Monday 29 August 2016

Around the World in 80 Days, Aug 27, 2016 ***


Adapted by Toby Hulse from the book by Jules Verne, by Toby Hulse
Produced by Ellis Productions in association with Aleksandar Vass
The Alex, St. Kilda, until Sept 4, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 26

 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Aug 29, 2016 & later in print. KH
Top to Bottom-  Ian Stenlake, Pia Miranda, Grant Piro
These days, Phileas Fogg might be described as obsessive-compulsive, but in Jules Verne’s 19th century story, Around the World in 80 Days, Fogg is a gentlemanly, English adventurer with a penchant for mathematical precision in all things.

Toby Hulse’s stage adaptation of Verne’s novel, directed here by Terence O’Connell, is a spirited and diverting two-hour romp suitable for the whole family and performed by only three actors.

Ian Stenlake is dapper and haughty as the meticulous Fogg who makes a £20,000 wager with two gentlemen from the Reform Club in London, that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days, departing at exactly 8.45pm on October 2, 1872 and returning exactly 80 days later by 8.45pm on December 21.

Fogg embarks on his journey with his loyal valet, Passepartout (Pia Miranda), and is pursued by a determined detective, Fix of Scotland Yard (Grant Piro), who believes Fogg to be an infamous bank robber because he resembles the general description of the thief, particularly his “magnificent teeth”.

With pompous self-assurance and a bag stuffed with crisp pound notes, Fogg leads Passepartout and Fix across India, China, Japan and America on a series of madcap adventures on trains, boats and elephants, escaping a typhoon and even rescuing an Indian Princess from certain death.

Piro, with his impeccable comic delivery and mastery of slapstick, is a highlight in multiple roles including the detective, Fix, who he portrays with an absurd doggedness and hilariously over-articulated accent peppered with dropped “h’s”.

With his mobile, clown face and complicity with the audience, Piro garners plenty of laughs as Fix, then in drag as the prim, Indian Princess, and intermittently as a parade of outrageous cultural stereotypes.

Miranda plays Passepartout as a pert and attentive lad, getting additional comic mileage from being compelled to rush about the cluttered stage to change costumes and switch roles in a blink.

O’Connell’s direction draws on Music Hall comic banter, silent movie cop chases and classic clown antics to bring to life Fogg’s rollicking, adventurous travels across continents and oceans.

Some of the physical comedy routines and cueing need tightening and often the funniest moments for the audience are when things seem to go wrong on stage with tumbling scenery or fast costume changes and the actors appear to be ad libbing animatedly.

The flexible, sepia-toned set (Merinda Backway) captures the 19th century period with a collection of wheels and cogs and an enormous clock-face to remind us of the days and hours ticking away.

The giggles from a nearby 10 year-old indicate that this production tickles the funny bone of a young audience and that the show is an energetic and charming entertainment for the entire family.

By Kate Herbert

The Beast, Aug 26, 2016 ***


By Eddie Perfect, produced by Ambassador Theatre Group Asia Pacific & Red Live\
Comedy Theatre, until Sept 4, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 25
Stars: ***
 Review also in Herald Sun online on Mon Aug 29, 2016 & later in print. KH
(L-R) Alison Bell and Eddie Perfect - pic Ken Nakanishi
In Eddie Perfect’s play, The Beast, the humans are far more beastly than the hapless, bovine creature that they choose to slaughter and eat for their swanky, nose-to-tail degustation dinner.

Directed by Simon Phillips, The Beast is a deeply flawed play that transgresses key dramatic and theatrical rules but, despite all of its faults, it is strangely entertaining and oddly transfixing in a ‘just-can’t-look-away’ way.

The Beast relies on outrageous hilarity and shock value to divert the middle-class viewers who see themselves reflected on stage in three couples comprising six self-indulgent, pretentious characters who purport to be friends but evidently loathe each other.

After Simon (Rohan Nichol), Baird (Perfect) and Rob (Toby Truslove) survive a doomed fishing trip, these three indoorsy, Melbourne blokes make a ‘tree-change’, moving their wives and kids to what sounds like the Yarra Valley where they plan to live a sustainable, ethical and authentic lifestyle.

For these middle-class miscreants, ‘authentic’ means luxury homes, local produce and, on this night, inviting a local butcher to humanely slaughter an ethically reared calf that they will consume accompanied by posh wines.

Perfect’s brutal social satire relies on audacious grotesquery, absurd action and outrageous, politically incorrect views too numerous and awful to mention.

Perfect’s script has a clumsy structure, unclear narrative through-line and no dramatic arc, while his dislikeable characters elicit only occasional sympathy and the relentlessly repetitive dialogue screams for savage editing to reduce the overly long show by 30 minutes.

Initially, the clownish histrionics, wide-mouthed shouting, overstated dialogue, overacting and ridiculous, Grand-Guignol gushes of theatrical blood are funny, but all this absurdity wears thin when there is no pay-off in the narrative.

The style resembles an American sit-com reminiscent of the final Seinfeld episode where the characters received their comeuppance but, although we want Perfect’s characters to suffer as their victims suffered, they escape punishment for their selfish, cruel acts.

Perfect plays Baird with the soft, cow-eyed confusion of the calf that they slaughter but this hides his more dangerous side, while Alison Bell as Baird’s boozy, cynical wife, Marge, provides a welcome still point and a cynical eye on her self-important dinner companions.

Nichol’s Simon is such a vile, cruel and morally corrupt individual that it is surprising that no audience member hurls a smart-phone at him, while Christie Whelan Browne, as his depressed and oppressed wife, Gen, shifts from raging to catatonic in every scene.

Truslove gets plenty of laughs as the medicated, slightly demented Rob, although he plays him like an annoying 12-year old, while Heidi Arena portrays his wife, Sue, as a blousy, slightly hysterical and insecure food snob, and Peter Houghton cleverly plays multiple roles.

Secrets are revealed, marriages compromised and friendships questioned, but The Beast may leave you outraged and gaping at the atrocities, offences and moral murkiness of these characters.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 26 August 2016

Disgraced, Aug 25, 2016 ****

Disgraced by Ayad Ahktar, Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Oct 1, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Fri Aug 26, 2016 and later in print. KH
Hazem Shammas, Zindzi Okenyo, Mitchell Butel, Kat Stewart

Contemporary New York may be a melting pot of races, religions and classes but in Ayad Ahktar’s

Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Disgraced, that pot suffers some ugly cracks and leaks.

Amir (Hazem Shammas), a tough, corporate lawyer with a Jewish law firm, lives in a sleek, Upper East Side apartment with his artist wife, Emily (Kat Stewart), whose paintings appropriate the Moorish design style of Muslim North African.

Born in America of Pakistani parents, Amir identifies as American, changes his surname to Kapoor, an Indian name, and is critical of the religious and political values and practices of Islam to which his nephew, Hussein (Kane Felsinger), adheres.

When Amir’s law firm colleague, Jory (Zindzi Okenyo), an African-American, comes to dinner with her art dealer husband, Isaac (Mitchell Butel), the intelligent, witty but booze-fuelled conversation turns to religion, race and politics, secrets surface and things get ugly for everyone.

Ahktar depicts five middle-class people who argue capably about politics and sound as if they care about the world but who are all narcissists obsessed with their own views, lives and careers.

Ahktar makes no attempt to provide convenient answers to the fraught social issues that have plagued both his country and ours since September 11.

Polite, informed dinner conversation turns to animated political debate then degenerates into a verbal battleground as characters abandon discretion and revert to deep-rooted tribal attitudes and primitive fears.

The climax is shocking and unexpected, although Amir’s surprising admissions and subsequent actions seem unlikely and a little contrived and, at this climactic point, characters behave more like stereotypes.

Shammas is impressive and audacious as Amir, portraying him as a passionate husband and an ambitious lawyer whose bullyboy tactics in his corporate role match his steamroller attitude to dinner conversation and, we discover, to his marriage.

Stewart shifts between vulnerability, earnestness and feistiness as Emily, accentuating her naiveté about not only Islam and art but also about her own relationship with her husband.
 Hazem Shammas, Kat Stewart pic Jeff Busby
Butel plays Isaac as a smug, arrogant, arty smarty-pants but balances his annoying traits with wit and great comic delivery.

Akhtar has under-written the character of Jory, leaving Okenyo with little to do apart from contradict her husband or act as a foil for Amir and Isaac’s conflict, while Felsinger, as Abe, provides the combative argument of the politically engaged young Muslim.

Nadia Tass’s assured direction focuses on the inner turmoil and outward conflict of the characters, taking advantage of Akhtar’s bold and controversial dialogue that confronts the audience with the characters’ often offensive views and even more shocking actions.

Disgraced is a challenging and confrontational play that will leave you with plenty to debate in the car on the way home.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 24 August 2016

The Fiery Maze, Aug 23, 2016 **1/2

Music by Tim Finn, lyrics by Dorothy Porter, Malthouse Theatre 
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until Sept 4, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Aug 23, 2016
Stars: **1/2
 Review also published online in Herald Sun Arts on Wed Aug 24, 2016, and later in print. KH
Tim Finn, Abi Tucker, Brett Adams, pic Pia Johnson
In 1994, one of our rock music stalwarts, Tim Finn, met one of Australia’s most successful poets, Dorothy Porter, and their collaboration spawned the music and lyrics for a series of impassioned songs.

Porter died in 2008 but Finn persevered, developing 16 songs into The Fiery Maze, a stage show with Abi Tucker, the singer who first interpreted the songs in 1995, and guitarist, Brett Adams.

With the songs structured into a loose narrative, Porter’s lyrics conjure a story of the emergence of love, its poignant struggles, blazing passions and bitter recriminations.

Finn’s eclectic musical styles range from 90s ballads and dreamy love songs, to emotional blues and blistering rock tunes reminiscent of Porter’s rock hero, Janis Joplin.

The Fiery Maze is not a piece of theatre, nor is it a rock musical or even a cabaret show; it is a pub gig with a powerful singer backed by two capable musicians, and this is the essential problem with the production.

This rock gig is crying out for an intimate, dimly lit bar with sticky carpet and beer-tainted air but, in its present incarnation, 50 minutes is too long in a darkened theatre even when the three artists are working this hard to entertain.

The restrictive, cage-like, circular stage (designed by Nick Schlieper), static and awkward direction (Anne-Louise Sarks), restrained lighting, limited communication between the performers, an unclear narrative and total lack of theatricality leave the audience without a point of focus.

Individual songs tease the audience such as in Porter’s wry lyrics, “I want to drink like Janis”, and a tune that celebrates Ballarat as a sultry love-nest, a first for that unglamorous town.

Making You Happy resonates with the pulsating bass rhythms that epitomise Finn’s early musical style in Split Enz while Black Water is a grim, down-and-dirty, bluesy number.

Tucker’s voice is bold with the rusted tones of a seasoned rock singer and she makes the most of her louche physicality, interspersing an uber-relaxed style with rabid passion or hints of decadence.

The Fiery Maze needs to decide what type of beast it wants to be and what type of venue and audience it needs to make it come to life.

By Kate Herbert

Light Years Away
Like Janis
The World
Gutsy Girl
New Friends
My Magic Friend
Talking in my Sleep
Feeding The Gods
This Moment
Bride Doll
Off The Planet
Making You Happy
Black Water
Like An Etruscan

Monday 22 August 2016

Curtains, Aug 20, 2016 ***1/2

Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Rupert Holmes, original book & concept by Peter Stone
By The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Aug 28, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars ***1/2 
Review also online at Herald Arts on Mon Aug 22, 2016 & later in print. KH
Simon Gleeson & Lucy Maunder
Mash up an American backstage musical with an Agatha Christie-style murder plot and an idiosyncratic detective and you get John Kander and Fred Ebb’s award-winning show, Curtains.

When the new musical production, Robbin’ Hood, opens in Boston in 1959, damning reviews become the least of the producers’ worries when the murder of the excruciatingly untalented leading lady during the curtain call brings the entire company under suspicion.

Enter investigating officer, Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Simon Gleeson), a cop who is starry-eyed about musical theatre, has an uncanny way of solving the production’s myriad theatrical problems and has a crush on a cast member.

Gleeson, renowned for his role as Valjean in Les Miserables, plays the deceptively naïve Cioffi with impish glee, impeccable comic timing and some surprisingly good dancing, bringing his exceptional singing voice to the role that David Hyde Pierce played on Broadway to great acclaim.

Although Curtains is not as musically memorable and inventive as Kander and Ebb’s previous hits, Cabaret and Chicago, it is an entertaining, comical romp with a collection of singable tunes with witty lyrics and a diverting book by Rupert Holmes.

In Coffee Shop Nights, Gleeson sings poignantly about Cioffi’s lonely life while the peppy chorus number, Show People, epitomises Cioffi’s romantic obsession with the stage.

Alinta Chidzey, as Cioffi’s love interest, Niki, joins Gleeson in the charmingly old-fashioned duet, A Tough Act to Follow, that leads to an elaborate chorus routine in which the love-struck Cioffi finally finds himself centre stage.

Lucy Maunder show she is an excellent ‘triple threat’ playing lyricist and replacement leading lady, Georgia, while her bitter-sweet duet, Thinking of Missing the Music, with Alex Rathgeber as her writing partner, Aaron, is a highlight.

Melissa Langton shines singing It’s A Business as producer, Carmen Bernstein, and Maunder, Rathgeber and Tony Rickards join her in the scathing but funny attack on theatre critics, What Kind of Man?

Colin Lane brings his distinctive comic style to pompous, conceited director, Christopher Belling, and Nicki Wendt, as the short-lived Jessica Cranshaw, shows that intentionally bad acting makes great comedy.

Roger Hodgman’s direction focuses on the quirky characters in this absurd situation while Dana Jolly’s choreography is vivacious and humorous and John Foreman leads a tight, on-stage orchestra.

It may not be the best of the works of Kander and Ebb, but Curtains is an effervescent, fun-filled and diverting production that will appeal to fans of the old-style backstage musicals and whodunnits.

By Kate Herbert 

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Jasper Jones, Aug 4, 2016 ***

Craig Silvey, adapted for stage by Kate Mulvany, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until Sept 9, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 Review also published in Herald Sun online & in print on Tues Aug 9, 2016. KH
 Harry Tseng, Nicholas Denton photo Jeff Busby

This stage adaptation of Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey’s 2009 “coming-of-age”, young adult novel, merges broad comedy with a bleak, gothic murder story set in the fictional, isolated, Western Australian town of Corrigan.

Late one hot, summer night in 1965, when town “bad-boy,” Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), raps on Charlie Bucktin’s (Nicholas Denton) window asking for help, Charlie embarks on a series of misadventures that starts with the discovery of the body of Jasper’s friend, Laura Wishart (Taylor Ferguson).

Over the Christmas-New Year period, this unlikely pair tries to solve Laura’s murder, but everything goes pear-shaped, including Charlie’s attraction to Laura’s fragile, younger sister, Eliza (also played by Ferguson).

In Sam Strong’s production of Kate Mulvany’s script adaptation, Denton is entertainingly gauche and intellectually ambitious as nerdy, 13-year old Charlie, who lives with his dissatisfied but racy mother (Rachel Gordon) and his silent, dependable dad (Ian Bliss).

Simon blends vulnerability and warmth as Jasper, a 14-year old, local indigenous boy who is invariably blamed for any misdemeanour committed in this bigoted town.

Harry Tseng is impishly charming as Charlie’s clever, mischievous, Vietnamese-Aussie mate, Jeffrey, who revels in his comically vulgar language, is obsessed with cricket and maintains a cheerful disposition despite being a victim of racism.

A problem with Silvey’s back-story about Jeffrey is that only a handful of Vietnamese immigrants lived in Australia before 1976 and those were unlikely to be a family in a country town in WA.

Comic scenes, such as the boys’ cricket match, attract audience laughs, as does Charlie and Jeffrey’s adolescent banter, including their debate about the relative virtues of superheroes, Batman and Superman.

Such buoyant, comical scenes are successful but the play as a whole is not always cohesive or consistent and this may be due to a lack of nuance and subtlety in Silvey’s original narrative.

The grim scenes about death, racism and loss of innocence are undercut by the broad clownishness of other scenes, resulting in an imbalance between dramatic and comedic elements.

Charlie narrates the entire story with witty asides and this theatrical device illuminates his youthful character but leaves other characters lacking depth.

Meanwhile, the wordy prose style of the narration, presumably transcribed from the novel, is often too rambling or literary for stage dialogue.

Charlie’s dialogue and his precocious literary references are frequently too sophisticated even for a bookish 13-year old, despite his voracious reading and his ambition to write the Great Australian Novel.

Other concerns are that the characters’ dialogue is sometimes too contemporary for a 1960s story, the boys’ comical repartee eventually wears thin and some scenes become repetitive, suggesting that Mulvany’s script might benefit from further editing.

Anna Cordingley’s design captures the dry, ochre dirt and scrubby landscape while the revolving stage, with its cluster of tiny houses, creates the illusion of time passing in this intense, voyeuristic town.

This adaptation of Silvey’s sprawling narrative succeeds on stage due to the comedic elements but the production lacks balance and draws too heavily on its prose source.

By Kate Herbert 
Harry Tseng, Nicholas Denton photo Jeff Busby

Thursday 4 August 2016

Edward II, Aug 3, 2016 ***

By Anthony Weigh, by Malthouse Theatre 
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until Aug 21, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
 Review also published in Herald Sun online on Thurs Aug 4, 2016 and later in print. KH

 L-R Johnny Carr & Marco Chiappi_photoPiaJohnson
If you are uncomfortable with seeing naked men in salacious scenes or witnessing graphic, simulated sex and violence on stage, steel yourself before seeing this interpretation of the early 14th century reign of Edward II.

In Anthony Weigh’s play directed by Matthew Lutton, the spotlight focuses directly on the narcissistic Edward II’s (Johnny Carr) presumed, homosexual relationship with his “rough trade” lover, Piers (Paul Ashcroft).

Weigh’s script distils five characters from Christopher Marlowe’s sprawling five act, 16th century play, taking liberties with English history and cleverly combining lyrical language with glib, modern speech.

On a modern, stage design (Marg Horwell) that is more storeroom or museum than mediaeval palace, Carr’s Edward, known here as Ned, prowls like a caged lion, navigating a path from his king-sized bed around schoolroom tables strewn with statues and paraphernalia.

Infatuation collides with cruelty in Weigh’s play but, although much of the violence is abstracted, it is no less disturbing, particularly Ned’s gruesome demise.

Despite his Ned being dislikeable, cruel and dangerously obsessive, Carr blends some boyish charm into this self-indulgent character, mining Ned’s unpredictability and selfishness to create a modern, brattish child of privilege.

Lutton’s production has some highlights but its successes are mostly because of the quality of his actors rather than the direction.

As Ned’s lover, Piers, Ashcroft is boyishly naive and like a modern-day, rent boy who catches a rich lover. Piers is sadly deluded about the security of his position, unaware that his life is in danger from both inside and outside the palace walls.
 L-R Johnny Carr & Paul Ashcroft_photoPiaJohnson
Belinda McClory plays Ned’s resentful, abandoned wife, Sib (Isabella of France), with a clever blend of haughtiness, severity and fragility.

Marco Chiappi is magnetic and commanding as Mortimer, Ned’s nemesis, merging arrogance and manipulative cunning with a touch of campery and affectation.

His lengthy and audacious monologue describing Mortimer living rough after Ned dismisses him is compelling, almost stealing the show.

Two boys share the role of Ned’s young son, with Julian Mineo playing the child on opening night.

The stage is a dangerous place in this production and the stark, penetrating lighting (Paul Jackson) and searing, sometimes unbearably loud soundscape (Kelly Ryall) elevate the sense of threat.

Ned’s relationship with Piers is accepted in a thoroughly modern way and his subjects, who storm the palace in the final moments, object more to the lover “taking over” than to their King’s homosexuality.

Edward II is sometimes alarming and intense but it is also a diverting interpretation of this wayward King and his decadent reign.

By Kate Herbert
 L-R Johnny Carr & Paul Ashcroft_photoPiaJohnson

Monday 1 August 2016

The Mill on the Floss,, July 30, 2016 ***1/2

By George Eliot, adapted by Helen Edmundson, presented by OpticNerve Performance Group with Theatre Works 
Theatre Works, until Aug 13, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts Online on Mon Aug 1, 2016 & later in print. KH
Zahra Newman & Grant Cartwright_ photo Pia Johnson
George Eliot’s 19th century novel, The Mill on the Floss, depicts in prose Maggie Tulliver’s narrow life in an English provincial town, but this very physical stage adaptation partners dialogue with abstracted movement to illuminate characters and relationships.

Tanya Gerstle’s direction is deft, imaginative and is clearly developed in collaboration with a talented ensemble of eight, all of whom are comfortable with the incorporation of text with athletic movement, gestural language and a capella singing.

Three actors play Maggie over a period of about 15 years, starting with Maddie Nunn who is charming and impish as the imaginative, 9-year old Maggie who craves freedom and education that is available only to her brother, Tom (Grant Cartwright).

Zahra Newman is compelling as the sadder, introverted, religious adolescent Maggie who represses her independence and naturally passionate, enquiring nature to appease her pragmatic, loving but controlling brother, patriarchal father (James O’Connell) and timid mother (Luisa Hastings Edge).

Rosie Lockhart has a refinement and elegance as the more mature Maggie whose unruly passions resurface after years of obeying her brother’s demand that she not communicate with Phillip (Tom Heath), the educated, sensitive, disabled son of Maggie’s father’s sworn enemy.

Maggie abandons all of her carefully managed self-control when she meets Stephen Guest (George Lingard), her cousin’s suitor, and the foreshadowed tragedy comes to pass.

Having three Maggies of differing ages on stage together provides a nuanced, layered characterisation of this intelligent girl who wrestles with values that favour boys, a situation that echoes that of Mary Ann Evans who wrote under the male pseudonym, George Eliot, in order to be published.

The actors’ evocative physicalisation is impassioned, sometimes expressing love and sensuality and, at others, evoking conflict and violence.

Scenes shift fluidly, with actors playing multiple roles, but Maggie’s struggle in a repressive world is always at the heart of the performance.

Eliot’s original novel covers many years and has a number of narrative threads and characters so it is difficult to cram all of this material into two hours of stage time, so some scenes are not as clear as others, an example being Maggie’s relationship with Stephen which is not fully developed and not quite credible.

Maggie’s frustration at the restrictions imposed upon her dreams and ambitions because she is female may seem out-dated to young women in our modern society, but there are still places where women are oppressed simply for being female. More power to the Maggies of this world.

By Kate Herbert