Monday 31 July 2017

Bowie & Mercury Rising, July 27, 2017

Created by Warren Wills
At Chapel off Chapel, until July 30, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 27, 2017
Stars: **1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs July 27, 2017 & later in print. KH
 Thando Sikwila, Jess Mortlock, Warren Wills

Warren Wills’ piano playing and inventive musical arrangements are the great strength and focus of Bowie & Mercury Rising, Wills’ tribute to his musical heroes, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury.

Wills, an accomplished musician and musical director, is the sole instrumentalist in this show and his arrangements for piano and electronic keyboard have an expansive, almost orchestral quality.

Powerhouse vocalist, Thando Sikwila, joins Wills on stage to sing an eclectic selection of Bowie and Queen hits, ranging from Bowie’s Life on Mars, Suffragette City, Heroes and Space Oddity to Queen’s We Will Rock You and We are the Champions.

Sikwila’s performance is refreshingly unembellished and her rich, controlled voice can be thrilling and moving; the show would improve if she were let off the leash throughout, as she was in the bold, jazz-style finale of Heroes.

Despite the musical successes, the component parts of this production do not form a cohesive whole and the problems start with the repetitive choreography (Jess Mortlock) and Sikwila’s awkward dialogue delivered at irregular intervals between songs.

Mortlock is a capable dancer, but her choreographic interludes are overwrought, do not illuminate the songs and are not effectively integrated with the singer and musician.
 Thando Sikwila, Warren Wills
Wills’ concept for the show is unclear and the dialogue, although sometimes quirky and diverting, is often confusing, providing no through-line or narrative.

The projected images are sometimes enlightening but more often distracting, and the lighting (Jason Bovaird) needs simplifying to maintain the focus on music and lyrics.

This production is crying out for a writer and, more urgently, a theatrical director, to find a narrative and conceptual thread to link the components and give greater insight into Bowie and Mercury.

This show would be far more successful if it limited its scope to being a short concert cabaret with a tight focus on Wills, the pianist, and Sikwila, the singer.  I’d happily watch that show.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 21 July 2017

The Merchant of Venice, July 20, 2017 ***1/2

By William Shakespeare, Bell Shakespeare 
At Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 30, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 20, 2017
Stars: ***1/2

 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Fri July 21, 2017 & later in print. KH
Jo Turner, Mitchell Butel, photo Prudence Upton 
In the past, as in this modern world, seemingly good, generous or religious people can be cruel, vindictive and tribal in their treatment of those who they consider different – and so it goes in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Anne-Louise Sarks’ spirited production for Bell Shakespeare views the play through a 21st century lens, with the young Venetians dressed in contemporary garb and revelling like modern, privileged, narcissistic night-clubbers.

The difference is that these young people identify as Christians and, as such, they condemn the Venetian Jews’ practice of lending money at exorbitant interest rates.

The successful, popular but disconsolate merchant, Antonio (Jo Turner), borrows a large sum from Shylock (Mitchell Butel), a Jewish moneylender, to assist his friend, Bassanio (Damien Strouthos), to woo the lady, Portia (Jessica Tovey).

Although Antonio has abused and spat upon him, Shylock agrees to an interest-free loan but his contract demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot repay the loan within three months.

The beginning of this production is vivacious and mischievous, with characters delivering good-humoured laughs – until Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Felicity McKay), abandons, betrays and steals from her doting father to elope with Bassanio to Belmont.

Butel is exceptional as Shylock, giving a sensitive, nuanced performance that balances Shylock’s piety and moral code with his humour, his vengefulness and, finally, his despair when he loses his worldly goods, his daughter, his religion and his dignity.

Even when not in scenes, Butel lingers at the perimeter as a reminder of Shylock’s vendetta and his cruel suffering, his head lowered, and, at the end, stripped of his religious garb.

The court scene is compelling (although not as riveting as it could be) when Shylock demands his pound of flesh until Portia annihilates his argument, but the second half of the production flags after Shylock’s courtroom failure.

It is hard not to wonder whether Shakespeare condemned or condoned the Venetians’ abusive treatment of Shylock.  These Venetian Christians speak about love but demand money; they prate about mercy but show none.
 Mitchell Butel, photo Prudence Upton

Eugene Gilfedder provides two marvellous cameos as Arragon, Portia’s supercilious suitor, and as Tubal, Shylock’s temperate, Jewish friend.

Jacob Warner’s Launcelot is a charmingly boyish clown while Damien Strouthos (Bassanio), Fayssal Bazzi (Gratiano) and Shiv Palekar  (Lorenzo) make a robust band of playfellows, although Turner’s Antonio lacks the charisma needed to make Antonio the beloved centre of this merry gang.

Meanwhile, Tovey’s Portia is feisty and Catherine Davies is ebullient as her servant, Nerissa.

The final scenes of the young Venetians’ merriment, although lively and playful, feel laboured and overly long, undercutting the dynamic range of earlier scenes.

This production is diverting and challenging, and it is impossible not to compare the bigotry in this play with current socio-political situations.

By Kate Herbert 

Mitchell Butel (Shylock), Fayssal Bazzi (Gratiano), Catherine Davies (Nerissa), Eugene Gilfedder (Arragon / Tubal / Duke), Shiv Palekar (Lorenzo / Morocco), Damien Strouthos (Bassanio), Jessica Tovey (Portia), Jo Turner (Antonio) and Jacob Warner (Launcelot), Felicity McKay (Jessica).

Director - Anne-Louise Sarks
 Lighting Designer - Paul Jackson
Composer & Sound Designer - Max Lyandvert
Voice Coach -Jess Chambers
Dramaturg - Benedict Hardie
 Felicity McKay, Jessica Tovey, Shiv Palekar

Thursday 20 July 2017

Incognito, July 19, 2017, (PREVIEW) ***1/2

Written by Nick Payne, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
At Red Stitch Theatre, until Aug 13, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 19, 2017
Stars: ***/2 
NB: I reviewed a PREVIEW of this production on Wed July 19, 2017, with the permission of Red Stitch Actors' Theatre.
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs July 20, 2017, and in print on Fri July 21, 2017. KH
 Jing-Xuan Chan, Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole & Paul Ashcroft_ Photo Teresa Noble

The human brain is uncharted and incomprehensible territory and Incognito, by UK playwright Nick Payne, challenges our understanding of the brain, the mind, memory and our notions of the self.

Payne’s play, which is co-directed sensitively and imaginatively by Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins in this production, interweaves three stories, two of which are factual.

In 1955, after performing Albert Einstein’s autopsy, Princeton pathologist, Thomas Harvey (Ben Prendergast), steals Einstein’s brain to study it; in the UK in 1953, Henry (Paul Ashcroft) loses his capacity to create new memories after an operation to cure his epilepsy; and in the present, Martha (Kate Cole), a recently divorced neuropsychologist, struggles to treat her patients and to manage her personal and emotional life.

Each of the four, talented actors plays multiple roles, transitioning frequently and almost seamlessly between stories with a shift of character, accent, physicality or attitude.

Ashcroft has the most poignant and heart-breaking scenes, portraying the gentle Henry who politely and repeatedly introduces himself, is surprised and delighted by Margaret (Jing-Xuan Chan), his wife’s arrival, or confused by her absence.

Cole gives a compelling performance as both Martha, who wrestles with her newfound passion for feisty solicitor, Patricia (Chan), and as Harvey’s beleaguered wife who despairs at her husband’s obsession with Einstein’s brain.

Prendergast balances vulnerability with mania in his depiction of Harvey, and Chan brings warmth and sadness to Margaret, Henry’s loving, young wife.

Chloe Greaves’ design, with its mesh of black threads criss-crossing over the tiny stage, creates a symbolic representation of the complexity of our cerebral synapses, while Tom Willis’ dim lighting evokes the brain’s murky depths and a series of dangling lamps suggests our occasional light bulb moments.

Payne’s three narrative threads are not always fully integrated into a unified whole, but this play is thought provoking and moving. What more do you want from a play about the mind?

By Kate Herbert
Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole_ Photo Teresa Noble

Monday 17 July 2017

Next Fall, July 14, 2017 **1/2

by Geoffrey Nauffts, presented by Boyslikeme 
at Chapel of Chapel, until July 30, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: **1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon July 17, 2017 & later in print. KH

Geoffrey Nauffts’ Tony-nominated script for Next Fall depicts a poignant love story between two seemingly mismatched men, but the play also uses humour and pathos to illuminate issues including closeted sexuality, religious bigotry and marriage inequality.

Adam (Darrin Redgate), a 40 year-old, frustrated writer who sells candles in his friend Holly’s (Sharon Davis) shop, falls in love with 20-something Luke (Mark Davis), a law school dropout, aspiring actor and conservative Christian whose judgmental religious views condemn even his own sexuality.

Luke believes that The Rapture will elevate only ‘believers’ like him into heaven and, to ensure his soul’s safety in the afterlife, he prays for forgiveness after sex. Meanwhile, Adam worries about phantom illnesses and argues about God and politics.

Peter Blackburn’s production requires greater subtlety to express the complex personal and political issues that arise when Luke is hospitalised and Adam must share a bedside vigil with Luke’s parents (Kaarin Fairfax, Paul Robertson) who are ignorant of Luke’s sexuality and his relationship with Adam.

Naufft’s play shifts between past and present, depicting the current circumstances in which Luke’s loved ones wrestle with grief, and a happier past when odd couple, Adam and Luke, fell in love and struggled with their differing views.

Unfortunately, the staging is awkward in this production, with a wide, green curtain splitting the performance space into zones that represent a hospital waiting room at the front, and Adam and Luke’s apartment lurking behind the curtain.

Scene changes are clumsy, the pace bumpy, the acting uneven and the inconsistent production does not successfully balance the comedy and tragedy of Naufft’s play.

Davis has a simple charm as Luke, although it is difficult to accept this apparently educated young man’s stubborn bigotry.

While Redgate captures the nervy bluntness of the insecure hypochondriac, Adam, his unfocussed gaze is distracting and his performance lacks dynamic range and emotional nuance.

Fairfax is sympathetic and credible as Luke’s eccentric and confused mother, Arlene, who abandoned Luke when he was a child to pursue a life without responsibility.

The discomfort of the hospital vigil is increased by the presence of Luke’s belligerent father, played with brutal bluster by Robertson, and Luke’s closeted gay, Christian friend, Brandon (James Biasetto).

Next Fall should be achingly emotional, but the tragedy of Luke’s accident and Adam’s unacknowledged grief and lost love are not fully realised in this production.

By Kate Herbert

The Time of Their Lives- Movie Review - July 17, 2017 ***

104 mins, Rated M
In cinemas nationally August 10, 2017
Written & directed by Roger Goldby
Cast: Pauline Collins, Joan Collins, Franco Nero, Ronald Pickup,  Sian Reeves, Joely Richardson, Allene Quincy
Reviewed by Kate Herbert
Stars: ***
Joan Collins, Pauline Collins, Franco Nero in The Time of Their Lives
 The Time of Their Lives is a charming, diverting and bitter-sweet road-trip movie about two older women, Priscilla and Helen, an odd couple played by Pauline Collins and Joan Collins.

When timid Priscilla Pauline Collins) is a repressed housewife married to selfish killjoy, Frank (Ronald Pickup) meets Helen (Joan Collins), a broke, former Hollywood star living in a cheerless retirement home, Priscilla finds herself reluctantly joining Helen on a jaunt to gate-crash a funeral in France.

Using Priscilla cash and Helen’s other resources, they embark on a trek to the ritzy Ile-de-Re, they stumble upon reclusive, famous and wealthy Italian painter, Alberto (Franco Nero) and this love triangle does not go the way any of them planned.

Their lives change as each challenges the other's worldview and a new, more honest friendship is forged.
Kate Herbert

Thursday 13 July 2017

Noises Off, July 12, 2017 ***

By Michael Frayn, by Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company 
At Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until August 12, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts Online on Thurs July 13, 207, and later in print. KH
 Noises Off_ Nicki Wendt, Louise Siversen- photo Stephen Henry
 Noises Off by Michael Frayn is a rollicking, English farce about a play-within-a-play that goes completely off the rails both on the stage and behind the scenes.

Noises Off bounced onto the London stage in 1982 with its boisterous physical comedy and cleverly constructed comic narrative, then Frayn repeatedly reworked the script for ensuing seasons.

Sam Strong’s production, with its talented ensemble, is partially successful in delivering Frayn’s verbal and physical comedy, eliciting big laughs when actors forget lines, get drunk, fall over, drop their trousers or lose props.

Each of the three acts of Noises Off contains the first act of a deplorable, amateurish, bedroom farce called Nothing On.

Firstly, we witness a disastrous dress rehearsal, then backstage mayhem during a matinee and, finally, a performance near the end of the tour in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

The opening scenes are very funny, particularly with Louise Siversen hilariously switching accents and physicality as Dotty, the addled star of Nothing On who in turn plays chatty housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett.

The Act Two antics are another highlight, as characters struggle silently but frenetically to stop the backstage bedlam of lovers’ tiffs, cruel pranks and even an axe-attack, bleeding into the onstage performance.

Simon Burke is suitably pompous and sarcastic as Lloyd, the director of Nothing On who is having it off with despondent Assistant Stage Manager, Poppy (Emily Goddard), and with ditzy, short-sighted Brooke (Libby Munro), the barely-clothed ingénue.

Hugh Parker captures the vibrating anxiety of needy actor, Freddie, and Nicki Wendt has an entertainingly wry quality as sensible Belinda who unsuccessfully mediates off-stage conflicts and desperately tries to save the show onstage.

Ray Chong Nee performs a comically daring slapstick tumble down stairs but is not always credible as Cockney Garry, while James Saunders captures the frantic edginess of Tim, the over-worked Stage Manager, and Steven Tandy is effectively daffy as Selsdon, the boozy, elderly actor.

The classic farce elements of Frayn’s play demand tight cueing, impeccable comic timing and a relentless pace, but this production, despite having some neatly staged and funny scenes, falters at times and loses its rhythm.

The timing must be perfect at every moment for all elements of a classic farce – doors opening, shutting and jamming, actors banging into walls, falling over furniture, losing clothes and props – for it to be successful.

Despite these issues, the audience is enthusiastic and entertained by this rowdy, spirited performance of Frayn’s classic farce.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 9 July 2017

Nella’s Wings, July 4, 2017 ***1/2

Performed and devised by Sue Wallace
By Sydney Puppet Theatre, Melbourne Festival of Puppetry 2017 
At La Mama, Festival runs until July 9, Nella’s Wings runs until July 6, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***1/2

 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Fri July 57, 2017. KH

Puppets can do things that humans can’t and Nella’s Wings is a story about a puppet-child who dreams of flying.

Nella never speaks but she indulges her passion for flight by drawing creatures that fly and, to the delight of the four to eight year olds, joyfully conjures the locations where they live.

In this charming, gentle performance directed by Annie Forbes, puppeteer, Sue Wallace, performs with Nella, a sweet, enigmatic and colourful hand-held puppet, animating Nella’s chalk drawings and turning her fantasies into flying creatures and vivid landscapes.

The set design (Lucy Nias) is spare and simple, featuring an old, wooden school desk in which Nella sleeps and dreams, a white screen on which shadow puppets magically appear, and a series of painted, embroidered and padded cloths to provide scenery.

The children participate willingly and vocally, responding to Nella’s sketches by calling out, ‘It’s a penguin!’ or ‘It’s a balloon!’ or ‘Use the feathers!’ and commiserating with ‘Poor Nella’ when her dreams of flying seem doomed.

Wallace hums, sings and whispers to Nella and enlivens her imaginings, sending the audience first to an owl’s nest where a mother owl flaps and frets while feeding her chirping, hungry owlets.

Wallace then transports us to the desert and Uluru where the children giggle when a goofy camel dumps a huge dropping that then causes a mid-air fight between brightly hued, flying bugs.

On the shadow screen, a penguin (‘They can’t fly’, a child reminds us) swims with the fish, dodging greedy sharks, then, in an enchanting vignette, a burbling baby plays with a gossamer-light butterfly.

This simple tale of dreams and flight engages and entrances the littlies and, if you miss this one, it is not the only puppetry show on at La Mama this week.

In the courtyard outside the theatre, a Puppet Picnic takes place where the children can interact with a tiny monkey, multiple dinosaurs, a slow tortoise and its foxy friend.

The Melbourne Festival of Puppetry is host to about 20 performances and workshops by Australian and overseas artists, including Arkipelago 2: A Story of Intima-Sea by Anino Shadowplay Collective from The Phillippines, a family show about the people’s relationship with the sea.

See programme for Melbourne Festival of Puppetry here:

By Kate Herbert

Performed & devised by Sue Wallace
Director Annie Forbes
Designer Lucy Nias
Music by Steve Coupe

Play Along With Sam, July 4, 2017 ***1/2

By Sam Moran, Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival 
At Chapel off Chapel
Roola Boola Festival runs until July 14
Performance program runs until July 7, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed July 5, 2017& late in print (Fri 7 July). KH

You may recognise Sam Moran as a former Wiggle but also, more recently, from his children’s music show, Play Along With Sam, that runs on Nickelodeon’s sister channel, Nick Jr.

As part of the Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival, Moran performs his 50-minute stage version of Play Along With Sam in which he sings his peppy, singable signature tunes for an enthusiastic audience of under-sixes.

Two youthful dancers (Jayme-Jo Massoud and Miah Rose Lake) support Moran with perky choreography that is simple enough for the children to imitate, and they do – they all excitedly dance, skip, jump and wave their arms around in their seats.

Sporting a white safari jacket and a pith helmet, Moran performs in front of a huge, colourful banner that proclaims ‘Play Along With Sam’ and, accompanied by a recorded backing track, sings his songs that include bouncy tunes, cheerful singalongs, a Caribbean rhythm and even a rock number.

He starts the show with one of his most popular tunes called Best. Day. Ever! and, after some warm-ups of finger-wagging and toe-wiggling, the kids eagerly join Moran in playing mime instruments to create a band in his song, San Sereni.

They gleefully jump, march and skip to Dance to the Beat, then practice their counting in Count With Me (1, 2, 3) and also in Cuckoo when they count to twelve as the cuckoo clock counts through the hours.
 Play Along with Sam -L-R Miah Rose Lake, Sam Moran,  Jayme-Jo Massoud
The Sam Moran hits keep coming, including Building It Up, the beachside playtime about building sand castles, the multi-lingual All Around The World, and Taalee, a title that means ‘clap’ in Hindi.

Moran delivers a couple of songs about food, the first being I’m So Hungry and, after the kids declare their favourite foods, he sings and dances a song called Spaghetti, during which the children wiggle and squirm like spaghetti noodles.

The show finishes with a finale of Up Down Turn Around that has the pint-sized audience – and some parents – merrily reaching up, dropping down and spinning around.

Play Along With Sam has only two performances but, if you are keen to get to a show or a workshop, visit the Roola Boola Programme here:

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Merrily We Roll Along, June 30 2017 **1/2

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth
Based on the play by George F. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Production by Watch This
At Southbank Theatre, The Lawler, until July 15, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on June 30, 2017
Stars: **1/2

Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Mon July 3, 2017, and later in print. KH
Nelson Gardner, Nicole Melloy & Lyall Brooks - photo by Jodie Hutchinson 

Merrily We Roll Along features an admirable score by Stephen Sondheim, but it flopped when it opened on Broadway in 1981 and, even after more recent rewrites and awards, it continues to be problematic to stage.

The narrative (book by George Furth) travels in reverse from 1976 to 1957, telling the story of Franklin (Frank) Shepard (Lyall Brooks), a gifted composer who becomes a successful movie producer by pursuing money and fame at the expense of his musical vocation, his friendships and his marriage.

In the first scene in 1976, Frank’s dear friend, Mary (Nicole Melloy), a published novelist who is now a jaded, resentful and booze-addled drama critic, criticises Frank’s life choices and reminds him about his ex-friend and co-writer of successful musicals, Charley Kringas (Nelson Gardner), now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Despite the distinction of Sondheim’s singable tunes and witty lyrics, the reverse chronological structure can be confusing for an audience, and in this production the flaws are amplified by the uneven quality of the singing, some melodramatic acting and intermittently clunky direction (Sara Grenfell) and choreography (David Wynen).

Furth’s script does not create fully rounded characters and Frank is not a sympathetic character so, although Brooks is engaging as the younger Frank, he sometimes pushes too hard to make the older Frank funny or charming, making the character look like a buffoon.

Gardner captures Charley’s earnestness, commitment and moral code and delivers with skill and passion Charley’s song, Franklin Shepard Inc., a scathing, rapid-fire attack on Frank’s relentless ambition, although Gardner’s later songs lack some vocal control.

Melloy’s vocal skill does justice to Sondheim’s music and she successfully expresses a range of emotion as the insecure and lovelorn Mary, who tries for two decades to hide her unrequited love for Frank.

With solo piano providing accompaniment (Cameron Thomas), the musical highlights include Brooks, Gardner and Melloy singing Old Friends, as well as the trio’s hopeful and excited song, Opening Doors, about their attempts to make it in their chosen artistic pursuits in 1959.

Sophie Weiss brings vocal warmth and control to the role of Beth, Frank’s first wife, and her rendition of Not A Day Goes By is moving, while the number, Bobbie and Jackie and Jack, her trio with Gardner and Brooks, is a clownish highlight.

The big pay-off is the final song, Our Time, in which the younger incarnations of Frank, Charley and their newfound friend, Mary, dream of their bright futures while watching Sputnik fly overhead in 1957.

The title song acts as a clever scene transition to indicate time passing and youth fading, with lyrics such as, ‘Time goes by and hopes go dry / But you can still try for your dream’.

The opening chorus of the title song lacks impact due to the vocal weaknesses in the eight-person ensemble, however, that same ensemble delivers with pizzazz The Blob, a snappy song that slams smug socialites who act as social critics and arbiters of taste.

Despite the bumpy production, Merrily We Roll Along is worth seeing if only to enjoy Sondheim’s accomplished music and lyrics.

Kate Herbert