Thursday 1 December 2016

The Gathering, Nov 30, 2016 **1/2

Book, Music & Lyrics by Will Hannagan & Belinda Jenkin, by Vic Theatre Company
fortyfivedownstairs, until Dec 11, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2

Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs Dec 1, 2016 & later in print. KH
Shannen Alyce Quan, Hannah Sullivan McInerney, Joel Granger, Daniel Cosgrove, Daniel Assetta, Olivia Charalambous -Photo, James Terry
We need and want to see and support new Australian musicals and The Gathering, by Will Hannagan and Belinda Jenkin, has some commendable musical composition, although the book and lyrics are far less successful.

New musicals that are produced on the professional stage must necessarily be compared with more mature musical works, which means that they do not always receive glowing reviews, even when we wish them well in their development.

Hannagan and Jenkin’s music has charm and variety and is certainly the strongest element in the show, and the assured, five-piece band under musical director, Daniel Puckey, plays the score with freshness and energy.

The tunes range in style from solo ballads such as Sweet December Feelings, to rousing five-part harmonies like Between These Walls and A Different Kind of Love, and perky, musical theatre-style choruses such as You Didn’t Prepare Us For This or Never Ever.

After his unexplained, five-year absence, Tom (Joel Granger), a nervous young man in his early twenties, invites his old, school friends and his foster-sister, Kelly (Shannen Alyce Quan), to a party – the titular gathering – in the spooky, crumbling, outer suburban house that he wants them all to come and share with him.

Old conflicts and resentments surface between the friends and are complicated when the creaking and cracking of the old house suggests that it may be haunted by the previous inhabitant.

The narrative is unnecessarily complicated and not very engaging, while the dialogue is predictable, the characters are two-dimensional, juvenile and not very likable, and the relationships are under-developed.

The songs attempt to illuminate the inner life of the characters and advance the story, but the lyrics are corny, and the rhymes are laboured and sometimes excruciating.

The cast of six is strongest when singing, and Chris Parker keeps his direction simple, focussing on the tunes and harmonies that are the most effective component of the production.

Quan’s voice has a clear, bright tone in the nostalgic Sweet December Feelings, and she plays Kelly with abrasiveness mixed with vulnerability, while Granger captures Tom’s neediness and anxiety when singing Part of the Gang and Whispers in These Walls.

Hannah Sullivan McInerney play Daisy, the hippy, and has vocal strength singing the poignant Hair So Long, while Daniel Cosgrove is her blokey and aggrieved ex-boyfriend, Joe.

Daniel Assetta injects playfulness and energy as Luke, Kelly’s party-boy pal, while Olivia Charalambous provides comic relief as clumsy Mia, who admits her crush on Tom in their duet, If Ever I Would Run.

Although many of the songs have successful tunes and harmonies, The Gathering needs further development or a complete rewrite of the story, dialogue, lyrics and characters.

By Kate Herbert 

Joel Granger -Tom
Olivia Charalambous -Mia
Daniel Cosgrove   -Joe
Hannah Sullivan McInerney  - Daisy
Shannen Alyce Quan - Kelly
 Daniel Assetta - Luke

Between These Walls
Sweet December Feelings
Part of the Gang
I Won’t Break
Never Ever
Whisper in these Walls
You Didn’t Prepare Us For This
Hair So Long
I Miss Us
If Ever I Would Run
A Different Kind of Love
One World

Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Last Five Years, Nov 26, 2016 ****

Written & composed by Jason Robert Brown, by Vic Theatre Company
fortyfivedownstairs, until Dec 11, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sat Nov 26, 2016
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print. on Tues Nov 29, 2016 & later online. KH
 Verity Hunt-Ballard & Josh Piterman
Be warned! If you are feeling vulnerable about love lost, then this intimate and poignant musical about the end of a marriage, The Last Five Years, may send you into a spiral of sadness or regret.

American writer and composer, Jason Robert Brown, based this two-hander on his own crumbling marriage – a choice that led to Brown’s ex-wife threatening to sue him for the similarity of the story to their own relationship.

The inimitable and accomplished Verity Hunt-Ballard plays Cathy Hiatt, a 23-year old, aspiring actor who is under-confident, under-achieving and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

Josh Piterman plays Cathy’s boyfriend-then-husband, Jamie Wellerstein, who is an ambitious, emerging novelist whose writing career rockets to success during the five years of his relationship with Cathy.

Brown’s complex, compelling and original structure portrays Cathy’s story running backwards from the lonely, agonising end of the marriage to its bright-eyed beginning five years earlier, while Jamie’s chronology travels forward from their first meeting to his cruel departure from the marriage five years later.

In Chris Parker’s slick, seamless and assured production, we witness both characters at their best and worst, and our sympathies bounce from one character to the other as they both reveal their virtues, flaws, dreams and vulnerabilities.

Played by a tight, off-stage band (musical director, Daniel Puckey), Brown’s songs are musically rich and varied in style, and the versatile Hunt-Ballard does them justice with her thrilling voice, fine vibrato, excellent vocal control and bright timbre.

Her opening rendition of Still Hurting is heart wrenching, See I'm Smiling is a moving glimpse of Cathy’s attempt to stay positive when Jamie is inattentive and she is jealous, while Summer in Ohio is a whimsical song and dance and Cathy’s Audition Sequence is a comical glance at the brutal audition circuit.

As Jamie, Josh Piterman uses his raunchy, bold voice in the upbeat, Shiksa Goddess, a song that celebrates his new non-Jewish girlfriend, a more sensitive tone when Jamie pledges his support for Cathy’s acting endeavours in If I Didn't Believe in You, and during Nobody Needs to Know, when Jamie reveals his secret affair.

Cathy and Jamie’s timelines coincide only once, in the romantic duet, The Next Ten Minutes, when Jamie proposes to Cathy and they sing sweetly about their joyful future together.

The final scene poignantly overlaps two songs when Jamie packs his bags to leave, singing I Could Never Rescue You, while younger, hopeful Cathy sings Goodbye Until Tomorrow, as she waves goodbye to her beloved Jamie at the beginning of their relationship, expecting him to return the next day.

The Last Five Years is a tender, passionate and heart-breaking story with a marvellous repertoire of songs performed by two distinguished musical theatre performers.

By Kate Herbert 

Director, Chris Parker 
Musical director, Daniel Puckey
Set design Daniel Harvey

Still Hurting - Cathy
Shiksa Goddess - Jamie
See I'm Smiling - Cathy
Moving Too Fast - Jamie
I'm A Part of That- Cathy
The Schmuel Song - Jamie
A Summer in Ohio - Cathy
The Next Ten Minutes" - Jamie & Cathy
A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me - Jamie/Cathy
Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence - Cathy
If I Didn't Believe in You - Jamie
I Can Do Better Than That - Cathy
Nobody Needs to Know - Jamie
Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You - Jamie & Cathy

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Reefer Madness: The Musical, Nov 25, 2016 ***

Book and music by Dan Studney & Kevin Murphy, produced by RL Productions
Chapel off Chapel, until Dec 4, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Fri Nov 25, 2016
Stars: *** 
Review published in Herald Sun Arts online on Tuesday Nov 29, 2016 & later in print. KH
Grace O’Donnell-Clancey  & Ben Adams, pic Nicole Risley
 If you’ve never seen the 1936 American propaganda film, Reefer Madness, find it, then marvel at its scare tactics that suggested marijuana was a far worse threat to the USA than heroin or cocaine.

The film re-emerged as a cult classic in the 1970s counter-culture then, in 1999, Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy wrote Reefer Madness: The Musical, a broad parody that pushes the scaremongering into total absurdity.

In Stephen Wheat’s raucous production, James Cutler is the highlight as the smugly conservative, bespectacled and suit-clad Lecturer who preaches to an audience of high school parents about the ways marijuana leads to addiction, debauchery, murder – and the evils of jazz music!

Standing in a school hall, this smarmy Lecturer relates a morality tale about clean-living, 16-year old Jimmy Harper (Ben Adams) who is lured into the grimy Reefer Den where he turns from ‘good egg’ to ‘bad apple’ when he gets addicted to Mary-Jane/marijuana which leads to depravity.

Adams successfully captures Jimmy’s downward spiral from cheerful, awkward schoolboy to a demented, wild-eyed addict who careers from one disaster to another.

Grace O’Donnell-Clancey as Jimmy’s girlfriend, Mary Lane, is the epitome of the sweetie-pie, girl-next-door with her blonde curls and glistering white smile, although her singing lacks some vocal control.

The decadent scenes in the Reefer Den are entertaining, and Rosa McCarty as Mae, the den madam, is particularly funny with her spot-on comic timing, intentional over-acting and rich voice when she sings The Stuff, Mae’s lament about addiction.

Studney and Murphy’s songs are not particularly memorable or original, but the reincorporation of the chanted phrase, ‘Reefer madness’, from the title song, certainly sticks in the memory.

Wheat’s production emphasises the comic book style by using cartoon cut out props (design by Simon Coleman) and broad caricatures, and underlines the morality lecture style with placards bearing slogans such as ‘Marijuana makes you sell your baby’.

The absurdity ratchets up with songs such as The Orgy in the Reefer Den, the appearance of Jesus singing from the cross in Listen to Jesus, Jimmy, and The Brownie Song, in which Jimmy is re-addicted with a drug-filled cookie.

Playing both zombie addicts and prim community members, the youthful chorus performs Yvette Lee’s energetic choreography with gusto and the unseen, four-piece band is tight under David Wisken’s musical direction.

However, the stage action is relentlessly frenetic, the acting is uneven and the performances often involve too much shouting that diminishes the comedy.

Reefer Madness is a bit of rollicking fun with some ridiculous parody and singable songs, but it cannot compare to the bizarre, unintentional comedy of that original, propaganda movie that was supposed to scare the pants off American parents.

Kate Herbert
Cast of Reefer Madness, pic Nicole Risley
James Cutler as Lecturer
Ben Adams as Jimmy Harper
Grace O’Donnell Clancy as Mary Lane
Rosa McCarty as Mae
Jared Bryan, Phoebe Coupe, Stephen McDowell, Priscilla Stavrou, Ed Deganos, Samantha Bruzzese, Seth Drury, Ashlee Noble, Daniel Ridolfi, Tess Branchflower & Alex Thompson.

Friday 25 November 2016

Blaque Showgirls Nov 16, 2016 **

By Nakkiah Lui, Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until Dec 4, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 Review also published in Herald Sun online on Thurs Nov 17, 2016, and later in print. KH
Bessie Holland & Elaine Crombie - photo Pia Johnson 
Blaque Showgirls does include some biting, political satire, but it is scattered among too many cheap gags and poor puns to make a satisfying comedy.

Written by Nakkiah Lui, a writer-performer on Black Comedy, the ABC sketch comedy show, Blaque Showgirls follows the journey of Sarah Jane Jones, AKA Ginny (Bessie Holland), a young, fair-skinned, indigenous woman who lives in a country town called Chitole. (Yes, say it aloud and you’ll get the bad pun.)

Ginny longs to get in touch with her indigenous roots and to be, as was her late mother, a Blaque Showgirl, exotic dancer in glitzy Brisvegas.

Of course, it all goes pear-shaped for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that Ginny can’t dance, she’s does not have a Confirmation of Aboriginality certificate – at first – and she is loathed by her Blaque Showgirl idol, Chandon Connors (Elaine Crombie).

Some occasional, smart dialogue satirises politically correct language about race and culture, plays irreverently on the names of indigenous tribes, and parodies those who would take advantage by pretending to be aboriginal.

Unfortunately, these political and topical references are rare gems amongst far too much tacky and juvenile humour, cheap vulgarity and crude language passing for comedy, an example of the last being the name of the nearby, Asian-themed strip club called Sticky Kum Den. (Say that aloud, too.)

The script lacks substance and the gags are cheap, poorly written and often repetitive or embarrassing, and the production, looks like a bad high school comedy revue with amateurish direction (Sarah Giles), poor comic timing and unimaginative physical comedy.

Blaque Showgirls trades on jokes about racial stereotypes that no white performer would be permitted to use, including many jibes about the little, Asian girl, Molly (Emi Canavan) with a strong accent who works in the Kum Den where they perform the Chopstick Striptease.

The brief appearances of Aunty Mavis (Crombie) are entertaining, and one funny and more professional moment is the start of the topless Emu Dance in the nightclub when Ginny, Chandon and a third girl (Guy Simon) appear in gorgeous, feathered emu costumes (Eugyeene Teh) and compete for the limelight.

The nightclub stage design (Eugyeene Teh) provides a simple and compact proscenium stage and the incorporation of Australian rock classics, such Treaty, Solid Rock and Horses, is a highlight.

This production of Blaque Showgirls lacks finesse, is not transgressive or clever political satire and is, ultimately, very unsatisfying comedy.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 21 November 2016

Uncle Vanya, Nov 20, 2016 ***1/2

Written by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Annie Baker, by Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Red Stitch Actors Theatre, until Dec 17, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sun Nov 20, 2016
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Nov 21, 2016 (or Nov 22), & later in print. KH

Nadia Tass’s production of Uncle Vanya begins with whimsy and farce tinged with cynicism but, as these late 19th century Russian characters confront the futility of their lives, the mood collapses into despair and grim pessimism.

Tass’s direction of Annie Baker’s modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play focuses on the relationships and has a moody, languorous quality that matches the existential crises that all of the characters face during the play.

The first act is very funny, highlighting the absurdity of their circumstances when the old professor, Serebryakov (Kristof Kaczmarek), returns with his young, beautiful wife, Yelena (Rosie Lockhart), to the family estate, where he upends everyone’s lives with his demands for breakfast at noon and supper at 2am.

David Whiteley captures Vanya’s resentment, frustration and escalating despair as he shifts inexorably from sarcastic criticism of their increasingly slothful lives, to hopeless infatuation with Yelena and, finally, to outrage and fury when Serebryakov announces he will sell the estate.

Ben Prendergast portrays Dr. Astrov, Vanya’s friend and companion-in-vodka, with a mounting wildness that arises from Astrov’s boozing and his own obsession with the lovely but indolent Yelena.

Chekhov wrote ensemble plays and this cast works as a unit to create this lethargic and depressing world of gentry who have lost any sense of purpose and who scratch at each other’s weaknesses until they bleed.

Eva Seymour is an earnest, albeit relentlessly angst-ridden Sonya, Lockhart is a suitably languid and presumptuous Yelena, and Kaczmarek is successfully blustering, vain and insensitive as Serebryakov.

Marta Kaczmarek is a delight playing Marina, the wily, old Nanny who wrangles the adults as if they were still recalcitrant children, while Justin Hosking makes poor, ignored Waffles a sympathetic character, and Olga Makeeva plays an elegant elderly, Maria.

Chekhov’s plays broke the theatrical traditions of the 19th century with their ‘scenes from country life’ and their reflection of real life and real people in real time doing and saying dull and ordinary things.

Sitting through nearly three hours of Chekhov can be excruciating, witnessing these characters drink tea and vodka, talk about trees and struggle with their depression.

However, Tass’s production, although uneven, has enough variety of flavour and detail in tone and delivery to keep an audience interested.

By Kate Herbert

Set & Costume Sophie Woodward
Lighting David Parker
Assistant Lighting Clare Springett
Composition & Sound Daniel Nixon
Production Manager Sara Grayson
Stage Manager Hannah Bullen
Assistant Stage Manager Arthur Giamalidis

Animal, Nov 18, 2016 ***1/2

Created by Susie Dee, Kate Sherman & Nicci Wilkes, by inFlux

Theatre Works, until Nov 27, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Nov 21, 2016 and later in print. KH
Kate Sherman & Nicci Wilkes
In a wordless, soundless, violent world, two girls struggle to survive the horrors of their circumstances.

Animal, a confronting piece of physical theatre created by director, Susie Dee, with performers, Nicci Wilkes and Kate Sherman, investigates through movement the violence perpetrated against women.

The performance is intensely visceral and has no spoken dialogue, although words and phrases appear projected on a rear screen and the wild appearance and violent actions of the two actors speak volumes.

Although a brief, opening video of a farmhouse suggests that the two girls live in an isolated, rural location, the show has no linear narrative but uses a visually compelling, abstract style that is precisely choreographed, although its obtuseness sometimes leaves the intention of the piece unclear.

Wilkes and Sherman appear to be young sisters, dressed in filthy, old-fashioned and childish dresses that they swap as if their identities are mutable and transferable.

They are trapped inside a dim, grey, prison-like warehouse (Designed by Marg Horwell) where they climb and crawl like animals over stacked packing crates and a floor littered with debris.

Their urgent actions teeter on the edge of rough play and outright violence as they run in circles, chasing and being chased, one moment being the pursuer and the next the pursued.

They communicate through fear and frenetic movement, blindfold each other, taunt and tease, punch each other mercilessly or harm themselves, wrestle playfully or attack like dogs biting, rolling and tearing at each other.

One strangely moving element is that the girls express very little emotion, except when they are separated when panic and fear kick in, and their tough composure collapses.

In a poignant, repeated scene, the girls perform a coy, girlish dance duet in which they lift their skirts to reveal their over-sized, un-sexy panties; a dance that we fear is performed for a predatory man whose presence threatens then constantly.

The most disturbing scenes are those in which the girls transform their dance into a provocative, sexualised, adult stripper’s routine that leads to what we can only assume to be rape.

Although their communication is wordless, over-sized projections of phrases comment cryptically on their predicament: ‘Born in this skin’ and ‘Mercy be upon this breath.’ (Projected words by Angus Cerini.)

Interrupting their silence is an intermittent, frightening roaring (Soundscape by Kelly Ryall) that sounds like huge trucks passing on a highway and leaves the audience’s nerves jangled.

The frenetic and chaotic activity escalates throughout the 50-minute show, but the final, triumphant scene – one that suggests freedom and overcoming adversity – seems disconnected from the direction of the preceding violence and makes an unsatisfying ending.

Animal is an accomplished and fearless piece that employs primal physicality and distressing imagery to raise issues about violence against women.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 18 November 2016

Rust and Bone, Nov 17, 2016 ***

By Caleb Lewis, adapted from Craig Davidson’s stories, La Mama 
La Mama Courthouse, until Nov 27, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Thurs Nov 17, 2016
Stars: *** 
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Fri Nov 18, 2016 & later in print. KH
 L-R  Glenn Maynard, Luke Mulquiney, Adam Ibrahim - image Daisy Noyes
 Three men confront violence and adversity in the short play, Rust and Bone, adapted by Caleb Lewis from three short stories by Canadian writer, Craig Davidson.

Lewis’s play, directed by Daniel Clarke and performed in the round, begins with each character telling his story in isolation, but the three stories become interwoven and the actors shift rapidly between roles in each other’s world.

James (Luke Mulquiney) has a respectable office job but, in his private life, he trains fighting dogs in a cruel training regime, his latest fighter being a snarling Pit-Bull called Matilda that is no match for the huge and seasoned Rottweiler she faces.

Eddie (Glenn Maynard), a punch-drunk, 40-year old boxer dealing with shattered bones in his hands and increasingly dangerous head injuries, is plagued by guilt about a long-past accident.

The third tale deals with Ben (Adam Ibrahim), a brash and athletic young man who trains, feeds and swims with a whale – until that same whale takes off Ben’s leg, leaving him an angry and despairing amputee.

Clarke’s direction is imaginative and muscular, maintaining a brisk pace as the men prowl around the edges of the square, clinical performance space (design by Jacob Battista), leaping on and off the platform as if it were a boxing ring.

Clarke punctuates the dialogue with choreographed shadowboxing and sudden, alarming grunts that accompany the punches, making the space feel dangerous and elevating the sense of risk facing these men in their violent worlds.

As each man’s situation becomes more desperate or more urgent, the pace quickens, the dialogue becomes more fragmented and their three stories hurtle towards their inevitable ends.

The actors address the audience directly much of the time, and their performances are committed, although not exceptional, each exploring the darkness of his character and plunging into the physicality of the role.

The weaknesses in the acting are more obvious when the actors play characters in each other’s stories and the performances are less than convincing.

Battista’s wood and opaque, perspex design provides a stark, icy platform for the action and Clarke uses its in-the-round design to give the audience intimate and sometimes disquieting proximity to the characters.

The three stories in Rust and Bone merge to create an effective whole that is emotive and disturbing in its portrayal of three men in a violent world.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Jack Charles V the Crown, Nov 16,15, 2016 ***

By Jack Charles & John Romeril, ILBIJERRI Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Nov 20, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed Nov 16, 2016. & later in print. KH
  Uncle Jack Charles
 Uncle Jack Charles, a Koori elder, indigenous activist and actor, openly admits that he has been a heroin addict and career burglar for much of his 70 years and that he spent 20 years of his life, on and off, in Victorian prisons.

You’d think it might be a stretch (excuse the pun) to sympathise with such a flawed character, a man who was relentlessly bent on destroying people’s peace of mind by burgling their houses, but Jack Charles reformed his ways late in life – and his charm and delight at being with an audience is infectious.

And he apologises – in a fictional appeal to the High Court of Australia, when he presents his case to have his criminal record expunged so his life can continue unhampered by the restrictions that apply to a convicted criminal. As he says himself, it is unlikely to happen.

In his show, Jack Charles V the Crown, Charles looks like a grey-woolly-haired pixie with a wide smile and a deep, resonant voice that sounds of rust and dust and hidden pain.

With impish delight under-laid with melancholy, Charles addresses the audience directly for much of the show, relating anecdotes of his happier, early life in care, then in foster care then, later, in a punishing Boys’ Home where abuse was rife.

The real-life Charles is dwarfed by enormous images of himself projected on a huge screen behind him, showing excerpts from Bastardy, the 2008 documentary about his life in which he bares all, revealing his heroin use, his list of crimes, arrests and court appearances.

In telling the unpalatable details of his life as a Stolen child, his subsequent trauma and his later addiction, crimes and incarceration, Charles’ dialogue, written with John Romeril, effectively merges poetic language with Charles’ disarming, amusing and conversational style and direct delivery.

Rachael Maza directs the show with a gentle hand that allows Charles’ mischievous character to shine as he works on a pottery wheel, talks about running ceramics workshops in prisons, about meeting his unknown siblings and mother, accepting his sexuality, dealing with past trauma, facing addiction and working as an actor on stage and screen.

He was prisoner 3944, and his life, he quips, consisted of, ‘Acting, drugs, burgs and jail time. Acting, drugs, burgs and jail time’ – and repeat.

Charles is not alone on stage, but three musicians join him (Nigel Maclean, Phil Collings, Malcolm Beveridge), underscoring his stories with evocative sound and accompanying Charles as he plays guitar and sings a few of the country music songs he loves.

Jack Charles V the Crown is not perfect theatre, but it has heart and, despite his obvious flaws, Uncle Jack Charles may win over even the hardest critic – perhaps even the High Court?

By Kate Herbert