Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Nutcracker - Queensland Ballet

Review by John Lombard

The spirit of Christmas isn't love, or charity, or even presents.  No, the real spirit of Christmas is the inevitable family fight.

In a wonderfully Dickensian opening scene, Queensland Ballet's production of The Nutcracker shows us a large Christmas party with people at three phases of life enjoying Christmas in their own way.  The children are mad for presents, the adults are keen for dancing, and the old folks are mainly into the grog. 

But as is the way with families, at these intimate gatherings feelings run high.  And with a slightly alarming number of weapons being dispensed as presents, all of the irritation and frustration that comes with the holiday season vents in cheerfully murderous horseplay. 

With the girls getting mainly dolls and the boys armed for war, the stage is set for a series of daring guerrilla raids where the boys lay waste to the careful home-making of the girls.  One girl has even her dollie plucked from her arms and then thrown on the floor for a series of emphatic bayonet thrusts.

It's tempting to see this as a deliberate commentary on gender roles that culminates in rough-and-tumble Fritz breaking his sister Clara's prized nutcracker soldier.  Fritz is sent off in disgrace - another nod to the authentic Christmas experience - and thereafter it is Clara's story, a reaffirmation of the values of imagination and compassion that, at least in the period the play is set, were part of an education reserved mainly for daughters.

The vivid characterisations of the Christmas party sequence give the performers an opportunity to showcase a love of movement beyond the formality of ballet.  Whether playing a small boy or a doddering and drunken grandfather, the performers carefully display character in movement.  Watching an old woman (of course a much younger dancer) hobble slowly to bed at the end of the party was in its own way as moving as the virtuoso dancing on display in the second half of the show.

After the party Clara slips into bed with her new nutcracker doll, and after a frightening dream where she is attacked by a mouse army her nutcracker springs to life and routs the enemy in a short but decisive engagement.  He then whisks her off to the land of winter (a particularly elegant scene change), and thereafter takes her to a land of sweets where the locals entertain her with a multicultural program of dance.

From here it is composer Tchaikovsky's show, with a program of dances set to highly memorable songs.  Although Tchaikovsky was known to denigrate his work on the Nutcracker, the pieces are some of the most famous in Western music, perhaps because the clarity of the melodic line makes them instantly accessible.  The "Russian dance" is justly famous (and here complemented by some impressive acrobatics from the dancer), but the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" still stands out as distinctive and ethereal.  And of course the "March" early in the ballet is synonymous with this ballet.

At this performance music was played back, rather than performed life, and while it was difficult to detect the difference during the show artistic director Li Cunxin did raise this an issue in a presentation after the show, as part of a passionate argument for arts funding.  Based on the artistic achievement on display this night, he found considerable agreement from the audience.

The Nutcracker is a gift to the performers, with rich and interesting characters for the dancers to embody.  Whether it is the sinister, eye-patch wearing toymaker Drosselmeye (who spins his cape constantly and with great glee), the wind-up dolls that halt about for the amusement of the Christmas party, or the ragged and hungry legions of the Mouse King (a character worth his own ballet, if not an opera), the Nutcracker bursts with character. 

I can think of no better way of getting into the spirit of Christmas - that unique mix of sugar plum faeries and bayonet attacks - than this excellent, joyful production of a classic ballet.



Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill. 

Directed by Cathy Petocz. Production and costume design. Imogen Keen. Lighting design and operation. Gillian Schwab. Sound design cilt (Becki Whitton and Hannah de Feyter). Music coordination. Hannah de Feyter. COUP:Canberra and Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres. Ralph Indie Project. Ralph Wilson Theatre. Gorman House. Unil December 3

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

COUP;Canberra is a new and emerging theatre company, defined by Cathy Petocz’s Director’s Notes as a new arts collective with ambitious vision, supportive and inclusive process and a focus on effervescent conversation about project and practice between artists and audience. It is therefore a company with a very clearly defined mission and its choice of Caryl Churchill’s play about power and gender, Vinegar Tom is an apt introduction to the company’s committed intent.
barb barnett as Cunning Woman     

Before passing judgement on the production as the final production of the year in Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre’s Ralph Indie project, it is worth reflecting on the nature of Churchill’s 1976 collaborative work and its function as a didactic response to the Women’s Rights Act of 1970 that deemed that women were treated unequally to men. Today we may consider this as a statement of the obvious, but it does not alleviate the shame that little has progressed in real terms since that time.
It is no coincidence therefore that Churchill should place her drama during the time of witch trials and executions in Britain. It should be noted that this is no attempt to imitate Arthur Miller’s powerful indictment of the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century and by association the McCarthy era of the House Unamerican Activities, nor emulate the cathartic impact of Miller’s tragic drama. Churchill is intent on constructing a platform for dialogue and COUP under Petocz’s carefully staged direction, and supported by a strong production team and an ensemble of committed actors compel an audience to engage with the issue of gender politics and sexual power. We sit in judgement and it would be a person without compassion or a sense of justice who would view this production dispassionately. In this respect this production of Vinegar Tom succeeds.

Vinegar Tom’s plot is secondary to its theme that women are effectively oppressed by a male dominated society, shackled by society’s rigid expectations of the female’s role as mother and carer and too often sexually exploited and abused. Alice (Emma McManus) and her mother Joan (Kate Blackhurst) are condemned as witches, acting through the medium of their pet cat, Vinegar Tom, by neighbours Margery (Claire Granata) and Jack (Paul Cristofani). Alice’s friend Susan (Linda Chen) suffers the guilt of a wife who has endured miscarriages. Betty (Elektra Spencer) is branded as bewitched because she does not want to marry. Alice and Susan resort to seeking the help of the Cunning Woman (barb barnett) and the power of her potions, an act which brings them all before the Witch Finder, Packer (Nicholas Elmitt) and his sadistic, obsessed Goody (barb barnett). The perils of misguided faith are not merely the province of male domination in Churchill’s deliberately balanced perspective.
Hannah de Feyter and cilt in Vinegar Tom

In the intimate setting of the Ralph Wilson Theatre, it is the various vignettes that make the stronger impact. It takes a while for the drama of the piece to make an impact in the scene between the misogynistic Jack and his anxious wife, Margery. But from this moment each scene unfolds with purposeful intent. Original music heightens the atmosphere, lending an ominous air to the developing inevitability of the characters’ fate. However, Churchill’s lyrics are almost entirely lost in a vacuum of poor diction, sacrificing intelligence for emotion. Only Keresiya in a beautifully delivered rendition of If You Float gave the music and lyrics their inherent power. Churchill’s lyrics are set in the present as a comment on contemporary inequality, and for this alone deserve to be heard and understood.
Emma McManus and Nick Delatovic in Vinegar Tom

Forty years on and Churchill’s forceful voice of condemnation and impassioned plea for justice receives a careful and earnest treatment from Canberra’s newest theatre company. Petocz and her cast and crew approach Churchill’s rarely revived comment on gender inequality and injustice with integrity and clarity. It would be easy to discount Churchill's dialectic as dated and simplistic. That in itself would demonstrate further injustice. COUP’s production revives a timely reminder of the forces that divide, rather than unite and for this it earns an important place in Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre’s Ralph Indie Programme.

Photos by Amanda Thorson

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


QL2 Dance
Artistic Director Ruth Osborne
QL2 Theatre, Gorman House Arts Centre to November 27

Review by Len Power 26 November 2016

QL2 Dance’s, ‘Hot To Trot’, now in its 18th edition, showcases the work of their dancers who have stepped into the role of choreographer.

Artistic Director, Ruth Osborne, explains that ‘it is not only a chance for them to explore ideas and create movement. These choreographers become responsible for their dancers’ well-being, source costumes and music, think about lighting design, write program notes and work to a timeline that ensures their piece is rehearsed and performance ready.’

There were ten items in this year’s program and all were quite engrossing and entertaining.  Each audience member would respond differently to these works but for this reviewer the following works were the most memorable.

‘Travelling Light’, a dance video by Natsuko Yonezawa, was dramatic and well-choreographed as well as demonstrating a mature use of film medium.  ‘Growing Pains’, choreographed by Tahi Atea, explored relationship changes over a lifetime.  The concept was clear and fully realized and it was charmingly danced by Natsuko Yonezawa and Walter Wolffs.

‘Pet Peeves’, choreographed by Patricia Hayes-Cavanagh, was amusing, well thought out and nicely danced.  The choreographer gave a particularly clever and funny introduction to her work.  ‘The Graveyard Shift’, choreographed by Jason Pearce, was a successful piece with a strong use of light and sound to enhance the concept of what it is like to be a shift worker in the middle of the night.

The outstanding work for me this year was ’17 Days’, choreographed by Caroline De Wan, which was a very theatrical concept that worked beautifully in terms of dance with excellent use of sound and lighting.

Once again the big attraction here was the imagination that went into these works and the ability to realize it in terms of dance.  This year’s program was of a very high standard across all of the works presented.

Len Power's reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 'Artcetera' from 9.00am on Saturdays as well as on other selected Artsound programs.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

An Evening With Groucho - The Q

Review by John Lombard

It's a brave man who falls asleep while Groucho Marx performs, as one unlucky audience member discovered when Groucho impersonator Frank Ferrante woke him up and then sent an usher for coffee.  Ferrante returned to him throughout the night for the occasional jibe (and repeat coffee order).  While other victims took his gentle insults with good grace, this poor man did not look like he was having a good night out at the theatre.  I was mainly glad it wasn't me.

An Evening With Groucho is a straight-up tribute show, polished and refined to incarnation by the decades that Frank Ferrante has been wearing the greasepaint moustache and depicting the great comedian in his prime.  Ferrante starts off out-of-character talking about his own love of Groucho and his primal encounter with his hero, then applying the distinctive make-up in a transition that draws our attention to the fact that he is playing a character, much as Julius became Groucho for his own performances.

Ferrante delivers Groucho's famous songs, and the show benefited from excellent piano accompaniment that heightened the slapstick vibe, but the core of the show was extensive audience interaction, with the house lights frequently coming up so he could engage in spontaneous patter with audience members.  Groucho's horn-dog persona came into play with frequent proposals, smooches with an usher, and an extended flirtation with a green-haired nurse who turned the tables when she asked to examine the stethoscope he was using in a routine.  At one point Ferrante even said he had run out of material and asked if he could go home early, but the audience was having such a good time that they cheered for him to stay.

Groucho's humour is fast-paced but with a hint of the dad joke, a victim of its own celebrity - jokes lose a lot of their impact when the punchline has passed into cliché.  But Ferrante's delivery was sly enough to raise a chuckle, and he frequently upbraided the audience for being a bit sedate.  He also quickly realised that one of the swiftest ways of entertaining a Canberra audience is to make a dig at Queanbeyan.  Ferrante also nailed the physical comedy, from Groucho's curtsy to the audience to his highly affected walk.

Ferrante touched on each Marx brother in a nostalgic retrospective and finished with a description of Groucho Marx at the end of his life serene and at peace.  Ferrante brings back some of the spirit of vaudeville, and the thousands of hours he has spent working audiences comes out in a spontaneity that perfectly suits the character he is keeping alive.  The audience seemed to be mostly familiar with the Marx Brothers (even if they were less familiar with the quiz shows Groucho went on to host), but Ferrante's excellent performance would be enough to sustain an audience that had somehow never heard of the icon he brought to life.

Saturday, November 26, 2016



Spring Awakening – the Musical.

Book and lyrics by Steven Sater. Music by Duncan Sheik. Based on the original play by Frank Wedekind. Directed by Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg. Musical Direction by Matt Webster. Set Design and construction. Chris Zuber. Lighting Design. Hamish McConchie. Costume design and construction. Jennie Norberry.  Phoenix Players. ANU Arts Centre.  November 11-26 2016.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Callum Bodmun as Melcior and Pip Carroll as Moritz
This Phoenix just keeps rising. Following on from an outstanding production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next To Normal, with its powerful and moving insight into the debilitating effects of mental illness, Phoenix Players excel with a superb production of Spring Awakening –The Musical. Frank Wedekind’s original 1891 play about the turbulent adolescent rites of passage from youth to adulthood may seem an unlikely inspiration for a musical.  

 The father of Expressionism and a mentor to the young Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind dared to expose the dark and oppressive character of the morally shackled bourgeois society of Nineteenth Century Germany. He dared to bring to the stage the sexual taboos of his time.   Teenage Wendla (Kaitlin Nihill) continues to be persuaded that children come from the stork with disastrous consequence. Martha (Tegan Braithwaite) reveals the terrible beatings she receives from her father. Ilse ( Kashmira Mohamed Tagor) flees her home to escape abuse. Moritz (Pip Carroll is tormented by parental expectation and the shame of failure. Ernst (Jake Willis) and Hanschen (Lachlan Agett) confront the natural sexual love of two young adolescents.  Under the yoke of adult domination, played to frightening effect by Kelda McManus and David Cannell, the swirling flood of confusion, anxiety and dread envelops the young, drowning them in the terrifying conflict between their natural desires and the stern impositions of an adult  society, corrupted by its own bigotry, fear and prejudice.
The Young People in Spring Awakening
Jennie Norberry’s carefully designed costumes for the production place the action clearly in the period. Chris Zuber’s atmospheric and imaginative timber design of platform and scaffold evokes a certain natural austerity, allowing director Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg to use the space freely and inventively in a sequence of striking images and eruptive movement about the stage. It is atmospherically complemented by Hamish McConchie’s lighting design. Every aspect of production exudes a confident air of professionalism..
David Cannell as Moritz's Father. Kelda McManus as Wendla's Mother

Do not be misled. Spring Awakening-the Musical is no ordinary musical. The music, though distinctly American Rock, notes the strident elements of expressionism and the invocation of the inspiration of  the German Expressionist movement, characterized by Kurt Weill and the operatic score of Alban Berg’s Lulu. It is of course vastly different, and, like Wedekind’s other play, Lulu, would lend itself to an operatic treatment, but it is a rock musical that speaks from the inner impulses of the longings and fears of the young characters in this tragic tale. Matt Webster senses the challenge in his musical direction and the band and the actors rise to the challenge.
Kaitlin Nihill as Wendla and Callum Bodman as Melchior

Nor does Steven Slater and Duncan Sheik’s adaptation of Wedekind’s original, shocking and banned drama offer the conventional happy ending. The play is a bleak portrayal of troubled youth and an autocratic and cruel society. Nature’s innocence and society’s fierce intractability collide with fatal consequence. It is a tragedy of shattered hope, discarded promise and brutal mental and physical oppression. 

Prophetic and disturbingly relevant, Spring Awakening-the Musical speaks with the wisdom of Wedekind to the society of today.

Daniel Steer as Georg. Callum Bodman. Liam Downing as Otto. Pip Carroll. David Cannell. Jake Willis
Wedekind’s apparent obsession with sex and violence that characterizes many of his plays can also be seen as a llght, shining upon the problems that still persist to this day. It is why this eight time Tony Award winning musical is an important companion to the music theatre canon.  It is neither comfortable, nor frivolous. It will not draw the crowds as do Wicked or My Fair Lady and their ilk.  Nor will it have the appeal of Les Miserable or Miss Saigon. It belongs in the company of Next To Normal, although it is more epic in its character.

Above all, this is a musical that demands the very best of its cast and crew, and it is why Phoenix’s production is so impressive. The youthful cast, under the sensitive and inventive direction of Roberts and Pegg are outstanding. They are in the moment every moment, intently focused, passionately committed and remarkably assured and professional. It would be easy to single out principals like Nihill as Wendla, Callum Bodman as Melchior or Pip Carroll as Moritz, but that would not do justice to an excellent ensemble. If this cast represents the future of theatre in Canberra, then Spring Awakening – the Musical gives hope for future work of exceptional excellence.
Callum Bodman as Melchior. Kaitlin Nihill as Wendla. Liam Downing as Otto
Jake Willis as Ernst
Callum Bodman as Melchior
Tegan Braithwaite as Martha

Phoenix Players are making bold and courageous choices by presenting Next To Normal and Spring Awakening-the Musical, and I fear that audiences are not aware of the wonderful work that this company is bringing to Canberra audiences. Seasons are too short for word of mouth to gather momentum and the transitory nature of live performance means that Canberra audiences will miss a production that is without a doubt a shining example of Canberra’s young talent and a dazzling triumph for the ever -rising Phoenix Players. 
Pip Carroll and David Cannell

Friday, November 25, 2016

THE NUTCRACKER - Queensland Ballet

Choreographed by Ben Stevenson OBE
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Set Designed by Thomas Boyd
Costumed designed by Desmond Heeley
Lighting designed by David Walters, recreated by Cameron Goerg
Presented by Queensland Ballet
Canberra Theatre 23- 27th November 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

After an absence of twenty-five years, Queensland Ballet returned to the Canberra Theatre last night, with their production of Ben Stevenson’s acclaimed version of “The Nutcracker”. This production was devised by Stevenson for the Houston Ballet in 1987, and has been danced by them, as a Christmas treat, every year since, until it was replaced by a new version by Stanton Welch in 2016.

Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director, Li Cunxin, danced in this production in 1979, shortly after arriving in Houston from China, at the invitation of Stevenson. He acquired this version for Queensland Ballet four years ago and revived that tradition by presenting it every Christmas since.

The production is visually beautiful, with snowy Christmas card settings by Thomas Boyd. Desmond Heeley’s exquisite costume designs have been carefully reproduced by Queensland Ballet under the supervision of associate costume designer, Noeline Hill, and Stevenson’s elegant, inventive choreography is superbly danced by the company.

The ballet commences with Christmas party guests arriving through the snow to be welcomed by their hosts into a cosy room with a glowing fire and large Christmas tree.  Delightfully detailed vignettes evolve around excited children bickering over presents. The party entertainment is provided by the avuncular Dr. Drosselmeyer (Shane Wuerthner), who presents a special gift of a wooden nutcracker doll to Clara, beautifully danced and charmingly portrayed by Mia Heathcote.

Mia Heathcote as Clara

Following the party, Clara is woken from her sleep by giant mice. She kills  the leader with her shoe when suddenly her nutcracker doll transforms into a Prince (Alexander Idaszak) who summons up a sleigh to transport her to the magical Kingdom of the Sweets, where she is welcomed by angelic pastry cooks, the sugar plum fairy (Yanela Pinera), and Mother Ginger (Liam Geck) who secrets children under her voluminous skirts.

A series of gorgeous divertissement follow in which both principals and corps de ballet impressed with the accuracy and attention to detail of their dancing,  whether performing as party guests, snowflakes, toy soldiers, or during the gorgeous Waltz of the Flowers for which they were stylishly led by Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos.

The Waltz of the Flowers 

Particularly memorable among these divertissements were the extraordinarily sinuous Arabian dancers, Lina Kim and Joel Woellner, and the athletic Chinese dancers, D’Arcy Brazier and Zuquan Kou.

The Arabian Dance 

Laura Hidalgo was the most regal of Snow Queens, elegantly partnered by Alexander Idaszak as her Prince. Their perfectly executed grand pas de deux, which brings the ballet to its climax, fully deserved the thunderous applause which greeted its climax.

The Snow Queen and Prince 

This season of “The Nutcracker”, has provided Canberra audiences with its first opportunity to see Queensland Ballet under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin.  Given the success of the season, for which all performances are completely sold out, it is hoped that it will herald the beginning of regular visits by the Queensland Ballet to the National Capital. 

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 24th November 2016