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Sunday 28 April 2019

Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders @ Genesian Theatre, dissected by me

In true Holmesian style, Genesian's pitting of Britain's greatest fictional detective against one of the world's most well-known criminals in a classic murder-mystery plays out exactly as one would expect: numerous unexpected twists and turns, a costume and set design well above its pay grade, and plenty of classic one-liners. However, the greatest plot twist of the evening is the ability for the second act of the show to alleviate almost all the faults of the first, leaving a once skeptical audience truly engaged in a great story told by a great ensemble.

Any Sherlock Holmes tale is driven by its characters, and whilst in this production it takes some time for many of the actors to show the best they have to offer, it is worth the wait. Directed by recent UNE grad Jess Davis and led by Genesian heavyweights John Willis-Richards (reprising the title role he played way back in the theatre's 2014 production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure), Peter David Allison (as his right-hand man) and Zoë Crawford (as the psychic Kate Mead), the 12-member cast initially make the show's 140-minute run time feel like 1400.

For the entire first act, no actor or actress is spared from jarring pacing or an inability to receive as much laughter from the audience as they (and Davis) should have anticipated. The murders themselves, featuring Celestes Loyzaga and Douglas Spafford in a range of roles, have a lack of energy mirrored by the static scenes featuring Sir Robert Anderson (James Charles), Sir William Gull (David Stewart-Hunter) and Lord Salisbury (Warren Paul Glover, who also plays Saunders), not fully engaging the audience in the mystery from the get-go. In the Holmes camp, Crawford easily demonstrates the strongest control over her character and how she wants to portray her, giving a most consistent performance of a character distinct even for a Sherlock Holmes story. Willis-Richards and Allison, on the other hand, struggle to find the balance between the arrogance-yet-genius of Holmes and side-kick-in-body-but-not-spirit persona of Watson respectively. They give either one of these at any given time but never both, with Willis-Richard's particular lack of pacing indicating the sacrifice of communicating Holmes' ingenious deductive powers for the less valuable depiction of his grandiose ego and Allison internally putting Watson in the sidekick position the books indicate he never actually believes he is in. If it weren't for Sandra Bass' scene-stealing performance as Mrs Hudson, giving her character the wit and presence that fans have loved for centuries, the lack of chemistry amongst the cast would make for a long first act indeed.

Thankfully, almost none of that is the case during the second act. The nobility, putting the requisite emotion and energy into their lines, managed to both introduce the audience to the extensive story behind the Ripper murders and explore it in an exciting way, finally giving the story the appeal it deserves. Spafford and Loyzaga are far more entertaining in their roles, with their fast-paced scenes and excellent use of the stage keeping the plot moving (although Loyzaga and fellow actress Heaven-Cheyenne Campbell could do with slightly less melodrama). Bass and Crawford continue their strong first act performances and again steal scenes from the two leading men thanks to their evident understanding of their characters. What is best, however, is the change Willis-Richards and Allison undergo. Allison, breaking the fourth wall and butting heads with Willis-Richards more often, both directly and indirectly communicates the fact that a Sherlock Holmes story is as much about Watson as it is about the great detective. He captures the humour of the situation he is in the way a proper Englishman would, finally getting the laughs he worked so hard for in the first act to no avail. Willis-Richards, unlike the first act, sacrifices ego for intellect and gives the audience the sleuthing Holmes they know and love. The deductiveness, logical thinking, and passion Holmes has for his work shines through, with no noticeable pacing or chemistry issues throughout his performance. A great ensemble performance in the second act, a credit to what Davis can do as a Director, and a fitting rendition of Brian Clemens' original script.

Couple those strengths with a Bronte Barnicoat-designed Set and Peter Henson-designed Costume design the STC would be jealous of and visually, the show is just as strong as the people in it.

Ultimately, you will enter the performance's intermission feeling underwhelmed by what you saw. It will certainly create doubts in your mind as to the rest of the evening, and rightfully so. However, regardless of the amount of hope you have in the show, by the time Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders draws its curtains, you will understand why Holmes, and this theatre, are so loved.

Saturday 20 April 2019

How to Change the World and Make Bank Doing It @ Limelight on Oxford, dissected by me

Ever been accosted in public by someone shoving a charity down your throat? Of course you have. As an inconvenience it's up there with delayed public transport, iPhones with 2011-era battery life, and the need to pay 20 cents extra for onions on your election day democracy sausage. Now, in the process of throwing your headphones on (or AirPods if you're a high roller), keeping your head down, and moving at an unnecessarily fast pace to avoid needing to engage with those who you think hold the moral high ground, you've done two things. Firstly, you've recognised that there is a value in what those people dressed in blue are doing; they may not be as authentic as they're making themselves out to be, but the lines they are saying and the issues they are advocating for are. Then, after that value has been established, the numerous well-intentioned ideas you've been presented with start to fizzle out in importance - and you realise that, unfortunately, nothing they do really goes anywhere or does anything substantive.

That's essentially what you get in Limelight on Oxford's How to Change the World and Make Bank Doing It.

Coming from Director/Co-writer/Co-producer Michael Becker (who also plays the minor role of Marcus) and Co-writer/Co-producer/Assistant Director Ian Warwick, in this show we are presented with an insight into the individuals who push for a better world. Those characters are Marcus, the most senior employee we see of the World Vision-esque 'Earth's Children', the timid over-giver Eve (Barbara Papathanasopoulos), the overzealous recreational drug user Lucia (Dominique Purdue), and the manipulative newbie Chloe (Skye Beker). Watching them perform a large amount of duologues with each other and those who cross their charity's rudimentary mall kiosk (with Susan Jordan, Laneikka Denne, Jarryd Dobson and 9-year-old Dashiell Wyndham taking on these numerous minor roles), one quickly recognises the show's strengths are the humour and authenticity of its scripting, individual performances, and costume design.

Those strengths are apparent right from the performance's beginning. From its first few minutes, the comedic awkwardness of working alongside someone you don't really know how to converse with is palpable. So too are the lameness of the excuses the public use to avoid dealing with street charity workers (which I can guarantee you've used at some point before). All that paucity of action and constant rejection are indicative of Becker and Warwick's personal experiences with (and as) charity workers; they've managed to translate what they've been through onto a script very well, allowing the cast to deliver some great performances. Beker's Chloe is more plastic than a 20-pack of Mount Franklin, making the audience love hating her just as the playwrights intended. Papathanasopoulos and Purdue constantly managed to draw big laughs from the audience, demonstrating their great chemistry and perfectly-utilised comedic talents. However, the quiet stand-out is Jordan; by far the most experienced cast member, she meets the demands of her 4 minor roles (each with substantively different personalities and similarly lengthy lines of dialogue) with great success, giving the audience a realistic (and at times uncomfortable) depiction of themselves. It was always a pleasure to see her on stage. Couple that and everything else I've written with a costume design that would make any clothes addict jealous and you've done the first thing I said one always does.

However, to the show's detriment, you will also do the second. The curse of having all those aforementioned strengths evident from the show's start is that, by the end, they start to get exhausting. The series of duologues between Earth's Children and numerous mall shoppers becomes repetitive in its reinforcement of each character's unchanging personalities, leaving little room for any real development in the show's second half. Whilst this affects all characters, it is particularly the case for Becker and Papathanasopoulos, making them gradually less and less intriguing (and therefore attention-grabbing) as we are shown their same flaws over and over again. Further, the introduction of two love subplots - one coincidentally concerning Becker and Beker and another between Papathanasopoulos and Dobson - don't have a clear resolution, leaving us feeling unfulfilled and questioning their plot-driving value. That lack of resolution is something the play suffers as a whole, with the firing of certain characters and metaphorical blindness of others not tying up any loose ends or portraying a sense of finality to the plot that first intrigued us. To sum it up nicely, throughout the show's second half we're asking 'so when will something substantive happen?'

We're never given a response.

Ultimately, if there were a perfect metaphor for the process of interacting with a charity on the street, this would be it. You're drawn in by the authenticity of the characters and initial dialogue, but after the halfway point, things start to lose their way. For all that promise, it really is quite unfortunate.

Curry Kings of Parramatta @ Riverside Theatres, dissected by me

Ask 100 different people where they think the heart of Sydney's West is and I guarantee you'll get 100 different answers. Some will say it's Bankwest Stadium, the $300 million project that somehow divided a city of 4.4 million. Others would say it's the Enmore Theatre, mainly because it gives them a chance to make fun of the visiting I'm-angsty-and-edgy-but-my-house-has-an-indoor-heated-pool North Shore teens from the comfort of their side of town. Last but not least you'll find those who say Istanbul in Parra; a place which makes such good HSPs their supporters make quite a compelling argument (if you can cope with the stench of their bbq-chilli-garlic sauce infused breath long enough to hear all of it).

However, the beautiful thing about the West is that there is no correct answer. In Nautanki Theatre Company's Curry Kings of Parramatta, we are given the chance to look into a singular heart that all South Asians will recognise - the kitchen of a South Asian restaurant - and examine the thoughts, hopes, and failures of those that collectively keep it beating. Directed by Kristine Landon-Smith and adapted from her highly similar British original, it is a play with all the right intentions but a lack of energy to see them through.

What makes this show stand out to me - not just as a critic, but as an Indian - is the extensive role South Asians have played in its development process and the generation of a story where South Asian actors haven't been relegated to supporting or stereotypical roles. On the former, we have Sudha Bhuchar and Shaheen Khan as scriptwriters, ably assisted by Creative Director Neel Banerjee (who also doubles as a Designer alongside Rajiv Maini) and Costumist Madhu Das. Under Landon-Smith's expertise, it's invigorating to see so many Sydney-based South Asians work creatively with one another. As a result, the story and characters this team has devised have an inherent authenticity to each aspect of their personality that it is easy for an ethnic audience to engage with them. Among others, we have the self-labeled 'hero' in Nadeem (Artharv Kolhatkar), the child burdened by his father's expectations in Shahab (Firdaws Adelpour) (with his father Yaseen played by Dinsha Palkhiwala), the timid refugee in Mariam (Yolanda Torres) and even the acquiescing, under-appreciated samosa extraordinaire in Khalida (Abida Malik). There is an identity that fits every audience member, allowing each individual performance to have its shining moments. Special credit must be given to Kolhatkar and Malik in this regard, with their comedic performances often drawing big laughs from the audience due to their great timing and chemistry with the other actors. Gregory Dias as Shakeel and Aviral Mohan as Billa also deserve credit for their performance of more serious roles, providing solid renditions of characters whose humility separates them from the other cast and thus puts harder challenges on them as actors. 

However, for all that success, the performance is lacking in a few areas. Bar 3 moments of strong, dynamic conflict between Mohan and Kolhatkar, Kolhatkar and Dias, and Kolhatkar and Zabi Malik (who plays Yolanda's brother Issac), where the insecurities and fears of their characters are on overt display for the audience to revel in, the play moves slowly throughout its 75-minute run time. The fault of the number of issues the script needs to introduce, resolve and tie up, the exhaustion of the cast during various moments is something the audience picks up on. These are most notably observed in Mariam's unplanned pregnancy (in which Torres' reserved character disallows her the chance to put on enough of an emotionally-charged performance) and much of Nitin Vengurlekar's and Zabi Malik's performances as Yacoub and Issac respectively (whose characters, for the most part, aren't as actively involved in the plot as the rest of the cast). Coupled with a few jokes that aren't given proper delivery and some hard to hear lines, it's best to say that this show has all the ingredients but the stove should be on a higher heat in order to bring out its full flavours.

Ultimately, Curry Kings of Parramatta only has one performance left, but if you - like me - have been longing for a play driven by South Asian and South Asian migrant culture, this is a great choice for you. Just be prepared to sit through some extended plot development to get to the strongest moments this show has to offer.

Sunday 7 April 2019

DITCH @ Limelight on Oxford, dissected by Marina

DITCH tells the story of the apocalypse in action; no sudden earthly disaster, but instead a slow rolling, persistent flood that chokes the life from all things thriving. Although Beth Steel’s debut play premiered nine years ago, Dream Plane Productions argues that its themes are still relevant, as sources suggest the current state of the world, both politically and environmentally, is “not good”. Ultimately, while Steel’s writing begins to disappoint in the second half of the play, the cast maintains an excellent performance that keeps you in your seat.
Where DITCH shines in the depth of Steel’s characters, who express such a genuine desire for hope despite their bleak reality. The cast are all stunning in their respective roles – not just due to their ability to keep up heavy Scottish accents for two hours (with help from dialect coach Gavin Leahy) – but also in their depiction of the crudeness of the residents of the security outpost they inhabit; a performance they collectively balance with a humanity that comes through in the play’s rare comedic moments. Notably, Giles Gartrell-Mills excels in his portrayal of the abrasive soldier Turner, bringing to life a believably complex character who takes a nationalistic pride in his work of finding escaping “illegals”, yet dreams of fleeing to an abandoned farm property himself.
Where the play also stands out is its mesmerizing reality – director Kim Hardwick stretches the bounds of Limelight’s cozy upstairs theatre to great effect with aid from Victor Kalka's set design, utilizing the small stage to its capacity. This works flawlessly in tandem with Martin Kinnane’s lighting design; light shines from the backstage corridor to silhouette the monstrous figure in Bug’s dreams, while Megan’s shadow is seen skinning a deer behind curtains in another scene. The final image of light illuminating a plant sprouting from the dirt is especially impactful as a symbol of hope (despite, spoiler alert, the tragic end that befalls the characters).
However, the second half of the production seems confused at best, mixing impressive monologues with scenes that were downright uncomfortable to watch. Burns (Laurence Coy) and Mrs Peel’s (Fiona Press) developing relationship, promised as a heart-warming depiction of “two old souls trying to find some peace”, instead confuses the audience as it is built on the same misogynistic foundations seen in mainstream Hollywood media – the man chasing the resistant woman who eventually ‘gives in’ to his advances with a background of blurry consent constantly present. It leaves us unsure of whether or not this is truly a representation of humanity shining through desperate times, when the romance is so uncomfortably depicted. Moreover, the symbolism of life-amongst-death evoked when Megan’s pregnancy is revealed appears gratuitous and unnecessary, as Steel has already committed to using the plants in Mrs Peel’s vegetable plots to illustrate the same concept; ultimately becoming irrelevant by the penultimate scene of the play.
Significantly, the most shocking scene was the depiction of Megan’s near sexual assault. When watching a play – or any media, really – that features sexual assault (even attempted sexual assault in this case), my reaction is to always ask: is this necessary? If the scene(s) had been excluded, would it significantly affect the plot and/or themes? In DITCH, unfortunately, the answer is no. The scene of Megan’s near sexual assault by Turner (Giles Gartrell-Mills) does no value to either character: it demeans Megan into a victimized woman who asks Turner to “stay” despite her obvious fear and contributes nothing to deepen Turner’s own complex characterization. All too often Steel’s writing in the second half defaults to cheap shock value to evoke emotion – while we should be shocked at the cruelties humanity is inherently capable of, Steel limits this by having her actors resort to loud shouting in order to create impactful moments (particularly Turner, who is victim to so many shouted lines you feel both impressed by and sorry for Gartrell-Mills’ voice). The writing wavers in the second half primarily due to the fact that it must measure up to the first half, which sets a standard that is unable to be maintained.

In the end, Hardwick’s production is enjoyable largely due to the work of the cast and production crew, rather than the plot of the play itself. Nonetheless, DITCH provides a haunting look into what could be waiting in store for us, far into the future.

Saturday 6 April 2019

Barbara and the Camp Dogs @ Belvoir, dissected by Matt

There are some shows that take your breath away. Between laughter and a few sneaky tears, I’m not sure I had any left after watching Belvoir's Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Truly, I haven’t for a long time seen a show where I felt so engaged and connected.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a musical with as much power as theatre can have. Indeed, partly what makes this show so special is that it lacks the monotonous sentimentality that musicals often embrace. It follows Barbara (Ursula Yovich), an Australian Indigenous singer and her journey with her ‘sister’ René (Elaine Crombie) to their hometown, Katherine. There, she is shaken by past and present trauma in a raw and compelling set of events not alien to the experiences of many Indigenous Australians. There were references to the Stolen Generation, the Don Dale Detention Centre and engrained institutional structures in Australia. The suspense and tension, palpable throughout, make this performance a heartfelt telling of an established experience that cuts deep. For many, it will not be the easiest thing to watch - but for those willing to embrace it, it does great honour to our evolving Australian narrative.

Some pieces of theatre often do well being read about, but this is undoubtedly one you need to see to get its full impact. Why? You know that this isn’t just the story of Barbara and René. It’s a story felt by many Indigenous Australians, which is performed with such integrity by the all-Indigenous cast that it brings an original perspective to a highly-discussed part of our history.

On that note, the casting was excellent. Yovich, as the show’s lead actress and co-writer, puts on a breathtaking performance as Barbara, the synergy between her acting and singing flawless. The same can be said for Crombie’s stunning supporting performance. There is such a great authentic chemistry between these two performers; whether it be the combination of their sass and witty banter, or their riveting screaming matches, we are constantly kept on the edge of our seats. The songs, written by Yovich, Alana Valentine, and Adm Ventoura, were real bangers, with a great variety of music that really helped ground such an ambitious piece, aided by some very talented musicians.

It must be said, though, that many stories that have an authenticity like this one does can often suffer from an ill-defined narrative. However, I’m glad to say this was not the case here. The narrative arc was well defined and the pacing of the story was excellent, leaving the audience enough time to dwell on the substance of what had happened but not leaving too much as to potentially lose us. It allowed the tension to viscerally linger, adding to the power of the piece. As if they didn’t have enough commendation, Yovich and Valentine deserve even more for writing such a unique and well-crafted piece that sets itself above so many others of its kind.

Ultimately, I was very glad to hear that they have been touring Australia with this production; it’s a musical that needs to be seen by Australians for its great contribution to our collective story. I was thoroughly moved by this spellbinding performance. Everyone involved deserves congratulations for what they have created: a heartfelt piece that breaks the barriers of genre and storytelling.

Thursday 4 April 2019

The Last Five Years @ Ensemble Theatre, dissected by me

To be frank, I have no idea how Ensemble is going to get through the next month. Two shows running concurrently in that mid-sized theatre? Already having one sell out completely, and staring down the barrel of having the other follow suit? Three performances a day, with the first starting at the ungodly hour of 11am?

If you unfortunately missed out on getting tickets to The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race, or share in my astoundment over the very idea of a show taking place before the middle of the day, don't worry. The Last Five Years is a just-as-strong follow-up that, for now, still has afternoon and evening tickets available for you 9-to-5 can't-negative-gear-when-your-bank-balance-is-also-negative theatregoers.

Having been everywhere from Off-Broadway to Barcelona, Ensemble manages to bring much of the musical's original magic to their lower North Shore stage. Taking us on a 90-minute journey through the married life of unsuccessful acting hopeful Cathy Hiatt (Elise McCann) and more successful author Jamie Wellerstein (Christian Charisiou), there is rarely a moment when the show falters. Though it takes some time to understand that Cathy's story is told in reverse chronological order, starting at the breakdown of her marriage and working backward, whereas Jamie's is told from their first time seeing each other onward, as soon as one recognises this the musical really hits its stride.

The ultimate strength of the show is the fact that there is no clear standout between McCann and Charisiou. McCann, undoubtedly the more experienced of the pair, uses all her theatre knowledge to approach the deceptively complex role of Cathy with great effect. Of her musical numbers, one should keenly anticipate 'A Summer in Ohio' and 'Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence'; as a demonstration of her all-round singing, acting and comedic abilities, these songs have to be highlighted. Charisiou matches McCann's energy to deliver a performance he should be proud of; though the tribulations his character goes through as his career takes off are usually (but not always) expressed to their full effect (though through no major fault of his own), his skill in quickly jumping from emotion to emotion and beautifully-performed songs more than make up for this. Of his musical numbers, 'Shiksa Goddess' and 'The Schmuel Song' are what audiences should look out for. Together, the two share an unusual onstage chemistry that, even though they rarely interact with one another directly, still somehow makes for a cohesive performance of Jason Robert Brown's script. Compliments to Daryl Wallis for his musical direction and live musical performance too - perched high up to the right of theatre, he methodically works his way through the musical's score in a performance that should not go under-recognised or under-valued.

With that being said, the performance's only notable weak point is something the team can't control at all - the size of the stage. In a musical where two stories are told simultaneously, Director Elsie Edgerton-Till has to work with the rather confined Ensemble stage to tell these (which is all the more difficult due to the fact both stories rarely overlap). Because of this, it can be challenging to personally imagine the physical separation between McCann and Charisiou necessary to individualise their journeys. To Edgerton-Till's credit, the implementation of a revolving mechanism (allowing a small part of upstage right and downstage left to oscillate) was a creative approach to this issue. Yet, I don't think a solution to limit McCann and Charisiou's physical proximity really exists. It's a noticeable (albeit unintended) shortcoming in the musical, but luckily there's more than enough enjoyable moments to overlook it.

Ultimately, grab a ticket or two before this show sells out. It's worth it.