Archive | May, 2023

Short Blanket

28 May

(not that anyone would care, but I think) What makes theatre an extraordinary artform is that it can do two extraordinary things.

The first of those extraordinary things is that theatre embodies thoughts and feelings. Ideas that are rich, complex and subtle, and feelings that are intense, ephemeral and ineffable, are embodied by an actor: through their voice, through their movement, and through their spatial relationship with their material environment and the people who inhabit it. If theatre can be said to fairly represent reality, it does so because of this sense of the concrete. As in the mysterious miracle that is Life, certain things just are.

The second of the extraordinary things theatre does is that it allows different voices. Characters have their own distinct perspective. This doesn’t only facilitate conflict; it also manifests multiplicity. If theatre can be said to fairly represent reality, it does so because of this sense of the unresolved. As in the mysterious miracle that is Life, nothing is neat.

What makes Short Blanket by Matt Bostock a terrific piece of theatre is that it embraces both of theatre’s extraordinary attributes. (New Australian work, especially in the indie scene, is prone to attempt only the first of them.)

Short Blanket is one of the most exciting new shows I’ve seen for quite a while; it’s whip-smart, with a beating heart.

It’s the story of writing a play, or more specifically the story of development hell. (I suspect writers only endure the development process – The I-don’t-think-my-character-would-say-that sort of torment – because at some time something like it will have to be lived through if the two special attributes of theatre are to be achieved.)

In Short Blanket, Lainey’s play is being workshopped. She wants to represent the challenges Asian Australians experience, or perhaps more broadly, the pain of the global majority in a world yet to fully divest itself of colonialism. But not everyone wants it presented her way. Actor Dominique wants it angrier. Actor Joey wants it more forgiving. Company artistic director Gloria wants it more saleable. I’m simplifying (as the mono-voice of a review will do) but I’m hoping to capture Short Blanket’s sense that not everything is obvious or inarguable (despite certainty being a rather fashionable fallacy at the moment.) A play that uses the dramatic form so well is fully conscious that not every aspect of reality can be easily represented in that dramatic form. As Gloria says to Lainey, (I paraphrase) You don’t have a story, you have a feeling.

How do you represent injustice in an artform that requires an audience to sit through it and to pay for the privilege? Why use the dramatic form for this purpose at all? Every tool is not for every job. (A personal digression: it is odd that we modern theatre makers see ourselves as a sort of priestly class, responsible for the ethical education of others.) The script is very aware of the tricky question of what value we are to put on theatre. One character suggests, that if your audience is predominantly white, it won’t matter if your show is crap, because they’ll still say it was a privilege to have seen it.

Tiffany Wong’s cast do wonderful work. Andrea Magpulong’s Lainey captures the tension between the desire to make a show happen and the desperate need to bear witness. Dominique Purdue brilliantly presents the actor’s journey from initial excitement to bitter disillusionment as her hopes for the project flounder. Joseph Tanti as Joey embodies both the brutal arrogance of the privileged characters he performs in the workshopped play and the difficulties of telling a story that isn’t his. Monica Russell as the artistic director of the company effectively marries both the cold rationality required for financial realities and the resentment of a pioneer who feels her long efforts are being ignored. Sayuri Narroway as the director of the workshop presents a calmness that cleverly hides a different agenda.

Wong uses the intimate Meraki space marvellously, effectively presenting both the world in which the artist characters perform and the world in which these artists reflect on that performance.

The last image of Short Blanket is especially powerful. The spoiler rule means I shouldn’t really describe it. But I can say it functions gloriously as both an indictment of injustice, and as an invitation to ponder from where our motivation for theatre-making should come.

Paul Gilchrist

Short Blanket by Matt Bostock

presented by Slanted Theatre

at Meraki Arts Bar until 3 June

Party Girl

26 May

“I don’t believe in anything,” says a woman dressed as a fairy.

It’s a provocative line, in several ways.

It encapsulates the key tension driving this very funny piece: an earthy, jaded, sharp-mouthed protagonist pretends to be a magical, fantastical being. It’s how you add some glitter to children’s parties. It’s also how you pay for your next bottle of vodka.

Lucy Heffernan, who wrote and performs Party Girl, is extraordinary. Her magnificent stage presence, her marvellous voice, her mean electric guitar all result in this under-an-hour show being a theatrical joy.

Fairy Sparkles tells of a day performing at kid’s parties. Linking her tale together are references to the rules of being a fairy. They are nothing but practical: Arrive in costume. Don’t be late. Don’t park too close to the birthday girl’s house. Don’t smoke.

But it’s not just the contrast between fictional fantasy and cynical pragmatism that fuels the show. At home, Mum is falling apart, a victim of mental illness. Where’s the magic in a world where this can happen? It’s hard to be ethereal when shit’s so real.

Director Lily Hayman uses the KXT traverse stage beautifully. A blank space, it slowly fills with detritus. It’s lit evocatively by Tyler Fitzpatrick, her design suggesting both rock performance with haze and the confusion of conflicting visions of life.

Linked to the whole pub rock vibe is the show’s awareness of class inequality, reinvigorating in a theatre scene currently focussing on alternative theories of privilege.   

Which oddly enough, brings me to the other way in which “I don’t believe in anything” is a provocative statement.

It’s a line that draws attention to the glorious ambiguity of that word believe. Believe to be true or believe to be of value? A thing can be true but not important (or helpful.) Can things be not true but important (or helpful)?

Yes, that’s what magic is. Not the magic that happens to you; I mean the type you cast yourself.  The world we experience is the spell we cast….up to a point. Where exactly that point is, the point where our personal magic ceases and the brute force of reality takes over – and it will – is a thing to argue. And a thing to test.

Paul Gilchrist

Party Girl by Lucy Heffernan

at KXT until May 28, as part of the TAPE OVER Festival

Image by Clare Hawley

Girl Band

21 May

Directed by Lucy Clements, Girl Band by Katy Warner is a wonderful satire on the music industry and pop culture – but it’s also a poignant exploration of power.

It’s 1994 and The Sensation Girls are on the cusp. Orchestrated by the ever unseen Darren and Craig, they’re a line up to inspire young women (and to make a heap of money, though not for the Girls themselves.) In one song, each of the group introduces themselves: “I’m smart! I’m sexy! I’m strong! I’m smiley! I’m sassy!” For young women, it’s no doubt an invaluable lesson in self-esteem (and stereotyping, and alliteration.)

With composition by Zoe Rinkel and lyrics by Warner, the production also beautifully skewers the music produced by manufactured groups.  “Boy Crazy” not only doesn’t pass the Bechdel test; its inane repetition ensures it can’t pass the Goldfish test. “I’m boy crazy. Boy crazy. I’m boy….” You know the rest.  Wisely, we’re not asked to listen to the entire song.

Similarly, the choreography by Amy Hack captures brilliantly the double standards of this musical genre. The lyrics of “Maybe” suggest a sweet uncertainty about the singer’s romantic interest, but the hilarious pseudo-sexy choreography leaves little doubt.

The play is set in the rehearsal room as the five group members prepare for a big industry showcase. Chaya Ocampo as Jade gives a terrific comic performance as a show business character whose “I’m smart!” is deliciously and unconsciously ironic. Jade Fuda and Meg Clarke as lovers capture the tensions created by management’s homophobic insistence on secrecy. LJ Wilson as MJ sings “I’m smiley!” while being delightfully not. MJ’s smarting because previous lead Didi has left and the vacated role has gone to new girl, Kiki. Of course, that’s not her real name, just another imposition from above. Kiki or Kathleen (played with magical exuberance by Madeline Marie Dona) is going to shake things up. Why can’t the girls have more creative control?

And so it comes down to power. Becky is the group’s choreographer, and Hack is magnificent in the role. While very funny, it’s simultaneously a deliberately disturbing portrait of complicity. Becky is reluctant to make waves, and there’s much more to management’s malevolence than just a cynical commitment to inauthenticity.

And that’s where the play’s exploration of power becomes particularly provocative. Our workplace can create misery in many ways, but are all those ways related? The slippery slope argument will always appear most convincing to those who have known real fear.

Paul Gilchrist

Girl Band by Katy Warner

at Riverside until 27 May

Image by Phil Erbacher


16 May

In one of my favourite cartoons, two dogs walk down the street and one complains to the other “It’s always ‘good dog’, never ‘great dog’.”

I was reminded of this comment on parsimony and praise as I watched Relativity by Mark St. Germain.

Not surprisingly, the play’s about Albert Einstein, though the title might be more than just a reference to his most famous theory.

The play explicitly asks “To be a great man, do you have to be a good one?” In the context of the story – Einstein receiving a surprise visitor to whom he is intimately and somewhat awkwardly related – the positing of this question so openly tells us that psychological veracity is not what’s being valued here.

So it’s a play of ideas? Well, the play’s fundamental question is an odd one. “To be a great man, do you have to be a good one?” ‘Great’? What does that actually mean? Does it mean ‘exceptionally good’? But that would beg the question. Or does ‘greatness’ simply mean to be held in high-esteem for reasons other than ethics? In which case, why connect greatness and goodness at all?

Discussions of greatness are often mere valorisations of celebrity. But, if instead, the fundamental question being asked is about the nature of goodness, then the play deals with this enormously complex issue rather obliquely. (This Einstein says Hitler was evil while an adulterer is not – a distinction you don’t need to be Einstein to make.)

What if I let go my philosophical pretensions, and see the play as just a historical portrait? This means I’m being asked to care if the actual Einstein was a good man or not, and that still presupposes a fascination with celebrity (and it’s not going to make any difference to the physics.) And another thing; since what’s portrayed is a private and presumably imagined conversation, can it be taken as an accurate representation of the man? In this play, Einstein says that thirty years of an average person’s life is not as valuable as a great work of art. Did the real man say anything like that?

Clearly, the play is thought-provoking.

It’s a three hander and director Johann Walraven elicits utterly watchable performances from his cast.  Nicholas Papademetriou as Einstein is a beautiful mixture of gentle-hearted humour and a laser sharp intellect. Nisrine Amine as his surprise visitor wonderfully tempers bewilderment at Einstein’s complexity and a cold anger at his self-absorption. Alison Chambers as Einstein’s housekeeper, and lover, is delightfully amusing when she’s manipulating him, and deeply poignant when the power relations are less clear.

Paul Gilchrist

Relativity by Mark St. Germain

at Riverside Parramatta from 10 – 13 May

Image by Iain Cox


11 May

“I’m not mean. The world is mean, and I’m in it.”

So says Clyde to one of her employees. (Apologies to playwright Lynn Nottage if I’ve misquoted her beautiful words.)

Clyde runs a sandwich shop frequented by truckers and staffed by ex-cons like herself.

Clyde, played by Nancy Denis with superbly exuberant strut and sass, actually is mean. In a unjust world, it’s a totally understandable survival strategy.

But this play is about not letting yourself be defined by what’s been done to you. It glories in agency, in responsibility, in the shedding of the excuses that hold us back.

Sandwich hand Letitia, played by Ebony Vagulans with a mesmerising combination of swagger and vulnerability, says she wants to stop blaming other people. Co-worker Jason is dreadfully ashamed of his past racism and is desperate to leave it behind, and Aaron Tsindos presents him as an utterly fascinating battle between anger and restraint. Rafael, in a performance by Gabriel Alvarado that glitters with comic magic, firmly looks forward, seeking reasons to celebrate. He and his fellow employees gain encouragement from Montrellous, the Buddha in the ‘hood (to paraphrase Rafael). Charles Allen captures Montrellous’ magnificent dignity and his ability to inspire others to find a beauty that can transcend cruel mundanity. Nottage’s masterstroke is to make the beauty they seek the perfect sandwich. It’s so every day that it can speak to everyone.

Darren Yap’s production of this splendid play is gloriously uplifting.   

Is the world perfect? no.

Can everyone transcend their suffering? maybe not.

Is it worth being reminded it’s a possibility? yes. Yes. And YES!!!!

Paul Gilchrist

Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage

Ensemble Theatre until 10 June

Image by Prudence Upton

A Streetcar Named Desire

2 May

Tennessee Williams’ play was first seen on Broadway in 1947. This production, co-directed by Tom Massey and Meg Girdler, captures what makes it a timeless classic.

Blanche, down on her luck, comes to stay with her sister. She expresses shock at where Stella lives and most particularly at Stanley, the man her sister has married. In Stanley and Blanche, Williams presents the eternal conflict between instinctual brute spontaneity and deliberate fanciful pretence. The beauty of Williams’ characterisation is that neither character is solely one nor the other.

And it’s this complexity that this production presents so well. Riley McNamara’s Stanley is strikingly both animal energy and gossipy pedantry. Georgia Britt’s Blanche is both airs and graces, and longing sensuality.  Britt’s performance is magnificent, and the sense of fragility she evokes is utterly heartbreaking.  

Where can Blanche find some sort of shelter?

Perhaps with Stanley’s ex-army buddy, Mitch (played by Matthew Doherty with a moving mixture of quiet hope and angry disappointment.) If not, surely Blanche will always have her sister, Stella (played by Ali Bendall with a beautifully truthful combination of patient tenderness and bewildered frustration.)

Because, up to now, Blanche has “always depended on the kindness of strangers” – perhaps the most poignant line in modern theatre. When Britt delivers it, the pathos is extraordinary, and the production achieves what the play was made for: the awakening of pity for all who are lost.

Paul Gilchrist

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

at the Genesian Theatre until 7 May 

Image by Luke Holland 

All My Sons

1 May

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons premiered in 1947 (yes, over seventy five years ago) but this American standard is still searingly relevant and utterly engaging.

It was originally an antidote to American triumphalism. Following victory in the greatest conflict in human history, Miller was determined his nation didn’t slip into self-satisfied complacency.

The scenario is simple. Chris has invited Anne back to her hometown. She was the girl-next-door, and he wants her and she wants him. But the problem is this: she was once his brother’s sweetheart. Larry has gone missing in the war and his mother, Kate, still awaits his return. To this domestic drama – the universal tension between the way things were and the way they might be, dreadful enough in itself – Miller adds an ethical dimension. The fathers of both lovers were convicted of supplying faulty aircraft components that resulted in the deaths of twenty-one American pilots. Chris’s father, Joe, has since been exonerated, and is now a wealthy man. Anne’s father is still in gaol.

Joe can claim to have been simply “practical”, getting ahead when the opportunity arose, and this might conflict with his son’s “principles”, but Miller suggests this tension is not merely academic. The worm at the heart of capitalism spoils everything.

This is intensely emotional theatre, and director Saro Lusty-Cavallari elicits brilliant performances from his cast. Kath Gordon’s Kate is a deeply moving portrait of obsessive denial. Kyle Barrett’s Chris encapsulates both the inspirational strength of the morally engaged individual and the bewilderment that comes with the realisation that his lone efforts may not be enough. Bridget Haberecht’s Anne is beautifully rich, capturing both the wild hope for a happiness she thought had passed her by and her growing fear at the enormity of the obstacles that remain. Her pain is palpable; it’s an extraordinary performance.  

This is a wonderfully powerful production of a classic play, a necessary indictment of any society in which getting ahead matters more than those that might be left behind.

Paul Gilchrist

All My Sons by Arthur Miller

at New Theatre until 27 May

Image by Chris Lundie