Sunday 23 April 2017

Three Little Words,, April 22, 2017 ***1/2

By Joanna Murray-Smith, Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre The Sumner, until May 27, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 22, 2017
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on April 27, 2017 and in print. KH

Peter Houghton, Catherine McClements- Pic Jeff Busby

Although separation is not a contagious condition, witnessing the breakdown of friends’ relationships may be distressing and it can certainly be unsettling for other couples.

In Three Little Words by Joanna Murray-Smith, Tess and Curtis (Catherine McClements, Peter Houghton) blithely announce to their closest friends, long-term couple, Annie and Bonnie (Kate Atkinson, Katherine Tonkin), that they are splitting after 20 years of wedded bliss.

What follows is the brutal, and often funny dismantling of Tess and Curtis’s marriage as well as the destabilising of Annie and Bonnie’s relationship as they are forced to confront the rusted-on patterns of behaviour in their own, two-decade partnership.

What begins as absurdly reasonable negotiation between Tess and Curtis soon develops into nit-picking criticism that morphs into vindictive arguments then escalates into scrappy, idiotic physical fighting.

Murray-Smith’s quick-witted dialogue and Sarah Goodes’ sleek direction keep the action moving and the emotional conflict searing.

McClements captures Tess’s manipulative and insensitive nature without losing our sympathy, despite Tess being absolutely slappable when she spouts pop psychology, declares her ‘yearnings’ to find herself outside of her marriage, or denigrates Curtis’s choice to be a school teacher.

Houghton convincingly portrays Curtis’s evolution from confused, beleaguered and obliging husband to confident, happy, middle-aged man who moves on with his life – rather too quickly and successfully for the women around him.

Atkinson plays the naive and loving Annie with warmth and sensitivity, allowing her gentle and accepting nature to shine despite the criticism she suffers when Bonnie treats her as a lovable under-achiever.

As Annie’s partner, the capable and high-earning art-dealer, Tonkin balances Bonnie’s patronising and controlling behaviour with her fierce loyalty and inherent goodwill.

In spite of their alarming and childish behaviour and their obvious flaws, all four characters are strangely likeable, perhaps because of the familiarity of their human failings.

The living areas of the two couples’ homes sit atop a suspended, solid square floor that revolves between scenes (design by Michael Hankin), gives the impression of time passing, the world spinning and people changing but the overall effect is disorienting for both audience and characters.

Although the brutality of the demise of Tess and Curtis’s relationship is alarming, it is also recognisable and Murray-Smith’s treatment of it is witty and entertaining.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 22 April 2017

Richard 3, Bell Shakespeare, April 21, 2017 ***1/2

By William Shakespeare, by Bell Shakespeare Company 
At Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until May 7, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 21, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on April 27, 2017 & later in print. KH

Kate_Mulvany_RichardIII_Bell_photo PrudenceUpton

Our world is blighted with political corruption, bloodthirsty despots and blind ambition, so Shakespeare’s manipulative and murderous Richard Plantagenet may have more in common with 21st century leaders than we would like to believe.

In Peter Evans’ production of Richard 3, the diminutive but volatile Kate Mulvany successfully crosses gender to play the notoriously brutal but physically disabled Richard 3 (AKA Richard III, Duke of Gloucester or Richard Plantagenet).

It is testament to the potency of Mulvany’s performance that most of the opening night audience leaps to its feet when the lights fade on her Richard as he lies defeated and alone on the battlefield.

On a set resembling an opulent cocktail lounge (design by Anna Cordingley), Mulvany’s Richard surrounds himself with supporters, frenemies and those who are outright hostile to his naked ambition to become king by murdering his way to the throne.

Even when not in scenes, the actors remain on stage in soft tableaux, watching the unfolding action with trepidation, pleasure or amusement, all of which emphasises the intense, dangerous and claustrophobic quality of the royal court; nobody can leave and their loyalties are constantly tested.

Mulvany’s painfully contorted, physical portrayal of Richard is compelling – in a ‘can’t look away’ way – and expresses literally Shakespeare’s characters’ grotesque descriptions of Richard as a ‘bottled spider’, ‘lump of foul deformity’ and ‘poisonous, bunch-back’d toad’.

Any wonder a man who suffers such cruel abuse and ridicule from family and peers – even from his mother – becomes a villainous, sadistic, misogynistic and resentful loner bent on a power grab.

Mulvany’s depiction of this smiling, witty and intelligent villain is credible from the very start of Richard’s famous, opening soliloquy, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’, when she establishes Richard’s credentials as a scathing, scheming, Machiavellian leader.

Against our better judgment and despite Richard’s viciousness, Mulvany cunningly garners our grudging sympathy for Richard when we witness his increasing isolation and the abuse he endures.

Mulvany’s Richard is often funny, but her conspiratorial winks and grimaces to the audience sometimes dilute the impact of Richard’s vile machinations when significant or grim moments elicit unexpected or inappropriate laughs.

Evans’ choice to set the play in a modern but unspecified period, during which characters appear to be at a boozy party, is inventive, while his use of unaccompanied singing during scene changes is atmospheric.

Most, if not all of the script adaptations are effective, but the altered final scene, with its borrowed excerpt from Henry VI, Part 3, sees Richard, not Richmond, closing the play, and this provides the opportunity for the crowd to cheer Mulvany at the end.

A cast of nine supports Mulvany, with the women playing single characters, while most of the men play multiple roles that depict the constantly changing parade of Richard’s supporters and opponents.
Kate_Mulvany & cast RichardIII_photo_PrudenceUpto
James Evans plays the dignified kingmaker, Buckingham, Gareth Reeves is the trusting Clarence, Ivan Donato the homicidal Tyrell, James Lugton portrays snooty Rivers, and Kevin MacIsaac is both King Edward and the invading upstart, Richmond.

Meredith Penman’s Elizabeth captures the emotional torment of the widowed queen and mother of the murdered heir to the throne, while Rose Riley, as Lady Anne, is suitably timid and confused by Richard’s seduction.

Sarah Woods finds passion in the Duchess of York’s disdainful and harsh attack on her son, Richard, while Sandy Gore delivers Queen Margaret’s venomous curses with cold restraint, although her style is too mannered to be threatening.

Mulvany inhabits the role of Richard with relish and this production, although not entirely successful, is certainly an interesting re-imagining of Shakespeare’s vile usurper, Richard 3.

By Kate Herbert

Gareth Reeves,Ivan Donato,Rose Riley,James Lugton,Meredith Penman,James Evans,Sandy Gore, Kevin MacIsaac & Sarah Woods

Director Peter Evans
Designer Anna Cordingley
Lighting Designer Benjamin Cisterne
Composer Steve Toulmin
Sound Designer Michael Toisuta
Movement & Fight Director Nigel Poulton
Dramaturg Kate Mulvany
Voice Coach Jess Chambers

Thursday 20 April 2017

Aladdin - The Musical, April 20, 2017 ****

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice & Chad Beguelin; Book by Chad Beguelin
Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions; based on the Disney animated movie, Aladdin 
At Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, until August 27,  2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Thurs April 20, 2017 
 Review published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs April 20, 2017
Genie - Michael James Scott_Photo By Deen van Meer

With its blazing jewel colours and the electrifying energy of Michael James Scott as the audacious Genie, this luscious production of Aladdin ignites the stage at Her Majesty’s on its Melbourne opening night.

In this stage musical based on the 1992 Disney animated movie, Aladdin (Ainsley Melham) is a poor thief who falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Hiba Elchikhe), stumbles upon a magic lamp, then enlists the help of the Genie in the lamp (Scott) to secure his marriage to Jasmine.

Aladdin is an effervescent, musical romance for the whole family with its jaunty, singable tunes (Alan Menken) that draw on a range of music styles, witty lyrics (Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Chad Beguelin) and a cheeky, comical story (book by Beguelin).

Casey Nicholaw’s direction, staging and vivacious choreography drive the production at a lively pace and owe a great deal to the Broadway and Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s, which is exemplified by the feverish, tap-dancing routine in the Cave of Wonders.

The non-human stars of the show are the lavish set (Bob Crowley) and vivid costumes (Gregg Barnes) that echo the opulence of the fabled Arabian Nights with Moorish tiles, Middle Eastern minarets, decorative screens, draped silks, sequins and gem-encrusted fabrics.

The colours are almost lickable with their rich turquoise, royal purple and blue, magenta, emerald green and gold – lots of gold.
 Friend Like Me-Michael James Scott, Ainsley Melham with cast. Photo Deen van Meer 

Scott is charismatic and mischievous as the Genie, commanding the show with his rich voice, irresistible energy and ratcheting the entertainment level up several gears with his sassy, sexy, show-stopping number, Friend Like Me that brought the audience to its feet.

Melham has a boyish charm as Aladdin, and his voice has a bright timbre and attractive vibrato as he sings Aladdin’s poignant ballad, Proud Of Your Boy, and leads the chorus in the perky, pacey song, One Jump Ahead.

Elchikhe is pert and spirited as Jasmine and Melham’s voice blends well with her warm and pretty tone in their romantic duet, the Oscar-winning tune, A Whole New World, which is literally elevated to new heights as the couple soars over the stage on a magic carpet that defies explanation.

Adam Murphy is the consummate dastardly villain as Jafar, the evil Grand Vizier who carries a cobra-headed staff and communes with his sly sidekick, Iago, played with comic book deviousness by the diminutive Aljin Abella.

Aladdin’s loyal trio of thieving paupers comprises Adam-Jon Fiorentino as feisty Kassim, Troy Sussman as ever-hungry Babkak and Robert Tripolino as sensitive Omar, and their goofy, comic business and song and dance routines are highlights. George Henare is dignified as the beleaguered Sultan.

Aladdin pulsates with vitality and its simple and familiar story of love and magic overcoming adversity and rigid tradition will win the hearts of audiences of all ages.

By Kate Herbert
Casey Nicholaw - Director
Bob Crowley - Set Design
Gregg Barnes - Costume
Nastasha Katz - Lighting

Michael James Scott - Genie
Ainsley Melham - Aladdin
Hiba Elchikhe - Jasmine
Adam Murphy Jafar – Grand Vizie
Aljin Abella - Iago  
Adam Jon Florentino- Kassim
Troy Sussman - Babkak
Robert Tripolino-  Omar
George Henare - Sultan

Act 1
Arabian Nights
One Jump Ahead
Proud of You Boy
These Palace Walls
Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim
A Million Miles Away
Diamond in the Rough
Friend Like Me Genie
Act 2
Prince Ali
A Whole New World
High Adventure
Somebody’s Got Your back
Proud of You Boy - Reprise
Prince Ali -Sultan Reprise
Prince Ali  -Jafar Reprise
Finale Ultimo

Thursday 13 April 2017

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, April 12, 2017 ***1/2

By Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Aurora Nova
Arts Centre Melbourne, The Pavilion; 12 monthly performances. (Next performance by John Wood on May 6, 2017) 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on April 12, 2017 
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun online on Thurs April 13, 2017 and later in print. 
 Eddie Perfect
Picture this! You are a well-known actor standing on stage in front of 200 people and you are about to perform a solo show – about which you know absolutely nothing! An Actor’s Nightmare, or an exhilarating, theatrical experience?

Looking both eager and vulnerable, Eddie Perfect opens a large, sealed envelope, withdraws a script and embarks on a ‘cold read’ that is a one-hour performance of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, an idiosyncratic and challenging play by Iranian writer, Nassim Soleimanpour.

Each month, a different actor will perform Soleimanpour’s experimental piece, but Perfect is the first rabbit in the headlights; a frisson of excitement and trepidation ripples across the audience as he reads his instructions – and ours – from the crisp, new script while he narrates Soleimampour’s disarming story.

I’ll not ruin the experience with spoilers, but suffice to say the performance is often funny, sometimes menacing, always engaging and accessible and it involves some obligatory audience participation.

Soleimanpour addresses us through his ‘dear actor’ who relates a tale about white and red rabbits that crosses borders and languages, making audience members confront their own humanity and consider life, death and freedom.

In a state of cheerful naiveté, Perfect leads us on this emotional and intimate journey that challenges us gently to think about how fortunate we are in our safe country.

The play has travelled the world without its writer who is forbidden to leave Iran, but Soleimanpour seems eerily present throughout the show.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be different every month, and the next actor to take up this unknown script written by a distant writer will be John Wood on May 6, 2017.

By Kate Herbert
  Eddie Perfect with audience members

Monday 10 April 2017

Stand Up For Mehdi, April 10, 2017 ***1/2

Eight committed comics use their material for good in a one-off charity show to raise funds for the Human Rights Law Centre. 
Melbourne International Comedy Festival 
Australian & International acts
Lower Melbourne Town Hall, one night only, April 10, 2017 
Stars: ***1/2 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on April 11, 2017
Iranian comedian Mehdi Savari
Monday is the comedians’ night off, but eight committed comics take to the stage on their precious off-night to use their material for good in a charity show to raise funds for the Human Rights Law Centre.

Stand Up For Mehdi, hosted by Tom Ballard, is a tribute to Mehdi Savari, an Iranian comedian who became a refugee and has been detained on Manus Island for nearly four years.

Tom Ballard is the show’s fast-moving, cheerfully wicked MC, and his acerbic and funny opening routine shines a bright light on the flaws in Australia’s treatment of refugees, with a particularly severe view of our Minister for Immigration.

Ballard accompanies his rapid rant with a slide show of entertaining images as well as some snaps of a smiling Mehdi.

The first of the overseas acts is David O’Doherty, a droll Irishman who underscores his witty ramblings with hilarious backing music on a keyboard that perches on his lap. O’Doherty is avidly trying to be hauled in by Customs at our airport so he can feature on Border Security.

Two local comics follow: Judith Lucy is as laconic and dry-witted as ever with her fractured tales of ageing and about her (much) younger boyfriend, while Claire Hooper bemoans the travails of being a mum with two kids – two is enough, it seems.

South African comic, Loyiso Gola, bluntly and hilariously tells us Aussies to stop bloody complaining about every little thing when we have such a great life. So it’s raining! It’s just rain!

Next, Sami Shah, who is formerly from Pakistan, explains that Mehdi’s name means ‘the one who comes to save the world’.

The inimitable UK comic, Daniel Kitson, brings his gentle cynicism and fierce intellect to seven minutes, much shorter than his usual ‘powerful, long-form narrative’ shows, but he is both wildly entertaining and challenging in these few minutes musing on social change.

Musical trio, Tripod, closes the show with three songs, one telling us that Santa is an unwanted refugee and a final, original tune that is a moving reminder about living behind bars and craving freedom.

If we are no yet sufficiently reminded of our privileged lives, Daniel Webb from the Human Right Law Centre delivers an address about refugees and reads a moving message from Mehdi who hopes to join us at the Comedy Festival in 2018 – if he is released from Manus Island by then.
By Kate Herbert

Sunday 9 April 2017

James Acaster in The Trelogy, April 8, 2017 ****

Melbourne International Comedy Festival 
International act (UK) 
Lower Town Hall, Melbourne Town Hall, until April 16, 2017 
Stars: **** 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on April 9, 2017. KH
 With his auburn hair and fair complexion, UK comedian James Acaster could be a lost Weasley brother and his eccentric and brain-bending comedy would certainly meet that wizard family’s standards.

Acaster’s absurd storytelling, nerdy style and quirky delivery are unlike any other comic and this is a welcome relief in a festival riddled with cookie-cutter stand-ups.

He is thin as a reed with a twitchy, birdlike manner and a peculiar, tilting physicality that sees him leading from the knees – or sometimes from the pelvis – so that he appears to be about to topple backwards.

With his weird magic, he weaves several stories together, starting with a philosophical voice over in the dark about the start of the universe, then surprises the crowd with his version of ‘celebrity gossip’ that involves those almost-forgotten Chilean miners.

He meanders skillfully into rambling tales of his jury duty, playing Devil’s Advocate, discussing the verdict and assessing the level of likeability of the members of said jury.

Acaster recollects his childhood as ‘a little Christian boy’, talks about the perils of Secret Santa and reveals the inexplicably oddball, UK Christmas ritual known as ‘Kris Tingle’ that involves an orange, a candle and – well – you’ve gotta see it to believe it!

His fractured fable, The Goose and the Sloth, is a hilariously bizarre conflation of morality tales and his horror story about the dentist’s waiting room is like no other.

Acaster is a master of reincorporation and he teases and tests the audience as he reintroduces references from earlier in the show, checking if they remember them and expertly using silence to titillate his audience as they wait for his segue into the next mad story.

The Trelogy is actually three, different Acaster shows – Recognise, Represent and Reset – that Acaster performs in turn over his season so you could see him three times and witness a totally new show each time. And he uses no expletives at all!

James Acaster is unique and you’ll sit open-mouthed watching this totally bonkers comedian.
Recognise (2014) on 4, 7, 11, 14 Apr (not previously seen in Melbourne)

Represent (2015) on 5, 8, 12, 15 Apr

Reset (2016) on 6, 9, 13, 16 Apr
By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Completely Improvised Potter, April 4, 2017 **

In Completely Improvised Potter, the cast improvise a new narrative based on the characters in the Harry Potter books. 
Melbourne International Comedy Festival
By D.A. -Australian act, improvised theatre 
At Trades Hall, The Meeting Room, until April 23, 2017 
Star Review: ** 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts on April 5, 2017. KH
If you are an improvisation expert or a Harry Potter purist, this 50-minute improvised story may turn your Dumbledore-style beard grey.

In Completely Improvised Potter, seven performers make up a new story based on the narrative style, characters, relationships and themes of J K Rowling’s books.

The starting point for their original, improvised play is the title of an as-yet-unwritten Harry Potter novel that they pull out of a ‘goblet of fire’ filled with audience suggestions. Tonight’s title is Harry Potter and the Trumpet. Yeah, they could have inserted a useful word such as ‘enchanted’ or ‘cursed’, but the details of this trumpety tale are now the responsibility of the players.

Snape must rehearse the Hogwarts’ Orchestra to play his original composition at the Yule Ball, but none of the students can play an instrument, Voldemort lurks around the castle doing nasty, sexual things with Nargini the snake, and Harry behaves like a bit of a whinging smart alec.

The youthful audience laughs at absurd or familiar character traits such as Harry’s smugness, his constant attention seeking and continual whining about his dead parents. They chortle at Snape’s sliminess, at Dumbledore’s weirdly piping voice and camp demeanour and at Neville’s adolescent crush on Harry.

Unfortunately, this show looks and sounds like a very bumpy student show, so do not expect high quality improvisational technique or acting and vocal skill. Improvising a full-length play is not child’s play and it requires enormous skill and extensive technique. This cast might be better at improvising shorter scenes that are easier to control.

The performers break just about every improvisational rule: the narrative is inconsistent and lacks a clear through-line, the performers block each other’s offers, they don’t advance the action and rely too heavily on gags for their laughs, and these interrupt the advancement of the story.

They laugh at each other and at their own jokes, they are often inaudible, the performances lack dynamic range and there is little physicality, a problem that makes the staging static and visually uninspiring.

Despite its obvious flaws, Completely Improvised Potter is a cheerful, playful evening for those who know the Potter books. We can only hope that D.A. got the performance rights from Rowling – because she’ll find out! Expelliarmus!

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 1 April 2017

Jenny Eclair, March 31, 2017 ****

Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Jenny Eclair in How To Be A Middle Aged Woman (Without Going Insane) 
International act (UK) 
At Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne until April 23, 2017
Stars: **** 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on April 1, 2017
Jenny Eclair pounds around the stage like a menopausal storm trooper in her show, How To Be A Middle Aged Woman (Without Going Insane).

When she says she’s hot, she means in a sticky, sweaty, hot-flushed way, not in the sexy, sassy, I-look-great-in-a-bikini way.

To a chorus of audience hoots and gasps, Eclair bustles on stage wearing only her skimpies: a slightly saggy, white bra and black, snug-fitting knickers with lacy bits. (That’s no spoiler as she wears precisely this outfit in her poster.)

For one hour, in her audacious, outrageous and shameless way, Eclair scuttles about, grimacing and growling about the horrors of middle age and, more specifically, the disaster that is menopause.

The 57-year old Eclair may be bemoaning her scaly, flabby, sweaty, slovenly condition, but she cleverly integrates merciless attacks on some pet subjects that include ‘Poor Madonna’ (who’s a year older than Eclair) and her Cuban boy-lovers, Simon Cowell, and the impossibility of wearing jeans at 57.

She peppers her hilariously wicked tales of womanly woe with rude language, risqué topics, references to bodily functions and private bits, all delivered with a belligerent feistiness that is simultaneously alarming and refreshing.

This is identification comedy that draws a crowd of women of a certain age who squeal or howl as they recognise themselves in Eclair’s startling anecdotes about old people’s drugs, supermarket blues, losing the fighting against cellulite and giving in to knitting.

Eclair’s a wonderfully wild child with a wild past and, by the looks of it, an even wilder future.

By Kate Herbert