Monday, July 25, 2011

Film review: I AM ELEVEN (MIFF 2011)

Shortly after young Melburnian Genevieve Bailey’s father died, she embarked on her first trip overseas intent on doing something with her life.

Most people in her position would have thrown themselves into a series of hedonistic backpacking adventures, but not Bailey. Armed only with a digital video camera and unbridled optimism, the 20-something filmmaker set off to interview a wide range of children about their experiences of being 11 years old in a world that is changing as rapidly as they are themselves.

From Thailand and India to France and Japan, over the next four years more than a dozen 11 year olds – some affluent, some poor; no longer quite children, but not yet teenagers – spoke candidly and openly to Bailey about love, war, global warming, music, terrorism, culture, family, happiness, religion and the future.

Bailey's resulting documentary, a composite portrait of children around the world, is heartwarming, charming and life-affirming: a remarkable and engaging tapestry of young hopes, fears and dreams.

Melburnian Jamira talks about how proud she is of her Indigenous heritage and her father, who is raising her singlehandedly; young Frenchman Remi speaks passionately about his disdain for racism and his country’s failure to deal with inequality and poverty; and in Thailand, Jack and Goh share their experiences of working in an elephant sanctuary.

Bookended by Bailey’s deeply personal introduction to the documentary and a summing up of the experience of making it, the film includes sequences in which the young protagonists reveal startling insights into bullying and mental resilience, sweetly innocent attitudes towards romance and relationships, and remarkable self-awareness as they speak about not wanting to grow up too fast.

The patchwork assemblage of footage is linked together by the children’s commonalities and shared experiences, such as a series of discussions about bullying; a guided tour of their homes; a sequence of dance routines. Though one occasionally wishes for more extended interviews rather than constant snippets of discussion, the overall effect is both detailed and delightful.

At numerous times while watching the film I was choking back tears; at other moments I was laughing unrestrainedly. Insightful, compassionate and poignant, I Am Eleven is highly recommended.

I Am Eleven (Dir. Genevieve Bailey, Australia, 2011, 93 mins)

Rating: Four stars

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Film review: KNUCKLE (MIFF 2011)

Directed and photographed by Ian Palmer, this raw Irish documentary looks at bare-knuckle boxing matches between Irish traveller families the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces and others, and the long-running feud that the fights are supposed to resolve.

Palmer spent 12 years filming the families and the brutal fights staged between their representatives, with much of the story told through the eyes of James Quinn McDonagh, his family's best fighter and a man who vast sums of money - upwards of £19,000 - are wagered upon (though the question of whether the fights are now driven more by money than family honour is never clearly explored by Palmer; one of several faults in the film).

As well as filming the fights themselves (usually held on country back-roads to avoid police intervention), Palmer tries to come to grips with the tragedy that first sparked the feud: a pub brawl gone wrong that resulted in two deaths and a manslaughter charge. Few of his interviewees, including James' hotheaded younger brother Michael, and Big Joe Joyce, 'the King of the Travellers', are particularly forthcoming about the issue, and the murky question of guilt and blame, and the pointless cycle of violence and trash-talking retaliation that the families are caught up in, drives the film's occasionally muddy narrative.

At 93 minutes, Knuckle feels overlong; a tighter pace and shorter running time would have done its compelling subject more justice; and the handheld camerawork is sometimes irritatingly shaky. Nonetheless, its view of Traveller culture is unique, and Palmer's footage of the fights themselves has undeniable power. As a study of the pointlessness of violence, however, it's more than a touch repetitive.

KNUCKLE (dir. Ian Palmer, Ireland, 2011, 93 mins)
Rating: Two and a half stars

Film review: THE FAIRY (MIFF 2011)

My 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has kicked off with a leisurely - and to my mind, sane - pace: two films in two days. I was asked if I'd participate in the MIFF Blog-A-Thon this year, but while flattered, I said no: given everything else on in Melbourne at the moment, including the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and State of Design, there's no way I'd have the time to see 60 films in 17 days (an average of 3.5 films a day, though six brave/insane souls have accepted the challenge, and bravo to them).

Nonetheless, I do intend to try and review most of what I see at the festival this year, though I'm well aware that time constraints and other issues will cause my blog entries to become increasingly sporadic and minimal as the festival unfolds. Nonetheless, hopefully I get to write about most of the 40-odd films I plan to see. Let's give it a shot, shall we?

THE FAIRY (dir. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy, France/Belgium, 2011, 93 mins)

My first film at the 60th MIFF was the opening night feature; a wry, absurd and charming comedy set in the grimy port city Le Havre. After the disappointment of last year's opening night film, the muddled Australian rom-com The Wedding Party (which has yet to gain release either at the cinema or on DVD) I approached The Fairy with some trepidation. I need not have been so suspicious. It was delightful; a perfect film to kick off a night of celebrations at Melbourne Town Hall.

Dom (Abel) is a gangly, awkward clerk in a rundown hotel whose life is transformed when he meets the barefoot Fiona (Gordon). Claiming to be a fairy, she grants him three wishes, the first of which immediately come true.But is she really a fairy, or an escapee from the local mental hospital?

The question quickly becomes irrelevant thanks to the film's deft combination of slapstick, farce, magic realism, graceful dance sequences (one underwater, the other on a rooftop) and a charming array of characters, none of which are traditionally attractive - a refreshing change from the romantic leads in more mainstream fare.

Setting its tone almost immediately with a droll routine in which the increasingly frustrated Dom attempts to settle down with a video and and a late-night sandwich, only to be interrupted by a string of customers, The Fairy is a skillfully made comedy that gently reminds us of the plight of refugees in modern Europe, and of the power of love, without resorting to heavy-handed tactics or twee clichés.

Framed and shot in such a way that constantly reminds us we are watching a story - a deliberate reference to Abel & Gordon's earlier careers as theatre makers, perhaps - and featuring a hilarious car and scooter chase up a mountain acknowledging an earlier cinematic tradition, this whimsical film will certainly not be to everyone's tastes. Memorable, distinctive and gently madcap, it was a delightful way to get the 60th MIFF underway.

Rating: Three and a half stars

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


So, over at Arts Hub I've written up a review of Torchwood: Miracle Day. As is my habit, I'll post an except here, but if you would like to read the whole thing, get thee to Arts Hub!

Newcomers to Torchwood need not fear they’ll be lost in the usual convoluted back stories and continuity references of a successful TV series, for Miracle Day is at pains to introduce viewers to its world and its characters through the eyes of Matheson and his CIA assistant, Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) – indeed, for long term fans, the drip-fed details may be occasionally irksome. That said, the pace of the first episode (written by Davies, the showrunner, and the only episode that has been provided for review) is generally excellent: it’s a fast and thrilling ride featuring a large cast of well-detailed characters, and with scenes rapidly cutting between numerous locations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Davies has a deft ear for dialogue, and the script for this first episode sparkles, featuring both one liners, and in-jokes for long-term fans of the show. It also establishes a number of plot threads to be explored in the remaining nine episodes of the season, and in the tradition of speculative fiction, raises a number of philosophical questions around the central theme of life, death and immortality that will no doubt be explored over the coming weeks.

The budget for Torchwood: Miracle Day is clearly larger than most BBC productions, given the influx of US funds from Starz, and it shows: this is a good-looking piece of television, full of swooping helicopter shots and luscious cinematography that makes the most of the show’s various locales.

The most obvious US influence is apparent in the episode’s action sequences: there are more guns, and bigger explosions, than Torchwood has ever seen before. At its heart, however, it still feels like Torchwood, albeit on a larger, more expansive scale.

Rating: Four stars

Torchwood: Miracle Day
Saturdays at 8.30pm from July 9 on UKTV

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Expressionistic motifs are subtly referenced throughout the Malthouse Theatre's latest production, A Golem Story. Anna Cordingley’s stark wooden set, the stage jutting out into the audience, effortlessly evokes Prague in 1580 while simultaneously recalling the haunted streets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Paul Jackson's exquisite lighting design is equally Expressionistic, but it is the sparse script by Lally Katz (Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, The Black Swan of Trespass) which perhaps most successfully evokes the spirit of Expressionism though its focus on mood and emotion over fine detail, on archetypes over individuals.

As the play opens, a young woman, Ahava (a compelling performance by Yael Stone) awakens beneath a candle-lit chandelier, questioning all around her. A recent exorcism to remove the dybbuk (a malicious spirit) that has possessed her – the spirit of her late fiancée, Israel Hasidim, a suicide – has rendered Ahava without memory, and more importantly, without knowledge of God.

Ahava’s exorcist is the Rabbi (Brian Lipson), but while he welcomes her into the synagogue, his student, (Dan Spielman) is uncomfortable with Ahava’s presence, a fact the young man makes no attempt to hide.

While tensions exist inside the synagogue, greater dangers lurk outside. A child has been murdered, and the Guard (Greg Stone) blames the Jews. His bigotry and hatred know no bounds, and in fear of a pogrom, the Rabbi – assisted by Ahava – creates a Golem to protect the ghetto and its inhabitants.

Angered at such resistance, the Guard will go to shocking lengths to incite violence against the Jews, despite the wishes of his Emperor (Mark Jones, displaying superb comic timing), a far more reasonable man, and one with an appreciation of both aesthetic beauty and the arcane arts.

Unsurprisingly, the results are tragic, not least for Ahava, but from an audience member’s perspective they are also engrossing, engaging, and deeply compelling.

Some may find the starkness of the text underwhelming – this is perhaps Katz’s most minimal and refined work to date; a tone which the sometimes excessive Kantor matches, directing with considerable restraint. Others may miss the presence of a physical Golem, which is represented by a shimmering light, as if the animating spirit of the Lord had manifested on stage instead of an all too solid creature of clay – but then this is not an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, where stagecraft takes the place of story...

Read my full review of A GOLEM STORY at Arts Hub, here.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day

Thanks to BBC Worldwide and UKTV I've now watched the first epsiode of Torchwood: Miracle Day twice, and I like it a lot. I'm still formally formulating my thoughts about the episode, what I enjoyed and what I disliked, so a proper review will be coming soon, I promise. But trust me, it's one hell of a ride and I can't wait to see what's in store for us in the rest of the series, which premieres in Australia on UKTV at 8.30pm, July 9th.

Meanwhile, hear are some photos of the cast to enjoy:

Thursday, June 09, 2011


If your perception of history is that it’s the dry and dusty domain of tweedy old academics, this accessible and engaging publication from the Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives (ALGA) will surely change the way you think about the discipline.

An account of the travails and triumphs of Melbourne’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex – or ‘queer’ (to use the umbrella term that has grown in popularity since it was first introduced to Australia circa 1991) – community from the 18th to the 21st centuries, the book makes no claim to be a comprehensive history. Rather, as its editors acknowledge in their introduction, it is a series of ‘snapshots, fragments, vignettes’; a collage of histories told over 51 chapters, written by 12 separate authors.

Having grown out of a series of history walks presented by the ALGA at Midsumma and similar festivals, the book’s tone is accessible, concise, and distinctly non-academic despite the qualifications and careers of its various contributors. It is also immaculately researched, with an array of footnotes providing proof of the writers’ and editors’ rigorous approach to their subject.

“The history of queer Melbourne is stored in documents, in newspapers and magazines, in police and court records,” writes co-editor and author Graham Willett in one chapter of Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne; and certainly much of what we know about early queer life comes from incidents where gay or bisexual men came into contact with the law, such as the case of Yackandandah resident John Morrison, who in 1870 was sentenced to ten years hard labour for the ‘abominable crime’ of buggery. As an additional punishment, in the first six months of his sentence, Morrison was flogged three times, each time receiving 50 lashes from the cat-o’-nine tails...

Read the full review at Arts Hub.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Review: SUPER 8

OK, so you probably know the drill by now: I've written up a review of J.J. Abrams' new film, Super 8. The review in its entirety is over here, at Arts Hub, but here's an extract to whet your appetite:

Like the young protagonists in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986), the main characters in Super 8 are in their last days of innocence before puberty sends them raging into adolescence. Their precarious position, on the cusp between childhood and their teenage years, means a very specific – and deliberate – tone permeates the film; an awareness that something threatening, powerful, and irresistible is lurking just out of sight.

This ‘puberty-as-monster’ subplot is by no means original – it’s a key theme of The Lost Boys (1987) for example – but here it’s played out subtly, more as a mood or a motif than as an overt theme of the film. Other films Super 8 references include The Goonies (1985) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), but while the film is clearly crafted as a homage to the movies of Abrams’ childhood, it is simultaneously contemporary and engaging, playing to the sensibilities of modern 12-14 year olds as much as to their nostalgic parents.

Modern references abound – such as a scene evoking post 9/11 New York, when Joe posts a message about his missing dog on a local notice board, only for the camera to pan back and reveal his flyer is just one among dozens – alongside obvious homages to even earlier horror films, most notably Christian Nyby’s Cold War classic, The Thing From Another World (1951).

Performances are strong – particularly Elle Fanning, who is exceptional – and the film looks fantastic, though Abrams still can’t seem to resist an excess of lens flare in several key scenes, which some will find distracting. The film’s ending borders on the mawkish, but just holds back, while its evocation of period and obvious delight in referencing its cinematic forbears sometimes feels a touch contrived, and consequently occasionally distances the viewer instead of allowing one to be swept up in the drama...

So, that's my take on the film - what did you think of it?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


So, last week I had the pleasure of seeing the latest addition to the X-Men franchise. You can read my full review over here at Arts Hub, but here's an extract to whet your appetite:

Set in the 1960s – the era in which Marvel Comics editor and head writer Stan Lee, together with artist Jack Kirby, originally created the X-Men comics – X-Men: First Class is a rollicking action movie, a thoughtful character study, a satisfying origin story, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) the film focuses on the friendship between two young mutants, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, in the role created by Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender playing a young Ian McKellen), and explores the origins of the intense rivalry between them that will drive later (earlier) films in the series...

Briskly and efficiently told, X-Men: First Class feels a little disjointed and travelogue-like in its early scenes, but quickly settles down to tell its story in a way that is engaging for fans of the series and newcomers alike.

Possessing both genuine emotion (a scene between Charles and Erik in which long-buried memories of Erik’s dead mother are finally unlocked brought a tear to my eye) and moments of real exhilaration (such as the scene in which Banshee learns to fly), the film’s main fault is that it tries to pack too much into its 132 minute running time. Nonetheless, Vaughn successfully balances the many beats and plot elements of his story, capturing a swinging Sixties aesthetic and referencing some of the deeper thematic concerns of the more successful X-Men films along the way.

Three and a half stars from me, Margaret.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The changing face of me (part one in a series)

Sharing a laugh with horror film maestro George Romero at Triple R on Monday July 28, 2008. (Photo by Donna Morabito)

May, 2008: Melbourne Zombie Shuffle (Photo: Brian Villamin)

Anti-racist protest, Fawkner, March 1997 (Photo by Grebo)

A punk pub-crawl, Melbourne, circa 1996 (Photo: Ian Cook)

Sarah Sands Hotel, Brunswick, circa 1990.

March, 1986, shortly after moving out of home aged 17.
(Photo: John Stewart)


Photo by Jeff Busby

On Saturday night, the Australian premiere of a significantly overhauled Love Never Dies - the latest blockbuster musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber - was held at the Regent Theatre. It wasn't as dreadful as some people were perhaps expecting/hoping for, but it was definitely far from brilliant.

I've written a detailed review over here, for Arts Hub, but here's a short extract to whet your appetite:

Saved from the hands of a vengeful French mob a decade ago by choreographer Madame Giry and her ambitious daughter Meg, and secretly installed as the master of a Coney Island freak show and music hall, The Phantom pines after Christine, his muse, without whom his life has no meaning and his music no inspiration (opening number ‘‘Til I Hear You Sing’).

Reunited (‘Beneath a Moonless Sky’), the Phantom begs Christine to sing for him one last time, in return for which he will pay off all of Raoul’s gambling debts and leave them in peace at last. Their reunion, of course, cannot be so easily engineered, sparking tragedy, madness, murder and betrayal before the final curtain falls.

For fans of the original The Phantom of the Opera – which this reviewer is not – the story of Love Never Dies presents several significant challenges. Characters have changed considerably in the intervening decade – romantic hero Raoul has become a boozy, bad tempered gambler, while The Phantom, formerly a masked madman who killed without compunction, is now an altogether blander, less threatening figure.

A key plot detail is equally problematic. In the parlance of fandom, the events of Phantom have apparently been ‘retconned’ (from the phrase ‘retroactive continuity’) in order to create a paternity drama that drives Love Never Dies.

Even for theatre-goers who are not ‘phans’, the story lacks cohesion. It ignores Chekhov’s advice about guns fired in the final act being visible in the first, and introduces a character’s derangement so abruptly, and so late in the piece, that it comes across as pure deus ex machina. The conclusion of the tale is anti-climactic in the extreme.

Also problematic are the musical’s songs and lyrics. The latter are leaden and expository, while musically, despite lush orchestrations, there simply isn’t a showstopper; that one grand song which catches the heart in the throat and which audience members find themselves still humming a few days later.

Still, it looks fantastic, and technically it's extremely impressive. The after party, too, was great fun, though I didn't stay too long.

So what did you think of Love Never Dies?

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Lucas Pittaway as Jamie Vlassakis in Snowtown

Last week I had the pleasure - if pleasure is the right word to describe such a disturbing but powerful film - of seeing the new Australian film Snowtown. I've written a detailed review over at Arts Hub, which you can read here, but here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Thanks in part to Adam Arkapaw’s accomplished and voyeuristic cinematography, the movie quickly and deliberately distances the audience from the events it depicts. This is not a film which asks the viewer to identify with its protagonists; rather, its actions unfold with the viewer held resolutely at arms length. Tight editing and an ominous score ensure that it remains a compelling and unsettling experience.

The involvement of mostly non-professional performers ensures that the audience is never distracted by stars pretending to be members of a socially and economically deprived underclass (a jarring flaw of Ana Kokkinos’s Blessed); and their presence, coupled with the film’s subdued realism and the filmmakers’ decision to shoot in the locales in which the movie is set, ensure an immediate and unsettling verisimilitude.

Conveying a palpable sense of menace and unease, Snowtown draws power from what it does not show, though its brief scenes of violence are disturbing in the extreme. Shaun Grant’s script is excellent, as is Kurzel’s direction. As Bunting, Henshall is a revelation: an attentive, charming monster, and utterly compelling.

The film is not entirely successful – the large cast of characters lack definition, and are occasionally indistinguishable as a consequence; while the final act of the film ... lacks the palpable sense of tension that makes the first two thirds of the movie so memorable – but overall, Snowtown is a remarkable, albeit disturbing film, and a compelling portrayal of the banality of evil.

I will be discussing Snowtown with fellow critics Cerise Howard and Tara Judah at a special 3RRR subscribers' preview at Cinema Nova this Tuesday. Perhaps I'll see you there?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

More MICF 2011 review

As well as reviewing for The Age this year (which is where the ten Comedy Festival reviews I've posted so far were originally published) I've also been reviewing for Citysearch and Arts Hub. For completeness sake, here's a summary of the other shows I've seen and reviewed to date:

Anyone for Tennis? - Prepare to Be Tuned
Three and a half stars

Xavier Michelides
- Future World
Four stars

Zoe Coombs Marr - And that Was the Summer that Changed My Life
Three stars

Carl-Einar Häckner's Swedish Meatballs
Three and a half stars

Smart Casual - The Story of Captain Entree
Three stars

Tom Ballard - Since 1989
Three and a half stars

Hannah Gadsby - Mrs Chuckles
Four stars

Eva Johansen - Fran I Am
Three stars

Josh Earl's Love Songs & Dedications
Three stars

New Art Club's Big Bag of Boom
Four stars


In a secret bunker somewhere in central Melbourne, two brave advocates of free speech and transparent governments are preparing to announce a shocking secret that will forever change the face of Australian society. Can they evade the sinister forces arrayed against them long enough to make their revelation, or will they end up imprisoned in Australia’s version of Guantánamo Bay?

In their first show as a duo, charismatic local comedians Adam McKenzie and Tegan Higginbotham (formerly of trio The Hound of the Baskervilles) take their audience on a frenetic, occasionally self-indulgent (did we really need to see Adam's Yoda impression again?), but entertaining tour through the world of conspiracy theories and espionage, referencing everything from Mission Impossible and Mythbusters to Wikileaks and a 1966 UFO sighting in the Melbourne suburb of Westall.

Pacy and punchy, though sometimes ragged, the end result is a show that’s cinematic, distinctive, playful, and surprising – especially its climax.

Three and a half stars

Watson in The Super Secret Awesome Show
Victoria Hotel until April 24


If you’re amused by blokey stand-up routines about bodily functions, misbehaving footballers and drunken strip club ejections, you’ll probably enjoy this return to stand-up by Messers Robbins, Stilson and Molloy.

With the bogan-impersonating Robbins as MC, Stilson castigating himself for supporting the Richmond football club, and Robbins making light of his current Adelaide court case by describing the presiding judge as a “fuckwit”, this was a night of cheap laughs by three crowd-pleasing comedians who gave their audience exactly what they wanted to hear.

I honestly didn't laugh once throughout their trio's entire hour, though I appeared to be the exception amidst a crowd that was noisily lapping up their every word.

Stilson’s misanthropic material was the strongest, covering numerous topics relatively quickly, though his punch lines were occasionally laboured. Robbins stuck to safely suburban material, joking about hard rubbish collections and Brendan Fevola; while Molloy made light of mobile phone scandals and home detention.

The overall impression was one of laziness from successful comedians who know they no longer need to exert themselves to entertain their fans.

Two and a half stars

Robbins, Stilson & Molloy
Melbourne Town Hall until April 24

An edited version of this review appeared in The Age on Saturday April 23.

Monday, April 18, 2011


If making breakfast while juggling the demands of parenthood has ever seemed challenging, spare a thought for Anna Lumb. Balanced precariously in high heels, Lumb makes herself a breakfast of rice bubbles, coffee and fruit while spinning a hula hoop around various extremities, including her neck. It’s a strong opening scene for this occasionally uneven show, which employs circus, cabaret, and comedy to tell the story of a 50 foot woman in search of a new home.

Replete with B-movie imagery, a hairy sidekick, and a slideshow of tacky tourist attractions such as the Big Banana, Lumb is at her best with the production’s physical elements. Other sequences, such as a more contemplative scene set to Aretha Franklin’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman’ are less successful.

If you’ve ever wanted to watch a woman dance en pointe while wearing an apartment block on her head, this is the show for you.

Three and a half stars

Anna Lumb - Big Shoes to Fill: An Expose of a 50 Ft Woman Trades Hall until April 24

This review originally appeared in The Age on Monday April 18.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

MICF 2011 review: SEXYTIME!

An exploration of human sexuality told through dance and mime, Sexytime! is not a show for the shy or prudish. Performers Tessa Waters and Kai Smythe spend some of their time on stage semi-naked, and are well aware of their ability to induce laughter by wobbling a belly or jiggling a buttock; a skill they exercise regularly.

With Waters as the beehived host and Smythe a silent, hirsute stage presence, the two successfully skewer gender roles, pay homage to the 60s’ Sexual Revolution with an interpretive dance set to Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’, and satirise modern mating rituals in a hilarious extended sequence that starts in a nightclub and ends in an awkward morning after.

Opening night nerves resulted in an initially stiff performance, but the duo’s expressiveness and confidence increased as they relaxed into the show. Though covering some familiar ground, Sexytime! is an engaging, endearing, and very physical comedy.

Three and a half stars


Tuxedo Cat until April 24

This review originally appeared in The Age on Thursday April 14.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MICF 2011 review: Blue Grassy Knoll - Three Short Comedies

Since 1996, Melbourne quintet the Blue Grassy Knoll have played their bluegrass-inspired live scores for the silent films of Buster Keaton around the world; an inspired fusion of cinema and performance that never fails to delight.

Keaton, a stony-faced master of physical comedy, made a remarkable series of silent films between 1920 – 1929, including the features The General and Sherlock Jnr. For their Comedy Festival appearance, Blue Grassy Knoll accompanied three of Keaton’s short films, including the world premiere of their brand new score for his 1921 film The Playhouse, a homage to vaudeville notable for its innovative camera work.

The band provides a soundtrack for every aspect of the films, from carpentry and shrill voices to dramatic moments and comedic hi-jinks. Attuned to every nuance of Keaton’s performance, whether lugubrious or gleeful, their versatile scores bring his films to vivid life. The Blue Grassy Knoll are a national treasure.

Five stars

Blue Grassy Knoll - Three Short Comedies
Melbourne Recital Centre

Season concluded

This review originally appeared in The Age on Tuesday 12 April.

Monday, April 11, 2011


God knows what the one hapless audience member on Saturday who’d neither read nor seen The Lord of the Rings made of this mad, magnificent performance by Canadian comic Charles Ross, in which he condensed Peter Jackson’s three epic fantasy films (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) into a single hour of hilarity, vocal dexterity, and fan-love.

With a judiciously raised eyebrow, a hunched shoulder or a guttural voice, Ross successfully and faithfully evoked the films’ numerous characters and key scenes, while simultaneously mocking the movies’ more ludicrous lines and moments.

Sometimes the humour lay in Ross’s portrayal of a character, such as a running joke about actor Orlando Bloom’s hair; at other times a knowing aside to the audience or a reference to Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ evoked gales of laughter. Definitely one for the fans, but equally definitely, brilliant.

Five stars

Charles Ross - One Man Lord of the Rings

The Arts Centre, Playhouse

Season concluded

This review originally appeared in
The Age on Monday April 11.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

MICF 2011 review: Buttle & Buttle

As anyone who’s ever moved back in with their parents knows, co-habitation between parent and adult child entails a whole new set of rules. For comedian Mel Buttle, living with her father Barry in semi-rural Queensland means following his lead – even if it means hiding from his pet magpie.

Eager, awkward, and self deprecating, Buttle is at her funniest when discussing her own accident-prone existence, such as a cringe-inducing encounter with a dead wombat, and a painful episode involving a Religious Education teacher and a banana peel. Routines about her father’s escapades, such as his harassing neighbours in the name of koala protection, are less effective; she seems hesitant to fully engage with the material, perhaps for fear of insulting Barry by mocking him as fully as she mocks herself.

Consequently, Buttle & Buttle feels uneven; the flashes of brilliance are overshadowed by Buttle’s subdued and anxious delivery.

Three stars

Mel Buttle - Buttle & Buttle
Melbourne Town Hall until April 24

This review originally appeared in The Age on Friday April 8

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Mining a rich vein of absurdist humour, and utilising a selection of lo-fi props, including a cardboard spaceship and a series of flipchart cartoons, broadcaster and comedian Sam Simmons’ latest show baffles and delights in equal measure.

The Precise History of Things is nominally a collection of responses to letters and emails Simmons has received at JJJ; the jumping-off point for a collection of sketches that range from toilet tips for men to an opera set in the Mexican food aisle at a Coles supermarket.

Transgressing both audience boundaries and traditional narrative structures, and featuring everything from nudist pinecones to shorts-wearing moths, the dream-logic progression of Simmons’ manic performance conceals a subtle concern for the petty cruelties of modern life. Not every element is completely successful, but anyone who can turn a packet of Continental Creamy Alfredo Pasta Sauce into an object of hilarity is truly deserving of praise.

Rating: Four stars

Sam Simmons and the Precise History of Things
Melbourne Town Hall until April 24

Tue-Sat 9.45pm, Sun 8.45pm

This review originally appeared in The Age on Wednesday April 6.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

MICF 2011 review: Felicity Ward - HONESTLY

For a woman who admits to suffering from an anxiety disorder, Melbourne’s Felicity Ward seems to have almost no capacity for self-censorship or shame – and if she does, she hides it well.

In Honestly, Ward presents an array of ideas and anecdotes loosely connected by the theme of frankness, ranging from her obsessions with punning shop names (‘Halal, Is It Meat You’re Looking For?’) and the public behaviour of junkies, through to weight issues and depression. Some inspired moments of audience interaction, which never seem forced or cruel, feature throughout; the highlight of which is a routine discussing the ubiquity of autotune in pop music, memorably demonstrated via an iPhone app and a volunteer.

Foul-mouthed, feisty and very funny, Ward’s expletive-laden delivery sags in the home stretch with some weaker routines about STD checks and 'sax-crimes', after which even a dynamic musical performance can’t quite recapture her earlier brilliance.

Three and a half stars

Felicity Ward - Honestly
Melbourne Town Hall until April 24

Tue-Sat 8.15pm, Sun 7.15pm

$18 - $26.90

This review originally appeared in The Age on Tuesday 5th April, 2011.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Meet Angus, a socially inept idiot savant determined to uncover the secret formula of the universe. His awkward encounters with arrogant businessmen, cursed Collingwood beanies, Murakami-quoting junkies, and the villainously moustachioed Manobozo are about as far removed from traditional stand-up as possible, but generate scenes of exceptional, unbridled hilarity and occasional and surprising pathos.

Created by comedian Vachel Spirason and director/producer Stephanie Brotchie (Slow Clap Productions), this remarkable show – a Fringe Festival award winner – utilises dance, physical comedy, and a talking book to shape its story of virgin births, crop circles, and chocolate-coated eroticism.

Spirason’s gurning and clowning don’t always generate a laugh a minute – the hilarity deliberately shifts into occasional scenes of quiet contemplation – but his remarkably focussed physicality and precise comic timing ensure solid and consistent entertainment. Offbeat, original, and highly recommended for anyone who likes their comedy a little left of centre.

Four stars

The Hermitude of Angus, Ecstatic
Melbourne Town Hall until April 24

Tue-Sat 7.15pm, Sun 6.15pm

$16 - $20

This review originally appeared in The Age on Saturday April 2.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The perils of modern dating

So it seems that 20 year old J. from Reservoir, who I've been seeing on and off over the last few weeks, is actually 18 year old K. - and he's out on parole from the Parkville Juvenile Justice Centre. Do I know how to pick them, or what?

Green Room Award Recipients 2010

Here is the full list of 2010 Green Room Award recipients, as presented last night at The Famous Spiegeltent at the Arts Centre.

Panel: Theatre – Alternative and Hybrid Performance
Outstanding Production: Pin Drop – Tamara Saulwick
Composition & Sound Design: Jethro Woodward – Irony is not Enough (Fragment 31)
Production Design: Claire Britton, Matt Priest, Danny Egger – Conceptual Design – Hole in the Wall (Matt Priest & Claire Britton / Next Wave Festival)
Video Design: Fleur Elise Nobel – 2 Dimensional Life of Her
Mise-en-Scene: The Bougainville Photoplay Project – Paul Dwyer
Site-Specific Production: Southern Crossings – One Step at a Time Like This

Panel: Cabaret
Best Production: Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert – Gasworks & Arts Victoria in association with Melbourne Workers Theatre and Yana Alana and tha Paranas
Artiste: Yana Alana – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Ensemble: Yana Alana and the Paranas – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Original Songs: Yana Alana and tha Paranas – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Director: Anni Davey – Yana Alana and the Paranas in Concert
Musical Direction: Sarah Ward, Bec Matthews & Ania Reynolds – Yana Alana and tha Paranas in Concert
Innovative Use of Form: Emily Taylor – Hello You
Contribution to Cabaret: Kaye Sera

Panel: Dance
Music/Sound Composition and Performance: Ezio Bosso & George Gorga – We Unfold (Sydney Dance Company)
Design: Jacob Nash – Set – Artefact (Bangarra Dance Theatre)
Male Dancer: Tim Ohl – Mix Tape (Chunky Move)
Female Dancer: Emily Amisano – We Unfold (Sydney Dance Company)
Ensemble: Bangarra Dance Theatre – Of Earth and Sky
Concept & Realisation: Private Dances (Next Wave Festival & Natalie Cursio)
Betty Pounder Award for Choreography: TIE: Frances Rings – Artefact (Bangarra Dance Theatre) AND Stephanie Lake – Mix Tape (Chunky Move)

Panel: Theatre – Independent
Male Performer: Thomas Conroy (Henry) – Something Natural But Very Childish (Dirty Pretty Theatre / La Mama)
Female Performer: Justine Campbell (Jane Franklin) – The Fate of Franklin and his Gallant Crew (Four Larks Theatre)
Ensemble: Us (Grit Theatre / The Function Room)
Design: Sebastian Peters-Lazaro & Ellen Strasser – Set & Properties Design – Body of work (Four Larks Theatre)
Lighting Design: Bluebottle – Ben Cobham with Jenny Hector – Lighting Design & Realisation – Madeleine (Jenny Kemp & Black Sequin Productions / Arts House)
Sound / Composition: Mat Diafos Sweeney (Four Larks Theatre) – Music/Sound/Composition – Body of work
Direction: Gary Abrahams – Body of work
Production: Us (Grit Theatre / The Function Room)

Panel: Music Theatre
Direction: Richard Eyre & Matthew Bourne – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Costume and/or Set Design: Bob Crowley – Set & Costumes – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Lightning Design: Trudy Dalgleish – Hairspray (Dainty Consolidated Entertainment / Roadshow Live)
Sound: Peter Grubb – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Choreography: Matthew Bourne & Stephen Mear – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Musical Direction: Michael Tyack – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Female Artist – Leading Role: Verity Hunt-Ballard – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Male Artist – Leading Role: Geoffrey Rush – The Drowsy Chaperone (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Male Artist – Featured Role: Philip Quast – Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Female Artist – Featured Role: Esther Hannaford – Hairspray (Dainty Consolidated Entertainment / Roadshow Live)
Featured Ensemble or Full Ensemble Performance: Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)
Best Production: Mary Poppins (Disney / Cameron Mackintosh)

Panel: Opera
Production: La Sonnambula – Opera Australia
Design: Adam Gardir (set) and Harriet Oxley (costume) – Angelique (Victorian Opera)
Female Lead: Emma Matthews (Amina) – La Sonnambula (Opera Australia)
Male Lead: Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry Joy) – Bliss (Opera Australia)
Female Support: Catherine Carby (Orovsky) – Fledermaus and (Hippolyta) – Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia)
Male Support: Conal Coad (Bottom/Pyramus) – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia)
Conductor: Paul Kildea – The Turn of the Screw (Victorian Opera) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera Australia)
Director: Julie Edwardson – La Sonnambula (Opera Australia)
Lighting: Nigel Levings – Bliss (Opera Australia)

Panel: Theatre - Companies
Lighting Design: Rachel Burke – Moth (Malthouse Theatre / Arena Theatre Company)
Set/Costume Design: Shaun Gurton (set) – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Sound / Composition: Jethro Woodward (composer) – Moth (Malthouse Theatre / Arena Theatre Company)
Female Actor: Alison Whyte (Queen Elizabeth) – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Male Actor: Ewen Leslie (Richard) – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Direction: Simon Phillips – Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Production: Thyestes – Malthouse Theatre / Hayloft Project
Ensemble: Thyestes – Malthouse Theatre / Hayloft Project

Association Awards
Lifetime Achievement Award: Carrillo Gantner AO
Technical Achievement Award: David Miller, Production Manager, Malthouse Theatre
Award for Outstanding Contribution to Melbourne Theatre: Lisle Jones
Best New Original Writing for the Melbourne Stage: Declan Greene – Moth (Malthouse Theatre / Arena Theatre Company)
Best Adaptation for the Melbourne Stage: Simon Stone, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan & Mark Winter – Thyestes after Seneca (Malthouse Theatre / The Hayloft Project)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More from the Melbourne Queer Film Festival

There are a few films screening at the 21st Melbourne Queer Film Festival that I've already seen and previously reviewed; one of which I highly recommend (if you like your comedy pitch black) and another I was deeply underwhelmed by.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You Phillip Morris is hilariously funny and totally unpredictable, and a film I very much enjoyed when it screened at MIFF last year. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it again on the big screen. Conversely, the Danish drama nicknamed 'Brokeback Nazi', Brotherhood, failed to engage me due to its underdeveloped screenplay and an over-reliance on dramatic plot contrivances.

Over the last two days I've also caught two collections of lesbian shorts, Femme Fatalities and Short and Girly, and the earnest, energetic UK drama Fit.

Of the shorts, the highlight of the rather mediocre Femme Fatalities collection was Rebecca Thomson's Cupcake: A Zombie Lesbian Musical. Filmed in suburban Hobart, this gleefully gory, tongue in rotting cheek comedy pitted a lesbian couple and their homophobic neighbours against a zombie apocalypse, with entertaining results. The final musical number about zombie pride fell a little flat, but otherwise this little film was a real charmer. Bonus points for the inventive use of a dildo as an improvised weapon, too.

Conversely, Katrina Del Mar's Hell on Wheels: Girl Gangs Forever promised so much but failed to deliver. What could have been an inventive comedy set in a world of skateboarding girl gangs and roller derby was a badly scripted, limply directed, overlong mess. I could see what it was aiming for, but it fell well short.

Thankfully, the films in Short and Girly were of a higher standard, though there will still a couple that only barely limped across the finish line. The best of the bunch by a country mile was Gina Hirsch's concise, warm and witty You Move Me, a comedic celebration of friendship and an evocative demonstration of the film-making adage that less is more. With a sharp script, well developed characters and strong performances, this rare gem of a lesbian buddy movie stood head and shoulders above all the other films in the package.

Written and directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair (who also stars in the film as the out and outgoing dance & drama teacher Loris), the UK teen drama Fit was a real charmer despite being occasionally hindered by its overly earnest and self-consciously educational script.

Adapted from a play designed to address anti-homophobic bullying which has successfully toured UK schools and institutions, the film explores the lives of a disparate group of teens, some of them struggling with their sexuality, other struggling with their peers' preconceptions about their sexuality. There's the closeted gay jock, the straight tomboy who everyone mistakenly assumes is a lesbian, the homophobic bully who is himself bullied by his father, and a range of others who have been brought together in a hip hop dance class at their school for kids who are struggling in the education system.

Is it a trifle over-earnest? Yes. Does it wear its heart on its sleeve? Yes. But the performances are excellent, its message is important, and its vibrant approach to equality and tolerance makes for an engaging, ebullient and delightful film which I thoroughly enjoyed.

21st MQFF review: LA MISSION

The conflicts sparked by generational and cultural change find form and focus in writer/director Peter Bratt’s La Mission, a sometimes predictable but nonetheless engrossing drama set in San Francisco’s slowly gentrifying Mission district.

A vibrant mélange of Mexican and South and Central influences and immigrants, the Mission is virtually another character in the film thanks in part to the dynamic cinematography of Hiro Narita, but the story’s main focus in the tough and uncompromising Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt, Law and Order, Modern Family), a single father, recovering alcoholic and ex-con.

Che works as a bus driver in order to provide for his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), and takes pride in his position of authority and respect in the neighbourhood; but when he discovers that Jesse is gay, the foundations of Che’s life – family, community, and a slowly developing relationship with his new neighbour, Lena (Erika Alexander) – are dealt a blow from which he may never recover.

The film is somewhat beholden to its traditional three-act narrative structure, and key plot elements unfold with a degree of predictability, but La Mission tells its story with charm and verve thanks to powerful and believable performances from its lead actors, and a script that only occasionally crosses the line into cliché (though when it does, it turns the cliché meter up to 11).

Characters are quickly and deftly sketched, save for Jesse’s boyfriend, who remains little more than a cipher; and the tensions that underpin the film – generational conflict, the shifting demographics of the Mission – are alluded to subtly but effective through the soundtrack, where the youthful voice of hip hop clashes with the funk and soul of Che’s generation.

By the time the film moves into its third act, Che’s battle to avoid the bottle is as constant as his struggle with his son’s sexuality, ensuring that he remains a fascinating and engaging character despite his violent outbursts and old-fashioned, unforgiving machismo.

A tighter pace (and less reliance on unsubtle visual symbolism) would have ensured a stronger film, but its drama packs a punch and the chemistry between its two main leads is palpable. Overall, La Mission overcomes its flaws to become a rewarding and engaging portrait of a man in crisis, and of a father and son – and a community – struggling to adapt to change.

This review originally appeared on Arts Hub.

21st MQFF review: KABOOM

The 21st Melbourne Queer Film Festival kicked off on Thursday night at The Astor, opening with Kaboom, the latest film from queer auteur Gregg Araki (The Living End, The Doom Generation, Totally Fucked Up). It returns to the themes of his earlier, rawer, angrier work – sexual fluidity and teenage angst – with a newfound confidence seemingly gained while making his critically acclaimed, poisonously beautiful drama about the impact of childhood sexual abuse, 2005’s Mysterious Skin.

Set at a nameless Southern Califorian college, Kaboom focuses around film studies major Smith (Thomas Dekker) and his immediate circle of friends, including his sarcastic lesbian buddy Stella (Haley Bennett), the free spirited London (Juno Temple), Smith’s ‘friend with benefits’, and his dumb but gorgeous surfer roommate Thor (Chris Zylka).

As Smith’s 19th birthday draws near, he begins to experience a series of unsettling, possibly prophetic dreams involving a red-haired girl, a mysterious door, and the secrets that lie behind it. In the days that follow, Stella hooks up with the obsessive, supernaturally gifted Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida), and Smith encounters the red-headed woman from his dreams while tripping – only to see her murdered by a pack of animal-masked men, who soon start stalking Smith himself across the campus.

Soon events start to spiral out of control, and the plot threatens to follow. Smith hooks up with a handsome stranger at a nude beach, meets a potential love interest at a concert performed by Texan post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, and discovers the existence of a doomsday cult whose machinations threaten to bring about the end of the world.

This gleefully deranged comedy-drama features many of Araki’s familiar trademarks, including witty one-liners, a colour-saturated design aesthetic, provocative statements about the construction of personality and sexuality, and a dynamic soundtrack featuring a who’s who of contemporary alternative music, including The XX, The Horrors, The Big Pink, Yeah Yeah Yeah and Interpol.

The film’s heady blend of elements may not be especially deep, but Araki is cleverly enjoying himself as he splashes about in the shallow end of the cultural pool, mixing and matching genres with gay (or omnisexual) abandon.

Kaboom blends a hefty dose of horror film and science fiction tropes into its hot-blooded story of sexual and personal awakening; and rockets along at a breakneck pace, ensuring a wildly enjoyable ride for audiences in tune with Araki’s slyly subversive and playful approach to filmmaking.

Kaboom opens in limited release at Cinema Nova on Thursday 27 March.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: HOWL

“There is no Beat Generation,” poet Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) tells an anonymous interviewer in 1957. “Just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”

The original Beats, including Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs were indeed all writers, whose biographical and self-mythologising works directly inspired a countercultural movement that scandalised the USA in the staid 1950s.

The publication of Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 was a key moment in Beat history, but the catalysing event which rocketed the Beats, Sputnik-like, to fame across the USA was the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems by San Francisco’s City Lights Press in 1956; and the court case the following year which saw its publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, charged with obscenity.

The trial was widely covered by the press, with articles appearing in both Time and Life magazine; and the decision by Judge Clayton W. Horn that ‘Howl’ was of “redeeming social importance” and was therefore “not obscene” was a significant landmark for freedom of artistic expression.

As writer Fred Kaplan noted in Slate, the court case was ‘serious business':

'If Ferlinghetti had been found guilty, Capt. William Hanrahan, the juvie chief who arrested him, was going to send his cops to sweep the filth from every bookstore in the city – he'd drawn up a long list of titles – and San Francisco, which was just emerging as an avant-garde haven, would have retreated into backwater provincialism for years, if not decades.’
In the hands of Academy Award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Celluloid Closet), the obscenity trial becomes the dramatic centrepiece of a new docu-drama that explores Ginsberg’s creation of ‘Howl’ and the poem’s lasting cultural impact as a transcendent work of 20th century literature.

Based on court transcripts and a 1957 interview given by Ginsberg, the film uses carefully orchestrated re-enactments and archival footage to capture the spirit of the times, and vivid animation to convey the poem’s dramatic imagery. Also interwoven throughout the film is a vivid recreation of Ginsberg’s first dramatic reading of ‘Howl’ at San Francisco’s Six Gallery on October 7, 1955; a night which Kerouac would later immortalise in his novel The Dharma Bums.

Set in 1957, both the trial – featuring Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as defence attorney J.W ‘Jake the Master’ Ehrlich and David Strathairn as the prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh – and the extended interview with a strikingly frank Ginsberg are shot in colour. Flashback sequences showing the creation of the poem and other key episodes from Ginsberg’s life are shot in crisp black and white.

The film leaps back and forth across its various timelines, with the hallucinatory animated images designed by artist Eric Drooker further complicating its narrative. The overall effect could have been dizzying and confusing; instead, like ‘Howl’ itself, the film is inspiring and ecstatic.

As the young Ginsberg, James Franco is brilliant, capturing the poet’s clipped and awkward speech patterns; his frustrated love for Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and the “cocksman and Adonis of Denver,” Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott); and his lasting guilt over his mentally ill mother, Naomi, whose lobotomy papers Ginsberg had to sign at the age of 21.

The animated sequences are occasionally a trifle literal, but they also provide an emotional component which is otherwise absent from the film, particularly when illustrating parts II and III of ‘Howl’; and Beat Generation devotees will enjoy spotting scenes which the filmmakers have recreated directly from Ginsberg’s own photographs, such as Kerouac smoking on a New York fire escape, and Allen and his lover Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit) sitting back to back, like one of Plato’s Children of the Sun reunited at last.

The film’s production design, by Thérèse DePrez, is detailed without being flashy, Jake Pushinsky’s editing is excellent, and Carter Burwell’s original music sensitively and generously compliments the action on-screen.

Cleverly cast and imaginatively made, Howl is a fitting testament to the power, beauty and passion of Ginsberg’s poetry, and a fascinating fusion of cinematic forms. At the time of writing it is showing on a single Australian screen, at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, prior to a Madman DVD release later this year. It deserves a much wider audience.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Xanadu the Musical

Located in the dusty, industrial wastelands of Melbourne's Docklands stands a vast red and yellow marquee reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil's Grand Chapiteau; the custom-built 'pleasure dome' home of Xanadu the Musical, which had its gala Australian opening on Thursday night.

Based on the unsuccessful 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton John and Gene Kelly (which critic Roger Ebert decried as 'a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes') Xanadu the Musical is a tongue-very-firmly-in-cheek retelling of the film about roller-disco and romance to which a hefty dose of contemporary irony has been added.

Reviews of the original Broadway production were strong. As to whether the local production is any good I unfortunately can't say as I walked out of the opening night performance only half an hour after it started.

From where I was seated (section D, row L, seat 124) the sound quality was appalling: thin, tinny and inaudible. I had to strain to hear anything that was said on stage, and once the singing started, the lyrics were muffled and indistinct, even though the music itself seemed hardly loud.

My view of the stage, too, was terrible, with a large tentpole (which doubled as a major lighting rig) blocking a significant degree of the action. I don't mind tickets being sold with a poor view of the stage if they are advertised as 'impeded view' or 'restricted sight lines', but there is absolutely nothing to that effect on the Xanadu the Musical website, which I think is disgraceful.

Had I actually payed for my seats I would have been furious; as it was I was deeply frustrated with the situation, and extremely concerned for those people around me, paying customers including a young child and two elderly women who were becoming increasingly distressed at being unable to clearly hear or see anything of the musical they had come to see.

Based on my experience of the show, I cannot recommend Xanadu the Musical to anyone - unless perhaps (based on the opening night reviews in today's Age and Friday's Herald Sun) you're sitting in the $155.90 a head VIP seats, where sound quality and sight lines were apparently a non-issue.

A Behanding in Spokane

Best known for his magnificent, melancholy and blackly comic feature film In Bruges, and a series of plays which gleefully invert the clichés of the Irish character, A Behanding in Spokane is Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s first new theatre script in 15 years.

Unlike the two trilogies on which his early reputation was based (including The Lonesome West and The Beauty Queen of Leenane), set on Ireland’s rural west coast and written in a white-hot creative frenzy in 1994, A Behanding in Spokane takes place in the United States, and seizes on the familiar tropes of that all-American film genre, the Western – including bloody vengeance, vigilantism, and the quest for justice – in order to tell its tale.

In a shabby, run-down hotel room partially illuminated by the ruddy glow of a neon sign, we meet the hulking Carmichael (Colin Moody), a one-handed racist whose obsessive quest to find missing his left hand, severed and stolen by a gang of hillbillies, has carried him “across this sad, decaying nation” for almost 30 years.

Carmichael has come to meet a young couple, white trash Marilyn (Nicole da Silva) and African-American grifter Toby (Bert LaBonté) who claim to have his hand for sale. Also present is the strange and sardonic Mervyn (Tyler Coppin), a lonely hotel clerk who expounds upon his curious outlook on life in a rambling and imaginative monologue about lesbians, monkeys, and high school massacres that somewhat awkwardly occupies the play’s middle third.

What unfolds between these four characters on Christina Smith’s perfectly realised set provoked laughter, shocked gasps and some genuine surprises on the production’s opening night.

This pitch black comedy is not for the easily offended, with McDonagh’s expletive-laden script featuring enough racial epithets to shock even a Cronulla rioter, and an abundance of grand guignol humour. But for those with the stomach for the playwright’s playfully warped view of the world – typified by a speech late in the piece in which Carmichael screams down the phone at his equally racist mother in order to re-establish his white supremacist credentials – there is much to enjoy.

Peter Evan’s direction keeps the unfolding series of increasingly bizarre events skilfully on track, with Ben Grant’s subtle sound design gently adding to the mood and tone. Performances are mostly strong, especially Moody as the grimly single-minded Carmichael, though da Silva failed to impress with her bland take on an admittedly underwritten character. Conversely, LaBonté excelled as a cringing, weeping petty criminal, showing impeccable and impressive comic timing at every turn.

Darkly entertaining and perversely engrossing, this pitch-black comedy is highly recommended.

A Behanding in Spokane
MTC Sumner Theatre
February 5 – March 19

This review originally appeared on Arts Hub.

The Wau Wau Sisters' Last Supper

Wicked and winsome, The Wau Wau Sisters (US duo Adrienne Truscott and Tanya Gagne) have been leaving a trail of gently ruffled feathers and delighted audiences around the country in recent months. Having already wowed crowds in Sydney, Perth and Adelaide to date, their tour now wends its way to Melbourne and a short season at The Famous Spiegel Garden, serving up a typically ‘Spiegelian’ blend of music, circus, burlesque and cabaret.

Even before the audience are seated in the Famous Spiegeltent, a taste of the show’s irreverent nature is served up – literally – by drag king ushers handing out wafers to the patrons like cross-dressing priests at communion; and when the show gets properly underway it begins with a gleefully blasphemous mockery of Catholic ritual and the peccadilloes of private school girls that includes simulated crucifixion and cunnilingus.

Next the pair slip into country & western costumes and strap on guitars for an acrobatic serenade that boasts witty dialogue, entertaining ad libbing, and some pretty impressive physicality. It quickly becomes apparent that the duo's comedic timing is excellent, as are their circus skills, though the latter only really come into their own later in the show, when willing audience members are hoisted aloft on Truscott and Gagne’s taut and muscular legs in an impressive display of acrobalancing.

With a surreal sensibility reminiscent of local duo The Town Bikes, The Wau Wau Sisters’ Last Supper is an accomplished show which nonetheless fell a little flat in spots on its opening night, particularly during changeovers between acts, but the energy of the two performers soon lifted proceedings back to a more manic level.

A double trapeze act late in the piece was a particular highlight, showcasing the pair’s well honed athleticism and remarkable rapport; and their audience participation was engaging without ever being cruel.

By the time we reached the show’s bacchanalian climax – complete with red wine poured over the pair’s bare breasts and audience members dressed as satyrs devouring bunches of grapes – the repeated transgressions of religious and sexual taboos were growing perhaps a little thin, but overall the show rose above such minor faults to genuinely entertain.

If you have strong religious beliefs this is not the show for you, but for this particular godless sodomite the fare on offer at The Wau Wau Sisters' Last Supper definitely satisfied.

The Wau Wau Sisters’ Last Supper
The Famous Spiegel Garden at the Arts Centre
March 1 – 6

This review originally appeared on Arts Hub.