Review: Songs For Nobodies

One woman becomes ten

By Owen James

Bernadette Robinson is a star, and Songs For Nobodies is the perfect vehicle for her endless talent to be showcased in. Originally commissioned and directed by Simon Phillips ten years ago, this one-woman masterpiece allows Robinson to become Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas in succession, alongside five women who meet these stars in unlikely and often amusingly implausible situations.

She has the audience in the palm of her hand from the very beginning, and we are enthralled with every breath and spellbinding note. Robinson effortlessly switches between her impressive array of accents, dialects and musical styles as she crosses continents and classes, each new voice painting a portrait of a lost artist we feel could be genuinely standing before us. (And it’s the closest we’ll get!) Robinson performs from the heart, her loving recreations mesmerising and enchanting for their truthful purity. We are left astonished with delicate transitions between soprano torch songs, country classics, and smoky blues standards.

The whole experience is very calming and peaceful, a combination of the warm wave of nostalgia intrinsic to the material, and the feeling that we are always safe in Robinson’s expert hands. Sound and lighting designers have embraced this tranquillity, and enhanced every moment with simple but very effective use of soundscapes and flawless lighting states.

The text is written by acclaimed playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, and is imbued with research and passion at every turn. Clear and polished pictures are painted of both the famous artists and the ordinary women recounting their encounters in every monologue, and every carefully selected song is masterfully integrated with the text, creating a tonally consistent flow throughout the entire ninety minute runtime. The show is undoubtedly curated for an audience acquainted with the references, but will still be enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with these famous artists, thanks to Murray-Smith’s witty and timeless writing.

It is difficult to imagine an artist more suited to their art than Bernadette Robinson in Songs For Nobodies. She is deserving of every piece of praise and acclaim that has come her way throughout the ten-year international performance history of this show – which includes a noteworthy nomination for an Olivier Award during its West End run. Living in the intimate Fairfax Studio at Arts Centre Melbourne until January 5th, this outing makes for the perfect pre-Christmas treat or post-Christmas wind-down. Not to be missed.

https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/musicals/songs-for-nobodies

Photography courtesy of The Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Review: Chicago

Full of razzle dazzle

By Rebecca Waese

The sizzling Jazz-age musical, Chicago, opened at the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne last night, satirizing the idea of the celebrity criminal, the corrupt justice system and the media that glamourizes American criminals, and especially, gorgeous female murderesses. Based on a 1926-play written by crime reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins on historical female murderesses who used their feminine wiles to get away with murder, this revival of the 1975 American musical is eerily resonant today in the age of ‘fake news’ where phoney celebrities dominate the headlines and Insta feeds. It was sultry, and full of ‘razzle dazzle’ with some fine moments of comedic timing and satire, and extraordinary talent.

Alinta Chidzey as Velma Kelly brought her outstanding talents in dance and voice to the stage, with vertical leg extensions and a vocal range and power that took my breath away. Having toured alongside Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz and winning an impressive collection of awards for Musical Theatre, Chidzey is one to watch. The casting of Casey Donovan as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton was bang-on. The former Australian Idol winner was a powerhouse to behold, owning the space with intensity and adding a sexy physical confidence to the role which was fabulous to see. Natalie Bassingthwaighte brought engaging comedic timing and physicality to the role of Roxie Hart, particularly in the press conference scene where the lawyer, Billy Flynn, played by Jason Donovan, uses her as his ventriloquized dummy to construct a new narrative and re-frame her as innocent. Donovan was slick, charming and humane in his dramatic portrayal of the celebrity lawyer and connected well to the Melbourne audience who welcomed him warmly. The vocals of Jason Donovan and Bassingthwaighte, however, were just not on the same level as Chidzey and Casey Donovan, whose voices filled the vast theatre and were in a league of their own.

Highlights of the show included the onstage orchestra (directed by Daniel Edmonds) who stole a few celebrity moments after interval with some upstanding jazz solos that got the crowd roaring. Understated cuckold Amos Hart, played by Rodney Dobson, had the best jazz hands in the show in his compelling, ‘Mr. Cellophane’ and the ensemble was extraordinarily strong with salivating sexy moves from Fred Casely, played by Andrew Cook and Fosse-inspired choreography by Ann Reinking and Gary Chryst that popped and pulsed with impressive synchronicity.

Opening on the historic night of Donald Trump’s impeachment, this Chicago production voices a timely and ironic message on the decline of justice and truth in America. Velma comments, “You know, a lot of people have lost faith in America and what America stands for’ and Billy Flynn’s response is to ‘Razzle Dazzle them… How can they see with sequins in their eyes?” A self-aware musical production such as this exposes our collective desire for both glamour and truth. With home-grown stars and a formidable ensemble, you will be entertained on a number of levels by this Australian production of Chicago.

Until 23rd February, tickets at http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/musicals/chicago

Photography by Jeff Busby

 

Review: Anna

A bizarre, yet perfectly plausible set of interlocking events

By Rachel Holkner

Fear, frustration and overwhelming sense of foreboding, the lack of control one feels in the face of endless, incomprehensible, nonsensical bureaucracy. These emotions are deftly conveyed and uncomfortably experienced throughout this one act play. Anna is a very timely piece, although firmly set during its own time and space of Bulgaria during the Cold War.

Both written and performed by Bagryana Popov, deftly using her childhood experiences and years of research into the totalitarian regime to develop a bizarre, yet perfectly plausible set of interlocking events.

The appearance of a large sum of money is the instigating event of the play, and the contradictory stories around its origin and the attempts to dispose of it rapidly open out to display a complex web – artfully appearing on stage by the end – of interested parties with conflicting motives. Anna herself moves frequently in and out of our sympathies as she naively attempts to deal with the bureaucracy but then displays contrary behaviours at home.

Anna tells fairy stories, and perhaps the whole play is a fabrication of her mind as she slowly unravels over the course of months while events both within and out of her control turn against her. But what if the events she discusses are imagined? Is Anna paranoid or am I?

The performance of Popov is hugely affecting. She carries the entire show with aplomb, moving nimbly between portrayals of very different characters. She sings, she utilises props, she takes us with her into the chill mood behind the Iron Curtain at this time. The use of space, lighting and the raw set design suit the performance and the tightly written, almost sparse script, perfectly.

The very slight, surreal nature of the production as a whole is particularly effective against the backdrop of world politics today. One leaves with an inkling of discomfort and almost dread that lingers uncomfortably, yet I can’t help scratching at it.

At La Mama Courthouse until 22 December

https://lamama.com.au/whats-on/winter-spring-2019/anna/

Photography by Ponch Hawkes

 

 

Review: The Barber Of Seville

Just as enjoyable two centuries on

By Owen James

For two performances only this December, Victorian Opera have brought one of the most famous operas to life at the Melbourne Recital Centre – The Barber Of Seville. Now over 200 years old, Rossini’s comedy begins when affluent Count Almaviva disguises himself as poor student Lindoro to charm Rosina, ward of villainous Doctor Bartolo. The Barber Of Seville himself, Figaro, helps Almaviva to woo and rescue Rosina in exchange for fiscal reward.

Direction from Elizabeth Hill-Cooper ensures the limited stage space (what remains in front of the orchestra) is used effectively, with action constant but never cluttered. This is billed as a “semi-staged concert”, so movement remains simple for the most part, allowing us to become fully immersed in Rossini’s timeless music. English surtitles are projected above the stage, in time with the often rapid-fire original Italian lyrics.

Experiencing this score played to perfection by a full orchestra is an incomparable experience. The unmistakable overture is a journey of its own (arguably the finest overture ever composed), followed by soaring arias and grand motifs that heighten the simple comedic, romantic themes to an epic scale. Musical director Richard Mills has allowed Rossini’s music to both breathe and maintain pace. No note is ever out of place thanks to his keen conducting and Orchestra Victoria, who obviously adore playing through this classic (and are balanced naturally thanks to the beautiful acoustics of the Recital Centre – no vocal mics are needed and not a note is lost!). Thunder sheets are used to great dramatic effect by the percussion section during a chaotic second act downpour.

José Carbó as the suave titular barber Figaro is a delight at every turn. His voice carries every delicate inflection and grandiose flourish with ease, eliciting many a “bravo!” from captivated audience members. Brenton Spiteri delivers an impressive vocal performance as Count Almaviva, effortlessly mining endless texture and beauty from every note of Rossini’s often difficult score. The pair are almost always together throughout their scheming, a witty, sharp duo that keep us enthralled and giggling with bursts of crafty commedia dell’arte as each romantic attempt is foiled.

Warwick Fyfe is the menacing villain Doctor Bartolo, sternly commanding the stage with an austere but ruffled presence. Whether barking reprimands or being undermined by gleeful Almaviva, Fyfe expertly plays the straight man at every turn (even when adorned with a beard of real shaving cream). Rosina’s cheeky and brave spirit is captured by Chiara Amarù, proving that there is a lot more to this ward than a mere damsel in distress. Amarù’s vocals are mesmerising throughout, her classical soprano tones drifting seamlessly across difficult arias. Paolo Pecchioli, man of a million faces, completes the key pieces of this comic puzzle as greedy Don Basilio, an audience favourite with every rubberfaced appearance.

Congratulations to Victorian Opera for a superb rendition of this musical and vocal rollercoaster, a tremendous feat accomplished with superb casting that undeniably deserves a much longer season!

https://www.victorianopera.com.au/season/the-barber-of-seville

Photography by Nick Hanson

REVIEW: Punk Rock

Powderkegs in school uniform

By Owen James

Simon Stephens is one of my favourite contemporary playwrights, his works electrifying and always relevant. The raw, confronting story of Punk Rock tackles the escalating and debilitating final three months in the lives of seven teens in their last year of grammar school.

Stephens’ extremely realistic characters are taken to their most energetic and explosive extremes in this production by Patalog Theatre, with director Ruby Rees ensuring they are infused with equal measures of juvenile rebellion and adolescent uncertainty. Rees’ direction is powerful and pacy; the interval-less lengthy runtime passes in a flash, and the Breakfast Club-esque pressure cooker setting is used to its full advantage with intimate, imaginative staging. Rees has included punctuating frenzies of fantastical violence, sex and desire as scene transitions, which are for the most part effective at disrupting our comfort and expectation.

There is not a weak link to be found in this tight ensemble of eight, who all expertly commit to the violent, often terrifying world they are trapped inside. They are a joy to watch. Audience favourite Laurence Boxhall as timid Chadwick gives us many of the play’s most hilarious and crushing moments, and is perhaps the most successful of the group at combining the tropes of his character’s clichéd stereotype with authenticity. Ruby Duncan is a powerful presence as Cissy, fearlessly launching into many conflicting emotions with endless gusto and wavering stability.

Stephens has written a challenging, tormenting character in mutinous kingpin William, who Ben Walter brings to life with nuance and glimpses of delightfully unrestrained anarchy through every cautious powerplay. Walter’s William is as distressing as Stephens has written him to be, building to the play’s final crescendo with disturbing composure.

Annie Shapero is electric as deceptively simple Tanya, and Flynn Smeaton as Nicholas is the perfect blend of studious and smarmy. Karl Richmond brings depth to provocative maverick Bennet, suggesting deeper personal discomfort that may be prompting this genuinely intimidating bully to act out as he does. New student Lilly is our initial line-in to this world, portrayed by Zoe Hawkins with sass and a brazen disregard for conformity. Jessica Clarke’s brief stint as Dr Harvey in the final scene is strong and considered.

Patalog Theatre are leaping from strength to strength with every production. They are one of the most important companies to watch for us theatregoers who enjoy contemporary, boundary-pushing evenings of grit and dynamic gusto. Patalog and Punk Rock embody everything good theatre should be.

Don’t miss this gripping rendition of thunderous retribution, playing at fortyfivedownstairs until December 15. (Beware of blood splatter for those in the front row…)

https://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/wp2016/event/punk-rock-by-simon-stephens/

Photography by Craig Fuller

REVIEW: The Taming of the Shrew

This is as accessible and fun as Shakespeare has ever been

By Sebastian Purcell

If all Shakespeare was as accessible, fun and brilliantly acted as this production of The Taming of the Shrew, schools would have no trouble getting any of his texts into children’s hands. 

The Melbourne Shakespeare Company has put together a sublime ensemble that not only nails the Shakespearean tongues at incredible pace and annunciation (even more impressive outside in the elements), but also the interjection of modern references, which makes the play feel current and relatable. 

The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean, questions the essence of the feminine and masculine, power and control, truth and deceit. Each show the main characters roles are chosen by the audience, often leading to gender reversal which is poetically reflected in the production’s setting in the St Kilda’s Botanical Gardens, characters coming from Gardenvale, Elsternwick and surrounding suburbs.  

In essence the main plot is about the courtship of Petruchia (played by Emma Jevons on the day) and Katherino (John Vizcay-Wilson) the ill-mannered shrew. Petruchia takes on a bet to tame and wed Katherino in order for the younger, fairer Bianco (Saxon Gray) to marry. Bianco cannot marry until the elder sibling Katherino is wed, but Bianco already has two suitors (May Jasper and Charlotte Righetti) and is courted by another (Sarah Krndija). To add intrigue, the bet is placed as the various suitors vie for Bianco’s love, and supporting the suitor’s in their quest are their dutiful sidekicks (Emma Austin and Yash Fernando) who attempt to disguise their true intentions throughout the 90 minute performance. 

While everyone provides an outstanding performance, I think a special mention is warranted for Liliana Dalton (Trania) whom often steals the scenes and delivers the wonderful line “how now brown cow”, demonstrating a pure enunciation of the English language. Emma Jevons as the Tame and John Vizcay-Wilson as the Shrew have an authentic energy and have the most physically demanding roles. Their courtship scene is an absolute highlight of physical acting prowess. Paul Morris (Sly) on the guitar is fantastic, so much so It even felt like Tones and I’s Dance Monkey belongs in Shakespeare. 

Benjamin Almon Colley provides a masterclass in musical direction; who would have thought Kelly Clarkson’s My life would suck without you would sum up the play so gloriously? The choreography (John Reed) is tight and the use of the gardens and gazebo, as well as the set dressing (Hayley James) makes you feel part of the show. In addition, the recycled products and the digital program show the environmentally conscious nature of the Melbourne Shakespeare Company. The costuming (Rhiannon Irving) is consistent with the traditional characterisations but with the added benefit of adding a character sash to each actor making the play easy to follow and acting as clever props throughout.

This is a laugh out loud production, a comedy in all its glory. There’s so much physicality from the performers and it’s a joy to see them enjoying themselves and each other’s brilliant performances. Bring a picnic and a jumper for Melbourne’s cool evenings. This is as accessible and fun as Shakespeare has ever been. A triumphant production. 

The Taming of the Shrew plays from Saturday 7 – Sunday 22 December 2019

The Rose Garden, St. Kilda Botanical Gardens. 

Tickets are available at http://www.melbourneshakespeare.com

Photography courtesy of Jack Dixon-Gunn

Review: Nils Frahm

Making the familiar strange

By Caitlin McGrane

When we arrived at Hamer Hall the space was nearly empty and I took the opportunity to snap some photos of the stage where Nils Frahm would soon appear. His set-up is unlike any band or composer I have seen play live. There was a piano on the right, which I didn’t even realise was a piano until well into the show; a huge synthesiser; at least 3 other keyboards; and a mini organ that he introduced to the audience last year as his “pan flute army” because of the unintended sound it makes.

This is the second time I have seen Frahm play in Melbourne in Hamer Hall, and both times the music and Frahm’s performance reminds me of the reasons why his work means so much to me. Frahm’s ambient, electronic and percussive music has been my chosen soundtrack to long stretches of time spent in deep concentration – marking assignments, writing my PhD confirmation, and spending evenings lying totally still trying to stop my brain from fizzing. His music, fusing elements of electronic and classic composition are perfect for maintaining focus in the present. And yet there is also something about his arrangements that invoke a sense of reminiscing about the past and dreaming far into the future.

As the hall filled, the crowd seemed familiar, the ambiance was relaxed and possibly even aloof – classic North Fitzroy. Frahm came out on stage, he bowed quickly and warmly to the crowd, thanked them for coming by clasping his hands together. He sat down at the mini organ and began to play a gentle introductory melody; one that I might have heard many times before, from last year’s All Melody, but in such a way that gave me a feeling like it was new.

This feeling of what I can only describe as an internal ‘familiar dissonance’ with the music pervaded the entire performance. It was an extraordinary and exciting experience, and brought to mind the sociological concept “making the familiar strange”. To me it felt like this is what Frahm does with his work, only live on stage. In comparing last year’s show to this one, it seemed as though the tracks were the same, but somehow different, like they were in a different register, maybe a little ‘muted’ in places. I knew the melodies so well that my brain was anticipating them, but Frahm’s improvisational skills made each moment subtly different. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the show, during the encore, where I noticed how the muted quality had been underscoring the entire show. It felt like putting the final piece in place in a huge jigsaw.

During the show, Frahm, in his deep yet quiet German-accented voice, mentioned that this show was a continuation of the tour started last year and that he had played it many times, but that he still manages to make a mistake each time he performs. To me there seem to be very few, perhaps no, mistakes in his shows, but rather his admission was a peak behind the curtain of his creativity – something he seems to enjoy – and this may also explain why he often played with his back to the audience. Frahm, at times, asked for the help of Jonas, a sound engineer but, this to me also seemed part of the performance.

Watching him move about the stage, moving his whole body as he put the tracks together, it was clear that Frahm is a performer, and that every element was carefully and masterfully controlled by him. Sometimes during the bassiest of his tracks it felt a bit weird that the only person moving in the 2,488-seat room was the man on stage. But the lack of movement also made it much more affecting and pleasant to sit with my eyes closed and let the sound wash over me like a bath. Around two-thirds of the way through the show I felt like the boundary between me and the sound had ceased to exist. Seeing and hearing, on their own do not fully capture the experience of Frahm live. There is a proprioceptive quality to his shows where the whole body and senses are involved in the experience – like you can feel your body and the sound interacting. For me it is an incredibly enjoyable experience, and yet I can also imagine it being disquieting for those who like to keep things familiar. Frahm is a natural performer, and watching him move I could tell that he was moving not just to the sound he was producing in that moment, but also to the sounds he was planning several bars ahead. He was deeply present yet also somewhere deep in the future. And I am obsessed.

Nils Frahm’s performances demonstrate that he might be one of the most talented performers of his time. He has a deep commitment to the entire experience of sound and how it interacts, engages, and changes the body. If you can get to see him wherever he is playing, I strongly recommend that you do.

Nils Frahm will be performing in Sydney on 5 December at the Sydney Opera House. Tickets and more info: https://www.nilsfrahm.com/