Saturday 28 February 2009

With The Dark, Feb 28, 2009 **1/2

With The Dark by James Adler
Eagles Nest Theatre Northcote Town Hall, Feb 25 to March 7, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

The first half of With The Dark, by James Adler, is a play about a writer struggling to overcome depression and lack of confidence. In the second half it transforms into a different play – an allegorical, Grimm-style fairytale.

Rosemary Johns directs this production with an emphasis on the comical elements, despite it being about the black dog of depression and the dark inner reaches of the human psyche. James Shaw is Mann, the young, angst-ridden writer who doubts his talent, his life choices and his sanity. Shaw has a strong raw energy but performs with a little too much stress and anxiety, causing him to shout and sweat more than is comfortable.

Mann tumbles often into bed to sleep and avoid his psychic angst but is haunted by his inner ghosts (Alicia Benn-Lawler, Joanne Davis) that lurk under his bed. The most telling and possibly interesting characters is the Voice (Geoff Wallis) who lounges around Mann’s home, sipping tea and mouthing cheerful platitudes and making optimistic suggestions. Wallis delighted the audience with his wry humour, deft comic timing and surprising choices with what is sometimes limiting dialogue.

Then we embark on the allegorical hero’s journey into the dreamlike, dark forest where Mann encounters a wacky, royal court (think Alice in Wonderland) with a very funny and pompous, accented King (Phil Zachariah) and a roller-skating Queen (Belinda Di Vito). Mann must help a lost child (Davis) find her grandma (Benn-Lawler) who was taken by the wicked dark beast. Wallis, wearing a loud shirt and jokey devil’s horns and looking like a Las Vegas comedian, balances menace and comedy as the beast-demon.

At times Adler’s dialogue becomes florid or predictable but the production is engaging and entertaining. The self-referential story about a writer struggling to find his art does not break new ground but it keeps us interested.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 26 February 2009

Moonlight and Magnolias, MTC Feb 26, 2009 ***

Moonlight and Magnolias 
By Ron Hutchinson, Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Feb 26 to March 28, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 26, 2009

Ron Hutchinson’s play, Moonlight and Magnolias, takes its title from a description of the American South in Margaret Mitchell’s gaspingly long and hugely popular 1930’s novel, Gone With The Wind. Although the movie with Vivien Leigh was enormously successful, its inception was fraught with conflict.

Producer David O. Selznick (Patrick Brammall) famously stopped the movie three weeks into shooting, sacked the director and the script then hauled screenwriter, Ben Hecht (Nicholas Hammond), and director, Victor Fleming (Stephen Lovatt), into his office, with only a Remington typewriter and a stash of bananas and peanuts, to rewrite the biggest movie ever made – in five days.

The play peers through an MGM office window to witness the agonising rewrite. The creative chaos, haggling and total exhaustion of the characters, and the unbelievable mess they create, provide plenty of material for verbal and physical comedy. The trio alternately snipe, praise and blame. They attack each other’s credentials, skills, politics, relationships and values as they struggle to overcome fear and panic at their seemingly unachievable task.

Some of the funniest scenes depict Brammall and Lovatt re-enacting the entire movie for Hecht who, to the astonishment of Selznick, has not read the book. Brammall portrays a pert and pouting Scarlett O’Hara while Lovatt recreates hilarious characters including Prissy the black maid, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard. The audience’s recognition of characters and scenes stimulates much laughter.

The actors make the most of Hutchinson’s dialogue that captures the acerbic language and one-line “zingers” that characterised the American movies of the 30’s. Bruce Beresford’s production is tightly directed and set in an opulent Hollywood office (Shaun Gurton).

The acting is accomplished. Brammall embodies the brash rudeness and manic energy of Selznick, Hammond portrays Hecht with a supercilious and cynical humour and Lovatt finds comedy in the macho arrogance of Fleming. Marg Downey provides an hilarious cameo as Selznick’s beleaguered, obliging and endlessly patient secretary, Miss Poppenguhl (OK).

Despite the audience’s obvious enjoyment and the apparent success of the play in other countries, the script repeats itself, returning to the same arguments about Jewish politics in Hollywood, writers being castigated, attacks by Fleming and Hecht on each other’s movies, snipes about Selznick’s marriage and his father -in-law.

There can be no dramatic tension in this play because we know the outcome. The script is completed, the movie is made and it goes down in history. It feels more like a long, comic sketch than a play – but it is funny.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Wretch, Feb 19, 2009 ***1/2

Wretch by Angus Cerini
La Mama, Carlton, Feb 19 to March 8, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

In Wretch, winner of the 2007 Patrick White Playwright’s Award, Angus Cerini and Suzie Dee are both compelling and repellent as the damaged and almost demented mother and son. Cerini often writes about male violence in our community and this play is a prime example.

Wretch focuses intensely on the two characters and their fraught and dysfunctional relationship. Their interaction takes place when the mother (Dee) visits her son (Cerini) in a juvenile detention centre where he serves a sentence for beating a man and rendering him a quadriplegic. Their meeting is tortured and confused as the pair attempts to understand each other, their past, his crimes and her illness.

The actors perch on chairs facing the audience, the awkwardness of their meeting emphasised by the stark white cube (Marg Horwell) within which they sit. Their faces are mask-like, frozen in grimaces that echo the screaming pain of their lives. The white walls and floor are illuminated with harsh fluorescent light (Richard Vabre) that makes the couple look like human exhibits in a museum. Underscoring their relationship is an eerie sound scape (Kelly Ryall).

Cerini’s writing blends coarse, realistic dialogue with a rough, fractured, poetic language. Mother and son scramble to communicate in broken sentences that express their muddled thoughts, clumsy love and desperate need for connection.

Dee’s portrayal of the mother is sympathetic and delicately wrought. Sporting pink tracky-dacks and tee-shirt, she is the epitome of a down-market bogan. But her naivete and tentativeness, combined with her fierce desire to protect and love her son, invite our sympathy and attention. She slowly reveals her past as a cheap hooker who does not know the identity of her boy’s father then hesitantly tells of  “the sick” that riddles her body and claims her cancerous breast.

As the loutish boy, Cerini vibrates with the barely repressed rage of a young man who has only ever known insecurity, violence, poverty and despair. His presence is magnetic and sometimes frightening, but Cerini manages to find the tender underbelly of this uncouth man-boy who struggles to understand his own violent crimes and his fear of losing his mother to her illness.

Both actors are powerful throughout and Dee’s direction is taut, keeping the physical action to a minimum but the dramatic tension on full. The script has a few false endings in the latter half and seems to repeat itself, but the strong acting sustains the play making it a vivid depiction of two members of an underclass fighting for survival.

By Kate Herbert

ABBAMANIA, Crown Casino, Feb 18, 2009 ***1/2

When & Where: The Palms, Crown Casino, Feb 18 to March 1, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

Whether you are a fan or not, there is no denying that the songs of Swedish pop group, ABBA, are catchy. They pass “the old grey whistle test”. (i.e. Ii you play them to old blokes, they’ll be whistling the tune the next day.)

The tunes also trigger the get-up-and-dance impulse and that is just what the crowd at ABBAMANIA did. They swayed, bumped, clapped, waved and did the finger-pointing dance to Mamma Mia. ABBA attract a seriously daggy crowd but they certainly know how to have a good time and they know all the lyrics.

ABBA generated myriad tribute bands and this English show has been running since 1999. On stage are look alikes for the quartet. Bjorn (Mark Thomas) plays guitar and Benny (Phil Hawkes) piano. Although four singers alternate in the roles of Agnetha and Frida, I saw the sassy and rich-voiced Katy Summer as Agnetha and Carly Broom playing a rather under-stated Anni-Frid.

Two backing singers (Lydia Griffiths, Laura Chapple) and 11 musicians including eight string players support them with a big orchestral sound based on Bjrn and Benny’s original arrangements.

The hit tunes kept coming. The crowd went wild over peppy tunes such as Waterloo, Mamma Mia, Money Money Money, Super Trouper and Summer’s version of the raunchy Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! They leapt to their feet for the deliciously twee Dancing Queen and popular SOS.

 They sighed and moaned at the recognisable first chords of romantic ballads such as I Do, I Do, I Do and Fernando then Summer knocked their socks off with a haunting solo of The Winner Takes It All. The original ABBA harmonies are featured and the swelling sound and emotional lyrics still affect the audience.

Of course we can’t ignore the cheesy, designed-for-non-dancers 70s choreography and retro costumes that boast more silver knee-high boots, lame’, lycra and white jump suits than should be legal.

ABBA is never going away. They won Eurovision in 1974 and they keep having revivals so, if you loved them then, you’re gunna love ABBAMANIA.
By Kate Herbert

Thursday 12 February 2009

Friday Night, In Town, Feb 12, 2009 ***1/2

Friday Night, In Town by Kieran Carroll, La Mama
Carlton Courthouse, La Mama, Feb 11 to  Feb 21, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 12, 2009
Stars: ***1/2

If you peered into a home, a bar or a laneway on a Friday night in Melbourne, you might witness scenes such as those in Kieran Carroll’s Friday Night, In Town. The play is a patchwork made up of multiple stories, each with discrete and separate characters. All of the relationships and stories have merit as snapshots of people in the city although some are more effective or absorbing than others.

The most compelling theatrical element of the entire evening is a monologue performed with passion and sensitivity by Jeremy Kewley at the end of the second half. Our interest is piqued when his agitated character walks into an inner city bar then downs a beer, a whisky and a vodka chaser in quick succession. We are captivated by the story he tells about his confrontation with his womanising friend, and his revelations about his teenage daughter are chilling.

There is an edge of danger and suspense in the tale of a Brighton boy (Alex Marriott) who finds himself trapped on a bar stool between a sneering, tattooed petty crim (John King) and his giggling and drunk girlfriend (Alison Bennett).

While waiting for a cancelled train (sound familiar?), an elderly man (Lex Ross) meets an anxious young woman (Kristy Barnes-Cullen). There is a melancholy charm in this story as they strike up an unusual friendship that is healing to both.

The other stories involve a couple of builders chatting up two birds in a pub before a footy match, a drunk Russian woman swilling merlot and her lonely, divorced neighbour and a man and woman who both love the same man.

It is rare to see 16 actors on stage anywhere other than a major theatre company. Director, Noel Anderson, keeps most actors onstage throughout the two hours that sometimes provides depth to the space and volume to the vocal quality. However often, the stage simply looks crowded for no reason.

The scene changes are slow, the languorous pace of the show needs variation and the acting is inconsistent with a few highlights. But this collection of city stories is strangely fascinating.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 11 February 2009

I Love You, Bro, Feb 11, 2009 ****

I Love You, Bro  
By Adam J.A.Cass, Malthouse Theatre
The Tower, Malthouse Theatre, Feb 11 to 28, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Ash Flanders, in I Love You, Bro, is like a taut wire waiting to snap. He is magnetic as the isolated, disturbed and disturbing 14 year-old English boy who lives and loves through internet chat rooms while downstairs his single mother is beaten by his step-father.

 “Johnny-Boy” (his chat room name) creates an eccentric and profoundly theatrical world in which he inhabits multiple characters including a teenage girl, her vulnerable younger brother, a young thug and two female secret agents.  The extraordinary thing is that Adam Cass’s play is based on a true story that occurred in Manchester in 2003, although the real boy created an even more elaborate and unbelievable web of deception. The story ends in violence, despair and shame.

Flanders peoples the stage with a parade of characters. We watch Johnny-Boy fall in love on line with “Marky-Mark”, a muscular and obviously gullible 16 year-old footballer who lives in the same town. In the chat room, Johnny-Boy role-plays a cute girl called “AlbaJ” (Jessica Alba) and dupes Mark into internet sex with him/her.

The entire story escalates out of control as Johnny-Boy’s lies and fantasies become more and more convoluted to keep Mark interested in “this fag love of two non-fags”. It is astonishing that Mark never questions the crazy story. Maybe teenagers in Manchester are so bored they will believe anything.

The sparse design (Jason Lehane) incorporates projected snatches of cyber-text and dim lighting isolates Johnny in a bleak, otherworldly environment that reflects his fragile mental state. He inhabits anonymous cyberspace where he is only limited by his imagination – and that seems limitless.

Yvonne Virsik’s direction keeps the focus firmly on Flanders and his compelling characterisations. Cass’s play has the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, complete with flawed hero. I Love You Bro is a treat.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Zanna Don’t! Feb 4, 2009 ***

 Zanna Don’t!  
Book, music, & lyrics by Tim Acito; additional book & lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris, by Quirky Productions
Chapel off Chapel  Feb 4 to 14, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 4, 2009

The 2003 Off-Broadway production of Tim Acito’s, Zanna Don’t! launched the career of Jai Rodriguez of Queer Eye fame. It won the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Anti-Defamation) award which tells you something about the content.

Zanna Don’t! is a funny and warm musical about young love. Although the show is not overtly political, Heartsville High exists in an alternative universe in which homosexuality is the norm and chess-players, not football stars, are sex symbols. Zanna (Samuel Kitchen) has magical matchmaker powers; he waves his sparkly wand and students fall in love.

He matches lonely quarterback, Steve (Nic Riley), with Mike (Chris Buchanan), the Chess Club star. Then he weaves his spell over tough Roberta (Jessica Carbone) and mechanical bull rider, Kate (Kate Williams). But Zanna’s plans go awry when Mike writes a controversial school revue about heterosexuals in the military and Steve and Kate kiss on stage then fall in love.

This Melbourne ensemble is cute, charming and energetic as the spunky teens. Luke Gallagher’s direction is slick and choreography by Tamara Finch and James Rooney is sassy. The five-piece band, lead by Julia Buchanan, does justice to Tim Acito’s music and its mix of popular styles including rockabilly, disco and lyrical love ballads. Andrew Bellchambers backdrop is sensational.

Apart from the title’s allusion to Xanadu, there are satirical references to musicals including Grease and Godspell. All the songs are about aspects of love (another musical title?). It opens with the vivacious Who’s Got Extra Love? by Zanna and cast, its lyrics cleverly establishing the story and characters in the first five minutes.

 Buchanan and Riley’s voices blend well in the duet, I Think We’ve Got Love. The narrative changes when, later, Buchanan and Williams sing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a more poignant duet about heterosexual love. The pain of illicit love is even more potent in the quartet, Don’t You Wish We Could be in Love?

There are several rollicking tunes. Carbone belts out with zest her song about wasting time on unfaithful lovers, I Ain’t Got Time. When she falls in love with Kate at the mechanical bull practice, the ensemble sings, Ride ‘Em, a country-style hootenanny.  Luke Taylor and Drew Downing are a riot singing Fast, a rapid-fire, rockabilly patter duet.

Zanna Don’t! takes the standard musical “boy meets girl” narrative by the scruff of the neck and gives it a good shake. This production is worth a look.

By Kate Herbert