REVIEW: Punk Rock

Powderkegs in school uniform

By Owen James

Simon Stephens is one of my favourite contemporary playwrights, his works electrifying and always relevant. The raw, confronting story of Punk Rock tackles the escalating and debilitating final three months in the lives of seven teens in their last year of grammar school.

Stephens’ extremely realistic characters are taken to their most energetic and explosive extremes in this production by Patalog Theatre, with director Ruby Rees ensuring they are infused with equal measures of juvenile rebellion and adolescent uncertainty. Rees’ direction is powerful and pacy; the interval-less lengthy runtime passes in a flash, and the Breakfast Club-esque pressure cooker setting is used to its full advantage with intimate, imaginative staging. Rees has included punctuating frenzies of fantastical violence, sex and desire as scene transitions, which are for the most part effective at disrupting our comfort and expectation.

There is not a weak link to be found in this tight ensemble of eight, who all expertly commit to the violent, often terrifying world they are trapped inside. They are a joy to watch. Audience favourite Laurence Boxhall as timid Chadwick gives us many of the play’s most hilarious and crushing moments, and is perhaps the most successful of the group at combining the tropes of his character’s clichéd stereotype with authenticity. Ruby Duncan is a powerful presence as Cissy, fearlessly launching into many conflicting emotions with endless gusto and wavering stability.

Stephens has written a challenging, tormenting character in mutinous kingpin William, who Ben Walter brings to life with nuance and glimpses of delightfully unrestrained anarchy through every cautious powerplay. Walter’s William is as distressing as Stephens has written him to be, building to the play’s final crescendo with disturbing composure.

Annie Shapero is electric as deceptively simple Tanya, and Flynn Smeaton as Nicholas is the perfect blend of studious and smarmy. Karl Richmond brings depth to provocative maverick Bennet, suggesting deeper personal discomfort that may be prompting this genuinely intimidating bully to act out as he does. New student Lilly is our initial line-in to this world, portrayed by Zoe Hawkins with sass and a brazen disregard for conformity. Jessica Clarke’s brief stint as Dr Harvey in the final scene is strong and considered.

Patalog Theatre are leaping from strength to strength with every production. They are one of the most important companies to watch for us theatregoers who enjoy contemporary, boundary-pushing evenings of grit and dynamic gusto. Patalog and Punk Rock embody everything good theatre should be.

Don’t miss this gripping rendition of thunderous retribution, playing at fortyfivedownstairs until December 15. (Beware of blood splatter for those in the front row…)

https://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/wp2016/event/punk-rock-by-simon-stephens/

Photography by Craig Fuller

REVIEW: The Taming of the Shrew

This is as accessible and fun as Shakespeare has ever been

By Sebastian Purcell

If all Shakespeare was as accessible, fun and brilliantly acted as this production of The Taming of the Shrew, schools would have no trouble getting any of his texts into children’s hands. 

The Melbourne Shakespeare Company has put together a sublime ensemble that not only nails the Shakespearean tongues at incredible pace and annunciation (even more impressive outside in the elements), but also the interjection of modern references, which makes the play feel current and relatable. 

The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean, questions the essence of the feminine and masculine, power and control, truth and deceit. Each show the main characters roles are chosen by the audience, often leading to gender reversal which is poetically reflected in the production’s setting in the St Kilda’s Botanical Gardens, characters coming from Gardenvale, Elsternwick and surrounding suburbs.  

In essence the main plot is about the courtship of Petruchia (played by Emma Jevons on the day) and Katherino (John Vizcay-Wilson) the ill-mannered shrew. Petruchia takes on a bet to tame and wed Katherino in order for the younger, fairer Bianco (Saxon Gray) to marry. Bianco cannot marry until the elder sibling Katherino is wed, but Bianco already has two suitors (May Jasper and Charlotte Righetti) and is courted by another (Sarah Krndija). To add intrigue, the bet is placed as the various suitors vie for Bianco’s love, and supporting the suitor’s in their quest are their dutiful sidekicks (Emma Austin and Yash Fernando) who attempt to disguise their true intentions throughout the 90 minute performance. 

While everyone provides an outstanding performance, I think a special mention is warranted for Liliana Dalton (Trania) whom often steals the scenes and delivers the wonderful line “how now brown cow”, demonstrating a pure enunciation of the English language. Emma Jevons as the Tame and John Vizcay-Wilson as the Shrew have an authentic energy and have the most physically demanding roles. Their courtship scene is an absolute highlight of physical acting prowess. Paul Morris (Sly) on the guitar is fantastic, so much so It even felt like Tones and I’s Dance Monkey belongs in Shakespeare. 

Benjamin Almon Colley provides a masterclass in musical direction; who would have thought Kelly Clarkson’s My life would suck without you would sum up the play so gloriously? The choreography (John Reed) is tight and the use of the gardens and gazebo, as well as the set dressing (Hayley James) makes you feel part of the show. In addition, the recycled products and the digital program show the environmentally conscious nature of the Melbourne Shakespeare Company. The costuming (Rhiannon Irving) is consistent with the traditional characterisations but with the added benefit of adding a character sash to each actor making the play easy to follow and acting as clever props throughout.

This is a laugh out loud production, a comedy in all its glory. There’s so much physicality from the performers and it’s a joy to see them enjoying themselves and each other’s brilliant performances. Bring a picnic and a jumper for Melbourne’s cool evenings. This is as accessible and fun as Shakespeare has ever been. A triumphant production. 

The Taming of the Shrew plays from Saturday 7 – Sunday 22 December 2019

The Rose Garden, St. Kilda Botanical Gardens. 

Tickets are available at http://www.melbourneshakespeare.com

Photography courtesy of Jack Dixon-Gunn

Review: Nils Frahm

Making the familiar strange

By Caitlin McGrane

When we arrived at Hamer Hall the space was nearly empty and I took the opportunity to snap some photos of the stage where Nils Frahm would soon appear. His set-up is unlike any band or composer I have seen play live. There was a piano on the right, which I didn’t even realise was a piano until well into the show; a huge synthesiser; at least 3 other keyboards; and a mini organ that he introduced to the audience last year as his “pan flute army” because of the unintended sound it makes.

This is the second time I have seen Frahm play in Melbourne in Hamer Hall, and both times the music and Frahm’s performance reminds me of the reasons why his work means so much to me. Frahm’s ambient, electronic and percussive music has been my chosen soundtrack to long stretches of time spent in deep concentration – marking assignments, writing my PhD confirmation, and spending evenings lying totally still trying to stop my brain from fizzing. His music, fusing elements of electronic and classic composition are perfect for maintaining focus in the present. And yet there is also something about his arrangements that invoke a sense of reminiscing about the past and dreaming far into the future.

As the hall filled, the crowd seemed familiar, the ambiance was relaxed and possibly even aloof – classic North Fitzroy. Frahm came out on stage, he bowed quickly and warmly to the crowd, thanked them for coming by clasping his hands together. He sat down at the mini organ and began to play a gentle introductory melody; one that I might have heard many times before, from last year’s All Melody, but in such a way that gave me a feeling like it was new.

This feeling of what I can only describe as an internal ‘familiar dissonance’ with the music pervaded the entire performance. It was an extraordinary and exciting experience, and brought to mind the sociological concept “making the familiar strange”. To me it felt like this is what Frahm does with his work, only live on stage. In comparing last year’s show to this one, it seemed as though the tracks were the same, but somehow different, like they were in a different register, maybe a little ‘muted’ in places. I knew the melodies so well that my brain was anticipating them, but Frahm’s improvisational skills made each moment subtly different. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the show, during the encore, where I noticed how the muted quality had been underscoring the entire show. It felt like putting the final piece in place in a huge jigsaw.

During the show, Frahm, in his deep yet quiet German-accented voice, mentioned that this show was a continuation of the tour started last year and that he had played it many times, but that he still manages to make a mistake each time he performs. To me there seem to be very few, perhaps no, mistakes in his shows, but rather his admission was a peak behind the curtain of his creativity – something he seems to enjoy – and this may also explain why he often played with his back to the audience. Frahm, at times, asked for the help of Jonas, a sound engineer but, this to me also seemed part of the performance.

Watching him move about the stage, moving his whole body as he put the tracks together, it was clear that Frahm is a performer, and that every element was carefully and masterfully controlled by him. Sometimes during the bassiest of his tracks it felt a bit weird that the only person moving in the 2,488-seat room was the man on stage. But the lack of movement also made it much more affecting and pleasant to sit with my eyes closed and let the sound wash over me like a bath. Around two-thirds of the way through the show I felt like the boundary between me and the sound had ceased to exist. Seeing and hearing, on their own do not fully capture the experience of Frahm live. There is a proprioceptive quality to his shows where the whole body and senses are involved in the experience – like you can feel your body and the sound interacting. For me it is an incredibly enjoyable experience, and yet I can also imagine it being disquieting for those who like to keep things familiar. Frahm is a natural performer, and watching him move I could tell that he was moving not just to the sound he was producing in that moment, but also to the sounds he was planning several bars ahead. He was deeply present yet also somewhere deep in the future. And I am obsessed.

Nils Frahm’s performances demonstrate that he might be one of the most talented performers of his time. He has a deep commitment to the entire experience of sound and how it interacts, engages, and changes the body. If you can get to see him wherever he is playing, I strongly recommend that you do.

Nils Frahm will be performing in Sydney on 5 December at the Sydney Opera House. Tickets and more info: https://www.nilsfrahm.com/

Review: Humans by Circa

An incredible display of strength, vulnerability,  flexibility and a celebration of the human spirit.

By Sebastian Purcell

 

Humans offers 10 acrobats pushing themselves to the extreme as they explore the physical and emotional limits of their bodies. The breathtaking strength, masterful, and at times down right freakish choreography is set to a Spanish inspired soundtrack. This, combined with the inspiring performers (Caroline Baillon, Marty Evans, Piri Goodman, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Bridie Hooper, Cecilia Martin, Hamish McCourty, Daniel O’Brien, Kimberley O’Brien, Jarrod Takle) leads us beautifully to reflect on our lives, loved ones, and the burdens we all must overcome to survive and thrive.  The show invites you to consider how much can we take as humans? How much weight can we carry? And, who can we trust to support us?

Yaron Lifschitz brings this extraordinary performance to life with a stripped bare stage and a lighting design that takes you from night to day, to sunset and dawn. The ensemble pushes the boundaries of comfort before the show even begins undressing in front of the entering audience, stripping away insecurities.

Humans focuses on the triumph over adversity and disability, in a moving display the loss of one’s legs is transformed into the strength of the upper body. This prompts the audience to reflect on our ability as humans to support and raise our fellow brothers and sisters up, or to go out of our way to make life difficult.

The performance insightfully demonstrated the power of teamwork. The most brilliant moments were the human chains, stacking three women on top of each other’s shoulders, a nod to female empowerment, and that only with the help of another are you able to have your elbow licked. This routine offered a light-hearted comedic moment but also offered a powerful representation of going it alone, and conforming to everyone else.

Humans is about perseverance. It shows that every muscle can be trained, that our weakest parts can be our strongest, and that failure is the bedrock of success. The body and mind are only as vulnerable as we allow it to be, a crash landing may not be the thing to fear but rather an opportunity in the strength and resilience it builds.

This is one outstanding piece of acrobatics that is a testament to endurance and dedication, but also a thought-provoking theatrical experience that will have you questioning your limits, your comfort zone, and hopefully leave you with the desire to stretch your own limits.

Humans presented by Circa plays at the Arts Centre Melbourne Wednesday 27 Nov – Sat 30 Nov 2019.

Visit https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/circus-and-magic/humans-by-circa

Photography by Sarah Walker

Film Review: Knives Out

An unexpected twist on a familiar genre

By Narelle Wood

In a style very much like Agatha Christie, Knives Out has all the expected mystery and murder, along with an exceptional cast, but writer director Rian Johnson also delivers something unexpected, making her own mark on this genre and producing a film with some truly funny moments.

On the morning after his 85th Birthday Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). Initially ruled a suicide, Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case. Suspecting foul play he embarks on investigating the whereabouts and motives of all the family members. All have motives, all are lying about something, and at least one of them knows more than they are letting on. Linda Drysdale, played by Jamie Lee Curtis is working the “don’t air the dirty laundry in public” angle, while her husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, is more than willing to spill the beans on everyone but himself. And their smug son Ransom (Chris Evans) seems to dramatically come and go as he pleases. Meanwhile Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon), his wife Donna (Riki Lindhome) and their creepy, right-wing, anti-social son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) are ominously hovering around. And then there is Joni, an Insta-famous, lifestyle guru, hilariously portrayed by Toni Collette, and her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). While they are perhaps the two most likeable characters from the selection of family members, their motives and behaviour is still nothing short of dubious. Even Harlan Thrombey’s mother Greatnana Wanetta (K Callan) and the maid Fran (Edi Patterson) are entangled in the mysterious web. 

Blanc sets off to investigate what may or may not be a suicide, enlisting the help of two police off-siders (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a fairly reluctant Marta. The family wait impatiently for Blanc’s findings, and more impatiently for the reading of the will by lawyer, Alan Stevens, played by the formidable Frank Oz. The plot thickens and twists, and just when you think you may have it figured out, like any good murder mystery, there’s another, sometimes small, twist.

In a time when so many films rely heavily on spectacle rather than narrative, Rian Johnson shows others exactly how it’s done, with a tight, cleverly written film. The sets are reminiscent of the old-world, manor-style estates of Agatha Christie films but also feel fresh and updated; the impeccable detail means that everything could quite possibly be a clue. The film is well paced, and while there are a lot of characters to follow and the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, it is not at all disjointed. No matter how briefly each character graces the screen, it feels as though you get to know each of them sufficiently enough to judge whether or not they are guilty of murder, amongst other things.

This film is the sort of murder mystery, that even if you have figured it out, you may not necessarily know how everything will tie back together. Knives Out is a breath of fresh air in a familiar genre, and manages to keep the murder mysterious as well as humorous right until the very end.

Opens in cinemas Thursday 28th November

Review: DreamSong

Forgive, Forget, Redeem.

By Sebastian Purcell

Set in urban modern Australia, Pastor Richard Sunday (Nelson Gardner) runs the Mega-Church of DreamSong, along with his (second) wife Christian Pop artist Whitney Sunday. Together they concoct a plan to not only increase the church’s standing in the community but re-elect out of favour Prime Minister Darren Cunningham (Jarrod Griffiths). However not all actions are conducted in good faith as DreamSong navigates the waters of fame, celebrity, power, honesty, faith and redemption.

This musical comedy looks to emulate the success of the Book of Mormon by providing endless laughs at Big religion which is more focused on status, wealth and power over faith.  This is a tight show, wonderfully directed by Lauren Mckenna  and pop/ rock score executed dutifully by the band, led by Maverick Newman, ensures the cast works seamlessly as an ensemble (Luisa Scrofani, Gareth Issac, Samuael Skuthrop and Tayla Muir) and gives everyone their moment in the spotlight. Lauren’s work with the creative team is fantastic and smooth in particular using a giant cross as both prop and scene setting is aesthetically clean and current, rising to its crescendo in ‘Funeral Hymn’.

Choreographer Madison Lee should be applauded for the incredible dance routines which add so much colour, movement and laughter, though she’s supported by one of the most flexible and vibrant casts to take to the stage. Madison makes the church feel more of a pop/ hip hop show than your Sunday sermons, with sex dripping from routine after routine.

Annie Aitken delivers the standout performance of the night, her soaring soprano voice is largely under utilised by the score, but when she’s able to let loose – in particular in It isn’t Fair – it will give you chills. Annie shows that seeking fame at any cost will always have consequences and her stage presence is mesmerising throughout.

Nicola Bowman as April Sunday drives the heart of the show, losing her faith, re-affirming her faith and questioning DreamSong’s teachings to high praise. She excels in the shows few soft moments in April’s Prayer and Show Me. Olivia Charalambous as Jesus Christ recounts the events of the last supper and over 2000 years of history in minutes in a dramatic and polished re-enactment while Maxwell Simon (Chris T) rocks it out as a pop sensation turned wannabe saviour.

Gardner and Griffiths commit enthusiastically to their malevolent, scheming characters with props to Griffiths who literally blows smoke up Chris T’s arse. Kate Schmidli (Clarice) and Bailey Dunnage (Neville) provide the voices of reason to their boss’ with Bailey in particular providing an outstanding performance as a nervous, intelligent but incredibly confused follower.

I found that the shows only downfall is that it tries to do too much. It’s jam packed with jokes, political and social references, so many that I was at a loss for what exactly DreamSong’s message is. While set in Australia with denim costumes, and Australian flags, the introduction of guns and a tweeting, golfing Prime Minister, seems to confuse Australia with America; and I wonder it the show’s authenticity would be impacted by this. I would be curious to see what sort of show would result from a more condensed, focused book; hopefully, one that would cement this Book of Mormon-like show as a cult favourite.

DreamSong plays at The Alex Theatre, St Kilda 22 Nov – 30 Nov.

Tickets available through Ticketek.com.au

Photography courtesy of The Alex Theatre

Preview: People Suck

Who sucks more?

By Sebastian Purcell

People Suck, a musical comedy, explores the many ways in which people are just the worst. The creative, passionate, vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic cast works seamlessly together to show you all the ways the world has gone downhill lately. Comparing who sucks more (Voldemort vs Marilyn Manson), or who in the office is more annoying, or who you just don’t like for no good reason; this witty musical provides a not-so-gentle reminder to be ever vigilant on the trek to becoming a better human being.

Written by award-winning Canadian team Megan Phillips and Peter Cavell, airs common grievances through their clever and topical lyrics. The cast is beautifully and dutifully supported on the piano by Geoffrey Scarlett, but I can’t help wondering what the show would feel like with a band or small orchestra for added oomph.

The cast works really well as an ensemble feeding off each other’s energy and is wonderfully directed by Sarahlouise Younger; particularly in the opening number, “Todays Lesson”, where early primary school students work out that the world is a little messed up. There are moments where the harmonies are a little off throughout the show, but to be able to pitch and harmonise against a single piano is no easy feat.

Individually everyone receives their moment to shine. Belinda Jenkin portrays a wonderfully and hilariously frustrated woman who wishes her men (and women) sucked more in the bedroom. Tim Lancaster switches roles, mannerisms, and vocal styles throughout the show but stands out in his fast-paced lament of how often people seemingly manage to butcher the English language. Georgie Potter throws in a terrific Cardi B impression and brings to life every one’s worst nightmare of a stranger talking to you on a train. Ashley Weidner is the first to take the show to a deep and emotional level with his performance of Eleven, reflecting on a school bully’s impact 20 years on, a reminder of how our actions can haunt those years down the track.

However, it is Ashley Taylor who brings the cast together, firstly as Primary School Teacher trying to impart important life lessons on her challenging class, and then in her breath taking and tear-jerking performance of ‘I Don’t Know What to Say’. Vocally and emotionally she pours her heart out and you could feel the impact across the audience.

The stage is light on – chairs and tables to set scenes – yet in each moment you know exactly where you are going, which is a credit to the lightning, stage, costume and production design team.

The show uses course language, adult themes and questions the role of religion in today’s science orientated world. It had me grinning from ear to ear and left me reflective of what small changes we all could make to make the world suck a little less each day.

People Suck plays at Theatre Works- St Kilda from 20 – 30 November 2019.

Bookings: (03) 9534 3388 or online at www.theatreworks.org.au/program/people-suck/

Photography by Sarahlouise Younger and Ashley Taylor