Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Theatre: Is This Thing On? (★★★★)

By Zoe Coombs Marr
Directed by Zoe Pepper
Featuring Nicola Bartlett, Daisy Coyle, Andrea Gibbs, Samantha Maclean and Giulia Petrocchi
Blue Room Theatre
Until October 8

Andrea Gibbs (pic: Daniel James Grant)
Shakespeare famously identified seven ages of man in As You Like It, and the Sydney writer and comedian Zoe Coombs Marr has performed a similar dissection on the trajectory of the stand-up comic here.
The play’s mechanics are audacious, and skilfully managed by its director Zoe Pepper; five actors all play a comedian, Brianna (named, she claims, after the Fleetwood Mac song – it’s a running gag), from her first tentative stand at 16 (Daisy Coyle) to all-but-redundancy at 60 (Nicola Bartlett). Along the way we see her juggling bar work, uni studies and her fledgling act at 22 (Samantha Maclean), dealing with adult life at 27 (Giulia Petrocchi) and, fully fledged, struggling with it all at 35 (Andrea Gibbs).
Since her auspicious arrival as a dramatic actor in 2014, Gibbs has delivered an unbroken string of notable performances. None more so than this; her Brianna is genuinely horrible and achingly sympathetic. It’s a remarkable characterisation.
We may laugh with this person – Is This Thing On? has plenty of gags for that – but this unusual and effective play admonishes us not to laugh at her. 

Read the complete review in The West Australian

Cabaret: Tribute (★★★)

Written and performed by Ruth Wilkin
Downstairs at the Maj
22 – 24 September

Audiences want more, and performers need to give it to them. So it’s unsurprising that the stock-standard cabaret tribute show has been re-invented by artists who see its potential as a launch pad for something more complex, nuanced and satisfying.
We’ve seen that potential realised recently in a couple of shows in the cabaret room downstairs at the Maj; the writer Izaak Lim (with others) and director Michael Loney, after delivering attractive bio-tributes of Cole Porter and Dorothy Field, took the songs of Harold Arlen and fashioned them into Fancy Meeting You, an original romantic comedy musical, while John O’Hara and his writer/director collaborator Anthony Harkin’s Dedication used a suite of songs to drive the internal monologue of a late-night schmaltz jock.
Both shows became greater than the sum of their parts, and great successes, while more traditional tribute shows– there’s no need to name them, even though some of them are very well performed by very talented artists – increasingly seem less than the sum of theirs.
Ruth Wilkin has taken things a very long step further. 

She’s also devised a bio-tribute, only, in Tribute, she’s invented the star whose story she tells and whose hits she sings.

Theatre: Ghost Stories (★★½)

Richard Moss checks things out
By Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson
Prince Moo Productions
Director Peter J Snee and Jennifer Sarah Dean
Designer Jaz Wikson
Lighting designer Mat Cox
Featuring Stuart Brennan, Richard Moss, Matthew Connell, Brian Markey
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
Until October 12

To say that I scare easily is an understatement. I saw Disney’s Sleeping Beauty when I was around six and still haven’t fully recovered, just about dislocated a hip convulsively jerking my legs out of harm’s way during Jaws, and was a tiny bit frightened last week by The Sound of Music.
So, if the publicity was to be believed, I should have been stretchered out of Ghost Stories at the Heath Ledger Theatre.
But I’m afraid I wasn’t. Not even close.
Ghost Stories has been a popular success in the UK and elsewhere – it claims a total audience of over half a million – so maybe the “don’t tell anyone” request is cleverer than it seems.
Because this might be one occasion where lack of word of mouth is the best marketing strategy.

Read the complete review in The West Australian

Monday, September 19, 2016

Musical: THE SOUND OF MUSIC (★★★★)

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Presented by Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group
Directed by Jeremy Sams
Designed by Robert Jones
Music direction by Peter Casey
Choreography by Arlene Phillips
Burswood Theatre
Until October 9

In April 1965, The Sound of Music movie opened in Brisbane, where I was 11 and at boarding school, and the whole city swooned.
There was pandemonium. One woman saw it 100 times. We all got special boarder’s leave to see it.
All this for a Swiss cheesy, Vienna chocolate box of a musical, as anachronistic as lederhosen?
But nobody cared then, and I doubt anyone does now. The Sound of Music is both an “icky sticky” failure (as one critic described it) and a triumph. You can love it and laugh at it, all at once.
It belongs to its audience alone; all there is to judge is the justice each production does it.
And this one delivers in spades.
Robert Jones’s set of convent cloisters, schloss ballrooms, Salzburg concert halls – complete with genuinely creepy Nazi regalia – and, of course, hills that are alive, solves the thorny problems the Crown Theatre’s stage presents.
That’s helped by Jeremy Sams’s no-nonsense direction that keeps the show facing the front and reduces the background to two-dimensional eye candy.
Peter Casey’s 13-piece orchestra play lushly, the sound is particularly clean and well-balanced, leaving Richard Rodgers’ great melodies and the cast to do their stuff.
And they do it so well. Let’s start with the local kids, on this night Sebastian Coe, Bianca Thomas, Thomas Denver, Saoirse Gerrish, Claudia Drinkwater and little Luca Priolo (who needed only a tiny puppy to make the famous warning to actors come to life). Their parents should be proud.
Stefanie Jones is an ideal Liesl, and her Sixteen Going On Seventeen duet with the very talented Du Toit Bredenkamp is a highlight.
The estimable Lorraine Bayly and John Hannan have Frau Schmidt and Franz down pat, and Marina Prior, sleek and sexy as the Baroness, and David Wells, as the weak, ultimately heroic Max, make the most of the show’s only forgettable numbers, How Can Love Survive? and No Way to Stop It.
And then there’s the Mother Abbess and Climb Ev’ry Mountain, a song that can make you hyperventilate. Bravo, Johanna Allen!
Cameron Daddo is upright and handsome as Georg von Trapp (not musical theatre’s most rewarding role, though my companion, a 24-time veteran of the movie and confessed Plummerbitch, reckons the captain’s a bit of all right).
And any fear that Amy Lehpamer’s Maria would wilt in the shadow of Julie Andrews is completely dispelled. A little bit gangly, but suddenly beautiful, with a voice that easily soars, Lehpamer gives the lovely performance this treasure chest of a revival deserves.

This review appeared in The West Australian 17.9.16

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Theatre: Grounded (★★★★½)

Written by George Brant
Directed by Emily McLean
Sound designer and composer Brett Smith
Lighting designer Karen Cook
Performed by Alison van Reeken
Blue Room Theatre
Until October 1


“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Robert Oppenheimer (from the Bagavad Gita) 

When Oppenheimer, in the high New Mexico desert, pondered the destructive power of his atomic bomb, it was its enormity and existential threat that gave him pause.
No such qualms stay the hand of the wielders of military drones, those precise, invisible predators that increasingly are the weapon of choice of the world’s militaries.
It’s easy to see why. Bloodless (to their possessors) and politically expedient, they turn warfare into images on screens, and death into the ultimate gamer abstraction.
But there are people operating the drones, and, in George Brant’s hard, cold Grounded, we meet one. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that one confronts us. The Pilot (she has no name) was an F-16 fighter jock. Her world was The Blue, W.B. Yeats’s “lonely impulse of delight”.
When it is taken from her and she’s assigned to the “Chair Force”, sitting in a hut at an air force base in another high desert an hour out of Las Vegas, staring at screen images from 1.2 seconds ago on the other side of the world, her blue world turns to grey.
As she monitors her screen, and rains death on figures scuttling around in the desert, her moral compass and her sense of self become harder and harder to grasp.
Until another reality forces her to reach back for them.
Alison van Reeken is the very best of our actors, and she’s extraordinary here. Hair tied back tight, face taut and unmade, sinewy in her pilot’s jumpsuit, her performance (85 minutes, delivered at the gallop) is uncompromising, technically flawless and emotionally convincing.
Her pilot is frightening and frightened, normal and abnormal in equal measure.
The director, Emily McLean, doesn’t have all the technical bells and whistles at the Blue Room that the celebrated Julie Taymor had to play with in the Broadway production of Grounded, so she and her lighting designer Karen Cook focus us entirely on van Reeken, and it’s to powerful, chilling effect.
The only distractions from Grounded’s tension are the songs on The Pilot’s car stereo.
Maybe one day she will crank up her AC/DC, her Guns ‘N’ Roses and Springsteen real loud, and drive. Away, up past Las Vegas, up past Los Alamos, and off into The Blue.
Tickets to Grounded will be hard to get. Don’t miss it.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian 16.9.16.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Theatre: TILT 2016 (★★★)

WAAPA  3rd Year Performance Making Students
Blue Room Theatre
Until September 10

These two short seasons are the second annual showcase of WAAPA’s Performance Making course’s graduating class at the Blue Room Theatre.
Performance making is the most DIY of artistic pursuits. These artists are the small business people of the theatre, responsible for everything from devising and writing to the technical and performance delivery of the work.
It’s a daunting environment where, if you want something done, you’ll more than likely have to do it yourself.
The 23 young artists in TILT are launching into a rock-strewn stream that leads to the spiegeltents of the fringes and the black boxes of indie theatre venues like the Blue Room. Bon voyage.
Promise abounded in both programmes, and one piece, Where the Giant Fell, is already all but ready for market. I’m confident, like The Mars Project and The Remedy/What’s Love Got to do With It?, both also original product from WAAPA’s teeming shipyards, it will be setting sail for the spiegeltents and black boxes very soon. 

Read the complete review in The West Australian

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The 2016 Turnstile Awards

Corey Bernardi reacts when he thought someone told him he was hosting the 2016 Turnbull Awards

This year’s Turnstile Awards reflect a year when the output of WA theatre was solid rather than spectacular.
In some respects, it was a good year; it was professional, well curated, earnest and worthy.
But while a night out at the theatre in Perth was a good, reliable entertainment option, there was a lack of local productions that truly thrilled, inspired, transported and provoked.
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.
In 2015/16 there were 59 “eligible” productions (a couple fewer than last year) reviewed in either or both The West Australian and this blog. Apologies to those I missed.
Thirty-two of them were shows I happily and heartily recommended (meaning a star rating of 3.5 or more); that’s a sizeable majority of the field, and vastly outnumbers the five I thought you were wise to avoid (two stars or fewer).
But there’s no getting around it: this year produced the fewest Turnstile Awards since they began in 2011, and by some margin.