Review: Colder – La Boite Indie & Michelle Miall at The Roundhouse

Images: Al Caeiro

The first of the La Boite 2011 Indie season productions, Colder by Lachlan Philpott, opened at Brisbane’s Roundhouse Theatre last week. Directed by Michelle Miall and performed by a cast of six actors, this play is a tonal poem of melancholy. Like slow, sad rain falling on the heart, Colder washes its audience in a threnody of loss.

You’ve got to love the range and confidence of independent theatre in Brisbane right now. Sure, there are hits and misses – as there must be – but, as someone said a while back, it’s indie work with its daring and devilry that’s the life-blood of the wider theatre culture in this country. The indie voice heard in productions around town can be raucous and potty-mouthed, silly or serious. Sometimes the voice is delicate and challenging – as it is in this one.

I’m a sucker for poetic theatre – the theatre of poetry – whatever you want to call it. I fell for the poetry – the beauty and un-selfconscious lyricism – of Philpott’s text in Colder. Having said that and, despite the buzz of the play’s language, the work feels too long in the playing – is this the production’s pacing or the length and structure – even the nature – of the text itself? I wondered at the number of characters in the work and the inclusion of incidental interludes and monologues. Was it these which seemed to be holding up the core narrative?

The play revolves around David (Chris Vernon) the enigmatic central character who disappeared first (and for a few hours) as a child on a visit to Disneyland, and then, never to return, as an adult in Sydney. The play’s action is contextualised within the gay community of Sydney, and was inspired by one of the writer’s friends who went missing some years ago.

The cause of David’s disappearances comes late in Colder. In direct audience address he speaks of being haunted throughout his life in pursuit of the figures of a man and a boy – the father he knew only briefly and the confident boy he could never be. It only hints – but that is enough – at how and why David remains missing.

In any case, Colder is less of a mystery than a psychological exploration of the effect David’s disappearances have had upon his friends and acquaintances (Kevin Spink and Kerith Atkinson in multiple roles), his lover Ed (Tony Brockman) – but especially upon his mother, Robyn, who is played by Alison McGirr and Helen Howard in younger and older versions of the same character. We walk in their shoes wondering why and how for much of the play. The ensemble of six are in fine form and, under Myall’s direction, handle Philpott’s lovely text very well indeed.

Colder is a play that may have some asking how a text which relies more on voice than on embodiment can be improved by staging. Is it better suited for the vocal orchestration of radio where ‘the pictures are better’ for example? Michelle Miall’s production is far from static, but characters give witness, they narrate, and they describe more often than they interact. The play is not particularly dramatic but that’s no burden. This is the nature of Lachlan Philpott’s script, of course and, anyway, hoorah for poetic theatre.

What is gained in its staging – in breathing the same air together in the same room – is the embodied experience of grief and its effects which are as uneasy to watch as any forensic investigation must be. This is what the actors’ physical presence adds.

Design by Amanda Karo, lighting by Daniel Anderson and composition and sound design by Phil Slade mesh beautifully, as they should, for Michelle Miall’s most satisfying production of the difficult and cold road of the grief-stricken.

Colder plays at The Roundhouse Theatre as part of La Boite’s Indie 2011 season until 9 July. Check the La Boite website for session times and booking details.

Review: Man=Man & The Elephant Calf – Queensland Theatre Company

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Photo: Amelia Dowd (Bille Brown Studio – after the flood)

Off to the theatre last night to see QTC Ed’s (the Company’s education ‘wing’) production of two small Brecht pieces: Man=Man and The Elephant Calf. The mostly grown-up audience responded well to Director Joe Mitchell’s cleverly recalibrated, joyously performative and wonderfully funny examination of Brechtian theatre techniques.

If you have been as underwhelmed as this theatre-lover has been over the years at the near-veneration afforded Brecht, especially in the state’s drama syllabus, then this production is a revelation. It’s irreverent and also Brechtian-authentic to the core. The pickiest of drama teachers are going to love the way it ticks all the boxes in the Brechtian Performance Techniques check-list. It’s also set to stir their classes to ask ‘WTF?’ Oh, and speaking of ‘WTF’ – the text is visibly strewn with the ‘F Bomb’; do schools still have to vet shows for the kind of  language found in the playground and on the school bus? I’d love to be a fly on the wall in some of the classrooms where this production is being discussed. I’ve attended several QTC Ed shows over the years with audiences of upper high school-age students. Each time I have been astonished and delighted at the level of sophistication and maturity displayed by these young people during the post-show Q&As.

The ensemble cast of six (Chris Vernon, Helen Cassidy, Nick Cook, Anthony Standish, Leon Cain and  Kevin Kiernan-Molloy) are uniformly excellent. Mitchell has set the play in some middle-eastern war zone and the hapless civilian Galy Gay (Vernon) a kind of opportunistic Everyman figure finds himself buffeted by the winds of politics and macho posturing by the soldiers who take him in. The cast are aided and abetted in the onstage mayhem by a very visible crew (led by SM Christopher Horne at the desk). ‘The Director’ remains as an offstage and nicely nameless authoritarian figure who is finally challenged by the team of ‘actors as actors’ in the last 10 or so minutes of the program. This section kicked over any remaining vestiges of the wall separating audience and performer. The meshing of form and content and examination of the nature of reality and performance was, for me, the most interesting and alienating (in the best Brechtian sense of the word) part of the program. Chatting to a cast member afterwards I learned that it had been created in the last week of the rehearsal period. Bravo!

As the standard bearer for a much wider program of education services, QTC’s Ed productions in the Bille Brown Studio, all under Joe Mitchell’s direction, have been one of the best kept secrets for far too long amongst the city’s post-school theatre-going crowd. It’s good to see the Company including one or two of these intelligent and excellent productions in their new Studio program series this year. Joe Mitchell will be missed; he is leaving QTC to take up a new position in the Brisbane performing arts industry. Good luck Joe!

This production (approx 95 mins without interval) plays at the Company’s home premises at 78 Montague Road, South Brisbane until March 12. Check the showtimes from the QTC website. You’ve got a week – give yourself a treat.

Disclaimer: I am currently the Chairman of the Board, Queensland Theatre Company. My opinions are entirely my own and should be understood as distinct from any affiliation I hold with this or any other business or arts organisation. The only barrow I push is that of theatre per se.