Friday 24 March 2017

Trainspotting, March 23, 2017 ***

Adapted by Harry Gibson from the novel by Irvine Welsh, by In Your Face Theatre
fortyfivedownstairs until April 13, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Mar 23, 2017
Stars: ***1/2
Review also online a Herald Sun Arts (Comedy Festival) on Fri March 24, 2017. KH

 Gavin Ross as Renton
Be warned! If your theatre tastes don’t extend to being assailed by audacious, nasty, expletive-riddled depictions of heroin addiction, nudity, sex and violence, then Trainspotting may not be for you.

If, however, you loved Danny Boyle’s 1996 cult movie or Irvine Welsh’s 1993 book on which the film was based, then put on your scruffiest clothes and prepare for 75 minutes of immersive theatre during which you may be jostled, jumped on, or have fake excrement hurled in your direction.

Currently in cinemas, you can revisit Welsh’s dysfunctional characters in later life in Trainspotting 2, but Harry Gibson’s stage adaptation reminds us of the bleak intensity of their original story that is set in Edinburgh in the 1990s.

Visiting Scottish company, In Your Face Theatre, lives up to its name with this confrontational and hectic production directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher.

Gavin Ross as Renton, the character made famous by Ewan McGregor, is a compelling presence as he narrates the grotesque lives of this gaggle of crims, junkies, drunks and misfits.

The story is episodic and fragmented, reflecting the chaos of the underground world inhabited by Renton and a bunch of desperadoes that includes his naive but sympathetic mate, Tommy (Greg Esplin), the charming Sickboy (Michael Lockerbie), their dealer, Mother Superior (Calum Barbour), the thuggish Begbie (Chris Dennis), and desperate Alison (Erin Marshall).

Trainspotting starts off as outrageously broad, loud, physical and verbal comedy then it staggers into tragedy as the sheer horror and degradation of the characters’ decadent, filth-ridden lives makes laughter impossible.

Distressing and alarmingly graphic scenes of drug injecting and violence replace the earlier hilarity arising from the on-stage pandemonium that invades the constantly startled, glo-stick waving audience.

We see Renton soil his bed, go through withdrawals or overdose, dive into a mucky toilet to rescue an opium suppository, witness Alison’s baby’s death and recoil when Begbie beats his pregnant girlfriend (Rachael Anderson).

The cast’s Edinburgh accents and often-impenetrable Scottish vernacular demand the audience’s attention and give the authenticity to the dialogue that is dense with f***ing and blinding.

This is an energetic production with committed performances from the entire ensemble, but it feels rushed as it hurtles to an unsatisfying conclusion and the constant shouting of almost every line leaves it lacking any dynamic range.

Most characters, except for Renton and possibly Tommy, are not fully developed: Sickboy’s seductiveness and philosophical smugness are almost lost in this stage version, and Begbie is rarely on stage, although, when he is, his viciousness is horrific.

However, if you want an in-your-face experience that will scare you into sobriety, Trainspotting is just the ticket.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 20 March 2017

Rules for Living, March 19, 2017 **

Rules for Living, by Sam Holcroft, Red Stitch Actors Theatre
 Red Stitch Actors Theatre, until April 16, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 19, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online (Comedy Festival)  April 5, 2017. KH

 Hold onto your Christmas hats and guard the Christmas turkey because Rules for Living is a bumpy ride.

In her chaotic comedy-drama, UK playwright, Sam Holcroft, attempts to expose the behavioural ‘rules for living’ that govern our human relationships and she capitalises on the intense emotions and interactions that can emerge during a family Christmas celebration.

Despite some early laughs at the expense of all the characters, this Red Stitch production has significant problems, most of which arise from Kim Farrant’s direction, although some are caused by flaws in Holcroft’s ambitious script.

Matthew (Rory Kelly), a successful lawyer with an eating problem, brings his ditzy, vulgar girlfriend, Carrie (Jem Nicholas), to have Chrissie lunch with his well-heeled family.

Matthew’s domineering mum, Edith, played with stiff upper lip and vibrating anxiety by Caroline Lee, runs the lunch preparations like a sergeant-major, abiding by her own ‘rules for living’ and demanding everyone else comply.

The rest of the party comprises Matthew’s brother, Adam (Mark Dickinson), who is an under-achieving lawyer, Adam’s boozy and demanding wife, Sheena (Jessica Clarke), their ailing daughter who hides upstairs, and finally, their dad, Francis (Ian Rooney), a former bully-boy judge who arrives late and – to everyone’s surprise except mum’s – in a wheelchair.

Holcroft plays with the notion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by not only giving all characters a series of obsessive ‘rules’ that govern their actions, but by projecting these rules onto screens in the space.

For example, Matthew must sit and eat when he tells a lie, Carrie must jig around to get a laugh, Edith must clean to remain calm, Adam needs to affect silly accents when he mocks others, and Sheena must drink wine to allow her to argue.

This overt display of every driving ‘rule’ eliminates any subtext in the play because every character’s secret objective or inner thought is known and, although it is initially funny to see Matthew scramble to a seat or stuff his mouth with crackers every time he lies, the joke wears thin very quickly.

The family lunch descends into bedlam as they all act according to their own behavioural rules until they totally lose control and start a food fight that sees gobs of turkey and cold sprouts flying across the tiny stage.

The capable cast works very hard to make this production work, but it all ends up looking like a series of drama improvisation exercises with everyone playing a hidden objective in order to get a cheap laugh.

Yes, Holcroft’s play is a broad farce in the style of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, but Farrant’s direction lacks any variation in pace or dynamic range, leaving the actors shouting and gesticulating and the audience in a state of anxiety – especially when Sheena brandishes a real carving knife.

Perhaps, if the performances were reined in, the more complex issues of the dynamics of human behaviour might be clearer in Rules for Living, but the more reflective moments of the final scenes in this three-hour production come too late.
By Kate Herbert

Friday 10 March 2017

Faith Healer, March 9, 2017 ****

By Brian Friel, a Belvoir production, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until April 8, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ****
Coin Friels as Frank Hardy in Faith Healer Belvoir/ MTC 

Memory may be unreliable, but the troubled characters in Irish playwright Brian Friel’s challenging and moving play, Faith Healer, reframe their memories of a shared past to suit their own needs.

In this enthralling production, with its captivating performances and assured, unobtrusive direction by the inimitable Judy Davis, Colin Friels is compelling as Francis (Frank) Hardy, an itinerant, Irish faith healer with erratic – but sometimes formidable and miraculous – healing powers.

For decades, Frank toured his ‘show’ in a ramshackle van to small, UK towns, accompanied by his loyal support team: Grace (Alison Whyte), his beleaguered, long-term mistress, and Teddy (Paul Blackwell), his relentlessly cheery and tenacious, cockney manager.

Friel’s language-driven play comprises four monologues – the first and last delivered by Frank – each of which conjures narrative, characters, emotion and landscape through Friel’s evocative, lyrical and often hilarious, word pictures.

The story of the trio’s shared past leaks out as each fills in his or her recollections and perspectives.
Whose version of their story is true? What really happened to Grace’s baby and what transpired in the pub in the tiny Irish town of Ballybeg that night a year ago?

The sparse stage design (Brian Thomson) resembles a shabby, local hall littered with pitiful chairs and overlooked by a tattered banner that declares brazenly, ‘Fantastic Francis Hardy – Faith Healer’.

Frank is both miracle-worker and conman who describes his life as ‘balanced somewhere between the absurd and the momentous.’

Friels effortlessly captures Frank’s almost irresistible charm and whimsical storytelling that is tainted by his irascible and obstinate temperament, unremitting boozing, unreliability and total self-absorption.

With his green socks peeping out below his threadbare, ill-fitting suit, Friels prowls the dusty stage with a booze-addled fervour, recounting and reliving the remarkable night when, in a Welsh village years earlier, he genuinely healed ten people of major ailments, including blindness.

Whyte superbly embodies Grace’s aching grief and desperation as she perches alone in her London bedsit, gulping glasses of booze as she rifles her memory for moments of love and loss, colouring the same tales we have heard from Frank with her jaded, perhaps more realistic, view of her selfish lover.

Blackwell plays the lovable Teddy with warmth, sympathy and impeccable comic timing as he recounts his version of the fraught relationships and alarming events that occurred in his years with Frank and Grace.
Alison Whyte as Grace in Faith Healer Belvoir/ MTC

Friel’s audacious storytelling is both whimsical and poignant, tinged with bold, Irish comedy and a potent philosophical commentary on the human condition.

Friel deserves his reputation as one of the greatest, Irish playwrights and this production of Faith Healer, with its accomplished direction and performances, does justice to his legacy.

By Kate Herbert    
Paul Blackwell as Teddy in Faith Healer Belvoir/ MTC

Colin Friels - Francis Hardy

Alison Whyte - Grace
Paul Blackwell - Teddy

Creative Team
Judy Davis - Director
Brian Thomson - Set
Tess Schofield   - Costume
Verity Hampson  - Lighting
Paul Charlier - Composer/ Sound

Monday 6 March 2017

The Full Monty, March 4, 2017 ***

Book by Terrence McNally, music by David Yazbek, produced by StageArt with The National Theatre, Melbourne 
National Theatre, St. Kilda, until March 19, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sat March 4, 2017 

Review also published on Mon March 6, 2017, in Herald Sun Arts online and later in print. KH

You’re a bunch of blokes who suddenly find yourselves unemployed, so why not try making a buck as male strippers – even if you don’t have a six-pack and a fake tan?

The Full Monty is back but, this time, it’s not the 1997 UK film set in the economically depressed city of Sheffield in the North of England, but the American musical adaptation (book by Terrence McNally, music by David Yazbek) that transports the six, unemployed steelworkers to Buffalo, New York.

Divorced dad, Jerry (Scott Mackenzie), is desperate to earn fast cash in order to provide for his son, Nathan (Alexander Glenk).

So, when Jerry and his mate, Dave (Giancarlo Salamanca), sneak a peek at their wives cheering and drooling over the glossy, but very camp, Chippendale male strippers, Jerry dreams up a one-night-only strip show featuring his lovable but talentless mates.

In addition to his plump pal, Dave, Jerry recruits four more amateurs including ‘big, black man’ Horse (Wem Etuknwa), nerdy mummy’s boy, Malcolm (Montgomery Wilson), their former, factory foreman Harold (Darren Mort) and Ethan (Adam Perryman), a newcomer who provides the ‘glitter’ when he takes off his strides.

Drew Downing’s production, with musical direction by Nathan Firmin and choreography by Rhys Velasquez, is a cheerful romp, although the pace is uneven with some slow cueing and scene changes and a few poorly timed sight gags.

Mackenzie is feisty and driven as Jerry, his bold singing doing justice to both the rock numbers and Jerry’s lament, Breeze Off The River, and he capably leads the men in the despairing but rocking chorus, Scrap, when they voice their anger at being scrapped by the steel mill.

The six are a bunch of misfits looking for meaning, respect and employment in their lives and they garner our sympathy as they face their fears and support each other through their journey to ‘the full monty’, when they strip to the skin.

The production really takes off when Etuknawa belts out the sassy Big Black Man, and Act One ends with the men dancing and singing to Michael Jordan’s Ball as their confidence grows.

Another highlight is Wilson and Perryman’s charming and soulful duet, You Walk With Me, and Barbara Hughes as the lads’ brassy, ageing piano accompanist, Jeanette, as she steals the stage singing Jeannette’s Showbiz Number.

The wives take subsidiary roles but their chorus of It’s A Woman’s World, led by Dave’s loving wife, Georgie (Sophie Weiss), characterises their feistiness.

Tazbek’s spirited music ranges from rocking choruses to ballads and laments but, despite Tazbek’s accomplished score, the show misses the recognition factor and pizazz of the movie’s musical selections that included hits such as Tom Jones’ You Can Leave Your Hat On, Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, and Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff.

This production may have its flaws but it is an entertaining and uplifting night in the theatre – although it may leave you with pangs of nostalgia for the original movie.

By Kate Herbert 

Creative Team
Drew Downing director
Nathan Firmin musical direction
Rhys Velasquez choreography

Jerry  - Scott Mackenzie
Dave - Giancarlo Salamanca
Noah Horse - Wem Etuknawa
Malcolm - Montgomery Wilson
Ethan - Adam Perryman
Harold - Darren Mort
Nathan - Alexander Glenk
Pam- Lauren Edwards
Vicki - Ana Mitsikas
Georgie - Sophie Weiss
Jeanette - Barbara Hughes
Estelle - Courtney Glass
Susan - Ashley Noble
Joanie - Anne Gasko

It’s a Woman’s World
Big-Ass Rock
Life With Harold
Big Black Man
You Rule My World
Michael Jordan’s Ball
Jeannette's Showbiz Number
Breeze Off the Rover
The Goods You Walk With Me
You Rule My World
Let it Go

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Ladies in Black, Feb 28, 2017 ***1/2

Book adapted by Carolyn Burns from a novel by Madeleine St John, music and lyrics by Tim Finn
Produced by Queensland Theatre 
Regent Theatre, until March 18, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: 3& 1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed March 1, 2017, then in print. KH.
Cast of Ladies in Black
The cocktail frock section of a 1950s, Sydney department store sounds an unlikely place for a coming-of-age story but, surrounded by taffeta, silk and a diverse group of women, hopeful ingénue, Lisa (Sarah Morrison), learns to be a woman.

Ladies in Black may not be the new, Australian musical that sets the world on fire, but it charms the audience with its simple, engaging stories of the saleswomen who work in F.G. Goodes – a store that resembles Myer and Georges – in 1959, just before the conservative 50s become the unconventional 60s.

Writer, Carolyn Burns, skilfully transforms prose into pert dialogue peppered with funny Australianisms in her adaptation of Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, The Women in Black.

Director, Simon Phillips, fills the stage with loveable characters in intimate vignettes while Andrew Hallsworth provides stage action with his vibrant choreography on Gabriela Tylesova’s elegant, black and silver set design that is offset by a parade of vivaciously coloured frocks.

Tim Finn’s original songs, numbering more than 20, range in style from bold, musical theatre choruses, to sombre laments, romantic ballads, jazz- or blues-influenced tunes and patter songs, all played by a tight, on-stage orchestra led by David Young.

The melodies are not memorable and some cheesy, simplistic lyrics do not always illuminate the characters or their backstories, but a few songs stand out, including the perky and hilarious Bastard Song, sung by a group of Aussie women, and Lisa’s sweet, Broadway-style refrain, Tomorrow Becomes Today.

Morrison’s voice has a bright timbre and a clear, musical theatre tone that suits the role of Lisa as she grows from dowdy, bookworm school-leaver to a stylish, young woman on her way to university to study her beloved literature, despite her father’s (Greg Stone) objections.

The narrative reveals the tales of several women, but the most compelling stories belong to the ‘reffos’, the ‘New Australians’, starting with the sassy and chic Hungarian refugee, Magda, played audaciously by Natalie Gamsu, and Magda’s adoring husband, Stefan (Stone).

But the accolades and the audience cheers belong to Bobby Fox who, whenever he appears as Rudi, the Hungarian Lothario, lights up the stage with his charisma, sensational vocal quality and control and effortless dancing.

Rudi’s final proposal scene with the vivacious and sympathetic Fay (Ellen Simpson) provides a delicious and joyful ending to that couple’s story.

Other narrative threads include those of the childless Patty (Madeleine Jones) and her husband, Frank (Tamlyn Henderson), the quiet Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble) and the efficient Miss Cartwright (Kate Cole).

There is some unevenness in the cast’s singing ability and not all the songs or stories are as engaging as others, but Ladies in Black is a pleasant and optimistic show that will leave you smiling.

By Kate Herbert 

Sarah Morrison- Lisa
 Kate Cole- Miss Cartwright/Joy
Carita Farrer Spencer - Mrs Miles.
Bobby Fox,  Rudi /Lloyd /Fred
Natalie Gamsu – Magda
Madeleine Jones - Patty
Kathryn McIntyre – Myra /Dawn
Trisha Noble – Miss Jacobs/Mrs Brown
Ellen Simpson - Fay
Greg Stone – Mr Miles /Stefan
Tamlyn Henderson- Frank

Gabriela Tylesova Design
David Walters Lighting
Guy Simpson Orchestrations
Andrew Hallsworth choreography