Wednesday, March 17, 2021

PERTH FESTIVAL 2021

Hymns for End Times

Composed by Rachael Dease

Arranged by Alice Humphries, Katherine Potter and Mia Brine

Performed by Rachael Dease, WASO and Voyces

Musical Director Mia Brine

Designed by Bruce McKinven

His Majesty’s Theatre

Rachael Dease is a hyper-sensitive, challenging artist with a formidable skill set and a rare facility to ponder the human condition.

Those skills, and those thought processes, have produced a distinctive, and distinguished, body of work, both as an independent writer/performance artist (City of Shadows, From a Small, Distant Planet) and as a composer and sound designer for theatre (It’s Dark Outside, Rest, You Know We Belong Together).

It’s fair to say that musically and in her thematic interests her work is very specific and uncompromising. That makes her 2020 album Hymn for End Times both monumental and glacial. Its cover, a starkly beautiful and forbidding black and white image of an iceberg is most appropriate.

I have no doubt repeated listening to Hymns for End Times will reveal its depths – I can only claim to have given it superficial attention prior to this world premiere live performance, and I’m pretty sure a large percentage of the festival subscription audience at The Maj had given it none.

Which makes presenting the entire album as a song cycle an ambitious undertaking, with Dease’s mezzo-soprano vocals backed by a 22-piece WASO ensemble and 12 choristers from Voyces, conducted by Mia Brine.

In my view it fell short of its aspiration, in large part because of some strange aspects of its staging wthat left it sitting uncomfortably between recital and performance art, each detracting from the other.

Dease is a striking figure on stage with her cascading scarlet hair and luminous face, accentuated here by a long, pale priestess’s gown. Her performance style typically relies on presence rather than animation, which suits the sombre, often ethereal, quality of her music.

On this occasion, though, this was taken to an extreme, with Dease either sitting motionless and impassive in a draped chair or, just as expressionless, standing behind a microphone stand. Whether this approach was meant to convey stasis, entropy, or a paralysing existential dread was unclear, but the effect at times risked being comic.

Perhaps, left to its own devices, the cumulative effect of this physical performance might have had a transcendental effect, but that was overwhelmed by the clash with Brine’s vigorous, staccato conducting alongside Dease from the piano.

I simply didn’t know where to look.

Matters weren’t helped by a less than perfect sound, especially of Dease’s voice. Her lovely deep tones were all there, but whether it was the mix or the accuracy of sound capture, the lyric was often hard to decipher, a serious difficulty for an audience dealing with unfamiliar material.

In the cycle’s penultimate song, I Am the Always, Dease ascended to join the choir – there’s no better way to describe it – the reconfiguration of the staging and the emphatic power of the song allowed the full potential of the music and its performance to reveal itself.

If only the same could be said of all the songs that preceded it.

 

Monday, February 8, 2021

A suggestion for my fellow arts reviewers, journalists and media people

On Sunday Fringe World sent an email saying that, because of the COVID restrictions in place until the end of this week – and therefore the end of the 2021 fringe – all media review tickets have been cancelled to allow as many paying customers as possible to attend shows.
I wholeheartedly support this necessary step to support our artists.

It’s a good time for us to recognize the generosity of artists and arts companies in providing
complimentary tickets and other benefits to reviewers and the arts media generally. I’ve been among the most privileged of us over more than a decade during which I’ve been ticketed to many hundreds of wonderful West Australian productions.
It is sometimes easy to overlook what a benefit this is.

Can I suggest that we all look at the shows we were ticketed to this week and purchase tickets to them if they are still available. In this small way we will be showing our support for our artists, and also continuing to provide the coverage we had planned to deliver.   

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Fringe World 2021


“Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising, Fringe World comes singing into the summer…”

It’s all very Tolkienesque, really, Perth’s 2021 fringe. While a dark plague scours the earth, and hordes of bloodthirsty orcs, driven to madness by a vengeful sorcerer, storm the white citadels, here in WA, by the grace of our lord and his wise council, we get to drink from vastly improved plastic recyclable cups and gather quite close together in great tents to enjoy the fruits of art.

Here’s what Turnstiles was enjoying this Fringe World before we all had to take a coronabreather – hopefully we'll be be up and fringing again soon!

 

Coffee Cantata ★★★½
Since coffee emerged from the highlands of Ethiopia in the 16th Century it has proven as contagious as any virus that has afflicted mankind.    

Its delights and pitfalls were playfully explored in one of the very few non-liturgical works by the grand meister of the Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Australian Baroque’s merry, scrumptious take on Bach’s Coffee Cantata is a delightfully idiosyncratic highlight of this year’s Fringe World.
(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

 Matt Penny: The Last Resort Magician ★★
Any time you get to spend in the company of "Magic" Matt Penny is time well spent. The legendary barman at the Blue Room Theatre is so many archetypes rolled up into one it's no wonder his black T-shirt often seems a little overfull; part raconteur, part desperado, part lost soul – and part magician.
Penny's stepped into the breach at the newly-minted Magic Nation in the Metro Perth nightclub at late notice (hence, perhaps the title of his show) and brought some well-worn tricks, some God-awful jokes and some stories of a life well-lived with him. The big, high stage in the club's big room isn't his best setting (he works best up close – I've seen him reduce a famously worldy-wise stage star to wide-eyed girlishness with a few tricks of one sort and another), but he's still well worth having.  

Next Stop: REALITY ★★½
Harriet McLean, young, Australian, chasing her dream in the UK, jumps a little tentatively on a train for her first trip on the London Underground.

Hope and anxiety sit on her shoulders like angels and demons.

What she really, really doesn’t need is anything to go wrong with her trip.
(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)
 

 Tomas Ford: Have a Bath With Me ★★★½
There’s a popular expression in football commentary these days, the “Chaos Ball” (as you’d expect, the Americans have their own version, the “Hail Mary Pass”).

Call it what you will, it simply means that when all else fails, kick or throw the thing as far downfield as you can, and see what happens.

It’s a reasonable analogy for a
Tomás Ford entertainment, never more so than in his latest little ray of mayhem, Have a Bath With Me?.

(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

Jamie Mykaela" DADDY ★★★
The “DADDY” of the title of Jamie Mykaela’s ruthless excoriation of the paedophilia lurking in the pop song and pop culture is the one in the song Cole Porter wrote for the musical Leave it to Me in 1938, that, two decades later, became a signature tune for Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love.

Mykaela, a diminutive, saw-toothed, formidable sprite, literally disembowels the song, turning Porter’s wit and Monroe’s charm into a stain.

The result is the most challenging, and memorable, show of my Fringe World so far. It’ll take some beating in the festival’s remaining fortnight.

(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)
 

Manic Pixie Dream Girl ★★★   
Calling a show “cute” might seem like damning with faint praise, but it’s an inescapable description of writer/director Hannah Evelyn’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s a cute story, driven by cute dialogue and indescribably cute characters. Two of them, the comic book café worker Carly (Evelyn) and the indie rock singer/bartender Morgana (Gala Shevtsov) seem as saccharine as the gruesome pink marshmallow coffee Morgana comes in to order.

Evelyn’s direction emphasizes the adorability of it all to the last border of bearability, and after ten minutes or so it was so winsome it was hard not to wince.

But then, just quietly, the show sneaks up on you.
(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)
 

The Big Hoo-Haa! ★★★½
The Dirty Hoo-Haa!
★★★  
Reviewing improv can be something of an arid exercise; after all, what you see and hear on the night is never going to be repeated.
Sort of.
When you're as venerable an institution, though, as The Big Hoo-Haa! (it's rapidly closing in on 20 years of operation in Perth and has passed a decade in its Melbourne franchise) you're bound to have become a bit slick and, dare I say, predictable.
Not that that's a bad thing; the routines in the Hoo-Haa! repertoire are honed to a razor edge, waiting only for the audience to give them the key words to make up a
hilariously ridiculous story from.
The concept of the Hoo-Haa! is that two teams battle each other under the stern eye and merciless 'outta-here' whistle of the MC (Sam Longley in the standard-issue Hoo-Haa!, Shane Adamczak in the late-ish-night "Dirty" one).
In the first, the Hearts team of Daniel Buckle, Robby Vecchio and Hannah Rice duked it out with the Bones' Stephen Platt, Adamczak and Tony Woods; in the second Tegan Mulvany jumped in for the Hearts and Jono Burns subbed in for the Bones, while Rice jumped ship from one to the other.
That's a terrific mix of the well and lesser-known names, and they all know their way around the games, charades and songs (accompanied by Alwyn Nixon-Lloyd on keys) that guarantee a good time is had by all.
I probably shouldn't have seen both shows back to back, and I'm not sure whether it was Hoo-Haa! fatigue or that it was not quite filthy enough to differentiate it from its milder stablemate (the Hoo-Haaists are doing a kids' show too - now that could be fun), but it lacked a little cajones.
But, whatever. We've been enjoying a little Hoo-Haa! for yonks now, and I doubt the fun is going to wear off in the foreseeable.
If you have, you know that. If you haven't - do yourself a favour sometime. 

War & Peace Lilies ★★★½
Young Nick (Nick Mayer) is all out of love, so he goes to Bunnings to buy an indoor plant – and unexpectedly falls into a tempestuous relationship with one of them, a Peace Lily named Dave (Todd Peydo).
You know how it goes, the good old arc of a love affair. Nick takes Dave home, waters him regularly (don't ask), and goes to meet Dave's folks, a Mother-in-Law's Tongue and Philodendron, but they're not convinced about florasexual affairs.
Neither is Nick's ex Shaun, or all his friends. Could Nick and Dave's romance be rooted?
War & Peace Lilies is what fringe is all about, especially when it's performed with the verve and chutzpah of this little show.There's nothing like an utterly ludicrous premise played out strictly according to the rules laid down by The Goons and Monty Python, with a message about tolerance and freedom unobtrusively fertilising the soil it grows in.
Mayer, who has more than a bit of Sammy J about him, sings some of those excruciating '80s anthems (River of Dreams, Time of Your Life, Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Tainted Love, Vienna) accompanied by Josh James Webb on the keys, Peydo steals a fair chunk of the show working from the side of the stage…
…and a very good time is had by all.  

Dr Ahmed Gets Hitched ★★★½
In the latest installment of the Dr Ahmed series gets to planning his “
epic Greek-Pakistani-inter-faith-inter-racial-same-sex wedding.”

Some gorgeous sitcom material ensues; there’s a malfunction with the groomsmaid’s sari, there’s a caterer who doesn’t know the difference between chickpea curry and mousaka. There’s trouble with the traditional Greek wedding favours and an AWOL celebrant. More seriously, there’s an all-guns-blazing boycott of the wedding by Ahmed’s mother that takes out his entire family other than an auntie in Canada who, as a Hindu woman married to a Muslim man, understands Ahmed’s predicament (and hates his mum).

(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

Tale of Tales ★★★★
Clare Testoni’s superb story of four generations of her Italian-Australian family is as pertinent and powerful now as it was in its first season in 2018, even though the cavernous rehearsal space in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre doesn’t suit it as well as the intimate Blue Room theatre where it was originally staged.

Nothing, though, can detract from the magic as she and her fellow performer Paul Grabovac turn tiny objects into huge, almost cinematic figures through her remarkable shadow puppetry.
(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

Ballads, Banksias and Beauty ★★★
Fringe World’s perennial primus inter pares, Jessie Gordon, premiered this mélange of Australian melodies last year (here’s the complete review of that season in Seesaw Magazine), but she was weary at the end of a monumental Fringe World marathon and without the wonders of Lucky Ocean’s pedal steel playing beside her, so I was looking forward to revisiting it with her fresh and Lucky (along with percussionist Ben Vanderwal and multi-instrumentalist Russell Holmes) on board.
All its qualities are there, the stylish and sometimes intricate curation of songs from Nick Cave and the Triffids through to Kylie and Neighbours, the craftsmanship of the band, and Gordon’s own undoubted skill and immaculate application to her craft.

For all that, though, the show was a little solemn and languorous for my liking, not helped by a sound mix that didn’t quite cut through the necessary but deadening hum of the tent’s airconditioning, the dim lighting and even Gordon’s polite request that we hold our applause until the end of the hour-long piece.

Bernie Dieter: In Konzert ★★★
In one of the many gushing reviews I've written about the undisputed Queen of the Spiegeltents, Bernie Dieter, I said she stands at the forefront of international neo-cabaret alongside those other femmes fabuleuses Amanda Palmer, Meow Meow and Camille O'Sullivan.
In her new show, the straightforwardly titled In Konzert, which makes it's world premiere at Fringe World, she's stolen a march on them by abandoning (nearly) all extranities, entertaining though they are, to concentrate on her singing and the songs she sings.
It confirms what a wicked songwriter she is, what an excellent curator and interpreter of other's songs she is, and, of course, what a stunning performer she has always been.
She knocked the show out of the park before she even reached the stage, finishing her makeup and dress up side of stage as her hot band growled into the Gillian Welch masterpiece Time (the Revelator). It's such a take on the song, on a par with O'Sullivan's showstopper version.
Then follows Paul Kelly/Deborah Conway's Everybody Wants to Touch Me (I'm sure you can imagine what that was like), Marlene Dietrich's A Suitcase in Berlin, Bowie's Rock and Roll Suicide (another O'Sullivan live favourite), her own, unambiguous, Lick My Pussy (she apologised to anyone there with their parents, but my daughter at least seemed okay about it), MGMT's touching Fated to Pretend, complete with 'quiet please there's a lady on stage" reveal and finally her hand-clapping, toe-tapping paean to all things libacious, Alcohol.
I'll tell you what I like most about Bernie Dieter. It's not the spangled catsuits or the crooked smile, or the whole dirty daring of her act. It's not even the talent, great as it is.
It's that when she tells her audience that she fucking loves them, she really fucking means it.
And when she says she's loved her long (albeit enforced) stay in Perth so much she might just stay here, she just might.
We should be so lucky.

Shahnameh: Songs from the Persian Book of Kings
★★★½

The only people unsurprised that the Kohesia Ensemble’s Shahnameh: Songs of the Persian Book of Kings took out the prestigious Martin Sims Award for best new West Australian work at 2020’s Fringe Award were those who saw this eclectic, eccentric, and genuinely entertaining ramble through one of the great epic poems of mankind.

It’s a joy that it has returned for this year’s fringe, and should not be missed.

(Read the complete review in Seesaw Magazine)

Bring Out Your Dead
We've all woken up after a big night feeling like death, but not so many of us with it
covered in blood on the sofa next to you. Such is the fix Riley (Alex Hutching) finds himself in, and the black comedy Bring Out Your Dead is all about the spectacular failure he and his flatmate Finn (T 'Mutta' Bielby) make of extricating themselves from the dilemma they find themselves in.
Matters aren't helped by a burglar (Keely Moloney) with a case of bad timing and an intrusive neighbour (Christian Dichiera) whose misfortune is to stumble upon the reason for the lad's discombobulation.
It's all a bit unreal, and it doesn't get any less so, but lots of set ups like this (think Death at the Funeral for starters) work wonders. Unfortunately this one really goes nowhere, and clunkily at that.
The twist, when it comes, is a lemon, and the remorseless energy that writer/director Ella Randle gives proceedings is more exhausting than invigorating.
One of the joys of fringe, though, is the chance for young theatre makers (the cast and crew are Curtin University theatre course students or recent grads) to take their skills and talent out for a walk – and there's plenty of both there to go on with – even if it didn't all come together this time.

Do I Look Like I Care?  ½
It's 1982. Florence has moved to Australia from the stultifying North of England to sleepy Perth to continue her nursing career, and Do I Look Like I Care? is the story of her life and work (work mainly) here.
"Story" is putting a gloss on the narrative, which is pretty much a series of anecdotes told to her daughter Daisy, who is the piece's writer and plays her mother in it.
To the extent there are continuing threads running through the play, they concern Florence's relationship with her workmates Phyllis and Nellie and their battles with a battleaxe of a ward sister, the plight of a young, pregnant girl and the disintegration of Florence's parent's marriage back in the UK.
It's slim dramatic pickings, really, and the blank spaces are filled with frenetic stage business by the cast of eight (which includes rising stars like Courtney Henri (Playthings), Courtney Cavallaro (The Wolves) and Coyle (The Lighthouse Girl) herself, who all go at it hanner-and-tongs), managed efficiently but without rhythm or purpose by the gifted Elise Wilson.
If I seem to be saying that the amount of talent that's been brought to this project should have delivered a more substantial and absorbing result, you'd be right.
The question the title poses is whether Florence, and health workers generally, can care about their charges. Unfortunately, the play doesn't make us care about her, or them, nearly enough.      

 

That's all for now, but come back to Turnstiles for more Fringe World reviews once the lockdown is over.




Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Musical theatre: Oklahoma!

by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III

Black Swan State Theatre Company

Directed by Richard Carroll

Musical director Victoria Falconer

Choreographer Bernadette Lewis

Designed by Jonathon Oxlade

Sound designer Tim Collins

Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw

Performed by Laila Bano-Rind, Stefanie Caccamo, Andy Cook, Axel Duffy, Emily Havea, Luke Hewitt, Caroline McKenzie, Sara Reed and Cameron Taylor

The band: Victoria Falconer, Wayne Freer, Adam Gare and Jarrad Payne

Heath Ledger Theatre until December 20

 

Emily Havea saddles up
Is Oklahoma really okay? Well, they’ve had 213,000 cases of Covid-19 and 1,874 deaths this year, less than half its farms have a positive net income, and their eighty-six-year-old senator, Jim Mountain Inhofe, the proud and vituperative author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, was easily re-elected in November.

So much for beautiful mornings, where the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye. I suspect if a tusker were to turn up around Tulsa, the good senator would probably bag it for a trophy.

To make matters worse, the original cast soundtrack of the musical was half of the family record collection in my (far distant) childhood (the other half, fatally, was My Fair Lady).

That’s a lot of baggage to take into Black Swan’s year-ending production of the Rodger and Hammerstein 1943 groundbreaker Oklahoma!, and my conflicting inclinations as I took my seat on the stage of the Heath Ledger were to dismiss it as a ludicrous piece of rose-coloured glassware on one hand,while insisting that not a note or step of it be changed on the other.

The director of this revival, Richard Carroll, is determined to recognize and subvert these conflicts, and the entertaining, but uneven, result is a measure of both its success and failure.

I have no particular issue with two of the striking features of the production, the casting of Emily Havea, a woman of colour, as the all-male, all-white Curly, or the introduction of anachronisms like contemporary musical styles and accouterments like cell phones.

Other, that is, than to wonder what the point of it is. Havea-as-Curly didn’t seem to me to reform the themes of the text, either in the power relationships between the characters or the romantic triangles – Curly/Laurey/Jud and Will/Ado Annie/Hakim – that occupy most of our attention throughout.

I had it put to me that it served to show that a female actor could do it. Well, yes, but I’d have thought that wasn’t in dispute.

However, the intimacy of the staging – four banks of seats surrounding within touching distance of set designer Jonathon Oxlade’s chipboard stage and the cast thereupon – was an unqualified success.

It allowed the small company of nine actors and four musicians to fill your senses, and offered an insight into the effort of a dancer’s movement, the physicality of the choreography (by Bernadette Lewis) and the making of the music (directed by Victoria Falconer).

The sheer proximity to the action excused, rather than exposed, any technical deficiencies in the singing, dancing and playing, allowing a more exuberant and informal reading of those elements that might be appropriate on a more formal and distant proscenium stage.

For that much credit is due to Falconer, who was the star of the show to my mind; her arrangements took Richard Rodger’s score back to its roots in bluegrass and jug band music and her performance, on fiddle, accordion and keyboards, singing and as an insinuating MC, was marvelous. Fans of Falconer from her series of Fringe World triumphs as half of EastEnd Cabaret would not have been surprised, but delighted, to see the other strings to her bow in full twang.

Her band of WA music luminaries, Wayne Freer (bass and tuba), Adam Gare (guitar etc) and Jarrad Payne (drums) were very fine, and the cast also hoed in with instruments as varied as autoharp and spoons. A thundering, menacing piano solo in Lonely Room from Andy Cook’s Jud Fry (off stage and vividly projected onto a string curtain) was a highlight.

The dancing, perforce, is stripped down to necessities, and mostly carried by Axel Duffy as Will Parker in Kansas City and Sara Reed subbing out Stefanie Caccamo as Laurey in the Dream Ballet that closes the First Act.

The Dream Ballet is always a strange interlude, more so with the stripped down ensemble here, although Reed, who is fun throughout the show, does very good work in it.

The emphasis in Laurey’s dream on the conflict between the cowboy and the farmhand, with Jud imagined as the henchman of a thuggish police squad attacking Curly clearly conjures up Tulsa Oklahoma’s hideous 1921 race massacre and the black lives matter movement. It’s powerfully conceived by Carrol and Lewis, even if it strains at the fabric of the piece’s original intent.

Caccamo, who was memorable in the title role of the WAAPA smash The Drowsy Chaperone in 2016, shows her vocal strength again in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it showstopper Many a New Day and ia sweet Out of My Dreams, much more a solo piece than in larger productions.

Some of the cast struggled with accent and other technicalities, but its energy and good humour – exemplified by a genuinely funny, Borat-like gallivant from Cameron Taylor as the peddler Ali Hakim – and, of course, those wonderful songs, gave the show enough aye-yip-aye-yo-ee-ay! to leave us, if not exactly dancing in William Street afterwards, at least humming a few tunes as we waited for the Uber to arrive.  


Sunday, March 1, 2020

Perth Festival: Cloudstreet


Adapted by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo
From the novel by Tim Winton
Black Swan and Malthouse
Directed by Matthew Lutton
His Majesty’s Theatre until March 15

There’s a striking coincidence at the very beginning of this Black Swan /Malthouse revival of the celebrated novel-turned-stage play-turned-mini-series Cloudstreet which closes the 2020 Perth Festival’s theatre programme.
The opening scene, in which the unmistakable, cherubic actor Ian Michael stands alone on the stage introducing the where, when and whys of the play about to take place, is an exact replica – same unmistakable actor, same purpose – as the opening scene of Black Swan’s 2019 Perth Festival production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
It’s more than a passing coincidence; both the Australian and American plays deal in a specific place (the small, isolated town of Grover’s Corners in Our Town, the small, isolated city of Perth in Cloudstreet), a long space of time (13 years from 1901 – 1914 in our Town; 20 years from 1943 – 1963 in Cloudstreet), and are peopled by families growing cheek to jowl through births, deaths and marriages.
Very significantly, both works were written around the same number of years after the events they portray (24 years in the case of Our Town, 28 years in the case of Cloudstreet); recently enough for both Wilder and Winton to have a personal connection to the time, the place and the people, long enough ago for them to become part of a wider, more unparticular history.
I think this partly explains the real life/dreamlike quality that pervades both works, and their enduring popularity.
Put more succinctly. If Winton had called his story Our Town, it wouldn’t seem a millimeter out of place on the book cover.
We will never see Our Town in Wilder’s invented Grover’s Corner, but we are seeing Cloudstreet on its own boodjar, and that gives it an additional power that is as palpable as it is obvious.
We see immediately, though, that Malthouse Theatre’s artistic director, the Perth-born-and-raised Matthew Dutton has no intention of giving this revival of Nick Enright and Justin Monjo stage adaptation of Winton’s novel a picaresque, soft-focused treatment.
The clue is Zoe Atkinson’s concrete brutalist set, gouged with abstracted shapes that hint at Aboriginal rock paintings. There’s a pertinent nod, though, to Perth’s brutalist architects, notably Tony Dale, whose Hale School Hall (1961) is the touchstone of the style in Australia; other examples are the Commonwealth Bank building on the Terrace, the Concert Hall and State Library, the Christian Scientist building at the top of the Terrace and the FESA building, disgracefully demolished in 2013 .
But while the set may be nothing like how we imagine the interior of 1 Cloud Street, it functions well as the shared home of its now legendary cohabitants, the Pickles and the Lambs,.
Their members have passed into a kind of folklore: the soft-touchable, good-hearted Lester Lamb (Greg Stone) and his guilt-ridden, pious wife Oriel (Alison Whyte), their boys, the fervent, melancholy Quick (Keegan Joyce), the lovable, damaged Fish (Benjamin Oakes) and Chub (Michael), their daughters Elaine (Arielle Gray), Hattie (Ebony McGuire) and Red (Mikayla Merks); and their accidental landlords, the Pickles – the woebegone rider of lady luck, Sam (Bert LaBonté), his dipsomaniac – just about every kind of maniac ­– wife, Dolly (Natasha Herbert), their bright, anorexic daughter Rose (Brenna Harding) and their sons, the saturnine, disconnected Ted (Scott Sheridan) and the impetuous Lon (Michael again).
The familiar story of the Lambs and the Pickles, from their first arrival at Cloudstreet in the latter years of WWII to – the play strongly suggests – the dawn of a new era in the early ’60s, plays out over 225 minutes (there are two intervals, the first long enough for a meal).
It’s a long haul, and even then inevitably truncates some of the book’s major themes and incidents, and it’s unsurprising that there’s an occasional sense of ticking off the necessary rather than diving deep into the essential – rather like those Reader’s Digest condensed novels of the time.
By and large, though, the adapters Nick Enright and Justin Monjo did a neat editing job with a practiced eye for what was going to work on stage, so you don’t feel you’ve missed anything, even if, sometimes, there might have been more to be had.
There has been discussion about the heightened Aboriginal presence in this production, creating a darkly spiritual sub-soil from which the story grows.
It’s a conversation worth having, but it’s an element that Enright and Monjo, and now Lutton, have drawn and amplified from the original novel. Without it the play would lose a unifying theme it badly needs to elevate it from the mere episodic.
It needs a strong, durable cast, too, and Lutton is blessed with a fine one here.
There’s not a weak performance, but the central characters are particularly well served by Joyce’s nervy Quick, Whyte’s sharp-edged Oriel and Harding’s blossoming Rose.
The production’s cross-ethnic casting is no issue, and I’ll defer to those much closer to the matter about the casting of the autistic actor Oakes, who does a fine job as the brain-damaged Fish.
Cloudstreet has an almost genetic fascination for West Australians  (“Tim Winton must have heard about our family” is all but a meme in these parts) so, although the play is never going to be a great one – it really is too episodic, too stuck in its ways to be that – this production is worthy of your attention.   




   

Friday, February 28, 2020

Perth Festival: I’m a Phoenix, Bitch


Bryony Kimmings
STC Studio
Feb 26 – Mar 1, 2020
Late in I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, its writer and performer Bryony Kimmings clambers up a 4m-high structure representing a steep hill to place a model of an old cottage on its summit.
Such was the commitment and power of her performance, such were the dangers she faced down to tell her story, and such was the shock her telling it had caused the audience (I’m absolutely confident I speak for everyone in it) that if she had fallen headlong down it, cracking her skull against its side, and lay, crumpled and shuddering, on the floor, we may not have rushed immediately to her aid for fear we would be interrupting her performance.
In another scene, Kimmings stands behind a scrim in a glade and begins digging. In a wondrous projected animation (by Will Duke), her excavation becomes a plunge through the earth and down into that cottage, which burst into flames around her, threatening to consume her until rising waters extinguished them, and drowned her.
We have just been taken inside a nightmare. Live on stage.
The nightmare Kimmings takes us into began soon after her last visit to Perth, in early 2015, where her Sex Idiot was the sensation of that year’s Fringe. She also performed a show, Fake It till you Make It, with her then partner, Tim Grayburn, who suffers from suicidal depression. It was scary, brave and warm – unusual theatre (Tim has no acting experience or particular aptitude for it), but humane and memorable.
By August that year, Kimmings was visibly pregnant as she and Tim performed Fake It in the UK. And that’s pretty much where Phoenix begins.
They rent an old cottage in Oxfordshire, on the banks of an innocent-looking little stream that, the estate agent warns them, can flood and cut the cottage off for weeks. But they’re in love, there’s a baby coming, Kimmings can get on with her writing if they’re stranded, so it’s all going to be just fine.
Little Frank is born in November 2015. Suddenly, Kimmings finds herself in the maw of a cataclysm. The baby is diagnosed with West syndrome, a rare, severe form of infantile epilepsy with pitiable symptoms, little response to treatment and an extremely poor prognosis. Tim and Kimmings’ relationship collapses under the strain, she suffers acute postnatal depression.
Kimmings is terrified, devastated, alone. But she is physically strong, crazy-brave and resilient. She’s too emotionally receptive not to be taken by the flood, but too robust and courageous to drown in it.
She is also an exemplary artist. So, by late 2018, when she is finally able, ready and willing to do it, Kimmings the artist brought Bryony the person to the stage; the result is as devastating a theatre work as I can recall.
Much of it is due to Kimmings’ natural inclination to savage comedy and her innate theatricality. The opening scenes are superbly devised sketches of gender role playing, the acquiescent female, the judgmental male, the jungle line behind the make-up and mascara, the aprons and window boxes, the round hole into which a round peg like Kimmings is both drawn and abhors.
It’s Sex Idiot redux, and we’re up for its parry and thrust, its laughter and spark.
But nothing prepares us for Kimmings’ descent, and she spares herself, or us, nothing down there. Early, when she tells us that we’re safe and everything’s okay, they aren’t empty words, and she’s not fishing for compliments. She’s aware enough of what she’s about to do, and we’re about to see, that she needs to reassure us – and, I suspect, herself.
The technical achievement and stagecraft of the show are remarkable. Its director, Kirsty Housley, whose work on Tao of Glass upstairs in the Heath Ledger Theatre is also inspiring, is a great gift to this festival. Art director David Curtis-Ring, composer Tom Parkinson and the design team all work wonders. And Kimmings, who is clearly spent at show’s end, is just amazing.
Many people in the audience took their time leaving their seats (Kimmings gave us permission to stay if we needed to). Outside the theatre I hugged someone I know who’d seen the show the night before. My wife hugged me when I got home. The dog jumped on the bed and stayed close.
We are safe. It’s okay.
And though we have no right to know the pain and grief and terror that Bryony went through in 2016, I’m eternally grateful to Kimmings for having the strength and daring to share it with us.