Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Billy Elliot, Dec 31, 2008 ****1/2

 Billy Elliot 
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
 Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from Dec 31, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:  ****1/2

Billy Elliot is a rare, inspirational musical with a powerful narrative that triggers laughter and tears. (Take tissues.) It weaves the gritty and achingly sad story of the Northern England Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 with the joyful tale of Billy, a miner’s son who wants to be a ballet dancer. 

The contrast between ballet and mining is stark but the message is clear: fight for what you want and you might change your future.

Lee Hall’s book, based on his screenplay, captures the dignity, courage and foolishness of the miners’ resistance, the violence of the police and the bloody-mindedness of Maggie Thatcher. Against this tough struggle for survival, Hall sets the playful world of the ballet class and the creative ambition of 12-year old Billy.

Elton John’s music captures the vitality and humour of Northern England. He sets Hall’s potent lyrics to styles including anthems, marches, folk ballads, boogie-woogie, jazz and more. The show begins with the rousing workers’ anthem, The Stars Look Down, a revolutionary song that expresses the pain and commitment of workers.

Hall and John continue the revolution with Solidarity, a confrontation between police and miners. The visionary director, Stephen Daldry, with choreographer, Peter Darling, overlays this pitched battle with the Billy’s hilariously chaotic ballet classes. The show’s style cunningly incorporates slapstick, British workers’ theatre, silent movies and more. One wacky scene even features giant dancing frocks.

But the show is nothing without Billy, played on the New Year’s Eve opening night by Dayton Tavares (OK) although five boys share the role. Dayton had the crowd standing and shouting. His dance technique is exceptional and he can sing and act too! Electricity, Billy’s halting but poetic attempt to describe how it feels to dance, wrenches the heart and there is not a dry eye during Dear Billy with his dead mother (Samantha Morley). When he flies above the stage the crowd is mesmerised.

Richard Piper is both funny and moving as Billy’s dad, the simple miner trying to hold his family together during the strike. Mike Smith is impassioned and engaging as his older son and Lola Nixon is deliciously wicked as Grandma. Genevieve Lemon is tough but lovable as the brassy, ciggy-smoking ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson and John Xintavelonis (OK) is hilarious as her pianist, Mr. Braithwaite.

The chorus of adult dancer-singers is exceptional, the ballet class girls are cute and comical but several scenes are stolen by the cheeky, captivating Thomas Doherty as Billy’s nearly gay friend Michael.

Billy Elliot pushes all the right buttons and is a show that you could happily see again and again.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 19 December 2008

Theatre & Musicals Wrap Up 2008, Dec 19, 2008

Theatre & Musicals Wrap Up 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne

You can keep your lavish spectacles. My 2008 exceptional theatrical experiences were intimate and low budget. Tim Crouch’s compelling two-hander, an oak tree, unmasked the evolution of a performance. We witnessed the breathless moment of creation, an artists’ mind in a whirl, when an actor who had never seen the script performed with Crouch. His second play, England, had a similar visceral and emotional intimacy.

Holiday, by Ranters, was an eccentric, voyeuristic piece in which two men, unwitting specimens in an over-sized display cabinet, chatted casually and randomly about memories and hopes. I was moved by the simplicity of Jackie Jackie In the Box, a disturbing installation (Ilbijerri Theatre) displaying aboriginal “living specimens” inside glass display cases. Haneef: An Interrogation, challenged political and ethical views by incorporating verbatim extracts from Haneef’s police interrogation.

Several thrilling solos epitomised the art of the performer. Charlie Ross’s exhilarating One Man Star Wars was a condensed version of the trilogy in one astonishing hour of action, vocal acrobatics and aliens. Anne Browning in The China Incident depicted a galloping corporate workplace disaster of international proportions while Rod Quantock gets my vote for political comedian.

Anything by the inimitable Sisters Grimm wins the insanely funny award. Some Girl/s, Neil LaBute’s whip-smart, acerbic play, was superbly directed by Sean Collins while Joanna Murray-Smith’s Ninety (MTC) also had wit and vivacity in a two-hander. The MTC and Malthouse produced interesting, varied programs – but so they should with all that money to spend.

2008 saw the reinvention of the Australian Musical. Keating was a scathing political satire and a dazzlingly clever musical evocation of Keating’s rise to power. Shane Warne The Musical contained less barbed satire, but Eddie Perfect was magnetic as Warney.  The satirical vignettes and songs in Beware of the Dogma were hilarious.

We cannot ignore the visually spectacular Wicked and its two remarkable leads. Lucy Durack, with her warm bright voice, played the annoyingly perky Galinda and the rich-voiced Amanda Harrison was the awkward and rebellious Elphaba.

There were the inevitable low points this year. Joelene Anderson was out of her depth in Lloyd Webber’s solo musical, Tell Me on A Sunday, and Shaun Micallef was sadly miscast in Boeing Boeing, although his three air hostess lovers were delectable.

Hedda Gabler could gladly have shot herself earlier in PMD’s production and One Cloud, a new play supported by Theatreworks Initiative, was inexpressibly slow and painful to watch. Kit Lazaroo’s Asylum was a confused piece about a Chinese refugee.

And now we anticipate a whole new chocolate box of theatrical goodies in 2009. Yum!

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Is There Life After High School? Dec 17, 2008 ***

 Is There Life After High School?
Book by Jeffrey Kindley, Music & Lyrics by Craig Carnelia, by Stella Entertainment
Chapel off Chapel, until 23, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Dec 17, 2008

In a peculiar collision of events, Is There Life After High School? coincided with my nostalgic revisiting of childhood photos. I was primed for a musical about the high school years.

Jeffrey Kindley and Craig Carnelia wrote a show with specific relevance to American schools recognisable from US teen movies. Strangely, although the characters, songs and stories are really entertaining and the cast strong, the American characters’ recollections are totally alien to my school experience.

The opening chorus of The Kid Inside sets the tone of the musical. The show was written for nine adults ten years after graduation who reinhabit their younger selves, shifting from adult self to the past, vulnerable, teenage self. Directors Paul Watson and Peter Fitzpatrick double cast each role with a teenager playing the character at school age.

This device provides experience for the younger cast and doubles the voices to give a rich, full chorus. There are interesting moments when older selves talk to or observe younger selves. The small stage, however, feels crowded with 18 actors.

The show combines songs and vignettes. It is not a linear narrative following the lives of individuals but a montage of character types and stories. Actors play a variety of characters defined by accents and attitude. We meet the cheer-leader, football star, geek, outsider, radical, lonely guy, chubby boy, the pretty girl and others.

The over-riding feeling is of nostalgia in these bitter-sweet reminiscences. These adults have regrets and suffer a sense of loss for various reasons. The sing about The Things I Learned in High School and Second Thoughts. The Diary of a Homecoming Queen depicts regrets about losing popularity.  Fran and Janie is a beautiful duet between two friends  (Natasha Bassett, Lizzie Matjacic OK) who lost contact after school.

But most of the stories are about failures and vulnerabilities at high school. They regret never confronting the abusive football coach or teacher, never asking out the pretty girl, being cast in the lead of a show, winning a playground fight or being the chubby, victimised kid.

But all remember the craving for acceptance and the abiding sense of competition. And all believe that their adult lives are simply High School All Over Again. They never escape that vulnerable kid inside.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Short and Sweet 2008, Dec 11, 2008 ***1/2

Short and Sweet 2008 
Week Two
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until Dec 20
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

If you don’t like one play at the Short and Sweet short play festival, wait 10 minutes and you get a completely new one. The program in Week Two of the Festival comprises performances by 10 Independent Theatre Ensembles. (Weeks 1 and 3 are individual playwrights).

Only one of the ensembles credits a playwright. The rest, presumably, were devised by performers with a director. This form of creative development of a theatrical product produces a smorgasbord of styles and content and the high level of collaboration and commitment is evident. All 10 pieces are rich in character, inventive in style and form, tightly directed and skilfully performed. What is noticeable in most is a non-linear structure and reliance on physical rather than text-based performance.

Several themes are apparent in the plays. Death and illness provide content for four. Tea For Two, one of the two strongest works, is a clever acrobatic narrative in which two men deal with a dead woman. Bodybag is a dialogue-based duet about the suicide of a celebrity while Tinsel Town is an amusing Gothic horror satire. Finding Your Place portrays a writer who suffers dementia, trying to hold memories of characters she wrote.

Other pieces deal with relationships. With their inimitable stylised movement with music, Born In A Taxi present my other favourite, the charming and playful 6 Hours Later. Last Drinks experiments with repetition and deconstruction of a scene at a club and Match sees a couple communicating through little creatures made from modelling clay. Morbid Porn is a wild and sexy ride with a woman seducing a tiny puppet.

 Fractured fairy tales provide content for After the Tower – a comical dance-based piece about Rapunzel’s conjoined twin daughters – and Grimm that features seven quirky clowns re-telling the story of Snow White.

This program has a rich variety of work, some fine individual performances but the pieces that excel are 6 Hours Late and Tea For Two.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shane Warne: The Musical, Dec 10, 2008 ****

Shane Warne: The Musical
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Athenaum Theatre, from Dec 10
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Even if you were never hypnotised by Shane Warne’s spin bowling you’ll be dazzled by the charismatic Eddie Perfect. Perfect is a bright light that draws the eye at every turn. In Playboy Bunny jocks or cricket whites, he is a vivid presence in Shane Warne: The Musical, directed by Neil Armfield.

Perfect plays the lead and wrote the lyrics and music. He must be as tired as a spin bowler after a five-day test match.

“Everyone’s a little bit like Shane”, sings Perfect with the outstanding chorus of eight. In this show, Perfect somehow redeems Shane, the naughty boy we loved to hate. Warne is an ordinary bloke with an extraordinary skill. Perfect’s cunningly wrought songs are mostly gently satirical observations about Warney’s personal foibles and outrageous failures. His life is “the soap opera that keeps giving.”

But Perfect’s incisive insight triggers sympathy and empathy with the young cricketer who made such public mistakes. It’s revisionist Warney history; he whom we loved to loath is adored again.

The show opens with Perfect, as Warne, chatting charmingly and disarmingly. The evening begins slowly with too much chatter and too many similar songs about Warne’s undramatic early days and the staging feels a little cramped. But by interval it has an energy injection and the second half goes like a rocket with impeccable support from the chorus and the impressive on-stage band.

Perfect writes hilarious lyrics with crafty rhymes in songs such as the upbeat, rousing Hollywood about heroes standing their ground. It compares Warne with Ned Kelly and the Anzacs. That Ball relives with reverence Warne’s magical “ball of the century”; his memorable first ball in England that dismissed the England Captain.

Perfect/Warne shirt-fronts the world with brazen bullishness in They’re Paying Attention Now and, with the chorus of men, reminds us of Australia’s notorious on-field sledging, in We Never Cross The Line.

What an SMS I’m In is a witty view of Warne’s humiliating sexy phone messages. My Name Is John is a funny Bollywood style number about the Indian bookie scandal and The Away Game is a Barry White-style sexy number with slinky dancers.

But the tone changes with two poignant, sensitive songs about Warne’s marriage. Rosemarie Harris is sensational as Simone singing, Is The Sun The Moon?, a moving song about this simple girl who can’t understand her boofhead husband. I’m Coming Home is a passionate, sad love duet between Harris and Perfect.

It all ended on a high and the crowd rose as one chanting, “Warney! Warney!” When the man himself appeared. I joined them – and I’m not even a cricket fan.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Santaland Diaries, Dec 5, 2008 ***1/2

The Santaland Diaries
By David Sedaris
Auspicious Arts Incubator, until Dec 24
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

David Sedaris is an American essayist whose sardonic, social observational humour is enormously successful and achingly funny. 

The Santaland Diaries, about Sedaris’s humiliating season working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s New York, rocketed him to success when first broadcast on public radio in 1992. The stage adaptation by Joe Mantello is a Christmas institution in the UK and USA.

Picture this: a grown man in a green Christmas elf suit including pantaloons, curly-toed slippers and a huge hat with a bell. Russell Fletcher plays Crumpet (The thinking woman’s Crumpet?) the Elf and he has the audience howling with laughter for an hour.

The show begins with Sedaris’s wry self-deprecating humour as he describes being a hopeful writer newly arrived in the Big Apple hoping to meet his favourite soap opera stars. When, shame-faced and poverty-stricken, he answers the “Be a Christmas Elf” job ad, he undergoes an absurd interview process rigorous enough for a Managing Director.

Anyone who has ever taken a child to visit Santa knows the horrors of queuing for hours, dealing with hysterical children and overwrought parents. Sedaris captures the nightmare that is Christmas for both elves and families and Fletcher inventively recreates the entire fake-snow-filled retail world.

Fletcher, directed by John Paul Fischbach, (OK) peoples the stage with characters. As the shopping days count down to Christmas, we experience Elf training school at Macy’s where the dysfunctional meet the aspirational. There is Snowball, the sweet-faced boy elf that shamelessly flirts with the Santas and elves. There is the dad who lugs tons of video equipment to get the perfect pictorial record of the Santa visit. There are racist, white trash parents, black parents who think the “Santa of colour” is not black enough and the angry and out of control parents.

Fletcher portrays the parade of Santas who do shifts inside Santa’s Shack in Santaland. There is sleazy Santa who hits on young mums; speedy, efficient Santa who rushes kids on and off his knee; irrelevant, bored and funny Santas. But it is the final Santa that brings true Christmas cheer to his visitors and captures Crumpet’s heart – and ours.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Careless , Dec 3, 2008 **

By Russell Rigby, by La Mama
Where and When: Carlton Courthouse, until Dec 20
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Careless dips into the world of a barrister whose legal and personal life is falling apart. Paul (Adam May) is married to Linda (Carolyn Bock). She is having an affair with Paul’s barrister friend, Richard (Paul Dawber) whose star is rising fast when he appointed a County Court judge. Everything gets more complicated by a gambling industry crim (Silas James) and an ex-stripper (Deborah Tabone).

The narrative is rather convoluted and some crucial action occurs in off-stage moments as time passes in Paul’s messy world. Russell Rigby, himself a barrister, writes some funny dialogue about lawyers and crims as well as some situational comedy. The script structure is not cohesive and the dialogue needs a rigorous edit to take out the repetition and needless diversions. Rigby’s characters are not yet three-dimensional. They seem to play one note throughout and none, not even the cuckolded Paul, has our sympathy.

Carolyn Bock finds some truth and passion in Linda and Adam May plays the sappy Paul credibly. The rest of the acting is uneven. The pace of John Higginson’s production is slow and it is not helped by the numerous, long blackouts during scene changes. A totally black set design perhaps has a metaphorical intention but a stronger design might give the play more flexibility.

Rigby has a play struggling to emerge here but Careless needs dramaturgical work to turn it into a butterfly.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Sound of Waves, Nov 28-30, 2008 ***

The Sound of Waves by Gareth Ellis
Where and When: VCA, Nov 28-30 (Finished)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Sound of Waves is a whimsical fairy tale and an allegory for performer, Jodie Harris’s own experience as a young deaf woman who received a cochlear implant then studied acting and voice at the Victorian College of the Arts.

Harris portrays a child who is slowly becoming a fish, growing gills, losing her hearing and choosing to live at the bottom of the ocean with the sound of waves and the company of other fish.

This performance is captivating on several levels for the audience. Harris’s performance is lyrical and physical and we are constantly aware of her voice bearing only occasional signs of her deafness after her years of Actor-Vocal training with Geraldine Cook (Head of Voice at VCA).

The play is preceded by an extraordinary seminar about Ms. Cook’s vocal training with deaf teenagers with cochlear implants. This program movingly demonstrates what Ms. Cook describes as “The joy of hearing and the joy of being heard.” It was a joy to be hearing it.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Nov 27, 2008

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead 
By Tom Stoppard, PMD Productions
Where and When: Chapel off Chapel, Nov 27 to Dec 13, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 27, 2008

Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, cunningly peers into the private world of Rosencrantz (Miranda McGee) and Guildenstern (Luke Lennox), characters from Hamlet who are off-stage for the majority of Shakespeare’s play.

Stoppard investigates the off-stage world of Shakespeare’s two thinly drawn characters and immerses them in a comical existential dilemma. They do not know where they came from, why they are there or how to fill their time while awaiting instructions.

The pair is intermittently interrupted by the real action of Hamlet. The Prince himself greets them, the Players entertain them and the King and Queen consult them. The rest of the time they play a coin toss game that defeats probability by always turning up heads.

The play is a black comedy. We know Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hanged at the end of Hamlet but in Stoppard’s play they are plagued by foreboding and suspect their own fate. They are confused not only about their role but are even unsure which of them is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern.

McGee and Lennox, directed by Paul Knox, are an entertaining double act as playful clowns struggling to understand the darker machinations of their world. The other actors are less effective performing the excerpts from Hamlet that require a complete understanding of Shakespeare’s language, character and narrative.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Duets for Actor and Musician,Nov 25, 2008

 Duets for Actor and Musician
By Dina Ross, Kelly Trounson & Anna Schoo, by A Is For Atlas
Where and When: Abbottsford Convent, until Nov 29, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 25, 2008

The title says it all; this production comprises three duets for one actor accompanied by a musician. Each piece also involves the writer of the monologue, a visual artist who provides a design element and the director, Xan Colman, who simply but imaginatively draws the three works into one program. 

The musical instruments (french horn, clarinet and violin) provide a second voice in the stories and the musicians interact physically with the actors creating a metaphorical layer.

MRI (Dina Ross) is an intense depiction of a woman undergoing an MRI scan when she is confronted by looming paralysis while Car Park (Anna Schoo) is a fretful monologue by an anxious office worker. Down In The Dirt (Kelly Trounson) portrays a quirky and funny view of a woman obsessed with death and with her prosthetic leg.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 21 November 2008

Death in White Linen, Nov 21, 2008

Death in White Linen
By Michael Dalley, Full Tilt
Where and When: Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until Nov 29, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 21, 2008

Michael Dalley has an exceptional facility for writing and performing satirical songs as seen in his previous shows such as Vaudeville X and Intimate Apparel.  The witty and barbed lyrics featured in Death in White Linen are as clever as his earlier shows but, this time, Dalley performs solo – apart from his accompanist, John Thorn, on piano.

Dalley peoples the stage with vividly drawn, very funny characters. He opens with the camp, old, vaudeville show host of the “Shitey Village Cruise Line”. His accent is broad Northern England and his jokes are riddled with innuendo, “how’s your father” dialogue and peppy music hall style songs.

The story line is loose and falls to pieces later in the show but it is simply the washing line upon which are hung the songs and characters that are the features of the show. It focuses on Brian Kennedy, a working class Liverpool upstart whose father, a docker, dies when hit by a crate of good Irish linen.

Brian, after winning a scholarship to an English Catholic Grammar School then emigrating to Australia with his widowed mother, claws his way to the top of the Melbourne social scene, becomes a personal injury barrister and marries money.

Dalley’s depiction of Brian is a scathing portrait of a social climbing lawyer who denies his roots and eliminates all telltale signs of his accent and class. Brian’s wife, Suzanne Angus-Hereford, is big-boned and a rowing fetishist – but filthy rich.

Dalley is more sympathetic to Teresa, Brian’s seamstress mother, who wants only the best for her son. She has some of the best lines including, “He has a face like a farmer’s arse well-slapped”. Brian’s rise in social status is accompanied by witty songs including Observing the Mating Habits of the Bourgeoisie.

Brian’s obsession with the Roman Empire causes him to name his sons Maximus and Cassius. The boys are hilarious upper class twits. Cassius is the resentful loser who cannot hit a cricket ball and Maximus is the bruiser who captains the Grammar School eleven.

This smug prat’s world-view is, “Invest in the trappings of wealth and the substance will come.” He is an inveterate snob, a useless father and an excellent target for Dalley’s caustic satire.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 20 November 2008

One Cloud, Nov 20, 2008 *1/2

One Cloud 
By Shannon Murdoch
Where and When: Theatreworks, until Nov 29, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: *1/2

One Cloud tells the story of an isolated, repressed and peculiar island community that lives according to patriarchal rituals, rigid social conventions and a rejection of all outside influence. 

When a scatty, vodka-drinking, modern young woman (Kylie Trounson) washes up on their shores, the residents are initially polarised about her presence. They either love her or hate her because she has disturbed their plain and simple life. They are as weird and insular as The Brethren.

The script is unnecessarily oblique and repetitive in an attempt to be poetic or non-naturalistic. This could be a 20 minute play. With more imaginative direction the script might have potential but the direction (Sarah McCusker) is clumsy, leaving the actors looking awkward and crowded on a cramped stage.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Milli, Jack and the Dancing Cat, Nov 13, 2008

Milli, Jack and the Dancing Cat
By Monkey Baa adapted from a book by Stephen Michael King
Where and When: Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Nov 10-14, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

About 600 primary school children saw Milli, Jack and the Dancing Cat at the Fairfax over five days. 

Three lively performers directed by John Saunders and accompanied by musician, Trevor Brown, engage and delight the children. 

It is a simple, whimsical story about Milli (Crystal Hegedis) a young boot maker who is bored senseless with making plain old work boots. Milli’s great love is creating new playthings from discarded objects. 

When travelling performers, Jack (Tony Harvey) and his Dancing Cat (Vincent Hooper) arrive in town Milli exchanges new boots for dance lessons and makes two new friends.  The tiny tots were captivated for the entire hour of song, dance and slapstick.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Danny and The Deep Blue Sea, Nov 9, 2008 ***

Danny and The Deep Blue Sea
By John Patrick Shanley, Human Sacrifice Theatre
Where and When: Chapel off Chapel Thurs to Sun Nov 9 to Nov 23, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 9, 2008

Danny and The Deep Blue Sea is a gritty piece of American realism by John Patrick Shanley. Danny (Justin Hosking) and Roberta (Tania Lentini) are two damaged New Yorkers who meet in a Bronx bar. There is a violent edge to the start of the play and Hosking is credible as the troubled Danny who has a very short fuse and a habit of picking fights after drinking too much.

What follows is a gentler and strangely romantic interaction between Danny and Roberta, a young mum who is looking for human contact. Roberta takes Danny to her home where she lives with her parents and her child and they grapple, argue, dream a little and hope for a better and more loving life ­– together. This is a love story that looks hopeless but might just work in some insane way.

Hosking and Lentini play these characters with sympathy and sensitivity. Danny is volatile, unpredictable and dangerous but Hosking explores his soft underbelly while Tania is erratic and needy but strangely lovable. Shanley’s play, directed by Lucy Freeman, is a short, edgy drama with a heart.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Macbeth Re-Arisen, Nov 6, 2008 **

Macbeth Re-Arisen
By David Mence by White Whale Theatre
Where and When: Trades Hall, Nov 6 to Nov 23, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 6, 2008

Macbeth Re-Arisen is a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – with zombies. Yes, Macbeth rises from the dead and rallies an army of the undead to help him retake the Scottish throne. 

The play was first staged at Melbourne University and it still feels like a student production. The script is written with a nod to Elizabethan English and is peppered with quotes from Shakespeare’s tragedies and it would benefit from a vigorous edit, particularly of some of the monologues. 

The dialogue is generally florid and over-written in an attempt to replicate Shakespeare. (Why use one word when you can use ten?) The production is most successful when it does not take itself seriously and lets fly with some mad, slapstick zombie action.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Menopause the Musical, Nov 5, 2008 ***

Menopause The Musical
By Jeanie Linders, HIT Productions
Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, Nov 5 to 9, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert


Menopause The Musical, written by Jeanie Linders, is back with its jokes about hot flushes, night sweats and bad moods. This is “identification theatre” in the extreme. 

Four actor-singers of a certain age play diverse characters who meet in a battle over underwear on a sale table. There is the corporate executive, a hippy farmer, a mousy country housewife and an insecure, ageing television soap star.

They sing classic songs from the 60s and 70s with new lyrics that reflect the horrors of menopause and the irrepressible of spirit of these women. Chain Chain Chain is retitled Change of Life, I Will Survive becomes I Am Awake, I’m Having A Hot Flush is sung to Heat Wave and Pills is a song about anti-depressants – “I love them so, I always will”.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

A Tribute to Danny Kaye, Nov 8, 2008

A Tribute to Danny Kaye
By Russell Fletcher
Where and When: The Spiegeltent, Arts Centre, Nov 8 & 15, 2pm
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Russell Fletcher’s tribute show will tickle Danny Kaye fans. Fletcher bears an uncanny resemblance to the redheaded joker. 

He does not attempt a detailed impersonation but rather embodies Kaye’s style and vitality while recreating routines and songs from his live shows and movies (Hans Christian Anderson, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Court Jester).

The frenetic wordplay, galloping songs, madcap storytelling, vocal sound effects and witty interaction with the audience conjure Kaye’s spirit. 

Fletcher revels in the sheer silliness of Kaye’s inventive comedy. He relates the entire story of The Little Fiddle and the evil Glockenspiel in disguise. 

As the belligerent German conductor he leads Kaye’s rendition of the Flight of the Bumblebee with audience members playing mime instruments.

The final Court Jester song convinces us that we need nutty comic geniuses such as Danny Kaye.

By Kate Herbert

Yibyung. Company B & Malthouse, Nov, 4, 2008 ***1/2

By Dallas Winmar, Company B & Malthouse Theatre
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Nov 4 to  16, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 4, 2008


Published in Herald Sun in Nov 2008

 Yibiyung, by Dallas Winmar, is a poignant story about Lily (Miranda Tapsell), an aboriginal child taken from her family early in the 20th century. Her journey takes her from childhood with her mother (Jada Alberts), baby brother and Uncle (David Page) in her homeland to mission schools then to her work as a domestic servant.

Wesley Enoch’s production, with an inspired design by Jacob Nash, is performed on a stage empty except for one enormous tree. The space feels expansive because the vast Australian sky is replicated in clusters of white chalk stars drawn on black walls and lit by ultra-violet lights.

It is difficult to tell an entire life story on stage so Winmar compresses the story of Lily to encompass the years from just before she was stolen to just after she went into service at 16. There is a simple beauty in the first half of the play and the Lily’s family life is portrayed with joy and sensitivity.

Stars, or “djindi” as she calls them, are central to the tale, providing a backdrop to Lily’s life. Her mother’s story about the birth of the Southern Cross is compelling when told in her tribal language and later in English. Five women escape from male violence to find freedom in the sky as stars. Freedom is Lily’s aim throughout the story.

David Page, as Lily’s Uncle (“Kongkan” in her language), has charm, humour and warmth. Her relationship with her Uncle calls Lily home throughout her exile in the white man’s world. It is the grief of a child being taken from family that makes the first half of the play so moving.

The petite and pretty Tapsell makes believable her transition from playful child to distressed, rebellious teenager then to polite servant with a desire to escape. The ensemble of nine provides the rest of Lily’s world. Melodie Reynolds is heart-rending as Djindi, the nameless child who does not know her family. Jimi Bani is delightfully physical as the high-spirited boy, Smiley.

Several characters represent the diverse views of the white community that controlled Lily’s life. Sibylla Budd is luminous as the tragic, well meaning but finally destructive Lady. Russell Dykstra is versatile in multiple roles: kind but powerless policeman, patriarchal and abusive doctor and innocuous farmer.

The simplicity and truth of Lily’s tale of imprisonment and freedom makes a touching play.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Charles Dickens- A Christmas Carol, Nov 2-16, 2008

Charles Dickens = A Christmas Carol 
By Eagles Nest Theatre
The Speigeltent, Victorian Arts Centre, 4pm Nov 2 & 9, 2pm Nov 16, 2008 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 2, 2008
Stars: ***1/2

Phil Zachariah performs Charles Dickens’ famous morality tale, A Christmas Carol, alone but he cunningly peoples the stage with Dickens’ characters. The stage is empty but for a wooden lectern at which Zachariah sometimes stands to read a leather-bound book. All this is reminiscent of the manner in which Dickens read his own work for the public.

The narrator’s voice is ever-present in Dickens’ writing as a commentator upon characters and action and Zachariah uses this narrative voice to effectively evoke the entire environment of A Christmas Carol. Dressed in a formal tail coat and sporting a Victorian beard, Zachariah transforms from  the whining, wizened, old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, into the parade of characters that surround that old niggard.

The changes between locations and characters are swift and efficient, reminding us of the skill and magic of a great theatrical storyteller. Bob Cratchett’s poor home and meagre Christmas feast are vividly depicted and his tribe of children, including the ailing Tiny Tim, come to life. The streets and houses of Dickens’ London are skilfully described to us with Dickens’ words and Zachariah’s resonant voice and characterisations.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Spontaneous Broadway, Nov 1, 2008 ***

Spontaneous Broadway
Where and When: Spiegeltent, Victorian Arts Centre, Saturdays 4pm, Nov 1, 8, 15, 29, Dec 6, 13, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 1, 2008

SPONTANEOUS BROADWAY is an improvisational musical format created in the US and based on the promotion of new musicals by a cheesy Broadway producer (Russell Fletcher). 

At the Spiegeltent you can see a totally original musical comedy each week when four performers (this week featured Julia Zemiro, Geoff Paine, Scott Brennan, Rebecca De Unamuno) hit the stage as stereotypical music theatre darlings.

Audience contribute possible song titles that the cast improvise with accompaniment by pianist, John Thorn. The show I saw boasted such titles as, Ikea is the Gutter That Drains My Happiness from a new musical called Kvaaaart, a story about marriages that are broken in that Swedish furniture labyrinth. Plenty of laughs.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Spinning Straw -Mounting a Production, Oct 29, 2008

Mounting a Production

Spinning Straw, by playwright, Kate Herbert
Carlton Courthouse Theatre, Oct 29 to Nov 15, 2008

Jenny Lovell, Julia Markovski, Geoff Wallis in Spinning Straw. Photo; Joe Calleri

Creating a new play can be joyous, playful and endlessly rewarding – if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, all the demons of theatre conspire to make it a living hell. Think of all the time and effort, all the things that can go wrong when planning a wedding. The wedding goes well – then you have to do it again every night for three weeks. That’s theatre.

I have been luckier than most in the development of my new play, Spinning Straw, being blessed with three talented and intelligent performers who challenge me as both writer and director. Yes, I am doing both because, when writing a script, I create not only the words but also the entire vision of the piece on stage. The sound, lights and design form a background for the voices and physicality of the actors.

During rehearsal, Director Me often asks questions of Writer Me. “What did you mean here? Can we change this or cut that line?” I swap hats and Writer Me looks puzzled then responds. The script changes in the rehearsal room with actors. When I hear dialogue coming out of their mouths sometimes lines need tinkering – or cutting.

Spinning Straw is a comic-tragedy; it’s both funny and grim. I can’t seem to write a play that is strictly one or t’other. This is challenging for the actors as they map their path from characters dealing with alcoholism or family violence to mad, cartoonish creatures in the Rumpelstiltskin fairy-tale.

The play is about a young, pregnant boozer and pill popper called Annie – she prefers to be called Pig – and her older neighbour, Margaret, who tries to keep Pig sober during her pregnancy.

The script evolved from various stimuli over the past year. I was moved by a documentary about long-term heroin addicts trying to straighten up when they had a new baby and by the public concern about widespread, teenage binge drinking. I was horrified when my tertiary students told me that they got plastered from Friday night to Sunday every week.

I saw another program about the high incidence of teen pregnancy and spoke to someone who worked in adoption and foster care. The drama work I did with kids in detention gave me a background to the dysfunctional home life for Pig.

We are bombarded with so many romanticised images of infants that we forget that babies are hard work. Trying to kick a substance habit while dealing with a newborn must be a nightmare and managing a baby when still a child yourself must be terrifying and confusing.

If you are wondering how this play could be a comedy, this crazy kid, Pig, is funny despite her failings. Se emerged fully formed from the back of my mind and continues to amuse and astonish me.

Kate Herbert

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Big Quiet, Oct 27, 2008 ***

The Big Quiet
 La Mama Explorations Season,  by AMES
La Mama, Oct 27, 28 & 29, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 27, 2008

The Big Quiet is a community project developed by professional theatre workers (Gorkem Acaroglu & Christian Leavesley) with a group of young, recently arrived immigrants and refugees who are studying English with Noble Park AMES (Australian Multicultural Education Services). 

As part of the La Mama Explorations season, it allows this group of non-actors to explore story and language. The charm of the piece lies in the warmth and commitment of the performers.

Each person describes his or her experience of the silence that they perceive in Australia, having left countries that are heavily populated, noisy and bustling. Two gently absurdist stories involve the confusion arising from one person believing he is in an airport while the other thinks she is in her own home. The audience of fellow language students were delighted with the comedy.

Explorations continues with eight more shows running for three days each until November 23.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Mysteries of the Convent, Sept 25, 2008 ***

 The Mysteries of the Convent 08
By Peepshow Inc.
 Abbotsford Convent, Wed to Sun, Sep 26 to Oct 5
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Mysteries of the Convent, a return season of the 1007 show by Peepshow Inc. draws on the history of the Abbotsford Convent, formerly run by the contemplative Good Shepherd Order of nuns but now an artists’ precinct. 

It is a sprawling site by the Yarra and is steeped in the fraught history of its original residents.

This eccentric and often fascinating, site-specific performance incorporates puppetry, visual elements, music and comedy. 

The audience goes on a guided tour and encounters both real and animated characters who represent the nuns and young women who lived and suffered in the convent. 

They appear and disappear mysteriously through doors, stairways and even out of laundry baskets.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 25 October 2008

In The Arms of a Lion, Sept 25, 2008 **

In The Arms of a Lion 
By Peter Van Der Merwe (OK)
Northcote Town Hall, Tues to Sun until Oct 4
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sept 25, 2008
Stars: **

Born in South Africa, Peter Van Der Merwe was 10 when Apartheid was dismantled in 1990. Although he missed the horror years of abuse and segregation, he lived through the crisis of the aftermath in the 90s.

In his solo show he depicts, through diverse characters, the racism and other prejudice that still exists after radical political change. Surprisingly, Van Der Merwe focuses more attention on the sexual prejudice visited upon his central narrator, a young gay man, than on racial issues.

The character tells the story of coming out to his bigoted, Christian fundamentalist family. Van Der Merwe plays the boy’s mother despairing about her fallen angel son and his sister who accuses him of destroying their family’s untarnished, white history.

The characterisations dealing specifically with more outrageous racists are most successful. It is chilling to see the smugly smiling South African Defence Forces officer looking like Hitler Youth and giving a lecture to children about terrorist bombs. Van Der Merwe’s portrayal of a fundamentalist preacher reveals the twisted rhetoric that justified racial abuse by deeming it to be God’s will.

The direction (Penelope Chater) does not mask the episodic structure and lack of a clear through line. Costume changes and shifts between characters interrupt dramatic development. However, there are some fascinating stories about South Africa.

Kate Herbert

Monday, 20 October 2008

Samuel Beckett: Endgame 1958-2008 , Oct 20, 2008 ***

Samuel Beckett: Endgame 1958-2008  
By Eleventh Hour Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival
170 Leicester St., Fitzroy, Oct 20 to Nov 8, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 20, 2008

Stars: ***

The Eleventh Hour production of Beckett’s Endgame has four admirable actors (David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape, Richard Bligh) who display an exceptional understanding of Beckett’s style and form.

They capture the absurdity, the existential dilemmas, the slapstick and verbal comedy and the eccentricity of the characters and dialogue.

Endgame, in classic Beckett style, is a grim, comic view of human existence. It highlights human foibles, physical weaknesses, ageing, desperation and confusion as well as the awful reality of our personal power relationships.

Directors, William Henderson and Anne Thompson focus effectively on the physicalisation of characters and adherence to Beckett’s principles of style. Julie Renton’s design uses distressed walls and canvas to create a grey environment that is highlighted by Niklas Pajanti’s dusky, evocative lighting. Miwako Abe adds atmospheric live violin.

By Kate Herbert