Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Play that Goes Wrong, Canberra Theatre

Spoofing theatre itself is a reasonably old gag (going back at least to "Pyramus and Thisbe" in "Midsummer Night's Dream", and probably further) - and we've seen two strong examples last year with "Play On!" and "Noises Off". But this is the modern-state-of-the-art version with all stops out. Like "Play On!" the play being (badly) done is a fictitious Murder Mystery, although in this case we're witness to one disastrous performance rather than a combination of rehearsals and runs, and there's not a lot of backstage story to go with what's going on on-stage. Instead we see a run with vast levels of disaster piling on one another as set, props, words they don't understand and their fellow actors conspire to endager life, limb and the show going on.

This is very heavy on the slapstick and lacks any kind of higher mind beyond giving the audience a good time. It also has virtually no reference to popular culture post the mid 80s. But it is immaculately drilled slapstick, as the set becomes more and more a deathtrap. Acting throughout is broad, but appropriately so for the material - if it's difficult to pick highlights in the cast, that's largely because they're such a solid strong ensemble.

I will say the script is a little keen to actually go through with the plot mechanics of the murder mystery which seems somewhat irrelevant to anyone's enjoyment (and, indeed, I kinda wish we got one of the two follow-ups that have come along in the UK since this, "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" or "The Nativity Goes Wrong" instead), but as commercial theatre goes (as compared to the subsidised stuff that hits the Canberra Theatre season), this is thoroughly enjoyable stuff.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Dog/The Cat, Belvoir

Double bills are, for whatever reason, not always all-that-popular. Possibly because it's frequently the case that one half of the evening vastly supersedes the other, that you feel like you're getting theatrical snacks rather than a full meal, or that the two plays are great individually but just don't taste right together.

Such is not the case with "The Dog/The Cat", possibly because both were written with the express purpose of being companion pieces. WHile they both have different characters and different concerns, they are both clearly contemporary Australian plays perfectly suited to the three actors performing them. They are also perfect expressions of their individual writer's skills. Brendan Cowell kicks the evening off with "The Dog", which tells of two guys who share ownership of the same dog but who otherwise wildly contrast (one a writer with a disastrous work and personal life, one a phone-app entrepreneur who's super-slick) and the woman that both meet in the same park while walking the dog. Cowell is a master at expressing Australian masculinity in writing, and these two guys are vivid creations. The woman between them is also a pretty solid creation. It's been way too long since Cowell's written a full-length mainstage play (three years since "The Sublime" at MTC), and I'm not entirely sure why.

Lally Katz has the other half of the night with "The Cat", a somewhat more whimsical piece about a divorcing couple who decide to share custody of the cat. This goes some truly eccentric places (starting with the cat being represented onstage by an actor and progressing from there) and lets Katz express her oddball view of modern life and dating in a fast-moving set of scenes that produce regular giggles.

The trio of performers get to show off a wide range of skills - Xavier Samuel engages our heart as the sad-sack Ben and produces regular giggles as the moody cat, Sheridan Harbridge is effortlessly cool as Miracle, equally uncool as ex-wife Alex and goofily airheaded as girlfriend Sophie, while Benedict Hardie locks in as the dapper Marcus, the nerdy Albert and the super-physical Jeff. This is a two-years-later remounting of a production originally directed by Ralph Williams, with Anthea Williams doing the remounting for the upstairs space, and however the combination works, this feels suitably effortless.

Entertainment that feels this freewheeling and easygoing is damn hard work, and I'm deeply appreciative that Belvoir's brought this back for a bigger audience to catch.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Trelawney of the Wells, Canberra Repertory Society

This is old-school stuff, a grand 19th century play set in the world of 19th century theatre. But it's not utterly without contemporary interest - written as a nostalgia piece (produced in the 1890s, it's set in the 1860s), it depicts a moment when actors were starting to move into the upper echlons of British society, about the limitations of that upper society, and the changing theatre from broad melodramas and pantomimes to the more "realistic" drawing room comedies.

Tony Turner's production hits this in fits and starts. A few edits may have been wise on the script - there's a few characters who add nothing except for running time and a few too many times when characters stop being humorously tedious and just become tedious. And the opening exposition has particular pacing issues - it feels like the show takes a good twenty-thirty minutes to really get going. The second half is noticeably stronger than the first, as both script and performances seem to crystalise a lot more.

At the centre, though, are a couple of fine performances. Alessa Kron as Rose Trelawny is our sympathetic heroine - playing both the lively girl and the somewhat more exhausted figure later in the play with equal gentleness. Rob de Fries brings his usual charm as the frustrated small-part-actor and budding playwright Tom Wrench. As Rose's fearsome potential in-laws, Jerry Hearn and Alice Ferguson have suitable imperiousness and outraged propriety - Ferguson in particular scores great laughs when scandalised by ankles. As two of the older members of the Wells company, Jan Smith and Nikki-Lyn Hunter have a moving moment towards the end as they realise both that theatrical fashion is about to pass them by, and that it will inevitably change again.

The 19th century is right up Rep's alley for set and costume design, and between the fine work of Ian Croker, Anna Senior and the set-and-costume teams, that tradition is maintained. Lighting design by Stephen Still is a little crude and basic for much of the action (though the final image is delightful), and John Pearson's sound design has some odd musical choices.

This is one of those nights for me where it's not a rolling continous delight but there are some gems worth picking up.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Renonsense Man, Jimoein, Canberra Comedy Festival, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre.

This is more traditional comedy than Gadsby, for good and for ill. It's just jokes, very much in the same style that Jimoein has been doing for over 20 years around Australia - and he shapes them pretty reasonably and pretty charmingly. If there's no greater topic or greater aim, is that necessarily a problem?

Well, for me, it is a bit. I kinda now feel I have ticked off that "seen Jimoein live" box and I haven't really seen a screamingly good motivation to come back and see him again. He's perfectly reasonable and acceptable, but he doesn't bring anything particularly different to the table. And there is a fair bit of material about his wife which is... just not thought through at all. While, yes, these are "just jokes", he's spending a substantial chunk of the show basically saying he kinda hates his wife but he's not strong enough to separate. Which is kinda pathetic and not in an interesting way.

Look, Jimoein will sell out theatres for another coupla decades with material that will probably be very much like this anyway. I just won't be there again.

Nanette, Hannah Gadsby, Canberra Comedy Festival, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

There's a point that some stand up comedians reach where they're no longer necessarily funny but you don't mind because they can capture a mood and a thought to tell you about something so interesting that you're drawn in and silently compelled.

Such a show is Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette". It is, as has been noted in the pre-publicity, her retirement-from-standup-comedy show, and, indeed, the last ten minutes contains barely any jokes whatsoever. There's definately a sense of a woman who's worked out how much further she's going to reveal and not reveal, and a letting go of a couple of old grievances (in particular, there's a section where she talks about her mother, a frequent earlier source of both bitterness and comedy, that feels like a new sense of forgiveness has set in - not forgetting the pain, but letting it find its place).

That's not to say this is in any sense a dour evening. There's passion and rage and, yes, there are indeed jokes (and dear god, can Gadsby craft a joke - she knows just where the right word should fit and deploys it instinctively). But to the fucktard in the balcony who asked "where's the comedy" during the last ten minutes, the answer was pretty much "in the preceding 60"- Hannah's leaving comedy behind, and maybe it's time not to pretend everything has to be hilarious. Which, yes, is a strange thing to bring into a comedy festival, but never the less it works.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Mark Colvin's Kidney, Belvoir

I've clearly been out of the elite-person loop. I had, until this play came along, no idea who Mark Colvin is. I used to listen to ABC radio's PM program back in the late eighties and early nineties, but ... well, there's an awful lot of media about these days and when I'm driving, I prefer songs.

Never the less, the story of how he got a kidney transplant is an intriguing one - particularly the details of the woman who donated it, and how she got to know Colvin. Sarah Pierse incarnates Mary-Ellen Field, a rare figure on Australian stages as she's a sympathetic conservative character - smart, perhaps mildly irritable but all-in-all, remarkably strong and determined to do what she views as the right thing.

It's a pity the rest of the play that surrounds her falls a little flat. John Howard as Colvin is quite under-powered - the writing for him is a little thin, but Howard's performance seems frequently so sedate that the central meeting of minds that needs to happen just doesn't.

The remaining supporting cast all play multiple roles - Helen Thompson most noticably as Elle McPherson (the rest of her roles are very throw-away), with Peter Carroll scoring in a range of roels from Field's husband to a disconcerted priest.

David Berthold's direction finds it difficult to find a central flow to the play - the short scenes connected by scene-changes as furniture is re-arranged don't tie together very well (although Vexran Producitons' projection design combines very well with Michael Hankin's set to get rich visuals, they never quite link in clearly to what's going on in the scenes and instead are just a nice visual distraction).

This is a play I really wanted to like but instead was left a little cold - the human connection between the characters, for me, just wasn't there, and while this taps on a couple of hot button issues, in the end everything is left just a little under-explored. So it's a disappointment.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Aladdin, Disney Theatrical, Capitol Theatre

Disney's been doing big-budget stage versions of their animated movies for about twenty years - sorta in compensation after they stole the duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken away from Broadway when they wrote the trio of "Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin". For various reasons, I've never seen any of them in a full-scale professional production (no, not even "The Lion King"), but ... well, now I have.

In the case of "Aladdin", there's an obvious challenge to be gotten over immediately - how on earth do you replace Robin Williams (not necessarily the first celebrity voice in an animated feature, but certainly the one whose involvement had the most impact on the film, to the point where the finished product includes a vast amount of his ad-libbing). There are other elements as well (two animal sidekicks along with a carpet with considerable personality), but the quicksilver-morphing Genie is the one that has to be gotten right.

Fortunately, with Michael James Scott, they've got it. He's wildly engaging and dominates the stage every moment he's on - while, no, he can't actually change shape, he talks and moves so fast while being just that damn compelling every second he's on stage that you barely notice. The highlight of the show is his eight-minute-or-so "Friend Like Me" that pulls out every stop from shoving the chorus through multiple costume changes and a tap interlude all the way to literal fireworks.

The rest of the show surrounding it doesn't always keep up to the same level. Our two romantic leads, Ainsley Melman and Hiba Elchikhe, are both a little bland, and while an understudying Alex-Gibson Giorgio and a regular-cast Aljin Abella do some good sniveling conspiring and Aladdin's trio-of-friends (who have snuck back in from early drafts of the movie) are a diverting trio of Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Troy Sussman and Robert Tripolino.

The score has all the original movie songs plus two cut Ashman/Menken numbers ( the ballad-ish "Proud of your Boy" which is okay but gets an unnecessary two reprises, and the rollicking "High Adventure" for Aladdin's buddies, which is far more amusing), and a couple more songs by Menken and Chad Beugelin, who also wrote the script - most of which serve only to pad out time. It's a very glitzy show with fabulous costumes, grand sets and some snappy choreography, but it doesn't quite sustain continuous joy the whole way through - it's more stop-starty than perhaps it should be.

With expectations adjusted downwards there's a fair bit to enjoy in this, but it's not top-tier Disney - though the middle of their pack is still pretty solid.