Review: Natives Go Wild (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 22 – 27, 2019
Playwright: Rhoda Roberts
Music: Damian Robinson
Director: Chelsea McGuffin
Cast: Waangenga Blanco, Mika Haka, Beau James, Josephine Mailisi, ‘SistaNative’ Seini Taumoepeau, Samuela Taukave aka Skillz
Images by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
There is probably nothing more objectifying than being part of the display at a human zoo. To be placed in that position can of course be an entirely voluntary enterprise, but in the 19th century, it is likely that circumstances at fairs and carnivals were less than dignified, with the acquisition and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples for the pleasure of gawking colonials, forming a crucial feature of the circus industry.

Rhoda Roberts’ Natives Go Wild is critical of that tradition of humiliation, of a West obsessed with exoticism, depriving people of colour their agency. In this show however, identities are reclaimed, and tables are turned, as Indigenous performers from various Antipodean regions, take charge of their narratives, telling us precisely what we need to know, about who they are and what they do.

It is a glamorous production, featuring excellent work by designers Mark Howett (set and lights) and Tim Chappel (costumes). Original songs and music by Damian Robinson are full of inspiration, contributing a sense of transcendental elevation to the staging, with singer Seini SistaNative Taumoepeau bringing remarkable soul to these refreshing compositions. Director Chelsea McGuffin is charged with the responsibility of assembling disparate elements into a cohesive whole, for a vaudeville style of presentation that asks all the right questions.

Ringmaster Mika Haka is high camp personified, but in an acerbic and confrontational style, never letting us easily off the hook. Waangenga Blanco and Samuela Skillz Taukave are mesmerising dancers, both portraying a series of legendary Indigenous figures from circus history. Aerial artist and contortionist Josephine Mailisi conveys true beauty with a physicality full of strength and discipline. The interminably charming clown Beau James delivers some of the funniest and most moving sequences, proving himself a real star we cannot get enough of.

Some might argue that colonisation has improved lives, but there is no question that the inherent cruelty of Western values, has had negative impacts on Indigenous communities that remain significant today. The persistent inability of white people to prioritise Indigenous voices have meant that their needs are consistently ignored, and their wisdom disregarded. Even as we watch the world crumble under instruments of white supremacy, it refuses to cede power, tenaciously holding on to reins that have failed economies and the environment. Unless the next stage of our collective evolution is to better incorporate those who have demonstrated actual skills of survival, the future can only be bleak.

www.sydneyoperahouse.com

Review: Mars: An Interplanetary Cabaret (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 30 – Aug 3, 2019
Music: Chelsea Needham
Lyrics: Ang Collins
Director: Andrew McInnes
Cast: Monika Pieprzyk, Amelia Campbell, Tom Matthews, Jacob Mclean, Jack Richardson, Kieran Clancy-Lowe
Images by Zac Jay

Theatre review
Three Martians have landed, in a spaceship called Incel 9, because apparently, earth girls are easy. The male of that species have had to travel an enormous distance, after women on Mars had wised up to their misogynistic nonsense. Earthlings however, are being protected by Space Cops, who in Mars: An Interplanetary Cabaret, happen to be two women impervious to the sleazy tricks of pickup artists. Written by Ang Collins and Chelsea Needham, this fun-filled work features kooky characters and humorous songs, for a surprisingly wholesome style of entertainment that often feels like a contemporary take on the pantomime form. A show about dirty boys with no dirty jokes, Mars is a remarkably refreshing experience.

Directed by Andrew McInnes, the comedy balances flamboyance with irony, allowing its very broad approach to communicate at somewhat unexpected levels of nuance. The visual style is appropriately lo-fi, with Lucy McCullough’s production design and Tom Houghton’s lights, establishing a lot of playful charm to keep us engaged. Some of the singing is of questionable quality, but the cast is likeable, and they present a well-rehearsed staging that impresses with its verve and spirit of inventiveness. Tom Matthews and Jack Richardson are the more disciplined performers of the group, able to contribute a sheen of professionalism with their vocal and physical polish, although the general lack of refinement remains a major component of Mars‘ appeal.

It is appropriate for our current political climate, to talk as though men are from Mars, women are from, well, Earth. A new generation of feminists have declared that poor behaviour is not acceptable, and that the toxic culture of “boys will be boys” must be changed. We talk of the young as being overly fragile, but it is evident that they are on a mission to make the world a kinder place, that people should not be required to have the fortitude to put up with all manner of bullshit. We should no longer have to laugh along with “casually racist” jokes, just as we should no longer fabricate any reason to blame victims of sexual assault. Those who find this shift in codes of conduct frustrating, are on the wrong side of history.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Cake Daddy (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 16 – 22, 2019
Playwrights: Ross Anderson-Doherty, Lachlan Philpott
Director: Alyson Campbell
Cast: Ross Anderson-Doherty

Theatre review
When we first meet Ross Anderson-Doherty in his one man show, he plays a success story at Cakewatchers, an internationally renowned weight-loss programme. The performer’s large body is the location on which the farce takes place, as he takes us through a series of absurd guidelines, that claim to help individuals achieve some semblance of satisfaction for one’s own physicality, by becoming thin. Cake Daddy by Anderson-Doherty and Lachlan Philpott is an incisive summation of what is termed “diet culture”, the horrendous relationship many of us have with food and body image; that bottomless pit of cruelty, dealt by the self and by society, determined to infect each of us with an overwhelming sense of inadequacy.

As the jokes and songs pass us by, we see Anderson-Doherty shedding the spokesperson’s plastic facade, to reveal real experiences of a fat person who struggles to find self-acceptance. The disclosures are by no means original or new, but the honesty of the performer’s display of emotion, is channelled by director Alyson Campbell to communicate a remarkable poignancy that turns the show subtly, into a discussion about compassion, both for the self and for others. As Anderson-Doherty oscillates between hating his reflection, and loving the freedom of an emancipated mind, we witness the most authentic portrayal of humanity. Even when we have the answers to life’s big mysteries, there will always be hard work waiting to be done, in order to get through some of the days.

Musical numbers in the piece can sometimes feel extraneous, as we tend to lose a powerful sense of immediacy when Anderson-Doherty drifts into song, but to encounter his exceptional singing voice is an unequivocal pleasure. As comedian, his ability to read the audience is uncanny, and we find ourselves always kept on our toes by his vigilant stage awareness, although some of his pacing can be needlessly languid, in a production that is most effective when manic in tone. Cake Daddy skates close to self-deprecation, but its subject is never humiliated. In fact, we watch him in all his glory, and wonder if he actually shares in our vision of his greatness. However each person comes to dislike parts of themselves, it is crucial that one is committed to finding peace within, even if it proves an endless task.

www.wreckedallprods.com

Review: Love And Anger (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 21 – 26, 2019
Creator: Betty Grumble
Cast: Betty Grumble
Images by Ryan Ammon, Liz Ham, Dean Tirkot

Theatre review
The legendary SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas makes several appearances in the show, but Betty Grumble’s Love And Anger does not try to recruit for the Society for Cutting Up Men. It seeks to unify the human race, and all of the planet, by interrogating (and integrating) the matter from which we are composed. Grumble’s work is about flesh and blood, the only things perhaps that we cannot deny of ourselves. We never fail to imagine our identities to be much more grandiose, and in that process, create endless demarcations and conflicts. The artist devotes her entirety to the demolition of those narratives, making us succumb to the admission and the acceptance of our truest and basest selves, in order that we may renounce the countless structures that ultimately seek to create more harm than good.

Grumble insists that our attention is placed on the here and now, and in a theatre space where all our corporeality is congregated, present and irrefutable, she does marvellous things to her body, with her body, inside and onto her body, so that we may reach an image of ourselves, beyond taboo and outrage, that represents a renewed purity. After Grumble removes all of her clothing, she finds ways to take away all the meanings imposed upon her nudity, and because her words are rarely effective in this exercise, the artist’s strongest statements must be made through physical manipulation. Her performance style almost fits into genres of clowning and cabaret, and as is customary in Australia, difficult messages come in the guise of comedy, and Grumble’s extremely bawdy humour is the bridge that leads us to her subversive epiphanies.

The best thing about Love And Anger, is Grumble herself. When we attempt to isolate the text from the artist, it becomes clear that the persona she has evolved, can offer us everything important irrespective of the context in which we locate her. It is the embodiment of culminated meanings that we come into contact with, that is most virtuous in the performance of Grumble. Those virtues are impossible to condense, but chief components of her expressions include beauty, femininity, masculinity, equality, compassion, joy, peace, and above all, love.

When goddesses unravel, we remain goddesses. Betty Grumble’s act explores the notion of ugliness in her efforts to redefine social and anti-social, but it is impossible that she would be perceived in any other way than benevolent and divine, even in the midst of (simulated) excretion. In Love And Anger, we discover that beauty is much more than skin deep. It exists through the skin and beyond it. We receive her beauty because of who she is, but it is probably a greater truth, that we receive her beauty because of who we are.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Since Ali Died (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 8 – 19, 2019
Playwright: Omar Musa
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Omar Musa (with guest vocalist Sarah Corry)
Images by Robert Catto
Theatre review
Omar Musa imagines himself travelling down a river with Muhammad Ali, both men outsiders, connected by experiences of ostracism. Musa’s Since Ali Died provides insight into how people of colour survive the dogged exclusions of white society. Through poetry, prose and hip hop phraseology, Musa’s extraordinary writing provides access to intense and complex emotions, that relate to a sense of displacement, in an Australia struggling to think of itself as anything other than an illegitimate monolith. It is a work about home, but on how it can disown you, presented in a theatrical context that sees a remarkable talent confront an audience comprising adversaries and allies, all of us relevant and implicated.

As performer, Musa is charisma personified. We are won over effortlessly, by a stage presence naturally confident yet vulnerable, one that showcases an honesty that many will find utterly disarming. Masculinity is portrayed in a delicate light, with director Anthea Williams carefully preventing any sense of alienation that could arise from the motivating fury of Musa’s expressions. It is an exercise in compassion that results, an occasion that welcomes all, one that encourages us to think about the parts we play, as individuals and as collectives, in Musa’s personal stories.

Melancholic and incredibly moving, Since Ali Died is a timely meditation on contemporary Australian life, an undeniable summation of all our unique challenges, whether spiritual, social or political. Black and brown people endure discrimination by white structures that lay fake claim to this land, just as Muslims are relegated impudently, to a status of religious inferiority. Omar Musa’s very body and soul, right before our eyes, is evidence of those injustices that insidiously constitute our harmful way of life. He is thriving, but he suffers. In his music, simultaneously celebratory and indignant, we are able to understand the strength that is required of people like Musa. It is dark but uplifting, refusing to give in to destruction. His energy is ample and indomitable, and although painful to see it expended on coping mechanism, there is plenty left for orchestrating a change.

www.griffintheatre.com.au | www.riversideparramatta.com.au

Review: Melba (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Aug 11 – Sep 9, 2017
Book & Lyrics: Nicholas Christo
Music: Johannes Luebbers
Director: Wayne Harrison
Cast: Annie Aitken, Michael Beckley, Caitlin Berry, Andrew Cutcliffe, Blake Erickson, Genevieve Lemon, Emma Matthews, Adam Rennie, Samuel Skuthorp
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Nellie Melba was the first Australian musician to have achieved international stardom, a legendary figure whose story provides inspiration not only to artists who dream of making it big, but also for women everywhere who know how it is to be told to tame their ambitions. She became wife and mother early in life, as was de rigueur in late nineteenth century, and in the musical Melba, we see her struggle to acquire the independence necessary for professional success. A fabulous selection of classical arias are inserted into a new work of musical theatre, with book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo, and music by Johannes Luebbers.

The original material is delightful, with scandalous details in Melba’s story providing an unexpected sense of titillation to proceedings. Director Wayne Harrison keeps us invested in the show’s characters and narratives, for a production that captivates at every point. Design elements however, are generally underwhelming, with set and costumes requiring greater imagination and boldness, for a more accurate approximation of our fantasies, of the diva and her circles.

Performers Annie Aitken and Emma Matthews share the eponymous role, each bringing to the stage, their phenomenal talents and abilities. It is a strong concept, to have disparate disciplines, opera and musical theatre, represented in this quite unique format for Melba, but it is not always a seamless blend in its efforts to accommodate two physical manifestations of the same personality. Nonetheless, the magnificent quality of singing in the show is sufficient to remedy most of its shortcomings. Also noteworthy is Andrew Cutcliffe who successfully turns us against the forsaken husband Charlie. His creation of a persuasive villain for the piece, is efficacious, and impressive.

In its efforts to keep the memory of our heroine, dignified and noble, Melba can often feel compromising in how it portrays her humanity. The picture it delivers is unbelievably pristine, and the drama is subsequently more gently rendered than is perhaps desired. We need people to look up to, especially trailblazers who show us that the impossible can be done, but it is important that we understand that flaws and foibles are what we have in common, especially when the magic they possess can seem so unattainable to mere mortals.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Velvet (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 20, 2017
Director and creator: Craig Ilott
Musical director: Joe Accaria
Choreographer: Lucas Newland
Cast: Joe Accaria, Kaylah Attard, Emma Goh, Marcia Hines, Mirko Köckenberger, Rechelle Mansour, Tom Oliver, Craig Reid, Stephen Williams

Theatre review
The show begins when a young man appears on stage with luggage. Dressed as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe a Mormon, the wide-eyed innocent finds himself in a new city, and we imagine that he encounters disco for the first time. This would mean that the action takes place in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, and in New York, the notorious night club Studio 54 was the epicentre of society and culture. Craig Ilott’s Velvet is essentially a variety show, an homage to the era of the hustle, the afro and cocaine. All is light and frothy, with the protagonist’s journey offering a vague sense of narrative, that holds everything together.

At the centre is a slew of hits, unforgettable songs that defined a generation, marvellously reassembled and executed by musical director Joe Accaria, who ensures that their sparkly appeal is always accompanied by a deep appreciation for the soul and funk roots of these dance-floor stompers. Living legend Marcia Hines plays the diva with effortless grace, trusting that her exceptional voice to take us away from daily humdrum to her realm of sequinned ethereality. Leading man Tom Oliver works harder to prove himself, in archetypal musical theatre style, energetic and earnest in his efforts to reach out to everyone in attendance. Acrobats and circus performers provide excellent spectacle and thrills, each of them accomplished and beautiful. The production relies heavily on two very versatile talents Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour, to maintain its effervescence but later sections require more surprises, perhaps in the form of bigger costumes or additional dancers, to sustain our enthusiasm.

Colours of the rainbow flag make more than a few appearances. We cannot be sure if our boy comes out as gay, but he certainly does come out of his shell in the process. Disco may be about debauchery and hedonism, but we remember it also, for the liberation it inspires and represents, even today. At its best, disco is uplifting while it keeps us feeling dirty. It makes us think of sex as salvation, and creates a space where heaven and hell can meet to reveal so much that is dichotomous about being human.

www.velvettheshow.com