Review: Gundog

A gritty and absorbing story, brilliantly performed
By Owen James

Simon Longman‘s fierce drama ‘Gundog’ has made its Australian Premiere thanks to Three Fates Theatre, a small independent company rising from strength to strength with each production they present.

Gundog was first presented at the Royal Court Theatre in London, the home of unmatched modern English playwrights including Simon Stephens, Tim Crouch, and Martin McDonagh – and Longman’s dynamic script exudes the urgency and explosive dialogue we have come to expect from his contemporaries and the Royal Court. It’s a superb choice of text to present, capturing the audience in the puzzle of a non-linear timeline and drawing us into the fate of this turbulent family.

Director Alonso Pineda has masterfully captured the isolation and cynicism that bleeds from every page, crafting a heartbreaking interpretation of this raw, ‘timeless’ world. The unrelenting advance of time is the core theme, perhaps reiterated with too heavy a hand in the writing, but reflected in a visceral and considered approach in this staging.

Freya Allen‘s innovative set design aligns seamlessly with a lighting design from Harrie Hogan. Coupled together, these designs transform the bite-sized Loft stage into a farm, replete with sheep and rusty shears. Their work especially pays off marking each transition in time, footlights circling and set rearranging. Costume design by Zoe Hawkins is faultless, making great use of farm-like stains and intricate detail.

This ensemble of five are perfectly cast, together forming a believable dysfunctional family unit, and individually delivering balanced and nuanced performances. Thalía Dudek, a co-founder of Three Fates, holds this ensemble together as Becky, the optimistic younger sibling keeping their head high despite grave circumstance. Their transitions between ages are steeped in detail, and successfully convey a litany of thought in just a glance. One to watch.

Andy Johnston‘s physical, connected performance as Ben is emotional, and often chilling. Taking on the character with perhaps the biggest arc in the piece, his journey from confident to vulnerable, and all states inbetween, is very moving, and performed with considerable tenacity. Dion Mills is the audience favourite, a fireball of energy and gravitas. He has us in his hands with every word from grandfather Mick. Alexandros Pettas confidently carries the arc of foreigner Guy, and Laura McCluskey is touching as Anna, displaying firm determination to hold strong through loss and abandonment.

A gritty and absorbing story, brilliantly performed.

https://www.threefatestheatre.com/gundog

Titanic – The Musical – in Concert

A production that befits the scale of the Titanic itself

By Sebastian Purcell

Titanic – the Musical is an operatic recount of the events of the catastrophic maiden voyage of the proclaimed unsinkable ship the Titanic. The story follows a selection of guests from the first three classes and a handful of crew members as they recount their hopes, dreams and come to grip with their ultimate mortality for those1500 souls that perished.

The Australian production directed by Theresa Borg is staged as a lively concert, with minimal set and props. However, it does extend beyond just a simple concert with Katie Ditchburn’s choreography and Jason Bovard’s lighting design combining to add movement and colour, taking the audience from the boiler engine room of the ship and to the cold depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Musical Director Stephen Gray leads a 26 strong orchestra, which is wonderfully tight.

The 23 strong ensemble is impeccable with their vocals. They soar with every note despite dialogue, which I found clunky, and songs which I don’t overly memorable. John O’Hara, as third officer Pitman and Henry Etches is marvellously flamboyant, gleeful and brings a welcome levity to an otherwise serious production. Likewise, I found Johanna Allen’s performance as Alice Bean a standout in her portrayal of a person looking to rise above her class; her acting a stand out in this production.

Juan Jackson as Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s architect, is a powerful, sublime vocalist and serves dutifully as the narrator for the production. However, Anthony Warlow as Captain E.J Smith is the draw card for this production. I was surprised by how little stage time Warlow has in comparison to other roles, and I certainly felt like he was under-utilised given that every time he sang it was a complete masterclass in performance, completely unmatched by anyone. There is a very short aria To Be a Captain in Act Two, his only solo, and his rendition gave me goose bumps and left me wanting more.

On a technical level, I found the Melbourne Town hall not well suited for the sound needed for a work of this stature; the large room created echos in parts. There were also some other difficulties, such as the microphones not been switched on making it had to hear the cast over the orchestra, and some late spotlights struggling to find the performer on the balcony.

For fans of Warlow and Opera you won’t be disappointed, but this is not a musical version of The Titanic the blockbuster movie; My heart will go on does not feature as part of the score. It may have been stronger if it was more reminiscent of the movie.

Titanic-The musical in concert played at the Melbourne Town Hall

Image supplied

Review: The Phantom of the Opera 

The Phantom will be inside your mind long after the curtain falls.

By Sebastian Purcell

The Phantom of the Opera opened on London’s West End in October 1986 and has been re-staged many times over for the past 36 years. Opera Australia’s season of Phantom of the Opera is beautifully re-imagined through an exquisite and lively production. Director Laurence Connor has breathed fresh life into arguably one of the most successful and recognisable musicals in history.

For those unaware, the story is set In the late 1800’s. The cast of the Paris Opera House are rehearsing a new production of Hannibal when resident soprano prima donna Carlotta Giunicelli’s (Giuseppina Grech) aria is interrupted by a stage accident. Ballet dancer Christine Daaé (Amy Manford) takes over the role to great acclaim, but her unseen angel of music teacher the Phantom (Josh Piterman) is enraged when his physical deformity is revealed. Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Blake Bowden) falls in love with Christine, promising to protect her from the Phantom. Christine must then choose between her love of performing and the love of her life.

As one expects from Opera Australia, the vocal performances of the 37 strong cast are flawless. Amy Manford’s performance as Christine is the best I have ever seen. Think of Me, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, and The Phantom of the Opera are chillingly breathtaking. However, it’s her performance of Notes/Twisted Every Way that grounds the character as a frightened child, being used by the men in her life. Manford draws the audience to a standing ovation – and deservedly so. 

Josh Piterman’s Phantom is full of interesting choices. While vocally exquisite and smooth and his renditions of Music of the Night, All I Ask of You (reprise) and The Point of No Return are pitch perfect, he plays the role more gently, more humanly than other portrayals. However. I must say I missed at times the cruelty and anger of previous Phantoms which tie the inward ugliness of the character to his physical ugliness. The staging of this production at times also humanised the Phantom, placing him amongst the cast for the Act Two opener Masquerade/ Why so Silent? as opposed to above the cast, on a staircase, as per previous productions. For me, this reduced his stature and consequently less likely to be feared. Nonetheless, Piterman’s performance is worth the top billing. 

Blake Bowden’s performance as Raoul is also outstanding. His tone is silky throughout All I Ask of You and the trio of Bowden, Piterman and Manford soar in Wondering Child. Credit must go to the sound design team at the State Theatre as every note is clearly audible. The ensemble is tight, and well utilised throughout for scene changes adding impressive colour and movement. 

Paul Brown’s set design is the boldest I’ve seen and is as jaw dropping as the performances themselves. The well-known bridge to the Phantom’s lair is replaced with the most magnificent spiral staircase. The scenes are densely populated adding a rich character that fills the State theatre, ensuring you can’t mistake it for a concert. The chandelier, well its best left to experience rather than description, but in true Phantom form it comes screaming down from the ceiling. 

Finally, Phantom of the Opera’s music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is what audiences love. The 27-piece orchestra brings the wonderful score to life. Melbourne’s State Theatre is arguably the best place to hear it. It doesn’t get any better than this full orchestra taking flight as the chandelier rises and the overture kicks into full swing. 

Opera Australia’s The Phantom of the Opera is the boldest, most stunning production of the musical yet. This night of music was indeed incredibly special. 

The Phantom of the Opera is playing at the Melbourne Arts Centre from 3 November to 5 February. Tickets Arts Centre Melbourne

Photo credit: Daniel Boud

Review: Urinetown – the musical

You’re in Urinetown and it’s a wee bit of fun!

By Sebastian Purcell

Urinetown the Musical premiered on Broadway in 2001 with music by Mark Hollmann and lyrics by Hollman and Greg Kolis. Soundworks’ production is distinctly set in rural Australia, on the backdrop of a 20-year drought highlighting a way of life that may be more closer to reality if the effects of climate change continue on our current trajectory. Urinetown parodies a number of musicals and Soundworks’ has offered a contemporary take some of these parodies along with the musical format itself.

Due to the severe water shortages, Caldwell B Cladwell (Quin Kelly) has established Urine Good Company (UGC) to control water consumption. The towns’ officers Lockstock (Dom Hennequin) and Barell (Ashlee Noble) ensure the town-folk pay to pee under the harsh eye of Penelope Pennywise (Maddison Coleman). If the laws are broken, then offenders are sent to Urinetown, never to return.  The oppression leads to an uprising from former UGC employee Bobby Strong (Finn Alexander) with the support of Caldwell’s daughter Hope Cladwell (Amy McMillan), only for the town and its people to realise freedom might not be the savour they were hoping for.

This is an absolute laugh out loud performance. It is superbly directed by Mark Taylor, with the support of choreographers Sophie Loughran and Aadhya Wijegoonawardena. The production is lively, energetic and borderlines ridiculous but never crosses the line; and while the show doesn’t take itself seriously the cast and creative team absolutely do. The cast, as an ensemble excel, especially in dancing in unison, with a personal favourite the Act Two opener What is Urinetown? – a homage to Fiddler on the Roof.

This is a tight-knit cast, each shining and getting applause throughout, but there are some absolute scene stealers in this show. Finn Alexander as Bobby Strong demonstrates a polished vocal performance in a Sister Act inspired Run Freedom Run. Alexander leads the ensemble who transform into a garbage bag clad chorus while his defying gravity run, mop in hand (not broomstick), is terrific. Amy McMillan as Hope also soars  but my favourite is her acapella start to, I See a River. McMillan brings such depth to a role that could easily be a one-dimensionsupplementary character. Chloe Halley as Little Sally plays deadpan against the goofy and solid Hennequin. However, it is Ashlee Noble as Officer Barrell that steals the spotlight in every scene. She has the audience eating out of her palm. Not only is her comedic timing superb but she is an all-round performer bringing a physicality that’s unmatched.

The staging is minimal and effective, ensuring the large cast are able to fill the small stage available at Chapel off Chapel. The use of milk crates as major props from barricades (think Les Miserable) to love heart props within a corrugated iron outhouse puts you immediately in the Australian Outback. Aron Murray’s lighting design is vibrant and a clever use of toilet plungers as handheld lights is used to good effect.

The subject matter may be doused in toilet humour, but what better way is there to get audiences to consider important themes of sustainability and climate change and their impact on the world around them.

Urinetown the musical is playing at Chapel off Chapel from 28 October until 6 November 2022 with tickets via Urinetown | Chapel Off Chapel.

Photography by Benjamin Gregory (BG Group)

Review: Sirens

A brilliant queer story of self-discovery, self-worth and redemption that is raw, authentic and full of hope.

By Sebastian Purcell

Sirens is a solo performance, delving into the queer experience of love, lust and acceptance. Siren is expertly directed by Liv Satchell and superbly written and performed by Benjamin Nichols.

Twenty-two years old and rurally isolated, Eden, finds purpose when his voice is in full flight. However, bored, aimless and angry at his parents, Eden is consumed by the attention and sexual gratification from the endless string of older men that pass through on holiday. That is until he meets David and forms a connection and dreams of what life could be like. Until David abandons Eden and Eden is forced to come back to reality and find an inner strength, peace and joy once again in his music.

This is an exhilarating, fair dinkum Aussie tale. Nichol’s performance is visceral, rhythmic and his ability to project characters he brings to life—his mother, father and David as well as others—through just the inflection of his voice conjures ripe imagery.

But above all, and in a total surprise, Nichol performs two songs acapella throughout the show; I Want Someone Badly, Jeff Buckley and Into my Arms, Nick Cave.  These are stunning moments in the context of the show, but also show Nichol’s skill as a vocalist with such raw power, control, and emotion. These remakes are emphatically better than their originals. Selfishly, I wanted to have the whole show sung after hearing this.

The script has a mammoth word count that would rival any hour-long Aaron Sorkin TV episode, and impressively Nichol hardly draws a breath. As a minor critique, I did find the lack of silence refrained my ability to reflect and take in the full emotion; we were thrusted from one high octane scene to another, one after the other.

On the technical side, Connor Ross’s sound design is minimal yet important as a quiet supporting act, placing you on location, whether that’s the crash of waves along the beach, to the ear-splitting sirens inside Eden’s head. Harrie Hogan’s lighting design does the same, effortlessly supporting scene changes on an empty stage. I never once felt like I didn’t know where we physically were in the story.  It’s a shame that the Trades Hall Meeting room isn’t soundproof. and noisy, excited crowds outside could be heard towards the end of the show – not that it knocked Nichol off his game.

Siren certainly deserves to be seen in front of large crowds, with an Aussie story worth telling. Nichol’s acting proves that you only need an authentic commitment to storytelling for a truly impressive theatre show.

Siren played as part of this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival.

The 20s, and all that dissonance

By Leeor Adar

Ah, the 1920s. Some think Gatsby, but I’m inclined to think Weill.

A period that inspired many current-day flapper parties, but fundamentally tested an array of structures, very notably in music. It’s almost too good: Meow Meow and the MSO coming together again (remember Pandemonium?) to jostle a comfortable audience’s senses with tales of tragedy and temptation.

Meow Meow is joined onstage by the incredible Aura Go on piano and Christopher Moore conducting and on violin. They take us on a long (and I do mean, long) journey through the 1920s with Hindemith, Walton and Stravinsky. Amidst these pillars of discord, we are also treated to Picabia’s La Nourrice Américaine (The American Nurse), Schwitters’ Cigarren, and Weill, of course.

Meow Meow keeps things light to begin with, adding her own unique schtick that elicits chuckles from the audience. Once the back is suitably exposed, and we’re all smiling, she does a fine job of introducing the audience to the 1920s and what it meant politically, socially, and importantly, musically.  Parallels are made to our current end of days, and we nod understandingly.

The first pillar of discord of the evening is Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2 for Piano and 12 solo instruments. Composed in 1924, the piece is structured across four movements, with the piano at the centre. Go is absolutely in element here, showcasing her versatility as a performer and every bit the virtuoso. Hindemith’s piece essentially takes chamber music and thrusts it into a storm, all the notes carrying off the ground and ascending to a place beyond the period and spouting it back out with vigour and contempt. It’s an uneasy ride, but it’s perfectly well suited to the commencement of the pieces this evening.

It’s time for more chuckles with Cigarren by Kurt Schwitters, an obscure piece of disassembled language that only a Dada could love. It curls and purrs out of Meow Meow’s mouth like it was written for her. Meow Meow also gives us a delicious rendition of Brecht/Weill’s classic, Pirate Jenny. The shrill cruelty of Pirate Jenny’s words sounds as it should in German, and it’s quite titillating despite only three audience members speaking a lick of the language (Meow Meow checked). It’s okay, we, the bourgeoise audience all universally understand the welling hatred of those who look down upon us.

It’s all cruelty, with another Brecht/Weill ballad, in The Ballad of the Drowned Girl, until we fall headlong into William Walton’s poetic universe in selections of Façade. The morbid state of the evening ascends briefly in Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The tale is compellingly narrated by Meow Meow, and the devil in disguise is elegantly portrayed by Moore, who’s silhouette as he conducts and plays along, is a ghoulish projection upon the Melbourne Recital Centre’s curtains. And just as I too am about to abandon all hope, the lighting saturates a deep red, the drums crescendo, and the soldier makes his choice in the face of the beckoning devil.

Ah yes, the 1920s as we like to remember, where temptation wins.

Review: Tattle Tales

Come one, come all!

Leeor Adar

We descended down the stairs of the Bard’s Apothecary in Melbourne. Fitting name, fitting cocktails. Theatre with a tarot reading is an appealing concept. I haven’t stumbled into a reading in years, but before Tattle Tales starts, performer (and founder of Ponydog Productions) Davey Seagle gives my friend and I a tarot reading with half a deck (but magic is magic, you see). For true believers, it’s a damn good reading. For the sceptic, half the deck sits candlelit a table away.

It’s cosy down below, and Seagle is an excellent storyteller who expertly sets the mood for the evening. It’s a little mysterious, quite fun, and at the same time surprisingly relaxing for an immersive show. That’s largely the doing of Seagle’s respectful approach, which in turn sparks engagement with the more introverted among us. 

Weaving the audience together into groups, we’re choosing our fate and adventure for the next 60 minutes. Everyone politely urges a member of each group to choose the group’s fate and select a tarot card at different points. Each night is a new group, new reading and new storyline. We fall into classical storylines quite easily, but sometimes you need to spice things up. I offer a thumbs down (quite the anti-hero) and the audience gasps. What have I done? Well, the group behind us with the Sun card are feeling suddenly vengeful. And that’s the magic of it. Each group brings the unexpected, and Seagle is a magical facilitator with a wise voice to guide us along.

Ponydog Productions (Hotel Bella Luna) is based in Sydney, and is a relatively new immersive theatre company. Tattle Tales, created by Seagle and Lachlan Ruffy, is their first show in Victoria as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival… but something in the cards tells me it won’t be thier last.

Tattle Tales played at the Bard’s Apothecary as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival

Photo by Aaron Cornelius

Review: Ghost Stories

Spooky symposium
Owen James

Endowed in hazard tape and festoon lights, the bellows of Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre make for the perfect location for a night of Ghost Stories. The intimate yet cavernous space is superbly transformed into numerous locations through extremely effective Lighting Design by James Farncombe and stunning Production Design by Jon Bauser; the production looks a million dollars.

Penned by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the play was a long-running smash hit in the West End, and it’s easy to see why. Designed purely to elicit screams and yelps from audience members tempted by a ghoulish evening, the text relies, as all good horror does, on capacious sequences of suspense, exploding into heart-palpitating jumpscares. This is a very fun night at the theatre, and hearing the packed Athenaeum scream together is a delight.

Taking the form of a horror anthology ala Creepshow or Tales From The Darkside, three seemingly isolated stories are framed by the conceit of a lecture dissecting the history and mythology inherent in Ghost Stories themselves. Steve Rogers masterfully leads this ongoing lecture as Professor Phillip Goodman, whipping through sometimes extraneous passages with delight, and coping with building horrors of his own.

While staving clear of spoilers, it’s safe to say the first story featuring Jay Laga’aia as unnerved nightwatchmen Tony Matthews is undoubtedly the strongest. Laga’aia lulls us into a tense sense of calm as his horror draws closer and closer, milking the building stress in a realistic and cathartic performance that is the highlight of this production. Laga’aia’s exquisitely paced storytelling is aided by, again, superb Lighting Design from James Farncombe.

Darcy Brown plays stranded motorist Simon Rifkind with delightful dread, and Nick Simpson-Deeks is perfectly cast as smarmy businessman Mike Priddle, tormented with infantile terrors. Strong Direction from original creative team trio Jeremy Dyson, Sean Holmes and Andy Nyman successfully lands each tale and its alarming climax, rewarded with screams from the baited crowd.

Mastering horror on the stage is a difficult and admittedly rarely explored feat, and Realscape’s production of Ghost Stories tackles this challenge with tremendous design and absorbing performances. Sure, the scares are silly sometimes – but isn’t that the point of a good ghost story?

For the next couple of weeks, every time a streetlamp flickers, I’ll think of Ghost Stories, playing a limited season until November 5: https://www.ghoststoriestheshow.com.au/

Photography courtesy of Charles Alexander

Review: The Meeting

Enter a dreamer and a revolutionary with a plea for equality still missing today 

By Sebastian Purcell

The Meeting is an outstanding theatre play depicting a fictional dialogue between American Civil Rights Activists, Dr Martin Luther King Jr (Dushan Phillips) and Malcom X (Christopher Kirby) in February 1965. Playwright Jeff Stetson brings events that occurred nearly 60 years ago alive and transforms them into contemporary issues that are at the forefront of today’s political discourse; he play was conceived nearly 35 years ago yet is strikingly relevant now.  

The Meeting explores Dr King Jr’s and Malcom X’s opposing views of how to bring about societal change and equality to African Americans, one dedicated to non-violent means and peaceful demonstrations and the other advocating an advance to freedom through revolution with the ends justifying the means, even if that includes violence.

Peter Mumford (set and costume design) and Richard Vabre (lighting design) immediately place you into what feels like the Audubon Ballroom, New York, where Malcom X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, and later transitioning to the balcony in which MLK Jr was assassinated three years later. The staging, while sparse, cleverly uses a large wooden table as the centrepiece depicting the meeting, the balcony and even competing ideals of the two activists. The lighting and sound (Justin Gardam) works to transport the audience to what feels more like a memory, using almost sepia tones as if to say the movement, and those who fought for its ideals, are beginning to fade like an old photograph with the passage of time.

Director Tanya Gerstle has excelled in all elements here, firstly through casting. Not only do Phillips and Kirby go toe to toe for 60 minutes in both a verbal and physical contest, but Kirby’s towering and athletic physic adds to Malcom X’s heightened sense of willingness to use force to create change. It is a wonderfully paced play and the addition of Akkhilesh Jain as Malcom X’s body guard offers levity in what is a tense and thought provoking story. Jain had the audience laughing out loud with his well-timed quips, and serves as a physical representation of the pawns which Malcom X is fighting to protect in his game of chess.

Phillips and Kirby as Dr King Jr and Malcom X respectively are captivating. Their verbal sparing is delivered with conviction and clarity. The energy from both is cleverly aligned to their characters; Phillips is calm, stoic, patient, non threatening, aligned to that of his beliefs in civil protest, while Kirby is more rash, forceful in delivery and bold and physical in his performance.

Some of the clear messages that arise from The Meeting include: that non-violence does not equal non-action; that we all have to put in to create a better, more equal society; and that while the systems and laws may change, if those who wield power and hold privilege don’t change then the application of those laws and systems will continue to disproportionately affect those they were intended to uplift.

The Meeting is a timely reminder that even when our philosophies differ, pushing in the same direction will support achieving equality for all, much sooner and with far less resistance.

The Meeting is presented by Red Stitch until to 23 October in St Kilda, tickets available at Red Stitch or via Melbourne Fringe Festival 

Promotional photo by Robert Blackburn & Work Art Life Studios

Review: Circonoclasm – NICA

An enthralling exploration of art

By Leeor Adar

Always in for a treat, NICA delivers an enjoyable romp with a message from its second-year student ensemble.

Directed by David Woods (Ridiculusmus Theatre Company, London), Circonoclasm is a sharp and fun take down of the sacredness of the arts space. In the National Australia Gallery, the artwork’s shelf life is brief as elastic thieves swing, bounce and flounce between the bored security guards. As the nation collectively yawns, bored by the art perhaps, or bored by the way in which it is displayed, the capable hands of thieves go to work.

“Not our fault” is repeated by a gussied-up Maya Davies, who in a transatlantic accent delivers a history of all the failed attempts to preserve past works. In Woods’ own words, the “deadpan physical theatre schtick” is the mode for which iconoclasm is explored by the students in this 70-minute performance. The messaging is clear: the arts has given way to excuses and corporate sponsorships, where art for art’s sake is preferred to quality. One could say we experience Circonoclasm as shtick for schtick’s sake, but I like that Woods has injected something deeper into the showcase of NICA’s talent.

The talent is indeed on display, which is a hard feat to pull off when you have a 23 strong ensemble with their own unique skill to showcase. We cycle through Seurat (with a magical nod to the circus), Michelangelo and Munch to name a few, as works of art come to life through the physical expression of the performers.

Dominating the performance is a series of heists that toy with physical boundaries, but the plot thickens (as does the humour) with enquiring characters, a dog-pigeon, and some fantastically mind-bending backtracking. In an attempt to uncover the architects of the heist, we are treated to a series of hysterical vignettes where the guards interrogate one another. Notable mentions to Dean Moran’s compelling relationship with an orange, and Harrison Sweeney’s great seduction.

Overall, I was enthralled with NICA’s talent and Woods’ vision.

Circonoclasm was performed at the National Institute of Circus Art. For more about NICA visit https://www.nica.com.au/