Thursday, May 30, 2013

HOW TO BE (or not to be) LOWER

Written and performed by Max Cullen
Directed by Caroline Stacey
The Street Theatre 25 May - 1 June, 2013

Review by Len Power 25 May 2013

‘I wasn’t always a journalist.  I used to be normal.’  Lennie Lower, Australian journalist and humourist of the 1930s and 40s, is the subject of Max Cullen’s one person play.  According to the program notes, Lower’s one novel, ‘Here’s Luck’, published in 1930, became a classic of Australian humour.  As for Lower himself, he was small, dark, nervous and described as ‘serious’, ‘melancholy’, ‘morose’, a marvellous talker and a legendary drinker, all challenging character traits for an actor/writer to work on.

Caroline Stacey’s production at The Street Theatre is generally well-staged on a clever cartoon-like set with great visual projections both designed by Margarita Georgiadis.  The lighting design by Nick Merrylees and sound design by Seth Edwards-Ellis complement the action very well.

Making it clear from the opening that we are watching an actor doing a play about Lennie Lower created an unfortunate barrier between the audience and the character.

Max Cullen gives a strong and sincere performance of a person described as someone ‘one could never get close to’.  Maybe he has been too successful as it was difficult to feel any warmth towards Lower.  He is inebriated and rather pathetic much of the time and his humour also seems dated and not very funny.  The stream of consciousness writing for the character needed more variation to maintain interest.

Lennie Lower was said to be very careful about avoiding facts about his private life.  As presented in this production, he continues to remain elusive.

Originally published in Canberra City News 29 May 2013

The Major Minor Party

The Major Minor Party group devised by Version 1.0, presented by Canberra Theatre Centre and The Centenary of Canberra, at the Playhouse May 29 – June 1, 2013.

Performers: Drew Fairley, Irving Gregory, James Lugton, Jane Phegan, Kym Vercoe.
Dramaturgy: Chris Ryan, Dr Yana Taylor.  Creative Development: Dr David Williams.  Video: Sean Bacon.  Sound: Paul Prestipino.  Lighting: Frank Mainoo.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 29 : Theorising practice and practising theory: making performance with version 1.0 : A micro-lecture by David Williams.

I was wondering on what basis I should judge The Major Minor Party, until I read David Williams’ “micro lecture”. He is “a founding member of version 1.0, and has co-devised and produced all of the company's work since 1998 [and] is currently an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney, and has lectured in theatre at UWS and UNSW. He has scholarly articles published in Australasian Drama Studies, Performance Paradigm, and Research in Drama Education, and his writings about contemporary performance appear regularly in RealTime. David is on the Board of Arts on Tour, and is a member of Performance Space’s Arts Consultation Group.”

His lecture begins: “We (version 1.0) start a new work not knowing what it is.”  My review begins: “And they still don’t know.”

This wasn’t the case, as I recall, with their perhaps most famous work CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) (2004) when they ripped apart the children overboard issue with a surgeon’s precision.  This time their target – “Sex, Religion and The State” – is too broad, too diffuse.  It suffers from being too obviously group devised, needing, I suggest, the focus that a single writer might offer.

At the same time, the performances are very precisely acted, so the audience was kept firmly engaged throughout the 90 minute show.  Yet Williams’ words: What is the shared passion that brings us here together? Might passion be uncertain? Can I be passionate and uncertain at the same time? I don't know, but I'm thinking hard about it; if I think hard enough I can make it so, explain to me why I felt that the show was a bit thin, the content of too many items was not well developed, and the transitions between scenes left a sense of dramatic disunity.

The strongest scene, in fact, became almost a parody of Williams’ words about “sharing passion”.  As a sort of climax, the actors approach the audience – naming themselves with their real names and as members of Version One point Zero – exhorting us to join them and donate money.  Fortunately, before anyone actually hands up their credit card, the group impressively sings of the passion of Version 1.0, sounding very much like a Hillsong Church meeting, retreating slowly upstage.  As the singing fades, in a side conversation a member thinks out loud “If we were a church, we could claim tax exemption”, and another responds “So we should become a church instead of a party?” – and at last we saw real satire.

It just took too long to get there.

William’s lecture (which of course the audience is unaware of) gives the impression, quoting the inevitable Roland Barthes among several other theatre theorists, that this kind of group searching for what sound like “known knowns, unknown knowns and even unknown unknowns” is original, contemporary or experimental.

My experience and research suggests that Erwin Piscator began this kind of work in his Piscator-B├╝hne Studio in 1927 “to provide a framework within which the techniques of political theater could be explored and developed”.  (The Political Theatre – A History 1914-1929 by Erwin Piscator, Avon 1978; translated by Hugh Rorrison from Das Politische Theater Albert Schultz Verlag, Berlin, 1929).  And there were many group devised companies particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, including here in Canberra.

Which allows me to segue (I love that word) neatly into the relevance of the show to Canberra’s centenary.  The words of Lady Denman are quoted as bookends, but the content of the scenes (such as argument between Family First and the Australian Sex Party, and the connection between Cory Bernardi and right wing religion)  and the theme of the linking scenes (on voluntary euthanasia) had no special significance in the Canberra we live in, or on whether we have achieved the “beautiful city of our dreams”.

The issues were all about Federal Parliament and legislation, but even here there were opportunities to work in many more of the minor parties which were listed at the beginning of the show but forgotten about later.  In fact Canberra itself could have added much more spice with stories of the Sun-Ripened Tomato Party, the Party Party Party Party, and the infamous Dennis Stevenson who was elected for two terms when he opposed self-government, and then camped out in his Legislative Assembly office.

The intention of The Major Minor Party to raise the issue of religious influence in politics was clearly sincere, but I doubt this show will have the impact that CMI had without more focussed writing and stronger satire.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Andrew Kylian - Lana Jones
Photo: Branco Gaica
Australian Ballet - Canberra Theatre May 23 – 25

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

With nary a tutu in sight, the Australia Ballet still managed to dazzle as it stormed triumphantly  back into the Canberra Theatre with a superb program including the world premiere of a stunning new ballet celebrating Canberra’s parliament house, performed in the presence of its designer, Aldo Giurgola.

Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments”, danced to the music of Paul Hindemith, is a plotless abstract ballet about perfection. The dancers, dressed in simple black and white leotards perform intricate variations against a clear blue backdrop. It’s exposing, with no room for error and little opportunity for emotion. The dancers were up to the challenge, dancing with absolute precision in a brilliant display of sheer technique.

The exquisite pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s “After The Rain” is also about perfection, but dripping with emotion, and the audience held its collective breath as Lana Jones and Adam Bull appeared to float through its intricacies to the gentle strains of Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”.

These two odes to perfection proved appropriate preludes to the main offering, “Monument” commissioned as a Centenary of Canberra project to celebrate the perfection of Canberra’s iconic parliamentary building.


Daniel Gaudiello, Vivienne Wong, Jake Mangakahia, Ella Havelka
Photo: Branco Gaica

With a driving electronic score by Huey Benjamin providing the heartbeat, choreographer Garry Stewart has integrated elements of hip-hop, popping and classical ballet technique to create a busy, enthralling ballet which brilliantly and remarkably captures the essence and excitement of the building.

The dancers, in crisp white figure hugging costumes, move briskly around the stage in squares, rectangles, triangles and circles defined by Jon Buswell’s lighting, performing combinations of stabbing, angular arm and body movements.  Behind them 3D animations of the actual architectural drawings give the impression that the dancers are moving in an out of the building as it awakens and comes to life.  Eventually a couple, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, emerge from the ensemble to perform a long pas de deux which draws this remarkable ballet to a contemplative conclusion with both standing silhouetted on the empty stage.

Regardless of your familiarity with Parliament House, “Monument” is a remarkable achievement destined to heighten interest in the object of its inspiration wherever it is performed.
                (An edited version of this review appears in CITY NEWS - May 29th edition)

Sunday, May 26, 2013


Writer/Dramaturg: John Romeril
Songwriter: John Shortis
Director: Catherine Langman
The Q, Queanbeyan until June 1

Review by Len Power 25 May 2013

Beware of the great idea - if you're not careful, it can turn around and bite you.  A musical review about all of Australia's Prime Ministers certainly sounds like a great idea, but that's where the trap is.  Not all of Australia's Prime Ministers were interesting people and the earlier Prime Ministers are harder to relate to simply because we don't know as much about them.  Fashioning a show around all of them means you’re stuck with the lot, whether you can find something to fascinating to say about them or not.

John Shortis’s songs lack inspiration.  There needed to be more variety in the musical styles and many of the lyrics were clever but did not illuminate the subject of the song.  A low point in the show was the song, “Bob Menzies’ Balls” – enough said!  A good song about Ben Chifley, however, did work and I wish there had been more like this.  Accompanied by an interesting anecdote about the man and his telephone number, we got a real sense of his personal qualities in a very short space of time.  At that moment, the show took off, but it was not to last.

According to the program notes from the producers, writer and dramaturg John Romeril, suggested the backwards chronology for the show.  It starts off brightly with topical fun about recent Prime Ministers but the second half is then stuck with the tough times like the 1930s Depression, when we could do with some lighter moments in this overlong show.  The addition of the electorate as a fictional couple, one who leans to the left and the other to the right is an obvious device that just holds the show up.  They’re as dull as some of the Prime Ministers.

In spite of the lacklustre material, there is some good work on display here.  The multi-talented Kate Hosking is a standout in the show, acting, singing and playing both double bass and electric bass.  Moya Simpson and Eric Byrne sing appealingly and John Shortis accompanies them all very well on piano.  Members of the Worldly Goods Choir are used very well and their singing is excellent.

With a striking production design by Imogen Keen and great audio visuals by Catherine Langman, Imogen Keen, Robert Bunzli and Evan Croker, the director, Catherine Langman, has come up with some pleasing imaginative ideas for the show.  Costumes designed by Imogen Keen for the choir and Kate Hosking and Eric Byrne worked well but Moya Simpson and John Shortis looked like they were part of a different show with their individual costumes.

Immediately after interval, we were told that we still have fourteen Prime Ministers to go.  At that moment I wished we’d had more who had lasted as long as Menzies.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 26 May 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013

HOW TO BE (or not to be) LOWER by Max Cullen

HOW TO BE (or not to be) LOWER written and performed by Max Cullen.  Directed by Caroline Stacey; scenic and visual design by Maragarita Georgiadis; lighting design by Nick Merrylees; sound design by Seth Edwards-Ellis.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, May 25 – June 1, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 25

There’s a lot in Max Cullen’s portrayal of Lennie Lower that’s a sad reflection on ‘traditional’ Australia.  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for me, I arrived in this godforsaken country in 1955, some eight years after Lennie Lower died.  I never heard anyone mention his name until I read the adverts for this show.  I was therefore naturally intrigued by the prospect of Max Cullen’s writing and performing How to be....

Unfortunately, I am now rather less intrigued by Lennie Lower than I thought I might be, though – fortunately – rather more intrigued by Max Cullen’s writing and performance (and by the directing and design).  Despite the fact that Lower’s famous novel Here’s Luck is apparently still in print, I can see why no-one ever told me to immerse myself in wit limited so much to obvious puns and occasional flashes of original word-play.

Cullen’s extensive research and collection of audio-visual materials certainly placed Lower into the context of the 1920s and 1930s in a jingoistic, maudlin, poverty-stricken Australia.  However, it would be interesting to see Barry Dicken’s Lonely Lennie Lower (1982) as a comparison.  Unfortunately, of course, I missed it then and the production 20 years later at Melbourne’s La Mama, where it was described as “the acclaimed Barry Dickins play Lennie Lower.... This tragic comedy based on the real life story of comic journalist Lennie Lower...the foremost comic journalist of the depression era, Lennie Lower, is alone, drunk and crying...Lower jokes and entertains as he reflects on life as a newspaper 'contributor' at a time when the term 'freelance' was as unheard of as 'politically correct'.”

Max Cullen’s performance shows Lower alone, drunk and trying to pull his fragmented mental life into some kind of line, through the constant need to spout out one-liners and puns – and Cullen’s skills as an actor are amply demonstrated – but I was left not being sure what Cullen, the writer, was aiming at.

In his version, it was hard to know whether we are to see the ‘play’ as being performed by Cullen or by Lower.  The script deliberately makes explicit the fact that we are seeing a ‘play’, but Cullen does not seem to come out of the character of Lower when making this point.

It’s also not clear how we are to respond to the stories that the character Lower tells.  Did Frank Packer really pay Lower £100 per week for his comic columns in the Daily Telegraph and the Women’s Weekly?  And if so, are we to take it as tragic that Lower appears to have drunk it all, when the average wage of the day was about £3?  Are we to see Lower as a significant writer brought down by the unedifying commercialism of the likes of Packer.  If you read just the beginning of Here’s Luck – which you can do at – you might see him as a much better writer than he appears in Cullen’s pastiche of snippets from Lower’s life.

On opening night, I thought it was interesting that the audience, though clearly committed to supporting Max Cullen – cheering him on as he first appeared – and though ready to laugh mildly at Lower’s puns, did not respond with great warmth to the play.  Perhaps this is, unfortunately for Cullen, because this was a Canberra audience with different expectations at The Street Theatre than, say, a Dubbo audience at the RSL might have.

I’m not sure, just as I wasn’t sure about the ending.  Surely it was Lennie Lower, not Max Cullen, who took such a diffident bow, but it seemed inconsistent with the character we had seen before – or were we to take it that it was an inconsequential ending to a life without real meaning.  But what, then, was the meaning of the digger’s hat spotlighted at the very end, rather than Cullen himself appearing out of character for a curtain call?  Especially when Lower had deserted from the armed forces on the three occasions he had enlisted, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (at ).

So I end up with mixed feelings, fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Prime Time

Prime Time produced by Shortis & Simpson, with the Worldly Goods Choir.  Director: Catherine Langman; music and lyrics by John Shortis; writer/dramaturg: John Romeril; set and costumes designer: Imogen Keen; audio visual production: Robert Bunzli and Evan Croker.  The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 23 – June 1, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

The trouble with history is that themes (or ‘tropes’, as they are termed nowadays) are only apparent in hindsight.  What happens in reality is mostly accidental.  Writing a show with 27 main characters, each one of whom is unpredictably replaced by the next, is true to history, but makes for somewhat disjointed drama.

The series of songs, from Julia Gillard to Edmund Barton, form the bones of a skeleton, for which John Romeril provides some ligaments via a story of a couple who married in the Rose Garden, while travelling when young, and years later have returned to find that Old Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy.  On tour, they discover not only stories about our Prime Ministers, but even something of their own histories.

Without this back story, the songs would make something like a revue rather than a drama with a spine, but I thought the ligaments and bones needed a lot more fleshing out to turn this show into a full living history.  Though Romeril’s writing is effective in creating the relationship between John Henry Stahl, of German origin, and Roberta Quinn, of Irish background, and these roles are played skilfully and sensitively by Nick Byrne and Kate Hosking, their fictional story remains peripheral to the non-fiction history.  Their story is not of sufficient significance to take the dramatic lead.  Perhaps something like a fictional Who Do You Think You Are? could connect characters in their family stories to the stories of the Prime Ministers.

The strength of Prime Time is in John Shortis’ songs, based on research which reveals events, characteristics and quirks of each of the PMs, though necessarily with a bit of a skip through the very short careers of Francis Forde (1945), Arthur Fadden (1941) and Earle Page (1939).  Of special note, in my view, were the letter written by Joe Lyons to his wife Edith about the horrific scenes he witnessed travelling around the nation in the Great Depression years, and the final scene showing Edmund Barton huddled over his billy and frypan, cooking all alone on a tiny kerosene stove in his attic room, while presiding over the first years of Parliament in Melbourne and establishing the administrative basics of the democracy of the ordinary people which we still enjoy.

And who will forget the women of the Worldly Goods Choir singing of the need for international arbitration in opposition to Billy Hughes’ attempts to introduce conscription in World War I – to send their sons to kill other mothers’ sons.

It was a successful idea, again from John Romeril, to play the history ‘in backwards chronology’ and to use the choir and the principal singers – Byrne, Hosking, Shortis and especially his partner Moya Simpson – as the electorate, rather like an Ancient Greek Chorus, and to have the married couple agreeing to differ in their political positions, based upon a true story of a couple married in the Rose Garden who presented their guests with T-shirts with Rudd on one side and Abbott on the other – which could be worn with whichever one you prefer to the front or back.

For me, the interest finally lay in appreciating something I hadn’t thought about directly before.  As the history moved back in time, the tendency of Shortis and Simpson to make fun of the political figures – for which they are justifiably famous in the Canberra cultural scene – changed to a more serious tone, as we faced up to World War II with John Curtin, the Depression with Joe Lyons, the despair of World War I and finally the demands made of Edmund Barton – “a  learned man with the unenviable task of leading a motley bunch of ambitious politicians, whom he named his Cabinet of Kings”.  Where is his kind of unassuming leadership now?  And what has happened to the sense of commitment to democratic government throughout the community?

This new venture of Shortis & Simpson once more stretches the boundaries of their work, both in a new strength in their musicianship - especially in suiting the music to the historical period of each PM -  and in taking on a study of more than a century of history – and in doing so making their mark in a significant way on our cultural understanding in the year of the Centenary of Canberra.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Written by Anthony Burgess
Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones
Presented by Les Currie and Glynis Henderson Productions
Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse
May 22 to 25 May, 2013

Review by Len Power 22 May 2013

‘As queer as a clockwork orange’ was the Cockney slang that gave Anthony Burgess his title for his 1962 novella, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, which targets youth violence, free will and behaviourism.  Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film of the same name, based on the novella, was a sensation at the time of its release and is now considered a classic, but was dismissed by Burgess as ‘badly flawed’.

According to the director, Alexandra Spencer-Jones, the stage production now touring Australia from Great Britain is using a playtext written by the late Anthony Burgess himself, who was tired of companies bending his novel ‘out of shape’.

Martin McCreadie gives a powerful performance as Alex, the leader of the youth gang, the Droogs.  The other nine male cast members, playing multiple roles with sharply etched characterisations, demonstrate ensemble playing at its best.  As well as being good actors, this cast also demonstrate strong dance ability, handling very demanding choreography throughout the show.

The director, Alexandra Spencer-Jones, presents a clear concept for the show.  It’s dark, threatening, at times confronting and unpleasant, but with occasional flashes of humour – all necessary for the subject matter.  In addition to the required Beethoven pieces, her choice of popular music worked well.  Her choreography is a highlight of the show.  The atmospheric lighting, designed by James Baggaley, added an important dimension to the production.

How well you know the story from either the novella or the film may impact on your ability to follow some moments in this play, especially as the gang members speak using a futuristic Anglo-Russian slang, Nadzat, at times.  There is no denying, however, that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is powerful, exciting and memorable theatre.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Christina Wilson - Louise Page
Photo: Helen Musa
Lake Burley Griffin Boat Cruise,

Canberra International Music Festival – May 17.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

This was the fifth and final concert in the “Amazing  Space “series presented as part of the 2013 Canberra International Music Festival.  This extraordinary series of concerts has interwoven the arts of architecture and music so creatively and successfully that its become the talk of the current festival. This series has the potential to become the unique and defining aspect of the C. I.M.F. which separates it from other such festivals and as such, properly promoted, could have visitors flocking to Canberra to share these amazing experiences.  

Is there a more sublime way to spend a couple of hours on a typically chilly, sunny Canberra autumn day than cruising in a snug beautifully appointed cruiser on Lake Burley Griffin, being informed by passionate experts about Canberra’s unique architectural features and scenery while listening to songs by Purcell, Schubert, Britten and Offenbach, exquisitely presented by a trio of our most accomplished and treasured artists in singers Louise Page and Christina Wilson and pianist Alan Hicks?     

As the boat pulled away from the jetty, Actew Water supremo, Mark Sullivan set the tone with some entertaining and informative facts about the creation and purpose of Lake Burley Griffin,  or as he described it,  “the silt sedimentation pond”. Between songs, architects Stuart McKenzie and Ann Cleary shared fascinating tidbits about Canberra’s design, and while we tucked into the delicious buffet, Dianne Firth enlightened us to the special features of the ceremonial jetty at Government House.  

Colin Milner shared a fascinating Canberra connection to a pretty Peter Sculthorpe song sung by Louise and Christina, and then while we cruised towards it, Dianne Firth gave a brief history of the Canberra Carillon.

Arriving at Aspen Island, our boat paused to allow us to experience a special performance by carillonist, Lynn Fuller, before moving on to Reconciliation Place where everyone dis-embarked to thrill to a stirring rendition of Malcolm Williamson’s “Canberra Fanfare” and Janacek’s “Fanfare from Sinfonietta” performed by the Canberra Festival Brass, conducted by the Festival’s indefatigable Artistic Director, Chris Latham.

As the cruiser turned its bow for home, Page and Wilson, accompanied by Hicks, added the final icing to the cake for their already blissed-out audience with a charming encore duet, a romantic arrangement of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”. 

(An edited version of this review appears in the digital edition of "CITY NEWS").

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Written by Agatha Christie
Directed by Jon Elphick
Tempo Theatre Inc
Belconnen Theatre May 17 to 25

Review by Len Power 17 May 2013

If, like many others, you left one of last year’s flurry of productions of Agatha Christie’s famous play, ‘The Mousetrap’, with a sense of disappointment, you won’t feel like that after seeing Tempo’s new production of Agatha Christie’s much superior whodunit, ‘The Hollow’.

Adapted by Agatha Christie herself from her novel written in 1946, the play was first staged in 1951 in London and had a successful eleven month run.  Set at a house called ‘The Hollow’ in the English countryside, a weekend of simmering passions explodes in murder.  A police inspector with a deceptively low-key approach has the task of unmasking the murderer and, as always, you’ll never guess who it is.  The play succeeds because we can relate to these rather normal characters and their actions and, even after we learn who the murderer is, the finale has further exciting twists that leave us breathless.

Jon Elphick’s production moves at a cracking pace.  His cast of twelve have generally developed very strong and real characters that make this a very believable drama.  Outstanding were Cheryl Browne as the hilariously absent-minded Lady Angkatell, Canberra newcomer, Jo Bailey, as the sweet but practical Midge Harvey, John Maddock as the perfect old butler, Gudgeon, and Cherie Kelly as the down-trodden wife, Gerda Cristow.  Kate Blackhurst as the formidable film star, Veronica Craye, gave a strong performance but her costume and hair did not suit the character she was playing.  Perhaps the popular 1950s bleached-blonde film star look would have worked better?  Alex Davies, in a gem of a part as the Inspector’s sidekick, Detective Sergeant Penny, missed out on some of the best potential laughs in the play as his delivery was too fast and flat.

The costumes, credited to Marian Fitzgerald, Jon Elphick and the cast, were generally well chosen and reflected the period of the play.  Sound and lighting effects by Tony Galliford were well done, especially the realistic timing of the thunder after the lightning.  The sounds were possibly a little too loud at times, making some audience members around me jump, to my great amusement.  The set designed by the director, Jon Elphick, was practical but needed more flair, maybe from a dedicated set designer who knows the magic of making a set look more expensive even within a limited budget.

I enjoyed ‘The Hollow’ and, if you’d like to see an exciting play from the era of well-made plays, you can’t go wrong with this Tempo production.  And it murders ‘The Mousetrap’!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 19 May 2013