Review: Other Desert Cities – Queensland Theatre Company at QPAC Playhouse

Image: Rebecca Davis, Robert Coleby, Janet Andrewartha

As much as I love the vivid experimentation – the sheer theatricalism – of some of the recent plays I’ve seen on Brisbane stages, I must confess to being a sucker for an unadorned production of a good piece of American realism. QTC’s latest offering is Jon Robin Baitz‘s Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony award-winner after its transfer from an off-Broadway start in 2011.

Mr Baitz’s play is finely wrought; the threads he spins in act one are woven tightly in act two and deliver some surprises of their own – a nice touch in a tale about family secrets and lies – a recurring motif in modern American drama. The coda at the play’s end is a little overly sentimental for my taste but probably essential given the narrative set up that’s gone before. The author creates his plot with great characters, by the way. The five roles are juicy, naturalistic and beg for bravura turns coupled with the finesse of ensemble playing.

Other Desert Cities is classically old-fashioned in so many ways; it even sticks to the unities for heaven’s sake!  In this co-production with Black Swan State Theatre Company and QTC, director Kate Cherry casts well and delivers a finely-observed, well-orchestrated, conservative production true to the play’s aesthetic values. Continue reading Review: Other Desert Cities – Queensland Theatre Company at QPAC Playhouse

Review: End of the Rainbow – Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC at the Playhouse

Image (supplied QTC): Christen O’Leary

At the time Judy Garland was destroying herself behind closed doors and on stage at Talk of the Town nightclub during her last concert season I also happened to be in London.

It was the winter of 1968-69 and I remembered seeing snow then for the first time. I didn’t, however, see any of Ms Garland’s shows during that 5 week season not only because I couldn’t afford it, but also because I wasn’t interested. Judy Garland was somewhat passé, known less for her artistry and more for the sad scandals that continued to plague her life – a bit of an embarrassment, really and old, after all.

I remembered hearing about her death in 1969 and, although finding it sad, was not surprised. At the time of her death aged 47 – what I had thought of as old – she was already iconic but the legend that was ‘Garland’ – the tragic, self-destructive artist – continued to grow after death. It was via the legend that I got to know about Judy Garland and heard her songs and saw her movies and watched black and white documentaries of her performing solo and with daughters Liza and Lorna and then Liza talking about ‘Mumma.’

Then, along comes Peter Quilter‘s semi biographical play with music End of the Rainbow in a co-production by Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC. First produced in Sydney in 2005 and subsequently world-wide, this big, new production directed by David Bell focusses on the last seven months of Judy Garland’s private life – that time we ‘shared’ London – she in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, me in a basement bedsit in Shepherd’s Bush. Continue reading Review: End of the Rainbow – Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC at the Playhouse

Review: No Man’s Land – Queensland Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

The last time I was at the Bille Brown Studio some weeks back it was in an unholy mess – the lads and lasses from The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Company had seen to that during the course of I Feel Awful. I wrote afterwards of feeling sorry for the stage management team who had to clean up after every performance.

Last night I walked back into an altogether different space. Designer Robert Kemp has transformed the BB’s minimalist black into the cosy living room of an upper middle class London home – the kind you see in movies where the whisky comes in cut glass tumblers and the soda splashes out of siphons. This is old-fashioned (if shabby) gentility on display. There is a huge back wall of bookshelves (complete with a secret entrance), a very well-stocked drinks cabinet. Rugs adorn the polished wood floor, and lamps of all kinds are on the shelves. There’s a comfy club chair to lounge in and, to complete the picture, a couple of China dogs – those most-assuredly English mantelpiece adornments. Get the picture? It’s all for No Man’s Land, Harold Pinter’s marvellous play about the decay of the British Empire – or is it? One is never quite sure with Pinter. However, I took my cue from the character Spooner (Peter Carroll) who leaps with delight as a metaphor escapes from the lips of Hirst (John Gaden) during the course of their extraordinary encounter in Hirst’s living room. With Pinter, you take all the clues you can get. Metaphors aside, the odd couple have met up on Hampstead Heath, and Spooner, a snowy-haired, greasy-suited pixie of a con-man – clearly fallen on harder times – has inveigled his way into the staid Hirst’s home for a drink and a chat. What happens after that is the substance of the play.

The Pinter trademarks are all there in No Man’s Land: characters confined to a single room, mysterious arrivals, and the sense of  menace in the air – even the towering shelves look as though they could collapse inwards and bury the protagonists. And then there’s the linguistic relish of dialogue which winds itself around Pinter’s favourite themes – memory, power and sexuality. However, in this production, the Pinter-esque pauses, beats and often lugubrious silences which pepper his plays – seem hardly noticeable. Either they’re not indicated in this particular script, or Michael Gow has decided to ignore them in the playing. Good decision.

The direction sets a cracking pace – 95 minutes without an interval – and it produces a delightfully quick-witted interpretation of a play which is also composed of plenty of darkness and no small amount of sombre inflection if that’s the way you want to go. What happens in this production is an emphasis of the light and the quick over the dark and the heavy, and it works wonderfully well. It is a refreshing contemporary take on a modern classic.

Michael Gow has wanted to direct this play for a long time and he’s cast it superbly. I can’t think of a better pairing than these two fine actors in the central roles of Pinter’s demanding play. They carve up the text and serve it with relish. Dangle a metaphor before Peter Carroll or a linguistic double-entendre before John Gaden and stand back. Their performances are nothing less than a combined master class in comic timing, stage craft, and the mastery of Pinter’s periphrastic turns of phrase and juicy linguistic circumlocution – yes, it’s like that at times, only really, really funny.

These two nimble-footed veterans are joined by the two lurking lads about the place who appear to be butler-manservant and carer-keeper. The performance space wasn’t the only thing transformed in this production. There is an almost-unrecognisable Andrew Buchanan as Briggs; he’s boof-headed and buffed and, my God, those arms, that chest! His sidekick Foster, the dangerously-silky, Chav-like enigma is played by a manscaped, elegantly oily Steven Rooke. Messrs Buchanan and Rooke, two of Brisbane’s best younger actors, are terrific matches for their elder colleagues; theirs are wonderfully original and sure characterisations.

This is the first time No Man’s Land has been performed professionally in Australia. Queensland Theatre Company’s co-production with Sydney Theatre Company is a ripper of a show. Don’t miss it.

No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter
Bille Brown Studio, Brisbane 19 Sept-22 Oct
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House 1 Nov-7 Dec (Check STC website for session times and details)  

Director: Michael Gow; Designer: Robert Kemp; Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper; Sound Designer: Tony Brumpton

Review: The Removalists – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

It’s been a while since I’d last seen one of David Williamson‘s best plays, The Removalists – 36 years, in fact, in an opening night performance of a production by QTC at the old La Boite Theatre in Hale Street. I took the opportunity this week to see a matinee performance once again at Queensland Theatre Company. I was surrounded by kids, and seniors like me; weekday matinees tend to be like that.

The current production, directed by Michelle Miall for the Studio program, was a bit of a nostalgia trip in many ways, and I wondered how the high school students around me would react to a period piece – for such it is. The first production of the play in Melbourne in 1971 featured David Williamson as the removalist, and his wife to be, Kristin. This production marks the play’s 40th anniversary. Still hard to believe …

Back in the early 1970s Australian drama was going through its heady nationalist phase. The Ocker figure made his appearance over and over, the women’s liberation movement was getting an exploratory nod (here and there) on stages, and more than a fair sprinkling of vulgarity and violence was the norm. Lots of beer cans were popped on stage and the male vernacular ruled. They were exciting theatrical times and it was all exhilarating stuff, although female characters tended to be short-changed in what was an overwhelmingly masculinist world on stage. More often than not, these productions shocked the socks off seniors at matinee performances back then. These plays hadn’t made the schools’ syllabus list – these too were awaiting liberation.

Williamson’s text is tight, entertaining realism in the service of a good yarn; this much hasn’t changed at all. The twin protagonists – Sgt Dan Simmonds played by Chris Betts and Kenny Carter by Steven Rooke – are terrific, layered characters which remain a challenge and, I imagine, a delight to play for any actor. They are two of the great roles in modern Australian drama. Both Betts and Rooke are well matched here and in good form as they spar verbally and physically.

As I watched, I was reminded of something that was obvious in a lot of Australian plays from the 1970s: Williamson wrote awful roles for women. Until later on, when complex, central characters like Frances (Travelling North) or Barbara (The Perfectionist) appeared in his works, this lack of meaty roles for women in his plays was a bone of contention amongst female actors. In this production of The Removalists (one of those plays) two fine actors Emmaline Carroll (Fiona Carter) and Natasha Yantsch (her sister, Kate) are constrained by roles which are as slight as the male roles are rich; they are almost entirely satellites and supports to the males. Peter Cook as Rob, the Removalist, and Anthony Standish who plays Simmonds’ foil, the new cop on the job, Const Neville Ross round out the cast.

Michelle Miall’s production keeps the pace up – 1 hr 44 mins with no interval – and she lets more of the comedy show. Chris Betts’ Simmonds is less the sinister, terrifying thug than comic, lecherous braggart circling Kate in hopes of some overtime fun. Steven Rooke is excellent as Kenny; it’s some of his best work, and he’s always good. Anthony Standish is terrific too as Ross; he’s the embodiment of a boofhead – all nervous, try-hard precision. In a weird way, even after you know he’s committed an appalling crime, you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Kenny’s the same. He’s unlikeable but sufficiently complex to grab our interest and our sympathy. ‘I’m unpredictable. It’s part of me charm,’ he notes cannily of himself. Williamson may well have written the role of Rob knowing he was going to play it himself in that original production. It was a smart move either way; it’s an unforgettable little pearler of a role. Once heard, you never forget that defining mantra from the guy who knows he’s the real man in charge, ‘I’ve got $10 000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive.’ Peter Cook fills this smartypants Everyman role with relish – and a smirk.

In the post-show Q&A session the kids asked about the props: ‘Were they real?’ they asked. There’s a television audience for you! It turns out that the labels and packaging, uniforms and set dressing were all of period in which the play is set. Lit by Jason Glenwright,  Simone Romaniuk‘s wonderfully-awful-70s (you can still get that wallpaper?) set design works well for police station (Act 1) and Kenny and Fiona’s living room (Act 2.) I’m a sucker for those soundscape atmospheric mixes of music and popular culture from a period. Here, Sound Designer Tony Brumpton gathers snatches of television and news broadcasts from the early 1970s and gets the sound of the times spot on as well. By the bye, hasn’t the style of VO announcers changed?

Whilst the student audience asked about the police corruption portrayed in the play, no one talked about how the actors had worked on the violence which made The Removalists such a shocking piece when it was first produced on Australian stages; there’s that television audience again. Whilst I recall squirming during the onstage violence – choreographed by Scott Witt – I found even more revolting the perverted mateship that plays out over a beer and a cigarette. Kenny drags himself back from the kitchen where Ross has beaten and kicked him to a bloody mess, and, in the scene that follows, Williamson sets up one of the most violent and disturbing endings in Australian drama. Beer can in hand Kenny dies from a massive cerebral haemorrhage and, in what the stage directions describe as ‘a frenzied ritual of exorcism,’ both police officers beat each other senseless over his body. It’s truly brilliant, ghastly stuff.

When it first appeared to great acclaim, the black comedy and the horror of The Removalists was undeniably shocking. Whilst it may not have the visceral impact of the original productions in their own time, there is no doubting its dramatic power.

The Removalists by David Williamson Directed by Michelle Miall for Queensland Theatre Company plays at the Bille Brown Studio, 78 Merivale Street, S Brisbane until 6 August. Check the Company website for details.