Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Perilous Adventures of the Postman - Hayman Theatre Company (9 December 2017)

As technology plays an ever more pervasive role in our lives, the prevalence of social media and its impact on human interaction has become a favourite topic for dramatists. This is especially the case for younger generations who are living through the explosion in apps and devices that demand more and more of their attention. How is this wiring our brains differently? How is it affecting relationships and communities and, significantly, the individual who may be better connected but as a result more isolated?

Writer/director Damon Lockwood has taken these concerns and extrapolated them out to the year 2020 where social media is the dominant form of interaction. All other institutions and social norms have decayed, most notably the status of the humble post office, the most anachronistic of services in a fully digital world.

Lockwood pushes the premise to absurd extremes as the main generator of the comedy in this near future world. Young people's heads are forever buried in their mobile devices. Eye contact is shunned as almost unnatural. Older technologies, if recognised, have taken on an aura of archaeological artefacts – the landline, the fax machine, the pre-smartphone mobile, and books. There are even workshops that encourage people to try and interact in person. They are largely unsuccessful. Mating rituals are conducted via apps and online platforms. Shopping is largely automated.

Amongst the eyes down, thumbs blazing digital morass is a beacon of the pre-digital age, now hopelessly redundant, the postman himself, played by, curiously for a student production, Curtin lecturer Philip Miolin. Regarded as a pervert (due to his predilection for actual human contact) by our gaggle of social media mad youngsters he lives on the fringes until the world faces an horrendous cataclysm too heinous to contemplate…

The online world is switched OFF in a massive failure of servers.

Much screaming ensues. In fact, in the close quarters of the Studio space at the Blue Room, a deafening amount of screaming. How can one live in a world without the internet; without social media; without the ability to cyber-stalk potential partners? Quelle horreur!

The postman is summoned by a Mad Max obsessed Postal executive who puts the General in Postmaster General, Ben Strong played with scene chewing relish by Taylor Beilby. It seems the world’s last letter is in his possession and must be delivered to a man whose life may be in danger across a now dystopian landscape of bereft youngsters.

So anachronistic is the concept of a letter even the production staff forgot that such a vessel requires a stamp (not to mention a story beat that requires a youngster to drop what looked like a $10 note, surely an abstraction for that age group now let alone in 2020) … but I digress. What follows next is a bizarre series of encounters that seem more like individual skits than a coherent narrative through line. Granted, it is a difficult task to give a cast of fifteen actors sufficient stage time but some of the characters are marginal at best. There was one long monologue from a character that came from nowhere, raved on about some implausible scenario then vanished in a burst of B-grade villainous laughter never to be seen again.

It seems the Postman is such a good chap that he can’t but help people who, coincidentally, come across his path. There is a lot of convenient plotting that felt more lazy than inspired in the general wackiness of what was going on. Ultimately the Postman reaches his destination where there is a surprise reveal which is problematic as Miolin’s age versus that of a presumptive love interest is significant.

The humour is very broad and mostly slapstick with a lot of one-note reactions to the modern versus old technologies. I found it sporadically funny with some inventive delivery of props and a crazy showdown between the Postman and his natural enemy, the pet dog.

The actors who fared best for me were Lauren Beeton as Heather who was allowed a more naturalistic reign as one of the online lovers; Beilby who delivered a full-on assault as Ben Strong; Joanna Tu who was amusingly officious as the Workshop Leader, and later as a somewhat confused Kiwi cartographer; and Bianca Roose proved a quiet presence playing a character not held in thrall by technology. Samuel Ireland had his moments as the other half of the lovers though he lapsed into the preponderance of shouting that befell a lot of characters. It certainly is not a subtle comedy. Maddy Mullins played audience favourite Workshop Girl though this was more through sympathy as the character’s earnest attempts at inclusion are constantly rebuffed.

Designer Rhiannon Walker has eschewed the usual darker tones of the Blue Room providing an all-white set including panels on which images are occasionally projected. These establish locations, for example the library or the post office though I was surprised they weren’t used for the ‘travelling montage’.

While this style of comedy wasn’t my cup of pixels, many in the audience, especially of contemporary age to the performers, seemed to be having a good time with it all.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Windmill Baby - WAAPA (20 November 2017)

For a venue that is difficult to light, boy oh boy, when they get it right it is a sight to see in my favourite theatre in Perth, The Roundhouse on the ECU Mount Lawley campus. The abandoned cattle station of yore comes to life as memories, both joyful and tragic, are re-enacted in the harsh glare of the desert sun or softer hues of evening relief. At one point audience members on my right visibly jumped as the elements were brought vividly into existence with lighting and sound. Excellent work by lighting and sound designers Jackson McKay and Ella Portwine respectively.

The set itself, designed by Kara Rousseau, is glorious – all corrugated iron with the windmill looming over everything, a water tank, the back verandah to the homestead and an old-fashioned washing line. Curiously though, the featured structure of the title is more a silent observer, oft referred to but mostly ignored by the characters that are summoned by the storytelling gifts of Old May May (Abby Richards).

It is the verandah that is the more potent symbol as the boundary between the privileged station owners - Boss (Quaid Cooper) and his Missus (Nomi Haji-Ahmad) – and the indigenous station hands who do all the hard, manual labour. That one of those hands, the crippled Wunman (Jye Skinner) dares to cross into that space is the catalyst for most of the tragedy that follows.

But there is also, and predominantly, great warmth and humour in the storytelling driven by the wonderfully generous performance by Richards as the older woman who revisits the setting of her youth. It’s like sitting down to hear a great yarn full of diversions, episodic tales, reminiscences, and self-deprecating humour. There’s even some bawdy moments thrown in, mainly to do with Malvern (Lachlan Stokes), the once beau in May May’s life. Then there’s a charming strand about a half-dingo dog and a poodle that is thematically on point but also laugh out loud funny.

As Old May May’s memories take hold, Young May May, played with great expressiveness by Marlanie Haerewa, proves to be the ideal foil. The cutting between past and present is well crafted and enchanting to watch. Serena-May Brown as Sally, apart from being a dab hand on the ukulele, also brings a decency to her role as a rival for Malvern’s interest. She has a featured moment pulling an audience member up on stage to tell a story to that ends in a surprise gift.

Stokes is amusingly naïve when it comes to the female attention Malvern receives and I confess I missed his presence somewhat in the latter stages. Skinner gives Wunman a sly sense of humour as well as providing physical comedy by way of navigating his crippled limbs. His fate felt somewhat anti-climactic though given the fault-lines his relationship with Missus causes.

Cooper has perhaps the most onerous task playing the callous station owner who thinks little of his workers and perhaps even less of his wife. The retribution for crossing racial divides is harsh and unforgiving. Haji-Ahmad radiates a sense of propriety and goodness as the Missus in opposition to her husband’s cruelty.

Torika Forrester seems to act somewhat as a portent of doom as Aunty Darbella while Umima Shah-Munro rounds out the cast as Wunman’s Mum and in ensemble moments. Like with all great tales there’s some singing, a little dancing, and even a bit of puppetry. Director Eva Grace Mullaley uses the full extent of the thrust stage well letting the characters of the past swirl around her central storyteller.

At a smidge over an hour in length this was charming storytelling even in its moments of sorrow, anchored by Richards’ warm delivery and that fabulous set. A most pleasurable evening of theatre presented by the Aboriginal Performance students.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Stepping Out - Koorliny Arts Centre (18 November 2017)

Many moons ago, towards the end of my career as a manager for a large national company in Sydney, one of the few times of solace was a weekly screenwriting class in Bondi. In those couple of hours, talking about movies and writing, all thoughts of personal and professional worries were held in abeyance. It ultimately led me to resigning and returning home to Perth to pursue my creative dreams. But that's another story.

In Stepping Out seven women from diverse backgrounds and a sole male attend regular tapdance classes to escape all manner of domestic disharmony or their own personal demons. In essence the play is an extended choreography session with hints at the dysfunction outside the walls of the studio that drives these people here. There is also the inevitable clash of personalities as pressure builds on learning they will be performing in front of an audience for the first time at a charity event.

It's a familiar arc - tyro performers race against time to prepare for an event where public humiliation lurks yet somehow pull it all together to triumph. The trick here is to show people tapping badly for the majority of the production before the razzle dazzle of the ending.

And razzle dazzle it does. Choreographer Allen Blachford has taken a true ensemble of actors, some of whom have never tapped before in their lives, and crafted a credible character trajectory from enthusiastic novices (though some characters less than others) to competent tappers. It's a surefire crowd pleaser when all the stumbling and bumbling turns into a polished routine.

In this Hannah Harn is Blachford's surrogate as Mavis, the tap instructor. Harn's Mavis shows glimpses of true ability as she puts the class through its paces while dealing with surly pianist Glenda (Lucy Eyre) who provides arch comments and hurt feelings as appropriate. Harn clearly has the dancing chops and features heavily in the showpiece numbers at the end. I wasn't quite as convinced when Mavis is required to turn bitchy as complications arise over the routine for the charity event. There is also a revelation that didn't quite land and was quickly forgotten.

Indeed, a lot of threads are left hanging in the personal lives of these women and the introverted Geoffrey (played with great understatement by David Gardette). Dilemmas are set up but never truly tackled or resolved. The play seems to be saying you can have your moment in the spotlight no matter what demons await in the darkness.

The character most afflicted by this is Andy whose unseen husband looms large in crippling her self-esteem. Casey Edwards inhabits the character with stark rigidness - hunched shoulders, arms stiff by her sides with hands frozen. Edwards' work with Gardette is a quiet highlight as Andy tentatively reaches out to make a truthful human connection. The character is also, in many ways, the moral compass of the tale with her petition regarding the local park and a well earned outburst.

If Andy is quiet then there are more than a few characters who go large in counterpoint beginning with the fastidious newcomer Vera. Claire Matthews gives Vera a colurful persona, all fussy and strutting, with a knack for the well meaning dagger to the heart as self-censorship isn't Vera's strong suit. Costume designer Lynne Leeder adds to the peacock allure dressing Matthews in outrageously bold outfits that she pulls off with panache. The well-judged performance is the engine room for most of the friction within the class.

Chief adversary is Anita Telkamp's straight-shooting Sylvia who, by comparison, has a bogan twang which she wields with cutting one-liner retorts. Telkamp's comic timing and delivery are very good here. The costuming reinforces the difference between the two women with Sylvia looking more at home in Tap Dogs than shopping at Man-doo-ra Forum.

Then there's Maxine as played by Rachel Monamy, a character who always seems to be on the hustle selling outfits to the group and (eventually) providing the costumes for the charity event whilst dealing with her step-son "Wonderboy". I liked that the style of humour for each character was in a different spectrum. Monamy's more a conversational style here; Eyre's pointed and gruff; Matthews' sly and demeaning; Telkamp's dry and cutting.

The cast is rounded out by Stacey Holling's Lynne who has more confidence in her tap ability and a nice personality to boot; Jenny Lawrence's Dorothy who was a little nervous and fidgety about the whole thing; and Nontuthuzelo Mqwati who had some telling lines in response to being the 'ethnic' of the group as Rose.

There is a lot of good physical comedy as well as they all come to terms at having to tap with sticks AND bowler hats. A running - well, actually, tripping gag with Gardette whose earnest attempts at being out front as the only male are a delight.

The audience was enthusiastic with much appreciation of set-pieces. The final tap routines went down a treat though there were a few moments in the lead up that dragged a little as the focus shifted to oblique mentions of the world outside the studio. That those set-ups weren't paid off or resolved left me with the uneasy feeling that these women's triumph was but temporary. Given recent revelations in the world of comedy, news broadcasting, and Hollywood, perhaps, sadly, an all too true outcome.

Overall though I laughed throughout and had a good time with this. The ending was well earned and executed with style as director Geoffrey Leeder showcased the ensemble to full effect.

Friday, 3 November 2017

WAAPA Showcase (3 November 2017)

From Stephen Sondheim to David Mamet; Kander & Ebb to Peter Shaffer; Jason Robert Brown to Patrick Marber... you're unlikely to see as diverse a selection of acting excerpts and musical theatre numbers in two hours as you do at WAAPA's annual Showcase.

The W.A.A.P.A. Friends Of The Academy Showcase night is one of my favourite dates on the Perth theatre calendar as we get to say goodbye and celebrate the graduating musical theatre and acting students. I actually find it inspirational to witness the talent on display after three gruelling years of study and knowing that this marks the transition point from student to professional career.

As always that talent is across the board excellent. Congratulations to each and every one of you and all the best for your future endeavours and careers.

If I may offer a limited selection of favourites from the night...

Acting Showreel scenes:

A delightfully quirky scene featuring Katherine Pearson as an unusual theatre patron encountering Martin Quinn's somewhat bewildered director after the premiere of his play.

Spider-Man meets Catwoman in a very well written scene that highlighted the talents of Jack Scott and Laura McDonald with a nice array of emotions and underlying message. The writing was so perfectly suited to the actors' strengths I was delighted to discover Scott himself had written it.

Acting scenes:

An oft encountered pairing who have excellent onstage chemistry, Roy Joseph and Laura McDonald, in an excerpt from John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. I loved the physicality of the scene, their accent work, and the clear, crisp action changes. Many other scenes saw blocking where the actors were too far apart in key dramatic and/or emotional moments. Here, Joseph and McDonald were literally in each other's face which heightened the potency of the scene. 

Sasha Simon's fierce performance playing opposite Mitchell Bourke in a scene from People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan. The focus is squarely on Simon as her character fights for help on her own terms. A smart decision therefore to have Bourke (who sets the table nicely) sitting angled away from the audience so that she was featured.

Musical Theatre numbers:

One of my absolute joys at the theatre is being surprised. That is often the case when someone who maybe hasn't been featured as much in the last couple of years blows you away in a jaw-on-the-floor moment. Here it was Chloe Bremner's performance of Behind These Walls which was superb.

Finn Alexander taking a song written for a female character - Sondheim's Losing My Mind from Follies - and making it his own in an exquisite performance. Brave choice, excellent execution that paid off in spades.

I have to also mention the musical accompaniment on piano from WAAPA's own Kohan van Sambeeck that was a non-stop, hour long tour de force.

In the days to come agents and managers and talent scouts and all sorts of other people will make decisons based on what they see at the final Showcase in Perth tomorrow night and then in Sydney and Melbourne. On the evidence of tonight I look forward to reading of agent signings and then casting announcements, both screen and stage, from here on in.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

Once We Lived Here - The Blue Room Theatre & Western Sky Theatre (25 October 2017)

At the question and answer session following the Wednesday night performance Ryan Dawson (who plays Burke) and Megan Kozak (Lecy) indicated how difficult it is to sing with their natural Australian twang. They explained that most musicals are delivered with either an American or leastways neutral accent given the predominance of the US as a generator of this type of entertainment. How refreshing then to hear the unique sounds and vernacular of a homegrown Aussie musical no matter how difficult to maintain. There are lyrics and rhymes in Once We Lived Here that you wouldn’t hear created anywhere else in the world. For that alone this is a notable entry in the modern musical canon.

But the show is much more than that. The setting is utterly Australian – the country farm and its inhabitants battling the elements and themselves to eke out a living. In many ways it reminded me of the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre production simply called Farm from a couple of years ago. Life is bloody tough on the land. Families toil for generations in conditions that would make the average city dweller blanch. There is a fierce loyalty and bond to that land and to each other. Those loyalties are constantly tested and this is where we get to the heart of the musical. 

Times are tough for the McPherson clan. The sheep farm is failing as is the health of the matriarch Claire (Sharon Kiely). Oldest daughter Amy (Taryn Ryan) has managed the farm ever since the death of her father some eight years earlier. Amy's siblings Lecy (Kozak) and Shaun (Joshua Firman) return to the property to be with Claire in what may be her final days. Former farmhand Burke (Dawson) also arrives at 'Emoh Ruo' though his motives are questioned by Amy. Hard earned truths and tragedy ensue as these five distinctly drawn characters interact in the furnace of the drought afflicted environment and competing memories of their shared history. Events of the past are revisited. Revelations made. Futures put in flux.

There is a truthfulness here that is commendable and while emotionally fraught, resonates with authenticity. There are no easy victories, no glib story beats. This heightens the joy we experience when these characters find even the smallest moment of happiness or deliver the briefest of smiles. The humour is distinctively Australian, at times laugh out loud hilarious, and a coping mechanism for the ever present harsh realities of country life.

Behind all this there is a spirit that infuses the musical that strikes me as quite special given it is counter-intuitive to what could be perceived as the general bleakness of the premise. It celebrates the strength and resilience of these characters and of those who choose to makes sacrifices, personal, professional and emotional, to work in the country. The love between siblings, and between a mother and her children, also rings out loud and clear. It's an impressive and ever present energy. 

The Book, Music and Lyrics are by Matthew Frank and Dean Bryant who, as was remarked at the QandA, are country lads. The structure involves cutting between two timelines - the present and eight years early when a key event shaped who these people have become. I admit, I was a little disoriented when the first 'flashback' occurred but once I keyed into the device it was fine. In this I was aided by the lighting design and notable change in performances - Shaun, for example, is only 13 years old in the flashbacks.

I very much liked that Frank and Bryant found a simple yet creative way to deal with exposition in the early going as Lecy uses a handheld camcorder to capture her feelings on returning to the farm and to interview her siblings. It works because it reveals so much about Lecy, the materialistic girl who fled to the bright lights of the city. It also sets up the family dynamics as the others react to her posturing. 

The music, beautifully played by the three piece band of (Musical Director) Joshua Haines on piano, Harry Love (guitar) and Luis Santos (double bass) in a room off to one side, is evocative and perfectly balanced with the vocals. So much texture is created here. The songs move the story forward and give us character insights aplenty. There's wonderful use of reprises to buttress emotional beats and recurring motifs for each character. Highlights include Ryan's Gotta Fix The Pump and As Far As The Eye Can See, Firman's haunting The Shearing Shed, and the moving The Leaves of Summer. Then there's the showstopper We Like It That Way that opens the second half in hysterical fashion. The cast sang superbly in the small space.

The dramatic heft of the Book means that the five performers have to show off some serious acting chops to go along with the impressive vocal talent. Foremost in this is Ryan who plays the practical, responsible daughter who, in many ways, is the replacement for the father that is so sorely missed. Ryan, one of the brightest stars in Perth's independent theatre scene, is simply terrific. There is a sequence where her character Amy finally lets all the bottled up emotions explode into life to quickly cut to a moment of happiness in the past which is just as swiftly undercut back in the present. The emotional range on display in a maybe 5-6 minute sequence is extraordinary.

By contrast, Kozak imbues younger sister Lecy with self-absorbed snark, and overt flirtatiousness when it comes to Burke. There is a certain desperation that bubbles under all this which becomes clearer in the second half. I'm a big fan of the off-beat comic energy Kozak brings to her performances and director Andrew Baker utilises it well here never letting it verge into caricature. 

Joshua Firman does incredibly well with a tricky role - as the larrikin 13 year old who grows up to be the cruising-through-life Shaun with a gnawing sense of emptiness that festers. Firman has charm to burn so it's intriguing to see the restraint deployed in the present day sequences. He nails the cheeky, boyish enthusiasm of We Like It That Way and his work with Dawson in Guitar Lesson is excellent. Firman also has such a joyous singing style when let loose that is a pleasure to experience.

I had not come across Kiely or Dawson before but both round out an excellent cast. The former oozes maternal love and protection as Claire, never allowing the character to be defeated by either her illness or the past. It is a performance of great integrity and decency that anchors the production. Likewise, Dawson's Burke is a voice of reason amongst the emotional tumult. His character is a multi-faceted link to the McPherson children that sees him display fatherly concern towards Shaun; care for Lecy whilst rebuffing her advances; and notably a tenderness mixed with some tough love towards Amy. Again, he gives the character an aura of down to earth decency.

Props to Andrew Baker and fledgling company Western Sky Theatre for staging a two hour Aussie musical at The Blue Room and assembling such a talented cast, band and production team (shout outs to Rhiannon Walker for the rustic set design and costumes and Katrina Johnston for the lighting design). His intention is to mount productions that attract talent that is either from WA or trained here. If this opening salvo is any indication we are in for many excellent productions. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Bali - The Last Great Hunt (18 October 2017)

You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye - Glenn Frey & Don Henley.

Those lyrics from the Eagles song The Last Resort floated across my consciousness during a bravura sequence in this preview where Chris Isaacs's character describes the sights of an unexpected road detour in Bali. I won't spoil the impact by providing further details other than saying it offers a telling commentary on our relationship with the popular island destination and its effect. 

Indeed, only a cursory summary of the plot of Bali will be given here as the joy is in the consummate storytelling which needs to be experienced firsthand. To wit, this is the continued adventures of Jimmy (Jeffrey Jay Fowler) and Corgan (Isaacs) who we first met in the award winning FAG/STAG in 2015. This time Corgan's mum is holding her 60th birthday celebration week in Bali and the lads are along for the ride. Each show signs of reluctance though for completely different reasons. 

On the surface this is a witty comedy but like its predecessor the control of tone is exceptional with exquisite observation, raw emotion that is earned, and sequences like the above that are gut punch effective. Fowler and Isaacs have an immensely likable rapport and as writer/performers have total command of the material. The audience can be belly laughing one moment to pin drop silent the next. That roller coaster emotional journey for the characters and the audience is an outstanding feature of both plays. 

Many of the same techniques from FAG/STAG are used - contradictory points of view in the retelling as the two characters recount moments quite differently. Often for comic effect; critically for deeper insight into who they are, how they perceive the world, and why. The actors are again seated on stools with a table in between where there are a variety of drinks. The other significant prop is the ubiquitous mobile phone (I seem to learn of a new app from Jimmy's character every play!). 

It is a deliberately sparse set. The world is created by the vivid writing and delivery, Scott McArdle's lighting design, and Nathan Jamieson's subtle sound design. I love the level of authenticity in the script with such fine detail not only in describing the Bali locales but also in the well rounded characters and their interactions. I have a complete picture of, for example, Corgan's mum in my head without her ever appearing onstage. Set-ups are paid off handsomely and the parallel revelations for both characters are emotionally true and, particularly in Jimmy's case, devastating. 

Smartly, they are on a raised platform as the angle of the raked seating in the Subiaco Arts Centre Studio isn't always ideal for the best viewing experience. It shouldn't be a problem here and the intimate space is perfect for this style of storytelling. There is an honesty that is compelling - in the depiction of male friendship; sex and sexuality; consumerism; casual racism; western world entitlement; homophobia; drugs; and the crucial events in our past that shape us. It's also damn funny precisely because there is so much we recognise that resonates with us.

As a bonus, Bali includes perhaps the most impassioned defence of a (not very good, sorry Corgan) Hollywood movie that you are ever likely to hear. It's these surprising beats and unexpected turns that make this feel so real. The other thing is, I damn well like these characters!

This is not only a worthy companion piece to the terrific FAG/STAG but perhaps even better. The offshore setting allows Fowler and Isaacs to explore varied aspects of their characters and expose new vulnerabilities and strengths. It's a wonderfully written, performed, and staged piece of theatre.