Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Short+Sweet Canberra 2015 - Week 1

"Grace", directed by Chenoeh Miller

by John Lombard
Canberra’s short theatre scene has burst into life over the last four years with companies such as Budding Theatre and venues such as the sadly missed Smith’s Alternative providing a forum for smaller, bite-sized pieces of theatre.  However the biggest event in the short theatre calendar is still Short+Sweet Canberra, our local branch of the international Short+Sweet festival: this is Tropfest for theatre.
Where Short+Sweet is different from Tropfest and many other variety shows is that there is no theme or image that links the plays, so an individual night of Short+Sweet can feel like a grab bag of ideas.  The strictly-enforced 10 minute time limit is biased towards the snappy comedy, and those are always in abundance.  But there are often also more ambitious pieces - last year’s festival included a musical compressed to 10 minutes.  The opening night performance had the expected comedies and relationship dramas, but also included burlesque and more challenging art pieces.
In this case I am not a reviewer, I am an observer participant: I have been very involved in the festival for the last three years and one of my plays is appearing next week.  This is a sketch of my impressions at opening night and I encourage other people to contribute their own opinions to the conversation, especially next week when my own work is up for critique.  Short works often slip under the radar and I think it is important to focus not just on the festival but on the creative people who give their time and energy to making it happen.  With that in mind I am diving right in: here are the thoughts of one participant on the opening week of Short+Sweet 2015.
Tampon Please! (devised and directed by Genevieve Kenneally)
Tampon expert Jaz (Katie Woodward) lives in a public toilet and dispenses wisdom but not, unfortunately, actual tampons.  This is a problem for Sal (Alison McGregor), who has had an accident during a hot date and desperately needs something to plug her flow and save her dignity.  Sal begs Jaz for salvation in the form of a tampon but Jaz instead leads her on a semi-mystic journey exploring how women are raised to embrace or shun their periods.  Part absurdist comedy and part political attack on the tampon tax, this unabashedly feminist piece seeks to confront the audience but has a lightness of touch that saves it from being a polemic.
Making It  (writer Kathryn Roediger and director William Pitt)
Chloe (Monica Styles) wants to audition for Tennessee Williams but her photographer roommate Janice (Judith Peterson) tries to completely destroy her confidence to keep her under her thumb.  I was strongly reminded of “Notes on a Scandal”, with the older woman trying to crush the younger one so she can control her, with a hint of sexual desire flickering beneath the surface.  However Janice is so openly nasty (she has taken secret photos of Chloe masturbating and bullies her over not signing a release so they can be in an exhibition) that we want Chloe to shake off her controlling abuser.  The compromise they reach is intended to suggest that their mutual dependence is holding them both back, but Janice’s brutality makes any compromise feel like a further defeat for Chloe rather than a true victory.
Smackfest (writer Jasper Burfoot and director Tse-Yee Teh)
Whenever Jasper Burfoot performs, whether it’s stand-up comedy or his self-devised theatre pieces, the focus is usually an attack on the Catholic Church.  With this in mind it was oddly comforting to see Burfoot take the stage and almost instantly get stuck into the Catholic Church.  This time his ire was focused on Pope Francis’ declaration that it is OK to hit your kids provided you preserve their dignity by not punching them in the face.  Burfoot connected this to his own experience of child abuse, launching into an elaborate, highly sarcastic fake forgiveness of his own father.  It was not entirely clear how much this was Burfoot’s own experience and how much this was a persona he was adopting.  Burfoot’s humour is often deliberately unsettling but in this performance the jokes mostly landed, even if his gleeful endorsement of corporal punishment led to more than a few cringes as well.
The Truth about Mum and Dad (written and directed by Greg Gould)
Greg Gould is one of the best local comic writers, specialising in situations where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.  In this play the unstoppable force is Rachel (Jess Waterhouse), a serious young woman convinced she has seen her father enter a strip joint.  The immovable object is her carefree brother Jason (Brendan Kelly), who meets her for a clandestine attempt to spy on their dad (complete with binoculars) and then antagonises her by refusing to take anything seriously.  In this case the discussion of the sex lives of their parents ends up being a red herring: the real story is about how Rachel needs to loosen up.  This was much lower key than the crazy situations Gould has presented in the past, and was hampered by static direction.  However Gould’s dialogue is always excellent and the lively patter between the siblings is strong enough to carry the play.
Untitled  (written by Harriet Elvin and directed by Evol McLeod)
In an art gallery a hilariously pretentious art critic (Ben Crowley) is confronted by a challenge to his beliefs when a cleaning lady (Helen Way) walks in and begins to provide her own, far more direct form of art criticism.  Crowley and Way make a meal of the script, providing spot on comic performances that are beautifully exaggerated but still likeable.  As the two discuss art and the brutal economics behind it they discover they have more in common than they imagined.  The twist ending seems to come out of nowhere but is a lively end to a fun play.
Beautiful (devised by Alison McGregor)
As someone who has seen Alison McGregor’s “Sparkles” character before and knew the act she was performing tonight by reputation, I more than a little nervous to finally see it myself.  Sparkles is a burlesque performer and trainwreck, a women desperate for love but so broken and obsessed that she has no hope of ever finding it.  Tonight Sparkles took the stage to do her routine already drunk (with her dressing gown still on) and began to read increasingly desperate and threatening love poetry before finally collapsing in tears.  Then she gave up entirely on trying to perform, taking food out of dressing gown pockets and eating it for comfort while while crying.  Sparkles has no character arc, so by the end of the routine her life was just as hopeless as it was at the start.  However the climax of the performance is memorable and disgusting.  
Face Hole (written and directed by Laura Griffin)
First-time playwright Laura Griffin presents us with a familiar situation: the mother (Kym Starr) doesn’t approve of what her son (Luke Atchinson) wears when he goes out.  The twist is that this is a near future where pants are dispensed with but everyone wears face masks.  The mother defends the wisdom of airing your buttocks while her son tries to argue that the mouth is not as shameful as we are taught.  However his own progressive politics are challenged when his lively girlfriend (Michaela Ripper) visits and, shamefully, has begun to wear pants.  The satire on the arbitrariness of social conventions is engaging and a strong debut for a new writer.
The Adventures of Captain Midnight (written by Angus Algie and directed by Arne Sjostedt)
Gentle and prim elderly gentleman Gerald (Don Smith) is adjusting to his new life in a retirement home when an act of humble chivalry makes him the hero of the ladies in the community, the reluctant “Captain Midnight”.  The story is told in flashback as a monologue and Smith does a good job of playing the character’s innate timidity and reserve, but it would have been interesting to see him open up and become more flamboyant as his new identity helps him become more confident and assertive.
Three Seats (written and directed by Danielle Asciak)
Sometimes on transport you sit near an attractive stranger and can’t help planning your life together before you’ve even said hello (of course, this could just be me).  Asciak explores this situation, with a woman (Olivia Hropic) living her relationship with the stranger one seat over (Vivek Sharma)  while simultaneously engaging him in conversation in the hope of getting something started.  The experimental storytelling of this piece initially made the situation opaque and it was only towards the end that I became aware of what was happening.  However the direction was excellent, with the dialogue not just delivered but fully acted out in the movements of the performers.
The Interview From Hell (written by Robert Armstrong and directed by Trevar Alan Chilver)
Plays that delve into the afterlife can always be a little uncomfortable, especially those that take eternal damnation as their theme.  In this mordant comedy a newly deceased go-getter (Oliver Durbidge) is forced to interview for the position he will have for eternity, or at least for the next half dozen centuries - presumably 666 years.  However the for devil (Alison Bigg) the job interview is an elaborate practical joke, another opportunity to torment the damned - just like in real life.  Durbidge is strong as a smarmy charmer but the grim material is likely to raise as many rueful smiles as chuckles.
Grace (written by Alex Broun and directed by Chenoeh Miller)
Chenoeh Miller is known for Little Dove Theatre Art and her powerful movement-based work.  Tackling a script is a departure for her, but with Alex Broun’s exploration of the celebrity of Grace Kelly she has strong material to work with.  This play stood out with its abstract staging, with three women (Robyn Higgins, Alison McGregor, and Katie Woodward) reciting their dialogue with their backs to audience over a beautiful soundscape.  Miller often likes to focus on a single action, either repeating it or radically slowing it down, and this play is no exception.  The three women ever so slowly turn to face the audience and then just as slowly walk towards it, an action stretched out over the full length of the play.  As the women approach they repeatedly fall hard and then pick themselves up again, their pain encouraging us to connect with them.  The effect is striking and beautiful but the script is sometimes lost over the music.  Words are distrusted as a means of communication with music and movement our most reliable sources of truth.
Call Out (written and directed by Lis Shelley)
The final play of the night had telephone technician Ray (Michael Ubrihien) repairing a phone line and accidentally ending up with a direct line to God.  Ray thinks is just a prank, but things escalate when the Almighty tells him he has a job offer (which as conversations with the creator can go is definitely one of the better outcomes).  The play was helped along with impressive, realistic props that added a lot of authenticity, especially one touching surprise that is unveiled late in the show.
Overall, I enjoyed the opening night line up a little more than I have in previous years.  There is a still a wide range of skill and experience on display, but one of the values of Short+Sweet is that it provides entry-level experience for writers and actors.  The Canberra festival with its strong local focus has built a tight community and part of the fun is seeing new work from regular contributors.  The current line-up runs until Friday night, and after that there are two new further sets of plays: the Wildcards on Saturday and then Week 2 from Tuesday to Friday.  Seven years in the festival is going strong.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


QL2 Dance

The Playhouse, Canberra until 1st August.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

First presented by Quantum Leap in 2005 to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the ANZAC landings on Gallipoli, and now revisited with an entirely new cast for the ANZAC Centenary, “Reckless Valour” remains a thoughtful, affecting and at times, deeply moving dance theatre work.

Six choreographers and five composers have contributed to “Reckless Valour” with Fiona Malone, Natalie Cursio, Jodie Farrugia, Rowan Marchingo, and Ruth Osborne, refining and reworking their original contributions, and with a new segment by rising young choreographer, James Batchelor, added for this production.

There are no solos, no stars, and while there is some disparity in the ability of individual dancers, this is of little consequence because each choreographer has embraced this disparity to achieve remarkably committed and consistent performances from each of the 32 young dancers who make up the ensemble cast, allowing each segment to achieve its intended effect to create a glorious emotional patchwork. 

"Hall of Memory" 

Each work is accompanied by an evocative soundscape provided by either Nicholas Ng, Luke Tierney, Warwick Lynch, Morgan Hickenbotham or Mark Webber, and each is supported by arresting visuals from WildBear Entertainment. Impeccable stage management adds immeasurably to the professionalism of the presentation. 

The program is presented in two halves. The first half takes the form of homage to the Australian War Memorial.  Filmed segments, combining archival footage together with specially filmed sequences, are used extensively to set the tone and connect the three dance works. 

 Jodie Farrugia focusses on the “Pool of Reflection” to provide a thoughtful segment with suggestions of children at play contrasting with the ominous sounds of gunshots and helicopters. Endlessly scrolling names provide a compelling background for Fiona Malone’s “Roll of Honour” in which figures in monotone costumes march backwards in time.  This section concludes with Ruth Osborne’s superbly realised elegy, “Hall of Memory” in which Osborne employs mass sculptural images to encapsulate the grandeur and solemnity of the memorial.

A moment from "Reckless Valour" 

The three works after interval are more diverse but no less compelling. James Batchelor’s “A road to nowhere” is a typically stark and arresting work. Performed to the sound of tramping feet, with the dark shadows of the dancers providing a backdrop, his blank-faced dancers clomp through intricate formations. One by one they abandon their footwear, until there is just a row of empty clogs on the stage.  A remarkably chilling allusion to displacement and dispossession, and an effective contrast to Rowan Marchingo’s optimistic “Faces of the Enemy”  which celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity. Nat Cursio ends the program on a thoughtful note with his work, “Lest We Forget” which questions our ability to learn from the past, and ends with the whole cast imploring the audience to “Listen”.

A moment from "Reckless Valour" 

  Ten years on from when it was first created “Reckless Valour” remains an eloquent exploration of our attitudes to war and a compelling example of the use of dance to illuminate difficult themes. It is also a shining example  of  what can be achieved through youth dance and why QL2 Dance is regarded  as a leader in this field, not only in Australia but internationally. Don’t miss this opportunity to experience one of its finest productions. 

               This review first published in the digital edition of "CITY  NEWS"  on 30.07.15


Written by Patrick Hamilton
Directed by barb barnett
Canberra Rep at Theatre 3 until 15 August 2015

Review by Len Power 30 July 2015

We don’t often get to see one of these older classic commercial plays these days, so it was interesting to see how the play stands up for a modern audience.

Patrick Hamilton’s play premiered in London in 1938 and opened on Broadway in 1941 where it remains one of the longest running non-musicals of all time.  Not a ‘whodunit’, this Victorian era thriller is more of a ‘will-he-get-away-with-it’ drama as we observe a cat and mouse game between a cruel husband and his nervous wife.  As more of the secrets of the play are revealed, the audience is drawn into a complex and devious plot that maintains interest right up until the very satisfying climax.

Director, barb barnett, has given us a straight forward production with a nice sense of period and good attention to detail in character and style.  It might be tempting for a director to make cuts or speed up the action for an older play like this, but barb barnett wisely allows it to move at a deliberate pace that suits its period setting and the characters involved.

The production has been well cast.  As the cruel husband, Peter Holland gives a strong, chilling performance.  He pulls out all the stops with his appalling behaviour towards his wife, causing audible gasps from the audience.  Kate Blackhurst plays the downtrodden wife very well.  At first pathetically teetering on the edge of a breakdown, she paces the quietly gathering strength of this woman very successfully as the play progresses.

Kate Blackhurst as the wife, Bella, and Peter Holland as the husband, Jack
 At the risk of spoiling surprises in the plot, I won’t give away any detail about the character played by Pat Gallagher except to say that he gives a finely detailed performance that is very enjoyable.

Pat Gallagher with Peter Holland
 Natalie Waldron gives a particularly good performance as Nancy, the scheming maid with a sadistic streak and Nikki-Lynnne Hunter as the housekeeper, Elizabeth, gives a confident performance of quiet assurance.  The two policemen, played by Simon Tolhurst and Rowan McMurray have a long wait before they appear in the play but certainly make their presence felt when they do.

Peter Holland and Natalie Waldron as Nancy, the maid
 The beautifully detailed Victorian drawing room set, designed by Ian Croker, is a stunner.  Lighting is especially important in this show and Chris Ellyard’s lighting has been perfectly designed.  There’s also good sound design by Jon Pearson with an excellent choice of music as well as good period costumes by Helen Drum.

Pat Gallagher with Nikki-Lynne Hunter as the housekeeper, Elizabeth

 This is an absorbing and enjoyable play directed very well by barb barnett.  If you enjoy a good, suspenseful period thriller, you’ll certainly enjoy this one.

Photos by Helen Drum.


Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by Stephen Pike
Queanbeyan City Council production
At The Q Theatre until 15 August.

Review by Len Power 29 July 2015

‘Grease’ is a nostalgic fairy tale but it’s amusing to think that in these politically correct times we all happily flock to a musical in which a nicely-mannered, pretty girl learns that she has to look and act like a leather-clad tart to keep her oaf-of-a-boyfriend’s interest.

Compared to the original, much grittier version, stage productions of ‘Grease’ these days are more like the blander, sugar-coated but enjoyable movie version of 1978.

Rosanna Boyd was excellent as Sandy as was Vanessa de Jager as Rizzo.  Marcus Hurley as Danny gave a strong performance in the first act but seemed less energetic in the second act.  There were also great cameo moments from Jonathan Garland, Dave Collins, Hayden Crossweiller, Liam Downing and each of the Pink Ladies.

Rosanna Boyd as Sandy
The set for the show and the projections were unimaginative and a disappointment.  There was so little detail it seemed more like a concert version of the show.  Jordan Kelly’s choreography was certainly energetic but often had nothing to do with the intention of particular scenes and it all looked the same after a while.
Marcus Hurley as Danny
 Costumes by Anna Senior were colourful and attractive with great attention to detail.  The singing was confident and the band conducted by Jenny Tabur sounded excellent.  Sound balance was occasionally uneven, making it hard to hear some lyrics clearly.

Vanessa de Jager as Betty

Stephen Pike’s show has an appealing freshness due mostly to the enthusiastic young cast.  It just needed some better production values to make it a great one.

Photos taken at the Media Call on 22 July 2015 by Len Power
Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 30 July 2015.  Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast in the ‘Artcetera’ program on Artsound FM 92.7 on Saturdays from 9am.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Grease by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.  Presented by Queanbeyan City Council.  Directed by Stephen Pike; Music Director: Jenny Tabur; Choreography by Jordan Kelly; Set Designer: Brian Sudding; Lighting / Video by Hamish McConchie; Sound by Chris Neal.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, July 29 – August 15, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 29


Sandy Dumbrowski – Rosanna Boyd
Danny Zuko – Marcus Hurley

Pink Ladies:
Betty Rizzo – Vanessa de Jager
Marty – Amelia Juniper-Grey
Frenchy – Risa Craig
Jan – Sophie Hopkins

Kenickie – Liam Downing
Roger – Dave Collins
Doody – Tristan Davies
Sonny Latierri – Lachlan Agett

Eugene Florczyk – Hayden Crossweller; Patty Simcox – Ashley Di Berardino; Miss Lynch – Sue Richards; Teen Angel – Nick Valois; Johnny Casino – John Kelly; Vince Fontained – Jonathan Garland; Cha-Cha Digregorio – Amy Campbell; Radio Voice – Maddison Lymn

Girls Ensemble: Isabel Burton, Peita Chappell, Riley Gill, Jasmine Henkel, Maddison Lymn, Silvana Moro, Grace Mulders, Lara Niven

Boys Ensemble: Nicholas Friffin, Sam Jeacle, Robbie Lawrence, David Santolin, John Skelton, Mathew Tallarida-Lyons, Cameron Taylor

Band: Jacon Schmidt (Saxophone 1), Hannah Richardson (Saxophone 2), Kirsten Nilsson (Saxophone 2 on 8-9 August), Vince Tee (Keyboard), Sean Ladlow (Guitar 1), Maxim Korolev (Guitar 2), Gary Scott (Bass Guitar), Jenna Hinton (Drums)

Photos by Lauren Sadow

I can judge this production of Grease in two completely different ways: on its immediacy on opening night in Queanbeyan in 2015; and on its place in the history of this musical, which began as a local community show for young people in Chicago in 1971 “in an old trolley barn (now the site of a hospital parking garage)” [] and went on to hold an amazing record in its day:  “At the time that it closed in 1980, Grease's 3,388-performance run was the longest yet in Broadway history....”

I simply had to list almost everybody involved here, because I’m sure that almost everybody had at least one family member in the audience.  The casting was terrific, the choreography and dance performances exciting, musically the band handled not only the 1950’s rock but all the other stylistic references in excellent fashion, the quality of all the singing matched the demands made by the show (including the very funny almost satirical high-pitched extenuating vocal flourishes by the men) – in other words Grease rocked along as it should.

There was no doubt about the enjoyment value on Wednesday’s opening night which will surely see Queanbeyan still rocking on August 15 for closing night.

I did find myself a little concerned about the balance between the singers’ voices and the band sound.  It was perhaps ironic that we critics had heard Chris Neal explain, when he spoke in our Canberra Critics’ Circle Conversation (Monday July 13, 2015), how difficult it is when everyone is miked individually to balance the sound across all the mikes while avoiding feedback.  I’m not sure how the band was miked on this occasion, but I’m sure even on Broadway, in the 1970s, microphones were fewer and farther between – and therefore easier to manage.

That was a segue to my other kind of question of judgement.  Rather than be critical of the show, this is a bit of critical writing about the show.  Whatever I say will not adversely affect your enjoyment, but may add something to the experience.

I was a bit surprised – not having been an aficionado of Grease – to see what seemed to be a switch from a light-hearted take, sometimes even a bit of a spoof, on conventional high-school romances into a not at all comfortable experience for Rizzo when it appears that she is pregnant and she can’t tell the would-be father, Kenickie.  The scene, leading as it does to Sandy becoming suddenly aware of the adult reality of sex, through Rizzo’s song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, is a turning point in the drama.  Sandy changes off-stage – mentally and literally – and reappears in sexy adult costume instead of the “litte girl” clothing she had worn up to this point.  What was happening here?

I wasn’t sure if the change in atmosphere was deliberate on the director’s part, in which case it seemed oddly out of place, something that couldn’t be avoided – since it was in the script – but could be quickly turned around back to the innocent fun of a whole company finale.  Somewhere in there I heard Rizzo say that it was a “false alarm”, so everything was now OK.  A bit of a cop-out, I wondered.

It was Wikipedia that sent me to where I found an enormously useful essay, Inside Grease – background and analysis by Scott Miller (Copyright 2006. From Scott Miller's book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musical Theatre). 

I meant enormous – like, 20 pages, and so full of stuff.  I hadn’t understood that Grease was written in 1971, looking back to a specific year when this group of working-class young people were in their final high school year: 1958.  Miller calculated that this group were born just before the people we now call baby-boomers.  In fact they were born in 1942.  I was born in 1941.  And my final year at high school was 1957!

So now I get it!  Grease is about the working-class teenagers at the end of the fifties as rock’n’roll changed the world for them, setting them free from the middle-class conventions which were the dream of their parents.  Grease "is really the story of America’s tumultuous crossing over from the 50s to the 60s, throwing over repression and tradition for freedom and adventure (and a generous helping of cultural chaos), a time when the styles and culture of the disengaged and disenfranchised became overpowering symbols of teenage power and autonomy. Originally a rowdy, dangerous, over-sexed, and insightful piece of alternative theatre, Grease was inspired by the rule-busting success of Hair and shows like it, rejecting the trappings of other Broadway musicals for a more authentic, more visceral, more radical theatre experience that revealed great cultural truths about America," writes Scott Miller.

And indeed I saw Hair, the original Australian production which premiered in Sydney on June 6, 1969, though I never saw Grease on stage.  After reading Miller I understood the ironic references to Sandra Dee and Doris Day.  And I remember, too, looking back from 1972 during the “It’s Time” election to see how much we had changed since my first year (and the first member of my family) at uni in 1958.  I see myself as running half a decade behind the kids of Grease’s Rydell High, but maybe that was just a matter of living in Australia compared with USA.

I discovered, too, that Stephen Pike seems to have been influenced by the 1978 movie of Grease with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, but Miller complains that the film bowdlerised the original script – “Watered-down,” he called it – and goes on to castigate the “revival of Grease [which] opened on Broadway in May 1994, painfully misdirected and misunderstood by Tommy Tune’s protégé, director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun....” 

For example, in Act II, when Sandy leaves Danny at the drive-in, Miller notes: “The replacement song in the film, "Sandy," isn’t a bad song, but it doesn’t achieve half of what "Alone at a Drive-In Movie" does, textually, thematically, or musically.”  I checked this out on YouTube where you can see and hear the 1972 performances, and you can understand what Miller meant.  And perhaps why the film version was “watered-down”.

Finally, Miller writes “Like all the best theatre songs, Sandy makes a decision in the "Sandra Dee" reprise, and the plot takes a turn toward its final destination. Sandy must decide who she is herself and what she values; she must embrace all of who she is, including her sexuality. She now realizes that only when she is true to herself can she be happy with Danny, and this final revelation will lead us to the show’s rowdy, playful finale "All Choked Up" (sadly replaced in the film by the less carnal disco number "You're the One That I Want").

So I think it’s fair to conclude that Queanbeyan isn’t what Chicago was in 1958, or even Broadway in 1972, nor should it be.  We don’t need to re-create the raw beginnings of Grease because – as I’m sure Olivia Newton-John herself would agree – the revolution in the lives of women and men is a long way further on now than it was then.  I guess the revolution is nowhere complete, either, but the thorough enjoyment in the audience of mixed ages and sexes watching Stephen Pike’s production, and clearly in the cast performing the show, is its own recommendation.  And it still rocks, even if a little less hard than it needed to be back then.