Review: High Tea Live – Steaming Jazz with Stevenson’s Rockets 

Toe-tapping jazz that’s good for the soul

By Narelle Wood

There is perhaps no better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon in Melbourne than sitting in The Pavilion at the Arts Centre, overlooking the city, eating scrumptious food and listening to “Steaming Jazz” with Stevenson’s Rockets.

The Stevenson’s Rockets are as smooth as they come, entertaining with numbers such as Scott Joplin’s Solace and the more laid back Riverside Blues, mixing it up with jazz styles from songs with upbeat Latin-American rhythms, to the Dixieland stylings of Ice cream. The quartet, consisting of Jo Stevenson (reeds), Steve Grant (piano), Chris Ludowyk (bass, trombone) and Ian Smith (drums, trumpet and vocals), effortlessly moved between styles, instruments, and solos, each song just as entertaining as the last.

This is perhaps to be expected given that Stevenson’s Rockets have been around for some time. But what added to this already stellar performance was that the Stevenson, Grant, Ludowyk and Smith also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, the music, and each other’s company, as well as the performance itself.

And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we were treated to a rocketing-rendition of Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz, compete with Smith on the washboard. It was certainly a crowd pleaser that left me wondering where exactly one might find a washboard.

If the toe-tapping Jazz performances are not quite enough to tempt you into purchasing as ticket, then the addition of high tea should certainly seal the deal. There are bubbles on arrival, with non-alcoholic options also available, and continuous tea and coffee refills. There are both sweet and savoury options, of sandwiches, pastries and cakes. And of course, any high tea wouldn’t be complete without scones, jam and cream.

So if you’re looking to spend a couple of hours soothing the soul, decadently eating and listening to, not just good, but great music, I highly recommend high tea on a Sunday afternoon at The Arts Centre.

Venue: The Pavilion, The Arts Centre, Melbourne

Tickets: from $79

To book tickets for the November or December High Tea Live go to www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

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Review: Anthem

A stunning, contemporary triumph

By Owen James

“These are urgent times,” speaks one character in the opening scene. Four words that foreshadow the next two hours, and that have stuck with me since. Anthem presents a snapshot of contemporary Australia, inspired by a piece from 21 years ago called ‘Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class?’ that was written by these same five highly influential writers, and at that time presented a snapshot of Australia in 1998. Anthem is possibly the most important piece of theatre presented in Melbourne this year, and we are so very lucky to have a collaboration of this scale to represent our turbulent country.

Five stories converge, variations on a theme by Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irene Vela – all inspiring, intuitive writers whose collective voice is dynamic and conquers definition (and whose individual works of brilliance live permanently on my bookshelf). Their intertwining pieces cover racism, classism, privilege, and economic instability, and together crescendo into a call to arms against the prejudice and discrimination inherent in our stilted political system. It’s beautifully shocking and overwhelmingly resonating.

Masterful direction from Susie Dee creates a cohesive theatrical experience that is measured and expertly crafted. Her handling of this mammoth undertaking ensures the hefty thematic content is accessible throughout, creating an undoubtedly gargantuan yet also deeply personal experience for the audience. Her cast of fourteen are a perfectly balanced company, filled with the same flavours of diversity we see when we leave the theatre on the streets of Melbourne. Their varied backgrounds aid in demonstrating touching, accurate depictions of unnerving but realistic characters. Every actor’s separate performance is honest and mesmerising, but they seamlessly blend together as one perfect ensemble.

Composer Irine Vela underlines every scene with an extraordinary score that, while performed only on violin and double bass, fills the Playhouse with the sound of a full orchestra. The skilfully timed compositions focus our attention on the text with a driving pulse that continuously escalates.

I couldn’t have higher praise for Anthem. It’s a thrilling concoction by visionary professionals at the top of their game, where two hours passes like two minutes. Moving and ambitious, this flawless reflection of our “urgent times” had a terrifyingly short season of only seven performances as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. Anthem should be compulsory viewing for every Australian concerned with taking a stand against justice and inequality – and even more compulsory for those who aren’t. Anthem will stay with me for a very long time.

https://www.festival.melbourne/2019/events/anthem/

Photograph by Pia Johnson

Review: Spring Awakening

A re-envisioned rendition

By Owen James

Spring Awakening is a powerful, transporting show. Steven Sater’s book is incomparable, packed with thoughtful, confronting scenes that are affecting no matter the interpretation. Adapted into a musical from the once-banned 1891 Germanic playtext written by Franz Wedekind, the material highlights the importance of sexual education through the lives of repressed, struggling teenagers in a stringent and stilted time that unfortunately is not too distant from today. After its initial, very popular 2006 Broadway production, it also had a revival by Deaf West Theatre transfer to Broadway in 2015, that saw the show reinvented with the added thematic catalyst of deaf education – demonstrating how ripe and malleable Spring Awakening is for reinvention. North By South Theatre are presenting the first “gender fluid” production of this cult classic, encouraging us to examine the characters for their motives and emotions with actors who are “not playing a gender”, but “playing a person”.

The gender of the characters has not been altered, nor have the characters been stripped of gender entirely. The costuming is (confusingly) distinctly gendered, and many moments of the text inherently rely on gender archetypes. It’s a unique concept that certainly feels pertinent to the show, but one that for me did not elevate the material to any new heights, nor uncover a fresh interpretation on the text. Director Cal Robinson-Taylor has staged this rendition very well in the cosy ‘Loft’ (fitting name) at Chapel Off Chapel, where movement/choreography never feels squashed or crowded, despite the thirteen-strong cast.

Musical Director Alex Langdon has ensured the musical performances from both cast and band are top-notch at every turn. Harmonies are rich and complete, and ensemble numbers pack considerable punch. Sound Design from Ryan Mangold is professional and refined; the band are mixed with precision to craft a perfect blend between instruments. I’ve seen the show many times, but this is the clearest rendition of the beautiful string arrangements I’ve heard. Unfortunately, the performers are without amplification, so many lyrics and parts of dialogue spoken over music are simply lost.

Joseph Spanti and Majella Davis as Melchior and Wendla are a well-matched duo, bravely delving into their characters’ intimate connection with interchanging nuance and fire. Spanti finds moving emotional heights in “Totally Fucked” and the penultimate graveyard scene, and Davis’ “Whispering” is packed with sweet innocence and soft vocals.

Francesca O’Donnell executes the demands of stress-ridden teen Moritz adeptly, tackling songs intended for a male voice with vigour that thankfully suit her very well. Juan Gomez performs a very compelling portrayal of Ilse, with the character’s appearance in early act two arguably the highlight of the show. There are many textured, detailed moments from members of the ensemble, and “Touch Me” gives ample chills (particularly the belted solo from Yash Fernando).

Whilst there are plentiful caveats in blurring the gender lines, I applaud North-By-South theatre for attempting to view Spring Awakening through a unique lens, and addressing issues deservedly part of the current public headspace. I hope they continue to tackle future productions with as determined and bold an approach.

https://chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/spring-awakening/

Photography courtesy of Chapel Off Chapel

Review: Rouge

Oh Boy, Oh Girl, Oh Non-binary! Circus for grown ups

By Leeor Adar

Rouge is so white hot, my friend and I were squealing with delight, amazement and desire. It is just – that – good. It is also downright naughty, and if a little bit of kink is your thing, this show will deliver all the kicks and kink of your dreams.

The group, Issie Hart, Paul Westbrook, Lyndon Johnson, Jessie Mckibbin, Maddy Burleigh and Liam deJong, have toured Rouge internationally and thankfully brought their extraordinary arsenal of talent and skill to the circus ring of Melbourne’s Wonderland Spiegeltent.

Rouge isn’t your ordinary adult circus show. The breathtaking operatic vocals of Hart propel the work into unique territory. The mix of opera and circus art conjures up an old-world aesthetic whilst breaking modern boundaries. The audience is both delighted and surprised at the contents of the show, affirming that circus of this calibre will always draw the crowds.

Every artist in this show is a master of their craft, and each of them bring their own flair and character to the work. Westbrook’s camp black swan vibe is a riot, and the audience clearly loves the playful character he brings to the stage. Westbrook and Johnson perform an S&M-inspired tangle of love on the ropes with such ardour that you can’t look away. In terms of incredible pairings, Burleigh’s fluidity and control as she performs stunning tableaus with deJong is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Another stand out is Mckibbin’s fire-twirling, which is truly smoking hot. There is another routine featuring Mckibbin and three of the male performers that is whip-crackingly decadent, so that is a surprise I will leave for the audiences …

Prepare yourselves to be delighted by dancing lampshades, thumping beats, and every deviant indulgence you could endure, all served tongue-in-cheek. The inclusivity of the night meant that anyone and everyone could enjoy the sexiness of the show and unashamedly laugh, smile and swoon with abandon. It doesn’t hurt they serve up some delicious cocktails to boot – it really is good to be a grown up sometimes!

Tickets available: https://www.wonderlandspiegeltent.com.au/ticketing?/event/rouge/a4e28589-bc44-404e-9330-95a5fda4f522/

Photography by Jodie Hutchinson

 

 

 

 

Review: Two Twenty-Somethings Decide Never To Be Stressed About Anything Ever Again. Ever.

Refreshing comedy exploring the unattainable

By Owen James

I really, really enjoyed this piece; the writing (Michael Costi) is tight and punchy, the performances are sublime, and the title perfectly encapsulates the whole show. It’s topical, relevant, engaging theatre that entertains very successfully, and has heart we find within the characters’ abolished stress.

Costi has created two likeable, relatable characters who thrive on conflict – driving the narrative forward and keeping us consistently connected. Their decision to evade internal impulse and live “stress-free” unleashes brilliant, explosive tirades that are hilarious and exposing. Fears of salmonella plagues, Uber driver deportation, and lavender fascism are inspired and highly amusing.

Direction from Eve Beck is smart and refined, making creative use of the minimalist but evocative cling-filmed design by Ellen Stanistreet. There is a real sense of evolving, heightening stakes impinging on these lost lives, maintaining our interest throughout. Effective sound design from Alexander Lee-Rekers builds upon this and is extremely well utilised, uniting the cohesive vision for the show.

Jasmin Simmons and Tom Mesker are both extremely well-suited to the material and their characters, crafting realistic, professional performances that leave never a bored moment. As their deflated meditations on life as directionless, disappointed twenty-somethings (“where’s our homemade jam? Where are our friends?”) inspire a life-consuming obsessive pursuit of tranquillity, we see the duplicity of desire and decision fuel combusting, frenetic mania, and both Simmons and Mesker expertly play every extreme to its height; two stars in the making. Ryan Hodson’s perhaps underwritten character feels occasionally out of place, but he delivers a charming and rousing finale that earns his worth.

This show deserves a second life, where I would absolutely take my twenty-something friends to laugh at our imaginatively amplified reflection onstage. Congratulations to Bite Productions for a thoroughly enjoyable venture.

Tickets: http://www.theatreworks.org.au/program/two-twenty-somethings/

Photo courtesy of La Mama

 

Review: Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland!

Great title, great fun

By Owen James

Are we en route to a world where “hail Satan” becomes a normalised, cordial greeting? Kirby Medway’s ‘Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland!’ undoubtedly wins best title at Fringe this year, and seems to suggest that this future isn’t too far out of reach.

Medway gives us satire at its most contemplative and reflective height in this terrifyingly recognisable world of fake smiles and fake news, set atop and against fake grass. We meet four regular young Australians who casually worship Satan, but whose day-to-day struggles are largely not different to our own. It’s difficult enough to find a comfortable living arrangement, or an easy ‘out’ of an awkward conversation, or remember that specific episode of Gilmore Girls – but even more difficult when you’re a Satanist. The delight Medway finds in distorting communication within this skewed reality provides many moments of entertaining comedy, but also asks many insightful, thought-provoking questions. Each audience member will respond to these questions in their own way, and so interpret this sardonic, and sometimes perplexing world, differently.

Clever direction from Jean Tong and Lou Wall brings out both the warm, relatable humour and the bleak melancholy inherent in Medway’s script with affection and punchy zest. They have created a charming and unique space where left-of-centre stagecraft is quickly established as convention, and then takes on a comedic life of its own – giving the audience a sense that as we understand the rules that define this world, our connection with the text and performers is increasingly embellished. As friendships break down and barriers are built up, comprehending the converging spaces and blurring conversations relies on our learned understanding of the environment depicted – expertly seeped into our consciousness thanks to Tong and Wall’s lucid and deliberate construction.

The cast of five bring their skilled comedic timing to every eccentric beat of this absurd AstroTurf-ed venture, deftly displaying fallacies of friendship and anxious but amusing social discomfort. Societal crisis and organ extortion are all played with a smirk, winking at the perturbing undercurrent of truth-in-flux to their characters. Special mentions to Liam Maguire for his many short, cynical, guitar-plucked taunting tunes delivered with an unnerving and candid grin, and Lou Wall as coercing, stubborn housemate Satan, who induced many giggles from the crowd.

Sell your soul before it’s stolen with your pineal gland, with a ticket to this absurd masterpiece. I look forward to the next offering from Medway and team.

Tickets: https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/oh-no-satan-stole-my-pineal-gland/

Photography by Alexis Desaulniers-Lea

 

Review: Tetris

The solitary pursuit of shapes to human forms

By Rebecca Waese

I never would have thought there would be so much humanity in a dance show based around Tetris. Until today. Years ago, I used to play Tetris when I wanted to step back from the chaos of the world and find comfort in falling shapes and finding solutions in patterns. Arch 8’s production of Tetris, choreographed by Erik Kaiel of the Netherlands, at the Melbourne Arts Centre, brings the solitary pursuit of shapes to human forms in a dance piece designed for young people but inspiring for all ages. It celebrates human connection and the balance between playing together and taking time out to be quiet and calm.

With a gentle start, set to piano music, the four performers create geometric shapes with their bodies, cuddling and balancing and filling in the spaces and voids between them. The movements are comforting and creative, nesting and curling and stacking on laps and backs. Watching the performers’ connection with each other and with the audience, I remember how it used to feel rolling down a great big grassy hill with your best friend or brother. The foursome made a triple-decker wheelbarrow centipede with their bodies and took it for a walk. They showed how sometimes you withdraw and sometimes you are left out. They showed how sometimes you are perfectly in balance and sometimes you collapse and need to be inventive to be included.

Moving from Tetris to Rubik’s cubes, the pace picked up and the performers discovered that they could control one another’s movements by spinning the cubes. To the audience’s delight, the performers gave children in the audience a turn to shake and twist the cubes as the performers responded to their every whim. Soon, the performers were all over the theatre, leaping on the seats, engaging with audience members, sitting on laps and even lifting and spinning children who were game.

This began the most amazing interaction where the audience members became co-creators in the show. Kids and adults alike were invited to mirror and shadow one another, give horsey rides, build bridges and climb through spaces onstage. At one point I’m sure there were more people onstage than in the seats. When it was over, we all took a bow and clapped for the performers and each other. It wasn’t forced or stagey; it was an amazing moment of human connection. Far more satisfying than playing Tetris on your own, this performance lifted the game to an experience of joy and humanity. I agree with my eleven-year-old son who rated it an 11/10. Give Tetris a go.

Tetris is playing at the Arts Centre until September 28th. Tickets at http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/kids-and-families/tetris

Rebecca Waese is an Honorary Associate at La Trobe University in the Department of Creative Arts and English.

Photography by Didier Philispart