No-nonsense Reviews 2013

Standard Ceres fare - without Dennis

All The Things You Are - the music of Jerome Kern, Theatre Of The Winged Unicorn, Ceres Nimbus Room December 29, 2013.

This was a pleasant Sunday afternoon, Winged Unicorn style.
It had all the expected ingredients: the small, intimate space allowing good singers and musicians to perform without microphones; the informed, quirky introductions with splashes of subtle humour; the appreciative audience seated at tables with their BYO nibbles - it was all there, but with a single ingredient missing.
This was the first Nimbus Room end-of-year concert - since its inception - without Dennis Mitchell.
Dennis was there all right, beaming from the back of the room - and his trademarks were all over the entertainment, from the theme - the 1920s & 30s music of Jerome Kern - to the choice and order of material and the selection of on-stage performers. But in this instance, Dennis had chosen not to personally take the stage as he’d studied a DVD of his last appearance and decided he was too old-looking for modern audiences.
So it was his son, Ben Mitchell, on stage with glamorous soprano Jocelyn Mackay, violin artist Phil Smurthwaite and oh-so-dependable John Shawcross on the room’s Baby Grand piano.
And a fine job Ben did, too, taking the biggest load, by singing ten Kern classics, including The Way You Look Tonight, They Didn’t Believe Me, The Last Time I Saw Paris and a couple of lighthearted duets with Jocelyn, The Folks Who Live On The Hill and I Won’t Dance as well as handling the (mainly biographical) introductions with aplomb.
He looked right, too, in basic black & white with slicked-back 1930s hairstyle.
The sequinned and fascinator-topped Jocelyn contributed seven solos including Dearly Beloved, Why Do I Love You and the standout Smoke Gets In Your Eyes while plain dressed by jazz-flourished John and Phil chipped in with instrumental versions of All The Things You Are and Yesterdays.
It all made for a polished and thoroughly enjoyable musical presentation.
But I have to admit that I did, at times, miss Dennis’s knowledgable asides and impish wit.
So here’s a suggestion. Perhaps next time a place could be found for him as an off-stage Muppet-style old-man-in-the-box commentator.
What a delicious Ceres confection that would be...
Colin Mockett

Scotland - the brave Chorale version

Scotland The Brave featuring the Geelong Chorale conducted by Allister Cox, Wesley Church, November 30, 2013.  

At first, the songs and music of Scotland appeared a lightweight, and therefore brave, choice for Geelong’s premier choristers who are much more familiar with classical or sacred works.
But in the event - and this was an event, celebrating St Andrew’s Day - the choir turned on a highly enjoyable occasion, mixing well-known Scottish songs with the strains of lone piper Iain Coombs and some well-chosen lusty Kenneth McKellar-style solos from guest tenor Daryl Barclay.
Mix in sensitive piano accompaniments from Kristine Mellens, some understated clarinet and recorder from soprano Julie Seal and percussion from John Seal and the net result was a delightfully polite Caledonian celebration, with Celtic refrains ringing the rafters of the Wesley Church’s acoustically bright space without a microphone in sight.
And it all made such a refreshing change. Because this concert made plain an unappreciated point - that in the 21st Century, most of the delivery of Scotland’s music has been narrowed to a few channels - those of folk groups, Celtic rock or highly-produced solo singer recordings. So to hear those delightful airs given the harmonies of a full choir was unexpectedly welcome.
And the Chorale’s choice of Scottish material, was wide, from the plaintive Skye Boat Song to the hearty Wi’ A Hundred Pipers An ‘A ; from the Eriskay Love Lilt to The Battle of Waterloo by way of the pastural Ca’ The Yowes and well-known Rowan Tree - all given the thoughtful, tuneful Chorale treatment.
And if soloist Daryl appeared a little incongruous, singing ardent, nationalistic highland material in a sober dark suit, he compensated with pitch-perfect delivery and a bright Barclay tartan tie.
Likewise, maybe the majority of the Chorale’s tartan-sashed tenor section had left its robust rampaging days long behind (except, perhaps for Rosemary) but they more than compensated with a particularly vigorous version of the battle hymn Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled.
And to top it all off, it was so nice to hear Auld Lang Syne delivered for its musical content, without the distraction of being invited to stand, link arms and join in with a rough approximation.
One thing was missing, though. This concert was crying out for a short explanation of each song - Scotland’s musical heritage is so bound up with its national history and politics and that would have added so much to the audience’s understanding as well as enjoyment.
But that said, all up this concert was as refreshing as a bracing hike among the heather - in a warm Geelong late-spring church!  

Colin Mockett

Dwarfs star in a big, fresh, happy Snow White Panto

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs directed by Liz Lester for Medimime, Drama Theatre, November 23, 2013.  

This Medimime has to be our city’s best feelgood experience this season. It’s a joyful, clever, up-to-date new interpretation of the classic fairy tale that’s happy, musical and just out-and-out fun.
And here’s a neat touch - because Disney owns the copyright for seven dwarves names, and this production’s wasn’t using its American script - our little people, called ‘Prof, Drippy, Dozy, Merry, Beaky, Big Mouth and Titch’ - turned out to be much more fun than the other lot.
And the same factor applied across the board - every character had a little extra going for it compared to the hackneyed over-familiar Hollywood storyline - and as a bonus, there were some unexpected quality theatrical talents on show, too.
So when the full-house audience was cheerfully waiting to file out at the finish - and they were from every age-group; toddlers to grandparents - there wasn’t an unsmiling face among ‘em. What’s more, the parents in front of me were fielding requests from their children to come back and see the show again.
This has to be great news to director Liz Lester, not only for the appreciation of her show, but also because a successful Medimime raises plenty of cash for the Geelong Hospital.
For although the casting net has widened a little, the core of Medimime performers are still drawn from our city’s medical and healthcare professionals.
And sure, it was still a pantomime with all those trademark clunky features; “Look behind you!” “Lets get all the children here on stage dancing!” The pantomime horse, comedy Dame, evil stepmother Queen, goody Prince and all - this time they were rolled into a delightfully self-mocking package that rocked with laugh-out-loud moments, slick dance routines and chirpy, cheerful musical numbers.
Outstanding among the stage talent were Geelong’s perennial favourite Dame, Mark Arnold, and a non-stop vitality-enhanced newcomer in Lauren Martella who surprised with one of the best voices in the show.
As for the traditional leads, Kate Gore was pure as Snow White while Jayden Vermeulen dashing as her Prince. Debbie Fraser turned beautifully evil as the stepmother with Emily Hill her black-hearted offsider; Alicia Neels gave us a stalwart good friend, Colin Riley a witty, word-perfect mirror image delivered with precision by Scott Graham. Dale Bradford made a fine dim King, Tina Johnston a wacky inventor and Robert Bakker an authentic woodchopper.
But the show’s biggest scene-stealers were (Medimime President) Joanna MacCarthy, William Coomber, Meagan Reid, Jessica Dolley, Lochlan Erard, Maddie Kohler and Deanne Elliot - those kookie, happy singing and dancing clever dwarfs.
And backing this fine list was a talented chorus of Bronte Ennis, Hannah and Charlotte Crowley, Jessicas Dixon and Ridley, Belinda Hynes, Julie Murnane, Paige Van Der Chys, Courtney Vos, Janet McDonald, Caroline King, Elise and Lachlan Clissold, Shirley Bakker, Zach Eastwood, Sebastian Miloradovic, Tegan Robertson, Ruby Dillon and Georgia Douglas, the younger members doubling as forest creatures including a very good fox.
For their skills at handling such a huge cast, while engendering and maintaining such high levels of fun, directors Liz and assistant Ken Hemmens, along with choreographer Nikki Lenaghan are nominated on this year’s list of Virtual Oscars.
I recommend you go see this Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
You’ll be helping our community’s health care system - and I guarantee you’ll have a wonderful time, too.  

Colin Mockett

Blackadder - subdued yet so successful

Blackadder directed by Christine Davey for Geelong Repertory Co, Woodbin Theatre, November 22, 2013.  

Geelong Rep would be delighted with the success of this Blackadder. Its fully sold-out extended season will translate into financial stability and lead to easier budgets for next year’s productions.
Director Christine Davey and her team would have been pleased with this play, too, with the commitment shown by her large cast and its overall big, brightly costumed feel. Vocal director Lucy Jones would be particularly thrilled, in that she had enticed some excellent harmonies from the show’s ‘townsfolk chorus’ singing modern pop songs madrigal-style.
Just about the only people not jumping for joy over this Blackadder would be its audience members, if the first-night crowd was an indication. True, first-nighters are notoriously difficult to please, but in this case they were neither hostile nor critical, merely subdued as the show’s large, comedy-experienced Geelong cast grittily, determinedly, and relentlessly rolled out jollity after jollity as penned by Blackadder’s original TV show writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.
And therein lay the show’s crucial problem, and the probable reason for its subdued audience response. Elton and Curtis created their stage Blackadder to be presented for the British Comic Relief charity, by adapting a couple of the show’s original series II TV scripts.
And those scripts had been written specifically around the show’s characters, themselves extensions of the actors involved.
So just about every Geelong audience member would have been familiar with not only the show, but every cast member - and, indeed, the plotlines, from regular TV exposure.
This would have worked for the play in London, as the parts were played by their TV originals. The English audience would have been pleased to see their favourite characters up close and in the flesh.
But here, in Geelong, seeing and hearing a bunch of different actors with different abilities in the same costumes and sketches gave rise to contemplative thought and wry smiles rather than straight-out laughter - hence the reserved response.
In the title role of Lord Blackadder, David Mackay had probably the most difficult role of his long comedy career, in that he was being mentally compared by his audience to the inspired, and entrenched complex conceit/distain of Rowan Atkinson. David’s politely arrogant take on the role gave it a far narrower aspect. So too, Neil Fletcher’s Baldrick was hammier, edgier than Tony Robinson’s self-depreciating original, Barry Eeles’ Lord Melchett appeared merely haughty against Stephen Fry’s oily crawling diplomat. And these differences were highlighted by some of the other characters being remarkably similar to their originals. Cherie Mills played her Queen with the exact vocal inflections of the TV original, as did Jacqui Connor’s Nursie.  Jared Smith neatly caricatured the stupid Lord Percy - but at frantic speed - while Greg Shawcross brought the correct swash and buckle to his twin roles.
The play’s cobbled-together TV scripts were explained by a narrator/compere - the hag exotic pie vendor, Mrs Miggins, played by Mary Steuten, working hard for scant comedy reward; Lord Edmond’s attractive and obvious cross-dressed love interest Bob/Kate was played straight by Amber Connor; Reyna Hudgell was wacky as ever in her two bizarre male roles and Vivienne Lewis, Charlotte Hukvari and Emma Jones made a likely trio of haggy witches, Melissa Musselwhite a haggy mother and ‘wise woman’ while all the above helped Lilly Connor, Carly Ellis and Laura Bentley to become the vibrant haggy ‘townsfolk’ who held the show together with fillers and scene-changes - and who brought those unexpected harmonies.
In all, this was a very competently staged and elaborately costumed show, overlong because of its fillers and with its shortcomings largely outside of its control - coming, as they did, from unrealistic audience expectations. Perhaps the reactions may be different when the alternative Blackadder Scott Beaton and Bob/Kate Amanda Rector are on stage, but it seems unlikely.
It’s much more probable that the Geelong casts will, over their long season, bed down the show’s comedy to work more efficiently.
And that box-office success is wonderful compensation.
Colin Mockett

Williamson’s Fury delights The Potato Shed

When Dad Married Fury directed by Denis Moore for Hit Productions, Potato Shed, November 15, 2013.  

This touring version of David Williamson’s 2012 play arrived at The Potato Shed with little fanfare - which was a shame, because it deserved big publicity, full houses and an extended run.
It’s a largely unknown Williamson play which opened last year in Perth, shifted to Sydney and then was quietly shelved when the publicity machine for Williamson’s next (and current) production, Rupert was rolled out.
But When Dad Married Fury probably contains more of Williamson’s trademark features than the Murdoch epic that overwhelmed it.

When Dad Married Fury has a contentious could-be-true plotline with finely drawn characters and Williamson’s satirically sharp and oh-so-real dialogue revealing truths, emotions and deep-seated familial resentments that’s the texture of our modern society.
This production had an extra element in that, when its promoted star, John Wood, pulled out due to a clash of commitments, the play’s director stepped into the main role himself.
And Denis Moore was excellent as Alan Urquhart, a multimillionaire financier returning to Australia to celebrate his 70th birthday with his family - and introducing his new ex-beauty queen American wife to his two sons and their wives.

At first, those chalk-and-cheese sons, the high-living engineer Ian (David James) and lower-paid Byron-Bay academic Ben (Drew Tingwell) were solely concerned for their inheritance, despite the fact that the father of Drew’s fellow-academic wife, Laura, played with intensity by Tanya Burne - had committed suicide after losing heavily in their dad’s dodgy pre-GFC deal. David’s sharp lawyer wife, Sue, (Nell Feeney) added her legally-considered fuel to this family fire. But then the new wife, Fury, played with wide-smile US flair by Annie Last - arrived to drop bombshell after bombshell revealing she is a God-fearing right-wing Republican and what’s more, she is pregnant.
I won’t reveal how the play unfurled from here - except to say that Laura’s widowed mother, neatly portrayed by the final cast-member, Jan Friedl, turned out to be unexpectedly influential.

But before all this happened, that brittle Williamson dialogue crackling with wit and pace had the Potato Shed’s audience laughing throughout as each corrupt element of today’s social, business and family life was uncovered and held up to the light.
The play’s staging was slick on its neat, clever designed-to-tour set and the play’s production and acting standards were universally high.
In all, When Dad Married Fury was more than a newly-buried Williamson treasure - it turned out to be an unexpected, delightful and oh-so-fresh theatrical treat.
- Colin Mockett 

The Ideal Husband is a Wilde confection

An Ideal Husband directed by Elaine Mitchell and Amelia McBride Baker for Theatre Of the Winged Unicorn, Ceres Hall, November 8, 2013.  

This was not so much a play as a stage confection of elegance, charm and wit. 

Written in the 1890s, and dressed in a stylish range from the 1880s to the 1920s, this Oscar Wilde political satire appeared as a droll period comedy of mores and manners - such is the change in our perception of politicians over the past century.
Because Wilde’s original central theme - that an established politician’s career could be ruined should it be revealed that he gained his wealth and status by leaking a cabinet document - appears almost farcical in light of our cynical perception of parliamentary representatives today.
But I’m pretty sure that not a single member of the audience left this play believing they had been watching an outdated political plotline.
Instead, every one of us had been charmed by the production’s period appeal, its droll human insights into marital and gender wrangling and its overall comfortable, tasteful turn-of-the-century feel.
Credit this to co-directors Amelia McBride Baker and Elaine Mitchell, whose care and artistic flair allowed the play its delightful period polish.
On a simple, refined and elegantly perfect set the duo’s choice of actors reflected their attention to detail, with every member of the on-stage team contributing to the stylish mix. From Tony Wasley’s distinguished delivery to Miriam Woods’ superlative scarlet woman; Jocelyn Mackay’s charming composure to Maddy Field’s sparkling sauce and Alard Pett’s studied standoffishness; right through to Scott Popovic’s precision pomposity, Janine McKenzie’s stately stature and Lachy Joyce’s faultless flunky - who actually gained a round of applause for his in-character scene change - to create a whole of sweet and stylish charm.
This was enhanced by the cast’s near-faultless delivery of Wilde’s witticisms in almost 1930s Noel-Cowardly sharp little brittle sentences - and intensified by the huge advantage of staging in the quaint surrounds of Ceres Temperance Hall. Because not was the surrounding atmosphere period-perfect, but every line was spoken without microphone amplification - quite old-fashioned in today’s theatre - to seal the production’s authentic feel.
And who, you may ask, turned out to be The Ideal Husband among the production’s elegant male cast members?
I won’t reveal the play’s neatly worked ending here.
Instead, I’ll highly recommend you go see and enjoy for yourself a piece of delicious theatrical composition.

Colin Mockett 

Zombie misses its parody point

Zombie Prom directed by Melinda Hughes for CenterStage Geelong Junior Company, Shenton Theatre, November 2, 2013.  

There’s an unwritten rule in staging comedy that parody is all or nothing. You can’t get away with sending things up in one segment of a show then expect your audience to return to normal credibility for the next scene. And this production of Zombie Prom stands as a prime example of what happens when you ignore this rule.
The show simply aches to be sent up - it was written that way and its very plot line is a parody of a thousand US teen shows - boy meets girl, is spurned, chooses to suicide by throwing himself into a nuclear reactor, returns from the dead as a zombie and is rejected in his bid to be reinstated at school till all is fixed by the unlikeliest of happy endings.
It’s a ridiculous piece of hokum that, in the right hands, can be very funny. But it doesn’t work as straight musical theatre, yet that’s how CenterStage’s 8-member production team - who are profiled ahead of the performers in the production’s glossy programme - chose to present it.
The resulting show had its merits, in highlighting some excellent voices and performers - but this was inside a hybrid mash of teen schmaltz, parades of colourful rock production numbers from a young, energetic cast presenting a minor version of ‘Grease’ - and occasional flashes of way-over-the-top humour from the show’s two adult actors.
These were the incredibly harsh disciplinarian headmistress Terri Powell and unlikely smooth British expose-journalist Kevin Woods. The chemistry between these two sparked most of the show’s humour, while the rest of the cast, led by romantic lead duo of green-made-up Zombie Karl Senftleben and naive teen India Ney - each displaying excellent voices - presented the normal song and dance of troubled teen romance through to their US college’s annual prom date - despite one being a zombie. 

This entailed the curiosity of a large young ensemble repeatedly moving with drilled precision on and off their cramped three-level stage to perform each satirical number quite straight - while on the way highlighting some sure future musical talent.
Conique Pirrottina shone as a bright cameo dancer, while Cassidy McFadden, Chloe Collins and the elegant Claire Miller lent solid secure support. There were several natural dancers on display including William Conway and Paddy Pretlove; twins Alannah and Tayla Matchett are certainly a find as is the striking Jasmin Wilson.
Indeed, there were eye-catching performers among the entire ensemble team of Amy Johnson, Angus Crust, Casey Reid, Connor Maloney, Darcy Stabenow, Graces Holt & Morrison, Jessica Nelson, Josh Davies, Maddie Richards, Michael Harding, Mitchell Walters, Nicholas Eibl, Trent Inturrisi, Perri Espinoza, Cate & Tara Dunstan and Casey Reid.
Zombie Prom worked as a showcase of Geelong’s potential young talent. But as a satirical musical this was, sadly, much more of a learning experience for an emerging young company. 

Colin Mockett

Q is for Quirky, Quick-fire - and top Quality

Avenue Q directed by Daniel Heskett for Parcel Productions, Drama Theatre, November 1, 2013.  

Parcell Productions is something of an enigma on the Geelong theatre scene. The company’s scarce output - usually only a single production a year - is invariably a thought-provoking out-of-the-ordinary musical and its production standards are of the highest quality. Yet after five years Parcell is still not a well-known name on our city’s stage scene and the company’s shows rarely post ‘House Full’ signs, regardless of their merit.
And so it was only a 3/4 full Drama Theatre that attended the opening night of the latest Parcell performance, the award-winning New York adult puppet musical Avenue Q.
But that lucky audience witness an astonishing piece of theatre that, if there was any justice, deserved to immediately sell out the rest of its two-week season.
Avenue Q’s format has most of its actors manipulating Muppet/Sesame Street-style puppets playing out a weft of clever, well-written plotlines centering around very adult issues of relationships and self-realisation.
Like its TV-show-origin format, Avenue Q’s action is fast, seamless, colourful and studded with catchy songs.

In the hands of Parcell and director Daniel Heskett, this translated to a show of astonishing theatrical precision where players moved and manipulated their puppet alter-egos over a clever, multi-layered colourful set while acting and singing at a non-stop pace.
And if that wasn’t difficult enough, several played two or three roles, sometimes ‘voicing’ a different puppet to the one they were working and occasionally holding dialogue conversations with themselves.
And if this sounds overly complicated, it wasn’t in practice. This was a show that was clever in its concept, amazing in its simplicity, thoughtful in its writing - and breathtaking in its interpretation.

Nathan McCarron took his duo of lead roles superbly, to be matched, challenged and occasionally outplayed by a similar two roles from Narelle Young - Bonnici. Then these two excellent leads were occasionally upstaged by Tim Maloney with two more roles - and he was frequently aided by Xavier McGettigan and/or Sarah Payne during downtime from their own puppets. Blithely threading through this puppet crowd and linking the action were human actor/singers Sam Heskett Dan Eastwood and Marita Park.
And such was the standard of this production that every member of the above has been nominated for a 2013 Virtual Oscar among a swag of other nominations. Not the least of these goes to Daniel Heskett, who led his cast by example, taking on several roles himself, as director and musical director then playing in a highly competent yet unseen and uncredited live rock band.
I urge you to go see Avenue Q. You will be charmed and seduced by the verve, scope and quality of the show - and astonished by the talent that staged it.
Then, like me, you’ll be ringing the praises of Geelong’s excellent and so under-rated Parcell Productions.

Colin Mockett 

What an insightful, funny Foreigner in Torquay

The Foreigner directed by Gay Bell for Torquay Theatre Troupe.
 Price St Theatre, Torquay, October 31, 2013.  

Torquay Theatre Troupe’s latest production, The Foreigner, is a little ripper. 

In theatrical terms, the play is Rep company pure gold - it’s a small, well-built, laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t stretch audience credibility nor insult its intelligence.
And in the sure hands of the Torquay company and it’s president/director Gay Bell, this Foreigner provoked laughter long and loud throughout the town’s Price St theatre. 

To précis the plot, a dull and depressed British bloke staying in a fishing lodge in America’s deep south poses as a non-comprehending foreigner to avoid being pestered by the locals. Without giving too much away, his mute state provokes plenty of revealing fall-out up to and including a confrontation with the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. And by way of solving several sub-plots without revealing his deception - he rediscovers his own self-confidence.
Michael Baker is excellent in this pivotal, key role. His every expression, every action was spot-on, solid and sure; his comic timing impeccable. And he was supported by a sterling cast in which every member clearly relished their parts and kept the laughter momentum cheerfully rolling. They included the ever-dependable Fred Preston as Michael’s gung-ho British army co-conspirator, Maryanne Patten as his sweet ol’ down-south landlady and Glen Barton as a delightfully gangling, thick - but ever so well-meaning - hayseed bumpkin.
Declan Hodge presented as a believable oily Southern preacher and Stuart Errey clearly enjoyed every moment portraying his white-supremacist bigot. And in the latest of a seemingly inexhaustible production line of new young talent, the Torquay troupe unveiled yet another assured young actor in Ivana Hudjec, who played her rich and susceptible southern belle with a professional ease that totally belied her first-time-on-stage status.
And extra support credit should go to the off-stage crew, too, from director Gay’s brisk even, pacing, to the neat and unobtrusive scene-changing of a good-looking set through to sound tech Andrew Gaylard and lights operator Jenny Stewart for some neat technical illusions.
All up, the whole team made TTT’s Foreigner a comedy theatrical delight
Go, see, laugh - and enjoy.

Colin Mockett 

No Surprise at Lyric’s Fine Phantom

The Phantom Of The Opera directed by Craig Irons for Geelong Lyric Theatre Co, Playhouse Theatre, October 4, 2013.  

It took a huge effort from scores of talented people over many months to bring The Phantom Of The Opera to Geelong for the first time. And all that time, effort talent - and money - was justified and appreciated by the warm, sustained applause at the end of the big musical’s opening night.
We audience had heard those anthemic Lloyd Webber themes interpreted by excellent voices backed by a fine orchestra.
We had seen a disciplined, well-drilled cast faultlessly unfold the 19th Century Parisian plotline with big choreographed crowd production numbers.
We had enjoyed and revelled in the the dark obsessional tensions from the lead trio of players lightened by occasional flashes of Gilbert and Sullivan style humour from worthy support actors.

And all this made for a really very good night of musical theatre.

All that was needed to turn it into a truly memorable occasion would have been the shock and surprise elements brought on by falling weights, bodies and that famous crashing chandelier.
They occurred, all right, but in amazingly lightweight, almost comic versions. We must have seen the flimsiest chandelier drop in history and the Phantom’s hurled fireworks were mostly fizzers, which considerably reduced their dramatic menace.
But such was the on-stage human talent that these shortcomings didn’t deter from what still became an excellent high-quality version of what is arguably the world’s most famous musical.

That talent was led by Georgia Van Etten, who, as Christine, displayed excellent acting abilities to match her beautiful, true voice.  
So it was fully understandable that Andrew Lorenzo’s Phantom and Matthew Bradford’s suitor Raoul would fight over her and they delivered their Lloyd Webber melodic rivalry impeccably.  

Katrina Santoro and Brendan Rossbotham were delightfully diverting as usurped and miffed Italian singers, Bryce Baumgarten and David Mackay didn’t miss a note - literally - or a quip as new theatre owners while Davina Smith Crowley and Ashleigh Watson lent more solid dramatic and vocal support.
Behind these leads were a talented support team led by soprano Cheryl Campbell and shabby sceneshifter Lachlan Turner with conductor Brendan Gill, auctioneer Dale Bradford, and a versatile ensemble comprising William & Louis Reed, Cindy & Matilda Bateup, John Stephensen, Geoff Trevaskis, Charlie McIntyre, Trevor Robinson, Hannah Stoltz, Miranda Orford, Rebecca Zarb, Amy Whitfield, Christie Walter, Diana Osmanovic, Kim Intrussi, Melissa Warren, Casey Reid, Ada Kapetanovic and Sue Rawkins.
 Musical director Brad Treloar’s excellent orchestra gave the most suitable over-the-top dramatic support and Craig Irons’ direction kept the show’s movement swift and pacey, sometimes by running his cast on and off-stage. 

This Geelong Phantom Of The Opera made an excellent showcase for our city’s talent.  It demonstrated once again that we can stage the very biggest musicals with ease and professional aplomb. Provided, of course, they don’t include things falling down.
- Colin Mockett 

Blink for innovation at The Red Tree

The Red Tree directed by Lyndel Quick for Blink Dance Company. Shenton Theatre, October 3, 2013.  

Mark the date, October 3, 2013. That’s was when Geelong’s entertainment scene was widened and enhanced by the introduction of an innovative new company, Blink Dance Co.
It’s nominally a dance company, but if the group’s inaugural work, The Red Tree, is a pointer, it can take our region’s live theatre into exciting new directions. 

For this Red Tree used movement, more than dance, set to original electronic music and mixed with exceptionally clever projections to create a show that was wordless, yet beautifully eloquent.
The storyline, which followed a young girl’s emotional struggles in an everyday world, was as clearly illustrated as the book - it was unfolded with fluid scenes, each of the seven performers freely moving between and around multiple roles.
Dressed alike in grey and black, Jessica Lesosky, Fiona Luca, Sioux Patullo, Kirsty Reilly, Ebony Wakefield, Elise Wilkinson and Philip Besancon moved with grace, subtlety and exceptional discipline between roles. They portrayed groups and individuals, they were sometimes cowed and frightened, sometimes bewildered and bemused - but at no time did any one of them drop a thread of the production’s intricate, grown-up storyline. And we, the audience, followed every nuance.

Credit director/choreographer Lyndel Quick and her on-stage assistant Kirsty Reilly for first choosing the book, bringing together the team - and then instilling such discipline into them to depict such a memorable work. 

And there was more. There was innovative puppetry - and those quite breathtaking computer-generated projections that affected instant scene changes and inserted visual phrase clues.
The net result was that The Red Tree’s packed first-night audience was enchanted. We sat in awed silence through the entire 70-minute performance - no interval - before applauding long and loud and then, after the performers and director had gone, we remained seated in appreciated, subdued contemplation of what we had just witnessed.

It was that special - and, I’m sure, a game-changer for Geelong’s theatre.
- Colin Mockett 

Dominating Miss Brodie 

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie directed by Stacey Carmichael for Geelong Repertory Company. Woodbin Theatre, September 6, 2013.  

This production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was remarkable for four main aspects. For its innovative, clever, eye-catching all-white set; for its overall high standard of on-stage presentation and theatrical discipline;  for a delightfully light sympathetic characterisation, by Ben Mitchell, as a gauche 1930s teacher/lover/innocent... But mostly for the authority and intensity of Kethly Hemsworth’s performance in the title role of Jean Brodie.
Credit director Stacey Carmichael for the theatrical discipline and her assistant, Alard Pett, for the outstanding overall look of this production, from its accurate 1930s costuming to that versatile blank-canvas stark white set.
But then most credits go to Kethly as she used this excellent platform to bring the formidable - and literally awe-inspiring - 1930s Scottish schoolmistress to life in a performance of incandescent power.
Such was Kethly’s intensity and stage presence that she dominated every scene and drove the whole play to its moving conclusion with a will every bit as iron as her subject.
And in her wake were some very good performances, most notably from Ben’s gawky, shy music-teacher, completely overwhelmed by her attention; also from Brad Beales as her infatuated carnally-driven artist/lover; from Patsy Sanaghan as her cowed and subdued headmistress and from a nicely-portrayed bunch of inspired schoolgirls led by the worldly-wise Tessa Reed, insecure and ultimately tragic Jessica Senftleben, oh-so-confident Rose Musselwhite and self-assured Simone Costa with neat unobtrusive and visually-correct support from Jennifer Brown, Lucy Ingles, Cate & Tara Dunstan, Clare Holder and Laura Carmichael.  
Melissa Musselwhite and Carolyn Edwards creditably filled gaps as respectfully awed fellow teachers while Colin Urquhart and Belinda Mutton’s interview/introductions allowed the play to flow in its clever flashback structure.
Undoubtably, this excellent theatrical fare will enhance Rep’s reputation for bringing on and boosting talented young people, from its director and designer to that raft of youthful on-stage players.
But ultimately, this Prime of Miss Jan Brodie will go down for that outstanding performance by Kethly Hemsworth.
Her interpretation, alone, would be worth the price of admission.
Go, see. You’ll be awed.  
- Colin Mockett 

Stripping back reveals a gutsy, moving show

The Full Monty directed by Debbie Fraser for Geelong Society of Dramatic Art. Shenton Arts Centre, August 16, 2013.  

How far would you go to provide the kind of lifestyle that you believe your loved ones deserve? GSODA's production of The Full Monty not only explores the premise of stripping in it’s most literal sense, but also stripping back the layers of the human condition to it’s most basic; the wants and needs of ourselves and those whom we hold most dear.
As the house lights dimmed in the stunningly refurbished ex-church now repurposed as the Shenton Performing Arts Centre, the house orchestra struck up the first overture. It’s always delightful to hear live music in any production, and this 12 piece outfit (complete with brass section!) of notably young and talented musicians skilfully rocked their way through a surprisingly complex score, guided by MD Jonathan Harvey.
Those who are familiar with the film of the same name may be surprised that the stage play is set in Buffalo, New York. The plot revolves around the financial and psychological hardships faced by a group of recently redundant steel mill workers, their families, and one man’s zany idea to solve his immediate financial problems by forming a strip-tease group of local lads for a one-off show.
The success of this unlikely tale as a work of musical theatre falls squarely on good casting and very strong performances. In this respect, we were not disappointed. Armed with convincing New York twang, leading roles were shared by Shane Lee, brilliant as the cheeky, emotionally immature, entrepreneurial Jerry Ludowski, and his long-suffering ex-wife Pam, well played by Jenna Irvin. Barely 12-year-old superstar, Harry Butcher, was simply excellent their son Nathan. Sadat-Jon Hussein delivered an outstanding and unselfconscious performance as the big, beautiful David Bukantinsky and Jessica Dolley was charismatic and in superb voice as his wife, Georgie. The perfectly cast Andrew Cook had us all in fits of laughter as the socially awkward but good-hearted Malcolm McGregor. Harold and Vicky Nicholls (Rhys Carlson and Megan Baker) had a sweet chemistry on stage. Nicole Hickman was outstanding as Jeanette Burmeister, a jaded, chain smoking, walker-pushing Broadway veteran with a wardrobe to die for! Dom Roussetty has some great comedic cameos, but was most noted for his role of Buddy “Keno” Walsh and great dancing talent. The list goes on with strong supporting performances from Adam DiBiase and Ronald Puru; Jemma Lowther, Dan Eastwood, Sue Rawins, Kim Evans, Shane Haugh, Allison Whytcross, John Gowlett, Mandy Cosgriff, Zach Eastwood, Benjamin Earl and Laura Dillon. And the whole moved with first-class choreography from Jordan Punsalung.
The set could be described as ‘industrial minimalist’ and scene changes were efficiently executed in low lighting by the cast, accompanied by brief reprises from the orchestra. It provided an excellent backdrop for the gutsy, truly moving and sometimes-hilarious performances of the actors.
This thoroughly entertaining play really showcases amateur theatre at its best. A word of warning, however, for the faint hearted. If varying states of undress embarrass you I would advise you not to choose front row seats! The script is peppered with ‘colourful’ language befitting frustrated blue-collar workers. It also delves into darker issues including depression, suicide, death, homophobia, desperation, deception and self-doubt. However a clever script, great acting, moments of levity, human kindness, triumph over adversity and the sensitive direction of Debbie Fraser provide a good balance overall.
So do they really go ‘The Full Monty’? I hear you ask..
Well, you’ll have to see it for yourself to find out!
- Sandy Brady

Sizzling, Scintillating Wedding Singer

The Wedding Singer directed by Paul Watson for CenterStage Geelong. Playhouse Theatre, August 1, 2013.  

CenterStage’s Wedding Singer is a production with the lot. From the first chord from its taut and faultless musical group, cue-ing its sizzling cast to burst on to its cleverly functional set with an eye-catching precision dance routine to its self-depreciating final strolling joke, this was a show that had excellence throughout. It was a visually, aurally, intellectually and theatrical delight; one that has deservedly garnered a record 17 VO nominations that range from lighting, set and costume designs to a swag of acting nominations.
That final joke summed up the show’s light touch and awareness of its own quality. With the predictable but happy love story plotline brought to its satisfying conclusion, the show’s big final number complete and disciplined swiftly-choreographed bows mastered, the audience continued to applaud calling for more, only for lead character, Matt Skinner, to peer around the curtain in surprise, then walk to centrestage urging the audience to stop clapping and go home, ‘That’s it, we’re finished, haven’t you got homes to go to?’ before sauntering off removing his 80s mullet wig. The gesture’s mock-arrogance was completely fitting, as it followed a show that didn’t so much celebrate the 1980s, but gently and lovingly sent the decade up with wry humour and lashings of colour, vitality - and skill.
Credit director Paul Watson for injecting the many humorous touches throughout, but he couldn’t have done this without an impressively capable cast and production team. On-stage, Matt sang perfectly his title role - he has an excellent voice - but then effortlessly added the most natural acting and dance skills. As his star-crossed waitress love, Jess Barlow matched him step for step on every count, with her beautiful voice bringing some unexpected full duet harmonies.
Complicating this duo’s amorous path was a crew of wacky larger-than-life characters portrayed with just as much skill, precision, dedication and energy. So Matt’s musical group had bumbling socially-inept guitarist Josh McGuane and arch, gay keyboardist Jaye Thomas Nelson.
He was jilted by the gorgeously sassy Nadia Gianinotti and semi-supported by Laura Hollingsworth’s wonderfully scene-stealing vigorous granny.
Jess’ support came from her beautifully brassy bestie Melanie Ott, who supported then scuppered her engagement to self-centred high-flyer William Reed. All these performances drew VO nominations, while plenty of credit should also go to the high-quality ensemble of Jamie McGuane, Marejka Knigge, Ashley Tynan, Declan Robinson, Emma Dandy, Krystie Wiltshire, Julie Corneby, Steph Hickey, Nikki Leneghan, Jordan Doroschuk, Michael Hawthorn, Chaise Rossiello, Jordan Fruk, Kendal Fisher and Toby Johnson who created a high-energy seamless support structure and made the whole thing feasible and so much fun. Much credit is due to Venessa Paech’s bright and ingenious choreography and equally bright and clever costumes from Pauline Greenwood. And the whole was driven by musical director Katie Zampatti’s top-quality group in the pit.
Together, they’ve created a show that simply sizzles across GPAC’s premier stage. If you can get a ticket, do so. Because this Wedding Singer is pure musical theatre delight.
- Colin Mockett

Jules is in such excellent Company

Company directed by Davina Smith Crowley for Geelong Lyric & Rep, Woodbin, July 5, 2013.  

The plot of Company,  reportedly Stephen Sondheim’s favourite of all his musicals, revolves around Bobby, a single New Yorker with commitment problems. We, the audience get to uncover his story in a series of short vignettes based around the people attending his 35th birthday party in the early 1970s.
As such, we eavesdrop his relationships with five couples and three girlfriends, all with their own problems and foibles.
On a theatrical level, this makes for thoughtful, clever, adult fare woven together and driven by 20 wryly humorous songs.
You’ll understand that all this makes Company a somewhat difficult show to stage. It needs a 14-strong cast of singers who can cope with Sondheim’s intricate and challenging musical patterns - and who can also act out the complexities of the play’s adult themes.
It helps if they look the part, too.
But then, this production brought in a further challenge. In choosing to shoehorn this Company on to the Woodbin’s small stage, it meant there would be no place for an inferior performance. Every cast member, every action and nuance was literally up-front and personal to the audience.
Yet this co-production between Geelong’s Rep and Lyric overcame every hurdle and did all this magnificently, gloriously - and ultimately, easily.
Jules Hart was outstanding in the pivotal role. His every fluid, subtle action appeared right; he became Bobby, his interaction with friends taking on real and personal aspects. To this he added an excellent singing voice - and the programme revealed that he also choreographed the show and designed its neat, clever, open set.
Heightening this performance - it would be unfair to describe them as supporting - were those five delightful couples; cynically acid Mel Hughes and her put-upon third husband, the understanding Dale Bradford; combative Jess O’Donnell and her drink-deprived husband Rob McNeill; sweetly dull Cherie Mills and her gently controlling husband Brendan Rossbothan; wonderfully neurotic Sally Anne Jones and her partner, calm Scott Graham and fainting, fading belle Rebecca Newman with her improbably possibly-gay ex, David Senftleben.
Then there were the very different girlfriends; sassy, brassy Jenn Stirk, sexy, dumb hostie Shani Clarke and innocent, homely Simone Clarke. Georgia Thorne neatly and unobtrusively filled every other part.
All of the above portrayed their characters with disciplined skill - credit director Davina Smith Crowley; they sang wonderfully, especially the show’s intricate and challenging ensemble numbers - credit vocal director Tania Spence; and they moved with such ease to make the Woodbin’s tiny stage appear spacious. That’s Jules again.
But there’s more, in that musical director Michael Wilding’s very able just-off-stage ensemble - Jim Davidson on reeds, David Gallagher trumpet, Kath Halloran bass, Jacqui Robins percussion and MD Michael on keyboard - really did give perfect and total support.
And, from an audience perspective, it was such a plus to experience those gorgeous voices coming from the singers, not remotely amplified speakers.
In all, this was a wonderful, uplifting Company. I recommend you go see it if you enjoy fine music, singing, acting - or if you’re simply a thinking adult. It’s a small triumph for the actors, performers - and companies -involved.
- Colin Mockett 

Skill, fun and such talent on the Mattress

Once Upon A Mattress directed by Sadat Jon Hussain for GSODA Juniors Playhouse Theatre, June 22, 2013.  

This was the best GSODA Juniors production I have experienced, and I’ve reviewed dozens of their shows over three decades.
And it was something of a surprise, because this 1959 American off-Broadway spoof on Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Princess and The Pea’ would not, at first glance, seem a likely vehicle for Geelong’s premier youth group.
But guided by an expert team, the 65 young players aged from 10-17 turned what could have been a disaster script into a delightfully bright, happy, colourful must-see show.
That possible disaster came from the fact that this show opened in a week when our media was highlighting the demeaning of women on a number of fronts. Yet their script included such running jokes as a manipulative Queen wrangling to keep her son relationship-ignorant and a dumb King goose-chasing every woman in sight with a whole awkward scene based on him miming the facts of life.
This may have been OK in 1959, but it was contentious in today’s climate.
But this production overcame all that by disregarding it with a brilliant combination of naivety and sheer talent, turning out a show that was packed with colour, energy, skill and theatrical joy. It was well-dressed, disciplined, happy, tuneful - and above all, fun.
The show’s enthusiastic opening-night audience appreciated Michael Dimovski’s excellent singing voice as the Minstrel narrator, especially when harmonised with Will Kingma’s cheeky Jester. They recognised Annelise Lindeberg’s skill in memorising and delivering great wads of vindictive script as the talk-obsessed Queen and sympathised with Ryan Bentley as her gauche and awkward Prince. Callum Smith won them over to his girl-chasing King with a smiling, athletic charm while posing Louis Reed and pragmatic Sarah Krndija kept the plot boiling as thwarted pregnant lovers. But mostly they enjoyed the performance of Rachel Glynne, their unconventional swamp Princess who swam the moat to get at her Prince. 

And they loved that this core of excellent players was supported by an exceptionally well-drilled happy chorus of such skill and talent that they - in a first for this site - are every one nominated for a VO award.
All credit the production team of director Sadat Jon Hussain, his two vocal directors, Hannah Petrie-Allbutt and Georgia Van Etten, and especially choreographer Xavier McGettigan for his clever, witty movement.
It’s not easy harnessing the talent and enthusiasm of youth. But in this Once Upon A Mattress, they have achieved this and so much more. They shepherded and polished the talents of all 65 singing, dancing, acting Juniors to create something special and on the way, they have showcased the future stage talent bubbling up for Geelong - and it’s a truly exciting prospect.
But don’t take my word for this - go see for yourself. And as a bonus you’ll see how youth, enthusiasm, discipline and talent can overcome a dodgy script.
- Colin Mockett 

Charming, funny, insightful Heroes

Heroes directed by Jules Hart for Geelong Rep. Woodbin Theatre, June 14, 2013.  

First a declaration of interest. Bryan Eaton, Robert Trott and I have been appearing on stages as Geelong’s Grumpy Old Men for the past seven years, I count both actors as personal friends.
So, as usual, I was prepared to mentally suspend this relationship and take an impartial critics view of this play, which features Bryan and Robert as 1950s grumpies with a new companion in Scotsman Alan Hossack.
They are the only players in this production, on stage throughout.
But my mental censorship turned out to be unnecessary from the instant the three Heroes walked out.
First, the two didn’t look like our Grumps, with de-bearded Rob and a thickened Bryan wearing a cheesy mo; and such were their skills that within moments I wasn’t seeing Bryan and Rob, I was empathising with Gustave and Phillippe as they plotted, planned and schemed with Alan’s excellent Henri in their 1959 French ex-soldier’s nursing home.

It was all great fun for we, the delighted audience, as we warmed and laughed while those three awkward WWI geriatrics aired their fears and prejudices and revealed unlikely future plans to escape their nun-dominated existence.
The production’s charm was both enabled and enhanced by new Rep director Jules Hart’s neat, simple approach which kept a smooth even pace on an uncluttered set - and this, in turn, allowed our three Heroes to subtly step up a gear and reveal much more.
Because English playwright Tom Stoppard’s translation of the original Gerald Sibleyras French script is really a multi-layered, thought-provoking delight, which the small Geelong Rep team both realised, then perfectly communicated.
So while we audience were warming, smiling and laughing at the dogged control-freak Gustave, lame realist Henri and uber-cat-napping Philippe, we found their plans led eventually to a moving, revealing and very human ending that I’m not even going to hint at now.
Because I recommend you go and experience this charming, funny and ultimately insightful play yourself.

And yes, those Heroes have rightly earned extra honours - more than a handful of VO nominations.
- Colin Mockett 

High quality Rain in Anglesea 

The Rain and Other Plays by Daniel Keene directed by Janine McKenzie and Iris Walshe-Howling for Anglesea Performing Arts. Anglesea Hall, May 10, 2013.  

I’m in awe of Iris Walshe-Howling and her ability to present excellent, cutting-edge theatre in Anglesea’s homely memorial hall.
And following this presentation, I’m awed by her acting ability, too.

The Rain and Other Pieces is essentially four short, thoughtful and moving plays by current Australian playwright Daniel Keen, delivered tightly and without fuss on a minimalist, well-lit set by four actors using few props and basic costumes with a subtle, unintrusive cello soundtrack.

The intention of this uncomplicated approach, according to the director’s notes, was ‘to make the text the star of the show’.
It did that - and much more. Keene’s clever writing - he requires much of the story to be deduced by his audience - makes for powerful theatre, and this production’s minimal approach heightened this aspect.
It also brought out four outstandingly professional acting performances.
The standard was set from the start, by Iris Walshe-Howling in the opening play Rain. This solo performance - it was far too deep and complex to be termed a monologue - had Ms W-H simply sitting in a chair and delivering fragments of recollections. The subject was strong, her presence stronger. She took Keene’s intelligent, human script and sharpened it with eloquent silences, perfect facial nuances.
It was heady stuff, keeping the breathless pin-drop-silent audience enthralled and spellbound - only broken when she finally stood up and walked off carrying her chair accompanied by appreciative applause.
The second play, The Violin, was more animated, in that Philip Besancon, Janine McKenzie and Rose Mussellwhite brought simple movements to their recollections in a story that appeared related to the first, but without it being a sequel. It was only marginally less moving.
Then the third, Neither Lost Nor Found took a different subject - a healing mother/daughter relationship and told it through conversations telescoped through a clever projected timeline. This brought out a striking softening empathy between Janine McKenzie and Rose Mussellwhite while Philip presented a very different characterisation. 

And the fourth and final piece, Kaddish, was another solo presentation, this time from Philip Besancon giving a vivid, compelling and very moving depiction of grief.

Such was the power and intensity of each individual performance that this short presentation has garnered six VO nominations - every performer included as well as the two directors. 

And I’ve deliberately not revealed any plotlines in this review; instead, I recommend you to go and see The Rain and Other Plays. You’ll be surprised and, yes, awed by this excellent piece of theatre in an unusual venue.

And it is, thanks to our new ring-road link, just half an hour from Geelong. So, go. I promise you’ll be mightily impressed.

Colin Mockett 

The King and I’s moving moments 

The King and I directed by Davina Smith Crowley for Geelong Lyric Playhouse Theatre may 4, 2013.  

One of the bigger problems facing amateur musical productions in Geelong is that no company can afford to rehearse in the space in which they perform. They compromise by rehearsing in a larger area with the dimensions chalked out, but this almost inevitably leads to the problem that blighted this production of The King and I - slow, clunky creaking scene-changes.
It seems such a shame that the result of weeks of work from scores of talented on-stage people should, in the final analysis, be marred because their efforts are frequently interrupted by minutes of non-performance as black-clad stage-hands move props around in half-light.
The on-stage cast can rehearse and polish their efforts to perfection - but the poor old scene shifters, ever new to their job, don’t have time to settle into an effective system. Yet their efficiency is crucial to keeping the show’s flow and holding the audience’s attention.

You’ll understand that this Lyric version of The King and I was a case to point. Director Davina Smith Crowley had assembled a young and talented cast headed by a couple of excellent new-find lead players, and drilled them to be fault-free and disciplined in the show’s many catchy production numbers. Her capable musicians delivered a satisfactory score and every member of her 50-plus cast were suitably be-wigged and colourfully costumed. But too frequently, none of this was on show, because after each burst of action we audience were reduced to watching black-clad shadows shifting trees, pots and flat houses around. And the sheer number of these time-consuming changes pushed the show’s total length beyond three hours.
But back to the on-stage positives. The two leads - Alicia Gili as Anna and Aaron Krivan as the King were excellent; she displaying a clear-Julie Andrews-quality singing voice, he an authoritative stage presence. And director Davina’s neat staging reduced their height differential to a minimum. (That was important, because she’s considerably taller than he is, but Royal protocol insisted her head be always below his). Supporting these, Patrick Carroll was suitably eager as Anna’s son Louis while Paddy Pretlove mirrored his father’s stance as the Crown Prince. Steve Howell gave an aloof prime minister, Jess Nelson and Trent Inturrisi made tragic star-crossed lovers and Angela Gionis a thoughtful, concerned Lady Thiang.
And, as well as its two leads, this production may well have unveilled another future talent in Kelly Sismaet, the tiny lead dancer in it’s ‘Small House Ballet’ show-within-a-show.
The show’s huge chorus presented big production numbers that were eye-catching, cute and always smoothly executed; the intimate scenes were frequently moving.
But the trouble was - so was the scenery. 

Colin Mockett 

Emma’s period perfect - in the long term  

Jane Austin’s Emma, adapted and directed by Amelia Baker for Theatre of Winged Unicorn, Ceres Hall, May 3, 2013.  

Truly, the only fault I could find with this elegant and charming new production was that, at almost three hours, it was too long by half an hour.
Director Amelia Baker, who adapted and condensed Jane Austin’s book to present this period saga of Georgian romantic wrangling simply needs to trim and edit the over-long first act to bring her play close to perfection.
Just as long as she leaves in Bruce Woodley’s dietary advice on boiled eggs and that beautifully reconstructed first dance scene that, performed by such tastefully attired and finely schooled characters, drew spontaneous applause from its first-night audience.
Indeed, the finely detailed dance, costuming, set and careful casting were stand-out features of this production, quite apart from the high quality of its acting.
But back to the need to edit. By trimming the first act, Amelia would bring in sooner the gorgeous Stacey Carmichael, whose crass and caustic character Mrs Elton caused consternation to the fanciful scheming of Emma - portrayed with demure maturity by 15-year-old Hannah Verspaandonk - and thereby jolted the action from its smooth sedate dignity to an altogether different level.

It brought a change in character for Stacey’s new husband, Allard Pett, too, from cloying suitor to sour spouse.
Another feature of this Emma was that director Baker’s meticulous attention to detail - and the quality of her on-stage staff - meant that her audience was able to empathise and understand every character, from dashing, handsome and worldly leading man Tony Wasley to the compulsive prattling Aunt Miriam Wood; the indecisive and shy Julie Fryman; bold and socially daring Ben Mitchell; timid and talented Maddie Field - right down to socially adept Josh Fraser and his beautiful second wife Tanya Vick. Even non-speaking support Andrew Baker appeared every inch correct in a play where every line was delivered with assurance, every move composed. And it was all brought to a completely logical and satisfying conclusion.

Given all the above, you’ll understand how this Emma has totalled an imposing 11 VO nominations.
I heartily recommend you go see Emma. It’s as close to a perfect period play as you’ll experience - if a little long at the front and hard on the rear.

Colin Mockett 

Powerful, The Breaker’s at Torquay

Breaker Morant, directed by Michael Baker for Torquay Theatre Troupe, Price St Theatre, May 2, 2013.  

It’s a brave theatre group that takes on a staging of Breaker Morant these days. Quite apart from the controversy - the Morant/Handcock posthumous pardon case is still ongoing, while military execution is always a hot topic - there are two significant staging difficulties.
Firstly, the play needs a large all-male cast able to replicate the stilted speech, military mores and manners of the 1900s, and 21st Century theatre companies are traditionally light on young men; while secondly, they need to be kitted out in correct uniforms because military buffs are sticklers quick to criticise inaccuracies.

While TTT director Michael Baker fudged the second problem - his cast wore uniforms that amounted to more of a representation than a depiction - this was forgiven because of this production’s first-class casting and clever staging.

This was evident from the very start with an unconventional stage-set that spilled into the audience area and a sharply-timed stark first scene using the three interrogated characters spotlit in turns.
From this excellent beginning the action unfolded smoothly and logically becoming an intense, biased courtroom drama - thanks to neat, unobtrusive direction and that fine cast.

In the title role, Shane Lee’s performance skilfully portrayed his character’s perverse qualities of irreverence, cynicism and poetry, while Glen Barton made a perfect foil as the cocksure, laconic and sardonic Handcock.
Balancing these, Lachlan Errey presented the third accused, Witton, with a believable blend of fear and awe, while Peter Richards, as their defence lawyer, Maj Thomas, used his considerable stage presence to highlight the injustices and build audience sympathy.

Opposing them were ranks of British authority: Stewart Firth’s imperious Lord Kitchener; Michael Lambkin’s overbearing, immovable court president, Stuart Errey’s wily prosecutor Maj Bolton and a slew of dual roles led by Kevin Fitzpatrick as the untrustworthy intelligence officer Taylor and sly Cpl Sharp; Andrew Gaylard’s dishonest Robertson and crusty Hamilton; and Alan Hossack’s forgetful medico Johnson and scruffy Boer witness Van Rooyen.
Mark Tonzing presented a tricky Sgt  Drummitt,  while two newcomers gave excellent performances in small but key support roles. Lachlan Vivian-Taylor’s delivered his Trooper Botha with a pitch-perfect Boer accent while Declan Hodge never dropped concentration as a number of guards and soldiers. 

All up, this Breaker Morant is a credit to the entire TTT team.
It’s an impressive, and moving - evening of powerful theatre.
- Colin Mockett 

Wartime Bosnia’s no place for beginners

Miss Bosnia, directed by Emma Watson for Geelong Repertory Theatre Company. Woodbin Theatre, April 5, 2013 

First-time director Emma Watson is clearly passionate about Miss Bosnia, writing in the programme that she was ‘seriously impacted’ after first seeing it. This is understandable, for Louis Nowra’s powerful drama pulls no punches. His play is adult fare, multi-layered and deeply textured, covering sensitive subjects from religious, gender and sexual tensions to the crumbling of ideals and breakdown of morals in wartime. The fact that it’s set in the 1990s Bosnia conflict - within living memory for most in the audience - gives even more impact.
For this Rep version, Emma had assembled a talented team of actors, designed a suitably drab bombed-out background and set about presenting Nowra’s words with passion and vigour.  

But unfortunately, it needed much more than that.
It needed someone with a deep understanding of the issues and challenges involved and enough theatrical experience to be able to sensitively portray them.
Without that experience, this version turned out to be something of a hybrid, with its adult wartime dark themes presented almost as farce, sometimes even slapstick. The use of clearly imitation weapons in the hands of perhaps the least intimidating military ever to take a stage brought a pantomime effect - along with the fact that the war could be shut out behind a flimsy wooden door. When this door was opened, we heard the sound of bombs and bullets. When closed, immediate silence. It was almost Goon-show stuff, and significant of the production’s shortcomings.

Others came from some odd casting - one beauty queen entrant, unveiled as a plausible male in drag, was played by Rhiannon Hodgkinson - who is a highly attractive female actor - using male gestures like sitting with legs akimbo and occasionally adjusting her genitals. This has to be the exact opposite of Nowra’s intention, which would need a studied ultra-feminine male actor. And some of Rep’s contestants complaining about lack of food during their long siege looked mighty well fed to me... 

This is not to say that everything in this production was lacking. 

There were several laughs in the show’s three hours, and some neat portrayals.
Paula Kontelj’s faded, blowsy ex-beauty queen nicely held the whole show together while driven dentist Catherine Larcey and shallow, beauty-obsessed Jenn Stirk cat-fought; deep Felicia Fragapane presented the most realistic soldier on stage and newcomer Jessica Leaming was as convincing as her more experienced partners as a young innocent. David Mackay gave us a lightweight General and Amber Connor a drunkard about as convincing as Luke Murphy and Vicky Russell’s less-than-menacing military.
And Emma’s direction did show flashes of promise on many occasions. I just wish she had started with an easier piece and worked up to Miss Bosnia.  

- Colin Mockett

Oliver shows the twists of change

Oliver! directed by Debbie Fraser for Queenscliffe Lighthouse Theatre Group. Point Lonsdale School Hall, March 15, 2013

One of the joys, and the banes, of amateur theatre is its unpredictability. It’s a place to discover new approaches to familiar roles, and also to experience the fluctuation of a patchwork production. And none more so than this version of Oliver, which had a large base of child roles and meant, in today’s workplace climate, two teams of children alternating with the adult actors. Having those two groups can be unsettling for those on stage, demanding for the director - who essentially juggles two casts and needs twice the normal rehearsal time - and downright impossible for any reviewer. Because the cast seen on opening night will be different to the following night and so on.
So lets start by saying that I saw Henry Stephensen in the title role (he alternates with Edmund Mantelli) leading the Blue Group of child actors. That was Rom Ambrose, Georgia Ashley, Sophie Baker, Mercedes Gowlett, Dominic Lukin, Nic Malone, Trinity Marell-Seach, Lucy Naylor, Max Potter, Baxter and Finn Stephenson, Ella Trait and Karina Whitecross. Who were, in turn, cheerfully scruffy workhouse orphans in dirty patched clothes then chirpy thieving urchins in different dirty clothes supporting Henry’s suitably downtrodden Oliver as he progressed through the musical, mostly being manhandled by a series of adults.
And this was where the patchwork element multiplied.
Henry was first with Sue Rawkins and Ian Royce’s rumbustious Bumbles, who marched him to a frantic slapstick period with undertakers Stewart Firth and Nicole Hickman assisted by Will Coomber and Katharine Gore, before he escaped to Fagin’s kitchen where he was manoeuvred, captured and recaptured by Mitch Rice’s exuberant Dodger, Dan Eastwood’s commanding Fagin, Ubaldino Mantelli’s glowering Bill Sykes and Hannah-Petrie-Albutt’s robust Nancy, along with compliant sidekick Zoe Summerfield, before finally reaching safety in the Brownlow household with genial Matthew King, Cynthia Hughes and John Stephensen.
All of this, of course, was set to music and studded with well known songs As Long As He Needs Me, Gotta Pick A Pocket Or Two, Reviewing The Situation, Where Is Love et al, and supported by an energetic adult chorus of John Gionis, Heather Kiddle, Hanneke Johnson, Melinda Huches, Sue McLeod, Jemma Lowther, Nathan and Zac Eastwood, Steve Howell, John Gowlett, Alastair McCallum, Keleta Avene, Meegan Baker, Will Coomber, Lyn Ellis, Bridget Henry, Viv Lewis, Alison Whytcross and Jemma Lowther’s vivacious dancing.
The music came from a 10-piece live orchestra which contributed to the production’s fluctuating, patchwork nature.

Queenscliffe’s Lighthouse is a true family-friendly community company - the cast and orchestra lists were littered with Eastwoods, Stephensens, Mantellis and several other family names - and there were clearly many more family members in the genial first-night audience.
And tomorrow, a whole new team takes the stage and things will change again... 

Colin Mockett 

Dead funny start to the Potato season

It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To directed by Denis Moore for HIT Productions. Potato Shed, February 26, 2013 

It’s an odd and imperceptible thing, how public tastes change. I recall first seeing this newly-minted Elizabeth Coleman play in the mid 1990s when its humour was darkly subversive to the family norm. Yet here, in second decade of the 21st Century, exactly the same play, unchanged and unabridged, was about as mainstream funny as theatre gets.
But it did ensure the Potato Shed’s season kicked off in the best possible way, with a rip-snorting comedy and a packed house roaring with laughter.
The action centred around Ron, a blustering, self-obsessed control-freak pedant of a father who believed he had just 111 minutes to live, following a doctor’s 3-month diagnosis, and had therefore called a family get-together for his final moments.
Of course, all the family’s deep secrets and resentments were revealed during this time.
Ron was played by TV’s Henry Szeps, with gusto turned up full - and surprisingly, the evening’s only few line-fluffs.
He was ably supported by quietly tipsy wife Dawn (Robyn Arthur) who revealed hidden strengths as social drama after social drama unfolded and her husband’s familial grip was prized open by pressure from his elder grown-up children. These were excellent portrayals; Sharon Davis’ defiant unmarried career-minded thirty-something and Trent Baker’s harassed and stressed newly separated and closet-gay executive. Add in Freya Pragt’s saccharin-sycophantic favourite daughter and Matt Fuslani’s Rowan Atkinson-esque undertaker and the whole team careered the show’s comedy along at a brisk speed and with delightful abandon. Director Denis Moore added deft touches in occasionally switching and lifting the tempo to enhance the play’s comedic moments.
And It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To is a very well-written comedy play with plenty of those moments.
Shaun Gurton’s made-to-tour set was clear, simple and functional and director Moore’s extra little twist in the final scene made for a sweetly comic ending.

I’ll not reveal it, because this play is touring Victoria and I don’t want to give away too much of it’s sharply brilliant humour.

I’ll just say, if you get the chance, go see this It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To. It’s deliciously funny 21st Century comedy.

Colin Mockett 

Crisp, clean hokum delivered with flair

Arsenic and Old Lace directed by Scott Beaton for Geelong Rep

Woodbin, February 1, 2013

Geelong Rep opened its 2013 season with a piece of vintage dark comedy that was presented with crisp, clean competency.
Joseph Kesselring’s American comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, written in 1939 and adapted into a prize-winning 1944 film was staged, without any modification for time or place, by a proficient and efficient well-dressed acting team on a neatly-furnished and clever white-painted set that took up the entire Woodbin stage plus a little bit more. The single unchanging setting, inside the home of a pair of elderly spinsters, contained stairs to an upper floor and a front door technically in the audience zone.
This space allowed director Scott Beaton to keep the action flowing smoothly throughout - and on occasion, lift the pace to a farcical, frenetic frenzy.

But unfortunately, the years have not been kind to Arsenic and Old Lace. A couple of its running joke lines - those referring to the long commute from Brooklyn to New York and the odious career of the leading man as a theatre critic, were completely lost on its 2013 Australian audience, leaving the play pretty much relying on its central theme of two genteel old ladies who have a hobby of quietly knocking off their boarders by poisoning elderberry wine.
This single-joke theme did wear a little thin at times, when the Geelong audience laughter reduced to giggles and grins from its background level of chuckles.
But laughter was there throughout, and well earned by a hard-working and talented cast.
In the lead parts, Mary Steuton and Christine Davey - both much younger than their stage roles - played the calm and God-fearing homicidal sisters as caricatures rather than characters, with studied and practiced elderly walks, movements and gestures. These larger-than-life elements were picked up and magnified by leading man Simon Finch, who played the sisters’ enlightened nephew Mortimer as an immaculately dressed, grimacing and posturing maniac, allowing his harmless but delusionary brother - neatly portrayed by Simon Thorne - to appear very much at home. As Mortimer’s fiance, Lauren O’Callaghan mirrored his frenzy whilst looking equally as good; and his villainous brother Barry Eeles with a wickedly-sketched partner in Andrew Kelly presented a pair of cartoonish gangsters. Lachy Murphy and Amanda Rector added a pair of knockabout keystone cops; Rodney Hunter played a couple of straight-man roles with gusto, Fred Preston got into the act as a defective detective and Melissa Musselwhite made a cameo appearance as a home supervisor and final victim.
It was all hokum, of course, but hokum delivered with a deal of panache, flair and skill. 

Colin Mockett 

Slick, sharp, stark - and brilliant

Les Miserables directed by Chris Parker for Footlight Productions

Playhouse, GPAC, January 26, 2013

It’s good to go to the theatre on Australia Day. You get a Roulettes fly-past on the way in and fireworks on exit. And in this case, there was even better entertainment on stage than in the skies.
Under director Chris Parker, this Les Mis was quite different from all its predecessors. Sure, there was the familiar emotional storyline with its good-versus-evil and touching love moments, the powerful anthem-like songs, the big thrilling production numbers including revolution barricade battle - and the all-sung dialogue. (Why does nobody ever describe Les Mis as an opera? It technically is one..

But this Footlight version was different on a number of counts. Mostly, these flowed from the show’s stark, simple set which appeared as a series of tall monolithic plinths which, when required, moved smoothly and silently across and around the stage revealing different facets to make scene changes effortless and almost instantaneous. This gave the production an uninterrupted flow that was strengthened by a seamless score from musical director John Shawcross’ excellent orchestra - and some really clever transitions; mostly effected by an exceptionally high-quality chorus.
The result, when coupled with strong lead performances, bold lighting design and high-quality tech support, was a much more together and inclusive Les Mis - almost an ensemble performance rather than a star vehicle. 

Not that the stars were missing; Brad Beales was formidable as Jean Valjean, Jamie McGuane tenacious as Javert - both in excellent voice, and Chris Parker’s clever staging made their physical imbalance never an issue.
Rose Sejean gave us a gloriously tragic Fantine - her death duet with Stacey-Louise Camilleri’s Eponine was superb, an emotional high point uplifting to the triumphant finale and from there to a by-then-almost-inevitable standing ovation.
But this Les Mis’s real strength was in its depth of casting. Lachlan Turner and Darylin Ramondo gave us a Thenardier couple that was faultless, grotesque and comedic. Zoy Frangos was compelling as revolutionary student Enjolras, Adam Di Martino perfect as his lieutenant Marius, the love interest of fragile Caitlin Mathieson’s Cosette. And behind these second-leads was a support cast of such talent it occasionally rivalled the lead performers for prominence. So stand and be counted Lachy Joyce, Tony Wasley, Thomas Russell, David Ward, Dominic Muirhead, Jacob Petkovic, Greg Shawcross, Ed Dolista, Tim Maloney, Brendan Rossbotham, Glen Barton, David Senftleben, John McCarthy, Ash Chappell,  Jonathan Evans, Tayla Johnston, Tori-Lea Stones, Cassandra Whittem, Elise Vogrin, Kethly Hemsworth, Emily Jacker, Erin Mathieson, Cheryl Campbell, Tess Muirhead, Shani Clarke, Declan Evans, Tayla Gartner and Stephanie Smith-Gard.

In the hands of vocal director Tania Spence this acting, moving, posing, striking, singing unit created a powerful base of memorable harmonies, visual tableaux and stirring anthems that completed a production of true quality.
Go se this Les Mis. It scores a record nine. VO nominations, that is.
- Colin Mockett 

Pride of Place in the Costa

Geelong Summer Music Camp Concert

Costa Hall, January 18, 2013

Take 220 young, enthusiastic musicians, marinate them in fine music for four days in a concentrated setting without distractions, spice the mix with 40 talented, youthful tutors, agitate throughout with masterclasses from stimulating mentors and the result is - Geelong’s most uplifting, inspiring concert.
This, 2013 Geelong Summer Music Camp end-of-camp Costa Hall concert was mixed to this - by now - tried and true recipe and it turned out, as always, excellent.
In many respects, this GSMCC was better than all those that had gone before. It had built on past experience to effect its huge logistical challenges - which involved switching 60-70 member bands with string orchestras and choirs in ridiculously short times with the minimum of fuss; it had an excellent flaw-free audio system, an informed, helpful compere in Allister Cox and above all it had the astonishing, extraordinary talent from all those fresh young musicians.
It also had lashings of pride. This came not just from those students proudly performing their newly learned pieces, nor really, from the tutors, proud of the musical disciplines they had conveyed; nor the organisers, the small, lean committee that, having built the event, could be seen silently oiling its wheels by shifting stands and rostrums, recording, manning desks, ushering, tuning, fixing… No, this concert’s background of pride encompassed all of this plus a huge, almost palpable pride that emanated from its audience. It came from mums and dads, siblings and grandparents glowing with pleasure. And this rare setting of background pride gave the whole concert a sure, fail-safe quality - not that it was needed. Because nothing at all went awry in a diverse programme of delightful music.
As always, the show started with a swing as The Dave Jeffery Stage Band, under first-time conductor Shannon Ebeling, produced slick, professional 1930s big-band sounds that set feet tapping and began the pride build-up in the stalls. This audience admiration grew with the charm of the Camp’s two ‘youngsters, first-timers and beginners’ units: The Fiona Gardner Concert Band, conducted by the adroit Sue Arney and presenting four very different short pieces including a moving vocal rendition of Loch Lomond; and another four folk-flavoured pieces from The Heather Tetaz Strings, under the deft and sure control of Natasha Conrau. Then the camp chorale Eileen Martin Singers, for the second year under the direction of Paul Jarman, presented another flawless four set, culminating with a Kiwi-flavoured Ten Guitars before the two larger outfits formed from older, more qualified students built the evening to its climax of pure parental pride. First, Edward Fairlie conducted the Harry Hood Concert Band through four difficult pieces including his own Death By Tango, then vivacious Billy-Jean Clancy took over, first with three tunes from The Wendy Galloway Strings - including a moving Pavane - then a bright and brilliant trio from The Malcolm John Symphony Orchestra, starting with the theme from The Magnificent Seven and moving through Dvorak’s New World to Brahms Hungarian Dance.
Finally came the concert’s big all-on-stage finale flourish - almost 300 performers plus 800-or-so audience all conducted by Paul Jarman with his highly suitable own work Let go the Long White Sails.
On an evening of pride and musical pleasure, it was small wonder that Geelong’s cultural future appears so promising.
We’ve really got an infallible recipe.  

- Colin Mockett