Dunstan Playhouse. State Theatre Company South Australian and Sydney Theatre Company. 9 Aug 2022
Post-covid and in an era of funding cuts and bureaucratic bungling, most of the teachers of West Vale Primary hang out in the parking lot, leaving just a ragged core to frequent the run-down old staff room.
Returning from school holidays, the jaded veteran teacher Pat Novitsky shakes a cockroach out of the kettle before hammering loose the contents of a jumbo Nescafe can and heaping five spoonful’s of granules into a cup. She sighs as if its nectar on the first sip. The audience is already laughing because fey fellow teacher Denise Hart has preceded her by doing a horrified once-over of the room before disappearing into the Ladies. Catherine McClements and Susan Prior respectively have broken the comic ice with some lovely mime setting the scene and the mood for this Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company SA co-production of Angela Betzein’s Chalkface.
The title, one discovers, references the “coal face” of teaching as opposed to makeup.
While there is a lot to laugh at in this play, loaded as it is with cornball clichés of the trials and tribulations of long-suffering but ever dedicated state school teachers, it is, in fact, a sad and disturbing portrait of a disintegrating system.
Novitsly’s best friend Sue, a fellow veteran teacher, dropped dead as they began their dream trip to Hawaii. Her funeral in school holidays was ignored by colleagues. Novitsky brings memorial ritual to the staff room along with Sue’s ashes. Playwright Betzein has fun with this - and so does the audience.
The play rolls through all manner of tropes, especially in introducing the new millennial teacher, Anna Park, bright and cocky with her Masters degrees in neuroplasticity and child behaviour. She is embodied and well developed by Stephanie Somerville. The headmaster is more of an administrator. He’s nick-named “Thatcher” for his economic rationalist policies and, played by Nathan O’Keefe with a wee trendy man-bun, he’s buck-passing and hands-off. His staffroom offsider is the over-aptly named Cheryl Filch, played by Michelle Ny. She commands the supplies, the shredder, and the school PA over which she loves to issue exquisitely inept pronouncements. She is the tight-fisted school villain.
The sports teacher Steve, played by Ezra Juanta, has been on compo following an injury caused by the school’s pupil nemesis, Hurricane Little. He now suffers from paranoia.
No one wants Hurricane and his perilous pranks in their class, so the smug newbie offers to take him. And so the school year rolls on, its tides and terms marked by flags and bunting strung across the staff room and also, by zany little dance vignettes from Denise, the kindie teacher. She is pregnant, so her growing stomach also shows the passage of time.
The play's funny/nightmarish denouement is in Book Week when everyone is themed up, Denise as the many-armed Hungry Caterpillar. To this end, designer Ailsa Paterson has had lots of fun with costumes and, indeed, overall with a scrupulously detailed archetypal old-school staffroom complete with labelled pigeon holes, an ideas box, broken hot water system, and a flotsam of old furniture. Mark Shelton brings this all to vivid life with a gorgeous lighting plot, complete with inefficiencies and blackouts while Jessica Dunn’s sound and music taps right into the spirit of primary schools and is a delight in its own right. Indeed, it’s an altogether good production team and director Jessica Arthur sustains the cast’s timing and interaction to a school bell tee.
Chalkface is not a great play. But, it is a nice play. Its one hour and 45 minutes passes swiftly and its portrayal of the ravaged education system gives serious pause for thought. It dares a spot of didacticism and labours the word “pedagogy” to underscore today’s decline in depths of teaching of language and critical thinking.
While the performances all are pretty shmick, it is Catherine McClements as the world-weary doyen who steals the show and our hearts.
When: 10 to 20 Aug
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
Blue Sky Theatre. Domain Theatre. Marion Cultural Centre. 30 Jul 2022
Blue Sky Theatre company has a very devoted following. Dave Sims knows how to mount real audience-pleasers. They have been mainly classic old school costume farces performed out of doors in wonderful garden settings aligned with the fabulous opengardens.org.au . Hence the name “Blue Sky”, one supposes, albeit the performances progress into the evenings under lights. Blue Sky picnic outings have achieved an almost cult-like return of audiences to see lavish and hilarious productions of the likes of She Stoops to Conquer, One Man Two Guvnors, The School for Scandal, and Present Laughter. Some of us are still laughing. And raving about the impeccable costumes. It has been a five-star path for this company. It is scheduling The Scarlet Pimpernel in the garden when 2022 becomes more clement.
Winter and common sense have driven the company indoors for some productions which, brilliantly, are timed as 4pm matinees at the fabulous Marion Culture Centre’s Domain Theatre.
But, for some unfathomable reason, our man Sims has abandoned the comical costumed fun and games and mounted a very earnest play indeed.
Too Much Sun was written by London-based American Nicky Silver, and one reads in the program notes that his writing has been compared with that of Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde.
That is not going to be happening from this critic.
If ever there was a case of incredibly tedious overwriting, this play is it. Not much sun at all. It is a pretentious, unsubtle, and didactic work which one feels actually does a disservice to gay theatre. The dialogue? Oh, save us from reiterated clichés and predictable outcomes.
Luckily for Blue Sky, ingenuous new theatregoers are loving it. Their foyer talk was describing it as “deep”.
It tells of a vain and ageing actress imposing herself on her alienated daughter’s holiday house when things are going badly for her in a production of Medea at Wagga Wagga. Yes, this, in itself, is gorgeously funny. Sadly, not so via the Silver script which could use a mile of kindly blue pencil to soften its abstruse reiterative verbiage.
So, selfish old actress skews the seaside social world while her awful writers-blocked son-in-law ignores his marriage and the sweet surfie dope dealer seeks panacea from the trauma of losing his mother. Everyone has issues and, in case the audience is not recognising them, the dialogue labours them. Attempts to balance the plot with humour are clumsy. Despite their best efforts, the actors are pushing the proverbial uphill.
Yet, they manage to achieve some decent performances, particularly Celine O’Leary as the old prima donna mum who delivers a very substantial and credible character development. Jackson Barnard has a lovely languor as the weed-selling surfie and it is incredibly refreshing to see a handsome young actor whose body is unmarked by tattoos. Lee Cook is a consistently capable actor and holds his own easily as the lousy writer while Emily Currie, is surly and impassive as his comfort-eating miserable wife. Reuben Fernee, as the quivering production messenger, works hard to make things funny and there are moments. Meanwhile Stuart Pearce is solid as the nice but troubled man next door.
Dave Sims is a great director but one is simply baffled by his choice of such a leaden play.
Never seeing it again would be too soon.
When: 30 Jul to 5 Aug
Where: Domain Theatre
The Corseted Rabbits Collective. Rumpus. 16 Jul 2022
English actor/playwright Amelia Bullmore packs a lot of intellectually challenging, emotionally confronting material amidst downright fabulous, unashamed 80s pop culture layers in Di and Viv and Rose.
We’re offered a fly on the wall view of a 30 year friendship between three UK women who meet at university in 1983 and proceed to unpack old home life and live a new home life in what we in Australia call share housing.
It’s a tricky, cracking tragicomic text, littered with to die for lines belying a heady thread of gender politics, sexuality and polemic. Di, Viv and Rose’s journey is one birthing bursts of lightning bright epiphanies of understanding both shallow and profound, subsumed by the minutiae of messy ordinary life. So it seems.
Bullmore’s writing challenges Director Rachel Burke and cast Julia Vosnakis (Di), Georgia Laity (Viv) and Isabel Vanhakartano (Rose) to work the innately dark/light structure of the text in such a way its comedic elements do not overwhelm, but delicately highlight the seriousness at the text’s heart.
Burkes’s direction, supported by Set Designer Meg Wilson’s austere grey wall set with offsets and pull on/off furnishings, and Technical Designer Mark Oakley’s projections ensures this balance is achieved in a mercurial relationship to the performances.
Filling the space with exceptionally taut character acting befitting outward expectations of a Classic Brit sitcom, (The Young Ones comes to mind,) Vosnakis, Laity and Vanhakartano communicate an extraordinary tension between funny and not funny; between ‘that’s life’, and ‘why should that be life’?
The characters seem 80s sitcom enough, initially. Di’s a sporty lesbian studying business. Viv’s a hard headed sociology student. Rose is an art history student big on sex.
Burke and ensemble use these character labels as launch pads to something more complex.
Complexities of being women relating to the world, complexities of women relating to women.
Burkes’ ensemble sets a cracking pace. Dropping comic lines as if they weren’t with extraordinary skill, subtly easing in and out of their characters’ label to reveal dark depths yet never losing the delightful, frothy thread of humour sustained in the text.
A seriously thought provoking production loaded with humour, intent and range well beyond an 80s cliché.
When: 15 to 24 July
Where: Rumpus - 100 Sixth Street Bowden
Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Victoria Falconer. The Space. 24 Jun 2022
Willingly living on the periphery of human life, yet drawn into it by her insatiable creative drives, Australian artist Vali Myers (1930- 2003) was a living conundrum.
On one hand, wild, untameable, more a creature of the natural world opposing human civilisation. On the other hand, possessed with a sensibility uniquely equipped to express through dance, sketching and painting a vision of the world and herself that opened disturbing, mystical and surreal visions of truths lying beneath the seemingly ordered and orderly reality of the surface world we all perceive. From the bush, to the denizens of Paris, New York and Italy post WWII.
Victoria Falconer’s exposition of this extraordinary artists life and inner being is an intensely engaging, alienating, reflectively introspective production which constantly pushes the audience towards two states of mind simultaneously; a deepened sense of the mystical, of things natural; and having to accept a hard harshness, a drive to live that is clearly dangerous to be too close to.
Myers is portrayed not by one, but several women garbed in Myers’ famed flaming red tresses, Kohl rouged eyes and variations of dress covering her lifetime from youth to close of life.
This tack allows gradations of Myers’ unconventional, forceful life and a wonderful sense of differing emotion, passion, innocence and cynicism. It most particularly, powerfully magnifies myriad strands of Myers’ personality and creativity in musical performance.
While Myers’ diaries provide linking dialogue and transitions, it’s the songs composed for this production that provide the means of expression to the hard-to-grasp depths of this singularly complex being. That, alongside a deeply beautiful, trippy lighting design and evocative burn-through projections of Myer’s most striking art works.
If anything could improve the show, it would be a higher production value to projections and possibly staging it in the round.
The ensemble of nine actor/musicians and one canine’s work is deliciously transfixing to experience. They work to evoke, what at production’s end becomes, a wordless, otherworldly phantasm of this creature called Vali Myers we sense beyond her own creations.
Where: The Space
Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Her Majesty’s Theatre. 18 Jun 2022
Cabaret is an interesting type of entertainment to describe. In its modern form, it originated in Paris (arguably) in the late 1800s in the Montmartre area. It largely comprised stand-up comedians, actors, vaudevillians, and musicians all poking fun and thumbing their collective noses at the establishment. There was often a subversive element in what they did, sang and said, and this was particularly evident in German cabaret during the Weimar period of the 1920s. Cabaret was often held in intimate venues with the audience seated at tables in close proximity to the performers, but this is less common in today’s mass entertainment market and in festivals that ostensibly celebrate the cabaret genre.
At its best, cabaret is funny, subversive (with as many sacred cows being irreverently and mercilessly slaughtered as possible), energetic, audacious, and, above all, abundant with quality music and well-sung chansons! Meow Meow’s appropriately named cabaret show Pandemonium has all those features, in spades!
Meow Meow, aka Melissa Madden Gray, is originally from Canberra, but having performed in diverse major international venues to rave reviews, the world is truly her stage. She has exquisite comic timing and physicality, and a superb singing voice that is fuelled by top-notch technique, excellent diction and enviable pronunciation across a number of languages. She has a sensual stage presence that demands (and gets) your full attention. She is magnetic.
Meow Meow begins the show with a false-start: she first appears on one of the theatre’s balconies, and ‘realising’ she is in the wrong place attempts to climb down to the stage with her bag of costumes and various stage accoutrements. Eventually she makes her way to the stage and en route enlists the help of several members of the audience to help her change into a costume. She explains that she is “running on reduced circumstances” – blame COVID lockdowns – and she needs to get help where she can! This routine alone is almost worth the price of the ticket, especially when one of them takes out his pen knife to help sever a pesky strap! Meow Meow’s rib-tickling riposte is quick and …. cutting!
Having taken to the stage, it is clear that Meow Meow wants to invoke the intimacy of traditional cabaret and involve her audience as much as possible. Audience participation can often go down like the proverbial lead brick, but in Meow Meow’s seasoned hands, men in the audience veritably clamour to volunteer their services, although they are invariably ill-suited (or incapable!) for what they are asked to do, even in their “own time”! It’s all part of her formula, and it is oh so funny and will never get ‘old’!
Meow Meow performs a wide range of songs from various cabaret traditions, especially French and German, and is backed by the excellence and might of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra expertly conducted by Nicholas Buc. The stage of Her Majesty’s is jam-packed, and the lighting design and sound engineering exposes it and everyone in … full majesty!
Meow Meow’s performances of Ne me quitte pas by Jacque Brel, and Surabaya-Johnny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were sublime. Her rendition of the 1931 Weimar Republic classic It's All a Swindle (Alles Schwindel) by Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus gave us a poignant reminder of what we have all endured through the recent state and federal elections.
Meow Meow doesn’t just sing from the traditional canon of cabaret songs. Tonight’s song list also included her own compositions, such as the hauntingly poignant Mon homme marié (My Married Man) and Hotel Amour that she co-wrote with Thomas M Lauderdale. Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees also features, and Meow Meow channels the song’s central character: her presentation is achingly beautiful.
And then there’s her performance in several languages of the 1960 hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, but there’s nothing shy about her act. It ended in, well, pandemonium with the members of the orchestra all throwing their scores into the air, and the audience howled with laughter.
Her version of Be Careful by Patty Griffin underscores the song’s essential message about female vulnerability, and it speaks to the men in the audience as much as it does to the women. It is a seminal moment in the concert.
Throughout, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is at the top of its game, and they clearly enjoy the experience of performing with Meow Meow, as opposed to playing for her and accompanying her own trio. Indeed, she orchestrates a wonderfully amusing entrance of the orchestra to kick off the send half: entering one-by-one (yes, it did take some time!) they individually ‘bowed’ with great humour and flourish. They take centre stage, and relish the occasion, but the night belongs to Melissa Madden Gray and her alter ego Meow Meow.
Make sure you see a Meow Meow concert when the occasion next presents itself. It’s one of those things you simply must do before you die…with laughter!
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre