Tuesday 26 April 2016

Peddling, April 22, 2016 ***

By Harry Melling, by Melbourne Theatre Company
MTC Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until May 6, 2016; regional tour May 9-27, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***

This review also in Herald Sun Arts in print and online after Mon April 25, KH

Darcy Brown

Peddling reminds us that having a family, a job or even somewhere to sleep are privileges that are out of reach for the disenfranchised in our communities.

In Harry Melling’s monodrama, Darcy Brown plays a homeless, 19-year-old youth who goes door-to-door in London, peddling cheap household cleaning products as part of a scam that his unseen but formidable Boss Man calls “Boris Johnson’s Young Offenders’ Scheme”.

Melling, known for his movie role as Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s cousin, writes the Boy’s dialogue in galloping, rap-style, blank verse that echoes the lad’s frenetic behaviour and disordered, often unhinged thinking.

“So I’m doing what I do best. I’m making a f...ing mess,” quips the Boy, and Brown’s feverish performance makes clear that this Boy’s mess is mental as well as physical.

As the Boy, Brown frantically scrambles and slides over a skateboard ramp (designer, Marg Horwell), leaping off it to knock on the doors of affluent or middle-class London homes only to be shunned, patronised or summarily dismissed.

Brown embodies this disaffected young man’s desperation and fear as he tries to scrape a living from dodgy peddling while avoiding the wrath of his Boss Man.

Susie Dee’s dynamic direction intersperses still moments amidst hectic scenes, and focuses on the rhythmic language, vivid characters and shifting locations the Boy visits.

Brown careers around the space, tumbling over and under the skate ramp, spilling the Boy’s addled inner thoughts then reining in his ranting to politely address customers on their doorsteps.

He inhabits a parade of characters that include a shopkeeper who sells him illegal fireworks, the Boss Man, an obliging elderly resident, a helpful, little girl who he calls The Gatekeeper and her mother who the Boy recognises from his troubled past.

The Boy’s poignant craving for redemption and to find a place of love and peace are heart wrenching.

Brown evokes a sense of place as the Boy scampers agitatedly along streets and spends troubled, painful nights sleeping on concrete in a car park, although the skate ramp restricts the space and seems too confining for Brown’s physicality.

Brown could pace himself better and relax a little so that the Boy’s chaotic behaviour does not interfere with the clarity of his dialogue, thereby ensuring that the underlying social commentary is always comprehensible.

Bec Matthews’ rumbling, live percussion underscores the Boy’s anxious journey and punctuates dramatic moments with thumping bass notes, although it occasionally obscures Brown’s dialogue for those seated near the drum kit.

Peddling is a tough story that uses contemporary, lyrical language to inventively investigate life on the streets.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 25 April 2016

Miss Julie, April 21, 2016 **1/2

By August Strindberg, adapted by Kip Williams from a translation by Ninna Tersman
By Melbourne Theatre Company
MTC Southbank Theatre, Sumner, until May 21, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 21, 2016
Stars: **1/2
Review also in Herald Sun Arts in print on Monday 25 April, 2016 and online by Tues 26 April.KH
 Mark Leonard Winter, Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby

There are myriad challenges in updating August Strindberg’s late 19th century Scandinavian play, Miss Julie, with its central issues of lust between social classes and misogyny.

Strindberg wrote his play in the ‘naturalistic’ style, set it in a single location – the kitchen of Miss Julie’s (Robin McLeavy) aristocratic father’s estate – and focused on the truthful depiction of the scandalous relationship between the privileged Miss Julie and Jean (Mark Leonard Winter), her father’s manservant.

Kip Williams’ adventurous adaptation retains the kitchen setting, the naturalistic acting and the forbidden relationship between Miss Julie and Jean, but it uses contemporary language peppered with expletives and reduces the complexity of the characters’ psychology.

Unfortunately, this production favours form over content and, although the simultaneous, live projection of a filmed version of the onstage action is a compelling visual device, the enormous, overhead screen is a distraction.

Initially, the film is a novelty but it becomes an annoyance that draws the eye away from the live performance or even replaces it when characters go so far upstage that we are forced to look at the screen.

These huge, on-screen personae dwarf their live counterparts below and, because the actors must perform to multiple cameras outside the glass-walled kitchen (designer Alice Babidge), they are mostly in profile or facing upstage; back-acting can be interesting, but not for 100 minutes.

While the film focuses on the minutiae of the actors’ performances, echoing Strindberg’s desire for naturalism, it fails to illuminate story, characters and relationships or provide a further dimension to our understanding of the action.

In 1888 Sweden, Miss Julie’s elevated social position would make her fall from grace shattering, but removing the yawning social status gap between her and Jean eliminates the risk and shame that should drive her to flee her home or consider suicide.

Their now peculiarly modern relationship lacks credibility and also the devastating intimacy that should evolve over their passionate, perilous, Midsummer night flirtation.

 Mark Leonard Winter, Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby
Winter’s portrayal of Jean misses the subtle balance of arrogant, ambitious upstart and cruel peasant, lacks the raw masculine power of the working class that attracts Julie, and relies on shouting to express his cruelty and self-absorption.

McLeavy’s Miss Julie combines a dizzy, flirtatious, contemporary party girl with the naive girlishness and entitled power play of an aristocrat.

Drunkenness increases Miss Julie’s volatility and blurs her boundaries and the escalating conflict between the lovers is epitomised in Jean’s comment that they will “torment each other to death”.

Although Williams dilutes Miss Julie’s hysteria, McLeavy expresses her vulnerable, unbalanced and deluded personality, but Miss Julie’s devolution into desperate suicidal action does not ring true in this contemporary portrayal.

Zahra Newman brings depth and truth to Kristin, Jean’s beleaguered, religious serving-maid ‘fiancée’, and the character provides an objective view on the doomed relationship and grounds the scenes in which she features.

This production is an inventive, modern interpretation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie but it sacrifices dramatic truth and complexity for technical innovation.

By Kate Herbert 
  Mark Leonard Winter, Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby
 Robin McLeavy. PicJeff Busby

Tuesday 19 April 2016

CROSSxROADS, April 16, 2016 ***1/2

Music & lyrics by Anthony Costanzo, book by Peter Fitzpatrick 
Chapel off Chapel, until April 30, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 16, 2016
Stars: ***1/2

This review also online in Herald Sun on Tues April 19, 2016 and later in print. KH

Alinta Chidzey Stephen Mahy – pic James Terry
There is much to like in CROSSxROADS, a romantic comedy that is one of those rare beasts – a new, Australian musical.

With music and lyrics by Anthony Costanzo and book by Peter Fitzpatrick, CROSSxROADS boasts a small but exceptionally talented cast, featuring three favourite, local musical theatre performers: Stephen Mahy, Alinta Chidzey and Fem Belling.

The story focuses on the evolution of Rick (Mahy) and Amy’s (Chidzey) on-and-off relationship that begins on their 1999 university Graduation Day but, over the next ten years, suffers interruptions, miscommunication, pig-headedness and the tyranny of distance when they live in different countries.

Fitzpatrick’s book cunningly employs the ‘sliding doors’ narrative device that depicts crucial moments in Rick and Amy’s lives when they could have taken alternative pathways that could have led them to different relationship destinations.

Costanzo’s complex lyrics cleverly illuminate characters, develop relationships and advance the story in a repertoire of songs ranging from bold choruses to power ballads, anthems and poignant love duets.

Mahy is magnetic as Rick, allowing his character to grow, albeit slowly, from the brazen, irresponsible and boyish 21-year old, to a driven company executive then to the mature man who wants love in his life.

Mahy’s voice is thrilling when he sings Rick’s impassioned lament about his chequered life journey, Yellow Brick Road, and he provides captivating lead vocals in the chorus numbers.

Chidzey, with her clear, bright but powerful voice, is charming and engaging as the bookish, conservative Amy and her version of Amy’s Moving On is touching.

Mahy and Chidzey are entertaining in the playful duet, That’s My Shit, and their voices blend effectively in the rich and emotional tune, I Don’t Know You.

Belling’s enormous, powerhouse voice is a feature in the show and she plays Hannah, Amy’s eccentric best friend, with a sassy, audacious edginess.

Joe Kosky creates a sympathetic and funny character playing Rick’s best mate, Barrel, a boyish, boozing, good-natured boofhead.

The ensemble relishes the comedy in the satirical tune, The Difference Between, provides swelling vocals and exhilarating harmonies in Paint The Town Green and in the rousing finale, Epilogue/I Don’t Know You.

Tyran Parke’s direction keeps the staging simple and the action moving swiftly while the five-piece band is tight and tuneful under the musical direction of David Wisken.

Th songs may not all be memorable, but the quality of this production, with its fine cast, suggests that CROSSxROADS could be the new, Australian musical to watch.

By Kate Herbert
Alinta Chidzey -pic James Terry

Romeo and Juliet, Bell Shakepeare, April 15, 2016 ***1/2

By William Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until May 1, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 15, 2016
Review also online in Herald Sun Arts on Tues April 19, 2016 and also in print. KH
Romeo and Juliet - Kelly Paterniti, Alex Williams_pic Daniel Boud
In the first minutes of the opening night of Romeo and Juliet, the electrics failed and director, Peter Evans, diverted the audience with chatter about Shakespeare until the lights came up, accompanied by a cheer, and the crowd was now in the palm of his hand.

Evans’ production captures the passionate spirit of Shakespeare’s play about adolescent ‘star-crossed lovers’ from feuding families, beginning as a playful comedy before veering relentlessly into tragedy after Mercutio’s (Damien Strouthos) violent death, the first of many.

The youthful cast, although older than Juliet’s almost 14 years, embodies the intemperate passions and lack of impulse control of these privileged, young people of Verona; the stage is steaming with hormones.

Some of Shakespeare’s glorious, poetic textures and rhythms are lost amidst the brazen, energetic delivery of famous monologues, but the volatility of these teenage lovers and their exuberant, feuding cohorts enlivens the story, bringing it into our times.

A curtained archway and two high balconies supported by scaffolding, and the elegant, brocaded costumes, evoke the Italian Renaissance town on this stage within a stage designed by Anna Cordingley.

Alex Williams’ Romeo is boyish, petulant, whining (a little too much whining), a victim of his hormones and romantic fantasies that lead him into perils including seducing and marrying his enemy’s daughter and killing her cousin leading to his death and his lover’s. No spoiler alert needed.

Kelly Paterniti is pert and girlish as the besotted Juliet, and her tiny, poppet-like frame and light voice make credible Juliet’s childish flightiness, foolhardy decisions and romantic musings.

Michelle Doake is a comic highlight as Juliet’s Nurse and she relishes her bawdy dialogue, foolish ramblings and slapstick tomfoolery.

Strouthos plays Mercutio as a brattish, brawling fun-lover but his characterisation lacks some of the charm and charisma that are essential ingredients of any unforgettable Mercutio.

Shakespeare’s story is riddled with bullying, thuggery, gang feuds and domestic violence so a contemporary audience needs to suspend any gentler sensibilities and try not to judge characters such as Mercutio, Tibalt (Tom Stokes) and Lord Capulet (Justin Stuart Cotta) as the bullies that they are.

Evans’ direction moves at a galloping pace while the palpably dangerous sword fights (directed by Nigel Poulton) epitomise the hot-bloodedness of these feuding gangs.

Jacob Warner is a dignified Benvolio, Hazzam Shamas opens the play with a comical Samson and later plays the naive, fearful Friar.

Angie Milliken gives grace and vulnerability to Lady Capulet, Michael Gupta plays the County Paris as blissfully ignorant, while Cramer Cain is a goofy Peter, the servant.

In Romeo and Juliet, the characters are on an inexorable march toward the tragic finale in the Capulets’ tomb, but an audience cannot help but want to warn them every step of the way and shout, “Don’t do it!” – to no avail, of course.

By Kate Herbert

Peter Evans director
Design Anna Cordingley
Light Benjamin Cisterne
Sound Kelly Ryall
Fight move Nigel Poulton

Alex Williams Romeo
Juliet Kelly Paterniti
Nurse Michelle Doake
Mercutio Damien Strouthos
Tibalt Tom Stokes
Paris Michael Gupta
Lady Capulet Angie Milliken
Lord Capulet  Justin Stuart Cotta
Friar Hazzam Shamas
Lord Montague Cramer Cain

Alex Williams_pic Daniel Boud
Kelly Paterniti, Alex Williams_pic Daniel Boud

Saturday 9 April 2016

Rhonda Burchmore & Trevor Ashley in Twins, April 8, 2016 ***1/2

Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until April 17, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***

Review also published online at Herald Sun Arts/Com Fest on April 9, 2016. KH

Trevor Ashley & Rhonda Burchmore in Twins
In Twins, two local cabaret legends, Rhonda Burchmore and Trevor Ashley, wrap their exceptional singing in an odd package that comprises campery, vulgarity, cynicism, sexism, self-deprecation and unfunny, trashy banter.

It’s like watching episodes from two totally different shows of vastly differing quality.

Twins relies on Burchmore and Ashley’s separate prowess and celebrity as cabaret artists, but also on the ridiculous notion that they are identical twins (borne by Maria Venuti), the absurdity of which is emphasised in their duet, I’m Singing With My Twin In The Mirror.

Both are considered sassy, gay icons in Melbourne but Ashley is short, plump and male (albeit famous for drag characters including Edna Turnblat in Hairspray) while Burchmore is tall, leggy and female.

The altered lyrics that they sing to ABBA’s Dancing Queen were, I think, ‘See them dance, that skinny vamp and that fat queen.’ She’s the spaghetti to his dumpling.

They rev the crowd up with their rousing medley of Pointer Sisters songs including, I’m So Excited, Slow Hand and Jump!

Ashley’s parody of Adele is a riot as he flails his arms, tosses his Adele wig and adulterates her poignant lyrics to, ‘Hello, I’m thinking about things I like to eat.’

Burchmore’s impersonation of Sia singing Chandelier is a hoot as she stumbles blindly around the stage wearing her face-obscuring wig while Ashley, in an unflattering white leotard, performs a hilarious interpretive dance.

Rhonda Burchmore as Sia & Trevor Ashley as her 'dancer'
The satirical videos of the Kardashians and Entertainment Today are really entertaining, but the video highlight is the outrageously funny and provocative ad for The Real Housewives of ISIS.

The show has compelling songs, glitzy costumes and a terrific (but scarily young) band, however the banter between the tunes is often unsuccessful, amateurish or crass and the production could benefit from an outside director's eye.

The satire of Ellen Degeneres and her partner, Portia De Rossi, doing a TV seminar called  ‘Nurturing your inner lesbian’, is awkward and mostly unfunny while the mermaid sketch may offend some audience members.

Ultimately, the quality of the musical numbers and the personalities of these two talented cabaret artists win the crowd and compensate for the show’s intermittent failings.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 8 April 2016

Song Contest: The Almost Eurovision Experience, April 7, 2016 ****

Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Written by Glynn Nicholas & Bev Killick, produced by Glynn Nicholas
Alex Theatre, St. Kilda until May 1, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 7, 2016
Stars: ****
 Review also online in Herald Sun Arts/Comedy Festival Reviews, Fri April 8, 2016. KH
Sweden entry: Kyssa Minlodis sing Save The World

Trashy Europop songs, conceited singers, glitzy costumes, gratuitous dancers, cultural pride and wind machines.

Song Contest: The Almost Eurovision Experience has many of the idiosyncratic ingredients of real Eurovision – without Guy Sebastian muscling in on that northern continent competition.

Writer-director-producer, Glynn Nicholas, wanted to make the loudest musical ever and Song Contest, with its hand-held clackers, cheering crowd and amplified music, is as noisy as a pop concert mashed with an AFL game, but with more sequins.

Eleven countries compete in this contest that takes place in beautiful Belarus, and Bev Killick plays the patronising and extravagantly but tastelessly dressed host, Bettina Bitjakokov (say that aloud to get the naughty allusion).

Audience members, pumped up on booze, music and faux national pride, swig drinks, clack clackers, wave the flags of their designated countries then vote on their phones or on old-fashioned paper.

It’s a licence for rampant partisanship, bribery and enthusiastic participation.

The songs may be parodies with mischievous lyrics, but they are all singable and some are hilariously memorable, including the mock-inspirational opening chorus of Beauty, Understanding, Music and Song, written by Nicholas.

A different country wins each night but Sweden, that bastion of Eurovision winners including ABBA, won opening night with its sassy, tightly choreographed quartet of Little Mix lookalikes (except for the gal with the beard) in their sequined mini-dresses and garish wigs.

This reviewer voted Sweden second but voted #1 for Poland’s nostalgic love ballad that epitomised old Eurovision in its sweet-voiced, naive and awkward couple wearing traditional costume and backed by two achingly funny, leotard-clad mimes wearing white neutral masks. Hilarious!

Italy’s Italian Stallion was suitably vain and obsessed with his mother, Germany blended cowboys with a Bavarian slap dance and the UK’s entry had plenty of pelvic thrusting on a motorbike.

Iceland’s costumes of white fur, silver lame undies and feathered doves stretched the limits of sanity while Russia’s traditional-looking babushkas stripped off their skirts to reveal the new Russia – and their bottoms.

Jason Coleman and Yvette Lee’s choreography ranges from provocative contemporary moves to the totally absurd while evocative lighting effects (Stephen Hawker) complete the Eurovision picture.

The more over-the-top it got, the funnier it became, but the songs are crying out for more mid-song key changes, extra sexist costume reveals/strips and additional silly dancing.

The intro could be tightened and the voting needs to be streamlined, but Song Contest will tickle the fancy of Eurovision aficionados and newbies alike.

By Kate Herbert
 Poland's duo haunted by mimes L & R. This is not, sadly, a pic of the song on stage.

Thursday 7 April 2016

Ongals in Babbling Comedy, April 6, 2016 ****1/2

Melbourne Internatioal Comedy Festival
The Famous Spiegeltent until April 17, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Wed April 6, 2016
Stars: ****1/2
Review also in Herald Sun Arts Online on Thurs April 7, 2016. KH

Ongals are side-splittingly hilarious Korean clowns who communicate in gibberish and look like a gang of giant, marauding K-Pop babies in pastel pyjamas – even when they’re juggling knives.

Imagine absurd, Three Stooges-style status relationships, boisterous physical comedy and gestural language, then add alarmingly dangerous stunts and audience participation all performed in nonsense language with the occasional, discernible English word.

They have the audience eating out of their hands from the first appearance of jolly, yellow Ongal who wears a lemon onesie (you know, one piece jim-jams) and instructs the audience to shut up, sit down, turn off phones and keep kids quiet or they’ll punish you gruesomely – in mime, anyway.

Yellow Ongal seems smart and controlling compared to red Ongal who looks insane and clumsy while blue Ongal is delightfully dopey and plump.

The show is uproariously funny for all ages as the Ongals galumph around the stage, taunting each other and the audience, encouraging one another to perform more and more dangerous and ridiculous feats of juggling and trickery.

They play like toddlers, finding bizarre uses for objects such as toilet seats, rubber gloves and paint rollers, but their finest lunatic activity is using a garden sprayer as a ‘bottom-pump’ to help them blow up balloons. Picture that!

They play a silly version Oh, Susannah on tiny, hand-held bells, enlisting the assistance of a courageous young man from the crowd who they haul back on stage later to be the victim of a whip-cracking stunt by blue Ongal, the juggling star.

Jut when you thought you’d figured out Ongals’ comedy limits, Beat Box Ongal arrives, using a microphone to perform stunning vocal sound effects to accompany a three-way juggling routine.

Ongals’ Babbling Comedy is skilful, organised comedy chaos that is often gob-smacking, sometimes alarming and always riotously funny. K-Komedy rules!

By Kate Herbert

Friday 1 April 2016

Sammy J & Randy Land, March 31, 2016 ****

Sammy J & Randy Land
Athenaeum Theatre until April 17, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Mar 31, 2016
 This review also appears in Herald Sun online Comedy Festival web page on Fri April 1, 2016. KH
Sammy J & Randy
Expect the unexpected in Sammy J & Randy Land because this mischievous duo just keeps breaking rules and making the crowd roar with laughter.

When they plan to build their own theme park, Sammy J, the goody-goody, nerdy human, and his stage partner, Randy, a rude, purple-headed, bogan puppet, can’t agree on the theme, style, rides, target market – or anything.

This conflict generates a series of often achingly funny episodes as Sammy J and Randy embark on their individual quests to create their own version of the park.

The show is a rollercoaster ride of absurdity and vulgarity that sees Sammy J performing his hilariously appalling one-man musical, A Jay in the Life, Randy revealing his purple appendage on the Ghost Train and the pair performing a Punch and Judy style puppet show about evil Randy the Ogre.

The duo performs on a carnival set design and the show feels like old vaudeville, incorporating a straight man and fall guy, idiotic gags, variety acts that include stick-, shadow- and hand-puppets, songs and crummy magic tricks that include sawing Randy in half – well, in three.

With its adult themes, coarse language and intermittent, graphic sexual references, this is not a children’s show but its balance of raunchy, outrageous adult humour with playful, childlike silliness wins the hearts and minds of the audience.

Randy’s theme park looks much more fun but far more dangerous with its raptor enclosure, killer whale and manic monkeys.

This pair is accomplished and multi-talented, their comic material is cunningly written and skilfully performed and they are totally in synch in both their rehearsed and ad-libbed routines.

Sammy J and Randy take aim at soft political targets such as Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and the hapless Joel Fitzgibbon who becomes their mascot, as well satirising the Bondi Vet and his impressive pectorals.

“Do you believe in magic?” they sing and, by the end of this wicked and twisted show, Sammy J and Randy have performed some comedy magic on the crowd.

By Kate Herbert