Review: Come From Away

The theatre we need right now

By Kim Edwards

On the Canadian island of Newfoundland, if you’re not local, you’ve come from away. And in the remote little town of Gander, when 6579 strangers from all over the world suddenly arrived frightened, bewildered and angry on their doorsteps, the townspeople and their neighbours immediately took them all into their halls, schools and homes. They provided food, shelter, bedding, clothes, medication, toiletries and personal items, and supplied an even more generous wealth of kindness, support and friendship to their stranded guests – the international passengers of 38 planes diverted from New York on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Come From Away is an utterly astounding, compelling, hilarious and profoundly moving theatre experience. In an era of jukebox musicals and movie-to-stage adaptations, this stunning creation written and composed by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is the epitome of what original music theatre as an art form can achieve. In ninety non-stop minutes, dozens of characters share their stories with us and the storytelling is both adroit and engrossing. Lyrics, dialogue, music and movement blend seamlessly and skilfully in weaving the varied tales and emotions together.

Extraordinary creative and technical achievements including Beowulf Boritt’s iconic timber set, Howell Binkley’s spectacular lighting design and Toni-Leslie James’ subtle and intelligent costume design work in visual harmony to establish landscape, character and atmosphere for the myriad of scenes, roles and locations. It is a triumph that you never lose track of who is playing whom where and when, which is grounded in Christopher Ashley’s direction and Kelly Devine’s musical staging.

Moreover, our yearning to hear and see more, and our burgeoning affection for the characters we discover rests powerfully with the individuals on stage. The cast of twelve (Kellie Rode, Emma Powell, Richard Piper, Sarah Morrison, Simon Maiden, Kolby Kindle, Douglas Hansell, Sharriese Hamilton, Zoe Gertz, Nathan Carter, Nicholas Brown and Angela Kennedy on the night reviewed) and the eight-piece band (Ben Smart, Xani Kolac, James Kempster, Matthew Horsley, Tim Hartwig, Caleb Garfinkel, Dave Beck and musical director Luke Hunter) are exemplary in their multifaceted performances. Actors meld easily from one memorable character to the next, musicians fluidly switch style, emotion or instrument, and we laugh at and cry for people we’ve only just met and songs we’ve just heard for the first time.

Come From Away at its heart is about people coming together in dark times to create something wonderfully good, and its true story and ensemble of storytellers reinforcing this poignant theme not only plays out in recognizing the amazing creatives who have built the production, but resounds in the audience experience as well. We are made at home and part of the story from the beginning. The constant addresses to the audience, uninterrupted performance time, well-crafted character arcs, the sweep and swell of songs and underscore, the fact every cast member is integral, the band are onstage in scene and get personal curtain calls, and our only moment to applaud mid-show is in unison with the performers makes for an experience where everyone matters. Everyone is part of the moment, we have all ‘come from away’, and it is little wonder the audience rose as one for a prolonged standing ovation when our journey together was over.

This was a unique experience. This is a special show. It’s wise and witty, inspirational and exhilarating. So if you’re feeling heartsore with life and the modern world lately, Come From Away has so much comfort, kindness, courage and comedy to share. This is a musical that welcomes you with open arms and sends you away more whole – and more hopeful.

You’ll be so glad you came.

Come From Away is currently playing at The Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 1300 111 011.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

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Review: AutoCannibal

Dark human habits on stage

By Lois Maskiell

The show kicks off with a voice over of a television reporter who announces the latest news. Poisoned livestock, catastrophic natural disasters and a perilous water shortage welcome you to the near dystopic future of AutoCannibal.

Hanging upside-down from one foot is a man. He takes a large handsaw and slashes at the rope which suspends him. He crashes to the floor and you wonder why did he hang himself? Why did he free himself? Struck with the dilemma of extreme thirst, the man attempts to quench his craving. With rigorous activity he works up such a sweat that he can wring dry his soaking sweatband into a glass. His face contorts as he gulps down the liquid.

Teetering with starvation this poor, desperate man is propelled into all manner of absurdities. Desperate for release, he has sex with a bag of rubbish shaped into a female figure. Desperate for food, he eats a fly. In an environment of collapse and scarcity, he can’t shake the possibility of eating his own flesh. Large, rusty saws dangle from the ceiling enticing him to eat.

AutoCannibal throws in your face the question of human will and its desire for self-destruction. Australian performer Mitch Jones, who has carved his name with Circus Oz and as the daredevil Captain Ruin, explores the darker corners of the psyche through enchanting physical theatre. Jones takes his character’s anguish to devastating and often grimly humorous extremes in a fantastically smokey atmosphere of industrial ruin designed by Michael Baxter.

Masha Terentieva, a talented artist in her own right who has toured with Cirque du Soleil and won five awards at Cirque de Demain 2017 (arguably the highest accolades in contemporary circus), turns her creativity to directing. Here, Terentieva showcases a keen directorial eye. AutoCannibal is continuous, each moment logically fits into the larger narrative despite how surreal it may be. Bonnie Knight and Marco Cher-Gibard’s sound design and Paul Lim’s lighting generate heightened effects, creating powerful images and strong sensations.

The over-arching story of a man pushed to his limits is engrossing, and Jones’ ability to find comedy lurking in the darkness of this vision is superb. Original, bold and disturbingly amusing, AutoCannibal is must-see physical theatre.

AutoCannibal runs until 21 July at Theatre Works, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9534 3388.

Photograph: Jacinta Oaten

Review: Solaris

Enigmatic vision of isolation

By Leeor Adar

Of all planetary science-fiction writing, Solaris, remains one of the most cerebral and enigmatic. Published in 1961 by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Solaris has found itself adapted for cinema and the stage a number of times. Solaris emerged at a time when space travel was new and vogue, still unfurling its mysteries to the world. The possibilities of what the universe had to offer, the terror and terrific, captivated the imagination – and clearly still does today.

Award-winning playwright, David Greig, breathes new life into the work, catapulting a female heroine into its centre. Matthew Lutton directs one of his most evocative works yet, with the usual intensity of sound design by Jethro Woodward, which we have come to expect from his productions.

In this adaptation, Solaris, a planet at the far reaches of space, is visited by a small cluster of humans. For over two years no contact has been received from this expedition, and it is upon the arrival of Dr Kris Kelvin (Leeanna Walsman) that some rattling truths about the crew’s time in isolation emerge. Through a series of tapes, the recently deceased leading scientist, Gibarian (Hugo Weaving via video), reveals to Dr Kelvin his discoveries of the lonely planet, which is clearly attempting to make contact with the crew on board.

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Featuring Fode Simbo and Leeanna Walsman. Photograph by Pia Johnson.

Aloneness, the frightening alien other that nestles itself in the mind, is at the heart of the work. Hyemi Shin’s set design extraordinarily creates the sterility of space travel and its disconnection from the familiar. A series of white moving parts typical of space travel juxtapose with scene changes incorporating a visual curtain of black liquid waves from the planet below. The set design mimics the depths of human intention, and for the more poetically inclined, the depths of the soul as it invites connection. It is unclear if the planet is inviting the crew into itself, or vice versa, remaining a point of fascination and uncertainty.

Lutton asserts that the power of representing science fiction on stage is through its ability to explore alternate realities, and Solaris is the kind of work that suits the confinement of the stage perfectly. The shifting spectrum of primary colours injects both beauty and trepidation into this world, expertly designed by Paul Jackson. The final image of Dr Kelvin standing alone, her shadow awash with red lighting is reminiscent of the feminine power of another famous science fiction performance. Alone, Dr Kelvin faces the dangers of her own mind rather than the danger of aliens that Ellen Ripley must entertain.

Leeanna Walsman is in her element here, and an excellent cast supports her. Fode Simbo as Snow, Jade Ogugua as Sartorius, and Keegan Joyce as the “visitor”, Ray, are captivating. Weaving’s presence via video is warm and earnest, adding a layer of depth to this already quality production. There is a crackling humour in the writing and acting, despite the gloom of the world they inhabit, and the audience regularly laughed and connected with the performances on stage.

Solaris makes for a pleasurable theatrical experience in every way. The questions that the characters explore, particularly on our power to inflict the worst of ourselves onto an innocent other, are pertinent. Like Solaris, we all seek connection – but what are we prepared to do to keep it?

 

Solaris runs at Malthouse Theatre until 21 July. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photographs: Pia Johnson

 

Review: Wake In Fright

Beer, babes and brutality in chilling adaptation 

By Leeor Adar

Australia, the land of plenty, the land of expanding planes, and dust. Dust as far as the eye can see. No sea in sight to quench the traveller’s hungry eyes, just the heat rising from the earth.

Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake In Fright, is a jolting horror of the kind of underbelly Australia that a city slicker would gladly forget. The 1971 film directed by Ted Kotcheff finely and fantastically brought this horrendous fever-dream to life, and essentially became a cult film for its notorious representation of hunting the ‘roo.

I am therefore very pleased to see Declan Greene (Melancholia, Pompeii L.A., The Homosexuals, or Faggots) adapt and direct Cook’s work for the Malthouse stage. In this incarnation, Wake in Fright, a usually bloke-soaked nightmare, is spectacularly performed by one woman – Zahra Newman, who boldly embodies the terror and toxicity of masculinity.

The 70-minute performance, much like the sleepiness of the town Bundanyabba (“The Yabba”), begins rather benignly as Newman struts about all-beared-up as Lead Ted, the friendly 1990s bear, teaching the children of Broken Hill about lead poisoning – a first foray into the horror of the night. During Newman’s playful introduction, we are treated to a talk about immigration, racial issues and more of the gamut of the daily-woke blogosphere. I liked how Newman challenged the audience, but I admit I wanted to see the show unfold rather than be subjected to a surface-level string of views without proper unpacking. Wake in Fright is itself a cruel truth about the worst of our nation.

With excellent lighting and projection design from Verity Hampson, and music and composition from friendships, we descend into the gloom with the skilful Newman. I am truly, honestly, terrified.

John Grant, an educated fellow, finds himself waiting for a plane back to Sydney in the remote Yabba. Coaxed into a brutal bender by local cop, Crawford, he soon finds himself in a two-up joint, rendered penniless and with a missed flight back to the world of the living. Stranded, he takes a ride with a local into the outback, and so begins Grant’s final mad descent into the Yabba culture of beer, babes and brutality.

Hampson’s projection design coupled with the intense beats of friendships DJing in the corner of the stage turned the Beckett theatre into a hellish nightclub. As an audience we feel strapped in for a ride we don’t want, sucked into the psyche of Grant as he battles his way through the unknown cruelties of this world. It feels indeed like a rung of hell, with no end in sight.

This is a thoroughly ingenious modern take on Wake in Fright. Greene’s work is compelling and effective. The Malthouse has shown again that some of its finest work is one woman on stage taking a male-dominated story and making it her own. Newman joins the ranks of Pamela Rabe in The Testament of Mary, and Alison Whyte in The Bloody Chamber. You really can’t get better than that, mate.

Wake In Fright runs until 14 July 2019 at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photograph: Pia Johnson

Review: Wunderage

Boundary-pushing, immersive acrobatics

By Narelle Wood

Wunderage, directed by Rob Tannion and Chelsea McGuffin is a collaboration between Circus Oz and Company 2, bringing together elements of acrobatics, music, audience movement and wonder in an exploration of pushing boundaries and strength.

Described by Company 2 director Chelsea McGuffin as “the tightrope between who we are and who we might become”, Wunderage plays with space both vertically and horizontally as circus performers showcase their strength, flexibility, courage and control. While I’m not overly sure whether I understood the ways in which the performance explored the space between who we are and who we might be, I did find myself marvelling at the sheer physicality of the performers. Phoebe Armstrong, Jess McCrindle, Chelsea McGuffin, Dylan Singh, David Trappes, Lachy Shelley and Skip Walker-Milne found themselves precariously balanced on bicycles, platforms and each other. And just in case walking across a tightrope didn’t seem difficult enough, there were headstands, point-shoes and high heels involved as well.

Harriet Oxley’s costumes were amazing and were very reminiscent of what I imagine 1920’s circus costumes to be like in both design and colour, as well as a touch of sparkle where appropriate. The musical accompaniment, provided by Grant Arthur and Bonnie Stewart, was able to strike the perfect yet difficult balance between providing enough atmosphere but not too much as to overpower the circus performance. There were so many different elements to love and as the show went on the tension only built as they performed more and more complex tricks, many of which don’t sound like they should be possible; balancing in a headstand while being pulled across a tightrope for instance.

As the acrobats moved between a variety of tightropes, Chinese Poles, platforms and mini-stages the audience were encouraged to move with them. And this was perhaps the only thing I was, not disappointed in, but perplexed by. Rob Tannion (Circus Oz Artistic Director) had said that part of what they wished to accomplish was the removal of barriers between the performers and the audience, and this is a really interesting premise. But in removing the seating, other physical barriers were created. It was often really difficult to see what was going on, especially when the performers were doing acrobatics on the ground, and this is from me who is reasonably tall and was wearing heels.

Theoretically, the tightrope and platform work should be visible from most vantage points, but there were a number of people up the back scrambling to see, often taken to equipment or standing on chairs to get better vision. I couldn’t help but wonder if you were a child, shorter in stature or someone with a disability how much you would actually be able to see and enjoy. There was a lot of jostling as equipment and people were moved about, and I found this more of a distraction than an opportunity to immerse myself in the show.

For anyone curious about acrobatics, pushing physical boundaries and immersive theatre, Wunderage is a fascinating, if not a little nerve-wracking, exploration of all three.

 

Wunderage runs until 30 June at Meat Market, North Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on: 1800 710 499.

Photograph: Aaron Walker

 

Review: Two on the Night Train

Inquisitive, curious and exquisitely designed 

By Irene Bell

Two strangers find themselves on a train, politely asking each other where the train is heading and which stop was last. Neither can remember anything but they are certain they know something and that they make sense, though they cannot explain why. And so, a loop ensues with the characters constantly waking at different times and in different parts of the train. The various timelines interweave and dare the audience to try and unravel the puzzle that playwright and director Martin Quinn has woven.

The voice of the writing and overarching mood of abandoned expanse puts the audience in Beckett territory immediately, so it is no surprise that the celebrated absurdist is cited as an inspiration for the production. From the outset, we know the ending will not be a plot-satisfying, linear conclusion – but that does not mean the ride is any less enjoyable.

This is a play that invites you to contemplate. Quinn’s grasp on language is so masterful it becomes a joy to listen to his wordplay. Quinn toys with the use of seemingly concrete language to define concepts as fluid as memory and meaning.

There are moments where the philosophical underpinnings of the show feel a little heavy-handed, like when the characters describe what the play had previously only alluded to. However, these instances are brief and never detract from the overall artistry of the writing. Frazer Lee and Katherine Pearson read the text beautifully, with their emotional transitions and timeliness being flawless.

The true heroes of this production are the lighting, set and sound designers. Adelaide Harney, Alaina Bodley and Edwin Cheah’s designs are inspiring to see in a black box theatre. The atmosphere of simultaneous claustrophobia and eternity that the set design and lighting manage to create is superb. The sound is another character in this production: it is the train and the expanse, it is what haunts the characters.

Glassbreaker Productions are a new and exciting company established in 2018. Two on the Night Train features in their work as a fresh and wonderful glimpse into the sorts of philosophical and spectacularly literary shows we can expect in the future.

Two on the Night Train runs at Gasworks Arts Park until 22 June. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on (03) 8606 4200.

Photograph: supplied

Review: Almost, Maine

Nine couples, almost in love 

By Samuel Barson

Almost, Maine is a town that is as remote as it is mythical, where love is lost as quickly as it is gained. For their debut production, Between The Buildings Theatre Company has chosen John Cariani’s romantic comedy Almost, Maine. The play tells the story of nine couples navigating various situations of love and loss in the fictional town of Almost, which takes its name from the couples’ love that is almost found but never entirely fruitful.

For a debut, the cast and crew of this production have done a respectable job in bringing to life the characters of the eponymous town, but unfortunately it was too plagued with performance issues and weak approaches to the script for it to be anything outstanding.

Despite some setbacks, the cast work together well with Ruby Duncan’s performance being the standout of the evening. I believe some of the performances were let down by a lack of understanding of the script or the characters’ motives. Dialogue became predictable and the energy was, at times, monotonous. However, Duncan’s portrayal of a woman desperate to return her boyfriend’s love was moving and wholly engaging.

A significant issue that repeatedly arose during the play was characters forcing themselves on strangers or distant lovers, despite the clear discomfort of the other character. The idea of forcing yourself on someone in the hopes they will be instantly won over is an outdated depiction of seduction, and I would have liked to see these moments treated more carefully.

The saving grace of the show was the design. Justin Gardam and John Collopy skillfully balance the tightrope of realism and fantasy in the worlds they created, with a gorgeous combination of colours and sounds.

Between The Buildings is to be congratulated on taking their first leap into the independent theatre scene. Their future productions will undoubtedly reach spectacular heights.

 

Almost, Maine runs at Meat Market’s Stables, North Melbourne until 16 June. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photograph: Jack Dixon-Gunn