Friday, September 22, 2017

Victoria & Abdul

Review by © Jane Freebury

With a cheeky play on names, Victoria & Abdul hints that Queen Victoria so missed her late husband and consort Prince Albert that she looked for ways to replace him. The title of the 1997 film in which she befriended another servant of the royal household earlier on in her widowhood was similarly suggestive. Her Majesty, Mrs Brown.

Was Queen Victoria, widowed from her early forties and mother to nine adult children, still looking for some companionship in her sixties? Maybe, maybe not. Centuries earlier, Queen Elizabeth I spent a lifetime on the throne without a consort, and this is still a subject of endless fascination.

Victoria & Abdul is set during the last 15 years of the reign of Queen Victoria and is an encore in the role from Judi Dench, who was also 'Mrs Brown'. It begins more or less the moment she claps eyes on Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) as he backs out of her dining hall.

Under strict instructions not to look at the Queen when presenting her with a commemorative coin from India, the reason for his being at court, curiosity gets the better of Abdul and he steals a glance during retreat.

The elderly queen has no interest in her meal or her companions, but she perks up a bit when the jelly arrives at the end of a long and tedious meal, and then looks back at the newcomer, registering his height, his grace and dark eyes.

It might have finished there, had Abdul not seized this window of opportunity to regale the bored and listless queen with stories about India, a place she would never visit because her advisors feared she risked assassination there.

He feeds her interest, extolling the sublime beauty of the Taj Mahal (not wrong there), and that delicious queen of fruit, the mango, and at her request instructs her in Urdu. However, he lets her believe that he is a Hindu when he is a Muslim, with a wife or two back home in Agra.

As the odd couple spend more and more time together, Victoria’s entourage is apoplectic with indignation at the Queen’s choice of companion. Filmed from unflattering low-angles, her puffed-up flunkeys – Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), her son and heir Bertie, Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon) and Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams) - just cannot make the Queen see she is provoking a minor scandal. Just as she did with John Brown, though there may have been grounds for scandal there.

Victoria just won’t allow Abdul’s dark skin and low rank get in the way of a good friendship. In the midst of a racist, classist milieu, she stands tall.

If only this film had explored the personality of this surprising monarch. And if only it had delved into the way the British behaved towards the colonials, rather than given everything the light comic opera treatment.

In this environment, the occasional acerbic comment from Abdul’s companion, Mohammed (Adele Akhtar), who is disconsolate in foggy, damp England and unable to turn his circumstances to advantage, is very welcome. So these people use extract from cow to make jelly? Barbarians! All very funny, but we don't hear enough from him.

Was Victoria a bit of a flirt? You get the distinct impression that she enjoyed unsettling her retinue, and enjoyed a bit of power play.

Under Stephen Frears’ direction, the diminutive Dench is in her imperious element as Victoria, the woman who once ruled around a quarter of the world. With pale blue eyes in locked-on stare and commanding if small in stature, Dench is the best reason to see Victoria & Abdul. Fazal is fine as Abdul, though it's an undemanding role.

Victoria & Abdul has its moments but the fascinating backstory is still to be told. The friendship between the first British Empress of India and her Muslim servant deserved more in-depth treatment than the light and breezy comic touch it gets here.

3 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog

Summer of the 17th Doll

Chloe Bar at Young & Jackson's Hotel, Melbourne
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler.  Pigeonhole Theatre at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, The Q, September 20-30, 2017.

Director – Karen Vickery; Set Designer – Michael Sparks; Costume Designer – Fiona Leach; Lighting Designer – Cynthia Jolley-Rogers; Props – Imogen Thomas; Sound/Composer – Matt Webster.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Bubba – Zoe Priest; Pearl – Andrea Close; Olive – Jordan Best; Barney – Dene Kermond; Emma – Liz Bradley; Roo – Craig Alexander; Johnnie – Alex Hoskison

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 21

Pigeonhole Theatre presents an excellent production of this significant Australian classic.  Because of our current political turmoil, Lawler’s 1955 play – examining male mateship and the nature of marriage in what we would now call ‘fly in – fly out’ workplace arrangements – is essential viewing. 

On the second night, the audience was disappointing: certainly not for our response to the performance, but only because the 346-seat theatre was no more than one-third full.  Maybe people think of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as the classroom study which it has become, but like Shakespeare’s plays, Lawler’s work is full of real life, from Pearl’s opening put-down of Bubba – making you wonder about how she treats her own daughter who is about the same age as Bubba – to Olive’s absolute refusal to marry Roo and the complete collapse of their seventeen-year-long relationship as Roo destroys the last tinsel kewpie doll and goes off fruitpicking with Barney.

USA readers will recognise the similarity here with Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie.  Whether Lawler was deliberately referencing that play, made so famous in the 1950 movie starring  Gertrude Lawrence (Amanda), Jane Wyman (Laura), Arthur Kennedy (Tom) and Kirk Douglas (Jim), I don’t know. 

But the device of the ‘gentleman caller’ and the tragic destruction of the delicate symbols of a woman’s hope (accidentally as Williams’ Laura and Jim dance by candle light before he announces his engagement to someone else; and accidentally as Lawler’s Roo and Barney fight in Olive’s lounge room, re-establishing their mateship but leaving Olive devastated) is theatrically as powerful in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as in The Glass Menagerie.

Please don’t watch the 1959 movie of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll [  ] with Ernest Borgnine as Roo, Anne Baxter as Olive, John Mills as Barney, Angela Lansbury as Pearl, Vincent Ball as Johnnie Dowd, Ethel Gabriel as Emma, Janette Craig as Bubba.  For a start it’s set in Sydney, but as Michael Sparks clearly knows in his set design (quite similar to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1977 production) this play is definitely in Melbourne.

In the 1959 fil’m, the male characters speak imitation Australian, while the women are just too English.  Lawler may have started the new naturalism in Australian playwriting, but maybe it needed a cringe reaction to the colonial imperialism in this British/Australian production to help stir the Marvellous Melbourne new wave of David Williamson in the 1960-70 period to get our real accents on stage.

But even the 1977 production had the women a bit too refined and glamorous for these old Australian barmaids at the local pub (not at Young & Jackson’s even, with the famous nude painting of Chloe ). 

Pigeonhole’s casting is perfect, both for the characters' physical features and for the actors’ characterisation skills.  In the 1950s, after 17 years in the bar and cane cutting in Queensland, Olive, Roo and Barney began their lives back in the Australia of the 1930s, and Olive’s mother Emma in World War I.  They speak and behave with the raucous accents I remember when I arrived in this godforsaken country in 1955.  I was 14, and recognise the young woman Bubba (real name Cathy), just breaking into that 1950s sense of suburban refinement as high school education had begun to spread around the country after World War II.  As for Pearl, with her own 18-year-old daughter ... well, I remember those mothers of constant judgement, protecting their daughters from working class boys (I was one myself, not yet imbued with middleclass morality).

In other words, director Karen Vickery got it right.  Barney is short, muscular, bouncy, perceptive, laughing at every opportunity and drinking constantly to cover up his insecurities – yet surprisingly effective sexually, even with prim Pearl.  Roo (short for Reuben, not Kangaroo) is large, a figure of physical strength now slightly past it, not too bright but trying to do the right thing, while also sensitive to being slighted.  Olive is the no-nonsense mix of self-reliant woman running her life (but not always her similarly endowed mother), while needing a man in her life – but only on her terms.  Bubba is not just ‘bubbly’ as she was as a three-year-old from next door, but is aware of a special feeling for the two men and wanting now to establish herself sexually.

Whereas Pearl knows where she stands as she leaves the house and the play after her attempt to possibly replace her dead husband with the highly unsuitable Barney, Roo knows he has to stick with the gang even though he is no longer their leader, Barney knows he must have Roo to keep himself on the steady and will have to accept that his old annual partner Nancy is and will remain married, and even Olive knows she has no choice but to put behind her Roo’s failure to match or even understand her needs, the play leaves Cathy (no longer Bubba) with no clear idea of where she can go from here. 

The success of this production is to make the play more than Olive’s play, or Olive and Roo’s play, or Roo and Barney’s play, or Pearl’s play: this is Cathy’s play – leaving us to wonder about her future, as a young woman coming out into adult life with role models failing around her.  This is one way in which this play, and particularly this production, is significant.

It is, as I alluded to at the top, also highly relevant to the present arguments about marriage equality.  Why is it that Australia is so late to decide at the political level to make marriage for same-sex couples as normal as it is for opposite-sex couples?  So many other ‘modern’ countries have come to the party, even some whose culture we might expect to be a barrier.

Lawler got it, 60 years ago.  Roo and Barney are effectively married, though probably without sexual activity between them.  Pearl wants sex and to be married to an appropriate man, perhaps even if she doesn’t love him.  Olive wants a loving sexual relationship with a man without marriage, so that she can keep control of her life without being controlled by her man.  Johnnie Dowd offers Cathy a chance (to go to the races for an afternoon) but she realises that was only a ploy more to do with Johnny showing his power over Roo, and was set up by Barney.

So, Bubba, growing up to be Cathy, is left absolutely confused.  Her education at school seems to have been insignificant on personal and sexual relationships; her bringing-up in Emma’s house seems to have given her the old woman’s competence and a sense of responsibility; her experience of Olive (and Nancy’s) seasonal relationship with Roo and Barney has left her in the position of a child, and the seventeenth year with Pearl replacing Nancy and Roo’s leadership ending on the cane fields up north, leaves her with no confidence about how to go about the next stage of her life.  She seems to seek something like love rather than mere sex, but plumps for Olive’s model rather than Nancy’s, which was to ‘escape’ as Pearl puts it, into marriage.

When I read the play, all those many years ago, I only half-recognised the nature of the tragedy.  Today the voluntary non-binding survey so-called plebiscite on changing the marriage act to not only include ‘a man and a woman’ but any form of ‘same-sex’ couple highlights Bubba-Cathy’s confusion.

It is because this production is so well directed and acted that I think it is essential viewing.  It won’t tell you which way to vote, but lets you into seeing the issues from angles that you may not have been aware of before, especially from the points of view of specifically Australian men and women.

Take advantage of Pigeonhole Theatre’s offering while you have the opportunity.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll - Pigeonhole Theatre

Review by John Lombard

Toxic masculinity, emotional intelligence, even bromance - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a play unlocked a modern awareness of gender politics, with Pigeonhole Theatre bringing a fresh feminist perspective to an Australian classic.

Ray Lawler's play explores alternatives to marriage, with Melbourne barmaid Olive (Jordan Best) living for the five months of year she spends with her sugar cane-cutting beau Roo (Craig Alexander).

Jordan's Olive shows the character's flaws and dimensions: giddy and childish, but feisty when defending her unconventional alliance with Roo.  Every year he brings her a new kewpie doll in a garish tutu, and the entire living room is festooned with these ugly treasures.

Craig Alexander's Roo is described as an eagle, but after a bad harvest his wings have been clipped: stone broke and forced into the exhausting drudge of factory work, the wild benders of past summers have been swapped for quiet nights playing cards.  And if you're going to be boring together, why not just get married?

This well-observed play with vivid and recognisable Australian characters has been brought to life by equally well-observed performances, particularly from the female actors.  Director Karen Vickery has not only drawn out the female voices in the play, but given it a modern awareness that sheds new light on an already strong script.

When men fight in this production, the reaction of the women is the focus: there is concern, yes, but a hint of non-comprehension.  If these cane cutters just had a little emotional intelligence, wouldn't they realise that these brawls are a bit silly?  We are not watching from the perspective of men, caught up in a scrap over status - but from the perspective of women, who have always known that masculinity is a delicate and fragile thing.

In counterpart to the earthy relationship between Roo and Olive, we have a comic romance between cane cutter Barney (Dene Kermond) and wannabe posh Pearl (Andrea Close).  Close towers over Kermond, looking as though she could sling him over her shoulder and carry him off, but from the first moment their hands clasp - and Barney sneaks in a flirty stroke of his thumb - we know who the conqueror will be.

Close is a brilliant mimic and slips in an impressive catalogue of small details that tell character: when Pearl needs to tidy her coiffure, for example, she does it with a strategically placed lick of spit.  Kermond is also very comfortable in a role that gives him ample opportunity to snivel, flirt or roll around drunk as the scene requires.  The two actors watch and react to each other with such focus that they seem almost hypnotised, and I hope the pair find future opportunities to work together.

But there was a gap in tone between the two romances, with Olive and Roo firmly in the tradition of understated psychological realism, but Pearl and Barney evoking the vibe of a Doris Day movie.  Both pairings worked, but a more consistent tone could have bridged the comedy and drama.

Zoe Priest as young Bubba held her own with the more experienced performers, giving her role a lot of gawky character.  I also enjoyed Alex Hoskinson's straight-backed Johnnie: handsome, polite enough, but pretty much an asshole.  Liz Bradley meanwhile appeared to be having the time of her life as the Olive's canny mum Emma, and her scenes provided moments of complete joy.

The set by Michael Sparks made the interesting choice not to highlight the dolls, but to conceal them: in a cosy, busy lounge room with loud floral wallpaper, it was necessary to hunt for dolls hidden in odd spots around the stage.  This made the dolls feel insidious: not trophies, but weeds rampant among all the flowers.  The wide and broad set also sometimes drained energy from the play, and some blocking stranded characters too far from each other to make conversation seem natural.

The main thing missing from this production was a real sense of what life is like for men: a different production could have emphasised the backbreaking work of sugar cane farming, and what it is like to survive in a culture of violence.

But since virtually all theatre is men talking about men, Pigeonhole Theatre should be applauded for taking a step back from all of that nonsense, and giving the women in a classic Australian play a clearer voice than has ever been heard before.  Fresh, disarming, thoughtful, a production that adds to the conversation first sparked by its own script.


Written by Ray Lawler
Directed by Karen Vickery
Pigeonhole Theatre
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to 30 September

Reviewed by Len Power 20 September 2017

Ray Lawler’s 1955 play is a pivotal work in Australian theatre.  The naturalistic portrayal of recognizable Australian characters and their lives was embraced by the first audiences in Melbourne and the play has continued to charm and move playgoers ever since.

Set in 1953 in Melbourne in the home of barmaid, Olive, and her mother, Emma, two Queensland cane cutters have been spending each season layoff for the past 16 years having a fun and carefree holiday with Olive and her friend, Nancy.  Things have changed as the men arrive for the 17th time.  Nancy has married and gone and new friend, Pearl, has moved in.  Everyone tries to cling to the much-enjoyed past, but tensions soon arise.

Karen Vickery’s production shows a deep understanding of these characters and their hopes and dreams.  Her cast all look physically right and perform their roles with great feeling and realism.  It’s played at a good pace and we’re quickly drawn into the story of these fascinating characters.

Jordan Best gives a terrific performance as Olive, displaying a touching vulnerability under her bustling no-nonsense exterior.  Andrea Close deftly shows the two sides to Pearl – the woman worried about appearances and the fun-loving character underneath.  Liz Bradley as Emma is a sheer delight as this all-knowing and wise woman who has seen it all.  As Bubba, the girl from next door who has grown up and is now her own woman, Zoe Priest gives a strongly felt and believable performance.

Craig Alexander as cane cutter, Roo, who has begun to doubt himself and struggles to understand what is happening around him, plays all facets of this character with great conviction.  Dene Kermond is very appealing as his mate, Barney, a man who tragically doesn’t believe anything has to change.  Alex Hoskison gives a strong presence to the role of Johnnie.

Set design by Michael Sparks gives a nice flavour of a lower class Melbourne home of the 1950s and there are fine period props by Imogen Thomas.  Clever lighting design by Cynthia Jolley-Rogers, subtle sound effects by Matt Webster and period costumes by Fiona Leach add much to the atmosphere of the production.

This is an important Australian play which has stood the test of time.  Karen Vickery has given it an excellent production that is not to be missed.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Emily Bell - Carly Carter - Melissa Fawke

Curated by Liz Lea
Presented by Ausdance ACT
Ralph Wilson Theatre – 15th and 16th September 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Now in its second year, “Escalate 11” is a cross genre mentoring project in which young dance artists are given the opportunity to explore different movement styles while being guided and supported through the three-month creative process by a team of dance mentors. This year those mentors were Douglas Amarfio, Natalie Ayton, Liz Lea and Caroline Wall.

The results of the process were show-cased in two performances in the Ralph Wilson Theatre, providing an interesting and eclectic evening of dance, which commenced with the first of two short dance films by Eamon Cross. Cross directed, choreographed and appeared in both.

The first, “Wall to Wall”, filmed in black and white on the Canberra Theatre stage, depicted seven dancers performing an energetic, well-staged, break-dance routine.  While the grainy texture of the film made it difficult to recognise the dancers, the complexity of the choreography held the viewer’s interest. Less successful was the second film, “De’s Vu”, featuring four male dancers. Because of the background of strong stage lights it was almost impossible to recognise the dancers, or what they were doing.

The live dance performances commenced with eight urban dancers from the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s ‘Fresh Faced’ Young Choreographers initiative, giving a polished performance of a slightly unsettling work entitled, “The Hunger Games”, stylishly choreographed by Sarah Etherington and Melissa Markos.

Divyusha Polepalli, a participant in the inaugural “Escalate”, returned this year to perform an exquisite traditional Indian dance solo entitled “Tharangum” in which her expressive use of hands and eyes showcased her mastery of the difficult Kuchipudi technique.

Melissa Fawke used classical ballet as the basis of her piece, “Fractalesque”, which she performed with Marcel Cole to the dreamy piano solo, “Crystalline”.  Both dancers possess strong classical ballet techniques which Fawke utilised, along with clever lighting, to produce a work eerily reminiscent of 1940’s Avant garde.

Which is probably the reason why Carly Carter’s delightful solo, “Thoughts On a Chair”, which followed, and which she performed to Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, brought to mind a similar solo which Elizabeth Cameron Dalman performed to a Janis Joplin song many years before Carly was born.

Adding even more variety to the program, Emily Bell turned to the Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago” for inspiration for her sassy solo, “Roxie”, which she choreographed with Leena Wall and Liz Lea, and performed with all the aplomb of a Broadway veteran.

The most outstanding work of the night, however, was undoubtedly a beautifully realised, and unexpectedly moving creation called, “That Extra ‘Some”.  Choreographed and performed by Down Syndrome dance artist, Katie Senior and Liz Lea, “That Extra ‘Some” utilised footage from a short film, “Beautiful”, together with music from a variety of sources,  to create an elegiac work celebrating a remarkable friendship.
 The sensitivity with which the work has been constructed, the unselfconscious trust and joy displayed in performance, combine to produce a remarkable dance work which should be experienced by a much larger audience than will have that opportunity at these two performances.   

This review first published in CITY NEWS on 16th September, 2017 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

ENTER THE VORTEX - The Dream Dance Company

Artistic Direction by Marko Panzic
Choreographed by Sarah Boulter
Lighting and production direction by Jeremy Koch
Music production by Aaron Lee
Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse – 10th September, 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Although The Dream Dance Company was created by Marko Panzic in 2015, this performance of their 2017 production, “Enter the Vortex” performed in the Canberra Playhouse as part of a national tour was the first opportunity for Canberra audiences to experience this exciting young company.  Panzic is well-known to Canberra audiences through his work with QL2, as dance captain for the national tour of the musical, “Fame”, and especially for his work on the television series “So You Think You Can Dance”. So it was no surprise the “Enter the Vortex” drew a large audience of excited young dancers to this single performance. They certainly got their money’s worth.

The Dream Dance Company in "Enter the Vortex" 

The program consisted of twelve high energy dance works, all choreographed by Sarah Boulter, and performed impeccably, without interval, by an ensemble of sixteen ridiculously talented young dancers. The pace was set with Ben Zammit’s superbly controlled solo, “The Calm”. The whole company was introduced in a frenetic ensemble piece, “Chaos”, which segued into a testosterone-filled number for the men entitled, “The Fight Within”. Eight girls in soft grey shifts performed a lyrical piece, “The Voice Within” to the sounds of Loren Hunter singing Roy Orbison’s “Crying”.

The production values throughout were impressive, especially the intense, stabbing lighting design and the dramatic, sometimes deafening, soundtrack.

Boulter’s choreography was demanding, imaginative and spectacular. A passionate apache-style duet, danced by Cat Santos and Dayton Tavares, featured a floating table. Another piece featured dancers attached to each other by harnesses. Dayton Tavares and Callum Mooney were combative in “Battle”, as were Bianca Rezo and Lauren Seymour in “Give Me a Reason”. 
Eden Petrovski and Neale Whitaker perform "When We Were On Fire" 

Frequent bursts of spontaneous applause rewarded the meticulously drilled dancers, as they tossed off spectacular moves with seemingly effortless audacity, passion and attitude, in a non-stop show which thrilled, inspired and entertained, and certainly whetted the appetite for future performances from The Dream Dance Company.


This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.


Australian Dance Party performing "Weave, hustle and halt" - Philip Piggin (Front)

Photo: Lorna Sims

Choreographed by Alison Plevey
Presented by Australian Dance Party
Performed by Philip Piggin, Jane Ingall, Alison Plevey, Olivia Fyfe, Ursula Taylor, 
Eve Buckmaster, Natsuko Yonezawa, Caspar Ilschner, Milly Vanzwol.
National Portrait Gallery
Performance on Saturday 9th September, 2017, reviewed by Bill Stephens

National Portrait Gallery has established an admirable practice of commissioning original dance works to reflect and illuminate their various exhibitions. The latest work in this series is a captivating site-specific work, “Weave, hustle and halt”, which was given several performances on the forecourt of the National Portrait Gallery.

Responding to the current exhibition, “Dempsey’s People: British Street Portraits”, an exhibition of 50 remarkable portraits portraying predominantly  19th century British tradespeople, choreographer, Alison Plevey, augmented her own Australian Dance Party with young dancers from QL2, and some older Canberra dancers.

Rather than mimic the 19th century costumes from the portraits, Plevey had her dancers wear contemporary street clothes and challenged them to draw inspiration form the portraits to create their own stories and characters, within the choreographic framework she laid out.

As well she incorporated two musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Alex Voorhoeve and Tim Wickham, who, in addition to becoming part of the movement while still playing their instruments, also created an electronic soundscape which incorporated traditional and spontaneous improvised music with city and outdoor sound effects.

Weave, hustle and halt -Caspar Ilschner (front)

Photo: Lorna Sims

The worked commenced rather like a flash mob, with each dancer disconnecting from their friends in the audience to move on to the performance area. Seemingly improvising each quickly established their individual character, independent initially and lost in their own little world. Gradually they began forming groups, occasionally acknowledging one or other to perform choreographed patterns, cleverly interweaving often complex unison movement with individual improvised sections drawing on their own abilities.

When the musicians eventually joined in the movement, the mood became more inclusive and joyous. The affect was absolutely mesmerising as the nine dancers weaved, hustled and occasionally halted, performing the cleverly conceived choreography with style and commitment.

Then, as mysteriously as they had arrived,  the dancers dissipated into the sunny afternoon, leaving their captivated audience to muse on how successfully, and rather magically,  they had managed to capture, perfectly, the essence and mood of Dempsey’s People. 

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.