Friday 29 November 2013

The Book of Everything, Nov 29, 2013 ****

By Guus Kuijer, Adpted by Richard Tulloch
By Melbourne Theatre Company 
MTC Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until Dec 22, 2013 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ****

Review also published in Herald Sun online on Mon Dec2, 2013, and later  in print. KH

The Book Of Everything is a challenging and entertaining family show that balances light and darkness, choosing not to underestimate children’s capacity to cope with tough issues such as fear, violence and bullying.

Eccentric nine-year old, Thomas Klopper (Matthew Whittet), deals with his fear of family violence by escaping into a private, fantastical world that he records in his Book of Everything.

Thomas lives in 1951 post-war Amsterdam where, to combat his isolation, he conjures his own magical world in which he sees tropical fish in the Dutch canals, a frog plague in his street, and even chats with Jesus who is vague but friendly.

Richard Tulloch’s Australianised script captures the serious issues, harsh realism, fanciful visions and humour of Guus Kuijer’s children’s book from which it is adapted.

Thomas’s emotive story of facing his fears, confronting bullies with a wall of happiness and never surrendering, echoes the Dutch Resistance to Nazi Occupation that is remembered by his parents (Peter Carroll, Claire Jones), sister (Alison Bell) and neighbour (Julie Forsyth).

Thomas is an odd kind of anti-hero, who wishes biblical plagues upon his violent father to protect his vulnerable mother, then, in a poignant moment, defies his father by asserting that his single ambition is to be happy when he grows up.

Neil Armfield directs imaginatively, creating a playful, energetic production that tells a powerful story with humour, capable performances and simple but ingenious theatrical devices.

He breaks the ‘fourth wall’ by having Thomas and other actors directly address the audience, delivering narration and characters’ personal observations.

Armfield’s ensemble production displays the mechanics of theatre, with actors perching on stools when not in scenes, providing sound effects, and changing scenes by moving the pages of the enormous picture book (Kim Carpenter) that replicates Thomas’s Book of Everything.

Iain Grandage’s lively, onstage music underscores dialogue and action, establishes location and period, and provides atmosphere.

Whittet is playfully awkward and introverted as Thomas, embodying the geeky outsider who seeks solace in his imagination, and friendship in a disabled teenage girl (Andrea Demetriades) and the quirky, old neighbour (Forsyth).

The inimitable Forsyth deserves special accolades for her impeccable comic timing and hilarious depiction of Mrs. Van Amersfoort, the weird, cackling witch, oddball hoarder and indomitable survivor of Nazi occupation.

Carroll is compelling and brittle as Thomas’s severe and self-righteous father, a misguided religious fanatic and control freak who feels justified in hitting his mild-mannered wife and son when he cannot control them.

Genevieve Picot is feisty as rebellious Aunt Pie, John Leary is cheerfully casual as Jesus, and Claire Jones is gentle and resilient as Thomas’s long-suffering mother.

This play provides no trite solutions to social or family problems but is simultaneously confronting and funny – but maybe it is best suited to kids over 8 or 9.

By Kate Herbert

Director: Neil Armfield

Alison Bell (Margot)
Peter Carroll (Father Klopper/Bumbiter)
Andrea Demetriades (Eliza)
Julie Forsyth (Mrs Van Amersfoort)
Iain Grandage (Musician)
Claire Jones (Mother Klopper),
John Leary (Jesus)
Genevieve Picot (Auntie Pie)
Matthew Whittet (Thomas Klopper)

Assistant Director Eamon Flack;
Set & Costume Designer Kim Carpenter
Composer Iain Grandage;
Lighting Designer Nigel Levings
 Sound Designer Stephen Francis
Choreographer Julia Cotton

Wednesday 27 November 2013

The Waiting Room, Nov 28, 2013 ****

The Waiting Room by Born In A Taxi, Big West Festival
The Substation, Nov 28 until Dec 2, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 28 at  8:30pm
Stars:  **** 
Review also published  in Herald Sun online on Nov 29, 2013 and later in print. KH
Audience member in The Waiting Room: pic by Leo Dale

Don’t expect to sit passively in a darkened theatre when you see The Waiting Room by Born In A Taxi because you will incrementally become part of the performance without really noticing.

The Waiting Room, directed by Penny Baron, is a beguiling movement performance that incorporates the signature, non-verbal, improvisational style and captivating audience engagement that distinguishes the award-winning Born In A Taxi.

The piece is an idiosyncratic, inventive view of waiting, how we fill time while we wait, the phone and public address messages that remind us how valuable our time is, and the odd connections we make with strangers during the waiting period.

Initially, nothing happens while the 60 audience members sit in wooden chairs arranged in regimented lines like a school exam room – until six performers enter the waiting room one at a time, taking seats amongst us (Baron, Andrew Gray, Carolyn Hanna, Kate Hunter, Nick Papas, Deborah Batton, Michael Havir).

Slowly and almost imperceptibly they start gesturing, moving, bobbing up and down in their chairs, looking around, catching our eyes and, with gentle, unspoken invitations, compel the audience to participate with them in a silent, simple dance.

They invigorate the performance space and audience with their refreshing, surprising style, keeping us watchful, excited and a bit tentative – at first.

However, with gentle, tacit offers and playful encouragement, the performers urge and inspire people to leap to their feet, clamber across chairs, dance with a partner, then create a mass improvised movement piece without even realising that they are dancing.

Do not be afraid, because there is no pressure to join, merely quiet, persuasive engagement and reassuring glances that embolden the audience and motivate them to contribute.

Nothing and everything happens during the 90 minutes while the work evolves and escalates fluidly.

The outcome is soothing and playful, silent but not mime, dancerly but not balletic, challenging without being confronting and comforting without being predictable.

It all ends with a vivid, dramatic scene that cannot be revealed here, and The Waiting Room leaves the audience cheering “Bravo!” and applauding itself for a delectable, intimate, cheering and oddly therapeutic evening of waiting.

By Kate Herbert
"Unexpected, absurd and funny. Collective human behaviour under the microscope from the amusing to the disturbing surreal. Physical theatre, live art and dance. Winner of Brisbane Powerhouse Performance Award, Melbourne Fringe. Presented by Born In A Taxi & The Substation."
from Big West program.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

We're Going On A Bear Hunt, Nov 27, 2013 ****

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, based on book by Michael Rosen
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Dec 8, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Thur Nov 28, 2013 and later in print. KH

West End production of the award-winning book by Michael Rosen illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.

 Pics of UK cast, not visiting cast

“We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. We’re going to catch a big one,” chant hundreds of pre-schoolers in this impishly cute adaptation of Michael Rosen’s award-winning children’s picture book.

This visiting, West End production, directed by Sally Cookson, captures the mischievous quality of the popular book and has everything you need for family entertainment: a gently adventurous narrative, recognisable characters, singable songs and fun participation.

An intrepid father (Gareth Warren) takes his two kids (Adam Collier, Emily May Smith), dog (Ben Harrison who is also musician) and baby on an adventure to hunt a bear, but they encounter all sorts of obstacles on the way.

Their impediments include swishy-swashy grass, splishy-sploshy water, sticky, oozy mud, a big, gloomy forest and a scary bear cave.

On a simple stage, three actors and a musician create a genuinely entertaining journey for the children, with a perky and catchy title song that the kids all learn (I sang it all the way home), and plenty of other cheerful, singable tunes (Benji Bower).

The characters are charming and the actors are warm and engaging, addressing the children directly and inviting them to participate in singalongs and be the expert on a bear’s appearance.

The children delight in the actors’ slapstick antics, shrieking with delight at the naughty, messy bits, particularly the cast spraying water pistols over the entire crowd and doing icky, muddy hand painting on each other’s clothes.

It’s delicious to hear the crowd squeal when a huge bear appears, and tiny, shrill voices calling out suggestions or warnings of danger.

Rosen’s book works on an educational as well as an entertainment level, with the children learning some intricacies of language – prepositions in particular – when they repeat at every obstacle, “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, so we’ll have to go through it.”

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is wholesome, cheeky fun for young families so get down to the Arts Centre before it leaves town for another adventure,

By Kate Herbert

Directed by Sally Cookson
Music by Benji Bower 

Friday 22 November 2013

NFSW (Not Safe For Work), Nov 24, 2013 **1/2

By Lucy Kirkwood, by Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda, until Dec 21, 2013
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 24, 2013
Stars: **1/2
 Full review also published in Herald Sun online on Nov 26, 2013 and in print. KH
Olga Makeeva

It’s no great stretch to imagine the editor of a sensationalist, men’s magazine as self-serving and mean-spirited, but you’d think he’d insist on due diligence checks before running an explicit, exploitative photo of an unknown girl.

 Unfortunately, in Lucy Kirkwood’s play, NFSW, the editor of Doghouse magazine, Aidan (Ben Prendergast), faces catastrophe when a staffer, Sam (Matthew Whitty), chooses an underage girl as the winner of their sexy pic-of-the-month competition.

Pleading ignorance is not much of a defense for the indefensible, but Aidan tries it on when the girl’s scruffy father (James Wardlaw) arrives from Manchester in full litigation mode.

Kirkwood’s script demonstrates that exploitative, trashy men’s and women’s magazines both trivialise issues, reduce analysis to shallow commentary, objectify bodies and demean their junior staff.

However, her analysis is almost as thin as the magazines she criticises, her characters are two-dimensional caricatures that bicker, banter, monologue and repeat themselves.

After Sam is fired from Doghouse for his role in the nudey photo debacle, he staggers into a women’s magazine, Electra, only to discover that editor, Miranda (Olga Makeeva), is an unscrupulous shark just like Aidan.

Tanya Dickson’s direction feels superficial, missing the potential light and shade of the story and leaving the actors looking uncomfortable.

There are certainly some laughs at the awfulness of the ethical wasteland that these characters inhabit and their willingness to abandon their principles at the office door.

However, the jokes fall flat in early scenes, it is hard to enjoy such thoroughly dislikeable characters, and Miranda’s inexcusably laboured, final costume change wastes time getting to a bleeding obvious visual gag about feminism.

Whitty gives an aptly wide-eyed, lamb-to-the-slaughter look to Sam, the over-qualified graduate, while Wardlaw earns the only sympathy as the girl’s unsophisticated father.

Kasia Kaczmarek plays Oxford grad, Charlotte, with slightly awkward, pained restraint, Ben Prendergast captures Aidan’s deceptiveness but does not quite balance his egotism and benevolence, while Mark Casamento pushes too hard as trust fund snob, Rupert.

In the end, NFSW is not sufficiently scathing as satire, lacks the belly laughs of a broad comedy and barely penetrates the surface of its subject, UK trash mags.

By Kate Herbert

Directed by: Tanya Dickson
Cast: Mark Casamento, Olga Makeeva, Ben Prendergast, Matt Whitty, Kasia Kaczmarek, James Wardlaw.

Rod Quantock, First Man Standing, Nov 22, 2013 ****1/2

Atheneaum Theatre, Nov 22, 2013 (one night only)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Tues Nov 26, 2013 and in print. KH

Rod Quantock is the Eveready Bunny of Australian Comedy and he’s been joking for 45 hilarious years since he first sauntered on stage in the Melbourne Uni Architecture Revue.

In his one-night-only show, First Man Standing, he recounts highlights and lowlights of his four-decade career as a stand up/sit down comedian.

Quantock is a comic subversive and a political satirist whose comedy is guided by his principles and a boundless need to scratch at social problems that plague him.

His casual, chatty performance style feels deceptively improvisational, but his rigorous structure is evident as he fills a huge blackboard with chalk scrawling, graphs, brain maps and compelling arguments for social change and revolution.

Decades ago, his comedy bus tours proved him courageous and fearless as he ferried his audiences around Melbourne in a commercial bus.

Looking like an insane jester, Quantock carried a rubber chicken on a stick while his audience wore Groucho masks that made them anonymous and as intrepid as their leader.

He relates riotous tales of arriving uninvited with his masked marauders at major events, one of which was a Police Awards ceremony where they delivered a fake singing telegram to a bemused copper.

On his later walking tours (They have a lower carbon footprint!), he took a bunch of insurance salesmen into a private home and made the resident’s night by washing her dishes then inviting her entire family to dinner.

With his wicked and engaging demeanour, louche physique and shambolic appearance, Quantock strolls around the stage, making us feel as if we are in his lounge room having an intelligent, animated chat.

Quantock is an equal opportunity political satirist who attacks all political and socio-economic groups, although Kennett and Abbott get the biggest serves along with bogans who give their kids idiotic names – and stupid people in general.

He bends mad statistics with weird logic to reach bizarre conclusions about controlling population growth (Who do we eat first when the food runs out?) and, by doing so, he highlights the social issues that have concerned him for 45 years.

Quantock’s incisive commentary and acerbic wit are distinctively Australian with jokes about dunking Teddy Bear biscuits, the Tim Tam’s role in social breakdown, our national obsession with lawn mowing, and Melbournians endless capacity for apathy after we lost our tram conductors.

He revisits his childhood role as the Star in a Christmas pageant, his TV success in Australia You’re Standing In It, his Comedy Cafe and Banana Lounge that spawned his Tram and Bus shows, and his years protesting social issues.

Rod Quantock is a Living National Treasure and, it seems, the only surviving, committed and hilarious political comedian in the country. Long may he prosper!

By Kate Herbert

An Evening With Mandy Patinkin & Nathan Gunn, Nov 21, 2013 ****1/2

Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, Nov 21, 2013 (Sydney Nov 26, Brisbane Nov 28)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ****1/2
 Review also published  in Herald Sun online on Nov 22, 2013 and later in print. KH 
  Mandy Patinkin & Nathan Gunn
 Seeing Mandy Patinkin perform live is like watching musical alchemy. He is breathtaking.

Patinkin (even his name sparkles!) is a beacon of American musicals, TV and film (The Princess Bride, Homeland), and is joined on stage by the distinguished US baritone, Nathan Gunn, and two virtuoso pianists (Julie Jordan Gunn, Paul Ford).

Rather than being a curated, thematic program, the evening is a collection of Patinkin and Gunn’s favourite tunes including opera, musical theatre and American classics, all linked with stories, banter and jokes.

I could rhapsodise for hours on Patinkin’s consummate professionalism, charismatic stage presence and his impeccable timing and delivery, but words seem too tepid to describe his inspired, live performance.

The two men’s styles are polar opposites, with Patinkin capering about in sneakers and casual black clothing while Gunn looks classically formal in a tuxedo.

Patinkin’s bright, pure upper register and idiosyncratic vibrato make his voice utterly distinctive and recognisable, and he creates a strange and wonderful harmony with Gunn’s dark, velvety baritone.
Gunn is a master of the operatic style and his rich and emotive renditions of If I Loved You (Carousel) and If Ever I Should Leave You (Camelot) are moving and flawless.

Patinkin remains the overwhelming star of the evening, despite the marvellous collision of vocal styles and the genuine generosity and warmth between the pair.

He has an easy charm, a delicious wit, a surprisingly lithe, muscular physicality and sensuality, and he inhabits every song, immersing himself physically and emotionally in character, story, lyric and music.

Every song surges with a wave of dramatic energy until it reaches its passionate crescendo.

Patinkin is a renowned exponent of Stephen Sondheim’s music and, in Ballad of Booth from Sondheim’s Assassins, he brings to vibrating life Lincoln’s obsessive assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

He expresses Sondheim’s complex, dramatic and passionate qualities in his nuanced performance of two songs from Sunday In The Park With George, magically conjuring an entire, vivid and passionate world in the signature song, Sunday.

He performs a remarkable, unique version of Bohemian Rhapsody and a vivacious rendition of Rockabye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody that pulsates with energy.

The laughs come thick and fast with Patinkin’s audacious, comic sensibilities and, with Gunn, he creates hilarious Yiddish-English versions of Maria from West Side Story, and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

Inserted between the songs, Patinkin and Gunn perform a startling patter poem about dodgy salesmen (think Bernie Madoff), a riotous, rapid-fire, hand-puppet routine, and Patinkin tickles the audience with his jelly-legged cowboy clowning.

The one minor hiccup is a chunk of Americana – Civil War anthems intercut with the entire Gettysburg address, followed by cowboy songs – that probably has more cheesy, US nationalism than Australian audiences can appreciate.

Patinkin’s performance is a sublime master class in acting, and his merging with Gunn’s accomplished classical voice makes a quirky and compelling evening.

Kate Herbert