Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Looking for Grace

         Review © Jane Freebury

In the three feature films that Sue Brooks has made so far, we have driven into the wide, open spaces of the inland to look at what makes us tick. It's a canny strategy, this journey into the red heart, and the two first films that Brooks has to her name, Road to Nhill and Japanese Story, show it has been a popular one. The journey as motif, a road trip towards the centre with a motley crew of characters, their panoply of quirks on display, can hold a mirror to us all.

In Road to Nhill, a party of lady lawn bowlers are upended on an outback road in north-west Victoria and have to wait ever such a long time for help. In Japanese Story a young woman accompanies a visiting businessman through the ancient, red bluffs of Pilbara when their burgeoning relationship is suddenly over before it has begun.  Brooks has a knack for making strange.

A montage of gorgeous natural textures opens Looking for Grace, in which we head out on the road again. Among them a bird's eye view of stretch of road bisecting the wheat belt of Western Australia, on its way east. We track a bus with a couple of runaway teens on board, apparently headed for a concert in Ceduna. Sixteen-year-old Grace (newcomer Odessa Young who could pass for Miranda Otto's other younger sister) and her friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson).

Before Grace's devastated parents, Denise (Radha Mitchell) and Dan (Richard Roxburgh), set out from Perth to find her—with retired detective (Terry Norris)—friends gather at their home to provide comfort. It's here you realise there is something odd going on. The words are tumbling out but they never get a grip. No one is really connecting.  

If we have moved on from the gruff, monosyllabic retorts that passed for conversation in Australian films in earlier times, the communication here is not a lot better. Is there really still so much left unsaid between us? The spaces between characters is signified in images of a vast desert emptiness, and by the beige and bland interior of the family home.

In transit, the girls split when Grace is attracted to the handsome young stranger who boards the coach and begins exchanging glances with her. Three's a crowd and Sappho opts out. But in an instant there is only one when Jamie (Harry Richardson) sneaks out the next morning, making off with thousands of dollars in cash. Grace had emptied the safe at home.

For most of the time we can only speculate on the reasons why Grace stole  her dad's business takings and ran away.  It was no problem for her: she had helped him set up the combination and considered it her money too!  The 'Sorry Mum' note she left behind could seems a teasing McGuffin until the resolution, when motivations are revealed. Withholding the reasons for Grace's escape as adeptly as it does, is one of the film's triumphs.

The flat and uninflected exchanges between people that leave so much unsaid are less effective, although they make a point. Whether or not you agree with Brooks' perspective, a rather out-dated one I think, there is comedy here too and a gimlet eye for what can be satirised in our personal interactions.

Having key characters tell the story of Grace's leaving home from their perspective, provides some insight, importantly into Dan's character. However the diverse points of view in the narrative structure are not as revelatory as you would hope.  A kind of restraint holds things in check until that final devastating rupture.

This change in direction reminded me of the jolt I experienced with Japanese Story. It takes a brave filmmaker to attempt it, but the point that life can be like that is hard to deny.

3.5 Stars

 Also published at

THE DESIGNER: Decorator or Dramaturg? by Stephen Curtis

THE DESIGNER: Decorator or Dramaturg? by Stephen Curtis. Platform Papers No. 46 February 2016: Currency House.

SYDNEY: Launch of THE DESIGNER by director Neil Armfield (Secret River), with Stephen Curtis in conversation with critic Martin Portus. When: 6pm, Monday 15 February 2016 Where: Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton St Darlinghurst All welcome. Free. Essential to book on 

ADELAIDE: Launch of THE DESIGNER by playwright Andrew Bovell (Secret River), with Stephen Curtis in conversation with scholar/director Julian Meyrick. When: 6pm, Tuesday 23 February 2016 Where: State Library of South Australia, North Terrace All welcome. Free. Essential to book on

A pdf of Currency House’s Platform Paper 46 available on media request: media enquiries to Martin Portus at
Available for sale at or in bookshops from 1 February.

Commentary by Frank McKone
February 9

Having read Stephen Curtis’ Paper, it’s an enormous disappointment that I am unable to be present at the launch in Sydney next Monday.  His Paper is at once thoroughly erudite and highly engaging.  His relationship with director Neil Armfield while working on The Secret River (now in its second run at Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre until February 20) forms a fascinating case study in Chapter 8: A Designer at Work.  To see them together would complete the theme of the written words: “When people see the design they can see what the production is going to be.” 

When I look back to my review of the first run of The Secret River (which I saw at the Canberra Playhouse, February 14-17, 2013), I am now thoroughly ashamed to note that I did not make any reference to the set or costume design, or even name the designers.  Curtis’ conclusion summarises my failure.  I wrote about “the pen of Andrew Bovell and the directing of Neil Armfield”, and how “The casting is excellent throughout, but I have to say that Ursula Yovich was quite extraordinary in her role of narrator, and her singing at the very end drove the tragic feeling into our very souls.”  But nothing about the stage design which is essential to creating the right theatrical space for me to have that experience.

Curtis writes: Our practice today is a synthesis of the design legacy of our last century of Australian design.  Today and beyond, the mercurial designer brings together all aspects of our role: as artisan and technician in command of our craft; designer as artist with the expressive power to communicate; occasionally designer as auteur with the vision to command; designer as accomplished and professional image-maker who knows how to keep a hundred balls in the air and get the show on; designer as experimenter testing new ways of connecting with our audience; designer as manager holding together the fine detail and the big picture; designer as dramaturg interrogating meaning, and yes, as ‘decorator’ orchestrating the aesthetic values of the production; and as collaborator and ‘wicked‘ theatre-maker. The designer is all of these.
See what we do. We are here to help spark that awakening.

I was, of course, warned early in the Paper’s Introduction: "An overview of contemporary Australian theatre writing in newspapers, blogs, radio interviews and journals reveals how little our arts journalists see. While now the design will usually be mentioned, it is almost always in terms of aesthetics; only occasionally will it be discussed in terms of how it works, even less often in terms of how it feels, and rarely if ever in terms of how it contributes to the production’s meaning."

So, suitably castigated, I followed Curtis’ story through

1: The Evolution Of The Designer: From Decorator To Dramaturg?
“No, this Platform Paper is not a whinge about how bad things are for Australian performance designers.  Our position—as costume and set designers, lighting and sound designers—is on the whole a good-news story....”

2: Design Experimentation
“In contemporary theatre practice this disdain for aesthetic, ‘decorative’ values, if not universally held, is deeply entrenched....”

3: The Artist-Designer
“The next era of Australian theatre and design—from the 1920s to the 1950s—is fascinating: three decades and three waves of revolutionary theatre thinking brought to Australia by theatre-makers returning from abroad and post-war refugees emigrating from Eastern Europe [who] broke the hegemony of the big commercial producers to make room for home-grown theatrical talent. These were the ground breakers, the artist-designers....”

4: The Standardbearers: The Professional Designer
“It was up to the next wave of designers, from the 1950s through to the last decades of the last century to bring a new coherence of conception to the Australian stage....”

5: The Dream, Not The Drawing Room
“The designers of this next wave in the early 1970s were the iconoclasts, rejecting the realist orthodoxy and all of its values of descriptive, literal design....”

6: The Collaborators
“Design was driven conceptually, fired by an unequivocal desire to communicate to the audience the ideas of the production and its very particular interpretation. It was design as grand metaphor.... With theatre reverberating with all this change it was the next wave of designers, of which I was part—the designercollaborators— that was to make collaboration the centre of our practice....”

7: The Next Wave
“The role of the designer has become increasingly more professional and disciplined in contemporary theatre practice. And discipline is the operative word: directors, performers, producers and our audience can rely on their designer....”

8: A Designer At Work
“There is no template in designing. But there is a process, and as an insight into our dramaturgical role and how designers work I would like to share part of my process as set designer on the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River....”

9: Design Value
“The whole design process—from first meeting to opening night on a production of the scale of The Secret River would typically take a set or costume designer twelve to fourteen weeks fulltime, or a designer responsible for both costumes and sets seventeen to twenty weeks....”

And so now I have absolutely no excuse.  Stephen Curtis has given us critics plenty of material from historical and current practice to be able to see a production as well as watch it, and to look for the elements in design which we think suit or fail to suit the nature of the play. 

In my own defence, I can give an example.  I wrote of Sydney Theatre Company’s recent King Lear: “Being mythic does not imply that the setting must be in an ancient past, nor limited to any time or place.  [Set Designer] Robert Cousins has understood this so well that clothing may be modern, words may be amplified with modern technology, nakedness may be explicit as it can at last be on a modern stage, rain may be real water, swords may be no more than short knives; and all may be presented for the first half in black empty space foreboding awful things to come, yet turn white in an even more frightening open space than before.  Every element in costumes, props, becomes significant and imbued with meaning in a weird way.  Every detail stands out in our minds because there are no boundaries which allow us to sit back satisfied.”

Even so, when I spoke to musician and author Peter Best, the brilliant stage and film composer, in the foyer following his Goldilocks and the Three Bears, he had quite definitely disliked the design and stylistic intention of King Lear.  Where the ‘empty space’ (Curtis makes a point of clarifying what Peter Brook actually meant) made me feel for Lear, however foolish, and made me see what Shakespeare meant in writing the play, Best found himself coldly cut out of empathetic feeling.  I think he saw the design as having taken over the production, becoming a visual end in itself, creating no more than an intellectual idea about the play.

The importance of Stephen Curtis’ essay is not that we should all learn to love stage designers, but that by coming to understand the complexity and diversity of approaches in our Australian tradition, we are given a new breadth of language to use in our criticisms.  This is why I am more than glad to have read Platform Paper 46, and why I am very disappointed that I will not be there to witness the long-term collaborators – director Neil Armfield and designer Stephen Curtis – in action in Sydney on February 15 (nor indeed the author/adaptor Andrew Bovell with Curtis in Adelaide on February 23). 

If you are able, please book with Currency House at – and write your comments here as you see fit.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Composer: Gioachino Rossini - Libretto: Cesare Sterbini
Conductor: Andrea Molino - Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan - Costume Designer: Dona Granata
Presented by Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 22nd 2016.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

In 1995 Elijah Moshinsky had the inspired idea of presenting his production of “The Barber of Seville” as if it were taking place in a silent Hollywood movie. His designer, Michael Yeargan, matched his inspiration with an inventive multi-level set complete with plenty of doors to slam, and outrageously lurid wall-papered rooms for his characters to inhabit.  To ensure that the characters weren’t swamped by their surroundings, costume designer, Dona Granata has clothed them in a Kaleidoscope of witty period costumes.

What a pleasure it is to have the opportunity to experience this production again in this beautifully cast and meticulously produced 2016 revival.

Maestro, Andrea Molino, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, immediately raised audience anticipation with a crisp, carefully detailed performance of Rossini’s familiar and justly famous overture, which, if you didn’t already know, contains not one reference to the glorious music to follow.

Rossini’s endlessly inventive opera of mistaken identities and thwarted love, comes to delirious life in this splendid revival in which the audacious concept and design are matched by the outstanding cast of superb singers  ready and willing to take every opportunity to explore the endless comedic possibilities offered in this madcap world in which every improbability almost  seems  logical.

Anna Dowsley (Rosina) Paolo Bordogna (Figaro) 
With a reputation of being one of the world’s outstanding buffo interpreters, Paolo Bordogna, has already become an audience favourite with his cheeky comedic performances in Opera Australia’s earlier productions of The Turk in Italy and The Marriage of Figaro.   However, as Figaro in this production, he’s irresistible.

Displaying his expansive baritone to great effect, he tosses off the famous “Largo al Factotum” with the expected panache, then keeps the audience’s eyes glued on him whenever he is on stage. His inspired clowning transforms him into a sort of genial ringmaster amidst  the chaotic events swirling around him.

However in the buffo department, Bordogna has some stiff competition. Samuel Dundas and Jane Ede, looking like two Adams Family escapees as Ambrogio and Berta, create a pair of remarkably off-handed servants who almost steal the show with their deadpan antics ushering a continuous procession of hapless patients through Dr Bartolo’s surgery.  The busy Dundas also gets to demonstrate his versatility as Almaviva’s servant, Fiorello, and as the Notary, and is unrecognisable in all of them.

Warwick Fyffe (Dr Bartolo)  Paolo Bordogna (Figaro)
Warwick Fyffe also mines the rich vein of humour inherent in his role as the cantankerous, Dr Bartolo, excelling in the scene where he suspiciously presides over Rosina’s singing lesson with the disguised Almaviva.

As the thwarted young lovers at the centre of the opera, Anna Dowsley and Kenneth Tarver are a delightful pairing. Tarver, making his first appearances in Australia in this production as Count Almaviva, is widely recognised as the bel canto tenore–de-grazia of his generation. That is easy to believe as he impresses, not only with the beauty of his floating tenor voice, and the ease with which he negotiates the bel canto passages of his arias. He also demonstrates a wicked sense of humour which fits perfectly with Anna Dowsley’s wilful Rosina.

Kenneth Tarver (Count Almaviva) Anna Dowsley (Rosina)
Dowsley, making her role debut in this production as Rosina, also impressed with her confident singing, her elegant sense of style, and especially, her ability to hold her own on a stage on which she is surrounded by some of the world’s most experienced exponents of the opera buffo style, performing at the top of their game.

This production of “The Barber of Seville” is one to be savoured and judging from the continuous hearty laughter throughout, and the enthusiastic audience response during the curtain calls, the audience at this performance were doing just that.

                                                      Photos: Keith Saunders

          This review also appears in Australian Arts Review

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Golden Age by Louis Nowra

Back: Robert Menzies as Melorne, Sarah Peirse as Ayre, Anthony Taufa as Mac.
Front: Liam Nunan as Stef, Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb and Zindzi Okenyo as Angel

The Golden Age by Louis Nowra.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams.  Wharf 1, January 20 – February 20, 2016.

Rarriwuy Hick – Betsheb
Remy Hill – Peter Archer / James
Brandon McClelland – Francis
Robert Menzies – William Archer / Melorne
Liam Nunan – Stef / Private Corris
Zindzi Okenyo – Dr Simon / Mary / Angel
Sarah Peirse – Ayre / Mrs Witcombe
Anthony Taufa – Mac / Mr Turner / George Ross MP / German Man
Ursula Yovich – Elizabeth Archer

Designer – David Fleischer; Lighting – Damien Cooper; Composer and sound designer – Max Lyandvert; Dramaturg – Paige Rattray; Voice and text coach – Charmian Gradwell.

Production photos: Lisa Tomasetti

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 27

“Only my younger self could have written a play with such audacity.  Perhaps that’s why I still have a great affection for it.”  So says author Louis Nowra in his program note, and so say I.

Of all Australian plays, this is the one which goes to the heart of being Australian.  We think we are egalitarian – the ‘fair go’ country – and others even tell us we are.  But it’s not true.  It was an audacious act to say this in 1985.  I certainly felt that when I saw an early production by the students of NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) in Sydney, 1986. 

But it needed to be said that treating all kinds of other people truly as equals is not how we commonly behave.  We have to learn from bitter experience what giving a fair go really entails – and by the time we realise, it’s often too late.  Irreparable damage has already been done.

Mind you, on the Q&A program on Monday night, February 1, 2016, the various Australians of the Year gave us new hope.   [ / iview, available until 10.40pm on 15 February 2016]

There has been considerable argument about the state of Australian theatre, in recent years.  One important question has been why Australian plays of the past have not become essential to the programming, especially of the major companies.  Sydney Theatre Company’s decision to present this play, absolutely necessary to Australians’ understanding of ourselves, is to be commended, and I hope it will be the beginning of an established tradition.

The equivalent is for British theatres to stage George Bernard Shaw, or Americans to revive the early Arthur Miller.  In Australia, for good reasons, we have always tried to cover the field of theatre from around the world, but it is now time to do this without losing our own culture.  To not regularly program, say (among many others) Dorothy Hewett, David Williamson, Alex Buzo, Alma de Groen, and not to keep adding to the canon the newer great writers (like Andrew Bovell) as they appear and become established, would smack too much of cultural cringe.  Louis Nowra could not possibly be left off any sensible list when you consider at least Cosi, Inner Voices, Radiance, Summer of the Aliens and of course, The Golden Age.

Importantly, the casting of this production of The Golden Age makes a symbolic point which parallels the essence of the play.  None of the characters as written are Indigenous Australians, yet today the cast can naturally include actors from a range of Indigenous and other backgrounds, thoroughly suited to their roles and who perform to the highest standards – as we would nowadays automatically expect from not only the Sydney Theatre Company but virtually all levels of theatre groups in Australia.

Of course the quality of the acting – and this means of the directing and dramaturgy in the rehearsal process – is crucial to the impact of the play.  I found my emotional response to the different elements of the story – the middle class doctor’s family in Hobart, the newly discovered group left isolated for nearly a century at the site in the deep Tasmanian bush of a briefly extant gold mine of the 1850s, the poor working class existence of Francis’ family in 1930’s Melbourne, the awful war experience for Francis in Berlin, and the terrible treatment of Betsheb and her family in the New Norfolk insane asylum – was lifted in hope and dashed in despair. 

The great quality of Nowra’s text is that the big issues of violence against people’s right to independence and dignity in life, at the individual and international level, are not dealt with through intellectualised argument.  Where Francis or Dr Archer raise the issues, it is always in the context of experience with which we identify and in which we feel how they feel. To achieve this is a mark of great acting of an audacious text.

So the 2016 The Golden Age is not to be missed.  The ending proved the point for me, when instead of ecstatic theatrical applause which seems to have become a habit of audiences, Betsheb’s quiet singing, her understanding now so limited by electric shock treatment, and Francis’ wondering if what Peter Archer had said as he left them alone together in the bush clearing might really be the truth, made our sense of the tragic mood deepen.  The text:

BETSHEB: [softly, singing]
        Rain, rain go thy way,
        Come a-back ne’er a day.

PETER: Goodbye, Betsheb

        She pays no attention.

She lives in a world of her own.  You know that.  She destroyed my father [Dr Archer] just as she’ll destroy you.  You have done the wrong thing.

FRANCIS: Maybe I have; I don’t know.  But she’s all I’ve got to believe in.

PETER: Goodbye.

FRANCIS nods a ‘Goodbye’.  PETER departs.  Silence.  BETSHEB continues to sing softly to herself.

FRANCIS: Betsheb? Betsheb?

BETSHEB, immersed in her own world, doesn’t answer.  FRANCIS sits down away from her and wonders if PETER is right.  BETSHEB laughs to herself.  After a time she turns around and notices FRANCIS: a lonely, confused figure.  She stares at him and, almost as if he has heard his name, he turns and looks at her.  She smiles across the gulf that separates them.

BETSHEB: Nowt more outcastin’.

The lights fade slowly to blackout.
Copyright © Louis Nowra 1985
Currency Press, Sydney
Revised edition 1989
Electronic edition 2012

At this matinee, at four in the afternoon, the applause began tentatively, and remained muted, but insistent, through two call backs for the actors before the houselights came up slowly.  I can still feel the beginning of tears even as I write this several days later.


Anthony Taufa as George Ross MP, Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb,
Brandon McClelland as Francis and Robert Menzies as Dr William Archer

But the set design worried me, though perhaps only for me as a longtime bushwalker who knows the Tasmanian dense ancient forests from the inside.

Being nostalgic, I found the design in the photos below lost what for me is an essential element of the play being set in Tasmania.  Where is the wall of greenery surrounding even the Archer’s home and the New Norfolk Asylum, as well as the ‘clearing’ as Nowra describes the bush location?

Sarah Peirse as Ayre

Liam Nunan as Stef, Brandon McClelland as Francis and Rarriwuy Hick as Betsheb

As I saw it, the contrast between the absolute fecundity of the Tasmanian bush landscape and the sterility of the treatment of Ayre, Betsheb and their little lost community, as well as of Francis’ mother’s death and the war scenes in Berlin: that contrast made the point about what Australia has to offer, that the conventional and official world has forgotten.

Oddly enough, in the photo below, the set for the NIDA students’ production looks much more conventional than the modern style.

Louis Nowra edited by Veronica Kelly
Australian Playwrights
Monograph Series edited by Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt
Published by Rodopi, Amsterdam 1987
But it was the combination of Grecian columns and the beautiful bush landscape, which could be simply changed by dropping a different backdrop for the funeral and war scenes, with little interruption to the flow of the action on stage, which was all that was needed.  The text and the acting does the rest – though I have to say the lighting and the sound effects for the thunderstorms and the war scenes in 2016 were terrific, almost literally, compared with 30 years ago’s technology.

The mound as the central feature of today’s production and the bringing of symbolic trees, fallen bits of ancient European culture, and poles looking rather like traditional Aboriginal spears as the wall of the asylum or of the prison certainly made for a much more active production, rather than one that could concentrate too much on dialogue.  So I think my solution would have been to paint the walls (which look like the interior of an industrial shed) with Tasmanian forest (it could still include its doorways).  A mound in the acting space would still work, but not apparently made of dry earth (loam, as Ayre calls it).  In Tasmania that hill would be pure mud, and impossible to perform on.  Bush litter among button grass clumps would be the way to go, with the occasional tiger snake curled up ready to strike.

That’s my Tasmania!

Rainforest clearing in Pine Valley, Tasmania.
Photo: Meg McKone

Buttongrass plain
Mount Oakleigh from near New Pelion Hut, Tasmania
Photo: Meg McKone



       Review by Jane Freebury

Just before 9/11, the Boston Globe was about to publish revelations of long-term and systematic child sexual abuse by rogue priests in the Catholic Church. The story was eventually published in 2002 and the newspaper's investigative work honoured with a Pulitzer Prize. The impact of the revelations still continues today, and it makes Spotlight a timely reminder of the importance of tough, investigative—and old-fashioned—journalism as we revisit it today.

What was the Church in Massachusetts doing to stem the abuse that was perpetrated for decades by a small but significant percentage of its priests? Did it say it was working to address ‘unacceptable’ behaviour? Not even that. It was reshuffling the deck and moving priests on to other dioceses, as it did here in Australia and other countries around the world.

A cracking screenplay by West Wing writer Josh Singer and a very talented cast including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber makes for a rivetting drama. The director and co-writer Tom McCarthy, who has some low-key, sensitive adult films like The Station Agent and The Visitor to his name, has managed to handle this highly combustible material deftly and still keep the drama extraordinarily immediate and real. I guarantee you will feel dismayed, angry and outraged.

We already know about the abuse, but the extent to which other institutions cooperated with the Church is the important point here. Few if any in the city establishment classes appeared willing to upset the applecart.

It took a new editor at the Globe, Marty Baron (Schreiber) to get things rolling. He arrived alone and his last known address was Florida. It just so happened that he was Jewish and he asked the question that no one else seemed able to. Being an outlier brought both advantage and disadvantage, however. Not being a Boston native, he could see things for what they were and name them with impunity, no love lost. But his outsider status could also be used against him. Keep an eye out for the machinations of city elite.

The question the film asks is how can serious crimes against children remain undetected year upon year? The pattern the journalists found explains. The victims were selected because they were perceived unlikely to tell on anyone. If they were socially disadvantaged they were fair game. If they came from single parent families, were emotionally vulnerable  and likely to be overwhelmed even by the unwanted attention of a man of god, they were fair game. Spotlight is, you might say, a creepy experience.

Using cool judgement, director McCarthy keeps the mood calm, balanced and very low key. Spotlight is a powerful statement on one of the most terrible crimes of the last century.

Alex Gibney's brilliant documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God in 2012, was another fine film on these issues. It never got hysterical either. A brief moment in Spotlight when Ruffalo’s tenacious journalist Mike Rezendes loses it in righteous anger, somehow gives expression to what we feel and want to express. The actor has made interesting perceptive comment about Spotlight in a recent Guardian interview.

The church hierarchy had, as we now know, been putting priest perpetrators on ‘sick leave’, hiding them away ‘unassigned’, and eventually moving them on to other dioceses where the abuse began all over again. Lawyers who they hired to assist with victim compensation—a meagre $20,000—obliged by keeping no records. And the Globe itself passed up on the story when it first arose, though it got it right in the end.

4 Stars

Also published at

Monday, February 1, 2016

THE LAST TIME: A Story of Love, Lust and Desperation

The Last Time : A Story of Love, Lust and Desperation

Written, co-directed and composed by Lucy Matthews. Co-director and choreographer Miriam Slater. Stage Manager Jaymie Collins. Production Manager Ben Harris. Lighting and Sound EDGE Lighting and Sound. Acoustic Theatre in association with Shadow House Pits. Belconnen Arts Centre. January 28 – 31 2016.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

If you did not see The Last Time this time then make sure that you don’t miss it next time, and there should be a next time for the newly formed and extremely talented Acoustic Theatre’s  gritty, sexy, feisty musical of today’s youth and their struggle for love, security, identity and acceptance. If Canberra were New York, then this would be a sure-fire Off-off Broadway hit with a certain trajectory to the bigger stage. There are several reasons for this. One is the intimacy of the performance space in the Belconnen Arts centre Dance Studio. With audience seated in the round, a five piece band in one corner and four performers on stage within a metre of the audience. Occasionally the white faced lead guitarist (Samuel Gordon Bruce) makes an entrance as a Cabaret Club Emcee aka The Music Man. The other is the amazing talent of the four key performers. The irony of miking members of a company called Acoustic Theatre is inescapable, but it lends sheer force to Frances McNair’s gutsy, raunchy voice, Kat Bramston’s soaring soprano with its silver-lined high notes, Katherine Berry’s soulful sounds from the heart and Hayden Crosweller’s resonant and contrasting male vocals.
Hayden Crosweiler as Christopher and Kat Bramston as Caroline
in Acoustic Theatre's The Last Time. Photo: Reid Workman
The Last Time is pure Ensemble in action. There is no narrative plot to speak of, but rather vignettes of intertwined relationships. Caroline (Kat Branston) tumbles from one bed to another in search of love. Christopher (Hayden Crosweller with touches of elasticized Jerry Lewis) desires Caroline but can’t resist his lustful testosterone charged appetite. Ellie (Frances McNair) craves a steady lesbian relationship which she longs for with the vulnerable and secretive Valerie (Katherine Berry) This labyrinth of desire and frustration, suffocating control and freewheeling abandonment, fuelled by tequila and highs claws at the erupting conflicts between characters as they desperately search for an antidote to the torment of their unanchored desire. The Last Time holds the mirror up to a time when spinning out of control is a station on the rite of passage. Audience sit as voyeurs to the action, confronted by a life they recognize, a past they remember or perhaps a future they can already see. The production is a tightly woven mesh of absorbing theatricality. At time it is absurdly comical, at other times, heavy laden with pathos and sometimes simply a reflection of an experience that will pass, and yet, for the present appears the summation of life’s true agony. This is their song of experience, and for that reason alone it is an important new and original work from a team of talented and entertaining creatives.

Ketherine Berry as Valerie and Frances McNair as Ellie
Photograph by Reid Workman
Co-director and writer/composer Lucy Matthews with her co director and choreographer Miriam Slater have crafted a work of Real expressionism. Every scene echoes with the ring of truth. Nights before and mornings after, clubs and bus stops, interrupted by the ever present mobile calls and texts are the cultural signposts of the actors’ generation. Lucy Matthews’ writing is raw and honest. The actors’ performances recall the intensity of Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio.

This is evocatively underpinned by the four members of the band, Brodie Heidtmann on guitar, Brent Brosnan on Drums, Reid Workman on Guitar and Luke Tompsett. Their arrangements are recognizable from Sondheim to Ebb and Kantor, but refreshingly original, and lending atmosphere to the turmoil and confusion of the whirling passions and lives of the characters. Edge Lighting heightens atmosphere with moody colours and angular lighting to cast shadows across the challenging Theatre in the Round. With two acts, interrupted by an interval, the musical is perhaps too long, but that does not take away the professional care taken by this company in all aspects of production.

At one stage, The Music Man jibes the self-possessed antics of the characters, and most specifically Caroline in a stroke of Brechtian alienation. “Does anyone really care?” he asks the audience. There is no reply. Perhaps in Bertolt Brecht’s Ensemble Theatre, an audience member may have called out in authoritative German.., “Yes I do!” But that is not the issue. Brecht asked audiences to judge, to seek solutions, to empower people against oppressions, personal and public. We are not meant to care, although it is inevitable that we may wish resolution to these characters’ desperate turmoil in love and lust and desire. The Music Man’s incantation is provocative, and it is the duty of a generation that has passed through this confusing rite of passage to judge, but not pass judgement, to change, but not condemn, to accept, but not deny. It may not be the last time for these characters to pass this way, but it could be a step towards the first time to carry experience through to the next time.

Katherine Berry as Valerie. FrancesMcNair
as Ellie and Kat Bramston as Caroline
Photograph by Reid Workman
Acoustic Theatre have made an impressive and entertaining entrance upon the Canberra stage with a production that deserves a journey towards future success. This is a company that lends a voice to its generation and a theatrical tour de force for all generations.

Whether theatre in the round is the most ideal performance space for a show that needs to connect directly with every member of the audience is a matter for debate. The Last Time deals with important issues in an attempt to resolve many of the conflicts and dilemmas of its generation and too often audience members are excluded from a performer’s total character. Intimacy is great. Exclusion can be too alienating.

Finally, this dynamic new work already has the potential to tour to other venues and Fringe festivals or cabaret festivals. It is a great ambassador for young Canberra talent with a show that has a lot to say in a thoughtful, consciousness raising way. Hopefully it will not be the last time for audiences to see Acoustic Theatre’s ground-breaking alternative musical.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Last Time - Acoustic Theatre

Review by John Lombard

The show kicks off with uni age sexual athlete Caroline (Kat Bramston) hunting the stage for her clothes and whatever is left of her dignity after her latest drunken one night stand, a routine that has become so stifling she vows that this will be "The Last Time".

Caroline isn't the only person tired of endless hook-ups - her intense lesbian friend Ellie (Frances McNair) is hungry for a relationship, and engaged in an equally desperate and charming pursuit of musician Valerie (Katherine Berry). Meanwhile Caroline's schoomzy friend Christopher (Hayden Crosweller) has always held a torch for her and takes Caroline's change in outlook as his chance to pounce on her.

The characters are very well observed, and writer/composer Lucy Matthews has a musician's ear for authentic dialogue. Some of the best moments of the night were the witty barbs the characters would frequently deploy to laughter and sometimes also applause from the audience. I recognised the characters from my own life, and the depiction of hook-up life in Canberra also felt very true - the visit to Mooseheads was spot on.

While the characters are true to life, they are almost unavoidably also extremely shallow. At one point the band leading "music man" (Samuel Gordon Bruce) directly challenged Caroline's self-pity, asking why we should care about her relationship woes. That was a bold move, because my instant response was: "I don't." Fortunately there is a self-awareness in the script that the stakes here are low, and the dreaded label "first world problems" is even used at one point.

Caroline and her friends have the sort of problems that age will automatically solve. One day, when asked to choose between sex and sleep, sleep will seem more inviting. There are moments where it seems as though the characters will raise the stakes and this will become a tragedy, but after an excellent set-up the story struggles to find any kind of resolution.

The actors however are uniformly excellent in the piece, giving a suite of mature and polished performances. Kat Bramston's Caroline is giddy, changeable and gleeful, contrasting with Frances McNair's sturdier but painfully hungry Ellie. Hayden Crosweller as Christopher is handsome but unlikeable, an entitled creep who comes close to being the villain. Katherine Berry is the trendy love object glimpsed from afar, but when she has private moments she also shows us the real person who has been roped into Ellie's fantasies.

This is a musical, but one strongly influenced by burlesque - one of the numbers is even a variation on the iconic chair dance. Clothes are donned, but they rarely stay on for long in Miriam Slater's sexually charged choreography. Particularly in the first act, it does feel like a burlesque night, with the unusually attractive cast celebrating their bodies in a series of numbers on the joy of sex. Lucy Matthews' original music is also strong, with vivid tunes giving each song its own identity.

The Last Time is a well-toned lover who sets the mood perfectly and builds up your anticipation before ducking out just when things are getting good. The cast, choreography and music are all compelling, but the package is let down by a weak story that ambles to an unsatisfying finish. But it's still a great (and very sexy) ride, and an enviable debut production for Acoustic Theatre.