Category: Theatre

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): https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/batmania-the-bus-tour/

 

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Review: Share House

A den of secrecy and compromised blame

By Owen James

Emerging company ‘Here and Now Collective’ have staged original drama Share House as part of the Howard Fine Studio’s current ‘Fine At Fringe’ season. This stimulating piece dissects the “intertwining of loyalty and manipulation” through slowly unfolding the tenuous, damaged relationships between four housemates following a grave incident one drunken night.

Writer/director Adeodatus McCormack has placed his four characters in a pressure-cooker setting (the share house), ensuring constant fissure which escalates in every scene. He has also very effectively staged the story in a nonlinear progression, which allows the audience to slowly piece together every separate piece of the puzzle, clue by clue. While there are moments of stilted and simplistic dialogue, the pace and tone are highly naturalistic for the most part, giving the cast ample opportunity for excavating varying levels of deep emotional engagement with their characters.

This well-matched cast of four explore the progression and consequences of grief, ambition and jealousy, with each individual encountering debilitating emotional stability throughout the course of the story. There are undoubtedly deeper and perhaps more realistic emotive heights and depths to be mined, but we are presented with four clearly developed and distinct characters who engage with this rollercoaster admirably and sensitively. As tensions rise and friendships teeter on the brink of collapse, mundane everyday routine gradually degrades into hollow repetition – and the true motivation of sinister characters comes to light.

Jorja Bentley and Maya Cohen both give compelling performances as eventually rivalrous housemates Sam and Shannon, respectively. They successfully highlight the bitter acrimony swelling between them, and demonstrate the growing pertinence of hobbies (photography) and reliance on vices (alcohol) introduced from the top of the show, which we come to learn play a larger part in unravelling the mystery at the story’s core. Cohen reliably establishes Shannon’s traumatic journey and coerced suspicion.

Amalia Krueger plays anarchistic housemate Taylor, who is coldly calculating but also fraught with fragility. She is at her best when tempers finally explode and can expound on Taylor’s venomous intentions. Claudia Piggott as the narrative springboard Jaime makes the most of her minimal stage time with a considered, naïve character.

Delve into a den of secrecy and compromised blame in Share House, playing until September 21st at The MC Showroom, Prahran.

Tickets: https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/share-house/

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/

 

 

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: 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