Day One, A Hotel, Evening (Black Swan State Theatre Company, State Theatre Centre, June 2013)

The party supply business is rife with corporate espionage.

Stella (Roz Hammond) and Madeleine (Michelle Fornasier) in Day One, A Hotel, Evening. Photo by Gary Marsh Photography

Stella (Roz Hammond) and Madeleine (Michelle Fornasier) in Day One, A Hotel, Evening. Photo by Gary Marsh Photography

This is just a taste of the rapid-fire dialogue in Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Day One, A Hotel, Evening, Black Swan Theatre Company’s latest show at Northbridge’s Heath Ledger Theatre.

The fast pace is echoed by the swiftness of the set changes – once again, Black Swan shows off its talent for very cool sets, this time with a set of revolving brickwork interiors setting the scene for countless murky liaisons between three married couples.

We have only two responsibilities: to be curious and promiscuous… in a cafe.

Sadly, even these responsibilities might be too much for Murray-Smith’s upper-middle-class malcontents, who can’t even seem to cheat on each other very successfully.

There’s no cure for intuition.

Incredibly fast-paced, like an HBO series crammed into an hour and a half, the show is littered with contemporary references – everything from Berlusconi to Apple, and keeps the audience in fits throughout the bewildering array of adultery it is presented with.

I’m what you’d call aggressive aggressive. It wastes less time, but some people find it a little off-putting.

The play isn’t completely devoid of higher meaning – by the end, clear themes emerge on suburbia and the discontent it can breed, where happiness is not a given, but a decision one must make.

If what you have doesn’t cost anything, what’s it worth?

All of the actors do splendidly in the repartee-heavy script, delivering flurries of razor-sharp one-liners and put-downs with clarity and excellent comic timing.

The standout, however, is Roz Hammond of the impressive resume – clearly an actress with staying power (http://www.inmycommunity.com.au/going-out/theatre-and-the-arts/The-test-of-time-/7645963/).

Her dotty Stella is fabulous and the perfect choice to deliver the play’s wistful stabs in the gut as it draws to a close.

Will it stand the test of time? Possibly it won’t become what you’d call a classic, but if classics were all we ever got, the theatre would die a swift death. We are living here and now and we want good plays, with solid – if whirlwind – plotting and plenty of laughs, and Joanna Murray-Smith is clearly a playwright who can deliver.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Black Swan for this show. But I write without fear or favour.

Hurry: Ends this Sunday, June 30. Tickets:  http://www.bsstc.com.au/whats-on/day-one-a-hotel-evening/

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Death of a Salesman (Black Swan State Theatre Company, State Theatre Centre, May 4, 2013)

(Bernard) Sometimes a man has to walk away.

(Willy) What if he can’t walk away?

(Bernard) I guess then it’s tough.

Josh McConville, John Stanton. Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Biff (Josh McConville) and Willy (John Stanton) in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

On Saturday night, May 4, director Adam Mitchell emerged rather apologetically to warn the preview show was “part of our rehearsal process” … but after feedback, would hopefully “really sing”.

Sing it does already.

John Stanton is utterly convincing as Willy Loman, the debt-laden salesman who never made his fortune; whose two sons are not following in his footsteps, or anyone’s; and whose mind is retreating, rather than face such truths.

His wife Linda (Caroline McKenzie) is ageing disgracefully and barely allowed to finish a sentence by the menfolk. Her hair greys, her stockings ladder, are mended and then ladder again. Her bathrobe is perpetual.

Anyone who has ever confronted their parents’ increasing fragility and confusion will see uncomfortable truths in the portrayal of this couple, aware of their children’s faults, but wilfully blind to their limitations.

Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Ben O’Toole) show their desperate frustration with their parents, but are themselves infuriating. It is hard to feel for them, and they show similar confusion about themselves.

(Happy) You’re a poet, you’re an idealist.

(Biff) No – I’m mixed up.

It is hard to lay the blame for the events that follow at the feet of any one. All seem at times to teeter on the brink of salvation, but all betray themselves – the boys by apathy, and Willy by pride.

(Linda) You have enough to be happy, right here, right now. Why must everybody conquer the world?

Linda finally learns to stand up for herself as well as for Willy, but wins no reward.

I overheard some muttering in the interval about accents. I am no authority on the subject and found them all adequate, but will say it seemed to me that Stanton’s was the only one that to me rang authoritatively enough to conjure a real sense of place and time. Moreover, throughout I had some trouble picking up every bit of the dialogue, which in some bits seemed a touch indistinct.

I confess to wondering, pre-interval, why anyone puts themselves through something so undeniably miserable as this story, knowing  how it ends.

I concluded in the second half that this is precisely the difference between a sob story and art. You can’t tear yourself away from truly great writing.

For that matter, great writing can only “sing” if it is as skilfully performed and compellingly staged as this is, with its flashbacks so enmeshed with the “present” that the whole mess represents Willy’s mind, trapped by its long-held beliefs and desires.

(Willy)  Never leave a job til it’s finished, remember that.

(Willy) A man can’t go out the way he came in. A man’s got to add up to something.

The story enthrals as its awful implications reveal themselves, and even the shadow cast by an industrial fan on to the stage seems menacing.

The sets of The White Divers of Broome with its eerie lighting and The Importance of being Earnest with its the extravagant flower-wall (the last two Black Swan shows I saw) impressed me with their simplicity and beauty, and the staging of this show is no different.

Caroline McKenzie as Linda and John Stanton as Willy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh.

Linda (Caroline McKenzie) and Willy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh.

You aren’t shown a view from Willy and Linda’s window, but you watch them look outside and clearly see what they do – an urban jungle, slowly encroaching on their American dream.

I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.

A lonely fridge sits reproachfully in a corner, a reminder that it has broken before it has been paid off. Like the fridge, Willy and Linda are so close to paying off the mortgage and owning their home, but see their lives broken anyway as Willy’s tortured mind gets the better of him.

0235 Caroline McKenzie, Igor Sas, Josh McConville, Ben O'Toole, Eden Falk. Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Linda, Charley (Igor Sas), Biff, Happy (Ben O’Toole) and Bernard (Eden Falk) in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Needless to say, my face was all crumpled and salty by the time the play reached its harrowing end.

I saw many a similar countenance on the way to the Ladies’, where we all gave each other smiles that at once acknowledged how silly we were, but also how right we were to be hurt.

(Linda) I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

Black Swan, we’re paying attention. As my mate Sturdy put it: “I can’t believe how marvelously depressing that was.”

Death of a Salesman runs until May 19. 

A Chorus Line (Burswood Theatre), October 26, 2012

IMG_0585One thrilling combination?!?

In a word, no.

Having said this, I really have no specific fault to find with this show. Perhaps it’s a case of something you’ve built up in your mind to be so powerful being inevitably disappointing.

And truly, it was only very slightly disappointing and I’m still trying to put my finger on what it was. Was I secretly hoping Michael Douglas would actually appear onstage? I don’t think so…

The staging was minimalist, as befits a show about the stripped-down, unadorned story behind the scenes.

The dancing was undoubtedly very tight and very slick, and a joy to behold. Cassie’s tortured solo, as she tried to express her frustration with both her impassive ex and her situation, was a powerful bit of dancing, and they did a little something with the lighting that made this part really stand out.

There was plenty of humour, as there should be, and the characters were as fleshed out as they should be in such a dialogue- and character-driven musical.

But with the word musical, I’m inching closer to the source of my dissatisfaction. Because, honestly, there was only a whisper of dissatisfaction. I’m “praising with faint damn”.

It just wasn’t… musical enough. Not one of those vocal solos – and the show is basically all vocal solos – really had my spine tingling. The singers, though certainly competent, just didn’t seem that memorable. Remembering Jemma Rix in Wicked, and how her voice made me want to weep and made my skin prickle even the second time I saw the show, makes me realise that not one of these numbers moved me in the way I wanted.

I waited and waited to hear Nothing, the song Diana sings, and look, it was good, but it just wasn’t great. And the dancing is all well and good, but the singing is what makes you really care about those people, and if you don’t really care, it’s a long time to sit and listen to emotional stuff.

Happily, spine tingles eventually came… One was introduced slowly, almost spookily, and in general given the attention it deserves.

By the time the (damned fine) chorus line finally hit the stage, the Ministry and I started to wiggle in our seats and grin at each other. They did an awesome job on that ending, even down to working the performers’ final bows into it. Just seeing those high kickers strut their stuff made it all worth it, and I grin to remember it.

So, overall, I’m happy.

 

Not the Boy Next Door (Astor Theatre, October 19, 2012)

Sometimes I wonder if this blog is too complimentary. Well, fear not. I’m definitely wearing my “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” hat today.

I’m a nutso Peter Allen fan, and therefore a nutso Todd McKenney fan. I went to the Boy from Oz. I bought the T-shirt. I went to a cabaret show of Todd singing Peter’s songs a year or two later at the now-defunct (I think) theatre on Beaufort Street. Can’t remember its name. I was so offended when Todd got dumped in favour of the more-famous Hugh Jackman for the international tour, I have harboured an irrational hatred of Hugh ever since.

I was so excited when I heard about this coming to the Astor, the Ministry was touched and paid for both of our tickets so I could show him the wonder and magic of Todd McKenney’s beautiful singing voice and intimate knowledge of one of the most compelling and tragic showbiz biographies ever.

I was not even put off when M (not the Ministry, the Matriarch) told me one of her friends was so disappointed in the show she and her husband walked out, and afterwards wrote to the Astor to complain about the show’s excessive volume, among other things. Old people hate loud music, I reasoned. And the Astor can’t do anything about the fact that you were stuck behind (quote) “three fat tarts”. I was blithely confident that the show would be awesome.

Imagine my dismay when the Ministry and I settled in for the first – deafening – number.

DEAFENING.

Knowing every word of the song, I was heartbroken to hear its nuance and beauty swept away by this raucous treatment. This may be an inevitable result of putting music theatre in a building originally intended to house movies, but you could not discern a single word of the song. The rest of the first half went pretty much the same.

Inexplicably, Dancing with the Stars contestants were made part of it. Well, I think they were contestants, or winners, or ex-contestants, or some-such. I wouldn’t know, because I DON’T WATCH DANCING WITH THE STARS. I WATCH MUSIC THEATRE. AND WHEN YOU SAY A SHOW IS ABOUT PETER ALLEN DO NOT TALK ABOUT DANCING WITH THE STARS. And he did talk about Dancing with the Stars. Far. Too. Much.

If it were billed as a variety show half about Dancing with the Stars, and half about Todd himself, and the remaining 0% about Peter Allen, then cool, whatever, I just won’t go. But Peter Allen’s story is subtle, and sad, and compelling, and it deserves a bit of respect and a bit of atmosphere. In this show at least, it didn’t get it.

Yes, there were some interesting anecdotes about Peter Allen’s life. But the Dancing with the Stars element was jarring. The bawdy jokes/stand-up style was a little bizarre. Todd didn’t even seem quite up to the job physically, pouring sweat and panting almost too much to joke about pouring sweat and panting. But not all the songs even needed such energetic, showy treatment. I would have been ok with it if he just sat on a stool, and talked and sang, and recreated the world of Peter Allen’s youth for us.

So the Ministry and I left at interval time, and went home and listened to the Boy From Oz original soundtrack, and I drank in Todd McKenney’s pitch-perfect voice with a glass or two of tawny port.

For disclaimer purposes, the second half may well have been much better. Perhaps my expectations were all in the wrong place. I’m sure a lot of people enjoyed it. For many, it was probably a good show. But I just didn’t have the time or patience to give it any more of my time. My faith had been broken.

Don’t worry. I’m sure next week I’ll be back to my complimentary, exuberant self. Because, after all, most of the time my judgement about what is awesome… is faultless.

Turbo Blog

  • The Sending: The Obernewtyn Chronicles, Book 6 (Isobelle Carmody, 2011)

I might have to read this again from the beginning before the last and final book in the Obernewtyn series comes out. I just dont think I can wait long enough for my appetite for this series to be sated. I think I got the first book in the series nearly 20 years ago, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the writing and the plots that I enjoy it as much, if not more, now.
Of course the books have gotten bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and could now double as weapons, or crook-stoppers, as the Ministry calls them.
I confidently predict that even those who don’t get into fantasy would love this epic post-apocalyptic series.

  •  Gabriel Iglesias’ Stand-Up Revolution (Astor Theatre, October 14, 2012)

Phwoar. This guy is not the world’s most You-Tubed comedian for nothing. If you do nothing else today, Google Fluffy and be prepared to laugh your ass off.
This show was more like a rock concert than a stand-up gig – Fluffy’s support acts were awesome, and then the main act, the lovably obese Latino himself, ran nearly an hour over. He ended up talking until his on-stage “reminder” clock ran out at 99 minutes, at which point he giggled and happily pulled its plug out.
Then, and only then, did he stop with the brand-new material and obligingly do all the fans’ most beloved routines, which they deafeningly requested then nearly sang along with everypunchline.
It was a powerful, positive, bizarrely touching event to be a part of, and I laughed until I nearly passed out.

  • Dark Shadow (2012)

Tim Burton’s latest (I think) offering would surely be a deep disappointment to any fan of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Noticeably lacking the dark, disturbing quality of his earlier work (even his relatively recent work, like Willy Wonka), the movie is stylish but shallow.
It’s not stylish enough to be watchable purely as eye candy, and it’s too shallow to be enjoyed even as B-grade fluff. Johnny Depp is peculiarly lacklustre, and even his visual gags about being an ancient vampire struggling to understand a modern-day society are barely enough to raise a snicker.
The villain is so two-dimensional and lazily thought-out she is ridiculous, without any feelings or motivations except a deeply irrational desire to be loved despite being a murderous witch.
Only bother watching this if you are so hungover you can’t get off the couch and change it to something else.

Pinocchio (WA Ballet, His Majesty’s Theatre, 2012)

The story reads like something from an acid trip: Geppetto carves a puppet, Pinocchio, which a fairy appears to give life to. Pinocchio tries to crush a singing cricket, then pays a cat and a fox with a book to get into a stage show. A puppet-master gets mad, but then gives him coins.

To get his coins, the cat and the fox attack Pinocchio, who hides the coins in his mouth. Pinocchio gets hung, but is only injured. When he recovers, the cat and the fox steal his coins while he dreams about Geppetto drowning.

For some reason, he wakes up,  travels to Play Land, turns into an abused donkey, is thrown into the sea, becomes a puppet again, gets swallowed by a shark, reunites with Geppetto inside (hey, what do you know?) turns back into a real boy and escapes with Geppetto.

The WA Ballet does a mind-bendingly contemporary version of this outrageous tale, which by all accounts more closely resembles the original book by Carlos Collodi, written in France in the 1800s.

Those crazy French.

The staging is breath-takingly beautiful, the costumes fabulous, and the story-telling done with a touching humour and whimsy, though it is undeniably dark and definitely creepy.

The show uses not only traditional ballet to tell the story, but also operatic singing, contemporary dance, limited dialogue and puppetry. In fact it is the only ballet I have ever seen that does any of this.

The staging of the scene after the shark swallows Pinocchio is particularly spectacular, but my favourite moment was an achingly sad solo dance by Geppetto as he drowns in flickering blue light, with a gentle, lovely accompaniment by the WA Symphony Orchestra (WASO).

I must say at this point that WASO did a highly original, memorable job at the music.

This is much more geared towards theatre lovers who are sceptical or lukewarm about ballet than towards die-hard traditional ballet fans.

But for those out there who fit that description, I urge you to hie to His Majesty’s before the season closes… tomorrow (sorry).