Sunday, September 17, 2017

Theatre: Laika: A Staged Radio Play (★★★★)

No escape: Soviet brass pay their respects to the remains of cosmonaut Komarov
Written and directed by Scott McArdle
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26

I grew up with spacemen.
They would appear in their white spacesuits and be gone, impossibly upwards, and we would gaze up at the Great Beyond and wonder at the thought of a human riding across it.
The greatest of them was the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (St John Cowcher), the first man in space. It was two days after my seventh birthday, and I was lost among the stars.
Scott McArdle’s Laika: A Staged Radio Play is a gripping and inventive tribute to the men and women (and dogs) of the Soviet Space Programme who lived and died behind the secrets and lies of that shadowy empire.
McArdle has taken some liberties with history, but he’s done so with excellent control and to the great benefit of his story. It was the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, not Gagarin, who died when his spacecraft plummeted back to earth in 1967 (Gagarin died a year later in a fighter jet crash) but the terrible story is brilliantly told. There were no cosmonauts aboard Sputnik 7 and 8, but we grieve for them nevertheless as they burn and drift into the dark.
The play’s main narrative creation is Natalya Volkov (Taryn Ryan), a technician and candidate cosmonaut who lives through the triumphs and failures of the space programme. Through her we meet the legendary “Chief Designer” Sergei Korolev (Arielle Gray), the feuding missile designers Mikhail Yangel (Cowcher) and Vasily Mishin (Daniel Buckle), and the cosmonauts.
Volkov is a terrific character, brave, wounded, full of hope and fury, and Ryan is a star in the making. Cowcher and Gray are already stars, and are well supported by Buckle and the Foley artist Andrew David, whose sound effects, along with Robert Woods’s compositions and George Ashforth’s historical projections on Sara Nives Chirichilli’s moody set give the play a most impressive look, sound and feel.
As its title suggests, McArdle’s conceit is that this is a radio play, read by a group of friends who stumble across an old script in a deserted studio. There’s no reason to get particularly excited about this top-and-tailing expedient, but it’s a brief and inoffensive vehicle for the telling of a story of real power and quality.


This review appeared in The Weekend West Australian 16.9.17  
 

THEATRE: TILT 2017

WAAPA  3rd Year Performance Making Students
Blue Room Theatre
August 30 - September 9

The Blue Room Theatre is the perfect venue for TILT, the annual showcase of WAAPA’s Performance Making course’s graduating class. It’s exactly the sort of venue these artists will first venture into in the big, wide world outside the academy.

All the pieces in TILT, which is presented in two programmes, are self-devised, and brand new. You look for the talent and personality of the creator/ performers, and the potential for their pieces to take the leap from a half-hour showcase to the hour or so of a full Fringe/Alternative theatre production.
Other TILT shows have made that leap with mixed results; finding character and narrative development, light and shade, is no easy task. Pieces that are essentially skits can be quickly found out in longer formats.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The 2017 Turnstile Awards


Arts minister David Templeman points out the bar to
supremo Duncan Ord at this year's Wild West-themed
(but still glittering) Turnstile Awards ceremony.

There’s been something of a return to form for this year’s Turnstile Awards after 2015/6  saw only three Turnstiles find a new home in the trophy cabinets of their deserving winners.
This year more than double that number have taken home the silverware, while another baker’s dozen would have been deserving winners.
There were over thirty local productions I would have warmly recommended to theatregoers; just as impressively, I did not see a single local production you really needed to avoid. Honestly!

There’s a caveat, though, to all this enthusiasm, and it’s a nasty one.
Going back over the past five years or so I would consistently review somewhere in the high fifty to low sixty “eligible” local productions for The West and/or this blog. This year the number is 45. That’s a really significant drop off in the output of the local theatre business.
(I don’t think it can be explained by a drop-off in my coverage; changes in the newspaper business have meant a severe reduction in the opportunities for freelance contributors, but I’m not aware that it’s changed my efforts to cover locally-produced theatre  – there simply hasn’t been as much of it.)
When you consider that the programmes of the three main theatre outlets in this town – The Blue Room, Black Swan and WAAPA – have roughly the same number of productions each year, and our hot-as-wasabi globe-trotting wunderkinder, the Last Great Hunt, grow ever more productive, that indicates a potentially catastrophic falling off in other parts of the sector.
I constantly argue the case for content; we can build all the infrastructure we like, and cut as many ribbons as we want, but without content – and especially locally-created content – to fill it, it’s all expensive back-slapping.

The Turnstile Awards acknowledge outstanding WA produced (or co-produced) stage shows opening in Perth between September and August each year. They are inclusive, rather than proscriptive, when it comes to eligibility.
There is no set number of Turnstile winners, and no attempt to rank them in order of merit. The Turnstiles are a pat on the back, not the prize in a competition.
Here, in chronological order, are the seven productions that got up for a Turnstile in the past year:
  • Grounded Alison van Reeken, the very best of our actors, was taut and sinewy as the fighter pilot cum drone operator in George Brant’s horrifyingly real journey into bloodless, abstract, modern warfare.
  • The One The arc of a love affair told as a blues by the white-hot writer Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Georgia King and Mark Storen, who both gave career-best performances.
  • The Lighthouse Girl Hellie Turner overcame the intractable untheatricality of fact to fashion a touching and very real love story in the shadow of war and death, highlighted by an outstanding rookie performance as the girl from Daisy Coyle.
  • End Game The pedigrees of the play, the director Andrew Ross, the designer and lighting designer Tyler Hill and Mark Howlett and a fine cast were impeccable, and they delivered Beckett’s bleak vision with wonderful clarity and control. 
  • The Irresistible A singular, wholly-realised theatre experience by the writer and director Zoe Pepper and the performer/collaborators Tim Watts and the ferocious, highly-charged Adriane Daff,
  • Good Little Soldier Ochre Dance Theatre’s Mark Howlett took his text about the scars of war and, working with a talented team of deviser/performers, broke it down into a cross-disciplinary performance that, miraculously, was even greater than the sum of its parts. 
  • The View from the Penthouse In the very last hours of the Turnstiles year, WAAPA Performance Making students Isaac Diamond, Cam Pollock and the genuinely terrifying Sam Hayes concocted a brilliant, noxious cocktail of carnality and addiction.

As always, my selections are inevitably subjective and often idiosyncratic. Better judges than me would no doubt have have seen a Turnstile heading in the direction of these other fine productions: 

By and large the last year of Kate Cherry’s programming for Black Swan has (so far) been impressive. Apart from its two Turnstiles, an archly funny Tartuffe and the talented Will O’Mahony’s Coma Land were especially notable.
WAAPA churns out battalions of talent, and, as a felicitous by-product, some fine productions each year; this time around as well as a Turnstile, their yummy
Present Laughter was one of the best nights out in town.
The Hunters, either individually or collectively, delivered a whole swag of rolled-gold shows this time around; they add two more Turnstiles to their trophy cabinet, and their sharp, sweet shaggy-dog story,
New Owner, was right up there.
No-one, though, comes close to the year the Blue Room and its cohort of independent producers delivered; as well as the two Turnstile-winning shows within its walls, there was a slew of fine productions:
the finely-crafted bar-room blitz PORTO, Samantha Maclean and Timothy Green’s dazzling, sexy Tissue, Mr Greg Fleet’s adroit, profane Signifying Nothing, Izzy McDonald’s touching, truthful Bus Boy and Daisy Coyle’s second star turn of the year in An Almost Perfect Thing.The tiny company that can, Holland St Productions, hit again with the irresistible Gutenberg! The Musical, Azaak Lim’s Malpractical Jokes was the pick of the Downstairs at the Maj season, the Fringe brought us the dark tomfoolery of When He Gets That Way and the little gem, Odd Socks. 
   

 

Let's also hand over honorary Turnstiles to some great visiting shows:
Christopher Samuel Carroll was a tortured, eloquent Satan in
Paradise Lost at the Fringe. Another power-packed PIAF theatre programme was highlighted by  Dmitry Krymov’s savage Opus No. 7, Complicite’s Amazonian aural feast  An Encounter, and, especially, the revelatory, magnificent The Gabriels. Compagnia TPO and Insite Arts took kids, and us, on a wonderful journey across country in Saltbush.
  

 

 


Friday, August 25, 2017

Theatre: Switzerland (★★½)

Giuseppe Rotondella (pic: Philip Gostelow)
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait
Set and costume designer Bruce McKinven
Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw
Composer/ Sound designer Ash Gibson Greig
With Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until September 3

This is the fourth time I’ve gone to Joanna-Murray-Smithland, a favourite destination for our State Theatre Company, and my struggles with her continue. On this occasion altitude sickness is compounded by frustration, because she’s come up with a killer idea, arranged it expertly, but failed to pull it off.
None of the improbabilities and inconsistencies that marred Black Swan’s 2013 production of her Day One, a Hotel, Evening and destroyed 2011’s awful Ninety are here.
This is partly because this Switzerland is not a real place, and the skirmishes between her characters, the real-life novelist Patricia Highsmith (Jenny Davis) and the imagined publishing executive Edward Ridgeway (Giuseppe Rotondella) are phantasmagorical.
In this shifting reality, improbability and inconsistency becomes, if anything, a blessing rather than a curse.
Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt/Carol, the five Tom Ripley novels) is boozing and smoking her way towards a lonesome death in grumpy self-imposed exile in Switzerland. She is visited by Ridgeway, a young man from her American publishers. He brings a contract for Highsmith to deliver a sixth and final installment of the Ripliad.
She’s aggressively disinterested in the project, and scornful of Ridgeway, his employers, other writers (the better the more) and anything and anyone else she turns her mind to.
She wants rid of Ridgeway, but he manages, somehow, to stick around. He plies her with gifts, those she demanded he bring with him and one, a beautiful dagger for her collection of antique weapons, unasked for.
He knows these weapons, in surprising detail. He knows her, and he knows her anti-hero. Like a book.
As the idea for the new Ripley story takes shape, it’s Ridgeway rather than Highsmith who brings its snakes and ladders to the table.
From there Switzerland wriggles its way to a climax to the Highsmithian manner born.
That’s the good news. Despite the play’s artfulness, the recruitment of Lawrie Cullen-Tait, a director with a real gift for staging the interplay of two people (Red, Venus in Fur), and a powerful creative team, the play founders on the rocks of Murray-Smith’s dialogue.
It’s highfalutin and self-indulgent, emotionally shallow and psychologically unconvincing. It leaves Highsmith, even in the hands of the admirable Davis, sounding strained and rote (if she’d yelled “G’wan, get out or I’ll call the cops!” at Ridgeway one more time, and I’d been on an aisle, I’d have been tempted to take her advice). All the acidity and wit is drained out of Highsmith, and with it any feeling – admiration or repulsion – we have for her.
Davis’s problems are compounded by an odd set (by Bruce McInven) that required two physiotherapists to be credited in the programme. A trapezium of grey granite with a rake for the performers that would struggle to pass an OH&S inspection – at one point Davis dropped a pencil that proceeded, unsettlingly, to roll away from her down the slope – it impressed initially but demanded too much attention from us, and far too much care from the actors, as the play wore on.
At least Rotondella’s character, and so his performance, goes somewhere. When we meet him he’s determined but a bit of a puppy, very like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate. By the end he’s someone – or something – that looms much more dangerously. Guess who.
Rotondella is a young actor with a genuine talent and real appeal. Sadly, he’s one of very few reasons you should consider a trip to Switzerland.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Theatre: Arteries by Ancestry (★★★½)


By James McMillan
The Blue Room Theatre until Sept 2

On a white traverse stage, in a bleached pink glare, are two performers almost within touching distance of the audience.
One is staggering under the weight of a massive plastic ball, like Atlas crushed by the weight of the world. The other, wielding a whip, berates him…
Plastic!  Bad! (Crack!)
It’s a relationship of sorts – or a battle to the death – between self-destructive mankind and nature. It’s also a metaphor for what we pass down to each other, the ancestry of blood, of thinking and perception.
We see this played out in the relationships of fathers and sons, of lovers, of us and the world. The core of the story is the arc of the love affair between Avery (Noah Jimmy) and Sebastian (Haydon Wilson), a gay couple who have to deal with inherited preconceptions.
Avery also has his father’s ambitions and disappointments to contend with. In the piece’s most powerful scene, the father (Wilson) parades his son, driven almost to the point of collapse, in front of us: “A MAN…Look at him…A MAN”. In an extraordinary performance by Wilson, the father is at once a gorilla, a goat, a dog; primal in both anger and fear, confronted by the reality of the son he cannot bend to his will.
In the end, the father is chained by his son, the inevitable fate of all generations in the face of their successors.
Jimmy is terrific throughout; a dancer, but a fine actor as well, he conveys emotion through movement, a glance or a tone of voice. He is lithe and flexible, a tight fit for the larger, more powerful Wilson.
The violent power of their physical theatre is augmented by an impressive technical achievement from the designer Sally Phipps, sound designers Alex & Yell and lighting designer Rhiannon Petersen. The writer/director James McMillan delivers the accurate staging without which it would have foundered.
Arteries by Ancestry is a challenge to its audience, and it’s not always clear where you are in its complex, layered narrative, but the energy and skill of its creators and performers makes it well worth the effort.


Read the complete review in The West Australian of 19.8.17    

Theatre: An Almost Perfect Thing (★★★★)

By Nicole Moeller
Directed by Gabrielle Metcalf
Set and costume designer Tyler Hill
Lighting designer Rhiannon Petersen
Sound designer Christian Peterson
Performed by Daisy Coyle, Andrew Hale and Nick Maclaine
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26

The abduction and imprisonment of young girls holds a fascination for the media and public.
Apart from the purely sexual voyeurism that inevitably accompanies these cases, there’s a devil’s brew of other allurements; the psychological mysteries of “Stockholm Syndrome”, the personalities of victim and perpetrator, the titillating thought that these outrages could be happening right under your nose – even (hush now) right next door.
And when these children emerge, freed from a dark basement or recognised walking down the street with their captor, their story becomes somehow even more chilling by the shock of their very survival.
The Canadian playwright Nicole Moeller tackles the subject with considerable dramatic precision in An Almost Perfect Thing, and manages to wrap many of the issues around abduction into a compact and gripping narrative (at 110 minutes over two acts the play is long by Blue Room standards, but it’s time easily spent).
An 18-year-old girl, Chloe (Daisy Coyle), suddenly reappears after six years in captivity. For a struggling journalist, Greg (Andrew Hale), who’d been following the fruitless attempts to find her, it’s as though she dropped out of the sky.
Chloe, who’s read Greg’s stories while she’s been held, agrees to talk to him, but not to reveal the identity of her captor, Mathew (Nick Maclaine), or where she was imprisoned.
It’s clear that Chloe enjoys her fame, even when it turns to notoriety in some quarters, and is determined to play it out to her best advantage.
She realises – and it’s a fascinating insight – that once the perpetrator is exposed and captured, he becomes the focus of attention, not her.
As Moeller’s story plays out, and she moves us back and forward in time, she spins a web of interdependence, shared pain, hope and fear between captive, captor and reporter that delivers compelling theatre and psychological veracity.
Hale and and Maclaine are experienced and skilful actors, and Gabrielle Metcalf gives them a tight frame in which to deliver complex and impressive performances.
And Daisy Coyle, who recently announced her arrival in her starring role in the Black Swan hit The Lighthouse Girl, confirms her great promise here in a performance of terrific emotional suppleness and charisma. She’s a keeper.


This review appeared in The West Australian of 13.8.17  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Theatre: Sista Girl (★★★★)


By Elena Carapetis and Alexis West
Yirra Yaakin and State Theatre Company of South Australia
Directed by Kyle J Morrison
Designed by Miranda Hampton
Composer/sound design by Andrew Howard
Lighting design by Rick Worringham
Performed by Sharni McDermott and Nadia Rossi
Subiaco Theatre Centre
 
Sharni McDermott and Nadia Rossi (pic: Kate Pardey)
It’s hard to find something to criticise about Sista Girl, but I have; it’s not long enough, and it stops short of the rip-roaring, “Sistas are Doing It for Themselves” climax it was beautifully poised to deliver.
Not that it fails to make its point. Not that it fails to be a satisfying – more than satisfying – story of connection across ethnic, economic and emotional divides.
It’s morning. Georgie Morelli (Nadia Rossi) and Nakisha Grey (Sharni McDermott) are both caught in the same bloody awful Australia Day holiday traffic jam, and are both heading for a shit of a day.
And that, though they don’t know it at the time, isn’t all they’ve got in common.
Nakisha has an aboriginal mother and a white father; Georgie an Italian migrant mother and a white father. Nakisha is affluent (although an Aboriginal girl in a BMW gets hassled just the same), Georgie is skint, but she’s still having a good time bogan-watching on the bus.
Both of them get a call. Their dads have collapsed, and have been rushed to hospital. Before they arrive, the news is even worse. Their dads have died.
Alone together in the waiting room, the two girls make a shocking discovery – their dads are the same man.
It’s a delicious set-up, and the writers Elena Carapetis and Alexis West are marvellously sure-footed as they play it out. Naturally, the circumstances (one family abandoned, the other imperilled, the collision of white, migrant and indigenous ethnicities) are pregnant with issues current and deep-rooted. The play does canvass them, but without weighing it down.
What is really important is reconciliation of a ground-level, intensely personal kind, and that’s the journey Sista Girl takes Georgie, Nakisha and us on.
Rossi and McDermott are great company on the trip. Rossi is feisty and appealing, giving her embattled Georgie a terrific rough-diamond appeal, and McDermott deserves high praise for her success in a very tricky assignment. For Nakisha to work, she has to first lose our sympathy to gain it back, and McDermott does both in a performance of great quality.
Sista Girl is an efficient, no-nonsense play, from its tidy writing to Miranda Hampton’s merry-go-round set and Kyle J Morrison’s adept, unobtrusive direction. That in no way, however, diminishes its quality or importance.
And my complaint? Give those girls another 10 minutes and they could re-draw the contract their dad had mucked up, blown their potential partners away with a hot-shot presentation and both driven off in Beemers.
Laughing their heads off and singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” no doubt.