Saturday, December 20, 2014


Bruce Carmichael 

It’s a very Christmasy DRESS CIRCLE this week.  Canberra Theatre Centre supremo, Bruce Carmichael, unwraps the 2015 Canberra Theatre Centre program to reveal what’s inside.

Len Power tells whose been nominated the 2014 CAT Awards.  Isobel Griffin hands out some theatrical treats in “Arts Diary” and Blue the Shearer sounds a little warning about the mental elf.

Gery Scott
In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, we present the second of three programs featuring excerpts from Gery Scott’s cabaret “I Love Larry” in which she sings the songs of  Lorenz Hart, and we may even slip in a couple of favourite Christmas songs.

90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news about 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, repeated on Tuesday nights from 11.30pm and streamed live on the internet at

Friday, December 19, 2014

Unwrap Me presented by Budding Theatre

Unwrap Me presented by Budding Theatre ( at Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre December 18-20, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 18

In an enjoyable Christmas evening of 10 short plays, the appropriately named Kirsty Budding has presented work by 10 budding new, emerging, up and coming, or somewhat more emerged playwrights.  Based on the now well-established Short + Sweet concept, the writers’ brief was to begin with the stage direction: [A character] enters carrying a Christmas present.

During interval, an essential element of the Christmas theme of giving was a raffle of wine and a Christmas hamper donated by local businesses, and the auction of a framed Unwrap Me poster signed by all the 30 or more cast members, which on opening night sold for $100.  The money raised from box office and the auction was donated to Medecins Sans Frontieres and World Animal Protection.

In general the pieces were absurdist and humorous, reminding me of earlier times in Canberra watching Elbow Theatre, Bohemian Theatre or Freshly Ground Theatre, but without those groups' emphasis on being conscientiously avant gardeUnwrap Me is relaxed fun.  Yet there were some pieces which, in about 10 minutes, developed substantial themes and characterisation.

The evening was never competitive – quite the opposite, in fact.  It was a Christmas celebration of minimalist staging – a desk, a sofa, a dead body in the empty space beside an ubiquitous Christmas Tree, enhanced by a very effective sound track collection of modern urban pop.  But here are my comments on each author’s approach, in order of presentation.

Tom Green’s The Christmas Pitch has Santa and his Elf off-sider present a bank manager with a business plan to spend $30 billion on giving away presents all over the world: not for profit but simply for the sake of doing good.  The idea is fun for ten minutes, but the script tails off rather than coming up with a good strong punch line.

The Cat and the Cigarette by Grace De Morgan turns the apparent gift of a possibly dead cat into a metaphor for the insecurity of being in love.  The end, though, from a serious point of view, is sentimental.  So it’s a clever idea, but we are not sure of how we are to take the humour.

Nigel Palfreman, in I ♥ Alex Solomon, takes up the theme of male sexual competition expressed in the gift that Alex gives Claire, and Paul’s angry jealousy.  The plot and dialogue have no subtlety, so we are not sure if we are to find the situation funny or to seriously take sides.  It certainly seemed a bleak view of Christmas cheer.

John Lombard’s The Holiday on December 25th is a very different kettle of fish.  What if, taking the view that gift-giving at Christmas and birthdays is just crass commercialism, you bring up your child so that she is not aware that these occasions are celebrated, or that they even exist to be celebrated?  What happens when, at the age of 25, your daughter Becky Givings, becomes suspicious about the total coverage of Christmas decorations, jingles and adverts and Mrs Givings is forced to come clean?  Very cleverly, Lombard’s script takes us through the funny side as we see Becky’s dawning recognition that her mother has deceived her, yet in the ten minutes allows us to accept their reconciliation.  Only then as Becky leaves happy and Mr Givings arrives, we get the punchline which brings Mr and Mrs back together.  He may not be happy with, but has to accept, his wife’s breaking of the secret about Christmas: “But it’s just as well she doesn’t know about birthdays!”

The strength in the writing here is in the genuine motivations of the characters, the humour we find in their dilemmas, and the recognition of an issue which many families take seriously. In ten minutes there is a complete dramatic structure built before our very eyes.

Christmas with Carroll is anything but a pleasant occasion for an uplifting song.  Youthful Carroll’s hatred of being obliged to attend the family Christmas with all the oldies turns into a story of revenge.  There is a logic to the plot which leads to more than just black humour.  The humour of degustation and disgust in this surprising play by Tahlee Fereday from Darwin is both excruciatingly funny and awful to watch as Carroll’s revenge bites back and spews forth – all over her.

Chris Naylor’s A Christmas Body, after interval, drinks and the auction had revived our equanimity, was a nice simple and pleasantly amusing episode.  The author’s interpretation of the injunction in the writers’ brief about carrying a Christmas present was a practical joke on us, as was the dead body’s behaviour a practical joke on his hosts at their Christmas dinner.  There are no other significant implications in this play, but we didn’t need depth at this point in the evening.

But we couldn’t relax for long.  Original Sinners by Kirsten Lovett from Queensland is a highly abstract meeting of a mystical Australian bush woman, which in Biblical terms might be Lilith (as in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh), though here she is named Pandora (as in Pandora’s box, perhaps), with a man – a stranger in her desert country, dressed in a city-style business suit, perhaps referencing Cain who killed his brother Abel and representing criminality and corruption.  Perhaps, on this Christmas day, he seeks redemption and some kind of reconciliation and solace.  She will only tell her story if he repays her by telling his story.  They reach a kind of peace in the telling, as the image of their existence fades away.

For a ten minute piece, this is quite unusual and even disturbing, and suggests an interesting future for this new writer who grew up in Cairns.

Kirsty Budding herself wrote No Room at the Inn, which seems to be about the children of a kind of a dysfunctional Addams Family.  Will they all be allowed to go to the family gathering on Christmas Day?  James is gay, and will not go without his father’s acceptance of his love for Lucas.  Helen is thoroughly imbued with a kind of jealousy because James came out before she could make it clear that she is gay, too.  Gollum, hidden in the back room, is a kind of maniacal throwback to a mythical apelike state, who reveals three virtually naked young men in a procession from his room and off stage behind the Christmas tree.  The present which begins this mayhem is brought by Lucas for the unappreciative Helen – a large ball-shaped gift which is never revealed.

Somewhere in all this is an absurdist satire of the conventions of Christmas family gatherings – funny but weird.  I guess there would not be room for any of these children at their family’s “inn”.

Perhaps this play was the nearest to the early Bohemians (later Boho) Theatre style ( .

The Price of Balloons is a much more conventional play by Disapol Savetsila from University of Wollongong.  A young woman’s father insists in giving her presents, while she knows that he is not well off.  She sells his latest gift (of a fascinating balloon which has several other inflated balloons inside) to a passer by who has forgotten to buy a gift for his daughter.  She negotiates a very high price as the passer by has no other chance to buy a gift before catching his train.  When her father returns she insists on giving him the money which he can’t afford not to take, though he is devastated by her selling of his gift.

We are left feeling in two minds about what she has done, and in empathy with the father’s dilemma.  The play leaves us forced to consider what is the true nature of a gift.

Finally, the evening ended with perhaps the best written script: Sexy Beth’s Giant Dildo Collection by Canberra-based Greg Gould.  His career so far has been almost entirely centred on writing ten-minute plays, performed in Australia and overseas, with considerable success in short play competitions including Short + Sweet here, in New Zealand and Dubai.

Beth and Dale are moving into an upstairs flat.  Dale labels the biggest box of their belongings “Sexy Beth’s Giant Dildo Collection”, to Beth’s horror since her father has carried it up when he arrived unexpectedly to help.  She fears that her father, who she believes is already unhappy with her relationship with Dale, will think of her as sexually depraved.  She sees herself and her family as conventionally nice.  Dale’s joke may divide her from her family.

However when she leaves Dale to face her father, it turns out that he regales Dale with his stories of the “free love” period of his life in the 1960s, leaving the young Dale amazed, but now able to relieve Beth’s anxiety and finish the play on a positive note.

The quality of the writing is in the immediately established genuineness of the feelings and motivations of each of the characters, our easy acceptance of the situation as it seems to trend in its different directions, and our recognition of the issue of generational differences.  In its ten minutes, we see that instant judgement and assumptions are a danger we should be careful to avoid.

Reviewing 10 plays in one evening is quite a task, but well worth doing in this case because I think Budding Theatre is a valuable new development in Canberra.  Unwrap Me has drawn writers and actors from Canberra, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin, Cairns, Wollongong, Goulburn, with experience and training backgrounds around Australia and overseas.  Budding’s idea to take the Short + Sweet (and the school level Fast + Fresh) competition into a non-competitive evening show has worked well, with an enthusiastic response from the audience on opening night.  There’s at least an annual event for Christmas in the making, and perhaps for other significant times in the year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


QL2 Dance 
QL2 Theatre,
 Gorman House-Canberra
December 13, 14 2014

Reviewed by:
Bill Stephens

Each year for the last six years selected students from Australia and New Zealand tertiary dance institutions have converged on QL2 in Canberra to try their hand a creating a short individual dance work. Initially instituted to bring QL2 alumni back to Canberra during their tertiary studies to share what they have learned, “On Course” has now expanded to include other tertiary dance students. This year the seven young participating choreographers included students from New Zealand and the UK as well as from WAAPA and VCA.

In the two weeks of the residency, each choreographer is tasked with creating a short dance work on senior QL2 dancers and other participating students. The results of their efforts are shown at two public performances before a paying audience. At this performance, each choreographer introduces their work with a short explanation of their choreographic inspiration. The performance is followed by a short session involving both dancers and choreographers, during which members of the audience have the opportunity to question the participants about their work.

"Buzz Off!" by Tanya Brown
Ryan Stone and Ayesha Katz
Photo: Lorna Sim 
Several of the choreographers chose to explore deep abstract themes, but one of the most successful and best resolved works was inspired by buzzing mosquitos. WAAPA student, Tanya Brown incorporated slapping noises and quirky movement to create a witty, amusing work for four dancers called “Buzz Off”.  Excellent music choice and an imaginative finale involving two dying R & J mosquitos added to the fun.

(Limits at infinity, approaching zero) by Chad McLachlan
Chad McLachlan and Ryan Stone

“(Limits at infinity, approaching zero)” by  VCA student, Chad McLachlan, was also notable for its imaginative use of video images projected on to the bodies of the two white clad male dancers who performed complex repetitive movements against a neutral background to a driving soundtrack also composed by McLachlan.

NZSD student Sam Hall’s “Earth V.2” was an absorbing and well-prepared work for six dancers, incorporating unison and free-form sections to explore concepts of how people might cope with the destruction of the earth’s biosphere. This work was particularly notable for the well-staged struggle for leadership supremacy by two male dancers.   

For her work “Disambiguation”, Falmouth University (UK) student, Melanie Kerr, made striking use of white masks for her exploration of stereotyping. The work included some lovely unison sections which were well managed by her four dancers.

"Impetus" by Ayesha Katz
Nasim Patel (on Floor), Luke Fryer, Sam Hall, Oonagh Slater
Photo: Lorna Sim
By contrast, WAAPA student, Ayesha Katz, in her work “Impetus”, for seven dancers, utilised free-flowing structured improvisation, performed to a haunting soundtrack, to create an abstract, lyrical piece of considerable beauty.  

The one solo piece in the program was a dense piece entitled “When the Wolves Turn Blue” given a strong performance by the choreographer, Dean-Ryan Lincoln, from WAAPA, to his own composition of the same name.

The final work on the program was a delightfully playful, circusy piece by VCA student, Amanda Lee, called simply “Experiment”. Posing the question “What if we never lost our magical sense of imagination and creativity we had as children” and performed to a varied  soundscape incorporating spoken word and music, Lee’s five dancers enthusiastically embraced their inner child, mimed funny dialogue and bombarded the audience with hundreds of multi-coloured balloons. While it did flag a bit towards the end, “Experiment” provided an unexpected and joyful finale to the performance.

As with all QL2 Dance presentations, “On Course 2014” was impeccably stage managed, the costumes were simple but appropriate, the sound and lighting excellent. In their comments at the post-show forum, the choreographers and dancers were fulsome in their appreciation of the advice and mentorship of Ruth Osborne and Adelina Larsson.

The dancers, some of whom performed in several works, were well-prepared and disciplined. Given the limited time they have had to work on these works – just two weeks – and given that the focus of the program is on the choreography rather than the dancing - the standard of dancing throughout was very impressive, including that of several of the choreographers who danced in works other than their own.  While it might seem unfair to single out particular dancers, it would be equally remiss not to mention the work of Ryan Stone, whose strongly committed performances enhanced several of the works.

 Apart from providing an entertaining, often enlightening evening of contemporary dance, “On Course” also acts as valuable and fascinating microcosm of current dance trends in our tertiary dance institutions, as the young choreographers inevitably reflect these influences in their works, as they each strive to identify their own individual choreographic voice.

       This review first published in the December 15th digital edition of "CITY NEWS"



Sunday, December 14, 2014

QL2 Dance – ‘On Course 2014’

QL2 Theatre, Gorman House
13 – 14 December 2014

Review by Len Power 13 December 2014

QL2 Dance’s final program for the year brings together current dance students from tertiary institutions across Australia to choreograph, collaborate and perform.  They are joined by current Quantum Leapers who have the opportunity to participate as dancers, working alongside the tertiary students.  This year seven works were presented and were introduced prior to each performance by the respective choreographer.

Sam Hall from the New Zealand School Of Dance (NZSD) presented ‘Earth V.2’, a a discussion on how we might individually cope if earth was destroyed and we had to start a new life on another planet.  This was a finely detailed work with a strong and clear message, nicely danced by a group of six.

‘Disambiguation’ was choreographed by Australian, Melanie Kerr now studying at Falmouth University in the United Kingdom.  A study of stereotyping and how it impacts on our society, the use of masks gave this clever work an almost dream-like quality.

Utilizing film, music and live dance in ‘(Limits at infinity, approaching zero)’, Chad McLachlan, from the Victorian College Of The Arts (VCA) choreographed, and also danced with Ryan Stone, a visually original concept where film seemed to mirror and blend with live dance.

‘Impetus’, by Ayesha Katz, currently studying at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), was a beautiful work about energy and motion.  Equally lyrical and dramatic, there were great solo elements as well as excellent ensemble work with the dancers plus a good choice of music.

Dean-Ryan Lincoln, also from WAAPA, presented and danced a deeply thoughtful solo work about mind and body, knowledge and the aim to achieve called, ‘When The Wolves Turn Blue’.

Tanya Brown, another student from WAAPA, gave us an amusing and witty piece called ‘Buzz Off!’ which started with the idea ‘If only our thoughts were as easy to kill as mosquitoes’.

‘Experiment’ by Amanda Lee from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) was a joyous work asking, ‘What if we never lost our magical sense of imagination and creativity we had as children?’  It was imaginative and a delightful end to the program.

All seven works were of a high standard showing great creativity and a clear sense of purpose.  The choreographers were well-served by the dancers who performed with confidence throughout the program.

This was a stimulating and entertaining dance program that was a delight to attend.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 14 December 2014 from 5pm.

Images – a piano recital to coincide with the exhibition ‘Impressions Of Paris: Daumier, Degas and Lautrec’

Pianist: Margaret Legge-Wilkinson
National Gallery Of Australia
7 December, 2014

Reviewed by Len Power

It’s hard to think of something better to do on a Sunday afternoon than listen to a program of music by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel played by composer-pianist, Margaret Legge-Wilkinson.

Designed to coincide with the National Gallery of Australia’s current ‘Impressions of Paris’ exhibition, the concert featured music selections of Debussy’s Preludes from Books 1 and 2 and Images 1st Series plus Ravel’s Jeux Deau (Fountains).  As contemporaries of the French Impressionist painters, the composers’ music was an excellent recital choice.  Margaret Legge-Wilkinson has performed as soloist, accompanist and chamber musician in Australia and Europe for over 30 years.

Commencing with the shimmering ‘Reflections in the Water’ from Debussy’s Images 1st Series and on through the selections from the Preludes, the choice of pieces displayed the evocative atmospheres Debussy created so superbly in his music.  Especially memorable were the gently reflective ‘Hommage to Rameau’, the feistiness of ‘Minstrels’, the delightful eccentricity of ‘General Lavine’, the melancholy of ‘Footprints in the Snow’, the quirkiness of ‘Puck’s Dance’ and the spectacular musical colours of ‘Fireworks’.  Ravel’s ‘Jeau D’eau (Fountains)’ was more conventionally classical in style and a refreshing and charming piece to end the concert.

Margaret Legge-Wilkinson‘s playing was clear and nicely paced, bringing out all the atmosphere, colour and wit of the works.  While her spoken description of the works was welcome, her delivery was not as organized as it could have been.

However, it’s the music that’s important here and in that respect Margaret Legge-Wilkinson certainly delivered the goods.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 8 December 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014


Kurt Phelan (Johnny Castles) Kirby Burgess (Baby) 
Lyric Theatre Sydney

3rd December until 8th February 2015.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Having been at the world premiere of “Dirty Dancing” in Sydney’s Theatre Royal in 2004, it was interesting to be able to re-connect with this show ten years later at the Australian premiere of this brand new production.

Despite a cool reception from local critics at the time, the stage version, which starred Kym Valentine and Josef Brown, proved popular with audiences, and after the Sydney season, toured Australia and New Zealand for eighteen months before moving on to a sell-out season in Hamburg, Germany.

When the 2006 London season secured a West End record of eleven million pounds in advance bookings, the show became something of a phenomenon. While the critics continue to be mystified by its success, audiences flock to see “Dirty Dancing” where-ever it is staged,  and productions of it have continued to tour  internationally ever since.

Kurt Phelan and the Dirty Dancing ensemble
This slick new production, crisply directed by James Powell, with ingenious new set designs by Stephen Brinson Ellis which make extensive use of pretty video projections to accomplish seamless transitions and reproduce key scenes from the film, clearly illustrates why this show has remained so popular.

An additional 20 scenes have been added by its creator, Eleanor Bergstein, who also wrote the movie, making the stage show an even more slavishly faithful re-telling of the hugely popular 1987 film. Each scene from the movie is carefully reproduced; every line and every song appears to have been retained, allowing the audience to relive the story of a teenage girl’s relationship with a dance instructor while on summer vacation with her family exactly as they remember it from the movie.

Kirby Burgess (Baby) Kurt Phelan (Johnny Castles
Kirby Burgess is endearing and engaging in the pivotal role of Frances “Baby” Houseman. Her accomplished transition from awkward teenager to skilled dirty dancer is both engaging and convincing. (Perhaps not so, in the scene when she goes swimming and her hair doesn’t get wet).  

 As the rebellious dance tutor, Johnny Castle, Kurt Phelan lacks the overt in-your-face sexual magnetism of a Swayze or a Brown, but he’s handsome and an excellent dancer, and gets plenty of opportunity to shine during the many energetic dance numbers. Despite his rather wooden acting, he still managed to draw cheers from the first night audience with his rather unconvincing delivery of the “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” line.

Curiously, none of the songs advance the storytelling. They simply set the mood, or provide background for the various scenes. None of the leading characters get to sing, but charismatic young tenor, Mark Vincent and Anna Freeland, as staff members in the holiday camp, impress in a succession of familiar well-known songs which accompany the action.

Reprising the role she created in the original production, Nadia Coote remains a stand-out as the dance teacher, Penny Johnson. Her dancing is sensational and she commands the stage in all her scenes. Teagan Wouters as Baby’s envious older sister also scores with her funny “Hula” audition turn. The rest of the cast enthusiastically portray a variety of stereotypical characters who inhabit the holiday camp as the familiar story unfolds.

Kurt Phelan (Johnny Castles) Kirby Burgess (Baby)
Nadia Coote (Penny Johnson)
Even if the second act bogs down a little in the minutia of the storytelling, and the fascination with the colourful videoed scenery begins to wane, the audience seemed happily engrossed, laughed and applauded every familiar line, until the inevitable moment when Johnny Castle held Baby aloft in that familiar pose and the theatre erupted into a standing ovation, you didn’t need to be rocket scientist to tell (sorry, can’t resist) they had had the time of their lives.  

 This review appears in Australian Arts Review

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blithe Spirit

Script by Noel Coward
Directed by Kate Blackhurst
Canberra Repertory

Review by John Lombard

Canberra Repertory delivers a charming and engaging production of repertory staple "Blithe Spirit" (by playwright Noel Coward).  While the script is starting to creak in places Kate Blackhurst's direction (aided by some exceptional casting) provides a crispness and precision that gives the play the smoothness and sparkle of fine champagne - and just as much delight.

Sniffy author Charles Condomine (played with characteristic aristocratic hauteur by Peter Holland) has invited a spirit medium over for dinner: not for her company, but to steal her quirks and patter for a new book.  His wife Ruth (Emma Wood) is apparently a perfect match, equally cynical and sardonic - and, in a very English way, also a trifle ill-bred.  Charles and Ruth are not bad people, but inviting someone over just to make fun of them simply lacks class (the conceit that it's for Charles' book doesn't make a great deal of sense either – when confronted by a famous novelist seeking their help, most people are likely to be generous with their experiences, not clam up).  However they are punished for their sheer bad manners when the medium successfully conjures a ghost - Charles' winsome, spritely, sexy and highly mischievous first wife Elvira (a perfectly cast Anita Davenport).  Charles is delighted to have both women in his life and tries to convince his two wives that the only sensible option now is to embrace bigamy.  Of course his wives object to this solution and battlelines are drawn between the wives living and dead for mastery of Charles.
Casting is this production's great strength.  Peter Holland, Emma Wood and Anita Davenport all strike the perfect note in their performances, and the supporting cast are equally strong.  Elaine Noon as family friend Mrs. Bradman provides a contrast to the Condomines by treating the spirit medium with sincere respect.  Her husband Doctor Bradman (Don Smith) is sceptical, but he is at least honest about his contempt for spiritualism – still one up on the Condomines.  Liz St. Clair-Long frequently steals scenes as the quirky and energetic medium Madam Arcarti, while Yanina Clifton delivers sparkling moments of physical comedy in her appearances as a nervous and over-eager maid.  I've rarely seen a production so expertly cast and director Kate Blackhurst deserves a lot of credit for her savvy choices.
That said, I had trouble making sense of Charles' feelings for his two wives.  Ruth and Charles seem extremely well-matched – almost brother and sister rather than husband and wife.  He repeatedly insists that he never misses his first wife, so of course we assume that he's lying and part of him secretly longs for her.  But, no, he really is just cold.  In the final act Ruth dies and her passing barely registers as a blip.  True, his views on the spirit world may have been altered by recent experiences, but his reaction is a too sociopathic to convince us that he is capable of loving anyone.  Rather than a man who loves two women and has to choose between them (or cannot make that choice), he is revealed as a man who has always been dominated by women and can only be free by getting rid of them (through the handy use of exorcism, of course).  It's definitely a script problem: the play sets up an amazing situation in the first act and then deftly sidesteps it in the second.  I could believe in the ghost - but I couldn't quite believe in Charles.
Another flaw in this production is its excessive length.  This is where the play felt most dated - Coward's script is witty, but it tends to meander around issues rather than showing us action.  The first act was ninety minutes, and at least thirty minutes of that could have been snipped with little cost to the play.  Characters spend far too much time discussing their situations rather than actually doing anything about them.  Even light trimming would speed up the action.
But even with these criticisms, I genuinely loved this production.  I have seen plays this year that were more ostentatiously brilliant, but none that were quite as entertaining.  Even when it was over-long (the first act became a battle of endurance near the end), I was still enjoying myself.  The acting was so fine that I wanted to savour every moment, particularly Anita Davenport's amazing performance as Elvira (a massive triumph for the performer).  As I've said, the play is starting to show its age - this is one haunted house story that's crying out for renovations.  But even if the paint is starting to fade and the furniture has seen better days, it’s still a nice place to spend the night.
This wasn't the best show I've seen this year – but it's the one I enjoyed the most.