Friday, October 24, 2014

ONCE WERE LEADERS - AN EVENING WITH MAX GILLIES


Presented by Wonder Productions 

Canberra Theatre

23-24th October 2014.

 Reviewed by Bill Stephens

 Max Gillies finally comes out. After years of hiding behind wigs, make-up and prosthetics to dazzle us with his impersonations of contemporary political leaders, we finally see the man behind the mask.

 In his new show “Once Were Leaders”, Gillies eschews the theatrical accoutrements of his trade, to pay tribute to his script writers by revisiting some of his own personal favourite scripts to illustrate their brilliance. Writers like Don Watson, who wrote his Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser scripts, Guy Rundle, who wrote the Graham (Richo) Richardson scripts, Patrick Cook and Heathcote Williams, are all represented.

 The presentation style is simplicity itself. The stage is set with just a lectern, with a projector screen behind, on which film of Gillies in some of his most famous impersonations is projected at various intervals. Entering stage-right, he commenced the show by dedicating this performance to the memory of Gough Whitlam, who died during the week, and which tactfully was the only mention of Gough during the show.

 Gough’s colleagues were not so fortunate as Gillies shared his own views on contemporary politicians and leaders “who talk to us in short slogans..repeated ad infinitum..who don’t deserve satire”. He also shared insights into how he approached the creation of his various subjects illustrating each by performing a favourite script for each character.

 Billy McMahon (Tiberius with a telephone), Bob Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock, Bob Hawke (of course ), Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth, Kevin Rudd and Graham (Richo) Richardson and finally John Howard all make the cut.

 The scripts of course are wonderful, and still stand up for their erudite and funny content, and the large audience chortled and guffawed their appreciation through-out. But the scripts are just words. It is what Gillies does with those words, and his uncanny knack of capturing the idiosyncratic gestures and unique vocal inflections of each, that is the real magic.

 “Once were Leaders” provides the opportunity to observe a great character actor at work. Decades of refining and practising his art allows Gillies to instantly disappear into the core of his subject, who then inhabits the room before your very eyes. That his subjects prove so entertaining has much to do with the brilliance of the script-writers, but it is Gillies artistry and superb acting skills which brings them to life.


                       This review appears on the Australian Arts Review website.


  

AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY






 Director: Cate Clelland           Costume design: Fiona Leach
Set Design: Cate Clellan        Lighting Design: Hamish McConchie
Sound Design: Tracey Rice   Presented by Free-Rain Theatre Company



Courtyard Studio at Canberra Theatre Centre until 2nd November, 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

This searing tragi-comedy, Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracey Letts dissects the disintegration of a family following the death of the family patriach, Beverley Weston.

Beverley Weston (David Bennett) is the first character we meet in the opening scene. Once a famous poet and academic, he is now an alcoholic and, we learn later, a philanderer. He lives in a sprawling house outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, with his wife, Violet (Karen Vickery), who is stricken with mouth-cancer, and addicted to prescription drugs.

 In the opening scene we find Beverley Weston in the process of employing a young Cheyenne woman, Johnna, (Linda Chen) to work as a live-in housekeeper and to care for him and Violet.

 That’s the last we see of Beverley Weston, because in the very next scene – which takes place a week later - we learn that Beverley has disappeared, and some of his family are meeting at the house to support Violet while the search goes on. Among them, Matty Fay (Elizabeth Bradley), Violet’s extraordinarily insensitive, motor-mouthed sister, and Matty Fay’s ever-amiable husband, Charlie (Michael Sparks).  Violet’s eldest daughter,  the spiky, potty-mouthed, Barbara (Andrea Close) arrives with her husband, Bill, (Jim Adamik) and their fourteen year-old daughter, Jean ( Amy Campbell), and the emotional temperature begins to climb.

When the news arrives via the local Sheriff (Brian Kavanagh), that Beverley is dead, the rest of the family turn up for the funeral, and the funeral dinner. Then the blood-letting begins in earnest. For this family, which now includes Violet’s other two daughters, Ivy, (Lainie Hart) and Karen (Rose Braybook) as well as Karen’s new fiancĂ©, Steve (Paul Jackson), and Matty Fay and Charlie’s son, Little Charles (Ethan Thomas) are not backward in expressing themselves, and Tracey Letts’ incisive, compelling dialogue, gives them exactly the right ammunition with which to verbally flagellate each other.


 Both Karen Vickery as Violet, and Andrea Close as her eldest daughter, Barbara, give performances of astonishing intensity. Perfectly matched as adversaries, their scenes together are hypnotic as they relentlessly chew at each other, knowing exactly how to inflict the maximum emotional pain.

 Even though we see him only in the prologue, David Bennett’s presence as Beverley Weston, permeates the entire play.  All of the other characters are perfectly cast, so that the ensemble scenes crackle with undercurrents and back stories, all of which are revealed with surgeon- like precision as the play progresses.

 Director, Cathy Clelland has found her forte with this type of play, which in many ways recalls her memorable production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”. Her ant-farm inspired set, which allows the audience to see the characters simultaneously going about their business in other areas of the rambling house, works particularly well in providing interesting acting spaces.

 As yet she hasn’t mastered the art of devising interesting entrances and exits. Simply having the characters walk into position in half-light, and then begin acting, is hardly magical. But she certainly knows what to do with her actors once they are on stage.

 Free Rain Theatre has much to be proud of with this outstanding production which provides a splendid showcase for an ensemble of Canberra’s finest actors.

 
            This review appears on the Australian Arts Review website.

 

Monday, October 20, 2014

FOR THE WIN - QL2 Dance


Presented by:
QL2 DANCE
Theatre 3 - Acton 
Performance 18th October 2014
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

There can be few better antidotes to any complaints about today’s youth than a visit to one of QL2’s presentations.


“For the Win” is the most recent and the result of an intensive 6 week rehearsal period for 47 young entry level dancers seeking to join the Quantum Leap youth dance ensemble.  The ages of the dancers range from 8 to 18 and their abilities vary widely.  Some had travelled from Cowra, Yass, Braidwood and Queanbeyan to prepare for this presentation.  The results are astonishing. As Ruth Osborne points out in her program notes, the purpose behind “For the Win” is not so much about the individual abilities of the dancers, but rather to give them “an introduction to working with a choreographer and moving beyond just “learning the steps”. This includes thinking about concepts and emotions, creating new movement through improvisation and tasks, selecting and refining the most effective movement ideas, and rehearsing until it all flows”.  

That the end result of these six weeks of intensive rehearsals is also so entertaining is a tribute to Osborne, and the three other Canberra-based choreographers who have created works to fulfil this brief.

Presented over an hour, without interval or interruption, “For the Win” consists of 7 different sections, some created by individual choreographers, and others, particularly the opening and closing sections, the combined work of all four.  The works were all ensemble pieces, and all the dancers participated in each section, regardless of age. So when not actually on stage, they were kept very busy managing the many attractive costume changes.

The program notes mention that the dancers contributed ideas and movement material to the creative process. The choreographers’ task was to combine these ideas with their own, to create a cohesive and entertaining work, utilising the varying skills of the participants. No small challenge, especially given the varying ages and skills of all concerned.

As the title suggests, the theme of the program was about winning and competition. Jamie Winbank’s section entitled “A winner is someone that wins”, utilized various competitive activities, often occurring simultaneously, to set up a series of eye dazzling sequences. Having himself come through the Quantum Leap process, Winbank seemed particularly adroit at creating effective visual imagery from limited resources.

Later in the program Winbank teamed with Alison Plevey to create a  delightfully girlie work called “A win for the Girls” ,which commenced with the girls gleefully  miming clichĂ©d feminine tasks, before bursting out into representations of the contemporary  woman’s real world.

Plevey’s own section, “Mind Games” also used the full ensemble to excellent effect, demonstrating her mastery of imaginative group movement.

Jake Kuzma contributed two sections, “All Aboard the loser express” and “Wintendo”. In both he made good use of interesting music choices, and “Wintendo” included some imaginative breakdance references, including a rather wonderful robotic duo.

All the choreographers featured the special talents of individual dancers to create often surprising moments, but the emphasis was definitely on spectacular ensemble movement, particularly evident in the opening and closing sections. Especially impressive, given the relatively short rehearsal period, was the polish achieved throughout, evident in accurate spacings, straight lines, and the engagement, confidence and enthusiasm of each individual participant.

As with all QL2 presentations the choreographers and dancers were provided with superb technical support, especially Kelly McGannon’s excellent lighting design and crisp sound which insured that the interesting music choices, including original compositions by Adam Ventura, were heard to advantage.

  


 


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY



Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Cate Clelland
Free Rain Theatre
Courtyard Studio Canberra Theatre Centre
17 October – 2 November, 2014

Review by Len Power 17 October 2014

Most of us can remember times when our own families went through rough patches emotionally.  If we thought we had problems, they were nowhere near as monumental as those of the Weston family portrayed in Tracy Letts’ award-winning 2008 play, ‘August: Osage County’.

A black comedy on an epic scale, the play shows us the interaction of an Oklahoma family both before and after the death of a family member.  The director, Cate Clelland, and her large cast of performers take us on a rollercoaster ride through every human emotion that is fascinating, harrowing, moving, very funny and ultimately hugely enjoyable.

Every member of the cast of thirteen more than meets the considerable challenges of this play.  Karen Vickery and Andrea Close as mother and daughter have the lions’ share of the dialogue and both give performances that will leave you breathless.  Jim Adamik, Liz Bradley, Lainie Hart and Karen Weston are especially memorable but everyone has their moment to shine.

The action of the play takes place in various rooms of a rambling old house.  Set designer, Cate Clelland, has cleverly used the wide space in the Courtyard Studio to create an ‘ant farm’ like environment so that we can see simultaneous action in various rooms as required.  The show is nicely lit by Hamish McConchie with well-chosen costumes by Fiona Leach and enhanced by the subtle sound design by Tracey Rice.

Cate Clelland has directed one of her best shows ever.  This is an excellent production of an extraordinary play.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 18 October 2014


Saturday, October 18, 2014

DRESS CIRCLE - ARTSOUND FM 92.7 - SUNDAY 19TH OCTOBER.


Sam Hannan-Morrow 
In DRESS CIRCLE this week, President of The Canberra Repertory Society, Sam Hannan-Morrow, reveals its program for 2015.
Maria Veshkina
 
Glamorous Russian tour organiser, Maria Veshkina, takes us behind the scenes of the Russian Dance spectacular “Kostroma”, which is coming to the Canberra Theatre next week.
 
 
Actors, Andrea Close, David Bennet and Jim Adamik talk about their roles in the searing drama “August: Osage County” currently being staged in the Courtyard studio by Free Rain Theatre.

In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, Nadia Piave and Sally Whitwell will perform an enchanting program of French cabaret and art songs by Satie, Poulenc and Schoenberg.

Nadia Piave (bottom) Sally Whitwell (top)
As well, Len Power will review “August: Osage County”, Isobel Griffin will present “Arts Diary” and our in-house poet, Blue the Shearer, has his say.

 
 
 
90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news focussed on the performing arts in Canberra and beyond, “Dress Circle” is produced and presented by Bill Stephens and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 every Sunday evening from 5.00pm until 6.30pm and repeated on Tuesday night from 11.30pm. It is also streamed live on the internet at Artsound.fm

Friday, October 17, 2014

LA FILLE MAL GARDEE (The Wayward Daughter) - West Australian Ballet



Artistic Director:
Aurelien Scannella


Choreographer:
Marc Ribaud

Music:
Ferdinand Herold and John Lanchbery,

Set Designer:
 Richard Roberts

Costume Designer:
 Lexi De Silva

Lighting Designer:
 Jon Buswell

Presented by: West Australian Ballet

Canberra Theatre Centre – October 15 – 18, 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

 The West Australian Ballet have revived one of the oldest ballets in the classical repertoire with an inspired production brimming with joie de vivre, spirited dancing, laugh-out-loud comedy and French chic.   

Originally inspired by a painting of a young woman being berated by her mother, “La Fille Mal Gardee” received its first performances way back in 1789. Since then it has been performed by many ballet companies with different choreographies. However the version created by Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet in London in 1960, and still performed by the Australian Ballet, has become regarded by many as more or less the official version.

This new version, French choreographer, Marc Ribaud, remains faithful to the original story, but has eschewed the maypole dance and the dancing farm animals. He’s kept the action in rural France, but it is now set in the 1950’s and Colas rides a motor-bike and wears James Dean leathers. Ribaud has also retained the tradition of having the role of Lise’s mother, Simone, played by a man, although he has softened some of the usual pantomime-dame elements of the role in favour of more warmth and charm in the character.

This version commences in a sun-drenched courtyard, where Lise (Jayne Smeulders) and Colas (Matthew Lehman) dance a languorous pas de deux for which Colas is nude from the waist up.

The erotic mood is broken when four young men join them to perform a series of energetic dances in which the quirky choreography slyly evokes chickens and farm animals. The men in turn are joined by four young women, all obviously friends of Lise and Colas, who has by now added a singlet to his costume, and all, join in the vigorous dancing. 

Their merriment attracts Lise’s mother, Simone, (Robert Mills), who admonishes the friends, sends them packing and sets Lise to work churning butter. But no sooner does Simone turn her back, than Colas returns to flirt with Lise.

Eventually the rich and pompous merchant Thomas (Graig Lord-Sole) arrives with his uninspiring son, Alain (Andre Santos), in tow, intending to arrange a marriage between Lise and Alain. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the ballet is concerned with the efforts of Lise and Colas to thwart the efforts of Simone and merchant Thomas.

As the wilful Lise, Jayne Smeulders is sheer delight. Her dancing is confident and beautifully phrased. She is also a consummate actress, who knows how to play comedy without artifice or archness.  

Matthew Lehman, as Colas, also impresses.  Though not as strong as Smeulders in the acting department, he looks great as a James Dean look-alike, is a strong and considerate partner in the pas de deux, and an especially thrilling dancer particularly in his Act 11 solos.

Robert Mills is outstanding as Lise’s mother Simone capturing all his laughs with strong comedic timing. His clog dance, flanked by four male dancers in tap shoes, is a real highlight.

But the big surprise is Andre Santos as the unfortunate Alain, more at ease with his beloved umbrella than he is with Lise.  Santos tosses off Alain’s intricate, eccentric solos with dazzling virtuosity, while providing a characterisation that is both witty and touching. Graig Lord-Sole also scores as Alain’s wobbly-legged father.

The entire company look terrific in this ballet.  Dancing with a palpable sense of joyfulness, they execute the idiosyncratic choreography, with its bent-wrists, up-turned feet and odd body twists, with admirable attention to detail, while at the same time engaging enthusiastically with the story and the characters. 

The six young dancers recruited in Canberra, to play the village children, also acquitted themselves well with their dancing, and echoed the ensemble’s engagement with the story.

Aurelian Scannella’s new production of “La Fille Mal Gardee” for the West Australian Ballet is a co-production with the Queensland Ballet, so is destined to be seen widely. With Richard Roberts’s impressively substantial and attractive settings, Lexi De Silva’s very pretty and flattering costumes and Marc Ribaud’s cheeky and entertaining choreography, this new imagining of one of the oldest ballets in the repertoire could well become the new norm for “La Fille Mal Gardee”.
                    
Photo: Greer Versteeg 

                               This review appears on the Australian Arts Review website.
                                                               

 

 

 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

SUNSET BLVD.



Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder Film
Director: Stephen Pike
Musical Director: Sharon Tree
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan 8 -25 October 2014

Review by Len Power 8 October 2014

Based on the classic 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson, ‘Sunset Blvd.’ opened in London in 1993, played on Broadway in 1994 and in Melbourne in 1996.  It tells of a chance encounter of a down at heel young screen writer, Joe Gillis, and a faded movie star from the silent era, Norma Desmond, who lives in a gloomy mansion surrounded by past memories.  Agreeing to help with a film script she has written for a comeback, the opportunistic Joe allows himself to be drawn into a dangerous relationship with the delusional star.

It’s a formidable musical for non-professional companies to tackle because it cries out for lavish staging and must have an actress with star quality for the leading role of faded movie star, Norma Desmond.  Happily, the Q Theatre production got well-known local actress and singer, Bronwyn Sullivan, to play the role and solved the lavishness question with a clever composite set filled with interesting detail by Brian Sudding and scenic artist, Ian Croker.

Bronwyn Sullivan sings the difficult role of Norma Desmond with assurance.  Her Norma has flashes of niceness that may bother purists wanting a copy of Gloria Swanson’s performance in the film, but it didn’t detract from her performance for me.  Daniel Wells is in fine voice and gives a strong performance as the opportunist writer, Joe Gillis.  In the wrong hands, the difficult role of the mysterious butler, Max Von Mayerling, could be laughable, but Peter Dark is very believable in the role, giving it an impressive sadness and he sings with great precision.  Vanessa De Jager is charming and very real as the young Betty Schaefer and the duet, ‘Too Much In Love To Care’, which she shares with Daniel Wells, is one of the highlights of the show.

Ensemble members, many playing multiple small roles, all have detailed individual characters which give the show depth, especially in the scenes at Paramount Studios and at a New Year’s Eve party.  Calen Robinson was especially notable in the role of the oily tailor, Manfred, who is summoned with his team to provide Joe Gillis with new clothes.

Costumes by Miriam Miley-Read evoked the period extremely well.  Her costumes for Norma Desmond were especially well-designed for a faded movie star who dresses lavishly in a jarringly out of date style.  The expert lighting by Hamish McConchie gave the right atmosphere to the show and sound by Eclipse was well-balanced.  Choreography isn’t a major feature of this show, but Annette Sharp provided polished and appropriate movement where required for the cast.

The show has a huge score.  Musical director, Sharon Tree, has done a remarkable job with both orchestra and singers.  It was, however, somewhat distracting having the musical director visible behind the set and lights visible from the music stands of the orchestra were annoyingly bright.

For me, it’s not the songs that stand out in this musical.  I came away from ‘Sunset Blvd’ with the moody underscoring repeating in my mind, much the way a memorable film score stays with you.  It’s as if the composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, intended to write a cinematic-style musical. If so, he has succeeded and produced one of his best scores for the theatre.

Director, Stephen Pike, has done a fine job bringing all aspects of this show together.  It hasn’t been presented in Canberra before and has been rarely done in Australia, so don’t miss this opportunity to see it.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 12 August 2014 from 5pm.