Thursday 22 January 2009

The 39 Steps, Jan 22, 2009 ***1/2

Adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock
Playhouse, Arts Centre Jan 22 to Feb 15, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

An action thriller, espionage, murder, police pursuits and a beautiful blonde sound like ingredients of the Bourne or Bond movies of our decade. 

However Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps was made in 1935. Hitch knew how to titillate an audience with action, suspense and sex so he adapted John Buchan’s 1915 novel, stripping away the British Imperialist blather and adding a sexy blonde and rapid-fire action.

Now we have Patrick Barlow’s satirical stage adaptation of Hitchcock, using physical comedy to replicate the movie thriller style in stage action. It is a physical comedian’s dream and the audience claps like seals at every sight gag.

The dashing hero, Richard Hannay (Mark Pegler), visits a performance by Mr. Memory where he meets Anabella (Helen Christinson), “a beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen,” who is later murdered in his London flat. Hannay flees when he is accused of her murder and becomes embroiled in the hunt for a villain who is stealing British military intelligence.

Barlow and director Maria Aitken employ every comic trick to translate the rollicking tale to the stage. The comedy arises from the sheer inventiveness of using four actors to play dozens of characters with mad accents. It also gets laughs from the idiocy of trying to create film reality on stage (the train chase is a riot) and by repeatedly referring to the failure of theatrical devices: late lighting cues, dropped lines, actors playing objects or dragging on props to create a location.

The audience is tickled when two actors (Russell Fletcher, Jo Turner) playing multiple characters switch rapidly between characters with the twitch of a hat or change of accent – a classic clown routine. Turner and Fletcher relish playing characters including Scottish police, villainous spies, farmers, station masters, paper boys, milkmen, landladies and an entire bagpipe parade.

Hitchcock’s style is so ripe for satire and the surprising simplicity of comic invention makes us laugh, as does the wry, English humour. Barlow incorporates references to Hitch’s movies: “I have vertigo”, says Christinson as Pamela, the perky and petulant blonde to whom Hannay is handcuffed.

Pegler captures the toffy-nosed voice and earnest posturing of the heroic, pencil-moustached Hannay. Christinson is charming and funny as a German spy, pretty Scottish farm girl and delicate English rose.

But without the versatile and hilarious Turner and Fletcher to create the entire landscape and parade of characters, this uproarious comedy could not succeed.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 21 January 2009

How To Direct From The Inside, Jan 21, 2009 **

By Ephiny Gale
La Mama, Jan 21 to Feb 1, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is something prettily decadent about the staging of How To Direct From The Inside by Ephiny Gale.  With its collection of dolls, rocking chair and dolls’ tea-sets spread across the floor, the tiny interior of La Mama becomes the jumbled, old-fashioned bedroom of a little girl.

Six young women, most dressed decoratively in tattered, spattered petticoats, perch amongst the detritus. Susie (Steph Lillis), hugging a doll, peers through a high window; Kat (Kate Dix) and Anne (Amy Jenkins) sway rhythmically on the rocking chair; Jacq (Syrie Payne) reclines behind a fabric screen.

Illia (Charlotte Strantzen) strides across the stage intermittently, giving instructions as the “director,” and Blue (Kiloran Hiscock), the lead, communicates with us and with them.

The problem is that form completely overwhelms content. The themes are so opaque and the structure so convoluted that the play fails to tell its story – unless we read the program notes.

There are too many characters on and off stage. The six on-stage women are evidently metaphors for the body and mind of Blue – imagination, circulation, memory, brain. Seven other characters (apparently the dolls) are mentioned but they are so confusing it is impossible to understand their roles as part of Blue. Then there is a further metaphor overlaid; they are the cast and crew of a theatrical production. Confused yet?

Director, Clara Pagone, attempts to elucidate themes, characters and relationships by visual means but, in the end, there are just too many characters and far too much exposition. Ironically, Blue begins the play by saying that she hates monologues and exposition.

There is certainly commitment from the entire cast to explore these themes of identity through metaphor and language but, in the end, the play is almost impenetrable without program notes.

By Kate Herbert

Sandwiches , Jan 21, 2009 ***

By Elise Hearst & Nicholas Coghlan, by Melbourne Town Players
75 St. Georges Rd, Fitzroy, Jan 21 to Feb 7, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is much to recommend the inaugural production of this new company, Melbourne Town Players. Sandwiches is compellingly performed by Terry Yeboah (Billy) and Lauren Urquhart (Paula) playing the brother and sister who, although adults, seem to be trapped in childhood roles and memories.

The script by Elise Hearst & Nicholas Coghlan is evocative and lyrical. It is not a linear narrative but rather an exploration of the relationship between brother and sister interspersed with the private musings, secrets, obsessions and dreams of both Billy and Paula. They recall stories about their mother and conjure up childhood games such as the almost forgotten skipping rhyme, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush.

On an old suitcase turntable they each play vinyl albums that resonate, reminding them of poignant or comical stories from their past. The music ranges from nursery rhymes to classical music and 1950s rock and roll tunes to which they dance as if in an old-fashioned dance hall.

Yeboah and Urquhart are an engaging and playful duo. They slip in and out of adult communication and childlike petulance, echoing the brother-sister patterns of childhood. Ming-Zhu Hii (OK) directs them imaginatively, layering the relationship with simple physical activities such as dancing and drawing.

The performance is in a room over a shopfront so the design cleverly incorporates the Edwardian wooden fireplace. It is an intimate show for a dozen people who perch precariously on stools. Beware! On a hot night it is almost suffocating up there – but hand-held fans, water and wine are provided.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Tennis Elbow Family Circus, Jan 20, 2009 ***1/2

Tennis Elbow Family Circus by Dislocate
Spiegelworld Melbourne Park, Australian Open Tennis Festival,Jan 20- Feb 1, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

Dislocate has a cute family circus show called Tennis Elbow – and, funnily, it’s at the Australian Tennis Open. The three acrobats, Kate Fryer, DJ . Geoffrey … , perform a 45 minute show that is a melange of circus apparatus routines, acrobatics, slapstick and comic patter, with some audience participation thrown into the mix.

To get to the venue you need to negotiate a path through Melbourne Park, past sunburnt tennis freaks sitting on lawns staring at a huge screen watching Federer beat everybody else. You’ll get to the Spiegeltent and everything will be cool – if the air con is working.

The trio move effortlessly with each other – an outcome of their long history as a company. They integrate complex balances with two or three bodies as well as acrobatic leaps and tumbling to create relationships and story.

Geoffrey plays the goofy fool who makes mistakes, turns the wrong way, misses cues, misunderstands directions and causes crashes and falls. Of course the kids are delighted by an accident, especially if nobody is really hurt. His spinning rope routine tickled the kids and adults.

Petite Kate grins relentlessly at the children and keeps trying to introduce her guitar act. She does so with air guitar when she performs her comic but skilful tissu routine – a ground to air act that involves climbing swathes of fabric.

DJ plays the leader of the gang, always comically trying to inject professionalism into the show. His routine on straps is a display of strength and flexibility that still maintains a relationship with the children. This is unusual in circus acts as the strenuousness of the technique often precludes much communication.

The show is playful, engaging and skilful. There are laughs and gasps of astonishment from all the family.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 19 January 2009

The Horseman From The Snowy River, Jan 19.2009 ****

The Horseman From The Snowy River  
By Rene Gasser, Burnley Ova, from Jan 19, 2009, Touring 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It’s not merely memories of my romantic, childhood fantasies about owning a pretty (expensive) horse that trigger my delight at The Horseman From the Snowy River. Rene Gasser’s tent shows make me gasp because they star the majestic, dancing Lippizaners and Friesians as well as other magnificent, intelligent and powerful horses.

It is the dexterity and athleticism of these beasts that makes the show irresistible. Our favourite from the previous show  (Il Caballo Blanco) is Pasha, the lean, elegant and passionate white Arab stallion that gallops and gambols in his solo opening act with horse whisperer, Gasser. Pasha’s flying gallop is testament to the myth that the Arabian was made by God from the wind.

The other equine cast includes the striking, muscular Lippizaners. These white stallions with regal bearing and a deeply arched neck were bred for the Arch-Duke Charles of Austro-Hungary in the 16th century and are a cross breed of the Andalusian and descendants of Roman chariot horses.

There is a duo of pretty, glossy, chocolate Friesians that share some Andalusian blood and have a luxuriant, long mane, forelock and tail. In their double act Michael Harrison rides them with one foot on each horse while Pasha and others gallop between the Friesians under his legs.

There are also some cute and quirky acts. Harrison and Gasser’s whip cracking act (the 10 metre whip seemed to crack mighty close to my nose); a Border Collie herding three sheep hilariously named Brittany, Paris and Trevor; Hercules, the gentle-giant Clydesdale, in a duo with a cute-as-a-button, miniature pony; and trick riding by Jamal and Sonia. The MC provides entertaining introductions, jokes, mime and juggling.

The show is captivating. Exceptional horse trainer, Gasser, leads a team of riders as he puts the steeds through their paces on the sand-filled arena. The audience sits on four sides of the purpose-built marquee. If you book the posh seats, you can eat delicious antipasto and visit the stables after the show. Ride on, Rene!

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 13 January 2009

The Taming of the Shrew, Jan 13, 2009 ***1/2

The Taming of the Shrew 
By William Shakespeare, Australian Shakespeare Company
Where and When: Botanical Gardens until March 14
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

On a balmy evening after a roasting hot summer’s day, nestling on a blanket with a wine in the Botanical Gardens and watching Shakespeare under the night sky is just the ticket. This year we see Greg Carroll’s uncluttered, bawdy and witty production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, The Taming of the Shrew.

The play tells the tale of the notoriously sharp-tongued Kate (no relation), the “shrew” of the title, and her seduction, marriage and subsequent taming by the boisterous Petruchio (Brendan O’Connor). This pretty but argumentative Kate (Lucy Slattery) is too forward to be attractive to the men of Padua but she must be married before her younger, more amiable and malleable sister, Bianca (Gemma Bishop) can wed one of her parade of suitors.

Petruchio woos and marries the cantankerous Kate for her money, despite her flaws – then proceeds to tame her in ways grotesque, ridiculous and totally unacceptable to sensitive modern women (and hopefully men too).

O’Connor hilariously macho and rowdy, yet wickedly impish as Petruchio. He courts Kate with sexual innuendo, rough sensuality and outrageously slapstick moves. Kate’s shrewishness is almost totally obliterated by his effrontery.

Terri Brabon, playing Petruchio’s loyal servant, Grumio, creates an entertaining clown double act with O’Connor. They taunt every other character with their manipulative antics. This production emphasises silliness and physicality. For example, Petruchio arrives at his wedding dressed inappropriately in cowboy pants decked with feather boas and a sequined bustiere while Grumio wears a gorilla suit.

The entire ensemble enters the spirit of this goofy style. Bishop is very funny as Bianca, playing the usually milky, dull maiden as a primping, posing, giggling candidate for High School Musical. Ross Williams dodders as her suitor, old Gremio, and Ezra Bix is a foppish Hortensio. There are also the sexy, young men, Lucentio (Hugh Sexton) and Tranio (Simon Mallory) and the dignified father of the brides, Baptista (Phil Roberts).

The simple staging, naughty but playful style and added contemporary references give this play a refreshing new coat of paint.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 9 January 2009

Walking Whale Circus, Jan 8, 2009 ***

Walking Whale Circus  
By National Institute of Circus Arts & Melbourne Museum
Melbourne Museum, daily, Jan 1 to Feb 1, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

For the third year, Melbourne Museum is presenting an educational circus show for children. The last two years explored bugs and bees. This year The Walking Whale Circus, a 30-minute show directed by Matt Wilson, charts the evolution of creatures from ocean dwelling fish and mammals to land dwelling lizards and then to birds of the air.

It is likely that the very young children in the audience cannot follow the long and wordy introductory and some of the explanatory details but they enjoy the acrobatic antics that follow. The four performers, students of the National Institute of Circus Arts, sport vivid and eye-catching costumes (by Amanda Fairbanks) representing a whale (Caroline Walsh), a fish (Jessica Ward), a bird, (Heather Garlan) and a lizard (Karl Stock).

Caroline Walsh’s whale walks and talks and finally learns to swim with the help of the children. Her character is Master of Ceremonies, introducing the other characters, communicating with the audience and providing the educational information and explanation of the evolution of life forms from sea to land and air.

The story our chatty whale tells begins 400 million years ago with a Fluttering Fish, portrayed by Jessica Ward who performs elegant and fluid handstands and contortions while balancing on three short, metal poles.

20 million years pass and the audience, lead by our whale, teaches the fish to crawl. She transforms into a Leaping Lizard, played by Karl Stock in a striking, orange lizard costume. Stock demonstrates some exceptional acrobatic feats while wearing short, sprung, stilt boots that allow him to bound like a kangaroo – or a Leaping Lizard.

Finally, the lizard transforms into a multi-coloured Bird, played by the vivacious Heather Garlan, who dances and flies like an exotic bird on a static trapeze.

The performers sing, (some a little half-heartedly) a song about evolution. “Everything around us is evolving and revolving, changing, re-arranging all the time.” Unfortunately it is not a song that the children can participate in but they enjoy the intermittent opportunity to flap their wings or crawl like a lizard.

The characters and narrative need development in this show written by Anthony Crowley, but the physical spectacle keeps the littlies engaged and teaches them a little about evolution in this 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 7 January 2009

The Wind in the Willows, Jan 7, 2009 ****

The Wind in the Willows adapted from Kenneth Graham
Where and When: Botanical Gardens, Gate F. until January 28
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

How can you resist a show that seats you beside the lake in the Botanical Gardens during summer, with the kids, a picnic and jokes for oldies and youngies? The Wind in the Willows is back in the Gardens and it still delights its audience.

The cast sees some more changes this year but stalwart, Roscoe Mathers, deserves a veteran’s jersey for his years as the M.C. of the show, Head Chief Rabbit. Mathers’ playful, charming manner engages the crowd of little ’uns from the start and his patter with Robert Jackson, the oily Weasel, elicits giggles from the parents. Mathers and Jackson are a great double act and have the added benefit of being musicians.

If you missed Kenneth Graham’s story as a child, the egocentric Mr. Toad (Andrew Dunne) lives at the lavish Toad Hall and, like all affluent dilettantes, gets obsessed with one fad after another. He gives up boating after he capsizes his canoe – to the delight of the kids. Friends, admirers and critics surround Toad.

Sean-James Murphy plays the gruff, old Badger who “knew all the Toads” and thinks the current Mr. Toad is letting his family down. Ratty (David Bailiht OK), the water rat, loves a picnic but thinks Mr Toad a bit too adventurous and Mole (Michelle Hall), a shy, stammering clean-freak, admires Mr Toad’s audacious spirit. A cheerful Otter (Jon Boad OK) and his fearless son, Portly (Harry Stapleton), complete the friends of Toad.

There is never a dull moment as Toad falls out of his boat, careers into a policeman in his new golf jeep, goes to court, is imprisoned by the Weasel and enlists his friends to reclaim Toad Hall from the rascally Weasel who invades it. The animals sing plenty of perky songs including the sing-a-long “Waggle your ears, wiggle your nose, and sing whispering willows”, The Famous Mr. Toad and the Duck Ditty.

There is even some running around time. The kids, in either the Badger Batallion or Rat Pack, go hunting in the Wild Wood for lost little Portly while the parents are treated to their own entertainment back at base camp. Take a picnic, a hat, some sunscreen and a kid or two and sing along with these very British animals.

By Kate Herbert

Golden Valley, Jan 7, 2009 **1/2

Golden Valley by Dorothy Hewitt, Perilous Productions
 Northcote Town Hall, Jan 7 to 18, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

Australian poet, Dorothy Hewitt, wrote 21 plays including Chapel Perilous, a play based on her own life, The Man From Muckinupin and Golden Valley, her 1981 play for children. Golden Valley creates a mythical rural Australian landscape inhabited by a family of ageing, magical, native animals who adopt an orphan child, Marigold (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley).

This is no ordinary family of creatures; they are human by day and animal by night. Jane is a long-legged crane (Jane Bayly), Em a house-proud wombat (Carmelina di Guglielmo OK), Nee is a red-headed possum (Robert Stephens) and Di is a very old and wise mopoke (Ben Rogan).

Marigold’s adoption from an orphanage run by an Irish nun (Carolyn Connors) is executed with absurd ease an without the red tape of real adoptions. But the joy of her new life with a loving family is short-lived when the villainous owner of the valley, Jack Swannell (Rogan), calls in the family’s mortgage. It resonates with current housing loan issues.

To find a solution to the family financial crisis, Marigold enlists the help of Tib the Witch (Connors) and Nim (Mike McEvoy), a mysterious, green-skinned boy who lives in the bush. Nim is a shapeshifter so he also appears as a wishing tree, the ghost of a gold miner and the heroic Yarraman.

These eccentric creatures, as well as songs and live music by musician, Connors, and the cast, engage the audience of 4 to 10 year olds. But, with children and adults alike, the villain gets the biggest reaction and the chase sequence involving Rogan as the scruffy and wiry old rogue, Swannell, was a hit.

Given the huge reaction to this slapstick scene, the production could possibly benefit from more physical comedy to complement Hewitt’s poetic language, quirky characters and songs and Viviana Frediani-Massara’s (OK) vivid set design.