No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Australian Stage Online

Review: Worldhood (And: On the fallibility of being a critic)

Worldhood. Photo Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions 2011

This review was originally published at Australian Stage Online

Darkness. Silence. Through the dim, white. A large blank page, several meters high by nearly the stage wide. In front, sits the stage. Empty.

Enter visual artist Thom Buchanan. To the white, he brings fast and furious strokes of charcoal. The theatre fills with the scratch and scrape of charcoal against paper, the breath of Buchanan, amplified, echoing around and around the space. The page fills with vertical lines, Buchanan swiftly crafting a forced perspective, the audience finding themselves peering down a city street.

As Buchanan draws he ducks and rises, his whole body mimicking the geometry of his hand and the charcoal he draws with.

Dancer Tara Soh walks on to the stage, watching with intent the rapid creation of a black backdrop, as she begins to follow Buchanan. As he drops, she drops. As he shifts up, right, down, right, left, she shifts up, right, down, right, left.

As she moves out of this holding pattern, Soh continues to create patterns and forms in response to the heightening intensity of sound, as the strike of charcoal and the sharpness of breath continues to intensify in the space. Her body moves in sharp lines and angles.

Other dancers begin to join and fill the space, their bodies too moving and bending with sharp cracks along lines, moving angles and moving planes. Hands grab, arms interlock, bodies in a mass move across the space.

The sound of Buchanan drops away, and as if the voice over to a documentary, we are told about the history of marks, of the precursors to image. Of angles, of composition, of the eventual discovery of how to create a perception of depth on a two dimensional plane.

And that’s just the first fifteen minutes.
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Three Days, Five New Local Plays

Last week ended up being quite the week for new local playwrighting!

Wednesday I made my way down to the Bakehouse to see Molly’s Shoes, which I did not enjoy, and you can read my review of here at Australian Stage Online.  I would also like to draw your attention to the commenting form there, rather than here, if you have things to say.

Thursday I went across town to the Director’s Hotel to see Duende Presents: PLAY OFF!, where three local short shows battled it out for further development and a spot in the 2012 Fringe.  It was a great event, they packed out the upstairs space in the hotel, and everyone had a fun time just celebrating theatre.  My affections were drawn between The Fortitude of Samuel Clemens by Caitlyn Tyler, directed by Dee Easton, for its humour and “fringyness”; and Helen Back by Elena Carapetis, directed by Nescha Jelk, for its power and particularly the performance of Jacqui Phillips.  After three nights of audience and industry votes, the pick of the event was The Fortitude of Samuel Clemens, so look out for that work (or perhaps another work from the team?) at next year’s fringe.

Friday I hung out in a rehearsal room of the Adelaide Festival Centre, where I was invited to a moved reading of Little Borders by Phillip Kavanagh, directed by Corey McMahon, which was a fantastically powerful piece in which Elena Carapetis (demonstrating way too much talent for just one week) blew me away.  I owe the playwright an email of thoughts, but that’s it in a nut shell!

Review: Africa

This review originally appeared on

Africa is a story of the resilience of children, of their ability to move into a fantasy world, to create new lives from tales on television and clutter in toy rooms. It is a story of neglected children, the painful life they lead; their struggle and the struggle of their mother, loving, yet leading a chaotic life and in an abusive relationship.

Photo: Jeff Busby

Alone in the house, again, two sisters and their next-door neighbour, sheltering from the abuse he endures back home, are given over to the electronic babysitter – the television. There they watch pictures of African wildlife: the balletic pink flamingo, the strong leopard, the baby zebra. As they watch, they are transfixed by the beauty of it all, of the beauty of a world with no adults, a world where children can do as they please.

As they are transfixed, the cluttered room (design Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan, props and set dressing Tim Mcgraw) begins to change, as up from one of the many levels on the set rises a great pink flamingo, created out of pieces of toys. Throughout the piece, the puppetry of the child characters is accented by the use of “found” items to create the African world the children imagine.

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Review: Of The Causes of Wonderful Things

This review originally appeared on

Five children are missing. As their aunt Esther tries to come to grips with her loss, a detective and the audience must try and piece together what has happened. Their mother, Claire and her partner Frankie are all but removed from the picture, seemingly more infatuated by cigarettes than the children.

Of The Causes of Wonderful Things builds off Talya Rubin’s gentle script into a play crossing the boarders of text-based theatre and installation artwork. The solo play written and performed by Rubin moves through intersecting characters as their relationship to the missing and their disappearance are explored.

The 1940s design elements are lush and gorgeous. Over three plating spaces are a working reel-to-reel tape recorder, rotary phones, lamps, tables and radio of deep wood, a blue dressing gown hanging from the ceiling, a red hand bag sitting on the ground. An overhead projector shines its light against a screen, as Rubin walks us through negatives of photos or creates the peaceful menace of the lake.

On the ground, Rubin creates dioramas: out of small models grows a house surrounded by forest where naked children try to live in the rabbit hatch; a mound of dirt, a model tree and a small torch becomes search crews walking the forest; a large perspex box with two pin-points of light becomes the underground lair of a mole. It is unfortunate these elements couldn’t always be fully seen due to poor sightlines.

This is a protracted piece of theatre. While the slow pace feels suitable to the slow peril of the children, many scenes seem superfluous to the driving story. This intersection of various characters, some with relationships more tenuous to the central story than others, weakens the impact of the overall piece. In scenes which don’t seem to be related to the overall arc, in particular the reoccurring motif of the Town Hall concert, the connection to the central character of Esther and her five missing nieces and nephews becomes frayed.

Other directorial choices of Nick James also dull the impact: when Rubin inexplicably pulls an audience member out to sit on the stage, only to directly return her to her seat one monologue later, the audience is distracted from the text itself; they also must question why does sometimes Rubin act out in differing characterizations both parts of a conversation, while conversations between Claire and Frankie utilize a puppet?

While a sufficient show to showcase Rubin’s talents as an actor embodying many characters, and to exhibit the interaction of text-based work with visual art elements, the text overall needs tightening and editing to show off these elements to their best advantage. Of The Causes of Wonderful Things is a quiet piece, yet it needs focus to revel this to everyone’s advantage.

Too Close To The Sun presents Of The Causes of Wonderful Things, writen and performed by Tayla Rubin.  Directed by Nick James, sound design by Hayley Forward, dramaturgy by Jodi Essery, puppet maker Zoe Coombs Marr, technical consultant Russell Emerson, visual consultant Justine Shih Pearson.  

Review: The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church

This review originally appeared on

The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church begins at the beginning, with Daniel Kitson’s discovery of a single letter to anIsabel, written by Gregory Church, unsigned and still in a typewriter, sitting in the loft of a house while house hunting. Seemingly a suicide letter, the first letter Kitson read was the last letter Gregory wrote. The first letter Gregory wrote, Kitson was later to discover after taking possession of every box of letters in the attic, was a suicide letter written 24 years earlier, also to Isabel.

Over the course of those 24 years in 90 minutes, Kitson moves us through the letters, through the life of a man who is, by all accounts, rather ordinary, except this is the story of a suicide postponed because there were simply too many letters to write. And in these letters, Kitson has found a fondness for a man and has made his life extraordinary to us.

Kitson talks us through the letters of Gregory Church at a manic and rolling pace. Aware there is no way he could possibly make it through 30,000 letters (sent and received) in just 90 minutes, the faster Kitson can talk the more he is going to fit in. His thoughts seem to race ahead of the pace he can speak, excitement in sharing his discovery greater than he can contain, as sentences fly out in every which way, sprawling across the audience in a net of mystery, a puzzle which Kitson desperately wants us to solve before the evening is out. Words tumble and fly over one another, occasionally held up by a stutter, and yet through this velocity Kitson remains absolutely clear, clever, and fantastically funny.

Kitson is an incredible wordsmith as he rolls through the letters, using his vast vocabulary and fondness for words detailing the intricate relationships Gregory formed. Racing through facts and figures about Gregory, and his formed pen-pals lives, Kitson has the air of a scientist, a researcher, and rightly so: he dedicated the best part of two years, and sacrificed walls of his home to scribbling flowcharts, to decipher the mystery.

In the vast hall of the Auditorium at Town Hall, Kitson doesn’t embellish his production with anything more than his storytelling. There are no sets, the only prop a small black notebook that he consults to quote directly from the letters. And nothing more is needed. Kitson and Gregory Church hold the room in what is ultimately a hopeful story of a life lived.

Review: Something Old, Something New

This review originally appeared on

Ali McGregor, as always, is resplendent in her choice of shoes and songs. Returning to the Adelaide Fringe, this year she has left the late night crowd and has come to the Spiegeltent (or “a tent in the middle of a field in Adelaide”, as she puts it) for two weekend afternoon shows. Under the light of the afternoon sun, Something Old, Something New is a lot more tame and straight-laced than theMcGregor which has visited us in past years.

But perhaps that is for the best, as McGregor tells us Adelaide is the only city where she has gotten complaints, going so far as to send her letters complaining about the comedians and burlesque; one in particular exclaiming, “that comedian Adam Hills is clearly taking cocaine!” 

It is these stories that McGregor peppers and paints her show with which lifts it; after an hour in her presence you not only have been given some wonderful songs, some with intriguing twists, but you feel like you have gotten to know a bit more of herself.

This weekend, we are being introduced to a slightly discombobulated, but all the more endearing, McGregor, as she has come to Adelaide with her nine-month-old daughter suffering from a cold. McGregor says she knows it will all be over and fine within a week, but “try telling her [daughter] that”, who is thus acting like it is the end of the world.

With the support of a wonderfully jazzy three-piece Adelaide band under the musical direction of talented pianistMatthew Carey, McGregor gets the chance to sing some songs she has done before in Adelaide, some new ones, and she leads on to expand the expression to include something blue.

We are treated to songs given the “McGregor Pizzazz” (“No, no, that’s not a real thing,” she adds, perhaps a little embarrassed for uttering it in the first place), from Madonna’s San Pedro to Britney Spears’ Oops, I Did It Again, to popular standards Bye Bye Blues and The Man I Love.

McGregor’s richly colourful soprano silkily wraps over the jazzy renditions of these songs, filling the day lit Spiegeltent with the light of her voice, and the humour and vocal tricks that comes with it. A delightful way to spend an afternoon.

Review: Cantina

This review originally appeared on

Walking into the Spiegeltent is always a somewhat magical experience. Under the canopies held within the confines of mirrors and wood and stained glass windows lies an otherworldliness that Adelaide only becomes privy to during the festival season.

Cantina has taken this magic and transformation to another time and place, expanding it ten-fold. The depression-era inspired design elements seem to take the audience into an old classic seaside circus venue: Brighton, Coney Island.

Seemingly shiny and happy, the joyful and playful opening acts – including tightrope walking in stilettos and Jazz-Age tap routines – give way to a much darker underside of the era the show emulates, and the circus tradition itself. Cantina doesn’t carry with it a can of gloss-paint to cover over the pain: pain and strength and sex of its players are played out right in front of our eyes. The six performers create a circus which is as sexy as it is vicious, in a series of acts unconnected except in characters and an ever-darkening throughline.

The performers repeatedly astound. Henna Kaikula seems not so much to be double-jointed, but in fact lacking joints at all, as she twists in delicious and gut-turning flexibility and control.David Carberry and Daniel Catlow flip and fight with strength and power and brutality that the eye doesn’t want to turn away from. Mozes swings overhead so that the whoosh of air by his feet can be felt on the faces of the audience in the front row, and when he repeatedly makes a red handkerchief disappear in his clothes until there are no more clothes for it to disappear in to, until it still disappears the audience doesn’t quite know where to look at all.

On the opening night in Adelaide one routine didn’t go quite to plan, as Chelsea McGuffin took several false starts to walk across the tops of glass wine bottles on top of a pianola. As in many moments during the show, the audience waited and willed, their collective energy completely vested in McGuffin completing the trick.

I find it interesting, this fallibility we allow in circus performers, the forgiveness we extend to them which perhaps we don’t to actors and dancers and musicians. Perhaps it is that in a circus, we feel there is more of the personality of the performer in the character. Perhaps it is simply the nature of circus allows for re-tries: when a mistake happens, the audience can see the performer strive for achievement repeatedly on the same trick in the one show. Perhaps it is just with live performance there is an element of the feeling of wouldn’t it be a good story to tell, if something went wrong, while in circus the story will be much better if it went right. And in Cantina it does repeatedly go right. Even though McGuffin didn’t completely recover on that act, she came back full strength in later scenes.

Throughout the show, scenes are accompanied or bookended with the ukulele tunings of Nara Demasson, and the show is scored with a combination of recorded and live music, including the pianola acting as a second playing space, and a series of percussion instruments to punctuate the fight scenes. Much of the soundscape, though, comes from the collective gasp or squirm or holding of breath of the audience, as the cast seem to defy laws of science in ways we feel should not possibly be able to happen.

Cantina is powerful stuff. I like my circus a little bit raw, a little bit of pain, and a whole lot of human behind them. While they achieve feats that I can’t even begin to conceive achieving, without veneer, the human heart – and with it, the human strength – is the thing that shines through.

Review: Nothing is Really Difficult (Niets Is Echt Moeilijk)

Nothing Is Really Difficult, Dutch theatre group WAK would like you to believe. Except, it would seem for these three characters. For them, performing is difficult. Really difficult.

Seemingly unbeknown to Bart Strijbos, Dorus van der Meer and Toon Kuijpers, they are about to fall (literally, or rise from under the floor, or stumble) in to a performance, directly in front of an audience. Then they have forty-five minutes to bumble through and entertain their audience.

Nothing Is Really Difficult. But I feel this might be, just a tad.

Performing essentially a series of disjointed clowning sketches, the show is most successful when the power of the purpose built box (rebuilt in Adelaide over several 40°C days) which WAK performs this show in is shown and exploited. The bend of floor-boards, the breaking in of the roof, running and swinging through doors, climbing around near the ceiling, falling through walls: the integration of the nervous and excitable energy of these characters within a space created specifically for them is where this show has the most life.

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Review: Stevl Shefn and his Translator Fatima

This review originally appeared on

Stevl Shefn (Steve Sheehan) has come down to the Garden of Unearthly Delights to share with his audience a series of stories about his life and this world. Stories about his aunt’s adult video shop, his inventor uncle, his “hermaphrodite” partner (with great detail given to all four types of genitalia possessed), as Stevl takes diversion after diversion, painting a crazier and crazier picture of himself.

The only problem is, he doesn’t speak English.

In fact, he doesn’t seem to speak any discernable language at all. Which is where Fatima (Emma Beech) comes in. The buzz and jump, the out-dated eccentricity of the plaid suit, the wild-paced physicality and even wilder eyes of Stevl are markedly contrasted in Fatima, hidden, conservative, still and reserved behind her burqa. The audience are asked to put their faith inFatima and her translations, and are constantly having to measure up: is Stevl really this crazy, truly this anomalous, or is Fatima twisting this translation? If she is twisting this translation, is it as simple as a miss-translation, a poor understanding of the finer points of Sheehan’s conceived gibberish, hodge-podge Eastern-European language, or is this a deliberate mockery of him and his country? Even though only Fatima’s eyes are visible, Beech manages to convey her sense of dissatisfaction in Stevl – particularly when she is asked to translate his translation of his vacuum cleaner.

While the translator joke doesn’t quite sustain the fifty-minute act, enough gems are peppered throughout to justify its length.Sheehan bounds across the tiny stage of The Campanile with an incredible physicality: the verbal bounce and patter of this bubbly unintelligible language is neatly partnered with the physical bounce and patter, made all the more evident paired against the smooth and calm Australian of Fatima.

I’ll leave this review with a few words from my vacuum cleaner: zwjzwjzwj zwjzwjzwj zwjzwjzwj zwjzwjzwj zwjzwjzwj. To understand what she is saying, I guess you’ll have to see the show.

Review: Boxing Day Test

Lest anyone be scared off by the title, no more than your absolute basic knowledge of cricket will be required when watching Boxing Day Test. My knowledge perhaps only just extends to the finer points of tippy go, and believe it is best experienced by playing on a sand bar.  I have absolutely no idea of how the scoring works, and to be honest I don’t much care to know.

After I couldn’t go to the Opening Night, or the following night, I was offered tickets to the preview performance: a night I could go to, but I wouldn’t have any time following to write about it.  I also felt strange about going and reviewing on a preview.  I have no problem with going to preview performances, and have done so frequently, but I also feel if I’m reviewing “professionally” then these shows should be untouched.  And they’re probably glad I didn’t review it: I heard the show went for four hours, had five stops, and twice actors were left suspended from the ceiling for eight minutes.  Oh, wait, no, that was Spiderman! The Musical!

This review originally appeared on

Christmas. It’s that time of year again. For some, a time for families, celebration, and looking forward into the future of a new year. Or for others, just the day before Boxing Day, and with it, the glory of the Boxing Day Test. For brothersPatrick (Tim Overton) and David (Nic English) and the Christmas approaching the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, this test is going to be tougher than most.

Michael Hill’s Boxing Day Test is an often dark and tense look at a particularly hurt family, with damage traipsing back fourteen years finally coming out. Around the holiday,Dave flirts and connects with Patrick’s crush and fellow law student Sophie (Renee Gentle). To try and save from eviction, Patrick asks their father, John (Patrick Frost), to buy the house: he doesn’t realise this will mean his father coming back uninvited into Dave’s life.

Floating around for at least eight years, in an earlier incarnation, entitled Poor BrotherHill was shortlisted in the 2002 Jill Blewett Playwright’s Award, awarded at Adelaide Writers Week biennially. Despite these early accolades,Junglebean (a young company established and run by EnglishOverton and Gentle) is giving the script its world premiere production. It is a terrible sign as to the state of presentations of new works by South Australian writers that an accomplished piece of text has taken so long to reach the stage.

But through Junglebean, and under direction and dramaturgy by Duncan Graham, audiences are finally getting the chance to discover the script. While slightly uneven, where the piece tends to get unnecessarily bogged down in verbalisation rather than simply allowing the strength of character to come through, Boxing Day Test is a crafted portrait of four human and flawed characters, some more than most, and it is the final destination of each of these characters that truly creates the production.

Such characters cannot be brought to the stage without a strong cast. Here, English is the standout. While Dave is often unlikable in his actions, English strikes the balance between tortured soul, sexy bad boy, and a hint of brains, to create a thoroughly engaging character.

Frost is in fine form in the most narrowly written of the characters, yet this is a play that belongs to its young cast.Overton and Gentle truly come into their characters towards the last third of the play, as their characters are drawn in to the conflict. Gentle as Sophie in the last scene in particular left my heart beating. Overton does his best turn not as the straight-laced-student Patrick, but the drugged up Patrick. Where Gentle finds her best performance asSophie finds great strength, Overton finds his best as Patrick falls apart.

In an interesting directorial choice by Graham there is minimal physical contact between all characters on stage. While violence and sexual relationships are spoken about and are the overall themes of the piece, when onstage they are never extended beyond a short grab or a skimming embrace. While emotions run raw in a play that is so much about physical mistreatment, Graham never expands these emotions physically. This interestingly serves to create a level of frustration in these restrictions placed, yet highlights the tensions which are already present in the text, and do not need to be literalised.

Even in the one scene of overt violence, Graham maximises on the skills designers Tammy BodenAndrew Howard and Ben Flett, as a fight is created with a single actor, strobe lights, and frantic music. It is simultaneously a brutal exploration of violence and an exploration of the power of theatre to create images and ideas where there are none.

Playing around in the bleak, near squalor, of Boden’s simple, pared back and realistic set, Flett’s lighting design is tight, quickly changing between scenes in interplay between an abrupt change in Howard’s sound design. Within the frenetical world of the characters (particularly when under the influence of drugs or beer) these abrupt changes and high energy add to the tension of the construct.

As a counterpoint to these moments of high energy, Flett’s lights in the moments of tension and near quiet highlight the menace and pain within the script and the characters. Within the already small forum of The Bakehouse this extreme tightening serves to constrict focus onto the best parts of English’s performance.

Howard’s sound, primarily used in the scene changeovers and for snippets of commentary from the actual Boxing Day Test on the television, but also as more of a sound track to scenes veering on montage, provides a palpable energy and helps build the humour and the tension within the script.

The piece, while a fully contained story about a single familial conflict, also satisfyingly feels as if it fits into a much larger framework: there is a clear trajectory of where the characters have come from to get to this point, and an ambiguous yet present trajectory that these characters and relationship continue off the page beyond the confines of Hill’s script.

Yet, while HillGraham and Junglebean are tackling tough subjects that take a risk, overall it almost veers too much on a side of caution. Deliberate ambiguity in the set up led me to concoct a much darker storyline in my head, ultimately incongruent with the conclusion of the piece. The production would benefit from being pushed just a bit further into darkness and over that edge it sits on. Nonetheless, Boxing Day Test is a strong, new Australian work, from a young Australian company, which deserve to be seen.

Junglebean presents Boxing Day Test by Michael Hill.  Directed by Duncan Graham, set and costume designer Tammy Boden, sound designer Andrew Howard, lighting designer Ben Flett.  With Nic English, Patrick Frost, Renee Gentle and Tim Overton.