Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Windmill Baby - WAAPA (20 November 2017)

For a venue that is difficult to light, boy oh boy, when they get it right it is a sight to see in my favourite theatre in Perth, The Roundhouse on the ECU Mount Lawley campus. The abandoned cattle station of yore comes to life as memories, both joyful and tragic, are re-enacted in the harsh glare of the desert sun or softer hues of evening relief. At one point audience members on my right visibly jumped as the elements were brought vividly into existence with lighting and sound. Excellent work by lighting and sound designers Jackson McKay and Ella Portwine respectively.

The set itself, designed by Kara Rousseau, is glorious – all corrugated iron with the windmill looming over everything, a water tank, the back verandah to the homestead and an old-fashioned washing line. Curiously though, the featured structure of the title is more a silent observer, oft referred to but mostly ignored by the characters that are summoned by the storytelling gifts of Old May May (Abby Richards).

It is the verandah that is the more potent symbol as the boundary between the privileged station owners - Boss (Quaid Cooper) and his Missus (Nomi Haji-Ahmad) – and the indigenous station hands who do all the hard, manual labour. That one of those hands, the crippled Wunman (Jye Skinner) dares to cross into that space is the catalyst for most of the tragedy that follows.

But there is also, and predominantly, great warmth and humour in the storytelling driven by the wonderfully generous performance by Richards as the older woman who revisits the setting of her youth. It’s like sitting down to hear a great yarn full of diversions, episodic tales, reminiscences, and self-deprecating humour. There’s even some bawdy moments thrown in, mainly to do with Malvern (Lachlan Stokes), the once beau in May May’s life. Then there’s a charming strand about a half-dingo dog and a poodle that is thematically on point but also laugh out loud funny.

As Old May May’s memories take hold, Young May May, played with great expressiveness by Marlanie Haerewa, proves to be the ideal foil. The cutting between past and present is well crafted and enchanting to watch. Serena-May Brown as Sally, apart from being a dab hand on the ukulele, also brings a decency to her role as a rival for Malvern’s interest. She has a featured moment pulling an audience member up on stage to tell a story to that ends in a surprise gift.

Stokes is amusingly naïve when it comes to the female attention Malvern receives and I confess I missed his presence somewhat in the latter stages. Skinner gives Wunman a sly sense of humour as well as providing physical comedy by way of navigating his crippled limbs. His fate felt somewhat anti-climactic though given the fault-lines his relationship with Missus causes.

Cooper has perhaps the most onerous task playing the callous station owner who thinks little of his workers and perhaps even less of his wife. The retribution for crossing racial divides is harsh and unforgiving. Haji-Ahmad radiates a sense of propriety and goodness as the Missus in opposition to her husband’s cruelty.

Torika Forrester seems to act somewhat as a portent of doom as Aunty Darbella while Umima Shah-Munro rounds out the cast as Wunman’s Mum and in ensemble moments. Like with all great tales there’s some singing, a little dancing, and even a bit of puppetry. Director Eva Grace Mullaley uses the full extent of the thrust stage well letting the characters of the past swirl around her central storyteller.

At a smidge over an hour in length this was charming storytelling even in its moments of sorrow, anchored by Richards’ warm delivery and that fabulous set. A most pleasurable evening of theatre presented by the Aboriginal Performance students.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Stepping Out - Koorliny Arts Centre (18 November 2017)

Many moons ago, towards the end of my career as a manager for a large national company in Sydney, one of the few times of solace was a weekly screenwriting class in Bondi. In those couple of hours, talking about movies and writing, all thoughts of personal and professional worries were held in abeyance. It ultimately led me to resigning and returning home to Perth to pursue my creative dreams. But that's another story.

In Stepping Out seven women from diverse backgrounds and a sole male attend regular tapdance classes to escape all manner of domestic disharmony or their own personal demons. In essence the play is an extended choreography session with hints at the dysfunction outside the walls of the studio that drives these people here. There is also the inevitable clash of personalities as pressure builds on learning they will be performing in front of an audience for the first time at a charity event.

It's a familiar arc - tyro performers race against time to prepare for an event where public humiliation lurks yet somehow pull it all together to triumph. The trick here is to show people tapping badly for the majority of the production before the razzle dazzle of the ending.

And razzle dazzle it does. Choreographer Allen Blachford has taken a true ensemble of actors, some of whom have never tapped before in their lives, and crafted a credible character trajectory from enthusiastic novices (though some characters less than others) to competent tappers. It's a surefire crowd pleaser when all the stumbling and bumbling turns into a polished routine.

In this Hannah Harn is Blachford's surrogate as Mavis, the tap instructor. Harn's Mavis shows glimpses of true ability as she puts the class through its paces while dealing with surly pianist Glenda (Lucy Eyre) who provides arch comments and hurt feelings as appropriate. Harn clearly has the dancing chops and features heavily in the showpiece numbers at the end. I wasn't quite as convinced when Mavis is required to turn bitchy as complications arise over the routine for the charity event. There is also a revelation that didn't quite land and was quickly forgotten.

Indeed, a lot of threads are left hanging in the personal lives of these women and the introverted Geoffrey (played with great understatement by David Gardette). Dilemmas are set up but never truly tackled or resolved. The play seems to be saying you can have your moment in the spotlight no matter what demons await in the darkness.

The character most afflicted by this is Andy whose unseen husband looms large in crippling her self-esteem. Casey Edwards inhabits the character with stark rigidness - hunched shoulders, arms stiff by her sides with hands frozen. Edwards' work with Gardette is a quiet highlight as Andy tentatively reaches out to make a truthful human connection. The character is also, in many ways, the moral compass of the tale with her petition regarding the local park and a well earned outburst.

If Andy is quiet then there are more than a few characters who go large in counterpoint beginning with the fastidious newcomer Vera. Claire Matthews gives Vera a colurful persona, all fussy and strutting, with a knack for the well meaning dagger to the heart as self-censorship isn't Vera's strong suit. Costume designer Lynne Leeder adds to the peacock allure dressing Matthews in outrageously bold outfits that she pulls off with panache. The well-judged performance is the engine room for most of the friction within the class.

Chief adversary is Anita Telkamp's straight-shooting Sylvia who, by comparison, has a bogan twang which she wields with cutting one-liner retorts. Telkamp's comic timing and delivery are very good here. The costuming reinforces the difference between the two women with Sylvia looking more at home in Tap Dogs than shopping at Man-doo-ra Forum.

Then there's Maxine as played by Rachel Monamy, a character who always seems to be on the hustle selling outfits to the group and (eventually) providing the costumes for the charity event whilst dealing with her step-son "Wonderboy". I liked that the style of humour for each character was in a different spectrum. Monamy's more a conversational style here; Eyre's pointed and gruff; Matthews' sly and demeaning; Telkamp's dry and cutting.

The cast is rounded out by Stacey Holling's Lynne who has more confidence in her tap ability and a nice personality to boot; Jenny Lawrence's Dorothy who was a little nervous and fidgety about the whole thing; and Nontuthuzelo Mqwati who had some telling lines in response to being the 'ethnic' of the group as Rose.

There is a lot of good physical comedy as well as they all come to terms at having to tap with sticks AND bowler hats. A running - well, actually, tripping gag with Gardette whose earnest attempts at being out front as the only male are a delight.

The audience was enthusiastic with much appreciation of set-pieces. The final tap routines went down a treat though there were a few moments in the lead up that dragged a little as the focus shifted to oblique mentions of the world outside the studio. That those set-ups weren't paid off or resolved left me with the uneasy feeling that these women's triumph was but temporary. Given recent revelations in the world of comedy, news broadcasting, and Hollywood, perhaps, sadly, an all too true outcome.

Overall though I laughed throughout and had a good time with this. The ending was well earned and executed with style as director Geoffrey Leeder showcased the ensemble to full effect.

Friday, 3 November 2017

WAAPA Showcase (3 November 2017)

From Stephen Sondheim to David Mamet; Kander & Ebb to Peter Shaffer; Jason Robert Brown to Patrick Marber... you're unlikely to see as diverse a selection of acting excerpts and musical theatre numbers in two hours as you do at WAAPA's annual Showcase.

The W.A.A.P.A. Friends Of The Academy Showcase night is one of my favourite dates on the Perth theatre calendar as we get to say goodbye and celebrate the graduating musical theatre and acting students. I actually find it inspirational to witness the talent on display after three gruelling years of study and knowing that this marks the transition point from student to professional career.

As always that talent is across the board excellent. Congratulations to each and every one of you and all the best for your future endeavours and careers.

If I may offer a limited selection of favourites from the night...

Acting Showreel scenes:

A delightfully quirky scene featuring Katherine Pearson as an unusual theatre patron encountering Martin Quinn's somewhat bewildered director after the premiere of his play.

Spider-Man meets Catwoman in a very well written scene that highlighted the talents of Jack Scott and Laura McDonald with a nice array of emotions and underlying message. The writing was so perfectly suited to the actors' strengths I was delighted to discover Scott himself had written it.

Acting scenes:

An oft encountered pairing who have excellent onstage chemistry, Roy Joseph and Laura McDonald, in an excerpt from John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. I loved the physicality of the scene, their accent work, and the clear, crisp action changes. Many other scenes saw blocking where the actors were too far apart in key dramatic and/or emotional moments. Here, Joseph and McDonald were literally in each other's face which heightened the potency of the scene. 

Sasha Simon's fierce performance playing opposite Mitchell Bourke in a scene from People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan. The focus is squarely on Simon as her character fights for help on her own terms. A smart decision therefore to have Bourke (who sets the table nicely) sitting angled away from the audience so that she was featured.

Musical Theatre numbers:

One of my absolute joys at the theatre is being surprised. That is often the case when someone who maybe hasn't been featured as much in the last couple of years blows you away in a jaw-on-the-floor moment. Here it was Chloe Bremner's performance of Behind These Walls which was superb.

Finn Alexander taking a song written for a female character - Sondheim's Losing My Mind from Follies - and making it his own in an exquisite performance. Brave choice, excellent execution that paid off in spades.

I have to also mention the musical accompaniment on piano from WAAPA's own Kohan van Sambeeck that was a non-stop, hour long tour de force.

In the days to come agents and managers and talent scouts and all sorts of other people will make decisons based on what they see at the final Showcase in Perth tomorrow night and then in Sydney and Melbourne. On the evidence of tonight I look forward to reading of agent signings and then casting announcements, both screen and stage, from here on in.