Friday, 26 November 2010

The Nightwatchman **1/'2

The Nightwatchman 
By Daniel Keene, by If Theatre
 Theatreworks, November 26 to December 12, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert for Herald Sun
Stars: **1/2

Daniel Keene’s plays can vary from introspective, poetic stories to crazy, colloquial black comedies and the Nightwatchman is one of the former. This play was commissioned by French theatre company, Compagnie des Docks.

Mat Scholten’s production moves slowly – almost painfully so – at a pace commensurate with the sense of loss experienced by the characters. Bill (Roger Oakley), an elderly, blind man, with his two adult children, Helen (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley) and Michael (Brad Williams), prepares to leave his family’s home. We witness their final, fraught days before departure as they muse on their shared past and evoke the memories that reside in their home.

Bill lost his wife years earlier to an unspecified illness. Over a period of time, he went blind and now he lives alone in the darkness amongst the detritus of his past. His memories are fading; even his wife’s face eludes him although he speaks to her still. Oakley finds a quirky, bemused quality as Bill. He underplays the character’s blindness making it merely an incidental issue for Bill who drinks too much wine to chase away the memories, the ghosts, his boredom, loneliness and blank despair.

Ellerton-Ashley plays Helen as a bossy, nervy and intermittently resentful daughter who resists any change and loss of her childhood home. Williams plays Michael, the photographer, as a jaded and tired young man who seems unable to attach.

Keene’s script is gently contemplative, sometimes brooding. The characters’ concerns and reminiscences are dealt with in both dialogues that are often family spats and monologues that are reflective and internalised.

Scholten’s direction is measured but the pace and rhythm become repetitive. The production is static and lacks dramatic tension although audiences will relate to the loss of childhood, changes in family dynamics and shared memory.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Duet For Lovers and Dreamers ***

Duet For Lovers and Dreamers 
By Sandra Fiona Long, produced by Insite Arts
fortyfivedownstairs, Flinders Lane, Melbourne. November 20 to  December 5, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***

Duets For Lovers and Dreamers, by Sandra Fiona Long, comprises six vignettes – strangely not all are duets – performed by four actors. Although there is no linear narrative, the stories share a common, abstract style including poetic dialogue, movement, unaccompanied vocalisation and projections.

At times, all elements converge to create an effective whole although many scenes seem contrived and a little self-indulgent. The highlight is Helen Morse’s compelling characters and her rich, honey-toned voice. She could read the phone book and still sound magnificent.

The actors intone and harmonise vocal soundscapes for each story, some being more effective than others. Each scene incorporates a dancer (Matt Cornell) who is a silent, physical character or abstract presence. In The Last Post, he dances the story of courtship, wartime and injury as the mute, deceased husband of an elderly woman (Morse). At other times he makes scene changes interesting by dancing the furniture off stage.

Nana in Knapsack, perhaps the most cohesive piece, depicts a determined, young woman (Katherine Tonkin) trudging up a hill to scatter the ashes of her grandmother, who is played with humour and truth by Morse as a tough little English Northerner.

The Storm deals with a seductive siren on an island and a nuggetty sailor (Phillip McInnes) on land. Mother and Herself (Tonkin, Morse) uses movement and washing to evoke a housewife’s story while Little Fishes is a wry romance. The show ends with the overly long Girl Up a Tree With Clouds in which a child (Tonkin) dreams and eats an apple amongst the branches of her favourite tree.

Naomi Steinborner’s production relies – perhaps too heavily – on design elements to engage us. Emily Barrie’s design incorporates a huge screen that is slashed and reshaped in each scene. Elaborate projections (Nicholas Verso, D.B. Valentine) and lighting (Richard Vabre) give colour and movement to what is often quite banal and laboured text.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Woman In Berlin ***1/2

A Woman In Berlin 
Adapted by Janice Muller and Meredith Penman from A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous
Tower Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, Southbank, Melbourne, November 18 to 28, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

The brutality of the Russian forces that marched into Berlin in 1945 is well known. Estimates suggest that Russian soldiers raped more than 100,000 women. Janice Muller (director) and Meredith Penman (actor) adapted the anonymous diary, A Woman In Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, published in the 1950’s and condemned by conservatives.

It is a harrowing story by an unknown woman. Penman, with her Teutonic appearance and 1940’s clothing, captures the nightmarish scenes of abuse that this woman experienced and observed. Her journal covers the a few months from the arrival of the Russians on April 20, 1945.

The direction is simple and discreet, the adaptation unsensational, the stage design (Gabrielle Logan) uncluttered, dramatic soundscape and the lighting evocative (Matt Cox). Penman initially is an observer moving around an empty, white-walled space reminiscent of a war museum. German phrases are scrawled around the walls and a resonant, German voice over tells parts of the story.

This initial gentleness shifts to quiet anxiety as Penman transforms into the German woman and narrates her story. With the women and girls in her building, she moves into the basement and awaits the arrival of the Russians. Anxiety turns to fear when the soldiers arrive and roam the streets like predators. The full horror is clear to the woman when the first rape occurs. From that moment, the women are all prey and the rapes occur frequently.

We are touched by the woman’s desire to save the young girls by sacrificing herself to the soldiers. We quail at the pain and humiliation that the Russians visited upon her and understand her choice to seek out “a lone wolf”, a high ranking officer who could feed and protect her until the danger passed. We feel her pain and shame when her partner rejects her as a whore when he returns from the front.

This is a disturbing but very beautifully executed telling of the dreadful experiences of these survivors of war.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Squizzy by Barry Dickins ***

Squizzy by Barry Dickins 
By Think Big Productions
Trades Hall Ballroom, until Nov 27, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Both Squizzy Taylor and playwright, Barry Dickins, are unforgettable Melbourne identities, so it is fitting that Dickins write a musical about the notorious Squizzy’s life of crime on the streets of Fitzroy in the 1920s.

Dickins’ eccentric writing style could be described as poetic Australianism. He weaves local slang and swearing amongst metaphor, sophisticated lingo and lyrical imagery. It is a killer combo – just like Squizzy was. Dickins’ other characters describe Squizz as, “a particularly foul and sluttish rodent…a midget, droopy-eyed and on the nose.”

Director, Greg Carroll, gives the production and characters a vaudeville style. They are all in clown white-face but the make-up is reminiscent of Mo, Roy Rene’s Australian clown. Peter Corrigan’s set is a black and white echo of Dickins’ own mad cartoons and is scribbled with Aussie colloquialisms.

The songs by Faye Bendrups are in the style of Kurt Weill, which makes sense as Squizzy’s criminal activities smack of Macheath in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Bendrups plays piano accompanied by others on drums, saxophone, trombone and double bass providing a mix of rough jazz and blues that reeks of the 20s and 30s.

Syd Brisbane plays Squizzy as a cheeky but dangerous little clown who would kill you for a quid. He revels in Squizzy’s devilish mayhem. Simon Mallory is Snowy Cutmore, the friend and rival who shoots Squizzy 27 times during their final battle. The cast includes an imposing Mike Bishop as various lawyers, crims, corrupt cops (“I always lie, I take a bribe.”) and a sophisticated Devil (“Dance with the devil. Let’s make it Lucifer’s shout.”)

Kevin Hopkins is hilarious as dopey Syd Curd and three women (Jacqueline Cook, Kate Hosking, Chloe Connolly) play a sassy chorus of prostitutes à la Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Cook is vivacious and funny as Ma Cutmore.

The dialogue is inimitable Dickins with such lines as,  “Shut your cakehole and show absolutely no initiative like the rest of Melbourne.” He even writes the ten commandments of criminals that include, “Inform on your mother” and “Fix horse races.” Squizzy is a hoot and it’s about our own mean, little Melbourne killer.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Songs For Nobodies, Nov 11, 2010, ****1/2

Songs For Nobodies 
By Joanna Murray-Smith, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until Dec 23
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

Bernadette Robinson’s performance in Songs For Nobodies is theatrical alchemy.  She mysteriously and instantaneously transforms before our eyes into ten different women: five nobodies and five famously talented, damaged songstresses. She is remarkable and compelling, her singing is thrilling and her characters are diverse and sympathetic.

The deceptively simple structure of Joanna Murray-Smith’s script, directed with style by Simon Phillips, allows Robinson to people the stage with exceptional and ordinary women, and to perform songs that epitomise each singer. The collaboration between writer and performer is impeccable and Murray-Smith’s monologues create a complex, credible emotional landscape.

The five “somebodies” are Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Each chanteuse is accompanied by a “nobody” whose life she touched. Bea Appleton is a sweet, mousey, bathroom attendant, recently abandoned by her husband. In the bathroom of a ritzy restaurant, after Judy’s memorable 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, Bea mends Garland’s hem while Judy sings Come Rain or Come Shine to cheer her.

Pearl Avalon is an unassuming usher with a big voice. She meets Patsy Cline backstage on the night of her fatal plane crash and is invited to sing backing vocals for Cline’s final performance. An ageing librarian from Nottingham relates her French father’s escape from a German prison camp with Edith Piaf’s help. Her story is peppered with snatches of Piaf’s powerful, metallic voice singing L’Accordioniste and it ends with the spine-tingling Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

“Too-Junior Johnstone”, a young journalist, launches her career as a feature writer when she wrangles an interview with the languid, silent, drugged Billie Holiday. Robinson captures Holiday’s sultry, achingly sad tones in Strange Fruit and Lady Sings The Blues.

The final story is by young, Irish Orla, nanny to Aristotle Onassis’s children on the fateful Mediterranean cruise that began his affair with opera diva, Maria Callas. The delightful Orla knows her charms pale into insignificance when she hears Callas sing. The range, versatility and perfect control of Robinson’s voice are exemplified in her version of Puccini’s Vissi d’arte. The audience rose as one and applauded until their hands bled.

Robinson is mesmerising and a consummate performer with impeccable vocal skill and a riveting stage presence. Bravissima!

By Kate Herbert