than life diva; from the grotesque to the outrageous; the flat out funny to the poignant; often with devastating self-reflection. It’s in your face, immediate and compelling. What a joy to witness an actress not only embrace but trumpet all the jagged little edges, contradictions, hopes and fears of a character so thoroughly. June is, in part, based on a real person so this bleeds with authenticity.

The show literally jumps out at you and at first I was taken aback. There’s a certain shock value as we initially meet June but various story strands slowly emerge in this meticulously crafted monologue. Two great love affairs come to the fore – one with June’s husband Manny; the other with the opera and performance itself. The discovery that one largely destroys the other adds to a sense of pathos. But make no mistake; there is a fierce determination here to enjoy all that life has to offer, with every lump and Tosca inspired orgasm!

Underpinning this is June’s relationship with her father who will abandon the young girl and be absent through key moments of her life. Then there’s the reason why June can’t leave her apartment that is potent in its understated recounting. It will resonate with any artist who aspires to greatness.

All these strands are woven together amidst moments of manic energy as June dresses up, sings along to her beloved opera, laments the effect of age on her looks, consumes pills hidden in a teapot, and happily submits to the attention of ‘Mr Buzzy’, a formidable looking vibrator. Tellingly though, it’s the quieter moments that pack the biggest wallop – Barton and director Helen Doig aren’t afraid to let us observe June who becomes increasingly bizarre in appearance. Those moments of stillness and sense of vulnerability are quite special.

There are two clever devices to allow the character to ‘perform’ and share her memories – one, improbably, is a stuffed cat called Eugene, smothered to death by a drunken June; the other, an ingenious puppet of Manny made of cardboard boxes and rollers. Again, having Barton ‘impersonate’ Manny, become the innocent child who misses her Daddy, or admonish her dead cat allows for changes in rhythm and pace that keep this unpredictable and enthralling.

The simple telephone injects a note of dread as a symbol of the outside world (and the past) that June seemingly craves to reconnect with but is paralysed at the very thought of. Indeed, audio cues are an important component from the strains of opera to amusingly salacious lyrics to prompts to snap June in and out of moments of self-reflection.

This is a well written, well directed and beautifully crafted piece of theatre with a memorable performance that sponsored a most interesting discussion afterwards in the lobby. Highly recommended.

Diva was written by and stars Tiffany Barton and is directed by Helen Doig with puppets, set and costumes created by Cherie Hewson and sound by Max Porotto. Perfectly suited to the intimate black box theatre upstairs at Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in Fremantle, it runs until 1 November as part of the Fremantle Festival.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - Stray Cats Theatre Company & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (17 October 2015)

It’s a familiar scene - parents and children milling around performers fresh from their final bows asking for autographs and posing for photos. Not only the stars mind you but members of the ensemble are there as well to greet family, friends and audience members. It’s an impressive sight. The children all excited as they clutch the programme with a whole back page devoted for autographs. The cast are still in costume and makeup, no doubt amped with adrenaline immediately after the matinee performance. There’s a real buzz in the air.

Stray Cats Theatre Company and the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre sure know how to put on a crowd pleasing, family friendly spectacle. This is the third in what I’ll refer to as Stray Cats’ Classic English Family Musical Trilogy that commenced with last year’s Oliver!, continued with Mary Poppins earlier this year and ended with a punctuation mark as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took flight.

If one of the roles of community theatre is to engage with and entertain its local residents then these productions are among the finest examples we have in the state. Usually a run will only be four to five shows over one weekend but they are always well attended and sit comfortably in the spacious Performing Arts Centre. The local community support is excellent and the venue is a jewel only an hour south of Perth. That support is rewarded with outstanding entertainment.

As I was sitting upstairs in the front row of the dress circle looking down on the opening scene it struck me that these shows are the only time I see upwards of 60 performers on stage. It simply doesn’t happen anywhere else. Laudable is how many are young children. Even more remarkable is the attention to detail for the costuming of every single person on stage from the youngest to the oldest. There’s no scrimping here. They all have a role and they all look the part.

Director Karen Francis always dares to be ambitious in the scale of her productions; from the large casts to the impressive sets and lighting design to the choice of musical itself. Visually they are a feast. This was full of wonderfully colourful backdrops and the transition between scenes was slick as set components were dropped in behind a temporarily lowered screen as the orchestra played on. The centrepiece though was the car itself. Beautifully recreated and functional it drew appropriate applause when it lifted, tilted and ‘sprouted wings’ with the Potts family and Truly on-board. 

An occasional criticism I have had in the past is that the orchestras for these productions can be variable in quality. Any fear of this was quickly dispelled in the Overture. Under the baton of assistant musical director Vanitha Hart they played very well; the best musical accompaniment since 2012’s Hairspray for mine.

To the performances and a few of the headliners from Mary Poppins featured again. Jon Lambert played Caractacus Potts, another father with two precocious children and, dare I say it, using the exact same accent as his Mister Banks. This was only a minor complaint, quickly forgotten, as he gives yet another charming performance. Lambert’s solo number Hushabye Mountain was his standout vocal moment and a highlight of the show.

Kristie Gray’s run of memorable characters continues moving from Mary Poppins to Truly Scrumptious with aplomb. Gray has a beautiful singing voice with excellent clarity and power; the featured solo Lovely, Lonely Man a highpoint as was her Doll On A Music Box. In terms of singing ability she was closely followed by Kim Moore as Baroness Bomburst who featured in flamboyant number The Bombie Samba and worked well with Joshua Towns (as the Baron) in Chu-Chi Face.

Further Mary Poppins alums, Daniel Nixon and Nicholas Gaynor, provided great humour as the bumbling Vulgarian spies tasked to acquire the flying car. Scott Hansen added some vaudeville style menace as the Child Catcher while Rory Ellis was solid as the Toy Maker. Then there were the Potts children played with great flair by Sebastian Cruse and Marissa Pereira.

There was plenty of colour and movement epitomised by another highlight - Me Ol’ Bamboo - and the aforementioned The Bombie Samba. In many ways it’s a silly story with plenty of farce but darker moments as well as we discover the children banished to the sewers. It all has a happy ending with the audience clapping along to the title number as the family fly safely home.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is fabulous family entertainment and I felt quite invigorated as I left the venue. It comes as no surprise to me then that Francis has acquired the amateur rights to the blockbuster Wicked, the definition of a big, crowd pleasing musical. Given her track record it will be fascinating to see how she tackles the technical requirements to make that show literally fly as well. On the evidence of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang it will be something to see!

Originally written by Ian Fleming with the script adapted by Ray Roderick from the MGM Motion Picture of the same name; Music by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; Directed by Karen Francis with Choreography by Ashleigh Riley and Megan Doohan, Musical Direction by David Hicks and Vocal Direction by Kristie Gray; and starring Jon Lambert, Kristie Gray, Sebastian Cruse, Marissa Pereira, Peter Sydney-Smith, Nicholas Gaynor, Daniel R Nixon, Kim Moore and Joshua Towns.  

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

13 - WAAPA (12 October 2015)

I think it’s fair to say that this play is hard work for an audience. It is thematically dense and structurally challenging throwing a lot of characters at you early in short, sharp vignettes before it finally settles into more traditional storytelling. It’s also fair to say, however, that there are many fine performances by this second year class.

A whole lot of story strands are thrown in the air during a frenetic start – an English Prime Minister being pressured to join America in a war against Iran; various protestors against student fees; the mysterious John who returns from some sort of self-imposed exile who slowly becomes a rallying cry for dissent; an American diplomatic family in London; a cocky lawyer and his assistant; and so on. All have recurring nightmares about monsters and destruction; all seem to be looking for purpose and possibly salvation.

Interconnections slowly come to the fore culminating in the quasi-Christlike figure of John confronting the English Prime Minister at Number 10 while his followers rally outside. He tries to dissuade her from committing forces to Iran; she upholds traditional conservative values in the name of compromise and complexity.

Overlayed on all this is a clear thematic debate over belief and the existence of God. There is an academic who doesn’t believe in God who is a close friend, perhaps the only friend, of the PM. The precocious 11 year old daughter of the diplomatic family reads voraciously and doesn’t have time for fun because there is evil in the world. Her mother, a god fearing woman is appalled at her daughter’s casual dismissal of God. John is a surrogate Christ figure as he preaches on an upturned bucket in the park. He gathers many followers as his thoughts and words are transmitted over social media, filmed by a woman who has sex with men for money. One of which is the lawyer whose carefree attitude to his job and life comes crashing down around him. And so it goes.

There is almost too much thematic intent to hang on an already convoluted structure. The whole thing occasionally sways precariously, almost ready to topple. It also felt overlong as the confrontation between the PM and John, aided by the academic, felt more debate than drama. However, a clear action change for the PM gives the whole endeavour a second wind and it closes strongly. Though, I have to say, the thematic conclusion is ambivalent as John’s fate is executed with clinical precision tied to a horrendous act his beliefs are claimed to have sponsored.

To the performances and Miranda Aitken is excellent as the Prime Minister (Ruth) especially in the second half where her character assumes greater prominence. Playing a much older character it was the stiff bearing, the stillness, and especially the measured vocal tones that really sold this. While giving Ruth an authoritative air, hints of vulnerability and regret seeped through to telling affect. The weight of Ruth’s final decision was writ large on Aitken’s face in the closing moments. It was also her action change from passive listener to passionate defender of Ruth’s beliefs that gave the play its second wind just when things were flagging.

Will McNeill was compelling in another performance that snuck up on me. Initially playing the lawyer (Mark) with “don’t give a fuck” insouciance, his character slowly unravelled until experiencing a full-blown breakdown that was beautifully played. That it had me empathising with a previously unlikeable character was impressive.

If Aitken had a challenge playing a woman decades older then Kate Betcher had a similar task with 11 year old Ruby. She was suitably precocious and annoying but with the brutal honesty of a child. It was a clever portrayal and she worked well with the mother (Sarah) played by Anna Apps who has her own emotional arc that was perhaps the most difficult and controversial of the play. The insistence that what she ultimately does was justified is devastating and haunting.

Lukas Radovich gives John a mysterious air until he springs into action and embraces the role as de facto leader of the opposition forces that swirl around the PM. It’s a level-headed performance in a difficult role that is full of symbolism. Giuseppe Rotondella makes for a passionate Amir; Lachlan Ruffy a somewhat pretentious academic. Sophia Forrest inhabits the oddly conflicted Holly who, in many ways, facilitates John’s ascension and Mark’s downfall.

There were so many good performances here – Elle Mickel continues to impress with her gift at the comic gesture or quirky delivery that really hits the mark; Megan Smart carries a lot of the early action with a committed Rachel; George Pullar is a likeable diplomat who loves his daughter, is concerned for the PM, and has to deal with the most heinous of betrayals.

In a play dealing with lots of weighty topics and big ideas Brittany Santariga introduces an instantly recognisable human touch as her Zia looks for love in unexpected places with all the nervousness and anticipation anyone can identify with. There are some quite sweet moments between Santariga and Emma O’Sullivan as Zia’s prospective new girlfriend.

Directed with flair by Michael McCall in an interesting space over two levels that allowed for various entry and exit points for the actors, this had lots of energy until getting a little bogged down in dialogue heavy debate in the latter stages. The use of a transparent, movable screen to depict the nightmares of various characters was stylistically very effective as was the lighting and sound design. 

13 was written by Mike Bartlett, Directed by Michael McCall and stars the second year acting class of Lukas Radovich, Megan Smart, Giuseppe Rotondella, Sophia Forrest, Sarah Greenwood, Miranda Aitken, Lachlan Ruffy, Elle Mickel, Kate Betcher, George Pullar, Alexander Daley, Brittany Santariga, Angus McLaren, Emma O’Sullivan, Will McNeill, Anna Apps, Rory O’Keefe, Joel Davies, and Kieran Clancy-Lowe and is on at the Tricycle Theatre at Mount Lawley Senior High School until 15 October. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

And The World Goes 'Round - WAAPA (10 October 2015)

This is one of my favourite times of the year on the local theatrical scene. We've seen glimpses of what will be next year's graduating musical theatre class but now we get the full package, front and centre. The singing potential hinted at in the play Hiawatha; the triple threat skills used in support of the third years in Legally Blonde; all come together in this musical revue.

And what a revue to choose - the timeless songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Thirty five of them in fact. Such wit and intelligence in the lyrics, such polish and pizzaz in the music. It's nothing short of a treat for musical theatre lovers.

What I really appreciated is that the second year class had the opportunity to shine in so many facets. Yes, the singing ability is undeniable which is to be expected. The choreography by Australian musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes (who also directs here) was slick and, at times, sassy, funny, and downright sexy. The cast looked fantastic, predominantly dressed in black. There was a lot of accent work and admirable use of stagecraft and acting skills. Above all though was a sense of chemistry within the group - they worked well together and were enjoying the opportunity to perform such world class material.

The venue was perfect for this style of show - seating was along two sides only and we were nice and close to the action. The four piece orchestra under musical director Derek Bond was tucked away in one corner leaving plenty of stage space which was set out slightly staggered over three levels. There was an appropriate piano keyboard motif painted on the wall and floor.

Before I get to some highlights, there was a real buzz about this production. This was enhanced by the presence of several family members in the audience. I was talking to the uncle of one of the performers as we lined up outside; the mother of another who had travelled from interstate to see her daughter; and ended up sitting next to yet another mother who had come all the way from Queensland to see her son. The anticipation and pride they share is a delightful bonus.

I must mention the work of the orchestra, a feature of which was Derek Bond's excellent piano playing, but also included fine work by Austin Salisbury on Keyboard, Oliver Rundin on Drums and Jonathan Chen on Bass.

This is definitely a recommended show - it is utterly entertaining and very funny in parts and a wonderful showcase for this group. You might have trouble getting a ticket though even with an extra show added due to the demand.

It features the second year musical theatre class of:

Ashley Roussety, Christina Odam, Jason Arrow, Jens Radda, Joshua Firman, Kate Schmidli, Melissa Russo, Mikey Halcrow, Rebecca Cullinan, Stephanie Wall, Andre Drysdale, Marissa Economo, Stefanie Caccamo, Hannah Burridge, Matthew Manahan, Nathan Stark, Samuel Welsh, and Embla Bishop.

Some highlights for me:

The witty Coffee in a Cardboard Cup enhanced by some funny choreography featuring, you guessed it, cardboard cups (Wall, Baum, Manahan, Stark, Cullinan, Bishop).

A beautifully sung version of Coloured Lights by Stefanie Caccamo with appropriately good lighting design.

The delightfully cheesy ode to Sara Lee that hammed things up gloriously (to mix my food metaphors) again with cheeky choreography (Baum, Arrow, Welsh, Odam, Bishop, Russo).

Sam Welsh enjoying the attention of Misses Economo, Burridge and Schmidli with Arthur in the Afternoon.

The entire Chicago sequence but especially Nathan Stark's poignant Mr Cellophane and Messrs. Arrow and Welsh having a grand old time with an unexpected version of Class.

The first act closer City Lights featuring Mikey Halcrow and the whole ensemble that hints at what is to come next year when the entire group is on stage together.

The charming tale Ring Them Bells (Economo, Burridge, Russo, Caccamo, Roussety, Firman, Welsh, Manahan).

The hilarious Pain that sees Burridge, Caccamo, Odam, and Halcrow suffer under the tutelage of a wonderfully overbearing Drysdale.

Stephanie Wall's Maybe This Time from Cabaret.

The lads in coordinated attack with briefcases in hand during Money, Money.

And finally, the multi-lingual closer New York, New York featuring Bishop, Drysdale, Caccamo, Radda and Odam before the ensemble joins in to clinch the deal with a rousing finale that drew appreciative applause for a wonderful show.

There were so many other highlights so if you don't already have a ticket see if you can beg, borrow or steal one!

Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Directed by Nancye Hayes, with Musical Direction by Derek Bond, And The World Goes 'Round is on at the Enright Studio until 17 October.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Macbeth - WAAPA (9 October 2015)

WAAPA prides itself on housing many disciplines under the one roof at the ECU, Mount Lawley campus. Not only performance - acting, musical theatre, dance, contemporary & classical music - but all the other disciplines that are required to stage a production, from lighting and sound design, to costuming, set design, and arts management. This totality of approach makes the Academy unique and was certainly on display with this modern interpretation of Macbeth.

As I walked up the long corridor to the Roundhouse Theatre I could hear the portentous rumbling of modern music which was the first sign of the multi-media accompaniment we were about to experience. As the line of patrons waited to file in, the director Andrew Lewis pointed out signs asking that the name Macbeth not be uttered inside. This is a long held tradition given the play’s reputation of being ‘cursed’.

Once inside, the freshly painted stage was bare. There was a spiral staircase up to the second level where three screens were situated; one centrally, the other two on each side. Apart from occasions where a table might be wheeled on there was little set to speak of. This is where the light and sound design came to the fore and the use of those screens in various ways. They crackled into life depicting key elements - the roiling witches' cauldron or Seyton's initial appearance for example; or indicate the setting - Birnam Wood; but most noticeably were utilised to project live video of crucial soliloquies as they were being delivered on stage. 

Filmed from the upper level with at least two cameras given the juxtaposition of images, the harsh video look worked perfectly to heighten the emotion on the actor's face in close up - usually Benjamin Kindon as Macbeth but also Shalom Brune-Franklin as Lady Macbeth. The screens flickered and crackled in time to the modern, rhythmic music that was an ominous score. The lighting design was excellent with lots of diffused light through smoke and the highlighting of actors again in key moments but great use of shadow as well. 

Lewis had chosen to set this Macbeth "in a corporate world inhabited by knife-wielding, suited professionals". That suited look worked well with 'armour' being replaced by police style flak jackets. Brune-Franklin looked stunning in several gowns while the other female characters were sleek in their corporate attire; the men resplendent in suit and tie. Instead of swords and daggers we had knives and some vigorous confrontations, notably in the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff (Hoa Xuande).

All these elements gave the production great atmosphere and allowed for seamless scene transitions - this fairly hummed along. Having said that there were times, especially involving the witches, where there was a languid, at times hypnotic pace within a scene that was mesmerising.

This considered and skilled approach allowed the actors to shine in the space that had been so meticulously crafted. First and foremost, Kindon was excellent as Macbeth - a strong physical presence, he also conveyed the range of emotion from the almost boyish delight on hearing the witches' initial pronouncements to doubt and rage, the full force of hubris, and the slow descent into madness. His blind conviction of his invincibility was writ large as he mocked Macduff at the end only to be undone by such misplaced faith. His terror at Banquo's appearance was well portrayed and he handled the famous soliloquies well - the softly delivered Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow the best of them.

Brune-Franklin was at her best in the aftermath of Lady Macbeth's terrible cajoling of Macbeth to commit murder and seize the crown. The portrayal of guilt as she prowls the castle, sleepwalking at night ending in the famous Out, Damned Spot was strong. Those two characters' intersecting emotional through lines is always fascinating. From the stronger of the two at the start Lady Macbeth crumbles into irreversible guilt and finally suicide. 

Lincoln Vickery was a most affable Duncan and later the more earnest Scottish Doctor who witnesses Lady Macbeth's malady and overhears her seeming confession. Dacre Montgomery provided a strong counterpoint to Kindon in the early going as Banquo and his return as the blood spattered ghost that rebukes Macbeth is powerful.

Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Stephanie Panozzo and Brittany Morel comprised a set of tantalising witches adding a highly stylised approach to proceedings. They also doubled as various servants and messengers. They were joined by Elle Harris as Seyton. Harris has a chameleon like quality that can see her playing a young boy (Fleance here and Tom Joad last year in Grapes of Wrath) with as equal credibility as the vamped up Seyton. 

The other standout though was Jessica Paterson as Malcolm. WAAPA often likes to switch up their casting with gender reversals and here Paterson was more than equal to the task giving Malcolm an impressive strength and charismatic stage presence. Unfortunately, Xuande's Macduff wasn't up to the same calibre, the Shakespearean dialogue coming across as quite flat in his delivery. 

Then there was the famous Porter scene that immediately follows Duncan's death. A radical shift in tone to provide some comic relief to the relentless darkness and allow our co-conspirators time to change. Megan Wilding nails the moment and owns the stage with a full-throated approach that had the audience laughing and squirming in equal measure. 

Another highlight was the tension built up in the scene where Lady Macduff (Rebecca Gulia) cradling her baby and talking to her son (Gordon-Anderson), is assailed by Bevan Pfeiffer's and Rian Howlett's assassins. Pfeiffer's sudden appearance out of the shadows at the back of stage had the person sitting next to me pointing in warning. The resultant actions were brutal and devastating.

I walked back down that long corridor reminding myself "this is one hell of a play" and that is testament to all those elements that WAAPA brings to the table. 

Macbeth is on at the Roundhouse Theatre until 15 October. Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Andrew Lewis, Set Designer Ashliegh Hodges, Costume Designer Dolly-Mere Nettleton, Lighting Designer Chloe Ogilvie and Sound Designer Alice Carroll.

It stars the 3rd year graduating class of Benjamin Kindon, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Dacre Montgomery, Lincoln Vickery, Jessica Paterson, Bevan Pfeiffer, Hoa Xuande, Rebecca Gulia, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Luke Fewster, Claudia Ware, Seamus Quinn, Elle Harris, Brittany Morel, Stephanie Panozzo, Megan Wilding and Rian Howlett.