Friday, November 11, 2022

Theatre: Oil

Hayley McElhinney and Michael Abercrombie
(pic: Daniel J Grant)
By Ella Hickson
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Directed by Adam Mitchell
Set and Costume designer Zoë Atkinson
Composer and Sound designer Melanie Robinson
Lighting designer Matthew Marshall
Performed by Michael Abercrombie, Violette Ayad, Will Bastow, Grace Chow, St John Cowcher, Polly Low, Tinashe Mangwana, Hayley McElhinney, Abbey Morgan and Will O’Mahony
Heath Ledger Theatre
20 August – 3 September

A play that begins with a family huddling by fitful candlelight in a freezing Cornwall hovel in the early years of the Industrial Age and ends, approaching two centuries later, in the same house by the light and warmth of a device powered by an element mined from the surface of the moon by a Chinese conglomerate, needs to have a lot going for it.
Oil, by the British playwright Ella Hickson, certainly does; it’s audacious, epic, polemically devastating, dialectically thorough and engaging.
And if it sacrifices a little of its greatest strength for a less convincing one, that’s a small price to pay.
In any event, the quality of this Black Swan production’s direction (by Adam Mitchell, design (by Zoë Atkinson) and performances is so fine that qualms about the balance of the text’s strengths and weaknesses should and will matter little to its audience.
Oil is the story of one woman, May (Hayley McElhinney), who, in Kurt Vonnegut’s memorable phrase, has “become unstuck in time” – specifically, the Time of Oil – from 1858 in Cornwall to Tehran in 1908, oil-shocked London in 1970, war-torn Iraq in 2025 and, finally, back in Cornwall in 2051.
She is the same woman, at different ages, and her daughter, Amy (Abbey Morgan) is the same girl.
May, pregnant with Amy, flees her pitiful existence the night her family rejects an offer to sell their farm to an executive from an American kerosene company (Will Bastow). She deserts her husband, Joss (Michael Abercrombie, a massive presence yet again) who she loves with deep, emotional sexuality, whose loss she will mourn all her life.
She next appears in domestic servitude in Tehran with the young Amy, as the European powers jostle for control of the Middle East’s seemingly boundless oil reserves.
In 1970, May is the CEO of a British oil company operating in Libya when Colonel Gadhafi “negotiates” the nationalisation of its operation, while Amy, now 15, claims a sovereignty of her own.
In the war-torn Iraqi desert of the near future, May, now a former MP, pleads with Amy, now an environmental activist, to escape as the oilfields burn as battle rages around them.
Finally, as the petroleum splutters to its end, May, now old and cared for by Amy, returns to where it began, cold, caught in the ruin of the life we have lived and resisting the dawn of a new age.
McElhinney is magnificent in this fertile, hybrid role, inhabiting its dramatic changes without losing its personality; she is determined, stern by necessity, vulnerable and needy, sometimes all at once.
As a young single mother in Teheran she juggles the overtures of her superior Mr Thomas (St John Cowcher) and the louche, treacherous British agent Officer Samuel (Will O’Mahony). Later, in the play’s outstanding scene she is Thatcherite as she spars with the Libyan envoy Mr Farouk (the incredible Tinashe Mangwana) over the rightful ownership of his country’s oil, the legacy of colonialism and reality of post-colonialism. 
The world changes, but May, in McElhinney’s hands, is eternal.
The cast, which also includes Violette Ayad, Grace Chow and the eminent actor and dramaturg Polly Low has been expertly assembled and give fine supporting performances.
If I have a reservation, it’s hardly more than a technicality. The parallel story of May and Amy, the protective mother and – versus – the headstrong girl is cogent and well-founded (Morgan impressively inhabits changes in Amy that are even more sweeping than those of May), but it doesn’t sit in the balance of the narrative as securely as the wider historic dimensions of the play do. Where Farouk and May’s battle of wit and will is mesmerising and expository, May and Amy’s seem repetitive and overcooked.   
But Mitchell’s management of the story, and the stage, is too meticulous and focused to let this disrupt the impetus of the work, and Atkinson’s design, with its shifting rectangles in sharp black frames gives the action a cinematic quality that is endlessly inventive and absorbing (Oil must surely one day be adapted as a long-form television series, though I doubt it could better the original).
There’s similar care and focus in Matthew Marshall’s lighting and Melanie Robinson’s sound design, notably a low, subterranean growl that could be an oil well about to blow or tanks advancing on a sleeping town.
The final and most important quality an epic story like Oil must have is pressing contemporary relevance. As places like the UK prepare for a miserable, perhaps fatal, winter, as embargoes cripple the world's economic structures and tanks rumble again across the old killing fields of the East European Plain and ships sail unhindered across the Northwest Passage, that is a task, a duty, it fulfills.The audience may not have been humming Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning as it played them out of the theatre, but they won’t have easily got it out of their heads.          

Oil runs at The Heath Ledger Theatre until November 27

Monday, August 29, 2022

Theatre: Blue/Orange

By Joe Penhall
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Set and Costume designer Neil Sherriff
Composer and Sound designer Noah Ivulich
Lighting designer Garry Ferguson

Performed by Tinashe Mangwana, Jarryd Dobson and Andrew Lewis

Burt Hall
20 August – 3 September, 2001

Andrew Lewis and Tinashe Mangwana (pic: Stewart Thorpe)

What dates a play?

Not for the first time, I wonder whether the cataclysm of 2001 and the two decades since that are, undoubtedly, its direct aftermath, have become a prism through which we look at many things, including the theatre.

Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall’s Olivier Award-winning drama about systemic racism, mental illness, the individuals who treat it and the economy in which they operate is a case in point.

First staged in April 2000, it has many of the hallmarks of the topical, realist, character-driven theatre of that time. It’s loquacious, tendentious and combative. It’s three characters: the ambitious, passionate young registrar Bruce (Jarryd Dobson) and the vain, strategic specialist Robert (Andrew Lewis) parry and thrust while their patient, Christopher (Tinashe Mangwana) bounces around the walls of their dialectic.

Blue/Orange works around valid questions about unconscious cultural and racial bias, the logistical challenges facing health services like Britain’s NHS (the play is set in it’s mental health system), hierarchical structures and the personal responsibility of specialists dealing with the vulnerable and damaged, the minority person and the unentitled.

No-one can doubt the currency of these questions – a quick scan of the WA Coroner’s Court list this week provides a particularly tragic example of them.

But, for all that, is Blood/Orange dated? Are we too skittish now, do we take too much in with us to our seats, does our own uncertainty and anger override the uncertainty and anger of a play and its characters? Do we want to participate in a conversation any more, or do we just want our opinions reflected in what we see and hear.

Or are we so careful in our own thoughts and expressions to honestly examine to the things we have become careful about?

“Uppity nigger*”.

Two words (according to the Urban Dictionary, words used by racist old white Southerners to refer to any black person who looks them in the eye) that encapsulate the thesis of Blue/Orange, and its problem.

First used, cunningly, by Christopher to describe how the world, and the two doctors, view him, then weaponised by both Bruce and Robert, they are a fulcrum on which the power struggles of the play are balanced.

Each of the doctors is convinced in their worldview, each hitches their personal ambitions to it. But perhaps it’s only Christopher who sees his world as it is, and who clearly knows what is wrong with it, and him.

Christopher is the play’s hero, and it’s victim

Even when the play feels out of its time, there’s no doubting the quality of the production. Stuart Halusz manages the action on a claustrophobic stage in the round, defined as much by Noah Ivulich tense, often subliminal compositions and Garry Ferguson’s interrogatory lighting as the space itself.

Dobson and Lewis are excellently cast, unmasking the self-interest behind the younger man’s idealism and his senior’s pragmatism.

But it’s all about Mangwana’s Christopher. He’s a great ball of fire, torching the stage with physical and expressive humour, yet capable of great subtlety of mein and inflection.

As he showed in his fetching, idiosyncratic Valere in WAAPA’s Tartuffe earlier this year (Mangwana was released from his studies there for his role in Blue/Orange) he’s a compelling, singular performer who will be worth keeping a close eye on in future.

His performance is a highlight of a quality production of a play with plenty to say, even if the way we expect things to be said may have changed.


* I’m reminded that my daughter was castigated by her professor at the liberal arts college she attended in the US for quoting the word verbatim from Randy Newman’s Rednecks – a brilliant, excoriating attack on racism and racists from the 1970s – in her presentation. Perhaps she, and this production, needed to be more “careful”.         



Sunday, August 14, 2022

Theatre: Last Train to Freo

 Written and directed by Reg Cribb

Fremantle Theatre Company 

Designed by Renato Fabretti
Lighting designed by Peter Young
Sound design and music performed by Cat Shaw and Steven McCall
Performed by Michael Abercromby, Kasmir Sas, Chloe Hurst, Sandie Eldridge and Josh Virgona 

Victoria Hall, Fremantle until August 27

Michael Abercrombie and Chloe Hurst

 I’ve nothing but praise for this powerful, precisely produced and performed revival of Reg Cribb’s Return (2008), now retitled as Last Train to Freo. As an entertainment, Cribb’s narrative, consciously or otherwise, is a take on the craft of Agatha Christie; not a whodunit exactly, but one steeped in the strategies and tactics of her game of cat and mouse.
Inside the skeletal, but convincing, frame of a Transperth carriage, designed by FTC’s artistic director Renato Fabretti, late on a night when the usual railway security patrollers are out on strike (real-world improbability is always acceptable in a good cause), a disparate band of travellers take the 50-minute ride from Midland to Fremantle.
Steve (Michael Abercromby) and Trev (Kasmir Sas) take this trip regularly, but for no good purpose. They hoon down the tracks, tearing around the carriage and harassing its passengers.
Trev is a bit bruised and battered, his arm in a sling; he’s a small dog in the habit, one suspects, of biting off more than he can chew.
Steve is a different kettle of fish entirely. He looms over the space, there’s magma in him. He’s a dangerous man.
For a while they have the carriage to themselves, but in Bayswater a young woman, Lisa (Chloe Hurst) gets on. If she’s taking a basket of goodies to Grandma in Fremantle, she’s just run into the wolf.
A little later an older woman (Sandie Eldridge) lugging a suitcase, and a young man (Josh Vigona) also come aboard. They sit quietly, she in a seat by the carriage’s standing room, he huddled darkly in back, scribbling in a notebook.
All the while Steve’s attention is turning to Lisa. He mocks her with faux politeness, invades her space, probes at her. He’s up to no good at all.
But what, the Christie in Cribb asks us, is she up to?
Of course, none of these people are who they seem, all of them are carrying secrets, all of them have reasons to be where they are when they are.
Having mixed his brew, Cribb lets it bubble until it overflows in rage, terror and, finally, exposure. If the momentum flags a little in the final scenes, it’s a forgivable flaw; there’s much to reveal, and explain, and it has to be done sometime.
The cast is exemplary. None better than Eldridge, who gives Maggie fortitude, good sense and the courage perhaps only those with nothing left to lose can muster.
So to is Hurst. Her character is in an illogical and invidious position, but you can look back on what you’ve seen and realize that she had something going on that you, and her antagonists, aren’t aware of. It takes skill to be an actor playing an actor, and Hurst has it.
For all that, Last Train to Freo is Steve’s play, and Abercromby gives a mighty performance. It’s a rare gift to be genuinely menacing on stage (let’s call it the Chopper effect), but Abercromby does it. As Steve is revealed to be more complex, more unexpected, and both less and more dangerous, Abercromby’s performance expands to encompass it all.
At the core of his character is an explosive misogyny, as eloquent as it is repugnant. It explodes in a rage-filled attack on women, single mothers in particular, that is a distillation of the hatred and loathing underlying so much of gender politics and behavior in society.
I was taken aback by its ferocity, and the impact on the audience pressed close to the action by the production’s traverse staging, was apparent.
Could permission be granted for such an outburst in a work of art? Who gets that permission, who doesn’t, and who grants it?
I was curious to see what response this would generate, and I didn’t have long to wait.
I won’t single out any particular commentary, but amongst them two reactions have given me pause.
One, in essence, disapproved of the play because it observed the behavior and attitudes portrayed in the play but didn’t criticize it.
Another suggested that the play was dated, not because of the reprehensible conduct of some of its characters, which no-one can deny is still there in the real world, but because, in these enlightened times, it should be portrayed more “carefully” than in its original iteration twenty years ago.
The world, this argument runs, had changed in the intervening decades, but Cribb’s play had not.
I couldn’t disagree more. The theatre’s mission is to show, not tell. If you want sermons, go to a TED talk or your local church. The artist should show us the world that has such people in it, and let us draw our own conclusions from what we see.
Characters can’t be amortised, they can’t be made to fit the zeitgeist, or the sensitivities of the observer. They must be alive, in the real world of the play.
Like it or not.
Absent that, theatre becomes a lecture rather than an exchange between its creators and an engaged, participating audience with the agency to come to their own conclusions.
The worst play I have ever seen, despite its glittering reputation, is Peter Shaeffer’s Equus. In it, the mystery and terrible beauty of the boy’s relationship with his horses is completely undercut by the interventions of the psychologist who explains to us what is behind what we have just seen.
When I saw it, at the old Playhouse, with Richard Todd as the psychiatrist I had to resist the temptation to storm the stage and tell him to fuck off and let us work it out for ourselves.
And that’s what theatre should do. This is not a “Cancel Culture” argument, neither is it an attempt to rationalize the shameful or forgive the unforgivable.
Quite the opposite. It’s an argument for clarity, for insight, against bowdlerization and dishonesty. An argument for the theatre, unfettered.
All of which Last Train to Freo is.
The season of Last Train to Freo was interrupted by COVID, but has been extended until August 27 at Victoria Hall, Fremantle  





Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Physical theatre: WALK

by Bobby Russell

Designed by Opie Robinson

Lighting design by Joe Lui

Sound design by Peter McAvan

Performed by Bobby Russell

Blue Room Theatre

July 14 - 30, 2022

pic: Jed Lyall
 For all its many virtues, the little black box theatre at the Blue Room is not an ideal venue for the spectacular. It’s been achieved before (Humphrey Bower and Tim Green’s Golem in 2020 and Leah Shelton’s Bitch On Heat the year before come to mind) but rarely.

Now along comes Bobby Russell’s WALK, and it absolutely blows conventional wisdom about what can and can’t be done there to smithereens. Russell and their collaborators have created a dark, sumptuous environment of light, sound, vapours and forms that challenge and extend the senses.

While Russell is the only live performer, writhing through a maze of marvelous creations by Opie Robinson, dark fogs and blinding bursts of light, there’s a case that their performance is as much an physical adjunct to a remarkable original composition by Peter McAvan than that McAvan’s music is an accompaniment to Russell’s dance.

Add to that a remarkable lighting design by Joe Lui that, among many striking effects, uses bursts of dazzling light that allow Russell to reset while our pupils recover from the shock.

The cumulative effect of movement, music and light produces a work with a very clear structure within which Russell tells their story.

But what is it, what are these creatures that Russell and Robinson creates, and what narrative purpose do they serve?

A confession: dance is a foreign language to me. I appreciate its skill and beauty in the same way I admire French, or Noongar, or Hindi, but find interpreting what is being said to me as difficult as understanding what I’m being told in those languages.

Having said that, I’m sure Russell is telling their own story, and their metaphor is the process of metamorphosis. Their inner being, their soul, is represented by their unadorned form, close-shaven, non-binary, monochromatic, anonymous – the egg from which they will grow.

The egg’s metamorphosis, to larvae, pupa and adult is represented by its interaction with Opie’s creatures – a gigantic, billowing form, like a mutant caterpillar, and a disintegrating suit of armour, glowing like some burning conquistador – until, finally, the egg becomes adult and finds its personality in drag in shimmering gold lamé and electric wig, beaming as they lip-sync to Kylie and take their bow.

Russell’s story is about the struggle for identity and for freedom in the face of a society that would contain them or swallow them whole. Shot through the spectacle is powerful emotion and an authentic humanity.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Theatre: Pull the Pin

by Rebecca Fingher

Directed by Sian Murphy

Set designer William Gammel

Lighting designer Spencer Herd

Sound composer Jacob Sgorous

Sound designer David Stewart

Performed by Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Hannah Davidson, Tegan Mulvaney, David Stewart and Elisa Williams

Blue Room Theatre

June 17 – July 2, 2022

Tegan Mulvaney lines 'em up (pic: Sophie Minnissale)
 Pull the Pin, Rebecca Fingher’s story of the trials and tribulations of a ten-pin bowling team of women of a certain age, the “Old Hags”, as they graduate from the relaxed comfort of the Social League to the dog-eat-dog Mid-Year Championship has plenty going for it.
The Hags – Jules (Caitlin Beresford-Ord, Donna (Elisa Williams) and the ambitious Ang (Tegan Mulvaney) are all at the time of their lives where action and consequences collide, on and off the alley, and this is fertile territory for Fingher’s sharp, observational script.
Even more so when their move into the big league butts them up against younger, tougher opponents (in life as in bowling) like the teenaged Lake (Hannah Davidson), whose contemptuous pity for her older adversaries is obvious and often very funny.
In a nice touch the women’s story is narrated by an endearing bowling pin (David Stewart, filling in for the COVID-benched Isaac Diamond) that keeps the story rattling along merrily.
The staging is quite an achievement; William Gammel’s bowling lane set has all the right detailing, and the actual bowling, with the balls rumbling off the traverse stage to that singular sound of pin action (Stewart is also sound designer) is terrific use of the space.
It’s a talented cast – Beresford-Ord and Davidson are particularly effective, and they push the boundaries of realistic characterization with well-controlled discipline (a credit to director Sian Murphy).Rather like last year’s Ugly Virgins from Maiden Voyage at the Blue Room, that plays out very similarly in a women’s roller game team, the plot is simple and satisfying enough (it needs no elaboration here), but it’s a little too straightforward to be truly absorbing. I doubt anyone expected a tragic ending, but the setbacks in the story are too easily overcome, and the conflicts, such as they are, too quickly resolved
It’s nice that everything comes good in the end, but it’s a better game if the danger that it might not lour’d larger upon the Old Hag’s house.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Perth International Cabaret Festival: closing weekend

Meow Meow, Gill Hicks and Gala

Perth International Cabaret Festival

His Majesty’s Theatre June 25-26, 2022

Meow Meow

In her Apocalypse Meow, the prima chanteuse Meow Meow describes herself as “a showgirl of gargantuan proportions”.

Never was a truer word spoken, but, as always with Mme Meow, it’s necessary to peel away her layers of intent; of course there’s the sheer presence of her, the big hair, the phenomenal décolletage, the lips, the eyes, the Rockette pins.

Then there’s her stance; hands on hips, all challenge and control – control, that is, until the lights, or the smoke machine don’t work, the flowers aren’t thrown, it all goes wrong – “I suppose I’ll have to do this myself” she snarls, a pussycat becoming a very pissed off tigress.

Its all an act – no, it's The Act – and a brilliant, insurrectionary one, and she injects snatches of it throughout her PICF show.
But for the most part she stripped the tomfoolery away and concentrated on the songs, curated with her usual immaculate taste and subversive purpose, from Laurie Anderson’s 'The Dream Before' (“history is an angel being blown back into the future”) to her mate Amanda Palmer’s murderous 'Miss Me', from Patti Griffin’s tender, lovely 'Kite Song' to the Brecht/Weill canonical 'Pirate Jenny' and 'Surabaya Johnny', but also Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s hauntingly prescient 'Deutsches Miserere'.

There were also original songs written for her with Megan Washington (‘Skeleton Key’) and in collaboration with Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale (‘I Lost Myself’) and Iain Grandage(‘Tear Down the Stars”’)

Alone but for the immaculate accompaniment of Mark Jones (piano) and Dan Witton (bass), Meow Meow went much of the way to granting me a wish I made in a review a decade ago: “There are times when she should trust the songs and her singing of them instead of interrupting herself with comedy. I’d love her to just sing to me.”


Gill Hicks

On the night of Meow Meow the foyers of the Maj were abuzz with praise of Gill Hicks’s Still Alive (and Kicking), so, with some gentle prodding from PICF’s indefatigable Ali Welburn, I was back on Saturday afternoon for her show.

Why had I not always planned to see it? Hicks was a victim of the July 2005 London bombings, and lost both her legs in the explosion on board the train she was traveling in. I must confess this tragic story didn’t sound like the makings of a fun hour of cabaret.

How wrong can you be!

Still Alive (and Kicking) is, instead, a quietly glorious story, completely free of self-pity or bitterness, beautifully told and shot through with humour.

The image of Hicks being rushed to hospital without any sign of life for 30 minutes other than that she is talking non-stop, or insisting on going to the hospital morgue to say goodbye to her legs, are drilled into my memory.

There are images and characters just as human and memorable: Adrian, the man she never knew who saved her life as he lost his by being between her and the bomb blast; Matt, “the geezer” who guided her through her prosthetic rehab (“I can’t stop you from falling, but I can help you get up”); waving her prosthetic leg out the taxi window as she finally left hospital.

And there are songs, performed with a remarkable duo, Dylan Paul on double bass and Julian Ferraretto on violin and, or all things, saw.
Among her many achievements, Hicks is a stylish and engaging jazz singer, and the smooth arrangements of 'Stayin’ Alive' (accompanied by aforementioned saw), 'Summertime', 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and 'I’m Feeling Good' gave the standards a musical freshness as well as an urgent dimension.

And, as she says, “being alive is a damn good thing to have whilst you have it.”


Closing Night Gala

There are obvious joys in festival galas, and hidden ones too.

If you come to them cold, you get a snapshot of the highlights of the programme you didn’t see.

So, if that’s you, you got lucky, with festival director Michael Griffith’s snappy opening ('Another Opening, Another Show'), the esteemed Noongar artists Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse ('Moon River' – in Noongar and sing-a-long English – and the willy-wagtail song 'Djidi Dgidi') and double-barrelled showstoppers from the festival's headliners Paul Capsis and Meow Meow.

But if, like me, you’d seen many of the shows in the festival, there were other delights:

Libby Hammer and Ali Bodycoat were all wit and breeze in their festival hit Over the Rainbow, but whack them on the big Maj stage with a full band and they had the crowd roaring to their Kylie Minogue mash up and a barnstorming take on the legendary Streisand/Garland medley, 'Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again'.

I was critical of Brigitte Hauser’s Maria, Marlene and Me that got bogged down in a clunky narrative which, I thought, threw her performance off kilter, but, at the gala and back in her natural environment, and with Rossini’s 'Una Voe Poco Fas' to work on, she really shone, letting both her pipes and physical comedy chops rip. More of the same, Brigitte!

While Gill Hicks was an impressive interpreter of the standard numbers in her Still Alive (and Kicking) earlier in the day, her one-song stand at the gala, 'Stayin’ Alive' went to another height on the big stage. Even leaving aside her extrordinary story she’s a compelling, complete artist.


And that was that. The second Perth International Cabaret Festival took itself downstairs for a few more songs and quite a few more drinks, the ghost light was switched on and all the songs, and all the laughter and applause were just echoes to add to the grand old theatre.

PICF is a great addition to Perth’s popular arts (the good news is that it’s back next year, and extended from two to three weeks), and, given the tough environment it was born into, everyone involved deserves a standing ovation.


Monday, June 13, 2022

Theatre: Sit! (Or I’ll Make You Sit)

by Morgan Owen
Directed by Izzy McDonald

Set and costume designer James McMillan
Lighting designer Adelaide Harney

Composer and sound designer Keiran Gulvin

Performed by Alicia Osyka, Ebony McGuire, Ben Sutton and Morgan Owen

Blue Room Theatre
May 30 – June 4, 2022

Dogs and humans have been at it for somewhere between twenty and forty thousand years, and you might imagine it’s worked out okay, all in all.
I tell myself that the gooey eyed look our wonderdog Lachie gives me at 6:30am and 5:30pm every day is an expression of self-determined affection rather than his imposed hunger time-clock ringing in his head, or that his instantly alert reaction to the mere mention of the word “Yokine” is his freely expressed anticipation of a mutually-agreed morning walk.

It doesn’t occur to me that we were in fact keeping him prisoner, unilaterally decided when he’d eat, sleep, run, wee, wear a collar and lead or even bark.
But that’s what “attachment style” – a handle I had never encountered before – is about, and it’s the grist to the mill of Morgan Owen’s erudite, papercut black comedy Sit! (Or I’ll Make You Sit) at the Blue Room.

Blair (Owen) is breaking up with her live-in boyfriend Dom (Ben Sutton). She doesn’t mince words, and neither does she leave Dom any wriggle room.
Ainsley (Ebony McGuire) is a successful public prosecutor; out on a first date with a woman she met on-line. Their conversation revolves around worth, honesty, control. Ainsley doesn’t leave her date much wriggle room either.

These episodes are the bookends, two years apart, of Owen’s story, most of which takes place at and around a dinner party where Ainsley and Blair, now, and then, a couple, have Dom around, ostensibly so Ainsley can meet him, but, in fact for many other, deeper reasons. All of which are best left for the audience to discover.
Oh, there’s a dog as well. Chekhov (Alicia Osyka), obsessed with and fiercely protective of, Ainslie, snarlingly trying to ward off the threat posed by Blair and Dom.

Sure, there’s plenty here to unpick, deconstruct, position and ponder, but if that’s what you want, there are plenty of pop-psych articles and postgrad thesis you can refer to.
Don’t come to a play for them though. And certainly don’t come to this one. Owen’s achievement is in absorbing its meaning and purpose into the meat of the play without foregrounding it; she covers her tracks with comedy and dramatic intrigue (it’s remarkable that this is her first play). She claims in her notes that she’s ‘sweetened (the play) by laughter’, but that’s selling her success here short
Sit! stands on its own two feet as an entertainment; the comedy is sharp, generous and genuine, the plot twists have internal logic and momentum, and there’s a purposeful balance between reality and improbability.
Much credit goes to Izzy McDonald, who is an inspired choice as director. An accomplished playwright herself (Busboy, French Over), McDonald has a expert touch for both the play’s nuances and broad brushstrokes. She and Owen have their material completely under control, and they never miss a beat.

McGuire nails Ainslie, so that how we see her, and what she becomes, fit seamlessly, while Sutton gives Dom a great deal more than the hangdog, rather gormless character we first meet seems to promise.
The W.C. Fields zinger “never work with children and animals” might just as easily be “never work with Alicia Osyka playing animals”. Idiosyncratic and courageous, Osyka could make something of a pet rock; with a critter as charismatic and confronting as Chekhov she’s every kind of scream.

And Owen gives an expert characterization of Blair, zeroing in on her like a tracer bullet. I have no idea the amount of autobiographical detail, or self-reflection, there is in her performance, but you can believe in it absolutely.
As you can the whole production.

It’s a great shame the season was perforce so short; I hope Sit! will be picked up for a return season (perhaps as one of Black Swan’s series of remounted independent productions).
Sit! (or I’ll make You Sit) certainly deserves it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Theatre: The Great Un-Wondering of Wilbur Whittaker

by Dan Giovannoni
Barking Gecko Theatre
Director Luke Kerridge

Composer Claudio

Set and Costume Designer Jonathon Oxlade
Animation and Video Designer Tee Ken Ng
Sound Designer Tim Collins

Lighting Designer Lucy Birkinshaw
Puppetry Consultant Sarah Nelson

Movement Consultant Bernadette Lewis
Performed by Adriano Cappelletta, Grace Chow, Luke Hewitt and Laura Maitland

Performances at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth; Red Earth Arts Precinct, Kararatha; BREC, Bunbury; Albany Entertainment Centre
April 9 – May 19, 2022;
Tickets on the Barking Gecko Website

Grace Chow and Adriano Cappelletta (pic: Stewart Thorpe


The gap between entertainment for kids and for adults is long dissolved now, and Barking Gecko remains in the vanguard of theatre with stories and productions that work across the ages and interests of audiences.

Traditionally the starting point for bringing these diverse audiences together has, inevitably, been the stories, but Barking Gecko have a commitment to production values that add a high gloss to their telling.

In the case of Wilbur Whittaker, that begins with a beautifully designed set of abstracted columns and arches by Jonathon Oxlade (who also created some marvellous costumes). It frames the expanse of the Heath Ledger stage as well as anything I’ve seen there, and, with the assistance of slide out rostra and slide in or drop down screens, allows for a genuinely thrilling parade of effects and scene changes.

Oxlade’s work is given even more impact by the powerful, rapid-fire visuals by Tee Ken Ng that worked seamlessly between and during scenes and take us to other galaxies and beyond.

These design assets, integrated into director Luke Kerridge’s rapid-fire staging and delivered by some terrific stage management by Jack Wilson and Georgia Sealey, give Wilbur Whittaker a propulsive comic-book energy that’s exciting to watch.

It’s also excellently served by its cast; Wilbur Whittaker (Adriano Cappalletta), an eternal Clark Kent, is a boy who’s lost his Wonder and goes looking for it across the galaxy before his time runs out, while Princess Fantastic (the combustive Grace Chow) is his Supergirl. They provide the earnestness and determination the quest for Wonder requires.

The remarkable Luke Hewitt and Laura Maitland deliver the laughs, especially as the fabulous Pearls of Wisdom (Oxlade outdoes himself here) and Hewitt’s ubiquitous, cynical Francis Fox.

My hesitation about Wilbur Whittaker is the same as for the writer Dan Giovannoni and Kerridge’s previous collaborations for Barking Gecko, the Helpmann Award-winning Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories (2016) and House (2021).

After its inventive opening, the plotline tends to meander and lose focus - the litmus test here is the level of engagement by young audience members who continued to react to the spectacle, but not always the storyline.

Those qualms, though, dissolve in an exhilarating final scene as Wilbur, his sense of wonder restored, rides the Dangerbird through the clouds towards the audience

It’s an extraordinary effect, a testament to the skills of Wilbur Whittaker’s creative team and Barking Gecko.   


(Don't just take it from me – it’s worth reading the review by 11-year-old Jackson Davis in Seesaw Magazine here








Friday, April 8, 2022

Theatre: Tartuffe

By Molière  

WAAPA 3rd Year acting students
Directed by Trent Baker
Set Designer Charlotte Meagher
Lighting Designer Reev Coonan
Sound designer Aaron Davidson
Costume Designer Pia Dewar

Roundhouse Theatre, Edith Cowan University
March 31 – April 6, 2022

Gabrielle Wilson, Radhika Mudaliar and Laura Shaw. (pic: Stephen Heath)
While I’m not sure what Jean-Baptiste Poquelin would have made of Wet Leg’s post-punk hit Chaise Longue intro, or Sweet’s 1970s banger Ballroom Blitz outro, he’d have liked very much what happens between them in this rip-roaring revival of his great satire, Tartuffe.

Certainly the eleven 3rd Year WAAPA acting students who cavorted about the Roundhouse Theatre stage looked and sounded like they were enjoying themselves very much too.

Poquelin, who went by the stage name Molière, delighted in eviscerating the elites of Louis XIV’s Ancien Régime (The Sun King, nevertheless, was an admirer and quite likely, his protector), achieving, with Tartuffe, the illustrious status of being more scandalous than the scandals he was exposing through his satire.

The play has many of the signature features of commedia dell’arte, with the title character a cassocked version of its stock villain/clown Scaramouche.

The show’s original director Clara Voda was unable to travel here to lead the performance, but her replacement, Trent Baker, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre Drama School in Melbourne, and the design students Charlote Meagher (set) and Pia Dewar (costume) have remained true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the great old theatre style.

Tartuffe, the play, needs no verdict from me; its bona fides have been established for four centuries now, and if the interminable delay before Tartuffe makes his first appearance is an irritating indulgence of Molière’s, or the abrupt and outrageous deus ex machina that brings the shyster undone robs the play of a satisfying climax, well there’s plenty of splendid, witty, raunchy, wicked fun to be had before then.

Baker and his cast milk it for all it’s worth in a broad, sexy staging, gorgeously dressed by Meagher and Dewar.

A wealthy bourgeoisie family are outraged by the hold the itinerant priest Tartuffe has over its head, Orgon (Remy Danoy), and his overbearing mother, Madame Parnelle (William Bastow).

Orgon’s wife Elmire (Delia Price), her brother Cléanti (Radhika Mudaliar) and step-children Mariane (Laura Shaw) and Damis (Blaise Tindale) can’t bear the man, but their distaste turns to despair when Orgon announces that Mariane is to break off her engagement to true love Valere (Tinashe Mangwana) and marry Tartuffe.

Mon Dieu! Quelle Horreur! Something must be done!

The something, essentially the exposing of Tartuffe as a shameless roué with carnal designs on Elmire, is hilariously accomplished. But worse is to come…

The cast throw themselves at the hilarity with flair (and flare); all the characters are brought vividly to life, and if some handle the translation’s rhyming couplets better than others, that’s a small matter and a knack that will come with time and 10,000 hours of practice.

Highlights were Shaw’s extraordinary Mariane, squirming, or being dragged, about the stage, with her yelps and squeaks making intelligible dialogue somehow redundant. Ah, the agonies of love.

Just as charming was Mangwana as her sweetheart, the resplendently beefy Valere, as he fought not to lose her.

Love was a much more judicious emotion for Price’s Elmire – going into battle in a stunning 17th Century gown over a decidedly 1950s cocktail outfit –looking like someone who’d done it all before, and well.

Mia Fitzgerald took a nice comic turn or two as the maid Flipote, as did Angelo Torres as the conniving bailiff who very nearly stole Orgon’s house for Tartuffe.

If anything was stolen, though, it was the show – by the housemaid Dorene. She sees everything and sorts everything, and everyone out. Dorene is a masterful creation by Moliere, and Gabrielle Wilson gives her everything she’s got. Wilson’s got great comic chops, searchlight eyes and lightning-fast dramatic reflexes.

Remember the name.