Thursday 28 December 2017

The Wind in the Willows, Dec 27, 2017 ****

Adapted by Glenn Elston from book by Kenneth Grahame
By Australian Shakespeare Company
At Botanical Gardens, Gate F, until Jan 28, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Dec 28, 2017 & in print on Dec 29, 2017.KH

The Wind in the Willows - Doru Sorcel as Badger and Paul Morris as Weasel - pic Paul Fon
Grab a picnic basket, a rug, hat and sunscreen and toddle off with the toddlers to the Botanical Gardens for another cheery, jaunty performance of The Wind in the Willows, adapted from Kenneth Grahame’s very English, 1908 children’s book.

The kiddie-rabbits giggle and shout at the cheerful, nose-twitching Head Chief Rabbit (Scott Mackenzie) trading insults, songs and silly puns with Weasel (Paul Morris), but the kids may be equally diverted by rambling water birds, a duck waddling across the lawn, or a dragonfly cruising by.

The children hoot at the characters’ antics, join a picnic, go on an adventure, then on a dangerous mission with the Rat Pack and Badger Patrol to rescue little Portly the Otter (Dusty Bursill) from the scary, Wild Wood.

In Otis Elston’s production, the kids enthusiastically sing ‘waggle your ears, wiggle your nose,’ and the inimitable ‘Quack quack quackady-quack’, and shout ‘He’s behind you!’ in best panto style.

Morris is the hilariously sneaky, gravel-voiced and wicked Weasel who overruns Toad Hall with his rascally weasel family, takes Mr. Toad (Ryan Hawke) hostage and fights dirty with enormous water pistols filled with ‘weasel wee’.

The merrily likeable Mackenzie maintains crowd control, leads songs and provides breezy guitar accompaniment.

In his gaudy green and pink outfit, Hawke is the flamboyant, vain and plump poseur, Mr. Toad, who behaves like a bratty, British, entitled twit whose head is turned by every new fad from canoeing to motorcars.

Playing the remaining, goofy characters are Kaya Byrne as river-dwelling Ratty, Chloe Bruer-Jones as timid Mole, Doru Surcel as toffy, pompous Badger and Jolan Walker as Otter, a Policeman and a dodgy Judge.

Willows has been a Melbourne summer institution now for 31 years so, if you’ve been hiding indoors for 31 summers, get out now with the family and ‘waggle your ears, wiggle your nose and sing whispering willows.’

By Kate Herbert 
The Wind in the Willows - Doru Sorcel a Badger with 'Badger Patrol'

Thursday 21 December 2017

Highly Flammable Love, Dec 14, 2017 *1/2

By Marcus Doherty & Zara Sengstock
At Irene Mitchell Theatre, St Martins, until Dec 16, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Dec 13
Stars: 1.5

Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print on Tues Dec 19, 2017. KH
Marcus Doherty & Ayesha Gibson-Photo by Clay Waddell
The comedy in Highly Flammable Love is as out of control as the bush fire that ignites in the second act.

Dennis (Doherty), a law graduate, moves from Melbourne to Shilangatta, a remote country town, to be with girlfriend, Kelly (Sengstock), a local copper, but Kelly dumps Dennis unceremoniously, leaving him sulking, boozing and stalking Kelly for months after their break-up.

Writer-directors, Marcus Doherty and Zara Sengstock, are filmmakers who have shifted focus from screen to stage by producing an Australian romantic-comedy for the theatre.

Even experienced theatre-makers avoid writing, directing and acting in their own work, and, although we appreciate the efforts of this creative duo, this overly long production lacks basic dramatic techniques.

The theatrical problems are evident immediately after the opening medley of folksy Australian tunes (Dylan Knur, violin; Imogen Cygler, piano).

From the first awkward scene on a bench at Shilangatta Train Station, the characters and relationships are one-dimensional, the jokes puerile and the performances amateurish and overacted.

Although some audience members laugh aloud, the story is muddled and the dialogue jumps from infantile arguments to preachy exchanges about relationships, gender roles and personal freedom.

The production cries out for a dramaturg to shape the script, and a director to focus the style, balance the pace, inject dramatic energy, stage scenes imaginatively and tighten scene changes.

The style leaps from sketch comedy and messy slapstick, to weird musical/choreographic routines, then to oddly serious dialogue about life, love and arson.

After a patchy first act, the second promises more substance, but soon deteriorates into silliness when characters in cardboard-box cars skitter around the stage in a cartoonish car chase.

Ayesha Gibson, as Zoe the attractive arsonist, provides some credible acting, but Doherty’s uncomfortable grimacing and awkward physicality as the hapless Dennis, is distracting.

Even with the best of intentions and a decent premise, a show can collapse, and Highly Flammable Love needs a skilful theatre doctor to revive it.

By Kate Herbert


Dennis - Marcus Doherty
Zoe - Ayesha Gibson
Warren (Zoe's father) - Mick Shanahan
Kelly - Zara Sengstock
Georgia/Stevie/Newsreader - Rose Flanagan
Brandon Mannarino - Alan/Waiter/Roger
Kel Balnaves - Gavin

Composer - Finnian Langham
Piano - Imogen Cygler
Violin - Dylan Knur

Lighting design: Matthew Vasquez

Set design: Zara Sengstock


Wednesday 20 December 2017

I’m Dreaming of a Christmas Cabaret, Dec 8, 2017 ***

At Speakeasy HQ, 522 Flinders St, until Dec 24, 2017 
(Other shows at 6pm, 7.30pm, 8.30pm & late) 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Dec 8, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online & in print on Dec 13, 2017. KH
Matt Allegro_Photo by Kieran McNamara
 Speakeasy HQ is a stylish, welcoming little vaudeville theatre tucked away down the dodgy end of Flinders St. among the nail salons, pubs and Thai massage shops.

The venue presents multiple shows, but I’m Dreaming of a Christmas Cabaret is a short, Chrissie-themed, cabaret hosted by the charming, talented Matt Allegro (Matt Hadgraft), the show’s highlight who is unfazed by the night’s tiny audience.

Allegro introduces the four acts with cheerful, self-deprecating banter and performs his revamped Christmas songs with wittily rewritten lyrics.

He opens with a snappy, jazz version of Jingle Bells that references ‘the local Liquorland’ then introduces timid twins, Amy and Mel, who are clad in Santa-inspired red-and-white outfits and sing three songs, including Jingle Bell Rock, accompanied by simple, but awkward choreography.

Ukulele Will is gently entertaining with his ukulele version of a naughtily suggestive Christmas song written by Scared Weird Little Guys.

Allegro hauls out an upright piano, which he plays skilfully, delivering his version of The Twelve Days of Christmas: a scathing attack on awful Christmas gifts from the rellies (‘four appalling shirts, two ugly mugs’).

Victoria Wolfe is cute, sassy and curvaceous, although her routine that is billed as ‘contortion’ is, rather, a series of charming but simple variations on the splits.

After Allegro’s goofy routine about awful jokes inside Christmas Crackers, he introduces Jem’Appelle, a petite brunette with a dodgy French accent who channels Piaf with renditions of Padam Padam, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Autumn Leaves.

Allegro’s final set includes Santa Claus Is Driving The Tram and a finale in which he dragoons an audience member to lip-sync his rowdy version of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.

We can assume that he didn’t realise his victim was also his reviewer. Lucky it was fun on stage with him!

By Kate Herbert

The ABBA Show, Dec 15, 2017 ****

Produced by Showtime Australia 
At The Athenaeum, until Dec 30, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert  on Dec 15, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print on Tues Dec 19, 2017. KH
Jenna Ball as Frida
Talk about enthusiastic! The Melbourne audience members at The ABBA Show were as involved and effervescent as the performers, leaping to their feet, dancing in their seats, waving their arms and singing along like kids at a Wiggles concert.

Even ABBA lookalikes send fans of that 1970s, Swedish pop phenomenon into uninhibited, joyful frenzy when they hear such distinctive hits as Dancing Queen, Waterloo, Fernando, Super Trouper, Money Money Money, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Ring Ring. Doesn’t ABBA love repetition?

This tribute show delivers 20 ABBA songs and replicates the glitzy costumes, 70s hairdos, signature choreography and even the on-stage relationships between Agnetha (Hannah Pocock), Frida (Jenna Ball), Björn on guitar (Cameron Charters) and Benny on keyboard (Brent McMullen).

Their Swedish accents may be dodgy and their banter decidedly cheesy, but the foursome sings with gusto and Pocock and Ball capture the spirit, glamour and sensuality of Agnetha and Frida as they stamp their knee-high boots, flick their hair and sing with passion and flair.

The ABBA Show includes original video of the real ABBA performing, but this concert has no narrative and any dialogue is used merely to introduce songs or encourage fervent fans to sing and dance.

Director, Johnny Van Grinsven, focuses the show on Benny and Björn’s music played by a tight, three-piece band of bass (Zach Coombs), drums (Ben Harper), synth and saxophone (Hayden Baird).

Ball brings an audience member on stage as ABBA’s ‘man after midnight’, and vivacious volunteer, Jack, becomes a show highlight, donning a feather boa and sequined hat before outdancing Agnetha and Frida.

The ABBA Show is delightfully daggy, and witnessing middle-aged blokes wiggling their bods and flailing their arms to Mamma Mia is a delicious pre-Christmas treat.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 14 December 2017

The Caretaker, Dec 13, 2017 ***

By Allen Laverty, presented by La Mama
At La Mama Theatre, until Dec 17 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thursday Dec 14, 2017 & later in print (15/12 TBC). KH
Allen Laverty-The-Caretaker_pic by Paula van Beek
Memory can be a loyal, or a fickle friend and Allen Laverty, in a nostalgic wander down his own memory lane, looks at both reliable and erratic memories in his solo show, The Caretaker.

The performance style ambles around as much as the content does: Laverty starts with a snippet of physical comedy before shifting to personal storytelling and conversational audience interaction.

He relates tales from his childhood, recollections of his grandfather and, finally, poignant descriptions of his mother’s recent memory loss and his challenging role as her carer – the ‘caretaker’ of the title.

The emotional and personal details in his portrayal of his grandfather and mother are the most effective and affecting elements: Pa smoking his roll-your-own cigarette, mum repeatedly asking the same question, and Laverty showering his mother when she is incapable.

The set design (Tamara Kirby) incorporates a workbench bearing items used and owned by his grandfather, including a woodworking vice that Laverty uses to carve a wooden spoon throughout the performance.

Laverty’s stories touch on mental illness and psychiatric hospitals and he scares audience members with a weird childhood ‘toy’ that gives its players electric shocks while illustrating the harshness of electric shock therapy.

Although Laverty started making a physical comedy about a bumbling handyman, his intention changed when his mother started to lose her memory, and this has left him with a couple of different plays battling for precedence.

The script needs a clearer structure and dramatic arc to link its various threads, or it could focus on a single character: Laverty’s mother could anchor the narrative from the beginning rather than becoming the focus at the end.

This production may crave a more dynamic, cohesive structure, but The Caretaker has a raw, emotional truth when Laverty tells his personal stories.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 11 December 2017

We Are Lightning! Dec 6, 2017 **1/2

By Joseph O’Farrell & Sam Halmarack
At Arts House, North Melbourne, until Dec 10, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: **1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print on Fri Dec 8, 2017 (TBC). KH
Joseph O'Farrell (JOF) and Sam Halmarack - Photo by Byrony Jackson

We Are Lightning!, by Joseph O’Farrell (JOF) and Sam Halmarack, is shambolic, messy and confused, but parts of the show are oddly diverting.

The premise is that a live music venue is closing, so JOF and Sam are producing one, final night of performance, incorporating their own music and segments by a community choir, a young, local band, two older, rock guitarists and a six-piece brass section.

The audience stands like a crowd at a pub gig, switching its attention between four, small, shabby stages, one set against each wall of the cavernous North Melbourne Town Hall, and sometimes trying to watch all four stages at once.

JOF and Sam present as a sort of demented comedy duo, with JOF being the extroverted, yammering guy playing drums and brainstorming outlandish ideas for the show, while Sam plays guitar, sings his original, love ballads and runs away when the show gets overwhelming.

The audience enjoys JOF and Sam’s songs and banter and the brass sextet is a treat – especially when they appear in marching band outfits – but the two guitarists’ hard rock riffs are all too brief. Give us more!

The 50-person community choir sings Shenandoah, adds back-up vocals to Sam and JOF’s numbers or strolls around the hall in colourful robes, while the youth band plays original songs, one of which muses nostalgically about being 17.

A voice-over by one of the participants captures the confused form of this show when she announces that JOF and Sam have produced a show that’s not actually the performance for which she and others signed up.

We Are Lightning! starts with some good and some goofy ideas, but it is not ground-breaking theatre and its execution is chaotic and rambling so it needs some tightening and clarifying.

By Kate Herbert
WE ARE LIGHTNING! by Joseph O'Farrell (JOF) and Sam Halmarack - Photo by Byrony Jackson
WE ARE LIGHTNING! by Joseph O'Farrell (JOF) and Sam Halmarack - Photo by Byrony Jackson
WE ARE LIGHTNING! by Joseph O'Farrell (JOF) and Sam Halmarack - Photo by Byrony Jackson