Review: The Beautiful Game

Theatricalised slice of Irish Troubles

By Owen James

Amidst the madness of Fringe, independent company Manilla Street Productions are presenting a rarely-performed Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical about the lives of a football team wrestling with pride and confrontation during ‘The Troubles’. This is a high-quality production of material that I found at times unfulfilling and disjointed, but full kudos to Manilla Street Productions for choosing to tackle this little-known show.

Lloyd-Webber’s score is nothing groundbreaking, but suitably serves the emotional elements of the story. Though rife with generic and poorly-written lyrics that hinder potential character development, there are beautiful ballads and dynamic ensemble numbers peppered throughout. The book by respected veteran writer Ben Elton is at its best when tackling the darker themes stewing beneath these characters’ lives, crafting moments of emotion that are deeply affecting.

Director/producer Karen Jemison has brought the world of 1969 Belfast to life with evident understanding of the political and religious thunderstorm these conflicted young men are swallowed by. It is this ongoing conflict – both in their heads and on the streets – that is at the heart of The Beautiful Game, where you either take a side, or someone will choose one for you. Jemison has injected the production with a realistic sense of energy and danger that makes for compelling, engaging character work.

Choreography by Sue-Ellen Shook is seamlessly integrated into blocking, executed by an ensemble at the top of their game (no pun intended). A football match dissolves into a competitive, masculine dance sequence and out again in a West Side Story-esque blend of athleticism and choreographic metaphor. Daniele Buatti’s expert musical direction embraces the tender Irish melodies and rousing, chanted anthems of Lloyd-Webber’s score with vivacity and concentrated delicacy.

Stephen Mahy brings innocence and vulnerability to ambitious footballer John Kelly. This is a great vehicle for Mahy’s talents, his versatile voice gliding over difficult high melodies with ease – Mahy can sing anything. Stephanie Wall has crafted a detailed character in love interest Mary, and executes a perfect rendition of heartfelt, part-acapella ballad ‘If This Is What We’re Fighting For’.

David Meadows is a standout as Father O’Donnell, bringing gravitas and humour to this commanding but compassionate man, and finding depth in scenes both celebratory and devastating. Des Flanagan as bitter, turbulent Thomas carries the character’s complicated arc with building intensity in a delightfully intimidating and exceptional performance.

Sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco is superb, highlighting crisp and clean vocals and every note from the nine-piece band. Lighting designer Jason Bovaird has once again transformed the intimate Chapel into a colourful paradise, creating menacing alleyways, rowdy pubs, hotel rooms and bright football ovals, all with distant, twinkling Irish hues hanging over every desperate character’s decision.

The material is undoubtedly imbued with heart and passion, but does not always connect its serious and comedic elements in a believable manner, creating a sometimes confusing dichotomy of tone. The extremely strong cast and production team of Manilla Street have played to the show’s many strengths with a very faithful, polished presentation – audiences will undoubtedly relish the professional performances and quality of this production. I cannot wait to see what Manilla Street bring us next.

Running at Chapel Off Chapel until 29th September
Tickets: https://chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/the-beautiful-game/

 

 

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Review: Wrath

Non-stop laughs in quick-paced, office-based, absurd-faced comedy

By Owen James

When a lone pubic hair is discovered in the boardroom of an elite business obsessed only with profit, its employees embark on a plummeting descent into satirical, surreal madness in search of the culprit. Each scene takes this madness to a new level, as tempers flair and maniacal tirades about pubes combust in comedic perfection.

The loud partying from the Trades Hall Fringe Hub beneath us quickly fades into the distance thanks to Liam Maguire’s slick writing and direction. His simple but unique pubic premise is the diving board above a pool of kinetic, thrilling language that the audience adores at every turn. I love works like this from new writers who are unafraid to take risks and have something revitalisingly fresh to bring to the table. Everyone involved in this piece, from the cast through to the technical team, are undoubtedly on the same page in understanding the world they are creating – a real testament to Maguire’s strong direction.

The six-strong ensemble cast (Cecelia Peters, Roy Joseph, Jonny Hawkins, Adam Sollis, Elle Mickel, Lou Wall) are all utterly hilarious – there is not a weak link in sight. Together, they bring Maguire’s insane world to life with grit and never-ending, no-holds-barred energy that is tiring just to watch. The stereotypes of a controlling and imposing CEO, timid and quick-responding secretary, shit-eating and competitive do-anything-to-keep-their-job subordinates, and wide-eyed and confused new employee are all brought to life with wit and gleeful insanity. It’s wonderful to see six standout performances connect so well in this perfectly-matched group.

This production swells to a new level with every high-stakes standoff and demonic inquisition, developing a unique flavour that blends Office Space with Twin Peaks. Wrath is an exciting and engaging piece that is thoroughly unapologetic, delightful entertainment – I would definitely return to see it again, or any future works from Maguire and his team. A must-see at this year’s Fringe.

Dates: 14th – 22nd September
Tickets: melbournefringe.com.au

Photography by Clare Hawley

 

 

 

Review: Yummy Deluxe

Clever and raunchy

By Irene Bell

Yummy Deluxe: the perfect way to forget your troubles for an hour and laugh along to talented people doing crazy things with their bodies.

What is there to be said about a group of highly talented people entertaining the crap out of everyone? The ensemble of Yummy have crafted a perfect hour of fun, sexy and cheeky cabaret and burlesque.

What’s truly lovely about this show are the tonal shifts. While Hannie Heslden, Zelia Rose and Jandruze provide the audience with upbeat and suggestive performances, Benjamin Hacock’s dancing brings a level of grunge to the show that was surprising, though not in any way unwelcome – the dancing to ‘The Beautiful People’ in a feathered crown and mask was a highlight. Yummy Deluxe is a celebration of all things feminine, with the colourful dance numbers being broken up by Joni the Moon’s ethereal singing that transports you out of the venue and into a dreamscape. All the while the show is hosted by the charismatic Valerie Hex, whose performance of ‘When Doves Cry’ was spectacular.

The show is many things and the identities on the stage reflect that. It’s great to see woman incorporated in the drag show. The costuming is brilliant, with every new reveal fighting for the audience’s attention – it’s impossible to look away from the stage.

This show is the perfect way to unwind and remind yourself that as long as art that is both clever and raunchy is getting made, it’s all going to be okay. Entertaining a crowd and brining genuine smiles to people’s faces can be hard in today’s political (and environmental) climate – as Valerie Hex points out – but Yummy Deluxe will do just that. Plus, if this show doesn’t make you want to take up pole dancing, you’re beyond help.

YUMMY DELUXE is playing at the Trades Hall until 29 September. Tickets can be bought here online (https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/yummy-deluxe/) or by calling the box office on (03) 9660 9666.

 

Review: I’m a Phoenix Bitch

An intense and vital story of motherhood, madness and hope.

By Irene Bell

Don’t go see this show with your mum … or do, I don’t know.

Bryony Kimmings’s latest, I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, is not a gentle and loving portrayal of motherhood. The descent into madness in this autobiographical performance piece is not in any way sexy or mysterious. While the sets are cartoonish, the asides comical, this play is unashamedly real and brave. What an absolute privilege to see this show.

Kimmings is a fantastic writer; her monologue never gets stale and the rapport she builds between her and the audience is almost instant. I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is her story of becoming a mother, a series of traumatic events and how she ultimately finds herself again – or meets and comes to understand her new self, at least. Early on in the show Kimmings says the we are safe with her – this is true, but it doesn’t mean only an hour later you won’t be crying ugly, therapeutic tears.

The staging is wonderfully simple and clever. Four set pieces covered in white sheets wait for the show to begin. Each represents a part or a place in Kimmings’s story. As she uncovers each one, inviting us into her past and revisiting it herself, we are drawn deeper and deeper into the trauma. The separate scenes are delivered with humour and wit, mostly shown through a camera whose filming of Kimmings’s performance is projected onto a screen. The scenes are played as pastiches of various classic cinema depicting women, mothers and female mental illness. It’s tongue in cheek until it becomes too real, until the scene spits Kimmings back out into the monologue, no hiding behind a camera.

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is the beauty of theatre: at its heart it is a room full of strangers flexing their empathy muscles as we listen to a woman’s story and truly, from the bottom of our hearts, wish her all the best. You wish for a happy ending that doesn’t come, not because the ending is sad, but rather because life goes on. Go see I’m a Phoenix Bitch ready to open your heart to a stranger on stage and her son.

I’m a Phoenix, Bitch is playing at the Arts Centre until 15 September. Tickets can be bought here online (www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/theatre/im-a-phoenix-bitch) or by calling the box office on 03 9281 8000.

 

Review: After, The End

A story of love, loss, glitter and wine

By Samuel Barson

Death has very quickly become one of the biggest taboos of the modern era. Nobody wants to talk about it, let alone talk about it in front of an audience of people whilst drinking an entire bottle of wine, dressed in a glittering jumpsuit and high heels.  Until Jayden Walker, that is …

Walker, in his latest show, appropriately titled After, The End, does exactly that. Jayden’s father passed away in 2016, and Walker spends an hour with his audience reflecting, joking and pondering death, both in a general sense and in the context of his own personal experiences.

What strikes you right away about Walker is his immense strength. He is powerful, both in his emotional integrity and performative skill. He expertly weaves between highly exaggerated comedy and a more subtle and natural reflective state. In one moment he is strutting around the stage flaunting himself with his sassy, razor sharp wit, and the next he is standing still, describing the final moments of his father’s life.

The love he has for his father is palpable. As is the love he has for performing and storytelling. And it’s an absolute honour to be invited in to be a part of it his very personal story.

Naturally, there are going to be critics of what Walker does in this show. The jokes he makes about death do enter fairly dark territory. But it’s important they’re not misinterpreted as insensitive. For many using comedy is a valid form of coping and healing for some. As both an artist and his father’s son, Walker exercises his right to do so, and does so incredibly well.

Unable to be viewed as anything but original, I wouldn’t advise going in expecting a conventional piece of theatre or comedy. Instead, expect to form a connection with another human being and their story of loss and love … as well as their contagious love for glitter and wine.

After, The End is currently playing at The Motley Bauhaus in Fitzroy North until Sunday 15th September. Tickets can be purchased online at https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/after-the-end/) or by calling the Melbourne Fringe box office on 03 9660 9666.

Review: Strong Girl

Calm and precise authentic storytelling

By Owen James

Director and creator Nadja Kostich has been running weekly workshops with both indigenous and non-indigenous girls from years 10-12 at Worawa Aboriginal College in Healesville for over a year, taking their “stories of strength” and theatrically translating them into performance. For many of these girls, they are the first in their family to attend secondary school, English is not their first language, and some have left their home and community to be part of the college. Kostich has framed their stories with the 12 tests of strength from the classic Herculean myth, allowing their determination and resilience to shine on stage.

There are understandable nerves and hesitance in every young face here likely unfamiliar with the stage. Though they sometimes needing coaxing or reminding of what comes next, these twelve brave girls tell us what challenges them, tempts them, the many differing trials and tribulations they have overcome, and how they will thrive and survive into the future. It is a very personal journey – we the audience are privileged to hear their truths.

There are so many very simple but very clever devices used to theatricalise their storytelling, masterfully integrated by Nadja Kostich and the cast. Use of projection, material and choreographed gesture helps to engage us and physicalise their words. The stories are further enhanced with the set of beautiful sheer black sails by Emily Barrie, and evocative lighting by Rachel Burke and John Ford which fuses traditional par cans with futuristic neon bars hanging overhead. There is a very real depiction of these girls learning to “walk the two worlds” of the “parallel realities of Aboriginal lore and Western culture” (Kostich).

This hour of smooth and peaceful storytelling shines with authenticity, in a harmonious blend of tradition and modernity. Each individual Herculean feat is steeped in ritual, pride, and courage, which makes for a fascinating and important contemplation.

Runs until September 7th at St Martin’s Youth Theatre.
Tickets: https://stmartinsyouth.com.au/project/Strong-Girl

Review: Amazing Grace

Just Franklin and the power of her voice

By Narelle Wood

Some 47 years after filming, the documentary capturing Aretha Franklin’s seminal gospel recording of Amazing Grace has finally made it to screen.

In 1972, over two nights, Franklin, along with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir (directed by Alexander Hamilton), recorded live gospel songs such as Precious Memories, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and, of course, Amazing Grace. Keen on making it an authentic experience, Franklin insisted that the recording take place inside the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in front of a congregation; a congregation including Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and gospel singer Clara Ward.

In an attempt to capture what would become a landmark event – the album going on to be the biggest selling gospel album of all time – Warner Bros commissioned director Sydney Pollack to document the recording. Pollack, an experience director, was not however accustomed to making documentaries, and this is where the trouble with the film begins. The original delay in the film’s release were due to ‘technical difficulties’; Pollack hadn’t used clapboards to mark sections of the film, making the task of syncing the visuals and sound almost impossible. Eventually Alan Elliot would take on the project and work tirelessly to bring it together, even amidst threats of legal action from Franklin herself due to missing contracts and payment disputes.

What Elliot and editor Jeff Buchanan have created is an immersive experience, giving an all to brief glimpse into the immense talent of Aretha Franklin and her voice’s ability to literally move people. Pollack’s lack of experience as a documentary maker is evident; it feels like the cameras have been given to some random onlookers with the only mandate to ‘hit record and capture this’. The footage is sometimes blurry and often jerky as a camera man moves from one location to the next. Some of the close-ups are uncomfortably close, and some of the camera angles are really awkward. But Elliot and Buchanan capitalise on this lack of polish, reminding the audience that this was first and foremost a recording session, and a documentary last.

The film hits all the right notes, quite literally. The pacing is good and there are a few cutaways that provide momentary insights into the work behind the scenes to produce such an event. There are no experts or commentary on Franklin other than that which occurred during at the original taping. It focusses purely on the recording and Franklin’s performance, which does not disappoint. My favourite part was seeing just how excited the choir was to be a part of the two night event.

In a time where stylised and sleek recreations of the lives of musical legends’ have begun to grace our screen, Amazing Grace offers a refreshing contrast with its authentic 70’s hair and clothing, offering no narrative and no explanation. It’s just Franklin and the power of her voice.

Amazing Grace is now playing in cinemas such as the Classic, Lido and Palace. Check websites for listings and prices.