Wednesday 27 June 2007

Educating Rita, HIT Productions, Vic. June 27, 2007

 Educating Rita by Willy Russell, HIT Productions
Where and When: Touring Victoria, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 26, 2007

You might recall the movie version of Willy Russell’s play, Educating Rita, with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, that was faithful to his stage play. 

Rita (Lisa Chappell) is a brassy, 26-year-old Liverpool hairdresser who aspires to an education. She seeks this in an Open University literature program taught by Frank (David Downer), a jaded, boozing university professor who abandoned his career as a poet and now seeks solace in a whisky bottle.

Rita is a product of her working class environment but chooses not to be a victim of her educational deprivation despite the overt hostility of her husband to her studies. Chappell, who some might recognise from McLeod’s Daughters, competently plays the demanding Liverpudlian with a blend of chattering anxiety, good cheer and brazenness.

The narrative of Russell’s witty play unfolds in a series of weekly tutorials in Frank’s messy office. Over a period of months Rita is transformed from a blathering but lovable twit with no taste and bad hair into an intellectual young woman with confident opinions on a range of literary subjects and an understanding of culture for which she hungers.

Downer is credible and commendable as Frank, playing him with a shambolic and dejected quality. Frank’s loss of direction and motivation in his teaching is revitalised as he coaches Rita in her quest for learning. What is surprising for us and for Rita is that, unlike Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, he is not proud of his creation. Rather, he resents her changing and wants to recapture the gauche, clueless but engaging Rita he first met.

Director, Jennifer Hagan, allows the relationship between the characters to be the focus of the production and keeps the action swift and the dialogue playful.

Good teachers are hard to find and Frank very successfully provides Rita with the education, and hence the social power, that she craves. Rita’s rise from obscurity is paralleled inversely by Frank’s descent into the bottle and his banishment, on university sabbatical, to Australia.

The play, written in the early 1980s, encourages a dialogue about education, culture, social status and about what personal traits are valued in our community. Russell’s script is riddled with literary references and jokes although it is not necessary to know the allusions to understand the play. The production is warm and funny, providing an entertaining night out.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 24 June 2007

June 24, 2007

Ying Tong by Roy Smiles, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Where and When:  Playhouse, Mon & Tues 6.30pm, Wed to Fri 8pm, Sat 8.30pm, June 24 to July 23, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 24, 2007

Fall over yourself to see Ying Tong whether you are a Goons aficionado or not. 

Roy Smiles play, directed by Richard Cottrell, is a clever, funny and often poignant portrayal of Spike Milligan’s fraught relationship to The Goons and his fragile grasp on sanity as he grappled with manic-depression in an era that did not understand it.

Milligan (Geoff Kelso) was the writer of most of The Goon Show, a radio show performed on the BBC from 1951 to 1960. His scripts combined ludicrous and surreal plots with a cast of peculiar comic characters, dialogue riddled with puns and silly sound effects.

Smiles deftly recreates the rambling nonsense of The Goons. “There’ll never be gibberish like it,” said Milligan. Smiles is true to the non-linear narrative of the radio show but tells Milligan’s story through flashbacks, delusions and dream sequences.

The play is “a journey to the centre of Milligan’s brain” and is seen through Milligan’s delusional memories and ravings during his periods of hospitalisation in a psychiatric ward (Designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell). Kelso as Milligan perches, like a frightened bird, under a blanket on a hospital bed, conjuring memories. “Not another flashback,” he quips.

Ying Tong derives from “Ying-tong-iddle-i-po”, a Goons’ nonsense song. The play reproduces snatches of live radio recordings and snapshots of Milligan with Harry Secombe (David James), Peter Sellers (Jonathan Biggins) and Wallace Greenslade (Tony Harvey). We meet Eccles, Bluebottle, Seagoon, Major Bloodnok, Minnie Bannister and Henry Crun, Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty.

Kelso is perfectly cast as Milligan; his own past stand-up comedy channelled The Goons’ diversions and crazed content. He allows us into the impenetrable chaos of Milligan’s dysfunctional mind, erratic moods and humour.

Biggins depicts impeccably the parade of characters played by Sellers and his thoroughly egotistical personality. His Dr. Strangelove, who appears as Milligan’s imaginary psychiatrist, is a cunning blend of visual, verbal and character gags.

James as Secombe captures the soaring notes and vocal vibrato of the Welsh tenor. Secombe was genial, talented and balanced; a still point amidst Milligan and Sellers’ chaos. Harvey plays Greenslade with a wry, almost military British dignity and the trio of grinning leprechauns (Harvey, James, Biggins) brought the house down.

Ying Tong is achingly funny, desperately sad and a joyful reminder of the comic talents that changed the course of comedy and blazed a trail for Monty Python and others.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 21 June 2007

Grotesque Beauty & Whose Memory? St Martins Next Generation 2007 , June 21, 2007

Grotesque Beauty & Whose Memory? 
St Martins Next Generation 2007
 Irene Mitchell Studio St Martins, June 21 until July 1, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 21, 2007

St Martins Youth Theatre trains and encourages young performing artists and Next Generation 2007, the program for emerging artists, features two very different projects created by two young women.

Whose Memory?, written and performed by Jennifer Monk, is a short series of vignettes featuring characters inspired by Monk’s own photographs.

She begins with a cute little girl who proudly shows off her fluffy, yellow dress and her red, sparkly Dorothy shoes that her Granny gave her. She twirls and shyly hides behind a child-sized lace parasol. Then we meet an infirm, elderly grandmother who longs to see her grandchildren who visit her only to snatch $20 on their birthdays.

 Next is a teen runaway whose conversation is riddled with expletives and who loves to play the guitar – very badly. About the same age is a conceited high schooler who dreams of seducing her Media Studies teacher in the darkroom. In contrast is an intellectually disabled girl who struggles to put on her cardigan.

The five characters are not connected and there is no narrative. Monk enjoys the challenge of transforming from one persona to another but there is a need for more than simple demonstration of the characters. Some dramaturgical advice on forming the pieces into a dramatic structure might have served her well.

Grotesque Beauty, choreographed by Emma Anglesey, is a longer, movement-based performance inspired by the film adaptation of Virginia Wolf’s Orlando. Anglesey explores mutations of Elizabethan women’s costume, dance and manners, warping traditional images to create a contemporary style.

The dancers hold hands to form a daisy chain and trail through the semi-darkened space or mould their bodies into a horse and carriage with a lady riding atop. The dancers strike poses reminiscent of the Elizabethan court but the movement is grotesque and contorted. They distort their faces, mime gossiping conversations and whisper criticisms.

The movements are slow but convulsive. The bodies are out of control, moving to the discordant strains of the electrified cello (Jeremy Shelly) and recorded sound scape. They tremble and twitch, glide and lurch in a dreamlike netherworld.

Although the piece would be more compelling at half the length, Grotesque Beauty is definitely an interesting exploration of movement with non-dancers.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Miss (You) Melbourne, Female Comics, June 19, 2007

Miss (You) Melbourne
Where and When: Trades Hall, June 19 to 30, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 19, 2007

Miss (You) Melbourne is a season of female comics talking about Melbourne. One of the women laughed so hard that she went into labour and had to be replaced.

Tanya Losanno, a second generation Italo-Australian, got laughs from comparing her childhood in the cultural wasteland of Canberra with her adopted multicultural home in Coburg, land of the Muslim Bogan and “enviable crime statistics”.

Sandy Gandhi is an eccentric Indian character comic who hails from Byron Bay, home of all things hippy and feral. She looks like an Indian stereotype, dressed in traditional colour and speaking with a lilt. However, Sandy’s humour is dry, cynical and well observed. Much of her material is about dope smoking, coastal hippies or being dark-skinned in a white culture. But it is her totally outrageous jokes about Egypt and the shock of an occasional expletive interrupting her well-modulated accent that make her a treat. Her list of instructions from an Egyptian Viagra packet is hilarious.

Celia Pacquola, in jeans and T-shirt, is a perky young gal who finds plenty of comic material from her experiences in a girls high school and a pretentious drama school. Her impersonation of an incoherent drama tutor sounds uncannily like a former Dean of our major Drama School. Pacquolo’s set is lively and incorporates theatrical routines and characters rather than simply gags. She has clever routines about Melbourne’s bipolar weather and those cartoon seals that appear in adverts.

Ethel Chop (Andrea Powell) is a conceited, old woman with smudged lipstick, bad hair, the articulation of someone with loose, false teeth and a line in audience insults that would make Edna Everage pale. She talks about tripe and ox-tongue, stupid road signs and her seductive attributes. Ethel is not a comfortable character to watch and is often thoroughly unpleasant.

Last on the bill was Judith Lucy, a consummate comic who happily airs her dirty laundry. Her recollections of her salacious life in Melbourne 20 years ago are an object lesson in how not to lead your life if you want to live to 40. Melbourne corrupted the virginal young Lucy when she moved here and discovered drugs, alcohol, sex and comedy. Mouths dropped as she recounted tales of her decadent lifestyle, slatternly housekeeping, boozing, smoking, pashing and even being mistaken for a transvestite.

Five comediennes perform each night and the women are funny. 

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 10 June 2007

Spring Awakening, The Hayloft Project, June 10, 2007

Spring Awakening by Franz Wedekind 
by The Hayloft Project
At  fortyfivedownstairs, Mon to Sun 8pm until June 10 to 17, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on 2007

Spring Awakening, a play by Franz Wedekind, was written in 1890 but its performances were heavily censored until the 1960s. Wedekind’s themes of the sexual awakening of teenagers were ahead of his time, in fact, ahead of Freud. Surprisingly, they are still challenging.

The play is a violent indictment of the sexual repression of Wedekind’s society. The ignorance of the children and their parents’ lack of candour about sexual issues lead to at best shame, secrecy and perversion and at worst to unwanted pregnancy, dangerous abortion and suicide.

A group of children attend school, struggle to understand Virgil and Aristotle and vie for academic places in their next year. Melchior (Angus Grant), a brooding adolescent, writes a frank manual about sexual reproduction. His friend, Moritz (Dylan Young), an anxious student, is mortally afraid of failing his parents’ expectations. The innocent young girl, Wendla (Katie-Jean Harding), having never experienced a beating, craves a whipping at the hands of Melchior.

Simon Stone’s directorial debut production is swift moving and contemporary in style. His abstract setting creates a parallel to the confused and chaotic psyches of the children. In the first half old, wooden school desks are arranged uniformly in the stark space and the real windows of the warehouse space allow the children a forbidden view onto the adult world.

In the second half, when the downward spiral begins, the desks are tossed and piled haphazardly. Tufts of dried grass litter the floor and line the formerly pristine window ledges. The children must negotiate a complex landscape of obstacles in this new season of life.

Stone keeps the cast on stage throughout. As scenes are played, those who are technically off-stage remain visible, perching on window ledges, hiding behind desks or in corners, or peering out through windows.

The performances are all capable and committed and the contemporary gaze of a young cast and director gives the play a modern feel. Playing the remaining children are Shelly Lauman, Sara Gleeson, Russ Pirie and Beejan Olfat (OK) and there is a marvellously peculiar cameo by Rhys McConnochie of a man in a gas mask.

There is a violent energy and a menacing atmosphere in Spring Awakening with a sense of impending doom for these innocents.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 7 June 2007

Tape by Stephen Belber, June 7, 2007

Tape by Stephen Belber
Human Sacrifice Theatre
At  Chapel off Chapel, Thurs to Sat 8pm, Sun 6pm, until June 7 to 24 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 7, 2007

Tape, written by Stephen Belber and directed by Morgan Dowsett, deals with the unplanned reunion in a shabby motel room of three high school friends ten years after their graduation. 

Each recalls differently an incident between two of them on a night late in their final year and it is these fractured memories that permanently shatter their friendships.

Vincent (Mark Diaco) is “a swarthy Italian-American” who works as a volunteer fire fighter and a small-time drug dealer. He stays at Motel 6 in Lansing, Michigan, so that he can support his high school best buddy, John (Justin Hosking), whose low budget film is showing in the Lansing Film Festival. John, who stays at the Radison, arrives at the seedy motel to find Vince in his boxers, scoffing beers, smoking dope and snorting cocaine.

Vince is prone to “unresolved violence” and is obsessed by discovering the truth about what happened ten years ago when John seduced Amy, Vince’s ex-girlfriend. Not only does Vince attempt to force a confession of rape from John, but he also invites Amy (Alexis Porter), who is now the Assistant District Attorney in town, and triggers a confrontation between all three.

Belber’s play deals not only with the unreliability of human memory and perception but also with the fragility of friendship, the fruitlessness of petty revenge and the desire to be “right”.

The cast of three is strong. Diaco captures Vince’s volatile, egotistical and confused behaviour, making him strangely attractive and boyish and allowing us to also have some sympathy for his bruised ego. Hosking initially keeps John playful but watchful as, ironically, he lectures Vince on how to live a moral life that serves the greater good. He rapidly slides into desperation and panic as Vince challenges him.

As Amy, Porter presents as a cheerful, sleek, well-heeled, middle-American blonde. Her brittle veneer cracks when Vince compels her to reveal details of her night with John all those years ago.

Belber’s dialogue is often well observed and he captures the confusion of these relationships. The videotaped scene from John and Vince’s high school days gives some insight into their relationship in the opening scene. The play, however, seems to miss its ending by introducing further footage, after the motel confrontation in concluded, of Amy’s ramblings as a teenager and John’s recent musings about his future.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Menopause The Musical by Jeanie Linders, June 6, 2007

Menopause The Musical by Jeanie Linders
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, June 6 to 28, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Once again Menopause The Musical, written by Jeanie Linders and directed by Gary Young, is back at the Comedy Theatre with an audience of women over fifty shrieking in recognition at every joke about hot flushes, night sweats and bad moods. 

This is “identification theatre” in the extreme.

Four actor-singers of a certain age (Caroline Gillmer, Susan-ann (OK) Walker, Donna Lee, Susie French) play four diverse characters that find themselves in a department store, fighting over underwear on a sale table. What follows is a series of familiar songs with rewritten lyrics reflecting the horrors of menopause and the irrepressible of spirit of these women.

Gillmer is the corporate executive who is usually attached to a mobile phone or in a boardroom. Walker is a the hippy farmer who eats organic and never sleeps while Lee is a mousy housewife from Dubbo come to town for some shopping. French’s character is an insecure, ageing television soap star whose career longevity relies on her youthful looks.

The show begins with Gillmer singing a belting version of the soul classic, Chain Chain Chain, that is retitled Change of Life. It is followed by a rousing rendition of Grapevine with references to lying about one’s age and a song about sleeplessness, I Am Awake, that is sung to the tune of I Will Survive. Are you getting the references?

There is a series of tunes about hot flushes and sweats including I’m Having A Hot Flush (Heat Wave) and Fever. A favourite, to the tune of Bill, was Pills, a song about taking various anti-depressants; “ I love them so, I always will,” got a big laugh from those familiar with mood swings.

Gillmer is sassy and raunchy as the Power Woman singing a range of tunes. Walker is engaging as the goofy, forgetful Earth Mother who shifts from hippy cool to a complete witch because of her insomnia. French plays the Soap Star with an edge of desperation and unwillingness to let go of her youth. It is Lee who seems to win the hearts of the crowd of women with her broad comic antics and expressive face as the naïve Housewife from Dubbo.

There were shouts of delight when the foursome tried on designer underwear and shrieks of embarrassment when they tested a vibrator while singing Shakin’ All Over.

This is definitely a show for a specific gender and age group and the Menopause Karaoke at the finale is a fine opportunity for the audience to leap on stage and dance it up with the cast.

By Kate Herbert