Friday 23 September 2016

Fawlty Towers Live, Sept 22, 2016 ***1/2

Written by John Cleese & Connie Booth, adapted for stage by John Cleese from original BBC series
Produced by Michael Coppel & Phil McIntyre in association with Louise Withers
Comedy Theatre, until Oct 23, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2 
Review also published online in Herald Sun Arts on Fri Sept 23, 2016 and later in print. KH
Blazey Best, Stephen Hall
Even Fawlty Towers purists should find some hearty laughs in this stage adaptation of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s iconic, 1970s BBC comedy series brought to life here with Basil, Sybil, Manuel, Polly and a parade of their hapless guests at the Torquay Hotel.

Cleese himself wrote the stage script that merges three of his favourite episodes of Fawlty Towers – Communication Problems, The Hotel Inspectors and The Germans – into one, extended narrative using original scenarios, dialogue and eccentric characters.

Fawlty Towers Live, directed by Caroline Jay Ranger, utilises all the same, classic comic techniques as the TV series: whip-smart dialogue, gags and battles of wit, archetypical characters, physical comedy and slapstick, absurd situations, confused identities and status relationships all played out in a single location.

Of course, the TV series cannot be beaten for its comic innovation, rapid-fire pace and the achingly funny and excruciating predicaments into which Basil (Stephen Hall) gets himself, but the opening night audience roared at its favourite Fawlty Towers moments.

Hall delivers Basil’s Nazi goose-stepping, makes his faux pas with the Germans saying, “Don’t mention the war”, smacks Manuel (Syd Brisbane) on the nose with a spoon, is knocked unconscious by a moose head, abuses his bemused guests and schmoozes those he thinks are more important.

There are certainly problems with taking a TV classic to the stage and the production is bumpy at times with scene changes that look manufactured and too much like television segues.

Another question for a live production is how to portray and do justice to Cleese’s much imitated and yet inimitable character, Basil Fawlty.

Although many of the cast reproduce the voice, style and timing of the original, screen characters, allowing the audience to relive favourite scenes and lines, Hall captures the essence of Cleese’s physicality and comic delivery without replicating it.

However, his mostly restrained vocal delivery and characterisation of Basil do not always garner the maximum laughs.

Blazey Best as Sybil channels Prunella Scales with her nasal twang, prolonged vowels, dragon-wife glare and wry delivery, while Brisbane as Manuel gets huge laughs with his signature reply, “Che?” and his line, “I know nothing. I’m from Barcelona.”

Aimee Horne has charm and subtlety as Polly and looks and sounds uncannily like Connie Booth, while Paul Bertram is suitably blustering as the aged and forgetful Major.

Deborah Kennedy is hilariously pompous and intrusive as the deaf Mrs. Richards, while Paul Denny almost steals early scenes as Mr. Hutchinson, the pedantic and verbose spoon salesman.

This live tribute can never match the TV show and some aficionados may not love it, but it has some huge laughs of recognition and the final scene captures the mayhem of Basil’s shambolic hotel world.

By Kate Herbert 
 Cast, Fawlty Towers

Thursday 22 September 2016

Switzerland, Sept 21, 2016 ***1/2

By Joanna Murray-Smith, by Sydney Theatre Company, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until Oct 29, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sept 21, 2016
Stars: ***1/2 
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Thurs Sept 22, 2016 and later in print. KH
Sarah Peirse, Eamon Farren,  Photo Brett Boardman
American crime novelist, Patricia Highsmith, was as notorious for her abrasive personality, alcoholism, racist views and penny-pinching lifestyle as she was for Tom Ripley, the morally corrupt character featured in her thriller novels.

In Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Switzerland, a young stranger, Edward (Eamon Farren), from Highsmith’s New York publisher, visits the ailing and ageing Highsmith (Sarah Peirse OK) in her isolated, Swiss villa in 1995, the year of her death.

The stage, like the world in Highsmith’s psychological thrillers, is a dangerous place and Patricia and Edward’s witty war of words barely masks an underlying sense of threat as Edward attempts to convince Patricia to sign a contract to write a final Ripley novel.

Peirse is a distinguished actor in any production and she completely inhabits the formidable Patricia with a complex physicality that captures her crippling age and illness and her fierce and ruthless demeanour.

She delivers Murray-Smith’s clipped and fast-paced dialogue with acerbic wit and a predatory gaze, making this totally dislikeable character dangerously compelling as she slices and dices her young guest with her razor tongue.

Farren’s rangy, private schoolboy looks make the nervy, nerdy Edward a perfect target for Patricia’s cruelty, effectively balancing Edward’s naive admiration with his tenacious drive to win over Patricia, while simultaneously suggesting that he may be hiding something unsavoury.

Murray-Smith’s narrative and dialogue track the grim power play between these characters who seem to be unequal but whose status relationship becomes less clear as the stakes climb higher and their boundaries shift.

Sarah Goodes’ assured direction focuses attention on their status game as the two circle each other like predator and prey, prowling the stage like caged creatures as they assault each other with barbed comments.

By the middle of the 100 minutes, the script starts to repeat itself, with the characters engaging in different, albeit witty, versions of the same argument.

However, the final twist provides a welcome change in pace and a more satisfying ending to this game of cat and mouse, although such a narrative turn is not unexpected.

Switzerland is a sharp-witted and intelligent play but its highlight is Peirse’s audacious portrayal of Patricia Highsmith.

By Kate Herbert

Cast: Eamon Farren, Sarah Peirse
Director Sarah Goodes
Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Composer and Sound Designer Steve Francis
 Eamon Farren, Sarah Peirse,  Photo Brett Boardman

Monday 5 September 2016

Lilith: The Jungle Girl, Sept 3, 2016 ***

by Sisters Grimm, produced by MTC NEON NEXT 
Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until Oct 1, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***
 Review also published online at Herald Sun Arts & later in print. KH
 Ash Flanders, photo Jeff Busby
Sisters Grimm can make you laugh, cringe, cheer and whinge all during the one production, and their latest show, Lilith: The Jungle Girl, is no exception.

If you have seen any of the eccentric, queer theatre work by Sisters Grimm, you will guess who plays the titular Lilith, because the exceptional and versatile Ash Flanders always inhabits the female lead with credibility and sensibility.

In 1861, a child found living with lions in the jungles of Borneo (suspend your disbelief!) is transported to colonial Amsterdam to be trained, tamed or lobotomised by neuro-scientist Charles Penworth (Candy Bowers), a, and his adoring assistant, Helen Travers (Genevieve Giuffre).

The Lilith narrative relates to traumatic, fictional or true stories such as Tarzan and the Wild Boy of Aveyron who suffer barbaric abuse by ‘civilised people’ trying to excise the wildness from their helpless subjects and treat them as circus freaks.  

This production, directed by Declan Greene, fuses a litany of performance genres such as 1930s British black-and-white films, Victorian melodrama, burlesque and slapstick, social satire and broad parody.

The production is uneven, but Flanders’ performance is a highlight, beginning with his first, poignant and startling appearance as the wild, terrified and naked creature, smeared with flesh-pink mud, chained by the neck and cowering in a wooden crate.

This tenderness and poignancy unfortunately does not reappear until later scenes when Lilith realises that she belongs with neither the lions nor the equally, but differently savage humans.

The absurdity that pervades the entire piece peaks at the point of Flanders’ transformation into a slightly pink-muddied little Dutch girl, costumed in clogs, pointed cap, golden plaits and white, plastic, frou-frou gown decorated outlandishly with tulips and a spinning windmill (Marg Horwell).

 Ash Flanders, Genevieve Giuffre photo Jeff Busby
'Lilith’s acquired, toffy British accent and cultivated manners are absurdly at odds with the chaos that surrounds her, including the muddy floor on which she skitters and slides in her clunky clogs.

The stylised, melodramatic acting and heightened emotion are initially entertaining, with Bowers portraying the stuffed shirt, Penworth, as a comical but dangerously dim-witted doctor, a parody of Victorian, experimental medical practitioners.

Giuffre embodies the multiple neuroses of his capable but lovelorn sidekick, Helen, who suffers the indignities of being subservient to an idiot while being his obsessive admirer.

Emma Valente’s cartoon videos are funny, grotesque and attention-grabbing, owing something to the style of Terry Gilliam’s animation.

After a promising, comical start, the chaotic style becomes predictable, while the slippery mud slapstick, funny at first when Lilith struggles to find her feet literally and metaphorically, gets repetitive.

The two-dimensional characterisations of Penworth and Helen are limited and any social commentary and satire gets lost in the shambolic mish-mash of styles and issues.

Lilith: The Jungle Girl certainly has potential to be a clever pastiche but, ultimately, it misses its mark.

By Kate Herbert

First Date, Sept 2, 2016 ***

Music & lyrics by Alan Zachary & Michael Weiner, book by Austin Winsberg
Produced by Pursued By Bear 
Chapel off Chapel, until Sept 11, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon Sept 5, 2016 & later in print. KH
 Rebecca Hetherington & Jordon Mahar 
So, you go on a blind date, organised by your sister’s husband or a work colleague, and you meet a complete stranger in a busy, inner-city café. What could possibly go wrong – apart from everything?

First Date is a 2013, American musical that takes a voyeuristic look at the first, awkward date of Aaron (Jordon Mahar OK), an affluent, conservative investment banker, and Casey (Rebecca Hetherington), an artsy, tattooed and self-absorbed, serial dater of bad boys.

The entertaining book (Austin Winsberg) has well-observed characters and comical situations, while the upbeat songs (music, lyrics by Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner) have witty rhymes and cool lyrics that reflect a funky, inner-urban, café lifestyle.

In the bouncy duet, First Impressions, Aaron and Casey reveal their anxious or critical inner thoughts about each other through amusing lyrics such as, “He’s a bit annoying and overdressed”, and “ She’s kind of Indy and kind of hot.”

Mahar’s vocal strength lies in his upper register and he finds charm in the daggy, unworldly Aaron who struggles to repress his geeky reactions and gestures when confronted with so much passive-aggressive coolness in this smug café.

Hetherington captures Casey’s self-important artsy-ness and barely masked criticism of Aaron’s conservatism, but her performance ultimately lacks confidence and dynamic range while her voice needs a warmer tone to balance some harshness.

Five other performers (Daniel Cosgrove, Nicole Melloy, Adam Porter, Danielle O’Malley, Stephen Valeri) play multiple characters, including sticky-beak, café patrons, or friends and family who appear as intrusive, rowdy voices or guardian angels, commenting on the successes or failures of the date and offering unsolicited advice to Aaron and Casey.

One hilarious, up-tempo rune is Bailout Song, sung by Casey’s gay pal, Reggie (Porter), who calls frequently to give Casey an excuse to bail out of the date, while The Awkward Pause highlights the uncomfortable silences between strangers.

In the audacious song, The Girl For You, the ensemble portrays Aaron’s warped visions of his Jewish family’s objections to a gentile girlfriend, and Casey’s dad’s imagined over-reaction to a non-Christian boyfriend.

The set design (Sarah Tulloch) incorporates an actual, on stage café provided by Tall Timber, a local Prahran business, and it serves pre-show coffee to the audience.

The tight, five-piece, on-stage band under musical director, Stephanie Lewendon-Lowe, contributes to the vibrant atmosphere, however, the mix of voices and music is unbalanced, particularly in the opening number, The One, during which the lyrics were incomprehensible.

Director, Mark Taylor, uses an Australian setting, avoiding the American accents that pervade many musicals and allowing the audience to relate to the locality and characters.

Despite the limitations of this production, First Date is a buoyant and zesty musical with plenty of laughs at the expense of the two first daters.

By Kate Herbert 

Friday 2 September 2016

We Will Rock You, Sept 1, 2016 ***1/2


Music & Lyrics by Queen, Story & Script by Ben Elton 
Produced by John Frost, Queen Theatrical Productions, Phil McIntyre Entertainment and Tribeca Theatrical Productions 
Regent Theatre, until Oct 30, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

 Review also published online at Herald Sun Arts on Friday, Sept 2, 2016 & later in print. KH
Erin Clare (guitar L), Gareth Keegan (on mic) - pic Joe Calleri

If you’ve ever sung along tunelessly to We Are The Champions or played air guitar to Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll find plenty to love in Ben Elton and Queen’s musical, We Will Rock You.

Since its 2002 premiere in London, this jukebox musical has been rejigged, rewritten and redirected now by Elton himself, and it keeps on rocking audiences around the globe.

Its wild success with the public, if not critics, is due almost entirely to the repertoire of Queen’s unforgettable, operatic-rock songs that includes Radio Ga Ga, I Want To Break Free, Somebody To Love and Under Pressure.

An exhilarating band under musical director, David Skelton, plays Queen’s music live in this Australian production and the searing guitar riff performed on stage by Simon Croft at the end of the show is a ripsnorter.

Even Elton’s often clumsy dialogue and the cheesy narrative that acts as a washing line on which to hang the songs, cannot deter the crowd from cheering, clapping, waving their arms and singing along with their favourite Queen melodies.

In 2350, live music is banned on iPlanet (AKA Earth), kids consume computer-generated music and underground rebels, the Bohemians, worship ancient texts about Rock music, pine for live instruments and wait for a musical messiah to take them to Rock freedom.

Enter two social misfits: Galileo Figaro (Gareth Keegan), a confused, disaffected kid who alarmingly hears old Rock lyrics and tunes in his head, and Scaramouche (Erin Clare), his feisty, rebellious, soon-to-be girlfriend.

Keegan’s voice has a bright timbre and his vocals soar in I Want to Break Free, a duet with Clare, and in rousing choruses of We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, but it is impossible for any singer to compete with Freddie Mercury’s voice in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Clare has a rich, bold voice singing Somebody to Love and she is vibrant, charming and funny as Scaramouche, making the most of this troubled but gutsy character.

A rockin’ crowd-pleaser is Headlong, sung by Keegan and Clare with Jaz Flowers as Oz, the bolshy Bohemian, and Thern Reynolds as Oz’s outrageously physical lover, Britney.

With her versatility and audacious characterisation, Flowers almost steals the show with her thrilling rendition of No-One But You, while Brian Mannix provides comic relief as the old, hippy, Rock history archivist, Buddy.
 Jaz Flowers & Bohemians -pic Joe Calleri
Casey Donovan, as the omnipotent Killer Queen, brings powerhouse vocals to Another One Bites the Dust and Killer Queen, although her lower register lacks strength, and Simon Russell is suitably creepy and smug as Khashoggi, her enforcer.

Arlene Phillips’ vivacious choreography features an androgynous, pastel-costumed chorus of Ken and Barbie lookalikes writhing to Radio Ga Ga, the Bohemians cavorting wildly to We Will Rock You, and the Secret Police moving robotically to a metronomic beat.

In Elton’s playfully idiotic script, characters pepper their dialogue with fragments of song lyrics – an example being Galileo’s early plea, “Help! I need somebody!” – and the Bohemians boys bear the names of female pop idols, Madonna and Britney Spears.

Songs are shoehorned into the story, the mish-mash of accents is distracting, some lyrics are changed to fit the narrative and the script is crying out for an editor’s scalpel to excise chunks of repetitive, redundant and silly dialogue.

The show is really a terrific, Queen tribute concert with great dance and,digital visuals interrupted by daggy dialogue and story – but the crowd love it!

The electrifying, pyrotechnical finale of We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions and Bohemian Rhapsody, catapulted the enthusiastic, opening night audience to its feet to dance and cheer. Rock on, Queen!

By Kate Herbert 
 Erin Clare -pic Joe Calleri
 Casey Donovan - pic Joe Calleri
Bohemians - pic Joe Calleri

Thursday 1 September 2016

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Aug 31, 2016 **1/2

Written by Bertolt Brecht 
Theatre Works until Sept 10, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2
 This review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs Sept 1, 2016 & later in print. KH
Kym Lynch & Josiah Lulham & George Banders & Peter Paltos. Photo Ross Waldron
Bertolt Brecht was one of the great playwrights and theatrical innovators of 20th century Europe and his 1941 play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, is a challenging, satirical allegory for Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s. 

Brecht’s Arturo Ui (George Banders) is a Chicago mobster who plots to control the lucrative cauliflower market by systematically disposing of his rivals by corruption, fraud and murder and Ui’s gang members correlate directly to Hitler’s own gang of thugs.

Director, Phil Rouse, makes a valiant, but mostly unsuccessful attempt to stage the play in Brecht’s “epic theatre” style by incorporating actors’ direct address to audience, projections of scene titles and by exposing lighting and set changes to remind the audience of the artificiality of theatre.

However, this production is overwrought, the style overwhelms the content, the acting is clumsy and Brecht’s cunningly wrought political message is more like a club over the head, particularly when the actors reference Donald Trump’s presidential grab as a parallel to Hitler.

The opening scene is tightly choreographed and dynamic, with Ui’s gang’s dancing, gyrating and pelvic-thrusting delighted the high school audience, but this short, successful scene was, unfortunately, not an indication of things to come.

The recorded sound effects, such as the tinny sounds of a rowdy crowd, are ineffective, interrupting rather than enhancing any sense of Ui’s cheering or jeering followers.

The actors misrepresent Brecht’s performance style, “Alienation”, an acting method that stops actors immersing themselves emotionally in characters and story by employing a mode of presentational performance, gestural language and storytelling that educates.

Banders’ Ui is physically contorted, presumably to echo the deformed body of Shakespeare’s Richard III to whom Brecht compares Ui, but this rigidity does not illuminate the character and Banders’ own physical tension makes his performance awkward.

Kasia Kaczmarek as Clarke, one of Ui’s more rational followers, provides the most effective and subtle performance.

Other actors shout or laugh exaggeratedly, making their characters into two-dimensional caricatures, and their gestural language is often a distraction rather than a stylised amplification of a character’s dialogue or emotion.

Ultimately, this production fails to do justice to Brecht’s courageous, political satire that sought to educate his audience about the dangers of Hitler and his rise to power.

By Kate Herbert