Saturday, 29 March 1997

Geraldine McNulty, March 29, 1997

Dumped and Devastated  by Geraldine McNulty
Melbourne Comedy Festival 1997
Melbourne Town Hall until April 20, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on March 28, 1997

Geraldine McNulty's Dumped and Devastated is another must-see solo ComFest show, particularly if your taste leans toward a more theatrical comedy with intelligently and skilfully observed characters.

This is not a narrative show but a veritable retinue of characters who are variously hilarious and tragic or both. McNulty, a visiting English comic, expertly creates a bevy of women with only one basic red dress, which is nipped and tucked with belts (red) and accessorised with an array of scarves and hats (all red).

With physical and facial shifts she conjures some magical transformations, which are almost as fascinating as the characters themselves. She never hurries but allows the visible changes to be covered by very funny voice-overs and some musical interludes. McNulty is a class act: actin', singin', joke-tellin'.
Her ensemble of femmes comprise a school-ma'am cosmetics trainer, followed by a sad little bride whose mum has stage- managed her daughter's wedding, dressing the bridal party in red corduroy.

 The rustic throaty and nostalgic 60's poetess is beautifully observed, as is the folk-singing Amy Grant clone. There is a brassy harridan of an insurance saleswoman and an ageing songstress.

At the perfect moment in the hour-long show, McNulty sustains one monologue,  a poignant, funny portrayal of a plain, stitched-up Catholic "spinster" who suddenly discovers a fire in her loins which needs a-quenching. Her solutions are tragically naive and suffice to say, in her sexual ignorance, she relies on a rotten-toothed drunkard from her church and bad advice from Cleo.

The piece is called Dumped and Devastated and most of the women are just that, but it is not all doom and gloom. It is delightful and rich writing and human observation.


Friday, 28 March 1997

King of Fools by Russell Fletcher March 28, 1997

Melbourne Comedy Festival 1997
Melbourne Town Hall until April 20, 1997

Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 28, 1997

The Award-winning King of Fools by Russell Fletcher has all the elements of a great film noir movie – with great jokes.   

There is a company takeover, a bunch of mysterious deaths and a hero. Re-take. Anti-hero called Roger King. He's a sappy architect who has designed a chicken-shaped soup vat. Poor old Rog. First he loses his dad then his company, his job, his gal and finally, his miserable life. Loser!

There's a baddie, Spinalzo, who is a wheelchair ridden cross between Peter Lorre and Davros from Dr. Who.  An even more insidious baddie, Ken Leech, represents our whole Casino-boss conglomerate rolled into one smug tycoon. And then there is the ghost of Hamlet's - sorry Roger's - father who was pushed from Prince's Bridge.

It's fabulous to see a really slick, funny and theatrical solo show and King of Fools is the big one so far this Comedy Festival. It stands out among all the stand-up.

Fletcher peoples the stage with archetypal characters and broad caricatures. He utilises detective novel self-narration in the style of Raymond Chandler to tell Roger's desperate loser's story.

He works on an empty stage with no props, dressed in a Roger David suit but his swift and inventive scene changes, snappy, on -stage character transformations demonstrate a phenomenal theatrical skill and impeccable comic timing. Fletcher leaves himself space to improvise and play a little,  which is one of his strengths.

This is a delightful meeting of comedy, theatricality and a sharp, intelligent script. It attacks the privatisation of trams, corporations, Casinos, and bad Leagues Club comics. His Scottish comedian is a riot.

See this!


Thursday, 27 March 1997

Bill Bailey, March 27, 1997

Melbourne Comedy Festival 1997
Supper Room Melbourne Town Hall 7.30pm until April 20, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 27, 1997 (for Herald Sun ed. Robin Usher)

Five words. Bill Bailey: go see him.

He's a really funny bastard. He's an esoteric intellectual, a silly bugger, a musical gagmeister, a lateral poet and king of popular culture. He's Edward De Bono's answer to stand-up. He's a deconstructivist comedian.

He looks like a bonsai Meat Loaf with hippy tresses counterpointed against leather strides and clunky punk boot- things. He has a collection of "three blokes go into a pub" jokes written variously by Chaucer (14th century), lords of the manor (19th century) and a 90's feminist.

He drags the audience laughing from the banal to the absolutely bleeding absurd in a flash. We see a French Doctor Who ( Doctor Qui?) doing bad Belgian jazz. Jean Luc Picard does King Lear a' la Star Trek. He deconstructs German philosopher Wittgenstein's theory of solipsism and Cartesian dualism, amazingly, without being highbrow.

He redecorates his flat in "bloke coming home from the pub" decor. He self-heckles. "It saves time." He creates offbeat sound tracks for cartoons and satirises film musical scores with piano expertise. Not only is he a skilful musician but he gives good accent as well. He whips round Britain with his characters, does a mean US accent.

His encores are worth not rushing off to your next festival event. A compilation of nursery rhymes by famous people includes a scathing send-up of schmaltz-king, Richard Clayderman doing Three Blind Mice followed by a Cockney album of pop songs such as Lady in Red and Eye of the Tiger are a treat.

Bailey is warm, eccentric and accessible. That's six words.


Below The Belt, Handspan, March 27, 1997

Short visual theatre pieces by Handspan Theatre
Melbourne Comedy Festival
Melbourne Town Hall 11pm until April 20, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 27, 1997

Picture this. It's approaching midnight. A steamy striptease turns violent. The slavering club bouncers are attacked by the exotic dancer. Then she peels off her pasties, her feather boa, her g-string - then her legs, her pelvis and finally her pert breasts one by one.

She is a life-size puppet and the bouncers are three women in drag, "manipulators" from Handspan Theatre: Liss Gabb, Katrine Gabb and Heather Monk.

This collection of three short visual theatre pieces is a study of sexuality and seduction. It opens with Waiting by Heather Monk who is ravished by a rampant and lewd lobster puppet. This is as strange as it sounds and is successful in part. It felt too long.

The high point was Gilda, written by Rod Primrose and performed with John Rogers, both of whom are highly skilled puppet-masters and makers with a long history with Handspan and other companies.

Gilda is a miniature female in sequined gowns who sings her way from the Gates of Hell through various trials.  She is trapped under a rock, walks on waves and drifts in an ocean. The whole piece is set in a mini Victorian theatre set which transforms.

The puppeteers are visible onstage and establish a sensual relationship with their figurine. They are her controller, her lover her saviour her critic her demon. The piece has a delicate beauty and romance as well as a mythic quality. It is finely wrought and the figure's manipulation is masterly.

Gilda is a transporting moment in the theatre. I wanted to be much closer to the stage to see the detail of this tiny character who sings as a sultry Eartha Kitt or as the innocuous Kylie Minogue. Versatility is the name of the puppet.


Sunday Roast, March 27, 1997

The Sunday Roast  by Sue Ingleton
Melbourne Comedy Festival
Trades Hall 6pm until  April 20, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 26,1997

Girls dressin' up as blokes has a totally different effect from blokes in drag.

Somehow it is easier to take them seriously, to listen. It is not an instant joke and so it works as a vehicle for theatre not just as a drag show.

Sue Ingleton's play, The Sunday Roast performed with Jennifer Ludlum, is simply two old geezers in suits and aprons cooking a Sunday roast and exchanging reminiscences. It is set in fifties Melbourne and these two are definitely men of their time and place. They prattle about beer and Californian Poppy, Gillette ladies and Craven A.  

They play two-up rib each other about being old bachelors left on the shelf then consider themselves lucky because women are fickle. Grace Kelly is their pin-up. Black pepper is a nouveau culinary condiment.

Ingleton created this script during 1996 in the dressing rooms of the M.T.C. production of Patrick White's A Cheery Soul.  Mr. Bleeker and Mr. Furze are characters from White's dark comic play and here they have a chance to strut their stuff for an hour.

Mr. Bleeker and Mr. Furze are characters from White's dark comic play and here they have a chance to strut their stuff for an hour.

Ingleton and Ludlum appear to be having a ball playing the two bachelors cogitating and espousing their rum theories. Ingleton's fella is drawn in detail. She chews her lip and tucks her head into her neck like an old tortoise while Ludlum is a lighter, less wizened chappie.

 It is a light clown piece with a witty edge and a charming post-war feel to remind everybody of their grandads.


Wednesday, 19 March 1997

DIE FLEDERMAUS, Opera Australia, March 19, 1997

DIE FLEDERMAUS by Johann Strauss
Opera Australia
State Theatre , Arts Centre Melbourne March 19, 21, 25 April 2, 5, 7, 9, 19, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on March 19, 1997

So now we have Batman-The Opera.  Die Fledermaus, spectacularly well directed by Lindy Hume, is a hoot. 

Hume has based the whole production on the glamorous High Society of 1930's New York and has creatively pilfered images and characterisations from Hollywood movies. Marx Brothers routines and even Fred and Ginger make appearances.

Hume herself has added inventive and often hilarious dialogue to the English translation.   The accompanying translation of place and time allows many parallels to be drawn between the hedonism of both New York and late 19th century Vienna around the time of their respective stock market crashes. To us it may be just a bit of fluff but to Vienna in 1874 it was a barbed jibe at the upper classes.

The whole company was in fine voice and fine humour. They appear to be having a fabulous time. But it is Anthony Warlow who takes the laurels in the role of Eisenstein. His crystal light baritone, exuberant presence, impeccable characterisation and grasp of the style were faultless.

Wendy Dixon, replacing the ailing Ghillian Sullivan as Rosalinda, gave a sterling performance and as her Latin lover, Anson Austin, with his bell-like tenor, was convincingly and comically sexy. Amelia Chesher is adorably vivacious as the servant, Adele and Neil Kirkby, as the wronged Dr. Falke (Batman), is appropriately vengeful. Our exceptional comic actor, Geoff Kelso, is hilarious as the klutzy police officer, Frosch.

The naturalistic, Art Deco stage design by Richard Roberts provides a glorious backdrop to this opulent production particularly in conjunction with costumes by Angus Strathie. Dobbs Franks and the State Orchestra of Victoria do justice to the music of Johann Strauss.

Fledermaus is a joyful, naughty operetta and this production demonstrates the relationship between comic opera and our 20th century musical theatre. It walks all over something like, shall we say, Chessˇ?


Tuesday, 18 March 1997

Vegetable Magnetism, March 18, 1997

Vegetable Magnetism adapted from Kathy Lette
Universal Theatre 1, Melbourne, until April 6, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 18, 1997

What is it that drives people into insane relationships? More importantly, what could drive one Australian woman to England to take a poncy lover or another to fall for a complete yob who happens to be a prison inmate? So it goes in Vegetable Magnetism.

Two of Kathy Lette's, big-selling comic novels have been adapted for stage by director Caroline Stacey with actor Michelle Williams and Soula Alexander. The resulting production is partially successful. Stacey has set the two disconnected tales on a wonderfully lurid, cartoonish stage designed by Sean Coyle.

The four actors are dressed in idiosyncratic almost Restoration costume and perform in a wild, clown style. There are some wonderful caricatures and cameos, particularly from Geoff Baird and Peter Hardy who seem most comfortable in the broad style.

Lette's prose observations of British twittery and Oz yobbery can be intelligent and hilarious. She slips readily into the crude and vulgar which also raises laughs. However, chunks of prose do not always translate successfully to stage and, in Vegetable Magnetism, there is too much narration and an overdose of one-liners and gags which are more at home in a stand-up routine or a novel.

The piece relies too heavily on stereotypes and has too thin a story to support a 100 minute show. The shift toward emotional drama for two of the characters at the end is an unnecessary or inappropriate attempt to give the piece some dramatic weight.

 The production is entertaining but lightweight. It feels a lot like a show for teenagers. But that that's probably Kathy Lette's style – even all these years after Puberty Blues. Her material is often funny but mostly a little adolescent.


Friday, 14 March 1997

Tartuffe by Moliere, March 14, 1997

Tartuffe by Moliere.
By La Poule Terrible 
Napier Street Theatre until March 30, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 14, 1997

Censorship was alive and well during the period of Moliere's Comedie Francaise. His play, Tartuffe, was banned as blasphemous on its first run. Moliere was a cruel social satirist of 18th century French aristocracy and was, in turn, hounded by the victims of his barbs.

He would probably have been burned as a heretic a few centuries earlier because it is the grasping, self-serving clergy who are the butt of his wit in Tartuffe, a play in the style of the later Commedia dell'Arte after it had ditched its masks and started writing down its scripts.

La Poule Terrible (Why name a company "The Terrible Chicken"?) have staged the play in its first production here since Jean Pierre Mignon's halcyon Anthill days in the very same theatre. This production adheres to the comic genre, using broad comic characterisation, colourful costuming, white-face with Cupid's bow lips.

Moliere originally played Tartuffe (here played by Lawrence Mooney); he wrote for himself plum roles that directly addressed the audience to heighten his acerbic attacks on their hypocrisy.

The indigent Tartuffe has been taken in by a gullible Orgon (Greg Parker) who is, in turn, taken in by the masterly masquerade of the duplicitous apparently pious cleric. He offers Tartuffe his daughter's hand and disbelieves the outraged family's accusations that Taretuffe is seducing the mistress of the house. (Christine Davey)

 Although the performers' skill levels vary, there are some very funny moments in both verbal witticisms and sight gags. Davey is a class act as the gracious, demure and finally vengeful wife, Elmire. With Parker, she lets fly with some classic commedia slapstick and impeccable timing in the much loved, under-the-table seduction scene.
Alice Bishop directs the whole production very neatly – perhaps a little too neatly. It lacks the inspired lunacy of the natural clown and often feels mechanical in it comic business, telegraphs its gags or concentrates too much on words instead of action.

However it is a valiant effort at a difficult play.


Knowledge & Melancholy, March 14, 1997

By Margaret Cameron & Louise Elizabeth Smith
At La Mama until March 23, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 14, 1997

Sometimes if we could simply un-know something, un-experience it, we might not be so sad.

Knowledge & Melancholy: one seems to lead to the other. They are blood sisters. They are also the title of a theatrical experiment by Margaret Cameron and Louise Elizabeth Smith who are as connected on stage as blood sisters.

Their connection is intense but indirect and impulse-based. They work parallel in the same space but have rehearsed solo on two separate pieces. The performance is structured around the collision of their two discrete works, the counterpoint of their divergent texts and separate realities. It consciously nurtures a split focus.

Cameron's fraught yet whimsical text is a poetic treatise on pain. It draws together text and physicality, poetics and theatricality, angst and humour, love and grief. She reaches out to her audience and calls us into her psyche to totter about in her sea of glorious imagery. Her opening line speaks volumes. "I began in a simpler place."

 Her style is abstract, edgy and profoundly touching in its intensity. " I'm not a very comfortable actress," she quips. The piece acknowledges itself as theatre. "Are you finished?" asks Smith. The two have a structure and text but are still improvising with form and sometimes with content. It all depends on impulse and on the audience. Its very randomness and non-linear quality is part of its essential beauty. "Soon we'll be able to live without narrative."

Smith begins the piece shadow boxing with bandaged hands and boxing gloves nearby. She quote from De Niro in Raging Bull and Brando's On the Waterfront. "I could have been a contender, "resonates against Cameron's, "We're taking the punishment" and incidentally two paths cross and images merge.

There is no point trying to decipher why these two tracks are running together. We are meaning-makers so any two images or thoughts will form some pattern or logic for us. It is a very challenging and satisfying theatre experience.


Tuesday, 11 March 1997

The Early Hours of a Reviled , March 11, 1997

The Early Hours of a Reviled Man by Howard Barker
La Mama at Car Studio One, Nicholson St. Fitzroy until March 30, 1997
reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 11, 1997

For the unstable, a solitary journey through the night into the dawn can be pure torment. So it is for Sleen in Howard Barker's play, The Early Hours of a Reviled Man.

He beats a path parallel to that of the mediaeval Everyman, pursued by a dark retinue of malevolent ghosts from his sordid past - or are they real?

The reviled man is based on the 20th century French novelist L.F. Celine. Sleen, like Celine, is anti-Semitic racist, a doctor who worked amongst the poor and constantly reframed his past to suit his own perverse needs. Sleen has written pamphlets supposedly on democracy but which have promoted racial hatred.

The production, directed by Daniel Schlusser who also plays Sleen, captures, with abstract style and stark evocative lighting, the pained journey through back alleys into obsession and madness.

Setting this production in an industrial location that is by day a car repair centre and, oddly, also a dry-cleaning facility enhances the poetic and provocative writing of Barker's intellectual text.

In this allegorical journey, his "ghosts" become his captors and potential murderers. They batter and berate him for having wronged them and for being their fallen idol "the hero of all classes". He has caused Roon, a student, to lose his conscience although he continues to be Sleen's support and rescuer.

He has ruined the career chances of a lunatic, shattered the history of a jewish doctor and annihilated a young woman's hopes of love. They are violent and angry but cannot destroy the man who is the object of their venom. He continues to exist because of their vengeance or do they exist as a result of his guilt?

There is some unevenness in the performances but Schlusser is a strong central figure as the sour and cynical Sleen. Meg White as Jane and Sandra Pascuzzi as the doctor are sympathetic characters. Michael Burkett is excellent in a finely controlled performance as Roon and a wildly quirky cameo as an old female patient in the opening scene.

The location provided a second layer to the design and soundscape. Extraordinarily appropriate but unplanned sound and lighting effects drifted in from Fitzroy streets to augment the midnight cityscape and sound design. There are problems with the acoustics in the space that made parts incomprehensible but this is a fascinating production of a very fine play.


Sunday, 9 March 1997

Up the Road, March 9, 1997

By John Harding
Playbox Theatre until March 29, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 8 2017

In Up The Road, John Harding's play about a family funeral on an aboriginal mission, director Neil Armfield has instilled a sense of joy into the theatre space. The show is one big game with actors and audience participating giving the word "play" both meanings.

Armfield recently said he wanted a theatre in which, if someone sneezed, an actor could say, "Bless you."  And so did actor John Moore in the final romantic scene, without losing energy, emotion or focus. This very casualness and disregard for theatrical boundaries is the essence of the success of this production. The audience is complicit in the game and feels comfortable with a form which is loose but still perfectly controlled, has great warmth and naturalness but maintains its professionalism.

Up the Road provides information about the aboriginal community without becoming didactic and while maintaining a strong dramatic structure. This underpins Harding's well-structured story which skilfully unfolds both the personal and the political predicaments of the characters.

Harding maintains sufficient distance from his aboriginal culture to be objective and critical without abandoning an emotional connection or loyalty. His dialogue is witty, seasoned with gentle irony and a healthy cynicism in his observations of humanity, politics and the processes plaguing reconciliation in our country. It is both funny and deeply moving.

The characters are vivid and engaging and are played by a delightful cast of skilful actors. Moore is a striking romantic lead as Ian, the prodigal returning from Canberra, to visit his past. Margaret Harvey gives his now-adult childhood love, Susan, great nobility.

Irma Woods is a perky stage presence as Liddy while Bradley Byquar has an edge of danger as Charlie. Matriarch, Aunt Sissy, who is played with grace by Lillian Crombie and the sole white fella, Paul Blackwell is hilarious as the sympathetic white bureaucrat and total geek, Hidcombe. Even his trousers are funny.

The peppering of music and songs played by Wayne Freer and sung by various cast members, further detach us from naturalism as does the interpolation of stage directions by the bubbly Liddy. Brian Thompson's design provides a rough dwelling or a hot outback office complete with fly strips flapping in the breeze.
The crisp and generous direction, editing, dramaturgy and injection of a new cast seem to have combined to make this production of Up the Road not just another play but a living, breathing theatrical event.


Friday, 7 March 1997

The White Rose and the Blue, March 7, 1997

 by Julia Britton
Melbourne Town Hall until March 16, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 7 1997

The jury is out. We are now officially completely unshockable. In the face of onstage nipple piercing, rape fantasies, suggestions of incest and most prominently, flagellation, our pulse rates continue to drop. The boredom quotient even of whipping has gone sky high.

Perhaps it is my perception but it seems that sado-masochism is being done to death recently. The life of Melbourne-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger may have been lived early this century but his well-documented aberrant sexual behaviour is very fashionable in nightclubs, fancy dress, video clips and fashion shoots. Are the middle-class so bored?

This two-hour solo is performed valiantly by Shawn Unsworth who struggles with an unwieldy, over-long and over-written text. It is essentially an informational monologue that must then be performed as self-narration with occasional scenes in which Unsworth plays Rose and other and other characters.

The location in the opulent Melbourne City Council Chambers was the site of one of Percy's early concerts.  The problem is that the grandeur of the room is in danger of overwhelming the production altogether.

Unsworth is almost perpetually in motion, dressing and undressing, whipping or being whipped. However, most of the time he is trapped behind the huge mayoral table or on top of a grand piano set against the back wall. This makes the whole performance physically inaccessible and the performer himself uncomfortable with an edge of desperation and breathlessness in the first half and he is unaided by such dense and wordy text which lacks any dramatic tension.

It is astonishing that such an eccentric and perverse life can be made to seem banal. Percy Grainger was evidently a charming rogue. A chronology of his life with occasional bouts of flagellation (Did I mention the whipping?) does not constitute good drama.


A Stretch of the Imagination,

Written by Jack Hibberd
Comedy Club until March 23, 1997
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around March 7 1997

"Great idea opening a one-man show on International Women's Day," quipped a friendly fax to actor Peter Hosking on the eve of his opening of Jack Hibberd's classic play, A Stretch of the Imagination.

This production is heartening proof that the monodrama is alive and well and written in 1972. Hibberd's irreverent, garrulous anti-hero, Monk O'Neill (Peter Hosking) is given a new lease of life on his 25th anniversary that happens to fall on the opening night. Hibberd's script is a perfectly crafted, multi-faceted jewel.

This is intelligent writing as we rarely see these years. Have we got anywhere in 25 years? Hibberd never underestimates his audience's intelligence or its ability to grasp a good allusion. He raises the stakes, prodding at boundaries of taste and style, pushing images to their limits, diving from irony and puns to bawdiness or a sight gag about prostate problems. He is wicked beyond belief and not merely for shock value.

Monk is an old bastard alone at One-Tree Hill, watching time tick by on his alarm (alarming?) clock, reminiscing and forgetting old times and old timers. But be damned if he's going to lie down and die like his mate Mort Lazarus who is buried in the yard.

Hosking's impressive depiction of Monk is intensely physical but manages to appear effortless. He looks fresh after a rigorous two-hour performance contorting into Monk's crippled person.

Greg Carroll's swift and crisp direction utilises the cavernous Comedy Club room, moving Monk from stage to bar to audience. "We've put a bit of Dimboola into it," says Carroll.
Monk's dialogue blends Australian idiom with sophisticated lingo, literary and mythic references. He cites Homer ("I was Dux of classics at Xavier"), Shakespeare, Proust and Baudelaire. In Paris he "parked the Malvern Star against a flying buttress". In a pretentious Melbourne restaurant, the wine was "unspeakably Yan Yean".

The piece is supported by some effective recorded music by Joe Dolce. It evokes the Texan desert colliding with the Australian Outback. The simple and portable paper panel that serves as a shadow screen, designed by Peter Costigan for Monk's "private" moments, is perfect in its inspired simplicity

Every international Grand Prix guest should be press-ganged into seeing this impeccable example of Australian culture. This is what Melbourne is all about: the classical, the witty, the intellectual, the passionate and the gut-wrenchingly funny.