Tuesday, 31 August 1999

Henry V, Bell Shakepseare, 31 Aug 1999

by William Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare Company Athenaeum 1 until September 18, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is difficult to make slaughter appear heroic in these times. We cannot picture balmy fields filled with sword-wielding knights of the realm without imagining the bodies after the battle. Too much television war has spoiled our romanticising of death and patriotism.

In order to enjoy Shakespeare's history plays then, we needs must suspend our 20th century cynicism, pacifism and any related squeamishness about severed limbs and pools of blood.

John Bell's clever, albeit blokey production of Henry V once again provides a clear, consistent and colourful vision for Shakespeare. It is plumped firmly into the midst of World War One, with soldiers in both British and French infantry uniform singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Mademoiselle from Armentiers".

The period is clearly embedded in the design (Michelle Fallon) which uses English Music Hall complete with piano, footlights and red velvet drapes, combined with an army recruiting office and its backdrop declaring, "For God, King and Country"

Bell's production manages to be both comic and tragic. He polishes Shakespeare's own jokes and digs up a few ripe new ones. These pepper the gruesome Agincourt scenes and the long speeches by various lords and the king.

The first half is less certain than the second that romps along. Bell captures the tension, the interminable waiting for battle, the trepidation and self-doubt of the young king as well as his jubilation and nationalism.

Bell also mocks the French mercilessly. They sip champagne as they go into battle, are too lazy even to answer a telephone and boast about their armour. It must be by St Laurent.

One highlight is the stylishly choreographed battle scene (Gavin Robins) in which soldiers fall only to rise and fall again, tumbling over bodies, leaping into each others arms and being rolled and piled and hauled like carcasses.

Another highlight is the final courting scene between Henry (Joel Edgerton) and the high-spirited French Princess, Katherine, played by a magnetic Paula Arundell

Edgerton who also played Henry IV, plays this "plain king" as a patriot, a soldier and a lad with a romantic vision. He is well supported by a fine ensemble including the resonant tones of Rhyss McConnochie, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Terry Bader, Richard Piper and Mark Brady who provide a host of delightful French and English characters.

by Kate Herbert

Thursday, 26 August 1999

Boneyard, Aug 26, 1999

 by Mark O'Flynn and Anthony Lawrence

At La Mama until September 12, 1999

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

One of women's greatest fears is that men, when left to their own devices, resort to more primitive behaviour. Think about Lord of the Flies. Even little boys degenerated into raging, competitive beasts.

Both Golding's novel and The Boneyard (Mark O'Flynn & Anthony Lawrence) are fiction, but we pray neither are true examples of males in a group without females. If they are, it's time to leave this planet for a better place.

Lawrence and O'Flynn have written a play that vibrates with potential and actual male violence. Four men are incarcerated in the high security wing of a prison. Three are murderers, it seems.
Doyle (Neil Pigot) is a manic junkie with AIDS and some very bizarre behaviour. Cedric, (John Flaus) the model prisoner, is older and has found God since his imprisonment thirteen years earlier.

Sharpe (Hugh Sexton) is the most overtly frightening: a rat-like volatile animal who is "never to be released." Young Smith represents normality, echoing our own anxiety about being in a room with these caged creatures. He is in High Security for his own protection because he is an informer.

The play is compelling in parts, particularly the first half hour. It marries a gritty realism with some more poetic moments. This combination is, perhaps, the outcome of a collaboration between a theatre writer (O'Flynn) and a poet (Lawrence).

Characters are clearly drawn and dialogue is pithy, often hilarious and always surprising. Wendy Joseph's direction is brisk, shaping dynamic shifts with crisp scene changes.

The men are a strong ensemble that creates a diverse, peculiar group of misfit inmates. Pigot, winner of Best Fringe Actor 1998, is exceptional. He plays with relish, .the unpredictable, giggling and dissolute Doyle.

Sexton as Sharpe is terrifying and dangerous while Flaus is mild-mannered but slightly deranged as the born-again Cedric. Webster is suitably bemused and nervous as Smith. The only problem is that all three lapse into inaudibility on occasion. Their loutish foil is the 'screw', played with gleeful power by Matt Norman

The script falters mid-way, losing focus and direction, although it remains interesting in its detail. Perhaps this meandering is intended to reflect the endless prison days. But the play could be more effective with a more coherent narrative through-line.

by Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 25 August 1999

Big Midnight, Aug 25 1999

 by Lunchtime Theatre
 at The Old Ballroom, Trades Hall until September 10, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Lunch time is not the time for either heavy food or entertainment. For ten years, Lunchtime Theatre (formerly Soup Kitchen) has been providing light, short and breezy shows during the city lunch hour and accompanying them with a mug of pumpkin soup and Potts yummy bread; sounds better than the office canteen, eh?

Big Midnight is more of a consommé than a chunky soup show. A jaded Cinderella, still wearing her ball gown, arrives at the terminal for Pumpkin Airlines'. She awaits the Romantic Millennium Midnight flight that will take her away from her failed marriage.

Along comes a clumsy looking geek in a bad suit and glasses. He is Prince Charming in disguise, come to regain the love of his former bride. The two engage in "adolescent jokes and clumsy courting" in the boarding lounge, watched and criticised by the lonely embittered airhostess.

The show is a musical with the comic-romantic script devised by the three cast Amanda Armstrong, Carmen Mascia, Robert Stephens with director, Greg Dyson designer, Betty France and Charlie Laidlaw.

The music, composed by Stephens, is the highlight. Simple songs are played on accordion by Stephens and sung by the cast. Titles include "I'm in disguise", sung by Prince Charming, "Tonight I'll Dance with You" and a song by Cinderella, "They used to call me Cinderella, Now they call me Sin."

The style of the production is sweet and naive. It has no pretensions, which makes it a little thin in content but it remains charming and entertaining.

The gags are often laboured or obvious and the dialogue could do with a bit of pepping up. This is often a problem with devised text. There can be less substance and the lack of a single writer's vision can dilute the content.

Perhaps this particular problem will be addressed in the later season that has three writers. Beginning the second Lunchtime Theatre season on September 14, is Rooming, three very short plays about hotel rooms written by Tee O'Neill, Yossefa-Even-Shoshan and Michaela Ronzoni.

By Kate Herbert

Burnt Piano, Aug 25, 1999

 by Justin Fleming
 MTC at Fairfax Studio until September 25, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If works of art were star sign, which would you choose to be born under? Mona Lisa? Too elusive. Hamlet? Too depressive. If you were born under Waiting for Godot, would that make you an absurdist?

Justin Fleming was born on the day Samuel Beckett's Godot opened: January 3, 1953. Burnt Piano, is the outcome of his imaginative exploration of a woman so obsessed with this same coincidence of her own birth, that she stalks poor old Beckett for years.

Karen (Catherine Wilkin) has written innumerable unanswered letters. Finally, in Paris with her father, Pete (Bob Hornery), she sends her son, Jonah (Darcy Bonser) to deliver her missive into which she has poured her whole life.

He meets both Ma and Pa Beckett (Patricia Connolly, Dennis Olsen) who dismiss him. However, he reads mum's letter and discovers that she has betrayed his secrets too.

The play is a study of the dynamics of this family in grief over the death of another son in a fire. "It's not my fault," pleads Jonah, the survivor, echoing the words of the messenger boy in Godot to Vladimir and Estragon. References to Godot are thick on the ground.

Kate Cherry directs the production simply and stylishly on a sleek set by Hugh Colman. Ben Cobham's lighting is evocative and live piano-playing, (Olsen, Connolly) provides the emotion lacking in the text.

Fleming's script is inclined to be glib, almost clinical in style when not being witty. His characters elicit little sympathy. They present arguments, which reflects Fleming's other life as a barrister.

"Beckett is arguably the best writer of the 20th century," challenges Karen. Dad argues the point - and all others. Pete is recalcitrant, bluff and, a writer himself, more interested in plot than form, unlike Beckett.

 Karen is relentless, self-centred and not very motherly. Her dialogue lacks variation. In fact, the men seem to get all the great lines. Hornery milks his very funny dialogue and Olsen revels in Beckett's mild Irish cynicism. It is ironic that Beckett, the reclusive, publicity-shy writer, communicates most clearly in this play.

The second half of the play is more engaging and contains the best scene: a witty word play between the Becketts over a game of chess. It seems appropriate given that Beckett seems to play chess inside his own mind in his writing.

by Kate Herbert

Thursday, 19 August 1999

Clive Potter: Poet, Aug 19, 1999

 by Anthony Breslin
at Theatreworks until September 5, 1999

It is nothing short of courageous to write, direct, design and perform one's first play. "Courageous" is here intended in the inverted Sir Humphrey Appleby sense.

Visual artist, Anthony Breslin, has written a script that deals with grief, death, creative failure, sexual 'coming out' and suicide: all very dense and emotive issues.

Clive Potter: Poet is about a young man, who is played, for some reason, by a young woman (Ruth Blakely). Clive's father has suicided, his publisher, (Don Bridges) ignores his poetry and he is bemused and confused by his emerging sexual preference.

At two and a half hours, the play is about an hour too long. It needs some ruthless editing and some dramaturgical advice. There are, however, some effective and affecting moments such as Clive's coming out phone call to his mother.

Much of the rest of the play comprises either overly long monologues from Clive, intermittently comic sketches with broad clown characters, or awkwardly emotional dialogues between mum (Roberta Connelly) and Clive or Clive and his elusive lover, Night (Anthony Breslin). There is also a mime artist on stage (Paul Roberts OK) consistently, evidently forcing Clive's fate.

The monologues are repetitive, dialogues with mum are written in poor rhyme and the scenes with Night are riddled with pedestrian philosophy.

These styles do not form a cohesive whole in this play that takes far too long to get to its point.  It lacks dramatic tension or dramatic action.

After 90 minutes, when Clive finally confronts his smarmy boss (Alan King) and the publisher, the narrative looks more promising but this is followed by a drawn out suicide attempt which dissipates the energy.

The actors work hard in a play which struggles to find its style. Blakely performs quite well with such weighty text and Bridges, King and Mark Wilson provide sound comic relief. Particularly good was Connelly as mother.

Breslin's dartboard/chessboard design is very clever and elaborate but does not serve the text. It is not aided by a clumsy lighting design (Susanne Kean).

This hero's journey could do with a clearer map. It is very difficult to sit through, especially in a very under-heated Theatreworks.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 18 August 1999

Bob Downe Million Sellers, Aug 18 1999

at The Continental Cafe until September 5, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It's time to recast The Boy from Oz. Bob Downe has the cheesy dance steps, an even cheesier grin, a collection shirts to weep for and several dozen 60's and 70's hit songs. He is also as camp as Rosebud in January and he even has a showbiz "girlfriend" to fool the world into believing he is straight.

Million Sellers is relentlessly funny. It is Bob Downe at his absolute tip-top. He leaves your face hurting and the groovy opening night audience at The Continental Cafe howling for more.

Downe, if you have been on another planet for a few years and do not know, is the alter ego of Mark Trevorrow, who is seen on Good News Week occasionally, singing love duets with Paul McDermott.

In Million Sellers, he sings duets and medleys with Pastel Vespa, a colourful and dizzy Brazilian-Italian club singer whom he met when she jumped ship from an Italian cruise liner cabaret act. Her op-art moo-moos rival even Bob's lime green seersucker suit. The two are accompanied by musical director, John Thorn, who plays up a storm.

Bob's guest, Pastel Vespa, is a vapid try-hard cabaret singer who could have been a loser of the Eurovision Song Contest. She is a good foil for Bob.  Despite Pastel's perky presence and songstress persona, she is no competition for Bob's rapid fire gags and ridiculous crooning style derived from every act ever seen on an RSL club stage.

The humour is both camp and parochial. Bob thinks he is world class but his stardom is local: he has toured the North Coast of NSW. He is the master of kitsch and the king of suburbia. His material is perversely Australian. He refers to Bernard King, Vesta Nasi Goreng, the CWA, Knox City and chops for dinner.

Bob has an ego the size of the universe and a personality as loud as his sunshine yellow crimplene suit. He encapsulates the vacuous vanity and petty jealousy of the B-grade celebrity and never recognises his "nobody" status. Every line, joke or song is accompanied by a flurry of Channel Nine Dancers' choreography, with twirls grapevines and skips.

The song list is a litany of hits: Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, Sunshine of My Life, Do it to Me One More Time, Windmills of My Mind, Summer Wine. It's a great singalong with the flavour of Peter Allen, Trini Lopez, Don Lane, Sonny and Cher and Denise and Ernie.
By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 12 August 1999

Little Brother and A Party in Fitzroy, Aug 12 1999

Little Brother and A Party in Fitzroy
by Ross Mueller at Trades Hall until August 28, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Perhaps it was not coincidental that the opening night of Little Brother at the Trades Hall coincided with the industrial relations protest rally in Melbourne. The play addresses issues arising in a family with a communist father, a catholic mother, a radical daughter and a union-bashing son.

Ross Mueller, who is writer, musician and performer in this show, has written better plays than this. No Man's Island was an interesting script but Little Brother is disappointing because it lacks coherence, cohesion and sophistication. Even the direction by Peter Houghton could not save it.

He is teamed with Lucy Jones, composer, singer and performer with whom he produced Steel and Rust last year. Little Brother is an awkward mixture of original songs, scenes with the dysfunctional family and some very peculiar snapshots of a trio of young groovers in a cafe who read about the famous family's breakdown in the press over a macchiato and a gossip.

The show might be better served by focussing on the interactions between the siblings and parents. Mum is invisible, which is a pity. She could provide the emotional balance that the piece needs.

The monologues or narrations by dad are uncomfortable and ill-placed although there are some funny and pertinent gags about communists, the media and society.

Jones songs lack any variety. The melodies are repetitious and Mueller's lyrics, some of which are quite pithy, do not scan. It is a pity to do a musical show with two unremarkable voices which are not well balanced and with such mediocre songs.

Much more entertaining and with far better dramatic construction was A Party in Fitzroy, directed simply and effectively by Aidan Fennessy. Being a monologue, it is a less ambitious piece with no political content but has an engaging character performed with wit and sensitivity by Luke Elliot as the blokey, funny fan.

The character is an ardent fan of former Melbourne rock band, Weddings, Parties, Anything. The break up of the band echoes the deterioration of his personal life as he loses his love and his best friend.

Mueller's dialogue here is well observed and familiar to anyone who knows the band or even the pub band scene. This was a much better half hour in the theatre than Little Brother.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 11 August 1999

Who's Afraid of the Working Class? Aug 11 1999

by Melbourne Workers' Theatre 
written by Patricia Cornelius, Andrew Bovell, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Reeves 
 music by Irine Vela
at Trades Hall until August 14, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It should come as no surprise that Jeff Kennett cops a hefty serve of vitriol in the opening monologue of Who's Afraid of the Working Class?

It is the working class or, rather, the workless class, which has suffered most from the policies of this state government.

This is the return season of this production by Melbourne Workers' Theatre, a company that, thankfully, has not lost sight of its role as the mouthpiece of the disenfranchised worker. The show has lost non of its power, humour or despair. It is an emotional roller coaster ride.

The script comprises four narrative threads written by Patricia Cornelius, (Money) Andrew Bovell, (Trash) Melissa Reeves (Dreamtown) and Christos Tsiolkas (Suit). The four are interwoven over the 150 minutes. It is very satisfying to find characters from apparently disconnected stories, being mentioned or even strolling through other parts of the play.

Daniela Farinacci and Maria Theodorakis are credible and hilarious in Reeves story about two 'wog" girls from Coburg who try shoplifting in disguise as private school girls.

Bovell's tale of two children damaged and alone, victims of their hapless mother's boyfriend's violence, is a poignant and finally tragic reminder of life on the other side of the tracks.

Tsiolkas' text is a series of scenes built around a middle-class aboriginal man. (Tony Briggs). It is horrifying to hear him abuse and demean a white whore (Eugenia Fragos) in a violent, colour-prejudiced language. Although the writing is strong, there is less cohesive development of the narrative in his individual components.

David Adamson's radio manic, talkback radio "autodidact" is still a highlight of the play.

Secrets and resentments are the mortar in the family in Cornelius' Money. Father is out of work, son is a thief and mother secretly and devotedly nurses a dying man for extra cash.

The pain and tragedy, the sense of repression and failure is enervating but it is alleviated by the sunny and funny moments in the play. Julian Meyrick has done a clever balancing act with the four sections of the text, making mileage out of scene changes.

Lighting by Paul Jackson is evocative and dramatic with backlight outside the Trades Hall windows colouring trees in the street. the entire program is accompanied by Irene Vela's sonorous Requiem for the Working Class, played by Adam Merange, Dean Addison and Nick Tsiavos which vibrate in the belly with the anguish of the characters.

We need more of this political theatre. Surely we still have the fight inus.

By Kate Herbert