1984By George Orwell. Shake and Stir. The Q Theatre. 2 May 2014

It’s been 65 years since George Orwell’s vision of a nightmarish communist future was put to paper; lucky for us it was never realised in the Western world, but you’d be forgiven for thinking back in 1959 that the scenario was a frighteningly real possibility. However, for countries like North Korea it is sadly a reality, where the enduring story of 1984 seems to have served as an inspiration rather than a warning.

This is Shake and Stir’s second Orwell production at The Q Theatre, the last being a brilliant adaptation of Animal Farm in 2013. One important difference between the two is that for 1984, the company chose not to have an interval in order to preserve the level of intensity that would build up during the hour and forty minutes – an effective decision, and something that should be done much more often with shows of this kind.

A feature of this version of 1984, besides the blinding spotlights harassing the audience in the lead up to the show, was the seamless and innovative insertion of media into the production. The well-timed pre-recorded material was used to great effect in creating the relentless surveillance of the people of Oceania, as well as the beautiful dream sequences of protagonist Winston Smith (Bryan Probets). It also served to heighten the emotion of Winston to the nth degree by providing synchronised close ups of his torment as he was systemically broken by the deceitful O’Brien (David Whitney).

The cast were nothing short of phenomenal, seemingly leaping straight from the pages of the book and materialising onto the stage at Queanbeyan. Hands down, as in the book, it was Probets and Whitney going head to head in the heartbreaking ‘re-education’ scenes towards the end of the play that proved most stirring.

However, the chemistry between the superb Nelle Lee as Julia and Probets as Winston was also noteworthy for its authenticity, as the bold young woman brought the nostalgic, world-worn ‘thought criminal’ back to life for that brief but achingly precious time. Ross Balbuziente and Nick Skubij as supporting characters brought great versatility to their roles and just the right amount of comic relief in otherwise sombre moments.

The costume and non-media elements of the set design were appropriately bleak, replicating the wretched life of a comrade, apart from a charming hidden room (that was literally hidden within the set) that would become the oasis for Julia and Winston during their last days of relative freedom.

Shake and Stir certainly lived up to its name that evening, leaving one feeling slightly rattled and shell-shocked. If anything, it was a good reminder to appreciate the pleasures and privileges of a liberal society and to take note of what we have to lose.

Deborah Hawke

When: Closed
Where: The Q Theatre - Canberra
Bookings: Closed

La Traviata

La Traviata State OperaState Opera of South Australia. Festival Theatre. 3 May 2014

This La Traviata is visually stunning.  Christina Smith’s set and costume design is inextricably and perfectly coupled with Matt Scott’s lighting and together they are a triumph and a feast for the eyes

La Traviata is based on the Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) and tells the story of a consumptive society courtesan who wears a white camellia to signal that her illness precludes her availability – otherwise she wears a red one.  She eventually finds true love from a man who can see past her profession but she is pressed by her lover’s father to abandon the relationship in order to protect his family’s good name.  The story has been borrowed and adapted a number of times, including in Baz Luhrmann’s musical-film Moulin Rouge! and in Boublil and Schönberg’s musical Marguerite.

The principal design concept includes a small cut away room comprising two semi-mirrored walls and ceiling set on the expanse that is the main stage of the Festival Theatre. The room is lit in a range of evocative ways and oozes both sanctuary and spirituality.  It is where Violetta, the courtesan, entertains and escapes from day-to-day cares.  It is where she ponders the meaning of her life, and it is where she eventually dies when her illness finally runs its inevitable course.  The entire stage is framed by gigantic curved upstage curtains, and one of them comprised images of camellia blooms that gradually faded from a sensual red to an ethereal silvery white to mark Violetta’s deteriorating fortunes.  The Dumas imagery is preserved.

Russian soprano Elvira Fatykhova is a recognised Violetta expert, having played the role in opera houses around the world.  She has a beautiful coloratura voice and her diction is as sharp and crystal clear as the nine chandeliers that ornamented the stage.  She looked stately and seductive, and always vulnerable.  Aldo Di Toro sang well the role of Alfredo, Violetta’s lover, but wasn’t entirely successful in raising the temperature of the chemistry of their relationship to the levels it needed. As Violetta’s life slipped away in the closing stages of the final act, Fatykhova’s duet with Di Toro (Gran Dio!..morir sì giovane) was ever so touching.  Director Kate Cherry had her stoic to the end as Violetta comforted Alfredo in her arms rather than the other way around.

A highlight of the evening was Mario Bellanova’s excellent interpretation of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.  His commanding baritone voice was strong, warm and pure of tone.  His duet with Fatykhova in Act 2 (Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura) was a highlight of the production.

Conductor Nicholas Carter expertly drew out the achingly beautiful melodies from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, which sounded as good as it ever has in an opera.  The audience was understandably delighted. Cherry had the occasional soloist with their back to the audience, and hence to the conductor, and this caused Carter a minor problem but it did give a more natural ‘feel’ to some of the more tender moments.

La Traviata has many well-known arias and is understandably one of the most frequently performed operas around the world.  Chorus Master Timothy Sexton (as well as being SOSA’s CEO and Artistic Director) was outstandingly successful with the vocally talented SOSA Chorus.  There were perhaps too many of them on stage at times, which thwarted the jollity and atmosphere of some of the party scenes.  The minor principals all provided solid support for the leads, and of particular note were Deborah Caddy as Flora Bervoix and Robert England as Marchese d’Obigny who both gave fine acting performances as well as being in fine voice

This production is a collaboration of SOSA, Opera Q (Brisbane) and New Zealand Opera, and it is a winner – world class.

Kym Clayton

When: 3 to 10 May
Where: Festival Theatre
Bookings: bass.net.au

Death in Bowengabbie

death in bowengabbieThe Bakehouse Theatre. 26 Apr 2014

Second time around and the foyer is packed with a keen new audience. ‘Death in Bowengabbie’ has proved to be a "keeper". It's a sweet, darkly comic one-hander which, well performed, is a particular richness of story-telling. Quite rightly, playwright Caleb Lewis, has been well recognised for its beautiful prose. He is an outstanding young Australian writer.

‘Death in Bowengabbie’ draws on the tradition of Irish narrative and for all the world it is an Irish-sounding name. But the town is the somewhere-nowhere home to which architect Oscar must return for the funeral of his auntie.

He has been away for 15 years. This little valley town, once famous for its jam factory, does rather individualistic funerals and, it seems, it does them often. Oscar, who is on the verge of both marriage to Ruth and a new job in Dubai, has to return repeatedly to Bowengabbie as one after another his elderly rellies falls off the perch.

Elliot Howard not only plays Oscar but also the various characters of Bowengabbie. Astutely directed by Peter Green, he does it with easy and effective underplay. He captures the gauche pushiness of his old school contemporary, Gary, the husky optimism of his grandpa with the laryngal keyhole, and Abby the town vet and quaint old Russian who keeps a pet Tasmanian devil...

As Oscar, he both enacts his tale and tells it in the third person. Green has kept the hour-long production very sparse, clean and clever, depending on Stephen Dean's lighting plot as the subtle mechanism which changes the times and places and moods. Otherwise, apart from several cardboard boxes which transform to gravestones, there is just the black back wall and a few sound effects.

After the show has opened with an amusing old movietone-style dramatis personae, the stage belongs to Elliot. His presence is personable and, as he relaxes into the narrative, he makes vivid the invisible world of the waning little town and the unusual funerals it turns on.

A tender and tentative love story evolves - softly, as is the nature of the piece. It is a particularly gentle and lyrical work but also sad, absurdist and from time to time, very funny indeed. And, it is blessed with a wonderful, satisfying, surprising ending - and one laughs, even against one's better judgement.

Samela Harris

When: 26 Apr to 10 May
Where: The Bakehouse Theatre
Bookings: bakehousetheatre.com

Helen Reddy

Helen reddyAdelaide Festival Centre. Festival Theatre. 15 April 2014

On her septuagenarian come-back tour, Helen Reddy both thrills and perplexes.
She still has a terrific set of pipes and impressive lung capacity. But, in black leggings and a black top, she dresses as if she's just popped in for a rehearsal. At least her blue earrings match her eye shadow. With a huge audience, mainly of Baby Boomer women who have paid a hundred and more bucks for their seats and donned bling and gladrags for the big occasion, you'd think the star could have frocked up. Her guitarist, Lenny Coltun, has gone to more trouble.

But Reddy plays it laid back and casual all the way. At first she seems a little detached. She has sung three songs before she remembers to say hello to the audience. As the 90-minute show develops, however, Reddy warms to the task and to the audience. She even gives a few wiggly self-huggies and ends with a declaration of love.

Between songs, the “queen of 70s pop" retreats to a stool amid the musicians "for a bit of a chat". Chat is not her strong point. She sighs and catches her breath, takes some sips of water and gets on with the next song. Lots of Paul Williams, one of her favourite songwriters. Some Don McLean. Some Peter Allen. And, of course, some Helen Reddy.

The fans are in seventh heaven when she does her big hits ‘Angie Baby’ and ‘Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)’. When she delivers ‘Mama’, which she dedicates to her own mother, Stella Lamond, she pretty much brings the house down. Despite the status of ‘I am Woman’ in the grand scheme of Reddy things, it is ‘Mama’ which is her biggest and most beautiful number on the night in Adelaide.

The little song she wrote when she was at UCLA, ‘You and Me Against the World’, she dedicates to her 16-year-old granddaughter. It is another winner.

Sometimes she seems uncertain as to which song she will sing and occasionally she muffs lyrics. But, since the whole show has the casual air, not to mention costume, of a rehearsal, it goes over.

The audience already loves the performer and, while the years may have taken the edge off her top notes, her voice is still that powerful, unusual and highly-recognisable instrument which earned her years of chart-topping success.

She gives her time to the minute. "It's not over until it's over," she jokes between numbers.

And, when it's over, it has been an evening of ballads and foot-tappers, some wonderful arrangements well played by the band and an intimate encounter with the woman who gave feminism that one triumphant anthem.

Samela Harris

When: Closed
Where: Festival Theatre
Bookings: Closed

The Rocky Horror Show

Rocky Horror showAdelaide Festival Theatre. 22 Mar 2014

Rocky Horror has come to town - and South Australia takes a jump to the left.


Alexander Downer was conspicuous by his absence on opening night since the fishnet gag he did for the Variety Club almost 20 years ago has simply kept on dogging his handsome, besuited image.

Craig McLachlan, on the other hand, was very much the man in fishnets and, after 22 years, he has pretty much made it his own - despite the luminaries who have gone before and after, from Tim Curry and Reg Livermore to Tim Ferguson.

Each actor has brought his own wicked charm or dangerous edge to the role of Dr Fran-N-Furter. McLachlan brings big, beefy, cheeky, ham to it.  It plays to all his strengths - physique, voice,  comedy. When he is not wiggling that shapely tokus, he is mugging.  His fair, curly-headed Frank-M-Furter does not give one the horrors. It is pantomime naughty and wildly self-indulgent, perhaps even channelling a streak of Dame Edna.

But Rocky Horror is no longer a horror show in anyone's lingo. Transvestites don't have cachet as a taboo subject any more. Anything and anyone goes these days. So the shock element of the show has faded. Instead, it stands its ground as a wonderful sci-fi fairy story - a latter day ‘Babes in the Wood’.

The naive, conservative lovers come in out of the storm to a crazy party house where they will lose their innocence. There are lots of wonderful songs. The audience knows and loves them all. All it asks is a good, loud orchestra and a fabulous cast. This show delivers.

It is a production less lavish than some that have gone before - returning to the old roots when it was alternative and risky rather than the mainstream blockbuster it became. The staging is smallish. The band is almost invisible on a balcony behind panels which would seem to have a film strip motif. The set is fairly economical - with some wonderful "stuffed" heads on the castle walls and a few clever trucks - particularly the upright double bed in which Frank has his naughty way with the visitors. McLachlan masterfully milks that scene for laughs - and it is pushed the brink of acceptability but not over.

But, if the show belongs to McLachlan, it is a glorious vehicle for its rising stars. Tim Maddren is simply the best Brad in the history of the business. Not only does he look and sound perfect, but the man can hoof up a storm. Christie Whelan Brown embodies the sort of Janet that Olivia Newton John would envy. She is lithe and lovely and can belt out a song with a big Broadway voice. Magenta also is beautifully cast. Erika Heynatz has a powerful presence, a great voice and wild wigs.  Kristian Lavercombe not only has big shoes to fill as Riff Raff but they were there on the stage beside him in the 40-years-on form of Richard O'Brien, the show's creator. Lavercombe's performance is right up there with O'Brien's. Meanwhile, O'Brien gave a new element to his old show with a very casual and familiar delivery as the Narrator. He was an elegant joy to have on stage.

There were no weak spots in the cast. Ashlea Pyke is a lovely Columbia, albeit her costume is less idiomatic than in past productions. Nicholas Christo is so strong as both Eddie and Dr Scott that most people would not realise it is the same performer. Brendan Irving is just the cutest golden-haired muscle man in his leopard skin jocks and everyone is eminently well-supported by the four Phantom song and dance ensemble.

There are no surprises in Rocky Horror. It just rocks on through the ages. It is a cult classic and its fans are in seventh heaven at the very idea of it. They are not giving standing ovations; they are giving it leaping 'lovations'.

Samela Harris

When: 20 Mar to 13 Apr
Where: Festival Theatre
Bookings: bass.net.au

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