No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Windmill

Overheard at the theatre

During Grug and The Rainbow, from audience members approx. three- to five-years-old. 

When the actors pull out a record: “Ah. That’s a giant CD.”

When there is a storm: “Is that real lightning?”

When paint appears on the paint brush: “It’s magic!”

When Grug goes to bed: “Why is it nighttime?”

When Grug paints a house green: “Is that real paint?”

When Grug paints a house green: “That really looks like aqua.”

When Grug goes to the snow: “I want to go there.”

Apropos of nothing: “Mum! Give me money! Mum! Give me some money, mum!”

Festival Review: School Dance; and investing in joyous artistic visions.

Sydney-based actor and playwright Matthew Whittet has enjoyed a perhaps disproportionate amount of his success as a writer Adelaide.  Twelve, his first play was workshoped at the National Playwrights Conference in Perth in 2006, and his first produced play was Silver, a monologue which Whittet also performed, at Downstairs Belvoir in 2009.  His latest work, Old Man, will again be playing in Belvoir’s downstairs theatre this June, but between these Sydney outings, three of his works have had main-stage productions in Adelaide.

Two of these plays were presented in very quick succession in 2010, with Windmill Theatre producing Fugitive in August, and Brink Productions producing Harbinger in September.  While the shows weren’t without their issues (particularly in the final scenes of Harbinger), Whittet did in many ways cement himself to Adelaide’s audience as someone with a unique mind, twisting slightly off centre into bizarre universes filled with awkwardness, and with love.

School Dance, again produced by Windmill, premiered in the Adelaide Festival this year.  While this work still sits very early in Whittet’s career as a playwright, it was embodied with a wonderful of air of trust on behalf of Rose Myers and Teena Munn, the Artistic Director and General Manager / Executive Producer of Windmill, respectively.

Like Fugitive, School Dance has been directed by Myers, and above all else feels like Whittet was given the absolute freedom to make a work to his vision. The resulting play is one that, as soon as you start to detail it on the page, sounds so peculiar, so unconventional, and so illogical that it wouldn’t work; and yet through this trust is borne something that works absolutely.

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2011: A year in reflection

In 2011, I saw straight plays, musicals, cabaret, modern dance, ballet, puppetry and an opera. I saw monologues and collections of monologues. I saw Shakespeare and Katz – but no Brecht. I saw new Australian work and old Australian work. I saw development readings in rehearsal rooms, independent productions in basements, immersive works on the street, and multi-million dollar musicals in 2000 seat theatres. I saw professional productions, amateur productions, and student productions. I saw 114 performances of 106 works.

In chronological order, these are the six shows which, as I stand in December and reflect on a year which was, stand out with their shoulders above the rest. The heaviest on my brain; the lightest on my heart. Many which made this list had what is ultimately for me, an undefinable quality about them. Two I penned responses rather than reviews. Two I didn’t review at all. Each one made me question how and why I write, made me question my skills to put words to art: for that I am grateful.  I don’t think I always rose to the occasion of writing about them, but I grew in the attempt.

A Comedy – Brown Council, presented by Vitalstatistix

Four women. Four hours of performance a night. Countless bananas, tomatoes and cream pies. A Comedy was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Did I “get it”?  I don’t know. I don’t care.  I sat for four hours (and then an extra fifth) participating in one of the most demanding, hilarious, debaucherous, bizarre, and unknown nights of theatre I suspect I will ever have. Among other things: I threw a cream pie, got covered in a cream pie in retaliation, threw money and peanuts for the dancing monkeys, and was ventriloquist for the voice of a tampon. Bananas and I still have issues.

Hans Christian, You Must Be An Angel – Teatret Gruppe 38, presented by the Come Out Festival

A work I couldn’t write about – and not just because during the Come Out Festival I saw fifteen shows in six days.  I tried many times and never found the right words.  A transformative work, part participatory theatre, part art installation, this show made me feel like I was eight: smelling the thermos of coffee of a couple’s love, touching the plate of ice of a snowman’s melting heart, seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes.  We were invited to the dinner table of Hans Christian and his stories, distilled down to an essence and shown in miniature.  It was made of the magic of stories, of a light hand, of asking an audience to open their eyes and look – and we did.

Thick Skinned Things – Stella Denn Haag, presented by the Come Out Festival

In what is very possibly the first time in the history of the theatre, the curtain is going up early.
I find out as I make my way down North Terrace, a leisurely stroll interrupted from a panicked call from my friend Chloe “Are you nearly here?  It’s starting early.  We’re trying to wait for you…”
I kick off my shoes, and I run.
I run down North Terrace, I run down the stairs in to the train station, I dodge commuters, I run into the Dunstan Playhouse foyer.
An usher beckons me “Are you Jane?  They’re waiting for you.”
We run upstairs to the second usher, “I’m sorry; it’s just began, I can’t let you in.”
“Are you sure?  It’s not supposed to start for five minutes; can I stand in the back?”
“Well…”
A pause.
It’s a long pause.
“If you’re quiet.  And you take off your shoes.  And you don’t take your bag in.  There is a bench that goes around the side.  If you are quiet and sit where no-one can see you; you can go in.”
And so, slightly out of breath and slightly sweaty, I leave my shoes and my bag and I creep into the dark.
There, under a naked globe, is a woman telling us of her story.  A story locked behind closed doors, a woman scared of the outside word, a woman hurt by the people who live there, a woman who is in love with the man next door and his perfect garbage bags.  A woman who is lost when he is gone, a woman who can’t live in the world any more, and instead becomes a mole, burying herself in a labyrinth of tunnels in the dirt.  It’s nothing more than a monologue. Words, told with a slightly veiled accent, told with very little movement and very little light, and an undeniable emotional wallop.

The Seagull – Belvoir

2011 was a year of Chekhov: to Sydney for The Seagull, to the cinema for the National Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard, and to the Dunstan Playhouse for The Three Sisters.  But what The Seagull gave me was an understanding, an infatuation, a fascination, and a connection to this text which has been produced for over one-hundred-years.  When the lights rose at the end of act one I thought their must have been a mistake: we’d only just sat down, the play had only just begun!  But no, over an hour had passed without me batting an eye.  The Seagull felt rawly honest, remarkably natural, and above all, more than any other play I have seen from its era, it felt right.

The Book of Everything – Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image / Belvoir, presented by Windmill Theatre Company

The third work made for young audiences on this list.  Theatre which captures the heart is a glorious thing.  This show was a burst of magic for me and my co-reviewer date Aria.  We sat transfixed in the world of the pages of Thomas’s diary from Amsterdam in 1951; we were transported.  We laughed, we yelled, we shielded our eyes, we were a plague of frogs, we wiped away tears, and then the two of us wrote.  I left feeling strengthened, re-invigorated, loved, and hopeful.

boy girl wall – The Escapists, presented by La Boite Theatre Company

In many ways an ode to theatre and to those who go to theatre.  A story about love, but not a love story.  A story about our characters, but also our narrator, and our audience. At one point, Lucus Stibbard quipped a small joke and I was the only person in the audience to let out a small laugh. He turned to me, caught my eye, and smiled the briefest of smiles: a flittering acknowledgement of a tiny moment shared.  I don’t remember the joke: perhaps it wasn’t one at all and my laughter was completely out of context or unexpected. But  boy girl wall is about these moments in life which are unexpected. Life can be shit: you don’t need your boss, you don’t need your writers block, you don’t need magpies, you certainly don’t need Mondays.  But in between these moments, you can smile, and laugh, and fall in love.  And that’s precisely what I did in that theatre.

Thanks to you all. I’ll see you in a theatre in 2012.


Adelaide’s Lament: Pent-up Frustrations

However much I talk about youth issues in Adelaide, it is in many ways a city where it is great to be a young maker of things – because the generation above us is missing.  They’re living in Sydney or Melbourne.  It’s much easier to find yourself noticed or to raise your voice above the din when there isn’t much of a crowd which needs to be broken through.  But how is this impacting on the younger and emerging generations of artists?  Is the cultural drain, coupled with a lack of venues where independent artists can present – and where audiences interested in independent work can attend – and Adelaide’s insularity having a negative impact on the quality of art produced?

In both Brisbane and Sydney this year, I saw work by people who were once based in Adelaide, but now these writers, directors, actors, and stage managers, live and create work in other cities for other audiences.  This work ran the gauntlet from among the best (The Seagull) to among the worst (Woyzeck) I saw this year, but the point is I couldn’t have seen it at home.  I don’t blame them – I’m not planning on sticking around forever – but this has a two-fold effect on the cultural ecology of Adelaide.  Not only are we losing these artists and these voices, we’re also losing the effect these artists can have on the generation who follows them: the knowledge base and the talent which can be shared is lost.

It is, of course, a self-perpetuating cycle.  The “brain-drain” creates its own pull, the more creative people that leave, the more others feel they need to leave, too, to find new opportunities,  be them creative, employment, or creative employment orientated.   Then, particularly in the case of arts administrators, as people start to return to Adelaide to raise their families, having worked interstate almost becomes a prerequisite for many higher level jobs.  There is, it seems, even the perception that you must leave in order to advance in a career in Adelaide.

It is not only the artists who leave, it is the other people interested in punctuating their lives with arts and culture outside of the festival context.  The more these people leave, the harder it is for artists to find audiences, and the more artists leave to move interstate.

The pull of the Adelaide artists in Sydney or Melbourne grows ever stronger, the pull of Adelaide grows ever weaker.

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Adelaide Critics Circle Awards 2011

The 2011 Nominees for the Adelaide Critics Circle Awards.  Recipients in bold 5.12.11


Individual Award 

  • Guy Barrett for the RBS Morgans International Piano Series
  • Tamara Lee, actor, That Face (five.point.one)
  • David Mealor, director, Buried Child (State Theatre Company of SA)


Group Award 

  • five.point.one, The Eisteddfod
  • Soundstream Collective
  • State Opera of South Australia, Moby Dick
  • State Theatre Company of SA, Holding the Man


Emerging Artist of the Year 

  • Robert Bell, actor, The Pillowman (University of Adelaide Theatre Guild)
  • Charles Sanders, artistic director, Early Worx
  • Nigel Tripodi, actor, A View from the Bridge (University of Adelaide Theatre Guild)
  • Alex Vickery-Howe, playwright, Molly’s Shoes (Accidental Productions)


Independent Arts Foundation Award for Innovation 

  • Chris More, video and set designer, The Girl Who Cried Wolf (Windmill Theatre)
  • Jason Sweeney, sound designer, Three Sisters, The Eisteddfod
  • Adam Synott, animation and sound, Side To One (Craig Bary and Lisa Griffiths)

Visual Arts Award: Amy Joy Watson

Individual Award – Amateur Theatre 

  • Megan Dansie, director, The Pillowman (University of Adelaide Theatre Guild)
  • David Roach, actor, Red (Independent Theatre)
  • Russell Starke OAM, actor, Breaker Morant (Therry Dramatic Society)

Group Award – Amateur Theatre 

  • Therry Dramatic Society, Breaker Morant 
  • University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, A View from the Bridge 
  • University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, The Pillowman 

Lifetime Achievement Award: Barbara West

Some  quick questions: why are two amateur actors nominated in the “professional” categories?  What exactly was innovative about More’s video/set and Sweeney’s sound?  (I didn’t see Synott’s work.)  Are there not enough visual artists in Adelaide to make a nomination list?  Why is the State Opera credited with Moby Dick, but not co-creators the Dallas Opera, the San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera and Calgary Opera?  Why is Windmill credited with The Girl Who Cried Wolf, but not original production company, the Arena Theatre Company? 

Review: The Book of Everything

With special guest reviewer Aria Noori, aged 11.

"You're a very special boy, you know." (Whittet and original cast member Yael Stone as Eliza.)

The Book of Everything review by Jane Howard, aged 22

It is the summer of 1951, and we are in Amsterdam, Holland, Europe, Northern Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Galaxy, Universe, Space.  We have a birds-eye view of Thomas Klopper (Matthew Whittet) aged nearly ten, and his book of everything.  Pappa (Pip Miller) says all good books are about God, but Thomas isn’t quite sure what his book will be about yet.

Thomas sees things that other people don’t see.  In his imagination, he sees terrible hailstorms in the Amsterdam summer; he sees tropical fish, his favourite guppies, in the rivers and canals.  In his house, he also sees things that aren’t seen outside those walls: he sees his father hit his mother (Claire Jones).

Based on the book by Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything is delightfully funny, heart-warmingly touching, and heart-achingly sad.  It is brave theatre; theatre for children, about children; theatre which at times is hard to watch.  More sad than it is scary, Richard Tulloch’s adaptation tackles some big issues: domestic abuse, questioning and redefining faith, protofeminism, unlikely friendships, lasting effects of World War Two, love.  It is certainly a piece for older children, and one that saw many shielded eyes, but through the sadness seeps through an undeniable bravery, the strength that children can find in themselves, the happiness that is waiting for them. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Fugitive

TThe king has abandoned his kingdom, the knights have taken over, and tyranny rules the land.  Robin returns after a two-year absence, and quickly falls back in with his friends: Marion and Wil.  When Robin fails to save the life of a young boy, he and his band, joined by Little John, move into the woods and steal from the rich to give to the poor.  This is Robin Hood like you know it, and yet nothing like it.

Eamon Farren as Robin Hood.

With carpeted lounge, two walls with forest photographic wallpaper, some doors, chairs, and logs, in Fugitive Jonathon Oxlade has created a delightfully simple set: the changes in locations (along with many props) exist only in our imaginations, yet we are never left with any doubt as to where they are.   Exceptional lighting by Richard Vabre, and composition and sound design by Luke Smiles help to compete the puzzle, and are both as integral to the narrative as the dialogue.  It is a true testament to this production and team that these three arms of design never seem like distinct entities: they are constantly working in such an incredible balance it seems as though they were created by the one mind.  Coming together with these elements, the story and production doesn’t need to spell things out, because through this creativity a world much bigger than could ever be realised on stage is created.

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Review: Grug

L-R Grug, Nathan O'Keefe, Lucas Stibbard, Cara and Jude Henshall. Windmill Theatre. Photo Tony Lewis

This review originally appeared on Australian Stage Online

Ted Prior’s children’s series, Grug, has been loved by tens of thousands of Australian children since originally published over the period from the late 70s to the early 90s. Republished in 2009, and now with the help of Windmill Performing Arts and QPAC’s Out Of The Box Festival, a new generation of children are being exposed to Grug and his adventures.

Nathan O’Keefe, Lucas Stibbard and Jude Henshall operate the puppets in the show – designed by Jonathan Oxlade and remaining faithful to Prior’s illustrations – and all give delightful performances. The show, directed by Sam Haren, draws from several of Prior’s books, starting with telling of the creation of Grug (he began life as the top of a Burrawong tree which fell to the ground, and grew stripes, legs and a face) and following Grug as he has fun and solves simple problems.

Stories included Grug and His Garden, where Grug discovers a snail eating his garden, so he plants more so they can both be happy; Grug Goes Fishing, including a very funny sequence in which a goggled O’Keefe operates fish, seaweed and a crab; Grug Plays Soccer, where Grug and friend Cara the carpet snake (operated by the wonderfully expressive Henshall) play a game; and Grug Learns to Dance, in which the children in the audience all learn “The Grug”.

A simple narrative structure is used to introduce each story: O’Keefe is delivering parcels to Grug when he discovers they are all empty. So one-by-one he takes some items from a bag which seemingly belongs to an audience member, places them in the parcel, and they magically transform into the catalyst for the story: water from a drink bottle and a small toy fish become a fishing-rod, an ordinary apple grows into a giant apple. Similarly, the individual stories all end with the same structure, as Grug goes to sleep after his adventure.

This simple device meant the stories were all clearly defined, and more than that, it allowed constant surprise and anticipation as to what would come next.

The short show started late as late arrivals drifted in, causing some of the children who had been waiting to become restless, but once the show started they were enamored. Three-year-old Ruby couldn’t sit still through the show – not for being bored, but because she was straining to get closer to see what Grug and her personal favourite, the snake Cara, were doing. At the end of the show, the children were all invited to come a bit closer and say goodbye to Grug and his friends.

Windmill has again created a show in which children can wonderfully discover the magic and the fun and play in theatre. A show for Windmill’s youngest audience, one- to five-year-olds, the adults in the audience were having almost as much fun as the kids – both through watching the play, and watching the children become engrossed in the story and the characters. And, due to demand, a special performance for “original” fans of the books has been added to the Adelaide season: I certainly enjoyed rediscovering a childhood friend on stage.

Grug plays at the Forge Theatre, Maryatville High School, until April 24th, followed by a season in Studio 1, QPAC, from June 8-13th as a part of the Out Of The Box Festival.