Friday 31 December 2010

Song of the Bleeding Throat ***

Song of the Bleeding Throat
By David Tredinnick, by The Eleventh Hour
 170 Leicester St. Fitzroy until Feb 12, 2011
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you don’t know Thomas Carlyle, the conservative, 19th century, Scottish historian, you will after seeing Song of the Bleeding Throat (David Tredinnick). You will also gain another perspective on Abe Lincoln.

The strength of this production for The Eleventh Hour is its actors (Richard Bligh, Anne Browning, Neil Pigot, James Saunders). They relish its often-convoluted language and stylistic idiosyncrasies. Director, Brian Lipson, colours their performances with quirky details, comical physicality and simple, surprising theatrical devices.

The show is two separate plays: the first is about Carlyle (Bligh) and his long-suffering wife, Jane (Browning) while the second is about Lincoln’s (Pigot) assassination by John Wilkes Booth (Saunders).

The overly-long first act is a parody of a portrait of Carlyle in his sitting room. Bligh captures the blustering vanity, violence and arch-conservativism of Carlyle. Browning is wry but sympathetic as Jane who quaffs increasing doses of opiates and communes with her dog, played by Saunders as a loyal, working-class bloke who adores Jane but fears his master. Pigot, dressed as Lincoln, is a peculiar and reluctant stagehand.

Lincoln’s anachronistic presence culminates in the second act when he looms above us, perched like a rag doll in a huge, white bed. Pigot’s Lincoln is addled, childlike, struggling to recollect his past, to grasp the gravity of his death and to defend his political decisions about slavery and democracy.

This act layers Walt Whitman’s (Bligh) poetry with Lincoln’s political speeches, Wilkes’ ravings, quotes from Shakespeare, references to Liberty (Browning) and contemporary song. The balance of the absurd, the historical and the literary is more successful in this half and the stretching of the moment of death is an effective device. Comedic elements provide a strong counterpoint for the tragedy of Lincoln’s demise.

Tredinnick constructed his script from non-theatrical texts. It is described as a “burlesque … a caricature of serious works.”

The content is sometimes incoherent, the language impenetrable and the structure not cohesive in this satirical commentary on democracy and freedom.  However, this show is a testament to the impact of powerful and skilful acting in a simply staged production.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Theatre should get back to basics

Theatre should get back to basics
Looking Forward to 2011 by Kate Herbert
A version of this was published in Herald-Sun, December 28, 2010

2011 promises to be a year of spectacular revivals, adaptations and sequels in both musicals and theatre. In musical theatre-land, we have our own productions of shows that are making splashes overseas.

Doctor Zhivago arrives in a blizzard in April at Her Maj, with Anthony Warlow as the Doc wearing some hapless, furry creature as a hat. This is yet another movie adaptation, although the original inspiration is Boris Pasternak’s book.

The phabulous Phantom is back in Love Never Dies in May at the Regent (Perhaps not so phab when overseas productions are labelled “Paint Never Dries”).

Rock of Ages, from musical theatre wizard, Cameron Mackintosh, will rock our world with its revival of rock tunes from  80s in April.

Xanadu leaps off the movie screen and into a Marquee at Docklands in March. This peculiar, skating musical is based on the Olivia Newton-John movie that had questionable reviews.

Does anyone have an original idea any more? Even the MTC is doing David Williamson’s sequel to Don’s Party in January. Must directors and writers hack up someone else’s work and call it their own? Oh, I am happily anticipating Next To Normal, the original, Tony-Award winning musical about a depressed housewife.

And I’m sick of indulgent, navel-gazing and attempts to shock us with grotesque, violent, blokey bulldust. Can anyone create unpretentious theatre? Oh, yes, Ranters Theatre. Their small and intimate shows are always a treat. It seems that companies either program the most commercial work or the ugliest, most unpleasant work and nothing in between – except extreme technology.

Much as I love a spectacular show, I got tired of theatre looking like cinema. Technology dominated new work this year. I was so busy trying to work out how the digital set design worked in Hairspray that I forgot to watch the actors. The Blue Dragon, by Canadian Robert Lepage, overlaid its very thin narrative and dialogue with elaborate film and technology. 

Stiftes Dinges (Melbourne Festival) was so obsessed with technology that there were no humans on stage at all. Even many of the small, low budget shows in Melbourne spent more time, money and energy on video, lighting and soundscapes.

What moves me to go to the theatre week after week, year after year is the hope that I may see actors transforming before my eyes, peopling an empty stage with characters, creating a soundscape with nothing but their voices and transporting an audience to other places and times with nothing but their imaginations.

I crave the simplicity of British director, Peter Brook’s “Empty Space”, an empty stage that is filled by actors and their skill. Brook’s two-hander, Love Is My Sin, performed in Brook’s raggedy Paris theatre, had two actors, two chairs and a rug and was one of the most memorable nights in the theatre that I have ever witnessed.
By Kate Herbert

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

Sunday 31 October 2010

Becky Shaw ***1/2

Becky Shaw 
By Gina Gionfriddo, Echelon Productions,
Lawler Studio, MTC, until November 14, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:*** 1/2

Gina Gionfriddo’s darkly comical play may be called Becky Shaw, but the character we see most of is Suzanna (Suzie) Slater (Amanda Levy), a neurotic woman in her 30s who is completing a PhD in Psychology when she should be analysing her own muddy, inner world. Suzanna’s life is “epic Faulknerian chaos”, which means everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Gionfriddo’s play deals with Suzanna’s fraught relationships with her family and their emotional and ethical dilemmas. Suzanna’s formerly wealthy father dies before the play begins, leaving a financial and emotional mess for his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts) who suffers with Multiple Sclerosis, his daughter, Suzanna, and his adopted son, Max Garrett (Daniel Frederiksen), a high-flying money manager.

Suzanna and Max squabble then consummate a sexual attraction stemming from their childhood. Mum has a young lover-minder who is a conman. Then Suzanna marries sensitive Andrew (Alex Papps) who has a history of rescuing needy women then abandoning them.

That all seems complicated enough but things get worse when Becky Shaw, the next damsel in distress, appears. Kate Atkinson is always unbeatably charming, but as the outwardly “delicate” and needy, but inwardly manipulative, obsessive and dangerous Becky, we want to slap her and scream, “Leave them alone”. But she gets her claws well into this family.

Levy is maddeningly accurate as the neurotic, little, rich American princess, playing Suzanna with a brittle, feistiness and obnoxious irrationality. Frederiksen is delicious as the brusque, unsentimental Max, giving this tough-boy-made-good a charm and sexual energy that is both attractive and dangerous. He looks after the people close to him but dismisses losers such as Becky – at his own peril. Papps plays the unbearably feminist Andrew with relish.

Although the script wanders a little, there is some fine dialogue, smart social observation and several compelling characters. It is funny and disturbing like Yasmina Reza’s play, God of Carnage, although less savage and visceral. Contemporary America is lampooned mercilessly for its mad political correctness and its greed and acquisitiveness that run on parallel tracks. Indira Carmichael’s direction of story and characters is slick but her scene changes and repeated moving of furniture interrupt the flow.

 Becky Shaw is good entertainment with plenty of recognisable personal and social dilemmas and without too much mental challenge.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 15 October 2010

Life Without Me ***

Life Without Me 
By Daniel Keene, Melbourne Theatre Company
MTC Sumner Theatre, October 15 to November 21, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:  ***

Daniel Keene’s plays are produced more often in France than in Australia. Life Without Me is the first produced by Melbourne Theatre Company. 

Keene’s earlier plays, developed by the Keene-Taylor Project, ranged from poetic-abstract to the gritty realism of life in Australia’s underclass that featured short plays performed in the Brotherhood of St. Laurence warehouse.

Life Without Me is a different animal; Fawlty Towers collides with Sartre’s existentialist play, No Exit. It is a comedy with a smattering of simple, philosophy. It opens with a funny, slapstick routine between Nigel (Robert Menzies), the hotel clerk, and John (Greg Stone), the hapless guest. The verbal and physical comedy continues with the arrival of Roy  (Brian Lipson), a bemused, linen salesman, and Nigel’s dotty mum (Kerry Walker).

This is not to say that it is all absurd and comical. The characters are trapped, physically and psychologically, in this down-market hotel with its “private and adequate rooms”, a non-functioning elevator and not even a pen to fill in the register. When anyone tries to leave, they are driven back to the hotel by a raging wind, an incompetent taxi driver, a lost train station or other incomprehensible interference by the universe.

Menzies is a sad clown as the obstreperous, unhelpful and defeated hotel clerk. He makes a super, comedy double act with Stone who plays the desperate, directionless, lost soul, John, who is literally blown through the revolving door (get the metaphor?) arriving bedraggled, sodden and crazed. Lipson’s impeccable comic timing and eccentric delivery make Roy sympathetic and hilarious and his budding relationship with Alice (Deidre Rubenstein) is charming. The younger characters (Kristina Brew, Benedict Hardie) are not as successfully drawn in Keene’s script.

Rubenstein’s character refers in French to, “La salle des pas perdus” (the room of lost steps). It is like a lobby, a place to pass through, hoping to find directions to your destination. All these characters are lost, seeking, spinning in a whirl of ideas, random choices and confusion.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 8 October 2010

Intimacy, Ranters, October 8, 2010 ****

Devised by Ranters Theatre, text by Raimondo Cortese
Where and When: Malthouse Theatre,  October 8 to 2, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****

Intimacy makes me smile. It gives us a warm, comfortable glow, inviting us into intimate conversations between strangers who feel like our friends. It is deliciously soothing, despite its characters being sometimes dislocated and unsettled.

The performance style has an easy, gentle, conversational quality rarely seen in theatre. It avoids any heightened vocal or acting style and echoes the casual quality and lengthy pauses of everyday dialogue. By the end, it is as if we have wandered the streets with actor Paul Lum, chatting to the singular individuals who also haunt the night.

Ranters Theatre is a collaborative company creating deceptively simple theatre co-devised by its actors (Paul Lum, Patrick Moffatt, Beth Buchanan), director (Adriano Cortese) and writer Raimondo Cortese). The comfort, truthfulness and clarity of the acting and dialogue are a testament to the success of this devising process.

Lum briefly explains that he spent an evening wandering the streets near his flat, asking total strangers if they wanted a chat. “Some people said, ‘No’”, Lum quips. Intimacy is a record of some of those chats.

Lum is like a low-key interviewer interested in the lives of others. Moffatt and Buchanan, perched on rocks that litter the stage (Anna Tregloan), play the strangers without embellishment or extreme characterisations. The first character is Russell, a 62 year-old teacher of Ancient History with a fascination for visiting Roller Coasters around the world. The Birdman is a street performer who imitates birds and refuses to have his photo taken. Adrian is a pilot who has panic attacks and Mary is a Glaswegian who suffers crippling insomnia.

Encounters with strangers allow an artificial intimacy with neither past nor future. The strangers meet, commune, share their secrets and lives, then part never to meet again in most cases. (Although one of the strangers is now Lum’s mechanic.) The chats amble aimlessly, then touch on sensitive, personal issues or veer away to safer topics.

People’s lives are endlessly interesting and Intimacy allows us into worlds normally closed to us. We are like villagers around the campfire, listening to stories that enliven and educate, making us alert and more attuned to others.

By Kate Herbert

Intimacy makes me smile. It gives us a warm, comfortable glow, inviting us into intimate conversations between strangers who feel like our friends. It is deliciously soothing, despite its characters being sometimes dislocated and unsettled.

The performance style has an easy, gentle, conversational quality rarely seen in theatre. It avoids any heightened vocal or acting style and echoes the casual quality and lengthy pauses of everyday dialogue. By the end, it is as if we have wandered the streets with actor Paul Lum, chatting to the singular individuals who also haunt the night.

Ranters Theatre is a collaborative company creating deceptively simple theatre co-devised by its actors (Paul Lum, Patrick Moffatt, Beth Buchanan), director (Adriano Cortese) and writer Raimondo Cortese). The comfort, truthfulness and clarity of the acting and dialogue are a testament to the success of this devising process.

Lum briefly explains that he spent an evening wandering the streets near his flat, asking total strangers if they wanted a chat. “Some people said, ‘No’”, Lum quips. Intimacy is a record of some of those chats.

Lum is like a low-key interviewer interested in the lives of others. Moffatt and Buchanan, perched on rocks that litter the stage (Anna Tregloan), play the strangers without embellishment or extreme characterisations. The first character is Russell, a 62 year-old teacher of Ancient History with a fascination for visiting Roller Coasters around the world. The Birdman is a street performer who imitates birds and refuses to have his photo taken. Adrian is a pilot who has panic attacks and Mary is a Glaswegian who suffers crippling insomnia.

Encounters with strangers allow an artificial intimacy with neither past nor future. The strangers meet, commune, share their secrets and lives, then part never to meet again in most cases. (Although one of the strangers is now Lum’s mechanic.) The chats amble aimlessly, then touch on sensitive, personal issues or veer away to safer topics.

People’s lives are endlessly interesting and Intimacy allows us into worlds normally closed to us. We are like villagers around the campfire, listening to stories that enliven and educate, making us alert and more attuned to others.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 7 October 2010

Britney Spears: The Cabaret ****1/2

Britney Spears: The Cabaret
Written by Dean Bryant
Where and When: Chapel off Chapel, until Oct 24 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

Christie Whelan is a musical and cabaret talent not to be missed. She made me want to hug Britney Spears – a huge surprise to me, not being a Britney fan in this, or any other lifetime. I also wanted to slap her.

In this intimate and sensational cabaret, Britney Spears: The Cabaret, Whelan, writer Dean Bryant and pianist Matthew Frank, mercilessly satirise the vacuous, perky but troubled, pop diva then spin 180 degrees with a poignant depiction of Britney’s life.

She is propelled by an ambitious stage mother into TV and pop music where she flails, abuses drugs and alcohol, marries badly twice, loses her children in a court battle, is hounded by paparazzi, shaves her head, mimes on stage, sings off-key and appears in her underwear.

The charismatic Whelan – tall, blonde, vivacious, with a fine voice and poured into a little, black mini-dress  – plays Britney with a mischievous twinkle. The lyrics of Britney’s hit songs have new meaning when threaded between her life stories.

I’m A Girl, Not Yet a Woman tells all in its title. Oops I Did It Again, I’m a Slave for You, Toxic and Womanizer reveal her foolish choice in men while Overprotected has sad echoes of her domineering father sending her to a psychiatric ward. This is a masterpiece of cabaret.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 30 September 2010

Sugar, The Production Company, Sept 30, 2010 ***

Book by Peter Stone, music by Julie Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, based on the screenplay, Some Like It Hot by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre, Sept 30 until Oct 3, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Some people certainly like it hot, and Marilyn Monroe was steaming in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Sugar is the 1972 musical based on Wilder’s film, and the sassy Christie Whelan, as Sugar Cane, channels Marilyn.

Director, Adam Cook, casts three of Australia’s most successful music theatre performers in his slick, funny production. Whelan has a fine, bright musical theatre voice and is delectable as ditzy Sugar, the ukulele-playing, blonde bombshell who’s looking for love – with a millionaire – but always falls for the penniless saxophone player.

Matt Hetherington (Joe/Josephine) and Mitchell Butel (Jerry/ Daphne) are a perfect comic-musical duo in the cross-dressing roles made famous by Curtis and Lemmon. They enter girlishly, wearing blousy women’s suits and feathered hats, singing The Beauty That Drives Men Mad.  Despite Butel’s skinny, chicken legs and Hetherington’s brawny shoulders, they pose, prance, disguising themselves with squeaky voices, bad wigs, sequined gowns and bathing suits. They are caught shaving in the ladies’ room, bellowing in gruff male voices or sneaking peeks at Sugar’s peachy bottom.

The plot (Peter Stone) echoes the movie. Joe and Jerry, unemployed musicians, after witnessing the Chicago St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, flee the tap-dancing mob boss, Spats Palazzo (Peter Lowrey). The pair escape by dressing as women to join an all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators.

The tunes (Julie Styne) and lyrics (Bob Merrill) are not ground-breaking but the incorporation of original movie dialogue, characters and comedy makes the show fun. Doin’ It For Sugar is a cheerful duet by Joe and Jerry. November Song features the inimitable Dennis Olsen as a naughty, old millionaire Sir Osgood Fielding III accompanied by a chorus of wheelchair-dancing, ancient millionaires.

Olsen sings Beautiful Through And Through, a charming love duet, with Daphne (Butel) who is the love of his life and his future, seventh wife. Melissa Langton belts out a fine version of When You Meet A Man In Chicago as the domineering Sweet Sue.

Christopher Horsey’s eclectic choreography showcases the versatile chorus. One highlight is a tap routine by machine-gun toting killers. George Ellis conducts a tight band with rich string and brass sections.  Sugar is a taut production with exceptional performances from a talented cast.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 21 September 2010

A Sondheim Triptych: Saturday Night ***

A Sondheim Triptych
Saturday Night
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Julius J Epstein, produced by Magnormos and Melbourne Recital Centre
Melbourne Recital Centre, Mondays Sept 20, Sept 27, Oct 4, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***

Saturday Night was on Monday night. Confused? Stephen Sondheim’s first professional musical, written in 1955 but not staged until 1997, is called Saturday Night. As a celebration of this music theatre legend’s 80th birthday, Magnormos is staging three of Sondheim’s less frequently performed shows on three consecutive Mondays. Clearer?

Saturday Night, directed by Terence O’Connell, is a concert performance rather than a fully-fledged production. This means that, because rehearsal time and budget are limited, there is no set, no orchestra and the singers carry beautifully bound scripts to which they refer occasionally.

This does not detract from the musical quality. Sondheim’s music is capably played by musical director, Vicki Jacobs (piano), Brett Canning (double bass) and Toby Lang (drums) with a cast of 15 performing the 22 songs with commitment and skill. Zac Tyler, as the ambitious, aspirational Gene, has a cheerful presence and a warm voice. Claire George, as his love interest, Helen, is a highlight with her bright, clear soprano and engaging style.

Although Saturday Night is his earliest musical, it has signatures of Sondheim’s later, much-applauded style: cunningly wrought, funny lyrics, complex rhythms, unusual intervals and some themes shared with his successful show, Company.

The story, based on the play, Front Porch in Flatbush, occurs on consecutive Saturday nights in Brooklyn when Gene (Tyler) and his pals complain about being desperate, dateless and broke every Saturday. “When you’re alone on a Saturday night, you might as well be dead,” says Sondheim’s lyric. While the single guys moan about being alone, their only married pal sings, “She’s always there when you want her, and she’s always there when you don’t want her.”

Gene works in a low level, Wall Street job but has expensive tastes and a total lack of scruples. He convinces his hapless, trusting friends to invest on a sure thing in the stock market, but he blows their cash on his own expensive, idiotic schemes. Somehow, Gene remains their golden boy, the one who gives them hope with his crazy dreams. They forgive him everything – even selling his cousin’s car illegally.

You have missed Saturday Night, but you can see the concert versions of Merrily We Roll Along and Anyone Can Whistle on upcoming Mondays.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 9 September 2010

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ****

 A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Adapted from by William Shakespeare, by Yohangza Theatre Company, South Korea
Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne, until Sept 1, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

This Korean adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream captures the playfulness and mischief of Shakespeare’s original comedy but director, Yang Jung-Ung, injects it with an idiosyncratic Asian style. It effectively incorporates contemporary and traditional Korean and European theatrical, clown and dance conventions.

This is an intensely physical performance that echoes the Chinese Opera, Japanese Kabuki theatre and even some of the magical, martial arts films. The movement is stylised and often acrobatic, with broadly comical acting, clown-like characters and make-up, vivid costumes and a sparsely decorated stage.

Shakespeare’s play is adapted into a Korean folk tale about mythical fairies (Dokkebi) and four young lovers who are victims of the fairies’ mischief in the forest. Shakespeare’s language is translated loosely into Korean (surtitled) and the actors employ a heightened, musical style of vocalisation.

Yang Jung-Ung’s (OK) production and multi-skilled cast are laugh-out-loud funny. The audience clapped and cheered the Duduri, acrobatic and impish clown twins (Jung Woo-Keun, Kim Sang-Bo [OK]) based on Shakespeare’s Puck. Kim Jun-Ho (OK) is a deliciously wicked, sensual Fairy King with Kim Ji-Youn (OK) as his sassy and powerful Fairy Queen.

The four lovers (Kim Jin-Gon, Chang Hyun-Seok, Lee Eun-Jeong, Jeong Su-Yeon [OK]) use language and movement to create a complex, comic but symbolic emotional landscape and Jeong A-Young (OK) is feisty as the nuggety, old woman, Ajumi.

This is a cheerful, naughty interpretation of Shakespeare that leaves the audience smiling. Even their curtain call is memorable.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 26 August 2010

Pasolini’s Leaves – Shining Trash ****

Pasolini’s Leaves – Shining Trash 
By Fondazione Aida, Verona Italy
La Mama Courthouse, Aug 26 to Sept , 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Poetic abstraction is at the heart of Pasolini’s Leaves – Shining Trash, a tribute to controversial, Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini on the 35th anniversary of his death. It is a visceral, theatrical production by Italian company, Fondazione Aida that is visiting Melbourne from Verona.

The piece, constructed around the rich, verbal landscape of Pasolini’s poetry, features the compelling acting of Lorenzo Bassotto and Monica Ceccardi. Bassotto is sturdy, grounded and a little scruffy, in stark contrast to Ceccardi who is small, fine-boned, but muscular. They are two anonymous, non-specific people who engage in passionate and intensely emotive relationships.

Their performance fills the empty space with Pasolini’s despairing and beautiful language, evocative black and white imagery from his films, eclectic music ranging from classical to Lou Reed, and the vigorous physicality of two bodies immersed in a primal struggle.

Fragments of text from four of Pasolini’s poems are used as a foundation for a loosely connected series of vignettes. Each investigates a particular compulsion, emotional struggle or obsession around themes of love, isolation, entrapment, darkness and light.

In one disturbing but riveting scene, the actors laugh like children at play while they violently attack one another in turn. In another, the woman is stuck and cannot move her feet so the man draws her a chalk path along which to travel. When she collapses dramatically to the floor, he draws a chalk line around her prone, lifeless body as if she were a murdered corpse.

The final projected film is footage of piles of fetid rubbish lining the streets during the 1970 street cleaners’ strike in Rome. Pasolini’s obsession with decay, death and filth is encapsulated in these images, in the clutter of crumpled newspaper on stage, and in the actors’ desperate efforts to scrub the floor clean.

Bassotto and Ceccardi employ a vivid, physical, theatrical language to portray the vitality of Pasolini’s poetic world.

Fondazione Aida is also performing Peter And The Wolf daily at 1pm and running Commedia del’Arte mask workshops on two weekends.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 25 August 2010

She’s Not Performing **1/2

She’s Not Performing  
By Alison Mann
La Mama, Aug 25 to Sept 5, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

She’s Not Performing, by Alison Mann, has disturbing content about the emotional pain of a birth mother relinquishing a baby for adoption. However, the problems with the production are not related to content but to script, acting and staging. It all feels a little uncomfortable.

Margarite (Andrea Close) is a dysfunctional 42-year old suffering a profound sense of loss 25 years after giving up her baby girl. She is naïve, aggressive, unable to sustain relationships and tortured by self-loathing. Her feelings of worthlessness are so severe that she self-harms with razor blades. It is distressing and chilling to see her separate herself from the physical pain.

Margarite is not a likable character. It is difficult to sympathise with her crudeness, her brutal behaviour and her irrational pursuit of Annie (Rachel Purchase), a young lap-dancer who Margarite desperately wants to believe is her daughter.

Director, Kelly Somes, begins the show with Annie’s titillating sex club dance, but this initial physicality and visual dynamism disappears quickly. The script deteriorates into rather colourless realism with shallow dislikeable characters and flat, predictable dialogue.

The catwalk stage leaves little room for any on stage action. The actors look cramped and trip over the audience’s feet as they enter and exit. The most interesting part of the staging is the dancer silhouetted behind a full-length, sheer, red, upstage curtain. The aggressive sex scene between Margarite and her casual partner, Iain (Mike McEvoy), is suitably unpleasant and dangerous.

The acting is awkward, particularly from Close who has trouble finding the nuances to make the thin dialogue effective and the woman-child Margarite, credible. We remain strangely unmoved by the play and its emotional topic until perhaps the final confessional and honest moments of Margarite with her baby’s father (Christopher Bunworth).

There is a uncomfortable relationship drawn between women who relinquish babies and dangerous or inappropriately sexualised behaviour. I am sure the writer’s intention is to sympathise with the continuing plight of these women and the pain that they suffer, but the play seems to diminish the issues rather than to illuminate them.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 22 August 2010

West Side Story ***

West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Regent Theatre, Melbourne, from August 19, 2010 for six weeks only
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Opening night review Sunday August 22, 2010

The Jets and The Sharks in West Side Story may resemble the Labour and Liberal Parties, but their street battles involve more real bloodletting and actual bodily harm than those fought at the ballot box this weekend.

Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story broke the mould for musicals when those brawling street kids –the white Jets and Hispanic Sharks – burst on stage performing Robbins’ brutal, primitive choreography to Leonard Bernstein’s pounding, dramatic score. Arthur Laurents’ gritty narrative about gangs struggling for power is based on Shakespeare’s warring Capulet and Montague families, and Stephen Sondheim’s cunning and emotional lyrics illuminate the characters and story.

Joey McKneely directs this production, reproducing Robbins’ dynamic, athletic choreography with a highly trained, muscular chorus of dancer-singers. They effectively recreate the lusty street battles of the Prologue and The Rumble, and the sexy, latin moves in Dance at the Gym. The versatile band plays Bernstein’s astounding, energetic score that incorporates orchestral, latin and jazz styles.

The cast competes with our memories of the movie cast, but they delight and challenge us with their character interpretations. Tony (Josh Piterman) and Maria (Julie Goodwin), like Romeo and Juliet, are central to the violence that erupts between their respective cultural groups.

There is electricity between Piterman and Goodwin who sing the impassioned romantic duet, Tonight, and the beautiful, plaintive Somewhere. Piterman sings the tender ballad Maria, and Goodwin enjoys the girlish, playful I Feel Pretty.

Alinta Chidzey, as the feisty, vivacious Anita, sings the exuberant (I Want to Live In) America in the role made famous by Chita Riviera and Rita Moreno.

The aggressively chest-thrusting, macho gang members are played by Dan Hamill as Action, Rohan Browne as tough guy Riff, Nigel Turner-Carroll as Bernardo, Brendan Yeates as Diesel and Turanga Merito as Chino. The Jets are entertaining when singing the tricky lyrics of Gee Officer Krupke by wordsmith, Sondheim.

West Side Story is a musical masterpiece and this production revives some of its stirring, musical romance and passion, its choreographic vigour, its tragic, urban landscape and lives cut short by violence and racism.

West Side Story runs for a limited, six week season at the Regent Theatre.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Twelfth Night **

Twelfth Night 
By William Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare Company
 Regional Arts Centres, then Playhouse from Sept 1 to 1, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a dark romantic-comedy. A subtle balance of darkness and comedy is essential to its success. Director, Lee Lewis, counterpoints tragedy with broad farce and makes several crucial errors in this production that throw out the balance.

Lewis starts the play in a non-theatrical way. Seven actors enter in silence and darkness, their torches adding eerie light to the huge, central mound of abandoned clothing and surrounding packing boxes.  They wander aimlessly, grubby and dejected, watching bushfires news footage. The only woman (Andrea Demetriades OK) weeps suddenly while the men look on helplessly. They are displaced fire victims arriving in a safe location.

An old man (Max Cullen) finds a book –Twelfth Night. They take turns reading snippets without inflection or characterisation. Suddenly, each begins “acting” as characters. The play begins and the bushfire theme is lost, apart from their costumes and piles of detritus.

Twelfth Night begins with Viola shipwrecked and rescued on the shore of Illyria, believing her twin brother, Sebastian (Adam Booth), drowned and mourning his loss. Disguising herself as a boy, Cesario, she becomes servant to suave Count Orsino (Elan Zavelsky (OK)) and falls in love with him. But must carry his love missives to Olivia (Kit Brookman) who falls in love with Cesario/Viola.

It is a play about mistaken identity, love, grief and redemption.  Lewis’ vision of fire victims performing the play works in theory, but the fire context is lost after 15 minutes. Despite one oblique reference, the notion of fire victims diverting themselves from their predicament is not reincorporated. Would it have made more sense to use a boat disaster or flood if altering the context of the play?

The show took off when Cullen, as Feste, Olivia’s Fool, sang St. James’ Infirmary and the audience applauded. There are some funny slapstick routines, especially when the naughty servants are hiding in the tree to trick puritanical Malvolio (Ben Wood) and Brent Hill is particularly entertaining as Maria.  

However, cross-gender casting muddies the characters; the dialogue lack clarity, being often shouted or too fast; the obtrusive pile of clothing pushes action away from the strongest, central stage position; and actors disappear when in front of its motley colours. It works best when they perform on it during the clown scenes.
This production has positive intentions but it ends up disrespecting fire victims, the play, the writer and the audience.

By Kate Herbert

The Boy From Oz ***

Todd McKenney stars as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz 
Songs by Peter Allen, book by Nick Enright, by Production Company
 State Theatre, until Aug 22, 2010 with return season in Jan 2011
Reviewed by Kate Herbert

IF you sing along or play your mime maracas to I Go to Rio on the radio, you'll love The Boy From Oz. 

And, if you are a fan, or even a foe, of Todd McKenney on Dancing With The Stars, you can toss roses (or something harder) at the stage as McKenney reprises his role as Australia's absurdly camp expatriate performer and songwriter Peter Allen.

This new concert version opened on Wednesday night and a mischievous McKenney gleefully prances, minces and shakes his maracas and sequined loud shirts, looking totally at home as Peter Allen, having successfully performed the role in the original, late `90s Aussie production. Hugh Jackman replaced him on Broadway.

The clever book, written by Nick Enright, depicts the light and shade of Allen's life. We see the child's budding showmanship, his rise to stardom, marriage to and divorce from Liza Minnelli, the death of his male partner and his father's suicide.

Veteran musical star Nancye Hayes provides taut and sensitive direction, weaving Andrew Hallsworth's vivacious choreography among the narrative.

 Musical director John Foreman leads a tight band in a repertoire featuring Allen's best loved tunes, including Quiet Please There's a Lady on Stage, Everything Old is New Again, Tenterfield Saddler, I Still Call Australia Home and a sassy, Latin, carnival-inspired version of I Go To Rio.

The inimitable Christen O'Leary, as Judy Garland, captures the tremulous, tottering star in her final days, singing All I Wanted Was The Dream. Fem Belling captures Liza Minnelli's spirit in Sure Thing Baby, a Bob Fosse-inspired Cabaret scene. David Harris, as Allen's partner, sings a heart-wrenchingly beautiful version of I Honestly Love You and Robyn Arthur is impassioned when singing Don't Cry Out Loud as Allen's supportive mum.

The chorus of dancer-singers, including a special trio of talented gals, is delectable.

McKenney is dynamic and versatile as Allen but he shares the lead with Allen's memorable songs. The Boy From Oz is one of a few Australian-born musicals to make it overseas and it is a suitable homage to Peter Allen's exceptional body of work and flamboyant personality.

The Boy From Oz runs at the State Theatre until August 22 and will return for another season in January.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Mary Poppins Article

Mary Poppins Strikes The Right Chord
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from July 29, 2010
Arts News article by Kate Herbert
Star rating: *****

What makes Mary Poppins so freakishly successful? Did the GFC depress us so badly that we are in such desperate need of magic in our lives? Is raising kids so tough now that, like the beleaguered Banks’ family, we crave someone like Mary Poppins who whips families into shape and solves domestic problems? We need a Super Nanny who, with a finger snap and “spit, spot, spick and span”, tidies the kitchen.

The children of the 60s, fans of the movie, are now taking their children to the musical. The show is the spoonful of sugar, the antidote for a world that faces wars, increasing violence, repression, self-centredness and greed. For three hours, anything is possible when Mary transports us into her cosy, enchanted world where rules make the world better, not worse.

Musical aficionados, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, and original songwriter, Richard Sherman, agree that our Melbourne production is the best, topping Broadway and London. As the new song says, it’s Practically Perfect. When I met them after the curtain call, song-writing duo Anthony Drewe and George Stiles looked dazed. At the after-party, Richard Sherman told me that the “creatives” cried for joy at the success of Melbourne’s production.

Perhaps its phenomenal success is also due to our exceptional Australian cast and the new star in the musical theatre firmament, Verity Hunt-Ballard. She is delectable as the mysterious, conceited and acerbic Mary and is “the triple threat” (sings, dances, acts). Her soprano is crystal clear; her character a perfect blend of prim, mischievous, pert and bossy; her comic timing is impeccable; and she maintains Mary’s poise and cheekiness while dancing complicated routines.

Our casting is ideal because Melbourne had an abundance of stars available whereas Broadway and West End productions competed against dozens of shows for their stars. Mackintosh said on Melbourne radio that our production is blessed with Australian leads that became stars in his shows. These include: Philip Quast (Javert in Les Miserables, Australia and London), Marina Prior (Phantom, Les Mis), Debra Byrne (Cats, Les Mis, Sunset Boulevard) and Judi Connelli (opera and musicals).

Mackintosh’s history of musical hits is another ingredient in the recipe for success. For Poppins, he wrested the stage rights from Australia’s own P.L. Travers then struck an unprecedented co-production deal with Disney executive, Tom Schumacher. He appointed Oscar-winning screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, to adapt Travers’ original stories into a cunningly wrought and coherent new script with interwoven narrative threads, charming characters, witty dialogue and moving stories.

Mackintosh engaged Drewe and Stiles to write new songs, including the singable Practically Perfect and Anything Can Happen. These fit seamlessly with the Shermans’ unforgettable classics: Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Let’s Go Fly A Kite and Jolly Holiday.

Director Richard Eyre creates a cohesive, rollicking whole. The transformational set transports us from the Banks’ staid, domestic home into Bert’s pastel painting of a technicolour park with dancing statues, or to visit eccentric characters in gelati-coloured costumes singing Supercalifagilistic.

During the Great Depression and World Wars, audiences sought escapist entertainment as a diversion from dire circumstances. Nothing has changed. When Mary literally flies over our heads, she allows us to leave the real world outside in the cold. Poppins not only has supercalifragilistic production values, but it strikes the right chord at the right time.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 29 July 2010

Mary Poppins *****

 Mary Poppins 
Her Majesty’s Theatre, (Opening night-Thurs July 29, 2010)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:***** (Yes, 5)

 (This review was unpublished in the Herald Sun after opening night but these are some thoughts on this exceptional production)

A new star is born in the musical theatre firmament. Verity Hunt-Ballard is Practically Perfect, as she sings, in every way for the role. She is what is known as “the triple threat”: sings, dances and acts. 

Her soprano is bright and crystal-clear, her character is a perfect blend of prim and mischievous, pert and bossy. Her comic timing is impeccable in both physical and verbal gags, she dances up a storm, maintaining Mary’s poise and cheekiness as she performs complicated routines.

Mary Poppins comes to life and even the creatives and producers of this production state categorically that not only is she the best Poppins they’ve seen, but this is the best cast in the six year history of the stage show.

This Poppins is the super-nanny who, with a spoonful of sugar, a snap of her fingers and a “spit, spot, spick and span” makes the kitchen tidy and the toys tuck themselves away.

The magic of the movie is present but it is even more spectacular because we see it immediately before us. Crowley’s set design is transformational, transporting us from the proper and staid domestic home of the Banks into Bert’s pastel painting of a technicolour park as it comes to life with ballet dancing statues. 

Mrs. Corry Conversation Shop is populated with eccentric characters is exceptional costumes who perform with Mary and Bert the supercalifagilistic dance routine and song.

Philip Quast as Mr Banks is commanding and accomplished with a fine resonant voice and a suitable thawing of his icy demeanour. Marina Prior captures our sympathy with Mrs Banks, the former actress who craves more time with her family. 

As the children, Jane and Michael, Hayley Edwards and Kurtis Papadinis were natural, playful and without that glossy artificiality of stage children.

Sally-Anne Upton funny, bold and booming as Mrs Brill and Judi Connelli’s bullying nanny Andrew is a treat. Rickerby awkward and hilarious in the slaptick kitchen scene.

Matt Lee is perky and charming as cockney Bert and stuns us with his dancing on the ceiling while Debra Byrne is poignant and in fine voice in her cameo as the Bird Woman.

This is a stunningly polished and wildly entertaining production that beats all other international productions to date - and that's according to the show's creative team themselves.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 26 July 2010

Songs From The Middle****1/2

Songs From The Middle
By Eddie Perfect and The Brodsky Quartet, Melbourne Cabaret Festival
Where and When: South Melbourne Town Hall, 25-26 July
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

Eddie Perfect’s passionate voice brings tears to my eyes. It is thrilling. His witty, ironic lyrics make me laugh until I hurt. When you blend his soaring vocal tones, charm and wit with the silky, sexy strings of The Brodsky Quartet, additional musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music and arrangements by Iain Grandage, the result is a cabaret masterpiece.

Songs From The Middle is a collection of songs about Mentone ­ yes, Mentone, that bayside suburb that is neither glossy, well-heeled Brighton nor the tranquil Mornington Peninsula. Eddie grew up there, went to St. school there, fell in love, visited to malls and Bunnings there. He left Mentone in anger but this time, he sings, “I’m leaving in peace.”

The relentlessly prosaic quality of life in Mentone stands in stark contrast to the complexity of Grandage’s arrangements, the sheer beauty of the strings plus percussion, wind instruments and piano. But, mixed with the pure ordinariness of Eddie’s memories and the banality of the stories is a wistfulfulness for the lost past, a social commentary on the suburbs and an honouring of the lives that ordinary people lead.

The show is about personal history so Perfect begins with a witty lament for the loss of the simple life in (I Liked It Better) The Way It Was. He follows it with Frankston Line, the pulsating, percussive song that echoes the rattle and clunk of a train ride, in the voice of a disenfranchised, young vandal who tags (graffiti) his signature on every station along the Frankston train line.

There you will recognise if you know Mentone (I do) such as Bunnings, Nepean Highway, Mentone Beach. There are poignant memories of young love including Plummer Road that is about a storm water drain and a girl that lived on the street. There is a sweet instrumental dedicated to Susan Morgan, a childhood crush who passed away as a young adult. Then Perfect makes us roar laughing with a song about love falling apart like an IKEA shelf in I Wanna Go Home.

In What Are We To Do?, aliens land in Mentone in 1992 and no one knows what to do, including the Mayor. The aliens realise how boring the life is in Mentone and fly away leaving everyone changed.

The finale is a hauntingly simple anthem to Mentone and we get sing along with Perfect and, miraculously, The Brodsky Quartet. It is a musically scintillating show, with charm, skill and heart.

By Kate Herbert