Review: Orphans – Queensland Theatre Company (Studio) @ Bille Brown Studio

It’s a cool and drizzly Brisbane winter night, the wind is blowing off the river and I’ve scooted back in quick time from my current-neighbourhood playhouse – the Bille Brown Studio at 78 Montague Road. I’ve been disturbed rather more than I would have thought possible by Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, a play out of contemporary Britain that lays bare another part of the barbaric underbelly of the carefully manicured middle class. I wanted to get home, turn the lights on and clear my head.

Orphans‘ action is relentless, and it doesn’t let go for its 105 or so minutes’ playing time. It hooks you from the get-go as the blood-stained figure of Liam bursts in on his sister Helen at home and eating dinner with her husband Danny. Their young son Shane is away – being baby-sat, and they’re having a quiet night at home – a ‘celebratory dinner’ cooked by Danny. We learn Helen is pregnant. The couple appear to be reasonably well-off; they live in a tasteful, beige on beige apartment which is interpreted with spot-on minimalist restraint in Sam Paxton‘s design.

Kat Henry directs this production for Queensland Theatre Company’s Studio with pace and flair. The starkness of Ben Hughes‘ lighting design and the cinematic atmosphere of Guy Webster’s sound composition create a stage world that beautifully complements the play’s dialogue – fragmented, naturalistic sounding yet meticulously crafted to reflect all the tempo-rhythms, poetry and ambiguities of everyday speech. Continue reading “Review: Orphans – Queensland Theatre Company (Studio) @ Bille Brown Studio”

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: Gaijin at QUT Gardens Theatre

The word Yakuza written in Hiragana
Image via Wikipedia

Gaijin, currently playing in a very short (3 day) season is the brainchild and production of Director/Designer Ben Knapton and Rock and Roll Musical/Stand-Up Performer/Sound Designer Dave Eastgate.

The play is essentially a series of snapshot episodes played out by various characters involved in the story of a young Australian gaijin (foreigner), Chris Thompson, who has gone to Japan to work in a theme park. He falls in with a Yakuza family member and, after a series of brushes with the underworld, is jailed for possession of drugs. Chris ends up in a notorious Japanese prison where, he is told, he will ‘cry every day.’

The play begins with a long monologue by a young Japanese man, Akira. He explains that he has grown up in a Yakuza family – the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia in other cultures. Although of Yakuza, he has not followed their ‘way.’ Chris Thompson’s one hope is the friendship of Akira who has befriended him and for whom Chris has apparently done favours. We see Akira on his knees at the play’s end pleading before a Yakuza prisoner ‘boss’ (Father) – a wonderful tattooed torso projection – to have Chris spared some of the prison’s horrors.

The play is built from a series of monologues accompanied by some pretty impressive multi-media and lighting and sound effects. The design and manipulation of the production’s projection technology with its live action is most impressive and, arguably, Gaijin’s strength. The big design team credited in the program is testament to the production’s focus. Lighting Design is by Jason Glenwright, whose work is gracing lots of Brisbane stages at the moment. Multimedia Design is by Nathan Sibthorpe and Ben Knapton

Dave Eastgate’s characterisation – the suite of Japanese and gaijin characters who weave in and out of Chris’ story – is strong and assured. His Japanese choreographer and the American theme park manager are particular delights. However, I did have some difficulty simply understanding a couple of his other thickly-accented Japanese English characters and, as a result, suspect I missed a few key plot points as they went by. Loved his musical ‘interludes’ as the drugged-out ‘Chris’ struts the stage howling into a microphone at a concert and, as himself in the closing ‘Epilogue’ moments of the play.

Direct audience address is far more satisfying in Gaijin than a couple of awkward-feeling scenes between one character and an invisible ‘other’ on stage, and when off-stage action is presented through sound effects and disembodied speech whilst the stage remains empty. Empty stages make me nervous.

Gaijin is a good-looking, smart piece of theatre-creation and a vehicle for the undoubted talents of Dave Eastgate and some pretty hot audio-visual designers. It is well worth a visit down to the QUT Gardens Point Theatre.

Michelle Miall (Interview 23)

Image: Elleni Toumpas

It’s a cold, wintery day as I speak with Michelle Miall, director and Matilda Award-winner about her work – her current production is Colder for the 2011 La Boite Theatre Indie season which opens next week.

Michelle is a QUT graduate with a BA Drama Hons (Theatre Studies). By her third year, she found herself focussing on directing and writing, and this prompted a decision to continue on to an Honours year in Popular Theatre. ‘I was (and still am) interested in bringing audiences to the theatre who don’t normally go, who feel excluded by it or like it is irrelevant to their lives.’

By the end of that Honours year Michelle confesses, ‘I was jaded, as though I had intellectualised everything I loved about theatre. It was as if I had this tiny view of the world from my little place in it. I wanted to go out and experience more.’ Feeling she needed a bigger palette from which to draw her passion and, like many Australian artists before her, she headed overseas to London.

After working on one production as a stage manager (from which, she adds,’ I got a very cool eyebrow scar from a falling lighting rig during bump out’) I moved outside theatre and got caught there for some time.’ She travelled, worked in fashion, then advertising, then investment banking.  The work funded her travel, and the travel fuelled her imagination. Continue reading “Michelle Miall (Interview 23)”

Free Range 2011: Jo Thomas (Interview 22)

The last time I saw Jo Thomas was on stage a couple of months ago at the Darlinghurst Theatre in Sydney. She was on tour at the time with Jo&Co (her company’s) show Sometimes I Find That I Am Naked. That production is ‘resting’ currently as Jo gets stuck into something completely different at !Metro Arts month-long Free Range Festival in Brisbane. She and the Naked … team will be back on the road later this year as part of a national tour through the independent theatre champion Critical Stages.

I’m keen to hear what she will be doing as she takes time out from what is a successful tour for Jo&Co. A bit of well-earned R&R, perhaps? Perhaps Recreation, but not much Rest, it would seem from what she has planned for herself and what Free Range has planned for Jo and the other artists being incubated during the month of June.

Free Range is about giving artists time and space over an intensive period to develop their work. When I spoke with Jo it was early days for her and her collaborators – a brainstorming period. The project piece, which she has called Ukiyo-e: Tales From the Floating World ‘doesn’t yet exist,’ she tells me, and it’s very different in style from Sometimes I Find That I Am Naked, which she describes as ‘populist.’ Continue reading “Free Range 2011: Jo Thomas (Interview 22)”