Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Pitchfork Disney

The Pitchfork Disney runs at the Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville from December 5-9 2012. By Philip Ridley, directed by Rachel Chant.

I found it quite difficult to make heads or tails of The Pitchfork Disney. It is dreamlike and surreal and not, I think, intended to be taken literally, but it feels confused, like it’s trying to do too much. I feel like it would be twice as good if it were half as long. Rachel Chant and Eclective Productions do some interesting things with it, but I think the script ultimately hampers rather than helps them – there are sections which seem to obscure, rather than unveil, meaning.

The Pitchfork Disney is the story of 28 year old agoraphobic twins Presley (Brett Johnson) and Haley (Jessi LeBrocq). They have locked themselves in their house, venturing out only when they run out of chocolate or sleeping pills. The world terrifies them – it is strongly suggested that they have suffered significant, possibly sexual trauma related to the disappearance of their parents – and so they shut themselves away, fantasising about a future when they are the only two beings left in existence. (This production of The Pitchfork Disney is a reprise of its Sydney Fringe season – this fantasy of siblings being the last two people left alive reminded me strongly of another Fringe show, The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died.) But Presley is haunted by nightmares, and when he invites strangers Cosmo Disney (David Molloy) and Pitchfork Cavalier (Darren Pinks) into the house, he finds his nightmares becoming real, at once terrifying and strangely erotic.

I feel like The Pitchfork Disney tries to be too subtle for its own good. There are lots of hints in interesting directions, but they are never really fleshed out, and the subtlety gets very repetitive after a while. There are huge chunks of dialogue that could have been cut and the show would have been better for it. There are some moments which are truly striking and memorable – the scene with the cockroach, for example – but they are swallowed by the verbiage of the script. It is a script that is relying on words when it should be relying on images.

The show really hinges on Brett Johnson’s Presley, and he delivers a solid performance. At times, his motivations are unclear – at once cringing and submissive and yet somehow aggressive and a little threatening – but I think this is probably more a flaw of the writing than anything else. He has a very tough task delivering Presley’s long (LONG) soliloquy about his nightmare, and he pulls it off more than serviceably. Jessi LeBrocq also gave a great performance as Haley, and I was sad that her character spends the majority of time asleep on the sofa: it was a real waste. I had more of a question mark over David Molloy’s Cosmo – he seemed to be very much a sheep in wolf’s clothing, and it was hard to buy him as ominous, nightmarish, demonic – but his performance strengthened over the course of the show. Rachel Chant has marshalled her cast well. She has a real knack for knowing when stillness is required on the stage – a real skill – and I hope to see more work from her soon.

It’s heartening to see Fringe shows existing beyond the festival, and I’m really glad Eclective Productions managed this remount. I’m not sure this particular script is the best showcase for their abilities, but I certainly hope to see more work from this fledgling company in the near future.

Mariage Blanc

I reviewed Sydney Theatre Company's Mariage Blanc for Australian Stage - you can read what I thought (with bonus Foucault!) here.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I don't review a lot of musicals, but I had a great time reviewing the Australian production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Capitol Theatre. (It was one of my favourite films as a kid!) Read my thoughts at Australian Stage here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hollywood Ending

I reviewed Griffin Independent's Hollywood Ending over at Australian Stage - check it out here. (This play is part of the Rapid Write scheme - from zero to opening in eight weeks - and it's proof that good theatre can be made really fast!)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Venetian Twins

The Venetian Twins runs at the New Theatre in Newtown from 15 November - 15 December 2012. By Nick Enright and Terence Clark, directed by Mackenzie Steele.

The Venetian Twins is absolutely, positively, splendiferously entertaining. As I write this now, my cheeks ache – not from laughing (though I certainly did plenty of that), but from smiling. This is a splendid production of a really wonderful piece of theatre. If you want a night out that it 100% pure fun, then this is the show for you.

The show borrows from the traditions of farce, commedia dell’arte, and operetta, although it definitely has a very Australian twist. Identical twin brothers Tonino and Zanetto (both played brilliantly by Jay James-Moody) have been brought up separately, the former in the city, the latter in the country. The one is an urbane gentleman, the other a well-meaning but not terribly bright bogan. When they both come to the city seeking their respective fiancĂ©es, Beatrice (the luminous Marisa Berzins) and Rosina (Meagan Caratti), many wacky shenanigans ensue. There is villainy and intrigue and poison and magic and mistaken identity – and a whole lot of songs.

The Venetian Twins is the kind of show that it would be really easy to get carried away with. Nick Enright and Terence Clark’s script is so rich and so excruciatingly funny that it would be very easy to push it too far: to ham up the already hilarious gags and take it over the edge into self-indulgence. Director Mackenzie Steele has got a dab hand at knowing just when to stop, when to restrain his talented cast from excess and keep the pace of the show ticking over. (Steele also knows exactly when to let the cast take a gag and run with it!) The funny isn’t laboured but it isn’t glossed over either. This is a really superb piece of directing. I’ll be watching Steele’s future projects with great interest.

Steele also has a great eye for cast, because The Venetian Twins is almost perfect in this department. The standouts for me were Jay James-Moody as the twins and Marisa Berzins as Beatrice, but the whole ensemble is great. The show-stealer, though, is Dean Vince. His performance as the villainous Pancrazio – somewhere between Voldemort, Jafar, and David Copperfield – is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen on stage in 2012. That gag he has with the rope of pearls? SIDESPLITTINGLY HILARIOUS. (Capslock FULLY WARRANTED.) Vince clearly revels in the cartoonish villainy of his character and hits all the notes perfectly. A truly fantastic performance.

The one quibble I had with The Venetian Twins was technical. Given that the New is not exactly a small theatre and that the band, while excellent, is loud, it would have been better to mic the performers individually rather than rely on the drop mics. When the actors were in the right spots (which they were probably 80% of the time), it was fine, but whenever they were out of position, it became quite hard to hear what they were singing. Given that the libretto is oh so very funny, I didn’t want to miss a single line, so I was a bit sad when I did. I’d advise those who do go along to sit near the front of the theatre – there’s less chance of missing stuff that way.

The Venetian Twins has my completely enthusiastic endorsement. I loved it sick. It is riotous and joyous and one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. I had a great night – I’d normally call a show that clocked in at two hours twenty minutes a touch on the long side, but I didn’t even notice. Go and see this one. No, really, I mean it. Even if just to see Dean Vince do that thing with the pearls.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Private Lives


Private Lives ran at Belvoir St from 22 September-11 November and is now on tour. In Wollongong 14-17 November and Canberra 21-24 November. By Noel Coward, directed by Ralph Myers.

Private Lives is a champagne comedy. Let’s be real. It’s light and frothy and screamingly funny. It’s full of Cowardian bon mots and one-liners that are agonisingly hilarious. Belvoir’s production of it (which I saw twice, once at Belvoir, once at Merrigong) is definitely full of fizz. It’s sharp and snappy and perfectly cast – I mean, Toby Schmitz as Elyot Chase? how was that not going to work? But what I find interesting – and something which I think the Belvoir production highlights – is the darkness percolating below the surface. Beneath the banter of Elyot and Amanda (and, eventually, Victor and Sibyl) is something dangerous, devastating, and deadly serious. Underneath the fun, there’s destruction.

In her 2009 book A Vindication of Love, Cristina Nehring writes:

“I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalised by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled in love. But... I feel new. Ready for the next round.” (p.275)

There are some serious flaws with Nehring’s book which I won’t get into here, but watching Private Lives, I could not help but think of this quote. Nehring subscribes to the view of love articulated by Denis de Rougemont, love as the sublimated desire for death (something I write about a lot in my academic life which I’ve managed to shoehorn into my theatre reviews before – see here). For love – or, more correctly, passion – to flourish, there must be an undercurrent of destruction. Love is not really adoration or veneration. In Private Lives, Sibyl and Victor adore Elyot and Amanda respectively, and that love is nowhere near enough: it is pale, insipid, fruitless. Love is tied to the desire to possess: to want someone so desperately you want to climb inside their skin (which happens almost literally in Private Lives). Elyot and Amanda cannot live with each other and cannot live without each other because they each want to control the other, to dominate, to lead, to possess. Nehring writes that, “theatrics are at the very heart of romance” (p.65), and between these two, there are theatrics aplenty. The entire play is based on the explosive theatricality of their relationship. They love and desire each other so much that they cannot help but want to destroy each other: Elyot’s cut lip and Amanda’s black eye in the third act are potent physical reminders of this.

It was a brave decision by Ralph Myers to leave the domestic violence of Private Lives in the script. (I went along to Belvoir’s Sunday Forum, where he said that when he was preparing to direct the play, a lot of people he talked to advised him that it had to be cut.) Does it pay off or not? I’m not sure. Looking at the play purely as a champagne comedy? Probably not. Both times I saw it, the room went silent when Elyot and Amanda discuss the first time he hit her – not just I’m-not-laughing-at-this-present-moment silent, but oh-holy-shit silent. People going along looking purely for just light fizzy fun will probably find it offputting. I guess whether it works or not depends on how much darkness you want to find in the show. Private Lives certainly doesn’t function as an endorsement of this kiss-with-a-fist style relationship. Elyot and Amanda’s love is consuming, but it isn’t idealised (this is, as it happens, where I think Nehring’s book on love falls down: her overt fetishisation of destruction and inequality). Intellectually, I found it quite interesting. In literary terms, the relationship of Elyot and Amanda is a throwback to love in medieval romance, before the marriage plot in the novel. Their love isn’t domesticated – when they tried to domesticate it, it failed spectacularly. Love is innately individual for them and will not be bound within a social institution. This harks back to Nehring again, who writes that, “Love is always against something as ardently as it is for somebody” (p.103). This kind of thing is the stuff I can – and do – nerdle about all day long. But on a purely visceral level? God, watching two people beat each other up is deeply uncomfortable.

The actual reason I saw this play twice was a) I liked it, but mostly b) I’m really interested in how stuff translates from big city mainstage to different stages on tour. This is something I thought I’d have a lot more to say about than I actually do. The Upstairs theatre at Belvoir and the IMB theatre at IPAC are fundamentally very different spaces – if nothing else, they’re totally different shapes – but this play translated beautifully. I think the cast did take a little while to adjust to the massive IMB theatre: it’s so big that the jokes seem to take more time to reach the back, and the timing at the beginning in the Wollongong performance was a little uneasy compared to when I saw it in Sydney. Their adjustment was swift, however, and the third act was sidesplittingly hilarious, even the second time round. Both Tobies, Schmitz and Truslove, are real standouts. Schmitz’s dry, sardonic delivery is perfect for Elyot’s witticisms; and Truslove is a total comic natural.

This has all been a very long-winded and nerdy way of saying that I really like this play. It made me think a lot more than I was expecting it to – it’s not often I come out of a comedy and smash out 500 words on the Theory of Love™. I definitely think it could make some people very uncomfortable and should maybe come with a trigger warning, but it really is wonderfully performed and absolutely desperately funny. I’m not entirely sure why everyone was spending so much time hanging out in what appeared to be the hotel corridor, but you should go along and see it and work it out for yourself. If nothing else, it totally wins the award for Best Use Of Phil Collins On The Stage Ever!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saint Joan

Saint Joan runs at the Genesian Theatre from November 3 - December 1 2012. By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Kevin Jackson.
 
The story of Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans, is an iconic one. A peasant girl with no knowledge of war of military strategy, she starts hearing the voices of saints in her mind and, following their advice, becomes the commander of the armies of France. After several successful campaigns, she is captured by the English, and after being tortured, she is burned at the stake as a witch and a heretic, her legacy not being recognised until her canonisation in the 1920s. It is an incredibly interesting story. A peasant virgin rising to become a major military commander in fifteenth century France? How is that not fascinating? Unfortunately, George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan hones in on some of the least interesting parts of the Joan story. Genesian Theatre’s production of Shaw’s play is a solid one, and there are lots of things to like about it – not least the robust performance of Sabryna Te’o as Joan – but there is no escaping the wordiness of Shaw. The story of Joan is drowned in a sea of ponderous verbiage.

Anyone who has read any feminist theory will be familiar with the phrase “the personal is the political.” Saint Joan focuses very much on the political and not the personal, and this is to its detriment. It is about politicians, not people. Joan the person is the interesting part of the Joan of Arc story, this totally disenfranchised peasant girl who becomes a political figure, believing she is destined to lead armies and win back France for God. Joan is the lens through which the story becomes extraordinary. By focusing on the broader political interactions, this is nullified. A Joan of Arc story should be about Joan. Bernard Shaw’s play is not. Joan is in it, sure, but we view her at a distance. (Saint Joan does not pass the Bechdel test: it cannot, because Joan is the only female character. The entire play is either a group of men talking about Joan or Joan arguing with a group of men. It’s kind of a sausage fest.)

Saint Joan is famously a play without a villain: every character has clear motivations for their actions and ultimately believes they are doing the right thing, even when the things they are doing are heinous. The problem is that there are so many characters that they eventually blend into one big soldier/clergyman/Frenchman/Englishman conglomerate mass that you could label “dude that is anti-Joan”. I certainly lost track of them after a while, and I’m relatively familiar with the Joan of Arc story. I shudder to think what someone new to the story would have thought.

The play is, of course, a classic, and it’s probably heresy to say that I don’t like it much. But I don’t, so call me heretic. The political intrigue of the whole thing might be interesting to some, but seeing a bunch of dudes arguing about Joan? I don’t care. Show me Joan. Show me what she’s thinking. Show her to me when she’s alone, just her and her voices. Show her to me when she’s commanding men rather than arguing with them. Sabryna Te’o did a great job as Joan in this production. I was always excited when she came on stage. Her Joan was brave and bold, occasionally vulnerable, but always noble. Her rendition of Joan’s famous speech about preferring to die to being locked up was heartfelt and totally lovely. She’s a wonderfully vibrant performer and I hope to see her on stage again soon. Unfortunately for Te’o and for the audience, Bernard Shaw has left out and/or glossed over the most interesting parts of Joan’s story: her experience of voices from heaven, finding a divine sword beyond a church altar, her role as a soldier. This isn’t a story about Joan – it’s a story with Joan in it. Unfortunately, the people around Joan are really not that interesting, and trying to sustain interest in them for three hours? It’s an ask.

To be honest, I’m not sure if it is really possible for me to ever really enjoy a production of Saint Joan. I’m not a Shavian. I’m just not. His tendency to show people talking about things ad nauseam rather than doing them just doesn’t do it for me. (Here’s my review of STC’s Pygmalion from earlier this year: I’ve been a heretic for a while.) There are some really good performances from the Peter Brook-esque colourblind cast of the Genesian production of Saint Joan. If you like Bernard Shaw and like this play, you’ll probably like this production of it: Kevin Jackson is a very skilled director, and it shows. Considering how wordy it is, it is a taut production, and Jackson draws strong performances from his cast. It’s well designed and well lit and very visually appealing. But personally, I think that if you want a Joan of Arc story, you can probably do better than Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. If you want to know about Joan of Arc the person, rather than the political machinations of those around her? Go elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sex With Strangers

Sex With Strangers runs from September 24 - November 24 2012 at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company. By Laura Eason, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse.


I might have got there relatively late in the season, but there was no way I was not going to see Sex With Strangers. A rom-com? With books in? Genre fiction on the stage? The only way it could have been clearer that this was my sort of play was if the actors had actually had “this play is for Jodi” tattooed on their faces.


(Fair warning – because this play is in my academic strikezone area of speciality, I’m going to nerdle a lot about it. Be prepared.)

Maybe the fact that it was such a Jodi-play makes me predisposed to be highly critical and nitpicky. I don’t know. But Sex With Strangers bothered me a lot, largely because it left me cold. If there is one thing romance should not do, it is leave you cold. You should be saying “awww” a lot. Even in pieces that don’t have the guaranteed happy ending of the romance genre proper, you should want things to turn out for the best. This means that you should like the characters – at least a little bit. And this, I think, was my big problem with Sex With Strangers.

Let’s start with the less egregious of the two offenders here, the character of Olivia (Jacqueline McKenzie). Her level of neuroticism was absolutely suffocating. She was practically hysterical with it, especially in the first act – I almost wanted to slap her and tell her to snap out of it. I understand writers being precious about their work and being unwilling to let unfriendly eyes see their work: I’ve felt that myself (what writer hasn’t?). But the fact that three reviews – three, which weren’t even especially negative – managed to cripple her for such a long period of time? Really? A writer who wants to cut their reader out of their work altogether isn’t really a writer at all. If a book is written and nobody reads it, has it really been written? And if she is so unwilling to show her work to anyone, how has she managed to get so “fucking brilliant”, as Ethan says? It is pretty much impossible to improve without a) practice, and b) feedback. I found her total insecurity not only incredibly frustrating, but far beyond the suspension of disbelief.

I think her insecurity was intended to undermine her position as “self-assured older woman”, and in that sense, although it was clumsy, it worked. It turned her into a damsel in distress, all ready for Ethan (Ryan Corr) to swoop in to save. And swoop in he did: except he is not exactly a knight in shining armour. This is not to say that all romance heroes should be perfect, courtly men with no flaws ever who fix all their lady’s problems. Far from it. Anyone who has read a romance novel ever will know that heroes are frequently far more damaged than their heroines. Heroes have also done some pretty godawful things, but at the end of the day, you should at least believe that they are good, that on some level, they deserve the heroine (even if the heroine is totally irritating). I couldn’t believe that about Ethan. Not for a second.

Let’s start with his book, Sex With Strangers. A guy that’s made his millions by basically exploiting women and writing about it? (I know he’s all like, “it was consensual! they were willing!” but let’s face it, what’s he was doing is essentially pick up artistry.) The fact that he continually admitted he was an arsehole didn’t make him charming. It just made him self-aware. And why on earth was Olivia supposed to believe him when he was all like, “I was a dick to every other girl I’ve ever slept with ever, but I’ll be cool and awesome with you”? Just because he helped her put her book online, even though she specifically asked him several times not to? Ethan has a thousand arsehole red flags, and this, I think, was the biggest one. When Olivia said no to him – no, she didn’t want to put her book online; no, she wanted to go through traditional publishing; no, she didn’t want him to read her book – he either bullied her into submission or just went ahead and did what he wanted anyway. The guy that does not respect a single one of your boundaries? Yeah, that’s romantic. And when he was all like, “you owe me!” in the second act? I’m amazed Olivia didn’t yell, “fuck you!” back at him. I nearly did.

I don’t think Ryan Corr’s performance helped Ethan’s case any. Jacqueline McKenzie did a good job of making the Olivia that existed beyond her neurosis visible (what little there was), but Corr’s performance foregrounded Ethan’s douchebaggery. He was shouting all the time, which I think was supposed to read as “gen Y jackass”, but also frequently read as “intimidating bully”. If there really was supposed to be a clear division between Ethan Kane and his evil alter ego Ethan Strange, it wasn’t terribly visible – probably the only moment where it was was the moment when he took a phone call from a Vegas club promoter, and turned into such an OTT parody of himself I’m surprised Olivia didn’t throw him out her window. The play is not especially subtle with its portrayal of Gen Y in particular, and Corr didn’t help. He was the Gen Y representative that people from all the other generations bitch about: rude, abrasive, and addicted to technology.

I also had a few problems with the structure of the play – sex scenes were basically used as scene changes, when they should have probably advanced the plot at least a little – but I don’t think I would have noticed half so much if the characters were more likeable. On one level, I understood the fantasy – a rich, attractive young guy who thinks your writing is amazing? sign me up! – but these characters were a little too close to the archetypes that gave us Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey for comfort: neurotic woman, man who has no concept of “boundaries”.

Maybe I’m too used to analysing things as romances, but Sex With Strangers just did not work for me. I wanted funny, romantic fun with books in. I wanted to say “awwww”. I wanted to want things to turn out well. What I got was a play about two unlikeable people who fuck each other a lot and fuck each other up.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Knowledge

The Knowledge (pantsguys Productions in assoication with The Spare Room) runs at the New Theatre in Newtown from 10 October - 3 November 2012. By John Donnelly, directed by Rebecca Martin.

I found The Knowledge  a difficult play. It is hard to work out what it is about. On the surface, it seems simple: it is about education, about teachers, about students, about a new teacher with difficult students who makes a colossal mistake. Director Rebecca Martin writes that it is play not just about school but about people, with real characters who are not ciphers for a message. I agree with her here – the characters are certainly not ciphers – but it is hard to work out exactly what the play is trying to say. It is a small story in the guise of a large one, and I think I wanted it to be a bit more ambitious than it was.

Zoe (Silvina d’Alessandro) is a newly graduated teacher who has fled a difficult breakup and finds herself teaching a group of impossible students citizenship (a subject in which she is certainly not an expert). These students are incorrigible troublemaker Mickey (Benjamin Ross), unsure, defensive Sal (Isaro Kayitesi), brazen, aggressive Karris (Karli-Rae Grogan), and sensitive poet Daniel (John Benda). Zoe is desperate to establish a rapport with them and to prove herself worthy to well-meaning but ultimately patronising headmaster Harry (Barry French) and her learning mentor Maz (Brett  Rogers), but makes a terrible mistake one night and is unsure what to do next.

The notion of whether or not someone is a good person is one that percolates throughout the play, and is ultimately asked of all the characters. However, I felt like the answers should have been (and were probably intended to be) more ambiguous than they were. Any sympathy I felt for Zoe was well and truly eradicated in the second act, when she becomes Machiavellian and conniving, as well as cruel, petty, and unable to own up to her own mistakes. Maz, with his lewd talk about his students, is also unlikeable, and hard to take seriously when he attempts to take the moral high ground (though it must be noted here that Brett Rogers did a fine job in making his character as sympathetic as possible). Harry is a laughingstock: he is the font of most of the humour in the play, but one feels like you are laughing at him, not with him. If the play is meant to be a savage indictment on the education system, it succeeds, but if so, it is ultimately very depressing: there is no alternative offered, no hope for the future. If Zoe “can teach”, is a good teacher, then one shudders to think what a bad one looks like.

Some of the characters felt two dimensional. Some of the responsibility for this lies with the writing (the character of Sal, for example, is given very little room for development, despite the best efforts of actor Kayitesi), but some lay at the doors of the actors. Some of the performances were quite one-note, particularly the performance of Grogan as Karris, and others were very believable in parts and yet almost wooden in others – d’Alessandro’s performance as Zoe suffered from this. Several of the actors really struggled with their English accents, and I felt the show as a whole suffered from it: it made their performances seem very laboured. I must commend, however, Benjamin Ross for his performance as Mickey, which was nuanced and layered. He exposed just enough of the bully’s vulnerable underbelly to make the character seem like a real person.

The Knowledge is an engaging show. At two and a half hours, it’s probably a little long, but I was never bored. However, I feel like it needed better definition, better clarification. I understand that it was ultimately about people and not education as a whole, and was certainly not intended to be didactic, but I felt like it needed to be clearer about what it was trying to say.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fallout

Over at Australian Stage, I reviewed Tamarama Rock Surfers' production of Fallout. You can read what I thought about it here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A View From Moving Windows

A View From Moving Windows runs at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta from October 19-27. A multi-playwright project, directed by Augusta Supple.

I write this sitting on the upper deck of a Parramatta to Central train. There are not many people around me. Most are sleeping. One is listening to music, bopping his head along with the beat. Below me, I can hear people talking: two men, talking about a girl. There are M&Ms scattered all over the floor: blue, red, green, some trodden on, some not, some crushed, some whole. As we come into Central, I see into the building that houses the transits: row upon row of high vis vests, neatly stacked beside work boots. Under Central are the bones of a building that used to be a facility for juvenile convicts: has much changed, I wonder? Around me, there are stories, an infinite amount of stories – stories I may never know, stories that may never be told, but stories that exist nonetheless.

A View From Moving Windows is a deeply evocative piece of work. I spend a lot of time on the train (Wollongong-Sydney and back again is a long commute!) and so much of it was deeply recognisable: the viscera of train travel, the interruptions, the annoyances, and most of all, that feeling of total solitude in an enclosed space with total strangers, a space feels violated the second in which someone dares to say hello. It is not necessarily an even piece of theatre: some pieces are more compelling than others. But then some trains journeys are more compelling than others. I have many journeys which have given me a great Cityrail moment. I have many more that didn’t.

There were a few pieces that really stood out for me. Heart in a Box (written by Jessica Bellamy, performed by Damian Sommerlad and Shauntelle Benjamin) was my favourite of the night. This may just be because I am a sucker for romance, but this piece was achingly lovely, particularly the song (music by Jesscia Chapnik Kahn). I also really enjoyed In The Key Of ‘E’ by Alison Rooke, where three totally independent passengers interacted (a little) and soliloquised (a lot). It really summed up the frustration and the agony of being on a train, equating this one little journey with the larger journeys of life: you know where you’re going, but you’re not there yet. Vanessa Bates’s This Train – Monkeys brought a tear to my eye. Its followup piece This Train was not quite as effective, but I doubt I am alone in hoping Bates takes these pieces and creates a full length play.

Augusta Supple has curated and directed an exciting, innovative production here. Her impressive cast of actors deal beautifully with a variety of different and difficult material (I must particularly commend Helen O’Leary, Ildiko Susany, and Craig Meneaud, who were totally engaging – I could not take my eyes off them). It is an ambitious project, with a large cast and what would seem an unwieldly number of writers. Supple, however, has turned what might be chaotic and entropic into a journey, clackety-clacking along the tracks. It is sometimes uneven, but so are train journeys – full of unexpected stoppages and sometimes, unexpected delights. If you’ve ever been on a train, there is something in this show for you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The School For Wives

Over at Australian Stage, I reviewed Bell Shakespeare's The School for Wives. This one is big fun and is touring to Sydney as of next week - make sure you go see it! Here's what I thought.

Miss Julie

I reviewed Miss Julie, the final production from Darlinghurst Theatre Company to be performed in their current space, over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Trains, Theatre, & Why I Love Starlight Express

I wrote a piece for the A View For Moving Windows blog about how trains have influenced my love of theatre and why I will get very sad if you insult Andrew Lloyd Webber in front of me. You can check it out here.

You can also read a review of A View For Moving Windows later this week!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Between Two Waves

I went along to Between Two Waves at Griffin Theatre and reviewed it over at Australian Stage - you can read my thoughts here. Catch this one before the world ends.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This is Baby Doll

This is Baby Doll (Factotum Theatre) runs at the Tap Gallery in Darlinghurst from October 4-13 2012. Stolen from Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams, adapted and directed by Liz Arday.

This is Baby Doll is a claustrophobic portrait piece. The upstairs theatre at the Tap Gallery is absolutely the right place for it: I don’t know if it’s by design or not, but the temperature in that place climbs and climbs until you’re sweating right along with Baby Doll, and she can almost fool you into believing that you really are on some destitute cotton farm in the deep south, sweating, naive, and nervous. Unfortunately, the show is let down by one very important thing: it doesn’t have an ending. It just... stops.

This is normally where I’d launch into a brief plot recap, but that’s hard to do here, because not much happens in this show. The very last moments of This is Baby Doll are action, but it is the only action we see (on stage, anyway). I’m all for character-driven theatre, but this show is character and not much else. Baby Doll (Emily Sheehan) is married to Archie Lee (Paul Armstrong), who has promised that their marriage will not be consummated until her twentieth birthday, which is in two days. They live with her Aunt Rose (Angie Elphick), and one day, they receive a visit from their neighbour Silva (Ben Dalton), who suspects Archie Lee of burning down his cotton gin and who is determined to get some sort of revenge. All the set up for some great storytelling is here: if all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl, here, you have a girl and a strong desire for revenge, which is not dissimilar. But yet no story is told. There are two key actions involved here in this story: Archie Lee burning down Silva’s cotton gin, and Silva using Baby Doll to make Archie Lee pay. The first happens offstage (understandably –  a massive fire would be terribly difficult to represent on stage!) and the second only at the very end of the show. If you think of the basic form of storytelling as orientation/complication/resolution, the show finishes just as it gets complicated. This is Baby Doll ends, effectively, right where it gets interesting.

I confess I’m not terribly familiar with the source material Liz Arday has used to adapt this show for the stage (Elia Kazan’s 1956 film Baby Doll and Tennessee Williams’ short play 27 Wagons of Cotton), so I’m not sure if this narrative problem is something that’s common to those two pieces or not. In any case, I found it unsatisfying. There were so many plot twists left unresolved – would Baby Doll escape from Archie Lee before he demanded the consummation of their marriage? did Archie Lee really burn down the cotton gin? how would Archie Lee react when he found out what Silva did to his wife? how would Baby Doll react? This is a very melodramatic way of putting it, but it was almost like a betrayal: right when you’re becoming really involved in the characters (Baby Doll especially), the show just stops. I can’t think of any reason why it should do this. Sometimes, ambiguity is a good way of pulling the rug out from under an audience, forcing them to consider new and different perspectives. In this case, it felt like an interval, not like an ending.

If it had been an interval, it would have been a cracker of a first act. There are some really nice performances on show here, particularly from Emily Sheehan as Baby Doll. She (like all the actors) got a bit tangled up in the accent at the beginning, but she found her way back pretty swiftly and turned in a wonderfully nuanced performance. It would have been easy to play Baby Doll as a cardboard cutout confused virgin, but Sheehan did not fall into this trap. I found myself really involved with her plight (a big part of the reason why I felt so betrayed when the play ended so suddenly). I really hope to see Sheehan on stage again soon.

The simple set was also very evocative: minimalist, with just Baby Doll’s crib on stage, but effective. I’m sure there are some people who would have found the lighting a little too sparse and dark, but I liked it (except for Silva’s entrance, where he stood in almost total darkness for quite some time in a position where it would be hard for anyone in the theatre to see). It’s to writer/director Liz Arday’s credit that the fifty minutes of the show is as interesting as it is: while there are some bits that are certainly extraneous (like the character of Aunt Rose, who, despite a decent performance from Angie Elphick, adds nothing to the show), on the whole, it’s quite absorbing. Unfortunately, the whole thing ends right where it ought to be kicking into overdrive. It’s a portrait, not a story, and I felt a bit let down by that.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Steve: two sugars thanks I've had a bad day

Steve: two sugars thanks I've had a bad day has now closed. It played at the Fusebox at the Factory in Marrickville from 27-9 September 2012. By Justin Locke and Jordan Shanks, directed by Antonia Harding.

Steve: two sugars thanks I’ve had a bad day feels like one long in-joke. That’s not to say it’s not funny – it is, in some places more than others – but the humour is a bit inaccessible at times. When I interviewed Justin Locke and Jordan Shanks about the show, they said that the show was “their style of humour”. They’re both funny guys, but if you don’t share their sense of humour, then Steve becomes a bit bemusing.

Steve is (unsurprisingly) the story of Steve, a sixteen year old boy who has had a very bad day. Over the course of the show, we see his mum yell at him, witness his nightmare about not being granted citizenship to the moon, watch him get arrested for public nudity for not wearing a shirt in his own house, and then eventually see him go to gaol, after his court-appointed lawyer (Hotdogs from Big Brother and Up Late with Hotdogs) fails to deliver the goods. It’s as random as it sounds. To call it a ‘play’ is probably a stretch: it’s sketch comedy, really. Unfortunately, because each sketch was based on the same premise (funny man Jordan Shanks harassing straight man Justin Locke, who played Steve), it wore a bit thin after a while. By the time the show got to the scene with Hotdogs, I felt like it lost its pizzazz.

Both performers certainly demonstrate talent and promise, and judging by the audience reaction, they certainly have a loyal coterie of fans who adore their brand of comedy. There are some moments in the show that are genuinely side-splittingly hilarious: I had tears in my eyes during their PSA advertising the wonders of Dubbo. As I said above, however, I found their humour a little inaccessible and occasionally self-indulgent. The show made me feel a bit old, even though I’m a fellow member of Gen Y: I’m pretty sure there were some pop culture references in there that sailed straight over my head. (This is not necessarily a bad thing – a show certainly shouldn’t have to cater to every single member of their audience. But this is definitely a show for Gen Y, and the younger end of it at that.) I think Steve’s situation would have been funnier if it had been a tad more believable: the wacky scenarios basically functioned as vehicles for one-liners, and ideally, comedy should happen the other way around – one-liners rising naturally out of the comedy of circumstance.

I would certainly be interested in seeing what Shanks and Locke have to offer next. They clearly relish performing and both are very natural on stage with great comic timing (though Shanks in particular needs to work on not laughing at his own jokes). It might be time, however, to put Steve to bed. There are some moments in this show that are very funny, but on the whole, it felt to me like it was trying too hard. I’d like to see what Shanks and Locke could do with a blank slate: Steve was a decent starting point, but I think they can definitely improve and grow a lot.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Last

Over at the Black Sheep blog, I reviewed Last at the Old 505. Read my thoughts about this lovely show here.

You can also read my interview with the show's creator Helen O'Leary - that one's here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ninjas and vampires and devils, oh my!


So you know how I've been interviewing people left and right and reviewing nearly every night of the week (and sometimes several times on the same night) for the Sydney Fringe? Turns out that that didn't make me nearly busy enough, because there is a show that I wrote in the Fringe festival as well. It's on at the Sidetrack Theatre on the 27th and 28th of September at 9:30, and it has ninjas, vampires, angels, devils, romance, flips, glitter, a reality TV personality, and lots of fun times in it. Come and check it out!

You can buy tickets here.

You can also check out my theatre company Apocalypse Cow's blog here.

100 Years of Lizards

...and another review from the Sydney Fringe festival! I absolutely adored 100 Years of Lizards at the New Theatre. Read more of what I thought here at Australian Stage.

Rope Burn

Here's another review from the Sydney Fringe! This one's for Rope Burn at the King Street theatre. Check it out here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

This is My Box

Another review from the Sydney Fringe! Over at the Black Sheep blog, I reviewed This is My Box. Check it out here.

Kelfi and Fikel

Kelfi and Fikel  played at the Sound Lounge in the Seymour Centre from September 14-5 2012 as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.


Kelfi and Fikel are one of the most energetic and talentic comedy duos I have ever seen. They're fun, and they've known each other since they were ten, and they can seriously SERIOUSLY sing. I thoroughly enjoyed my night out at their show and if you can, I suggest you go and see them.

This is where I would normally launch into a summary of the plot, and Kelfi and Fikel aren't heavy on that. There are some skits, sure, but this is definitely one of those cabaret shows where theme is more important than plot. The show is about the performers, Kellie Higgins and Fiona Della Ca and their longstanding friendship (except perhaps the bit set in the Albury-Wodonga RSL - I doubt that was really something that's happened in their lives!). It covers life, love, loss, mutual ex-boyfriends, breakfast, faux pas, and everything in between. It's offbeat, irreverent, and hilarious. They act it, they sing it, they live it.

There is a small part of me that wants the band to break up. If nothing else, this show demonstrates that both Higgins and Della Ca are able to carry their own shows, and I'd love to see what they could do on their own. This said, they are a stellar team, and I think they'll be working together for many, many years to come. Both are amazing vocalists, and while I'd like to see Higgins get out from behind the piano a little more, she accompanies the show wonderfully. The songs are really their strength, and this is where their comedy really shines. They have an unerring sense of what is funny when it comes to musical comedy: I laughed so much it hurt sometimes! The parts of the show that are more sketch comedy are a little weaker. Perhaps the show's biggest flaw is that it doesn't seem to have a theme to tie it together beyond "we are best friends and we've known each other since we were ten". Higgins and Della Ca are definitely strong enough performers that their show works just fine the way it is, but when it comes to another season, I'd like to see it focused a little bit more in terms of structure. (I'd also like to see them perform in a slightly smaller venue than the Seymour Centre sound lounge - I think a more intimate setting would really suit their show.)

Kellie Higgins and Fiona Della Ca are both incredible performers. What's more, they work brilliantly as a team, without one every upstaging the other (something that is very, very common, in this kind of theatre). If you ever get the chance, I would definitely recommend going to see them. They're great actors and amazing musicians with a great sense for comedy, and they work brilliantly together. I certainly enjoyed seeing their show, and while I think they could hone their act a a bit more, it's definitely worth seeing. And also, like me, they hate audience participation, which is a definite plus! This show is guaranteed to make you laugh and leave you smiling. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Trivial Pursuit

More reviewage from the Sydney Fringe: I reviewed A Trivial Pursuit over at Australian Stage. Not exactly my favourite show so far. Review is here.

Still Seeking Other

More reviews from the Sydney Fringe festival! Over at Australian Stage, I reviewed Feet First Ventures' Still Seeking Other. Read it here. It's a super fun show. (It contains the line, "I'm still not reading Twilight - that shit's for wankers!", so no wonder I liked it!)

You can also read my interview with playwright Monica Zanetti here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sydney Fringe interview - Helen O'Leary

More interviews! Over at the Black Sheep blog, I had a chat to Helen O'Leary about her upcoming Sydney Fringe show Last at the Old 505 theatre. Have a read here.

The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died

The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died plays at the King St Theatre from 11-6 September 2012 as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. By Ildiko Susany, directed by Sarah Vickery.

The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died is a dense play. It’s full of philosophy and physics and language and religion, and if you stop paying attention for just a moment, you’ll miss something. There are layers upon layers – perhaps too many layers, because the play moves beyond ‘challenging’ into ‘downright difficult’. What it is, however, is poetic, mimetic, beautiful – and ultimately, I think, very rewarding.
 
The show, written by emerging playwright Ildiko Susany (whom I interviewed about this show here), is the story of Broon (Cameron Croker) and Enlon (Susany), a brother and sister who are the last beings left alive in the universe. To them has fallen the task of recording the fall of civilisation, humanity, and the universe, even though they have no way of knowing that anyone will ever know what they have known. Is the death of the universe the beginning of a new one, one that will rise like the phoenix from the ashes? Will they, whose atoms once came from the stars, return to the stars and find each other again? Or is there just nothingness at the end of it all?
 
It would be easy to characterise Broon as the pessimist and Enlon as the optimist, but the dynamic is much more complicated than that. Broon is a mathematician who has calculated the end of the world, but the repercussions of his discovery are slowly driving him mad. As the universe comes to a end, so too does his hope, so too does his sanity: he is losing his own universe, his mind. Enlon is a visionary, a girl who has been tortured (in a genuinely disturbing scene that made more audience members than just me wince) but who somehow has retained something like faith. Her constant desire for her brother to tell her stories is not just a way of keeping her brother’s faith alive but a recognition that even though the universe is shrinking, dwindling around her, the rug about to be pulled out from beneath her, her imagination is boundless. From Enlon’s hope, a new world might be born. Both Croker and Susany deliver genuinely touching performances, real performances (in spite of some truly difficult dialogue).
 
Ildiko Susany has a very lyrical voice as a playwright, and in some places, The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died feels more like poetry than a play. As mentioned above, the dialogue is dense and difficult, and while I don’t know if this is exactly a realist play, it was a bit hard to suspend disbelief enough to believe that two young people would actually really speak like Broon and Enlon do. (From a purely linguistic standpoint, I doubt that language would develop the way Susany has foreseen here – it’s a sort of amalgamation of twelfth century romance, Victorian novels, lyric poetry, and sci-fi.) Sometimes it sounds like the characters have either swallowed a thesaurus or Wikipedia. This is not to say that Susany doesn’t pull it off, but the language of the play is strange and challenging, to say the least. You really have to pay attention sometimes to understand what the characters are saying.
 
The show is full of high philosophy and physics and religious concepts, which I can see might be quite alienating for an audience. Let’s just say that my adventures in higher learning certainly helped me out here! This is not to say that high concepts can’t be explored in theatre, because they absolutely can, but I think they were maybe packed in a little too densely here. They were definitely interesting, but if nothing else, I wasn’t quite sure where Broon and Enlon got all that learning from (especially considering the fact they make reference to their parents working in the fields). But if you’re willing to be challenged, then The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died is definitely the show for you. It is superbly acted by Croker and Susany, beautifully directed by Sarah Vickery, and the script is sublimely poetic. If you go, you MUST be prepared to pay attention, to not blink, but I highly recommend you do go.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sydney Fringe Interview - Justin Locke and Jordan Shanks

Over at the Black Sheep blog, I had a chat to Justin Locke and Jordan Shanks about their upcoming Sydney Fringe show Steve 2 sugars thanks I've had a bad day. Check out the interview here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sydney Fringe Interview - Amelia Ryan

More interviews! I talked to Amelia Ryan about her one woman cabaret show Storm in a D Cup (which I've previously reviewed - it's good!) over at the Black Sheep blog. Have a look here.

Sydney Fringe Interview - Ildiko Susany

Interview time! I talked to playwright and actress Ildiko Susany about her Sydney Fringe show The Day The Galaxy Inevitably Exploded and Died. Check it out over here at the Black Sheep blog.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Boxed In

Another review from the Sydney Fringe festival for your edification! This time, it's Dead Cat Theatre's Boxed In at the King St Theatre, which I reviewed over at Australian Stage. Read it here.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Sea Project

I reviewed Arthur & Griffin Theatre Company's The Sea Project over at Australian Stage Online - you can read all my thoughts on it here.

Ride

I reviewed Ride by Jane Bodie at the Old 505 Theatre as part of the Sydney Fringe festival. You can check out my review here over at Australian Stage Online.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sydney Fringe Interview - Monica Zanetti

Over at the Black Sheep blog, I interviewed writer Monica Zanetti about Still Seeking Other, her upcoming show at the Sydney Fringe festival. Check it out here.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Face to Face

I reviewed Sydney Theatre Company's Face to Face for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sydney Fringe Interview - Shane Matheson

Over at the Black Sheep blog, I interviewed comedian Shane Matheson about his upcoming Sydney Fringe show Shane Matheson and his Fabulous Singing Bucket of Gravel. Check it out here.

Sydney Fringe Interview - Aaron Counter

So I'm not just writing here and at Australian Stage at the moment - you can also catch me over at the Black Sheep blog, the official blog of the Sydney Fringe Festival. Recently, I interviewed comedian Aaron Counter about his upcoming fringe show Counterproductive. Check it out here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi

I reviewed Bell Shakespeare's The Duchess of Malfi for Australian Stage - you can read my review here. It is an absolute must-see - if you are in Sydney before August 5, get yourself to the Opera House. No excuses.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Syncopation

My review of Syncopation, which I saw at Merrigong, is now up at Australian Stage: you can read it here. Contains references to Edward Cullen, Christian Grey, and Prufrock... all in the same paragraph.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Porn.Cake

My review of Griffin Theatre Company's Porn.Cake is now up at Australian Stage - you can check it out here. (Reveals, as I realised later, that I know quite a lot about the way porn is structured. IT'S ACADEMIC I SWEAR.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher)

I reviewed Sydney Theatre Company's The Histrionic (Der Theatermacher) for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lovely Ugly

Lovely Ugly was a one-night-only event on 13 June 2012 at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, as part of Griffin Theatre Company's Festival of New Writing.


Lovely Ugly takes place in the dark places, the small places, the places where you would not think to look. It is the story of a murder, but it is not a murder mystery. If anything, it is a journey to the underworld: a journey through a woman’s death and what comes after, a journey below the surface. In a way, it’s also a journey through the underworld of the theatre itself. There is no stage. There is no backstage. The boundaries between the real and the performed waver, flicker, and finally expire, as a room full of people, no longer an audience, sing ‘Space Oddity’ at a wake for a woman they do not know.


I loved Griffin Theatre Company’s immersive experience Heartbreak Hotel last year (you can read what I thought here), so I had high expectations of Lovely Ugly. It did not disappoint. This kind of theatre is certainly not for everyone. It is not the kind of theatre that can be resisted, as one disgruntled audience member in my group discovered when he tried to resist being a ‘witness’ at the chalk outline in the Stables theatre. This isn’t audience participation. I’ve had to do some pretty weird audience participation in my time (most memorably, sock puppet fighting), but there’s still a line that isn’t crossed, a fifth wall unbroken. Immersive theatre like this has no walls. It requires participation, full stop. There is no watching. I defy anyone who got pulled into the men’s bathroom on the third floor of the Kings’ Cross Hotel and interrogated while three people loomed over them menacingly to just ‘watch’. There is only participating, becoming, being.


I love this kind of theatre. I wouldn’t want all my theatre to be like this – intense is too weak a word for this kind of experience – but the rarity of it makes it that much more exciting. For Griffin, located as they are in Kings’ Cross, this tour of the seedy underbelly of a woman’s death worked wonderfully. What began like any other theatrical experience in the foyer of the theatre (though I’ve never put on lipstick and kissed a wall in any other foyer!) turned into a journey down, down, down through the nine circles of Kings’ Cross. There was no Virgil to guide us – rather, there was a series of guides, some mysterious, some ordinary, some implacable, some spectacular. From the chalk outline of the woman’s body in the theatre, through the labyrinthine backstage of the theatre, to a terrace where two men beat up another with a phone book taped to his stomach (so it doesn’t leave bruises, I found out), we followed them. They led us to the Altamont Hotel, where a woman emerged from a pile of clothes, where every room had a different story, and one held the scene of her murder. We saw her funeral arranged, travelled to her wake at the Kings’ Cross Hotel, were pulled aside for lapdances and cups of tea and interrogations and to watch people source kidneys over the phone. People that saw these groups of people wandering around the Cross with their little lipstick badges must have thought we were the weirdest Contiki group ever.


The intensity of theatre like Lovely Ugly comes primarily from the situation. There was some gripping writing and performances along the way (I’m not going to forget some of those fights in the Altamont Hotel any time soon, nor any scene that took place in a bathroom), but in some of the numerous monologues, I confess I tuned out, more in awe of the setting than anything else. There were so many pieces of the puzzle that I couldn’t possibly fit them together (though I was able to remember a random name dropped in the terrace scene when I was being interrogated – perhaps it had something to do with the baseball bat?) However, I don’t think I was supposed to put them together. This wasn’t a murder mystery – not for me, anyway. It was a journey – exciting, terrifying, and gripping, completely in the spirit of Griffin’s Festival of New Writing. I didn’t get the cathartic feeling with Lovely Ugly that I did coming out of Heartbreak Hotel last year, but it was thrilling in a new, different, and exciting way. And I am officially putting ‘Space Oddity’ on my list of ‘Good Songs to be Sung at Wakes’.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Charcoal Creek

I reviewed Merrigong Theatre Company's production of Charcoal Creek for Australian Stage - you can read my review here.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Food

I reviewed Belvoir St and Force Majeure's production of Food for Australian Stage - you can read my review here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Strange Interlude

I reviewed Belvoir St Theatre's production of Strange Interlude - you can read my review (in which I have quite a different opinion to many others who have reviewed this show) here.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself

I reviewed Griffin Theatre/Ride On Theatre's production of The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself over at Australian Stage - you can read my review here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

Storm in a D Cup

Storm in a D Cup runs at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston on 30-31 March & 6-7 April. Written and performed by Amelia Ryan.

Amelia Ryan’s Storm in a D Cup is a riot of a show. Messy and chaotic and funny, Ryan sings and laughs her way through scenes from her tempestuous life and drags the audience right along with her. While it’s not a perfect show, it’s top-notch entertainment from an extraordinarily talented performer, and if you get a chance to see this quirky little cabaret, you should definitely take it.

Ryan is at her strongest when she’s narrating slash singing her way through specific episodes from her life: about parking tickets, about UTIs, about her love life. The section on her love life is the best section of the whole show – alternately hilarious (seriously, this show is worth going to see for her spiced-up rendition of Cellblock Tango alone), poignantly sad, and uplifting. My favourite number in the whole show was her statistical analysis of why, yes, she probably will find another man. I spend so much of my day-to-day worklife as a romance novel scholar immersed in this grand you-are-my-soulmate-there-is-no-one-else-for-me narratives that the idea that yes, you might have loved someone but statistically they probably fall somewhere on a bell curve, was incredibly refreshing. It also didn’t hurt that that song is achingly, side-splittingly funny. Ryan has a wonderful gift for comic timing and if the whole musical theatre doesn’t pan out for her, I think she probably has a future in standup comedy.

The weaker parts of the show were the more soapbox-y. Not that the message was a bad one (or even a particularly complicated one), but the live-your-life-love-your-life preaching was a little jarring at times and didn’t quite fit the flow of the show. If Storm in a D Cup was going to be tightened at all, these are the places where the trimming should be done. All this said, these numbers were still entertaining, and Ryan’s rendition of U2’s Beautiful Day was 100% gorgeous.

Ryan really hits her stride in the second act, but the entire show is great fun. If you happen to be in Wollongong in the next week or so, do yourself a favour and head down to the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston and check out Storm in a D Cup. (Hopefully, Ryan will also take the show to a few more places, so if she comes to your city, seriously, go along.) Amelia Ryan is an extraordinarily talented and highly charismatic performer, and Storm in a D Cup is wonderfully entertaining: well-written, beautifully sung, tragic and comic and riotous all in one. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The New Electric Ballroom

The New Electric Ballroom runs at the SBW Stables until 31 March 2012. By Enda Walsh, directed by Kate Gaul.

The New Electric Ballroom is a play that relies heavily on rhythm: the rhythm of narrative, the rhythm of the sea, the rhythm of day to day life, the rhythm of the Irish language. It is a piece that has its own internal rhythm, one that I don’t know if I entirely managed to move with. It is a strange piece of theatre – not strange as in bizarre, but strange as in weird or eerie or uncanny. There is a sense that the boundary between times is thin. One night, twenty years ago, is still as close as if it were yesterday - and somehow, despite all the time that has passed, it was just yesterday.

Sisters Clara (Genevieve Mooy), Breda (Odile LeClezio) and Ada (Jane Phegan) live together in a little house. Only Ada, the youngest sister, ever leaves, and the only visitor is local fishmonger Patsy (Justin Smith), bound to them in ways that none of them understand. Twenty years ago, Clara and Breda shared a night at the New Electric Ballroom that traumatised them both so deeply that it rendered them unable to leave the house. Ada has relived that night over and over again through the constantly told and retold story, and in many ways, the scars it has carved upon her are deeper than those of her sisters.

The weakest part of The New Electric Ballroom was the premise. I found it hard to believe that this one night could have so deeply scarred Clara and Breda that it essentially became the moment they stopped living. However, if you can suspend your disbelief, the deeper meanings about what it means to be part of a story and the mythic nature of narrative are very powerful. It took me a while to settle into the play, to relax into the rhythm and let it wash over me. I found myself trying to psychoanalyse it too much, to try and understand more about why Clara and Breda were as agoraphobic and fixated on this one night as they were. I don’t think it’s a particularly flexible text in that sense, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it was interesting, trying to think in a different way synchronise with the piece’s internal rhythms. I do think it made The New Electric Ballroom a bit of a slow starter, but once the patterns became established, it became a lot clearer.

...that is quite a bit of confused highly subjective philosophising right there. (That’s kind of what I do. Sorry.) I certainly think that it’s possible simply to enjoy The New Electric Ballroom simply as beautiful, lyrical language, because hot damn does writer Enda Walsh have a turn of phrase about him. There were some gorgeous performances – I especially enjoyed the work of Justin Smith as Patsy, but all four actors were stellar. I found the soundscape a little intrusive at times, particularly for such a claustrophic, aggressively domestic play. One of the most poignant moments in the play is when Ada stares at a kettle, waiting for it to boil, and I think a little more of this and a little less seascape probably would have been better. Despite this, it was overall a great show from a technical standpoint, and director Kate Gaul deserves high praise.

The idea of the power of narrative to transform and to consume is one that really resonated with me deeply. The New Electric Ballroom has some great funny moments, but its four characters were quietly tragic, doomed by this ravenous, insatiable story, this ouroboros of a tale, unable to escape it even as it eats them alive. It’s a play I liked but I found quite difficult to grasp. I don’t really know how to describe the thinking, the rhythm, innate in it, but suffice it to say it’s not a way of thinking I’m particularly attuned to. What The New Electric Ballroom is is a thought-provoking piece of theatre, and a haunting one. The uncanniness of it is certainly going to stay with me for a while.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ramble-y Thoughts on Criticism (because I'm a nerd like that)

Theatre criticism in general and theatre blogging in particular has been a hot topic of late. This is no surprise. Stephen Crittenden’s recent article for the Global Mail on Shit On Your Play’s Jane Simmons has sparked a debate on the nature of criticism which I’ve watched with some interest – both as an emerging (or, less kindly, wannabe) theatre critic and as someone who studied a little litcrit at uni. This has led to a series of interesting online responses to Crittenden’s piece and Simmons’s blog and to some events in Sydney which I was fortunate enough to attend this weekend – the criticism panel at the excellent playwriting festival curated by Kate Mulvany under the auspices of Writing NSW and the Sunday Forum on theatre criticism held at Belvoir St.

I don’t think it’s at all contentious to say that there is nothing in the world as interesting as passionate disagreement. That is one of the things I really, really liked about the festival panel in Rozelle. The critics speaking on this panel included Dianna Simmonds, John McCallum, Kevin Jackson, and Augusta Supple, and while I don’t know if I agreed with everything they said – and they certainly didn’t always agree with each other – the debate had was robust and vibrant. It certainly gave me a lot to think about. I came away feeling like I’d learned something (as well as being a little terrified about the amount of people who must come away from my writing thinking I’m a giant narcissist because of how often I say ‘I’, but maybe that terror is just my narcissism showing – I don’t know). The Belvoir panel, which included Elissa Blake, Darryn King, Alison Croggon, Jane Simmons, and Chris Hook, was, by contrast, much tamer. I’m not trying to say that they should have thrown down and thrown punches on the floor of Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre, but I don’t think I came away with much new insight into the critical process. I know that passionate disagreement exists between the panellists – hell, Jane Simmons was on the panel, and anyone who’s read even a little theatre blogging recently knows what a polarising figure she’s been – but it didn’t show that much in discussion. Maybe it’s the part of me that loves sport, loves competition, or maybe it’s the academic in me who thrives on debate, but the reserved civility really did nothing for me.

I’ve been mulling over why the two events were so different – why I got so much out of the first and notso much  out of the latter – and I can’t really come up with a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the moderation styles were different, and that affected it: I did not, for example, really need to hear a detailed rundown of who does and who doesn’t take notes when they go to see a show. That mechanical level – for me, anyway – is really not interesting. But I didn’t intend to write this piece as a sort of review of the two events. Augusta Supple raised an excellent point on the festival panel – she said that she thinks of her reviews not as reviews, but as responses to the work, and that really resonated with me. This post is a response to the things I’ve heard over the weekend, not a review of individual reviewers or anything like that. This is a bit of a ramble on What Jodi Thinks About Criticism And Audience and Her Own Personal Critical Philosophy (feat. Jean-Paul Sartre, because I can be a wanker like that).

For me, the biggest question that was raised over the weekend – one that I feel the festival panel addressed with a lot more nuance and depth than the Belvoir panel – is the question of audience. The traditional publishing venues of reviews (ie newspapers) seem to make it clear that reviews are intended to guide audience behaviour, but ticket sales show that that isn’t always the case. As someone who has existed (and hopes to continue to exist) on the other side of the artistic/critical fence, I know that reviews can be vitally important on a personal level to artists, and that’s certainly the sense I got via some of the panels at the playwriting festival. In What is Literature?, Jean-Paul Sartre writes about the ideas of author and reader, subject and object. This is a massive simplification of a complex philosophy (I mean, come on, it’s Sartre), but basically, the reader exists outside an invented world and is able to perceive it objectively. The author, who has created the world, exists within it, and thus for them, the work is permanently subjective, never quite finished, always subject to change, a project into the future. It’s an imperfect philosophy, but it’s neat, and I think it can certainly apply to theatre: an artist necessarily perceives a work one way, an audience another, and who does the critic write for?

The problem with this kind of debate, however, is twofold. One, it homogenises ‘audience’, failing to recognise that an audience contains not only individuals but an artistic community as well; and two, it erases the fact that the critic is themselves a) part of the audience, and b) an individual. At the Belvoir panel, the question of a critic’s qualifications were raised, and a couple of the panellists responded with the idea that they’re just part of the audience. I felt like saying, ‘of course’, because who else is a critic supposed to be? The idea of a critic having to be somehow ‘qualified’ to comment on art is bullshit. Anyone can see a play, anyone can react to it, and any opinion is valid. Just because work might not be catered directly to your individual tastes does not negate your right to comment on it (and to comment on the fact that it was not to your individual taste).

I get really uncomfortable with the idea that someone is speaking for the masses. This was the biggest problem I had when the whole Shit On Your Play fracas happened – the idea that this blog spoke for a disenfranchised voice. Maybe this is very idealistic, and maybe it runs counter to all the links between criticism and commercialism that exist, but I think that as a critic, I only have the right to speak for myself. Criticism is not decentred. The person who watches theatre, who experiences any kind of art – the reader, for lack of a more inclusive word – cannot and should not divorce their experience of art from art. What is important to recognise is that one person’s experience may not be like another’s. I can speak only to my own experience. I can advise, I can warn, I can say what I did and didn’t like, but I can only ever speak from my perspective. Hell, I can call something ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and maybe people will agree with me, but does that mean that what I write is empirically true? Not so much.

Let me put my academic hat back on and get all lit-crit-y – noting that literary criticism is vast and complex and while I’ve studied it I’m certainly not any kind of authority and this is all a big, big simplification. (There is, I think, some interesting academic work to be done on the role audience and performance criticism and that kind of thing – I think it’s something that is totally under-studied.) In lit-crit’s formative years, criticism revolved around the author. The role of the critic was almost to ignore the text – to approach it as a detective might, to discern the author’s true intention. Then New Criticism became trendy, which is text-based: it essentially ignored the author and the reader and approached litcrit almost like maths. (I have many, many thoughts on why I hate New Crit, which I will not go into here.) And then along came Roman Ingarden, who gave us reception theory: reader-based crit. At the heart of reception theory is the idea that a text is incomplete until it is read. There is only one text, which can be read differently, and while a text is not the sum total of its interpretations, the meaning is dependent on the reader. In its most basic form, a text will mean different things to different people.

I think this is a useful way to approach criticism. It’s simultaneously comforting (‘I only have to speak for myself’) and complicating (‘how will we ever form any collective opinions on anything?’), but if we accept that art is incomplete until it is viewed, then centring the reader’s experience of art seems to make sense. Writing a review and offering detailed textual analysis with the artist specifically in mind might be useful for the artist but perhaps not for anyone else. There was some discussion on the Saturday panel about setting personal taste evaluating work on what it’s trying to do, which I think is a flawed idea – I feel like work should be evaluated on the merits of what it actually does, not on what it tries to do and whether it succeeds or fails, and the only yardstick a critic has to measure that is against their own experience. Divorcing ‘art’ from ‘how I feel about art’ – that is, trying to be objective? A lot, lot harder than it sounds. If a critic tries to be ‘objective’, I don’t think that really does anyone any favours. We get back to crit-by-numbers, and I don’t think anyone really wants art to be appraised that way.

There are no ciphers. There is no one out there that is just ‘audience member #5’. Every theatre audience, every night, is made up of individuals.  I think it’s important to have a diverse variety of critics because audiences are not homogenous. A piece of art – whether it’s a literary text or opera or circus or theatre – is going to mean something different to every single person in an audience, and vibrant criticism should be a microcosm of that. I’m not saying that all critics will (or should) disagree, but that nuance and the individual reading should be celebrated. As a critic, as a reader, I can offer my opinion, my reading, of a play. Some people will go and see a play and love it. Some will hate it. Some will read a review and agree with it. Some will disagree. I think what I’m trying to get at here is treating any group as a group is innately dangerous and ultimately infantilising. Who is qualified to be a critic? Anyone. Anyone can have an opinion. The responsibilities of a critic? To give an opinion, as they see it, as they understand it. It’s as simple as that.

...of course, it’s not as simple as that. In an idealistic bubble it’s as simple as that, but in real terms? Of course not. We come back, once again, to the question of audience, of who the critic writes for. One really interesting question raised at the Belvoir panel was when people read reviews – before or after they see a show. Personally, I read reviews only after I’ve written my own, and like Darryn King, I feel a frisson of excitement when someone passionately agrees or passionately disagrees with my point of view. Going back to Sartre – he talks about how writing is for reading, how text is freedom to collaborate in the writer’s art, how a text needs to be read, to be concretised, and how the writer needs to respect the reader’s freedom. If a writer writes a sunset, the reader is necessary to realise it. I think this point is valid across many different forms of criticism. When I review – or respond to, as Augusta Supple put it, which I think is a far more useful set of words – theatre, I try to reflect the sunset as I saw it.  Perhaps there are some sunsets I approach differently from others. As a ‘reader’ of theatrical art, perhaps I realise my sunsets in different ways sometimes. It’s exciting when someone sees the sunset in a similar way to me. It’s exciting when someone looks at what I thought was a sunset and sees a stormcloud. Diverse readings of texts are exciting, yo.

So who does a critic write for? I think everyone will have a different answer to that. Print critics, for example, are bound to write for a certain audience. For me? I could be super trite and say ‘myself’, but that wouldn’t be quite right. I do write to react, to respond, to express what I feel. I love the idea of criticism as art and there is something about art which is deeply personal. However, I come back to the wicked world of academia (as an analogy, not as an audience!). I am – if it’s not already painfully, excruciatingly obvious – an academic type, and when I write academic papers, I’m writing for my peers, to create or extend a dialogue with scholars in my field, hoping to further our collective knowledge and understanding. A point that was raised at the panel in Rozelle was the idea that theatre blogs have enabled an ongoing conversation about a show. When I write, I aspire to write for a critical community. Sartre (yeah, him again) said that we write for our contemporaries, our peers, and I think that we not only make art for them, but we provide our own readings of art for their own benefit. By ‘critical community’, I don’t just mean critics, but people who want to engage in ongoing dialogue about what a show did, how it did it, the ideas that it raised, anything. This could mean artists, companies, other critics, audience member #5 – anyone interested in continuing a conversation.

Do I succeed in doing this? Probably not. But in my ideal world, that’s what criticism looks like. (This has been a very longwinded, I’ve-had-a-few-glasses-of-wine-and-damn-it-I-have-things-to-say-I-have-a-bit-of-a-philosophy-crush-on-Jean-Paul-Sartre way of getting at it.) I’m glad that there have been so many opportunities to discuss theatre criticism and what it means and how it should be done and all those sorts of things over the past little while. Do I think these conversations have been conducted in the most productive way? Not really. I certainly felt that the Belvoir panel, for instance, danced around the issues and seemed to be terrified of offending anyone. But the fact that there are conversations happening about what it means to be a critic makes me happy. And if I think they’re not being done right... hey, that’s just my reading.