Category: Theatre

Review: Grey Rock

A celebration of humanity

By Owen James


New York-based company ‘Remote Theatre Project’ have assembled five actors from across the Palestinian territories for the first time, to create Grey Rock – a compelling exploration of conflict, born from culture versus determination.

Grieving Yusuf finds comfort and distraction by absorbing himself in an unusual passion project – constructing a secret rocket intended for the moon, in his shed. Aided by eager young assistant Fadel, striving to achieve his dream leads to turmoil within his family and religious community, and attracts attention from worldwide media. It’s an engrossing and often suspenseful story that adeptly displays humanity’s worldwide ability to overcome doubt and derision, even when nobody else believes in you.

Though all five Palestinian performers sometimes struggle to overcome the sizeable barrier attached to attempting a language that is not their native tongue, these moments of hesitation reflect the very themes of conquering adversity Grey Rock tackles. Ivan Azazian delivers an energetic, very enjoyable performance as apprentice Fadel, bringing sizzling fervour to the blueprint-laden shed. Fidaa Zaidan as daughter Lila is another standout, with two fiery, emotion-packed monologues that give her deserved moments to shine.

Writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi has given the work a punchy pace and cleverly allowed characters’ true motivations to unfold slowly, maintaining our interest in Fadel’s escalating mission throughout. Though at many junctures this is a tense drama, Zuabi’s likable characters and frequent beats of comedic relief make the show a joy to watch. Design by Tai Yarden is simple but very effective, with a wall of opaque thin plastic sheets creating shadows and silhouettes often larger than the characters beside them.

Grey Rock embodies every value the Melbourne International Arts Festival exists to explore – “to connect Melbourne with the rest of the world, to connect a complex past with the emerging future, and to connect the passion of artists with the prose of society” – and should be commended for the cultural fusion it celebrates through language and the international curiosity of the human spirit.


Photography by Carlos Cardona


Review: The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes

Gloriously unsettling re-education

By Owen James


Geelong’s ‘Back to Back Theatre’ have created confronting and inspiring theatre with ‘The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes’. Performed by five neuro-diverse artists, this journey through contemporary issues opens our eyes and our hearts in its hope to re-educate the public and defeat debilitating stigma.

‘Shadow’ is a triumph of collaboration, confirmed in the programme notes by writer John Bailey – which speak to the two and a half years of discussion that have fuelled this work and are ingrained in its every seam. So truthful and direct are the statements and questions posed throughout that they are sometimes shocking to process. Director Bruce Gladwin has weaved together conversive threads tackling First Nations recognition, the appropriateness of the term ‘disability’, ableism and attached intrinsic shame, disgraced public figures (such as Kevin Spacey) and whether their art can still morally be enjoyed, and the divisive future of AI. The heated and well-paced debates rationalise common thinking but also open our eyes to new, dangerous perspectives. These are the conversations we should be having, presented by a group with minds different to our own who recognise the juncture contemporary society is at.

Performers Michael Chan, Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price use their diversity to teach patience and acceptance. Their resilience stirs dreams of true, blind inclusivity, quickly unifying everyone in the room and imploring us to engage with their heartfelt message. Through humour and provocative, edgy assertions, a warm determination grows, and then hangs over the audience as we leave the theatre. This feeling hasn’t really left me since seeing the piece, proving Back to Back Theatre’s ability to yield a very successfully robust, enduring message through their art. It’s a demonstration of how theatre can challenge and teach when in the right hands.

I’ll certainly be along to see more of Back to Back’s permeating work in the future, and I recommend you don’t miss this hopeful, bold depiction of our confusingly contrary reality.

Runs until 20th October as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival at the Fairfax Studio:

Photography by Zan Wimberley


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.

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.

Photography courtesy of Chapel Off Chapel

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.


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.


Photography by Alexis Desaulniers-Lea


Review: Batmania

Sold out for a reason

By Owen James

One world, two shows. The Very Good Looking Initiative have created the dark, satirical world of Batmania, and given audiences two immersive experiences to choose from to discover this whacky, inane place. Expo ’19 takes place in one static place at Theatre Works in St Kilda, and the Bus Tour departs from around the corner and brings you back to Theatre Works 90 minutes later, just in time for the final goodbye at Expo ‘19. Both versions of Batmania have now completely sold out.

I went along on the Bus Tour, which was undoubtedly one of the most unique theatrical experiences I’ve had in a while, but especially at this year’s Fringe (so far). As the bus visits different places in St Kilda (sorry, “Batmania”), our overly cordial, happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care tour guides (Guide Raymond and Guide Vidya) are cheery almost to the point of painful – until events take a turn for the worst. This ingenious shift in tone comes as a surprise, creating a highly engaging, alluring atmosphere. It’s a delightfully enjoyable ride, and presents many moments of black comedy at its finest. But be warned: audience members not prepared for high levels of interaction will find this the stuff of nightmares.

Both Raymond Martini and Vidya Rajan deliver delightfully energetic, hilarious, and sometimes terrifying performances. Their descent from unpredictable ecstatic mania to rabid, cacophonic-but-catatonic beasts is carried out extremely well, and secured a vast range of responses from assorted passengers (sometimes just as fun to observe as the guides). Thankfully, despite the pandemonium and public territory, we always feel safe in the hands of these skilled performers.

Our blokey, arrogant bus driver (Elliott Gee) plays an important part in the madness too, always happy to perturb and provoke Raymond and Vidya as recent arrivals to his lifetime hometown Batmania. His quirky quips and rough demeanour provide many of the biggest laughs on the bus.

As we first boarded the bus, clearly no-one was quite sure what to expect. And as we alighted at the end of the trip, the feeling hadn’t really shifted. Though Batmania’s premise has a lot of promise, the experience overall seems not fully realised or cohesive. A lot of tension is built – very successfully, which then dissipates and has no real conclusion or payoff. While this may be intended to mirror contemporary Australia, as a theatrical experience, it is underwhelming. There is a lot of fun to be had on the journey though, and I would love to see the concept executed in a future iteration on a grand scale – it could run for a very long time.

I applaud The Very Good Looking Initiative for launching such a high-concept, out-of-the-box, very special production. Batmania embraces the awkward and rejects expectation, poking fun at Australiana and our culture with a very large stick, and dashes of parodic political humour. If a return season is mounted, grab your ticket fast.

Tickets (there are none):