Sunday, 31 March 2002

Scum Nation - Rod Quantock , March 31, 2002

Scum Nation - Rod Quantock 
Melbourne Town Hall, March 31 to April 21, 2002
Melbourne Comedy Festival
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

I refuse to shift on this. Rod Quantock is still our best political comedian. He may simply be our best comedian.

His new show, Scum Nation, is yet another vitriolic attack on government. John Howard is the patsy this time. After Jeff Kennett went to God (or was it to advertising?) Quantock thought his comic career was over.

Who would be his next target? Then little Johnny Howard stuck his head up and Rod has been doing target practice ever since.

Quantock is a master of audience interaction. He greets us at the door, takes our tickets and taunts us relentlessly. He is merciless with latecomers who are followed up the aisles to their seats and grilled about why they were late.

The show is still low-tech with a whiteboard and a big glossy map of the world. The jokes about chalk versus jumbo, blue whiteboard marker pens are still with him.

His longing for the old days when milk was milk and butter just butter are not just nostalgia but satirical jibes at a culture that cannot keep it simple any more.

He uses the whiteboard to create a time line again from the year dot to the present with the Liberal Party emerging somewhere after the woolly mammoths.
Quantock has a refined capacity to create a mad theory out of two unrelated facts making a new fiction.

He aims his vitriol at our Army recruitment methods, Howard's refugee policy, his riding on the back of the Tampa and September 11. He also has a go at the Australian electorate that put him back in government.

He aims unfriendly fire at our participation in Afghanistan, the Liberals push polling, Japanese whaling 'for scientific purposes'.

He reads from a book quoting the Wisdom of George Bush. Bush needs no editing or gag writing. His own misuse of language is sufficiently idiotic to get laughs.

By the end of the hour, the whiteboard is scrawled with figures and graphs and abuse. We have followed every moment of the trail of blood and rage and jokes.

Quantock is right. God is alive and loves comedy. Why else would he send so much political and social material for a comedian with a conscience?

By Kate Herbert
for 2 pages:

John Hegley & Simon Munnery, March 31.2002

John Hegley  and Simon Munnery -The Journals  
at 7 Alfred Place Melbourne, March 31 until April 21, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Let's face it. The Brits have a handle on comedy like no other nation. John Hegley and Simon Munnery in their joint show, The Journals, are proof.

The pair are an unlikely but fascinating duo. Hegley is Elvis Costell  with dancing hips and bonkers performance poetry. He even has the black spectacles and he makes a virtue of them.

He elevates glasses wearers to royalty and castigates contact lenses users. His audience applause with spectacles' arms is a highlight.

Hegley's journals are fabricated from his childhood memories in the suburbs of Luton,  a satellite town of London. His snatches of diary entries of a ten year old are ironic, cheeky and often surprising. He plays an electric mandolin and sings silly songs about his Luton bungalow.

 His controlled mania, skipping gait and compelling gaze keep us attentive like children just in case he picks on us next and we don't know the answer.

Munnery is a different story. He enters as Alan Parker, Urban Warrior,  a character we saw at the 2001 Comedy Festival. Parker is compelling and recognnisable if you know any ill-read anarchists.

The character is an intellectual and political dwarf. He thinks anarchy is not working for the man and a band is just as good without the musical bits.
Parker is the master of stating the bleeding obvious. His arguments are built on sand. He babbles mad and illogical capitalist conspiracy theories.  Everyone is a fascist, everything is a fascist plot. Breaking rules is the rule.

The insane high point of the show is Hegley and Munnery in a dramatised version of one of the Journals. They travel in verse and by train to a seaside talent quest.

John plays himself. Munnery plays Tony, A glib West Indian, the gay Maitre d', a fey mermaid and an 80 year beauty with a coat hanger in her beard. Yes. Coat hanger and beard.
They have a some achingly funny sound effect gags, bad mime and they play as a vaudeville double act who are hosts of the talent quest.

The Journals is inexplicable, funny and weird. Go see them. They are sensational.

By Kate Herbert

Port Out Starboard Home, Chris Addison, March 31.2002

Port Out Starboard Home - In the company of Chris Addison
Melbourne Town Hall, March 31 until April 21, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Chris Addison is like Hugh Grant on speed. He is dead charming, a bit of a toffy-nosed Brit and a self-declared 'middle-class, woolly left, Guardian reader."

His show is an engaging, funny and intelligent glance at how England copes with the rest of the world since it lost The Empire. Not well it seems - like an accountant whose sons have gone off to join the Tree Huggers.

We follow the fall of the Empire across a huge map of the world pinned on the back wall. We see the pink bits fall and argue about when Australia left the Empire. Does anyone know? Evidently it was not Federation.

Addison arives on stage dressed as a 30s dandy in a cream, Oxbridge summer suit as if ready for an Atlantic cruise and a spot of badminton on the deck. Each segment of the show is introduced by an old fashioned Music Hall title card set upon an easel at stage left.

The jokes come thick and fast and Addison's grasp of the Australian political scene is strong. He gives John Howard a big serve of vitriol, but then most comedians do.

 Why did we vote Howard in again, he asks, when he was on his way out last Comedy Festival? Are we idiots? Evidently we are.

His English-Australian references are numerous. He has a go at us (and particularly Mr. Howard) for not saying sorry, the Tampa, detention centres, refugees, cricket and the Ashes.

There are jibes at the English Bed and Breakfast. Why would the most unwelcoming nation in the world take people into their homes? Just to be rude to them.

His pirate material is a hoot as are the snipes at the English expatriates who climb an artificial social ladder in another country and fail to engage with the local culture.

His gentler attacks on English and Australian backpackers abroad. He calls it an 'anti-cultural exchange', to send our feckless youth overseas as ambassadors.

His rampant raving finale is a tribute to a litany of sins of the English. He calls upon the audience to go out and Anglo-evangelise the world. Go forth and propagate bad food, bad hospitality and bad cricket I suppose.

This is an impressive show with a charming and smart comedian.

By Kate Herbert

Richard Herring, March 31, 2002

Christ on a Bike
 7 Alfred Place until April 2, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Richard Herring's show, Christ on a Bike starts badly but is worth it for ten minutes of wild theorising about the first pages of Matthew and Luke's Gospels.

Herring needs work on his audience relationship, his material and comic delivery.  He may have been nervous on his first Saturday night in Melbourne but his manner was unengaging and brusque which did not quite work for us.

His premise is fine. Last year, at age thirty-three, he discovered he was the same age as Jesus when he died. Could Herring be the New Messiah? - awkward to prove, particularly when you are an atheist.

His whole show is a series of dislocated stories about his childhood, conversations about religion and atheism with his ardent Christian parents and a dream about racing Christ on a bicycle.

The last is reminiscent of The Hare and Tortoise.

He slams transubstantiation, the Second Coming, the virgin birth - well, all religious beliefs. He has a go at Buddha and other religious figures but hold his fire at Islam. "I'm not an idiot," he quips.

He does some unpleasant sexist material that might work if he won the audience over first. As it was, he lost some of us immediately.

His ten minutes of good material shows Herring at his best. He is driven to debunk the Bible and finds a crazy argument to do so. He takes the genealogical line from Matthew's  gospel and recites the babble of unpronouncable names that lead from Abraham to Jesus in an evangelical rant to rival Billy Graham.

The crowd loves his ridiculous obsession with the biblical names. They marvel at his ability to remember them and his weird desire to turn them into an acronym to memorise them.

Herring seemed aware that the gig was not his best. If he was more engaged and friendly, more wiling to respond to what happened in the audience and communicate directly, he might be more successful.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 29 March 2002

Eccentric Acts, March 29, 2002

By Sue Broadway and Jeff Turpin
 At Theatreworks, March 29 until April 7, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Eccentric Acts is a goofy show. The main reason is the original vaudeville routines upon which Sue Broadway and Jeff Turpin base the production. These are indeed eccentric act.

The show is a collage of clown, music, juggling and old film footage. Broadway strings it together with a loose, chatty, not wholly successful narration. The casualness of the narration seems amateurish and Broadway is initially uncomfortable on stage.

The show becomes progressively more interesting and entertaining and the two actors more engaging and relaxed in their roles as clown mistress, MCs and assistant.

The highlights are several acts in the second half. Broadway appears in a silver metallic outfit made of various percussive metal objects that she plays hilariously.

There are a few quick costume changes that get laughs. The costume that transforms into a tent is a beauty. The most successful act is the tea party. Broadway serves herself a full afternoon tea by pouring hot tea from a pot into a tea porcelain cup and saucer on her head.

Huge laughs come from over-filling the cup until it pours down her carefully composed face. She tops it off with tossing lumps of sugar and a teaspoon into the cup.

Turpin accompanies her on a clarinet. His routine with the music stand is classic clown comedy and he plays the music stand tube like a trombone to the delight of the audience.

His clown becomes more confident and funnier as the show progresses. His style is low-key as he plays the servile assistant.
The video footage of quirky old Australian vaudevillians is rivetting. The Egyptian dancing twins, the contortionist spider man, George Wallace and Roy Rene feature.

What could be elaborated upon is Broadways; stories about her grandparents, Alf and Elsie Broadway,  who were vaudevillians. We are fascinated by this story and want more.

A mistake is not a problem. It is an opportunity," said broadways' grandfather. The errors on stage often got the biggest laughs in vaudeville.
This show is fun and unusual in content. What it needs is tightening of scene changes and more of the high tension performance that the vaudevillians used on stage.

It could do with a single directorial eye to bring the style together, heighten the comedy and drama as well as speed up the pace of the acts.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 21 March 2002

Uncle Bob, Red Stitch, March 21, 2002

By Austin Pendleton
Red Stitch Theatre, 80 Inkerman St., St. Kilda, March 21 to April 7, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

A two-hander is difficult to write and stage. No third character can enter and change the dynamic. Austin Pendleton's play, Uncle Bob, does it with style and Kaarin Fairfax's  production is a fine rendering of the script.

Pendleton, a member of the Chicago Steppenwolf Company,  writes a pungent drama about the relationship between a dying man and his stroppy nephew.

Bob, played compellingly by Neil Pigot,  has AIDS, now lives alone since his wife left him months earlier because he was difficult to tolerate. He is surprised by Josh's (Nick Barkla)  arrival from the country where he lives with his father, Bob's brother.

But the play is not only about Bob's illness, his aloneness or rudeness, his failed writing career or financial dependence on his brother. Nor is it only about Josh's mania, his abrasiveness, his multiple car wrecks or his suicidal tendencies.

It is about the profound familial attachment these two men have for each other and that they try to keep under wraps. It manifests in bitterness, abuse, unkindness and odd bursts of affection and attentiveness.

Pigot is exceptional as Uncle Bob. His acting craft is superb and he inhabits Bob totally. Pigot carries the show with his riveting performance and loving attention to detail.

Barkla is a less experienced and less skilful actor. His Josh is generally believable and is absolutely committed. However his performance lacks subtlety. The character runs on one note and full speed for much of the play. This may be partly the fault of the writing or even the direction.

Fairfax handles this aggressively in-your-face play by treating it simply. She lets the characters do the work.

The tiny venue that Red Stitch performs in is ideal for this intimate story. Nick Merrylees  lighting emphasises the intimacy of the space while the naturalism of Kellee Frith's  set design is appropriate.

The relationship between these two men is complex and riddled with secrets both disturbing and innocuous. We are riveted and appalled by their journey when Josh decides to stay with Bob.

Love masquerades as cruelty and desire as abuse. Each demonstrates a pathological compulsion to die. Both enact this in a different way. These are fraught characters with jagged edges.

We are confounded and mesmerised by the outrageous resolution of their damaged relationship.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 15 March 2002

Four Small Deaths, March 15, 2002

By Stephen Davis   
Corrugated Theatre
Chapel off Chapel, March 15 to 24, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Four unrelated monologues featuring four or more deaths comprise Stephen Davis's script, Four Small Deaths, directed by Tom Gutteridge.  

The four pieces are entertaining. However, they are quirky but not ground breaking, funny but not sophisticated. They have limited dramatic narrative development, characters remain unchanged by what happens and there is no sub-text.

Davis's writing lacks depth and subtlety. Gutteridge cleverly chooses to keep staging and design to a minimum but the ends of scenes need to be clearer. The pieces bleed into each other, undercutting their endings.

Two actors, Julie Eckersley and Eddy Segal  perform the lead in two scenes each.

 Eckersley is engaging and energetic in both roles and shows a comic talent in number four.

Segal gives a good line in the pathological but the performance lacks detail and is vocally restricted throughout the show.

In the first, Segal is Timothy, a twitchy, neurotic and violent young man who is being questioned by the police about the bloody death of his girlfriend and of a stranger.

The scene moves from his description of the interrogation to his ruminations on his past actions, meeting his girlfriend, falling in love, rouging up a kid on the football field. He is clearly unstable, even pathological.

Number two sees Eckersley as a psychotic serial killer who invades a man's home and ties him to a chair so she can taunt, torture then murder him gruesomely. Eckersley is not quite believable in the role but makes a good show of it.

In three Segal, as the clearly disturbed Simon, prowls around his room waiting for the sleeping (or is she dead?) girl he picked up last night to wake.

We hear about his hatred for his mother, his tattoos, his piercings and his desire to suicide.

The last is a peculiar parody of Grace, a teenager, pitching her movie script. Eckersley plays Grace and all the wacko characters in her slasher movie, Killer Bunnies. This is really a sketch rather than a short play. Twenty minutes was too long.

By Kate Herbert

Monday, 11 March 2002

The Bull-Ant , March 11, 2002

by Bill Garner  and Sue Gore  
at Theatreworks  March 11 to 23, 2002
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"They're funny bastard. And they hurt," says the publicity for The Bull-Ant, written by Bill Garner and Sue Gore.

The Bull-Ant in question refers not only to the grotesque, stinging insect we love to hate in summer. It also refers to writer, Ted Dyson and the acerbic weekly paper he produced from 1890 to 1892.

Dyson has an acid pen and garner and Gore steal his own words from the pages of The Bull-Ant and put them into the mouths of Dyson's alter-egos.

As well as narrating the story as Dyson himself, Garner appears as all the aliases used by Dyson to fill the pages of the paper.

He plays Ginger Steve , the working class punk who covers sports and occasional and hilariously, fashion at the races.
Steve has an old style Aussie slang and battered grammar. Garner portrays him as a bandy-legged, dodgy but lovable street fighter who loves a scrap.

Toby Twist  is the effete, pompous wit who writes the theatre reviews. As Toby, Garner poses and ponces about, tearing strips off every show he sees.

Mrs. Grundy  is a highlight. Dyson wrote a social column as the Grundy and Garner plays her as a blousey scone-making housewife who critiques every social occasion as if it the Queen's visit.

Garner's performance is charming and he keeps the staging simple allowing Dyson's witty dialogue and his own characters' voices to speak to us.

When he speaks as Dyson himself, we are compelled by this sharp mind that wrote The Golden Shanty, a Gold Rush story many of us read in primary school.

We are also appalled by his blatant racism. His negative attitude to the Chinese and then to the Italians is, sadly, not restricted to his time.

Garner is restricted by the design of the space. In the centre is a relief map of Australia that appears to be a bull ant nest hill. Because it is centre stage, all the action must take place around the edges or at front of the space. This means he can never use the strongest place in the theatre - centre stage.

The dialogue smacks of the period of and his contemporaries, Henry Lawson,  Banjo Paterson.   It is arch and articulate, witty and scathing. We lack that kind of freedom of speech in this politically correct era.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday, 10 March 2002

Ordinary Misery, March 10, 2002

By Irene Korsten  La Mama, MArch 10 to 24, 2002

At La Mama

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

After a week in Adelaide seeing too much mediocre theatre, it is a relief to see Ordinary Misery. This three-hander is tastefully written, directed and acted.

Irene Korsten's script is well crafted, simple but never obvious. The story is about Emily,  (Caroline Lee) a young woman recently emerged from drug rehab.

Lee plays her vulnerability and fragility with great sensitivity and skill. Director, David Wicks with Lee, highlights Emily's vibrating nervousness.

 We are helpless witnesses to her stubborn refusal to see that Tony, (Richard Bligh OK) her recovery support person and new 'boyfriend,' is using her for sex.

Emily visits drug recovery meetings where she meets Tony. He is eight years clean and selfishly sees Emily as an easy sexual target.

Bligh plays him with relish. He captures perfectly Tony's angry, rough, manipulative, sexist, working class character.

Emily also visits a therapist, Helen who is portrayed with great empathy, ease and attentiveness by Angela Campbell. the sub-text of dialogue is ever-present. She is aware that Emily is on thin ice with her health and rehabilitation and that Tony is dangerous.

Wicks' direction is subtle and almost invisible but it is this very quiet quality that makes the piece work so well. The actors stay in the space at all times. As scenes shift the therapist moves out of light, Tony drifts at the sidelines, moving only when his next scene is beginning.

Emily is always in the presence of the two people who are helping her. One, Tony, is a pretender. The other, Helen, is unable to stop Emily's inevitable slide into depression and addiction.

Korsten's dialogue is brisk and beautifully observed. Each of the three characters has a distinctive voice and rhythm. The story is well paced and, although we fear for Emily we never know where she is actually going. We hope she is moving forward.

The tragedy of this girl's life is that she has no idea that her past contributes to her addiction. She has no awareness of the real world and expects that being clean will make her happy. She does not understand the ordinariness of life, ordinary misery.

The world is not necessarily a happy place for us all. As her therapist says, we have to do something to feel worthwhile. It does not come automatically.

It is a hard road to walk, the return to health and wholeness.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 8 March 2002

The Adelaide Festival 2002, March 38 20

Adelaide: Is it The Cringe Festival?

Writer: Kate Herbert
 March 8, 2002

The Adelaide Festival is dear to my heart. Every two years, I wing across to the city of churches and weird crimes for a dose of inspiration from exceptional international and local performance companies. This year was disappointing.

Peter Sellars the flamboyant, huggy Californian that resigned as Artistic Director, created  what appears to be a Community Theatre Festival from the 80s.

His replacement, Sue Nattrass, filled gaps left by this limited programming with some fine solo productions although none was breathtakingly inspirational.
The result is, sadly, a festival with no heart and little buzz. The Festival Centre is a construction site. There is no Festival Club in which to meet, argue and carouse. There are no free forums stimulating arguments about core contemporary arts issues.

There is nowhere to eat, no visible signs of a festival, no artists in cafes. It is a sad ghost of its former self.

There is a rising irritation, if not anger, at Sellars for patronising the Aussie community. Max Gillies' Your Dreaming includes a scathing parody of Sellars.

Australia is noted for its community arts. Since the late 70s we have had excellent community and political theatre developed with, for or by community. Melbourne Workers' Theatre is a major company.

Our theatre for and by young people has a long, successful history. A burgeoning industry produces indigenous work. Recently Playbox-Ilbijerri staged seven plays by Koori artists.

Sellars intentions were good. Putting indigenous work on the main stage of a major festival is commendable. But the works are not appropriate to conventional venues. The Career Highlights of the Mamu  has Trevor Jamieson  and family telling his story.

The informality and looseness of style are ill suited to the Playhouse. The context is wrong. We can't get close to the storytellers and it makes the performers look shabby, the show poorly written and under-rehearsed.

Train Dancing from Alice Springs  is almost incomprehensible and does not do justice to issues of family violence.

There were commendable projects for youth (Urban Theatre projects OK) staged out of town. These were placed in more appropriate but inaccessible locations.

Sellars spent much cash on commissioning indigenous films. Couldn't film funds finance these?

The festival may be about community but costs were not. El Nino, Sellars opera, cost $114 and Mamu $48. Who can afford that?

A Large Attendance in the Antechamber  (Brian Lipson) was masterly. Via Dolorosa was a highlight, presented challenging views of Israel and Palestine. Barbara Cook's concert and William Yang's  Shadows  were appealing. Your Dreaming  is filled with gleeful political jibes while Ros Warby's  Solos  is a trio of marvellous dances.

The real success story is the Fringe Festival. Every night the Spiegeltent and Lunar Tent hosted a huge, accidental party. The Fringe included the exceptional 3 Dark Tales, The Age of Unbeauty,  Acrobat  and the hilariously named It's Partly About Love Partly About Massacre.

The Fringe felt alive. It was accessible, visible, playful, varied and affordable - if not challenging.

Please Adelaide, bring back the inspiring, international, controversial, exceptional artists. We need them to challenge us.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 6 March 2002

The Loves of Shakespeare's Women by Susannah York , March 8, 2002

 Athenaeum Theatre
 6 & 7 March, 2002 then Adelaide Fringe
Reviewer: Kate Herbert March 6, 2002

We remember Susannah York as a luminous blonde screen beauty in movies. The Loves of Shakespeare's Women is another step in her return to performing the works of William Shakespeare, the Bard.

The performance is warm and engaging. She strolls the stage, sits at a small table or on a plain wooden chair in front of a striking design of three Elizabethan tapestries.

Twenty-one monologues from Shakespeare's plays or sonnets make up the program. She begins with the ingenues, the young lovers. Then she progresses to the menacing, the raging, the hilarious, or the grieving older women.

York is a waif-like creature as she appears in the first half in a silky white outfit that floats around her thin, girlish frame. Her voice is her most distinctive quality. It has a rich and fruity despite its slightly damaged, crackling huskiness. It is better suited to the older characters because of its chesty depth.

For those who know little of the plays, York succinctly explains the context of the speeches she chooses. Once the story is clear, the lighting shifts subtly and she launches into the character. It is a simple device and allows us to get acquainted with her as a personality as well as an actor.

Juliet's 'gallop apace" speech, she explains, was her nerve-wracking first audition piece. She performs Viola  (Twelfth Night) Rosalind  ( As you Like It) and Portia  (Merchant of Venice)

 All three speeches are by women cross-dressed as men. The irony being the fact that boys played Shakespeare's women.

York's anti-romantic character, Beatrice,  (Much Ado About Nothing) is a fine, wit who scares men.

After interval we see Cleopatra, the wild, vain, manipulative lover of Antony. Gertrude,  Hamlet's mother, is sonorous and sad after Ophelia's drowning. But most compelling is Emilia's (Othello) shock and despair at Desdemona's murder.

York is very funny playing both Mistresses Page and Ford (The Merry Wives of Windsor) agonising over their matching love letters.

But it is Queen Constance  from King John who steals our hearts, grieving quietly for her dead son.

Ms. York was appalled to hear Shakespeare might be cut from the UK curriculum. So she created The Loves of Shakespeare's Women. Someone needs to do it here to before we too lose the Bard.

By Kate Herbert