Sunday, January 23, 2011

All Musicals Great and Small: Carnegie 18 (Full Tilt) and Prodigal (Bryant & Frank)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an anxious and increasingly desperate search for a Great Australian Musical. It was as if, as a culture, we were a Les Mis short of real pride. The most ambitious projects were often the biggest failures. Atop the long list is Manning Clark’s History of Australia: the Musical.

Given the nature of this top-down quest, to make a Broadway-style musical, many works were overcapitalised and overblown before they had a first showing. Works like Petrov (gorgeous music by Michael Easton, unworkable libretto by Alan Hopgood) and Paris (one of Jon English’s dogged projects) were D.O.A.

All the while, there were impressive and highly theatrical works appearing from less traditional sources. They came from Newcastle (Essington Lewis: I Am Work) and South Yarra (Vincent: an a cappella opera), from churches (Pastrana) and Masonic Halls (Journey Girl) alike. Some were small-scale. None was lacking in ambition. But too many disappeared without a trace.

The national tour of Bran Nue Dae in the ’90s seems to have put the quest to bed. Since then, diversity has ruled. For every Shane Warne and Keating joke fest, there has been a Children’s Bach (Andrew Schultz) or a Virgins: a musical threesome (Bryant and Frank).

Oddly enough, the first Australian musical to be produced in New York was Prodigal, an innocent and conventional indie piece written by Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank when they were 21. The prodigal son in their updated parable is an 18 year-old boy who leaves his family home in Eden to study in Sydney. His share of the ‘inheritance’ is the family car, which he hocks after he develops a taste for boys and pills.

Prodigal conforms to every rule and cliché of the Broadway musical form down to the Lloyd Webber-like rotation of musical and lyrical themes. It’s a touching and passionate piece nevertheless, and it’s cast and acted superbly in the small-scale revival at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne.

On the other side of the Yarra, in the Arts Centre no less, four new and highly original works have been workshopped and presented as part of the first Carnegie 18 new music theatre series. The series takes its name and number from the stage in the development of the human embryo when the inner ear is formed, about a month and a half into pregnancy. And these are, very much, embryonic works.

But the showing is as exciting as a first ultrasound. Unquestionably, these works have a heartbeat. It’s no stretch to imagine Maude Davey’s piece in front of an MTC subscriber audience. A Sondheim-like fairy tale about parents who murder their children, Every Angel Is Terrible is instantly familiar and instantly likeable musically, but casts a deliciously dark shadow.

Angus Grant’s Contact! is an unlikely hit in the making too. It’s an opera about an under-21 netball team. Think ‘Three Little Maids’ and the Three Ladies from The Magic Flute... with a Goal Attack.

Tight as the music is in Peter Burgess’s metal opera RAWK, the story is jejune.

David Chisholm (writer of Curtains) is by far the most experienced and accomplished of the creators in this round. The combination of strings with accordion and pipe organ in his eclectic score is inspired.

Another developmental round is locked in for 2012 -- proposals are invited -- and season director Vanessa Pigrum is optimistic that private funding will be secured to underwrite seasons in 2013 and beyond.

Carnegie 18 new music theatre series. Presented by the Arts Centre as part of Full Tilt. At the Fairfax Studio January 19-25, 2011. [Performances reviewed: January 19 and 22.] Sold out. Tickets $15. Bookings: 1300 182 183.

Prodigal by Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank. A Bryant & Frank production. At fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne, until January 30. [Performance reviewed: January 20, 2011] Tickets: $28-$35. Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or or

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Dance Australia Critics’ Survey 2010

Phoebe Robinson in Sandra Parker’s Transit

Here’s my contribution to Dance Australia magazine’s annual survey of critics.

Highlight of the year

Tempest: without a body

Tempest: without a body by Lemi Ponifasio/MAU (Sydney Festival, at the Seymour Centre)

Coppélia - the best staging of this Australian Ballet production in decades.

Most significant dance event

The announcement that Gideon Obarzanek would step down as AD/CEO of Chunky Move at the end of 2011. Few would have predicted, 15 years ago, just how generous and egoless a director Obarzanek would make.

Most interesting Australian group or artist

Red Moon Rising, especially its Butoh-lite piece for Next Wave: The Oak’s Bride.

Emiline Foster, especially her multi-medium piece for the Fringe Festival: Dust.

Atlanta Eke, as a solo artist in Private Dances (Next Wave) and in the Deborah Hay project.

Most interesting overseas group or artist

The Akram Khan company (Vertical Road, Melbourne Festival)

Most outstanding choreography

Rafael Bonachela’s We Unfold for Sydney Dance Company

Stephanie Lake’s Mix Tape for Chunky Move

Best new work

Frankie Snowdon and Benamin Hancock in Something Blew

A new version of Something Blew by 2ndToe Dance Collective for Theatre Works in St Kilda

After some teething problems, Graeme Murphy’s The Silver Rose

Most outstanding dancer

Jorijn Vriesendorp

Jorijn Vriesendorp (recently Chunky Move’s Mix Tape)

Sabina Perry (JACK Productions’ Human Abstract)

Phoebe Robinson (recently Sandra Parker’s Transit)

Daniel Gaudiello (especially in Coppélia)

Dancer to watch

Eloise Fryer, Brett Chynoweth (Australian Ballet)

Frankie Snowdon (as a solo artist and with 2ndToe)

Biggest disappointment

The expected disappointment: come, been and gone by the Michael Clark Company... I saw them in 1987 and had no wish -- ever -- to see them again.

The unexpected disappointment: Maybe Forever by Meg Stuart -- an ordinary piece from an extraordinary artist.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Best book of 2010: Richo

I’m the first to admit that my “book of the year” choices over the past dozen years -- first in The Big Issue then in the annual “Must Have” wrap in the Financial Review -- might have tended towards the eccentric. A bit. Maybe. In 2000, I planted the rosette on the Oxford Australian Dictionary... and I’m still tryin’ to live it down.

In my defence, I’d like to point out that I was wrangling a team of reviewers, that year, headed by the estimable Stephanie Holt and Thuy On, both of whom could be relied upon to cover the usual suspects -- or in Thuy’s case the most recent Martin Amis book -- in their respective wraps.

My gong in 1999 went to Thea Astley’s Drylands. I wrote at the time that it would’ve been a strong contender for book of the decade. 2001’s nod went (somewhat belatedly) to John Banville’s Eclipse. Then came the non-fiction years, post 9/11: Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, John Miller’s Al Qaeda book The Cell, and so on... Then fiction caught up with the apocalypse again... with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

All were made after long hard thought and a lot of reading.

But, hell, even I’m hesitating about this latest one. And, I confess, I haven’t read as much or as widely as in previous years. Nevertheless, I’ve gotta say the best book I encountered in 2010 was Richo. No, not an as-yet unpublished expose on the NSW Labor power broker. The other Richo: former Richmond full-forward in the AFL.

It’s billed as co-written by Matthew Richardson and Martin Flanagan, but it is a Flanagan book through and through. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Flanagan chose Richo, the man, as the perfect pretext for the book he wanted to write. This is a mighty book of history -- of inner urban Melbourne as much as it is of VFL footy -- of sociology and anthropology.

It’s a book driven by curiosity rather than fanaticism. As a result, it has a much broader appeal than you might imagine. The fact that I could be arsed flicking through a book about a player I didn’t know from Adam Ramanauskas [kidding], in a team that has been down on its luck for decades, in a game that doesn’t exactly lend itself to great literature says a lot about [a] the author and [b] the sheer quality of the story-telling. And I could not put it down.

So, even if your interest in AFL is passing, as long as you think there is something to be learned about society and masculinity -- about life itself -- from its blood sports, Richo is well worth a look. Better than that. It’s pretty much essential reading for Melburnians and the odd punter from Tassie. At the very least.

Richo is published by Ebury Press, a Random House imprint.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The light on the hill is a bad moon on the rise: Don Parties On by David Williamson (MTC)

The most pungent and unexpectedly poignant scene in the Bruce Beresford-directed film of Don’s Party has the boys standing around, bare arsed, having just stripped Cooley’s “sex object” date (the “too young to vote” Jenny) and thrown her in the neighbours’ swimming pool... and gone in after her. Towelling off, Cooley gives Don and Mal a massive dressing down: “My God, time showed you two up, didn’t it?”

When he met them, fourteen years earlier, Cooley found “two men destined to leave their mark on the world...” Mal Sutherland, the brilliant academic fated for a career in politics, his sights set on the top job; and Don Henderson, Mal’s adoring pupil, whose most pressing decision was where he should publish his novel: London or here? For the next five years Cooley prostrated himself to that pair of “self-inflated bullshit artists.”

If anything, Don’s Party is a play in need of a good prequel, not a sequel. (If only to see Grainger Cooley as a wide-eyed Catholic school boy, long before his days as a boning marauder.) By Election Day 1969, the two questing heroes have already feasted on the bitterness of unrealised dreams, their ambitions shrunken and withered. Disappointment, they know, will be the leitmotif of their dull lives. And Lower Plenty is as close as Don will ever get to the Promised Land.

Shrewdly, on election night 2010, David Williamson reveals that the browbeaten, long-suffering and/or merely dutiful wives of these shouldabeens are now the high achievers in their midst. The now-retired Don climbed the ladder from teacher to school counsellor in the four decades between that election party and this one, and Mal has gone from HR to... well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but let’s just say it doesn’t look good on one’s CV... Meanwhile, Don’s wife Kath has gone from pottery in her spare time to a doctorate and a senior lectureship in art history, and Mal’s ex-wife Jenny has gone from migraines and maternity (four times over) to a senior ministry in a doomed state Labor administration. (The Bracks government for the Melbourne premiere.)

It’s twenty years, we also learn, since “the old tribe” got together for a party. The reason for the resurrection of the custom in 2010 is the death of Mack, the bug-eyed shutterbug (Graeme Kennedy, of course, in the film). Intriguingly, part of the reason for the dispersal of the tribe is Don’s novel, finally published in the mid ’70s to no acclaim whatsoever. The thinly-disguised autobiography alienated many of Don’s closest friends.

Don’s novel proves to be the wiliest part of Williamson’s scenario. Without it, Don Parties On would be little more than a “what are they doing now?” reminisce, a la Michael Apted’s Seven Up series, with some incidental social and political comedy thrown in for good measure. With it, the starry comedy has a gravitational black hole at its heart.

Mal and Cooley are the only truly recognisable characters from the original play, in word and deed as well as physical presence. (John Hargreaves grew up to be Garry McDonald?! WTF!!) Robert Grubb is the still restless, still randy and still grumpy Mal, who looks as if he might make a pass at Don and Kath’s Green-leaning teen granddaughter Belle out of sheer bad habit.

Frankie J Holden is a magnificent Cooley, sexy as hell even with emphysema. He arrives with his still beautiful and only slightly younger wife Helen (Diane Craig, doing oh so much with oh so little) and an oxygen tank in tow.

Given Cooley’s obvious illness and the fact that Mack’s recent death was the motivation for this particular get-together, mortality is weirdly absent from their thoughts. Don and Kath’s idiot son Richard -- a newborn in the cot on the night of the 1969 election night party -- has just left his wife for a “volatile” artist a dozen years his junior. This leads to revelations, among the oldies, of previously-unreported infidelities and genuine romances, and some reminiscing on their desultory spouse-swapping in the ’70s.

Regrettably, Richard and the artist Roberta -- on stage at least -- are contemptible caricatures: unbearable and unbelievable. In the right productions, both Darren Gilshenan and MTC debutante Nikki Shiels are capable of carrying shows single-handedly. Shiels’ performance in the title role of Jenny Kemp’s Madeleine was among the very best seen in Melbourne last year. But, here, they are both bafflingly off.

David Williamson’s own quest over the past forty years has been to find a director that believes in his characters as much as he does, and to find actors willing to make flesh of them: think Ray Barrett in Brilliant Lies, who turned an abusive, daughter-molesting monster into a sympathetic and charismatic mortal. Williamson has only had sporadic success. Robyn Nevin, directing here, has done better than many before her, though the results are still somewhat uneven.

Don Parties On by David Williamson. Melbourne Theatre Company. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, until February 12. Then the Sydney Theatre from February 17 to March 8, 2011.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

888 and out... or "It’s about time I updated my blogger profile!"

Numbers? Hell. (Or, if I may quote the opening line of Apocalypse Now: "Saigon... Shiiiit.") 11/1/11. The review of Not Quite Out of the Woods in today’s Herald Sun (not on-line so far, so I’ll include it below) [update: it’s now on-line, here.] is the 888th piece I’ve written for HWT. (Yeah, yeah. Trust me to keep count.) It’s also my last for them. For the time being at least.

I managed to get to 6-6-7 for The Big Issue before I, er, walked the plank... a fountain pen instead of a cutlass in the small of my back. (Aptly, a Nick Cave CD was neighbour of The Beast.)

And I cracked the 700s with The Financial Review, no magic number there. That’s another relationship that has to be severed in my move to The Australian -- unless you’re Peter Craven you can’t review for both national dailies -- though ‘severed’ seems an odd word to use... I’m pretty sure the relationship is dead, but I’ve been waiting a year for the corpse to wash ashore. In my 20th year with the Fin, the work simply stopped. Without so much as a "so long."

Wish I could find something a bit more profound to quote than "and out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea" -- wish I were quoting Matthew Arnold instead of John Fowles too... but you get that. After the jump, the Wharf Revue reviewed...

Like a Chris Rock performance, you can almost carbon date Not Quite Out of the Woods by what’s not included. When a couple of blond boys walk on, hand in hand, everyone’s geared up for the inevitable Julian Assange gag... which never comes. They’re Hansel and Hansel and wanting to talk about Penny Wong and gay marriage. Assange doesn’t rate a single mention. Apparently the show was more or less locked down around the time of the election. (It premiered in Newcastle on September 9, last year.) Obviously the three little piggie indies, for example, are a relatively late addition.

Here’s the (short but sweet) Herald Sun review:

The Wharf Revue: Not Quite Out Of The Woods written and created by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott. (Jonathan Biggins director, Phil Scott music director.) At the MTC Theatre, Sumner, until January 29, 2011.

This is shock and awe comedy. It’s a well-drilled and completely overwhelming blitzkrieg of satire and smut, of rhyme and reason, of current affairs and fairy tales. In ninety minutes, there’s hardly time to draw breath between thigh-slapping guffaws and gasps of disbelief.

So much is packed into this one show, you quite literally won’t have time to be bored or disappointed by any single gag or routine. Even if you don’t get a reference, or don’t watch the TV show being sent up, you can still be sucked in by the scintillating rhyming couplets, the physical and vocal impersonations and the cleverness of the writing.

The annual STC Wharf Revue rarely crosses state lines. This is an above-average example. Indeed, it’s as good as we’ve seen from Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott as a creative team.

They’re joined, here, by Amanda Bishop whose impressions of Julia Gillard are terrifyingly good. She’s got the flat tones and wooden gestures down pat. (Bishop is a damn fine singer and dancer too.)

Other highlights are Tony Abbott in Abbotar (to the strains of Judas’s song from Jesus Christ Superstar) and a routine about Japanese whaling to a medley from The Mikado. But there’s something to offend everyone. Seriously.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Things seen and unseen...

Asked to write a hit list of the best of the year to come in Melbourne theatre, I spun a yarn about the pittance that our so-called fringe artists have to live on, about project funding and the 0.01% of the Victorian state budget devoted to indie companies and projects.

That decimal point is in the right place incidentally. Just one percent of one percent. Yowza.

That Herald Sun article is on-line, here.

And, guess what? My actual prognostications didn't make the cut! The story was deemed more important than the prophecy! (I can't argue with that.) So, for what it's worth, this is a very short list -- the pointy end of a no-doubt massive iceberg -- of the shows I reckon will rock our worlds, in Melbourne, in 2011.

* After the stunning success of Thyestes, The Hayloft Project is adapting another ancient classic: Antigone. Another bloodbath!

* More fear and loathing from Black Lung: The Plague Cycle.

* Faith, religion and reincarnation are on the minds of both Stephanie Lake (creating Holy in 2011) and Phillip Adams’ (a new piece called Above).

* Last, but never least, Rawcus Theatre Company’s Small Odysseys.

If I'd been asked to do my crystal ball act re the year in ballet, the glass would have been fogged up with my drooling anticipation of what Graeme Murphy will do with Romeo & Juliet and Prokofiev's electrifying score.

Good to its word, the Herald Sun is ramping up its on-line coverage of the arts. Bout time too... Out of the 900-odd articles and reviews I've written for HWT, I reckon I've seen about five on-line. Counting this one.

Astute TN readers (aren't they all?) will already know this, but -- er -- I'm the new Alison Croggon: the Melbourne theatre crritic for The Australian. The shoes might not be big -- they're rather dainty actually -- but the heels are stratospheric. (How oddly Shakespearean that sounds! "Our aery buildeth in the cedar's top/And dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun...") [Here's hoping I don't turn too many suns to shade!]

Proving that worlds sometimes begin with a whimper, my first review in the new role was just a shorty. Unusually for The Australian, it doesn't appear on-line. So, here 'tis:
What Australian circus may lack in skill levels is more than made up for in personality. Think Circus Oz, the Rock ’n’ Roll Circus and Legs on the Wall. And thanks to the establishment of the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne, and regular tours from outfits as diverse as Cirque du Soleil and Archaos, local audiences are not so easily awed. Skill levels in Le Grand Cirque’s touring company range from adequate to spectacular, the acts swing from ho-hum to genuinely death-defying. But apart from a brilliant balloon routine from the otherwise obnoxious MC, Le Grand Cirque has all the personality of a diamante. Le Grand Cirque is at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne, until January 23. Tickets: $64.90-$84.90. Another production by Le Grand Cirque, Adrenaline, opens at the Sydney Opera House on Thursday January 6. Tickets: $59-$95.

This review appeared in The Australian on Monday January 3, 2011.



Sunday, January 02, 2011

Degree of difficulty

Le Grand Cirque:

Hải Phòng:

I don't want to split hairs here, but I counted nine on the bike at the Regent Theatre on Thursday night, not the twelve in the press pic. And, well, Circus Oz was doin' all this and more on a much much smaller stage, the Playhouse at the Arts Centre believe it or not, way back in 1987.

And while we're in Hải Phòng, here's one more for the road...

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Saturday, January 01, 2011

What is the place of serious criticism in the age of instant, ubiquitous opinion­?

There are half a dozen articles on literary criticism in Sunday's New York Times under the header "What is the place of serious criticism in the age of instant, ubiquitous opinion­?" The index and editors' introduction is here.

They range from thoughtful to evangelical to downright hyperbolic (cop the quotation from Sam Anderson's piece, below!) but they make interesting reading.

Anderson writes:

Martin Amis, one of my reviewing heroes, made an apt comment once about the special nature of book criticism: he said that art critics, when they review art shows, don’t paint pictures about those shows, film critics don’t review movies by making movies about them and music critics don’t review concerts by composing symphonies. “But,” he said, “when you review a prose-narrative, then you write a prose-narrative about that prose-narrative.” This is the magic, and the opportunity, of the form. In reviewing a book, we respond artfully to a work of art in its own medium. We write words about words — and then, as the conversation progresses, we write words about words about words about words. Our work is a kind of ground zero of textuality, in which one text converges on another text to create a third, hybrid, ultratext. This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make critical writing secondary or parasitic, as critics of the critics have said for centuries: it makes it complex and fascinating and exponentially exciting. It reminds me of Aristotle’s description of the mind of God, an apparatus so divinely perfect it can think only of itself: “Its thinking is a thinking on thinking.”

My reaction? Maybe Marty should get his hand off it. (You too Sam!) Composers have been responding to each others works critically, in kind, for centuries. Visual artists too. Rare is the literary critic that can match, let alone eclipse, the original writer.

My fave reviews Of All Time were by DH Lawrence, especially his responses to Walt Whitman. DH skewers Walt. Oh, yeah! That's art! But it's all DH innit? I didn't love Walt any less after seeing him disemboweled. But I did like DH a whole lot more. Enough to forgive him (most of) his trespasses.