Monday, September 30, 2013

Michael Francis Willoughby In ELOHGULP

Written and Directed by Chris Thompson
Jigsaw Theatre Company
Canberra Theatre Centre Courtyard
28 September – 12 October 2013

Review by Len Power

Ever wondered what to say when your child asks what goes on down there below the plughole?  Jigsaw Theatre Company’s, “Michael Francis Willoughby in ELOHGULP”, answers that question and more as it takes us on a journey into the world of ELOHGULP.

Written and directed by Chris Thompson, the fun starts at the door of the theatre.  Audience members actually have to go down the plughole and around a bend in the pipe, finding themselves in a spooky subterranean world of strange, colourful lighting, foggy shadows, funny noises and crazy adventure.

Set design by David Hope is a beauty with strange and wonderful creatures hanging from the ceiling and oozing out of pipes.  It is complemented by great sound effects by Ian Blake and atmospheric lighting by Alister Emerson.  The catchy music was composed by the always inventive John Shortis.

Several of the characters in the show are imaginatively designed puppets which come to life in the masterful hands and voices of actors and puppeteers, Barb Barnett, Raoul Craemer and Caroline Simone O’Brien.

The show seemed a bit slow to get started but when Craig Alexander appeared as Michael Francis Willoughby, his energy and pace quickly engaged the children in the audience in the adventure.

Chris Thompson has written and directed a highly imaginative children’s show.  It is sure to appeal to the under 10’s.  Lessons to be learnt from the adventure were put over mildly but effectively.  It was a pretty enjoyable show for this big kid, too.

Originally published in Canberra City News 28 September 2013


Written by Tim Winton
Directed by Kate Cherry
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse
26 - 29 September 2013

Review by Len Power

‘You can’t judge a person by their death’.  Tim Winton’s play, Shrine’, takes us on a harrowing journey where we do just that.  Examining the impact on the parents of the car crash death of their teenage son and the reactions, loyalties and lies of others involved in the tragedy, the play packs an emotional wallop.

As in his novels, Tim Winton’s insight into the Australian character is remarkable.  These characters are so recognisably real that it’s impossible not to be drawn deeply into the drama.

There are excellent performances from all six cast members.  John Howard commands the stage as the embittered, cynical and deeply wounded father.  Sarah McNeill, as his wife, is outstanding as the mother who is suffering in silence and unable to come to terms with the loss of her son.  Her breakdown at the funeral is alarming and confronting.  Paul Ashcroft, appearing in flashbacks, gives a very effective portrayal of a teenager full of life and dreams before that life is tragically cut short and Luke McMahon and Will McNeill give strong performances as the two mates involved in the car accident who may or may not be telling the truth.  Whitney Richards as the young girl who knows a lot about the son’s last hours, gives a moving performance of great depth and sincerity.

The set and lighting design by Trent Suidgeest is imaginative and wonderful to look at as well as working superbly for the drama.  Sound designer, Ben Collins, has produced an eerie, threatening soundscape that works brilliantly with the set and lighting.  The costumes by Fiona Bruce are perfect choices for each of the characters.

Director, Kate Cherry, has done a superb job.  For a story that could be just too dark to enjoy, she has created a world of theatre that excites our imagination, involves us with very real characters and leaves us with a feeling that we’ve seen something very special.

Produced by Western Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, we are privileged to be able to see this outstanding production here as part of the Canberra Centenary celebrations.  When you see a play as well written, directed, designed and performed as this one, you know that this is why you go to the theatre.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7's ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 29 September 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Michael Francis Willoughby in Elohgulp written and directed by Chris Thompson.  Composer, John Shortis; sound designer, Ian Blake; set designer, David Hope; lighting designer, Alister Emerson; puppetry director, Catherine Roach.  Jigsaw Theatre Company at Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, September 28 – October 12, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 28

Jigsaw Theatre has a long successful history (see – but this production is not one of its best.

There are elements of the show which are very attractive – the music composition and sound design; the puppets including the rubbish-cart Drits, the suspended jelly-fish-like Assupods, and the three-headed Gludse; and the lighting hung as part of the set to complement the sound effects.

But, despite Chris Thompson’s experience, the script was rather ‘ordinary’: it seemed to be too imitative of a number of children’s stories, mostly written for younger than the middle to upper primary level which Jigsaw was aiming at, while at the same time not handling scary material which these children like, along the lines of Roald Dahl.  The very realistic voice overs at the beginning of Michael’s parents arguing with each other and being angry with the boy for staying too long in the bath, with a basically empty stage, frightened me.

The pacing of the drama was too long-winded.  It took ages for the Drits to establish who and where they were before Michael finally appeared down the plughole from the “bathroom up there”.  Then it took more ages while he lay still on the floor before any action began.  In fact, as a theatrical device, the inability of the Drits and then the Assupods to make decisions and take action was not conducive to moving the drama along.  For this age group, bureaucratic committee meetings are hardly exciting.

Then there were the ducks.  Though cute in themselves, their tendency to pontificate and essentially present didactic statements about what the children in the audience were supposed to learn, to my mind, is the opposite of how educational drama should work.  Rather than be told “You learn a lot of things as you go along.  You learn about having friends you can trust; about telling stories, and passing things on; how some things can’t last forever, and that scary things can be scariest when you are furthest away from them.  And you learn that all these things are important.  Even for a kid.” I would expect the drama to reveal these points through the action and the audience to discover these ideas for themselves.

Finally, I was never sure whether I was supposed to take the matter of “all the good and bad and ugly stuff that gets flushed and washed and swept away down our gutters and sinks and bathtubs” as a reality which we should all feel guilty about; or whether all this, including Michael’s being willing to take the blame, was meant to be just in his imagination while he dreams in the bath to avoid hearing his parents arguing.

Either way, it’s not clear to me what the 8-10 year-olds’ take-home message was supposed to be.  Especially when the story became completely impossible as Michael leapt into what we had to suppose was a sewerage treatment pond.  The relevance of his duck’s grandparent having done this in 1932 was utterly lost on me, though there was talk of a great flood in that year.  Could that have meant that the flood flushed out the nasties in the pond, so the duck survived?  But with no flood now, Michael would have been eaten up by bacteria in no time – though he did have some concern about drowning!

Then, in a video at the end, Michael is back in his bath – but without his ‘Dirty Duck’.  So the visit to Elohgulp really happened, and his duck got left behind?

Sorry to be so nitpicking, but despite the attractive elements and the good quality performances, the production as a whole needs re-thinking in my book

the (very) sad fish lady

the (very) sad fish lady conceived, written and directed by Joy McDonald.  At The Street Theatre - Street Two, Canberra, September 28 – October 5, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 28

Between a rock and a hard place, there are laid out across the dividing waters stepping stones to this highly imaginative piece of folk theatre.

On the Rock lives a Greek grandmother alone with her chicken.  On the Mediterranean island of a Hard Place live people who are never happy – not enough olives, not enough rain, too much rain, too windy.  They tread gingerly over the stepping stones – too many of them, of course – to have coffee with the Fish Lady, so that she can read the pictures in the coffee grounds and tell them their fortunes.

But her own fortune is sad – so sad that even her chicken stops laying her daily egg – because her children live far away across the sea in Australia and she has never seen her little grandaughter.

In her imagination she becomes a fish who could swim to the other side of the world, but it is the mysterious boatman, Mister Moustache – pronounced Moustaki – who sees her sadness and magically brings her family to visit.  Their coffee grounds all present the same picture.  She will travel across the sea with them all the way to Australia – and so she does.

Though the chicken is so happy for her that she lays three eggs in one day, I was not sure about the chicken’s future – hopefully to cheer up the people of the Hard Place.

Over the years I have seen too much slick entertainment for young children.  I have called Joy McDonald’s work folk theatre because, without pretension or the veneer of commercialism, her puppets, images and sound track tell a personal story of our times for the children of our multicultural families.  Her puppeteers, Ruth Pieloor and James Scott, put on no airs while their expertise is evident not only in operating complex string puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and even a boat with a puppet, Mister Moustache, apparently pulling oars that really move – as well as the sad and later the smiling moon.

It is, of course, the clever design work of Imogen Keen and Hilary Talbot that makes all this possible.  I guess, in the world of art criticism, the devices and imagery in the (very) sad fish lady might be called naїve art, but that’s exactly right for 3-5 year-olds.  And with music by David Pereira and dramaturgical support from Richard Bradshaw, it’s obvious that this folk art theatre, as I think I should call it – like naїve art – is certainly not unsophisticated.  Nor slick.  Nor commercial.

the (very) sad fish lady is genuine storytelling, fascinating for the littlies and equally amusing and significant for their parents.  Highly recommended.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Shrine by Tim Winton

Shrine by Tim Winton.  Black Swan State Theatre Company, Perth, directed by Kate Cherry, at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, September 26-29, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 26

Tim Winton is a storyteller, and so are his characters.  Alongside the road he sees a small white cross, some flowers and objects scattered around the base of a tree.  This is not just a memorial, but a shrine symbolic of the person who died there.  But what does it mean when among the bottles of spirits and beer there is an old thong?

He sees a middle-aged man, Adam, stop to angrily tear down the shrine and disperse all the memories.  But the next time Adam drives by, he has to stop and destroy the construction again.  Who keeps re-creating the shrine?

As we hear Adam Mansfield (John Howard), his wife Mary (Sarah McNeill) and the teenage girl June Fenton (Whitney Richards) tell their stories, which include the stories told by the teenagers who survived the crash, Will (Luke McMahon) and Ben (Will McNeill), and by the dead teenager Jack Mansfield (Paul Ashcroft), we discover a complexity of life of the kind that must be represented by every shrine we see along every country road.

It’s a sobering experience, yet also enlightening.  And for many, as Kate Cherry said in the pre-show forum, the play provides a catharsis, a kind of cleansing of fear, especially among parents of teenage boys.  Though there are humorous moments, this is a tragedy in the ancient Greek form.  We know the ending before the play begins, but how did it come to this?

In Winton’s storytelling, time is a highly malleable element.  All the physical items needed – the tree, the shrine, the two halves of the car, the funeral furniture, the fire on the beach, Adam’s beach house wine bar – are present on stage throughout, so scenes shift and time changes as characters move and are lit or shadowed.

The acting was excellent throughout, with to my mind special mention justified for the women, Whitney Richards and Sarah McNeill, whose roles reminded me of the Greek – of the young Antigone, who pleaded for the proper treatment of her dead brother, and an older Electra, left alone when all in the household are dead.  As, in some sense, the central character, John Howard’s creation of the diversity of attitudes and feelings within Adam Mansfield was a brilliant piece of work – not so much ancient Greek, but rather very recognisable modern Australian.

For West Australians, as we might expect from Winton’s other writing, there are points of local identification – but these give the work specificity while the issues are universal.  This is what makes for great storytelling, and an excellent drama on stage.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams, designer David Fleischer, lighting by Nicholas Rayment, sound by Alan John.  Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre 25 September - 2 November, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 25

As Tybalt, Paris and Romeo lay dead in the Capulet Tomb, and Juliet, revived from a death-imitating drug, told Friar Laurence “Go, get thee hence, for I will not away”, I found myself thinking “She’s on her own now...why can’t she go her own way now?”   And indeed, in this version, she mourns her cousin Tybalt, kisses the poisoned lips of her husband Romeo, and as in Shakespeare’s script ignores the body of Paris entirely.

Paris, rather than toting a sword in this modern scenario, had brought a pistol, saying to Romeo “Obey, and go with me; for thou must die.”  “I must indeed; and therefore came I hither,” responds Romeo, but Paris would not leave him alone in peace.  Hiding among the graves, Romeo managed to escape the gunfire, caught Paris by surprise, disarmed him and shot him dead.

But should Juliet die?  After all, she has said “I will kiss thy lips; / Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, to make me die with a restorative.”  Maybe she lives after all, to do what I would expect her to do: tell her father exactly what she thinks of him, even threatening to shoot him with Paris’ revolver, and then come forward to speak to us.

Before the play began she had spoken the words of the Chorus in the Prologue, about how the “continuance of their parents’ rage, / Which but their children’s end, nought could remove, / Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage; / The which if you with patient ears attend, / What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”

We do not see Juliet die on this stage.  Instead of “O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath; / there rust, and let me die;” instead of the Watch, The Prince, the Friar, Capulet and Lady Capulet, Montague describing his wife dying from “Grief of my son’s exile”, taking up a long page and a half of script talking in the presence of the four dead bodies – Juliet speaks briefly, taking up the theme of Shakespeare’s final words “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; / Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished: / For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Maybe we are seeing Juliet’s spirit speaking, as Emeritus Professor Penny Gay suggests in her essay Juliet Speaks reproduced in the program:  Looking more closely at what [Shakespeare] actually wrote, we might argue that the play is more interested in the impossible cultural position of the eloquent young woman, who knows what she wants and speaks of it without fear; argues for her right to it; and, in so doing, produces poetry that is the equal of that of any of the most passionate heroes in Shakespeare.

Surely this is the intention behind Kip Williams’ direction of this play in a modern setting and style – a great success, though certain to cause “more talk” both of “these sad things” and probably also of the issue of “updating” Shakespeare.

In fact the use of today’s “rave” music and everyday costumes, though at first not easily related to Shakespeare’s language, and references to swords and The Prince, did not update the play in the same sense as other recent productions have done – such as we saw in the recent film of Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes.  The difference lies in the nature of a movie – which we naturally see as if it is real and present – compared with a stage play, which we know to be a theatrical contrivance.

As the Prologue tells us we are here to watch a play, so the players have the freedom to create a world in our imaginations as we listen to the words, see the movement, mime and set design, hear the music and sound effects, and so on.  It’s the old injunction to suspend our disbelief.  If the theatrical devices are designed and performed well, then you can play Shakespeare as if it were in his period of history, or in ours, or in a setting mixing elements from different times and places.

This production does the third option very well.  It is not long before we find ourselves engaged in a world where young men are just not very sensible, fun-loving but too often unable to see the consequences of their actions; where older men, having grown up from such young men, become tribal, authoritarian and vicious – unless they can stand outside themselves and see things more clearly from a monkish cell, as Friar Laurence does; and where women like Juliet’s mother are forced to accept the dominance of men, or like Juliet’s Nurse learn to take life as it comes with all the necessary compromises, or like Juliet have to take huge risks to stand up for what she wants.

The staging device of the two ringed revolve is very effective as it transports us as smoothly as Shakespeare’s Globe ever did from scene to scene.  If there was a sense of something missing, it was because there was no traditional physical balcony.

The acting was expert throughout, so that not only was there clarity of language (made better by the unobtrusive microphones), but every word was spoken with the character’s intention made clear to us – hooray for Stanislavski.  I’m going to have to set up some jealousy by mentioning Eamon Farren (a brilliant Mercutio), Julie Forsyth (a wonderful comic Nurse, but with a real tenderness coming through the rough exterior), and by making special mention of Eryn Jean Norvill who made the play hers as Juliet, and made it Juliet’s play for us.

For some, this production may be controversial.  For me it was just fascinating.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Chamber Opera in 2 Acts
Music by Sandra France
Libretto by Helen Nourse
Musical Director: David Kram
Directed by Caroline Stacey
The Street Theatre
September 20 - 22, 2013

Review by Len Power
20 September 2013

Having been through that terrible day in January 2003 when Canberra experienced its bushfire tragedy, I was keen to see how ‘From A Black Sky’, a new opera by composer, Sandra France, and librettist, Helen Nourse, would present the drama of that day musically on stage.

In this production by Caroline Stacey, four principal singers, a large chorus including singers from Erindale College and children from Arawang Primary School play out a tragic story of relationships against the background of the fires.

The set design by Christiane Nowak utilizes the bare walls of the Street Theatre stage to great effect with small acting areas surrounding the onstage orchestra.  While the principles were in appropriate modern dress, it was not clear what some of the more uniform chorus costumes were meant to signify.  Lighting design by Gillian Schwab and sound design by Seth Edwards-Ellis are very atmospheric, creating a genuine sense of the gathering darkness, shadows and smoke which will be well-remembered by anyone who experienced that day in Canberra.

The principal singers, Judith Dodsworth, Don Bemrose, Rachael Duncan and David Rogers-Smith handle the vocal challenge of the score very well.  Characterisations were also clear and believable.  The chorus produced a fine sound and the large group sections with some intricate harmonies were very well sung.  Musical director, David Kram, produced an excellent sound from his 12 piece chamber orchestra.

The music by Sandra France is modern but not inaccessible.  Some of the solos and duets sung by the principal characters were quite beautiful in their range and emotion.  Unfortunately it was difficult to hear clearly the words that were being sung and that affected the level of involvement in the personal stories being played out.  While I liked the music, there could have been a more distinctive ‘voice’ of the fire underlying the drama.

Some editing would benefit the show, especially in the first half where characters and motivations had been established and the plot began to seem a bit laboured.  Also in the second half, Tony’s speech about the fires seemed to signal a climax to the show, but there was still some twenty minutes to go.

This was an uneven, but worthwhile attempt to bring to life musically the memories of that tragic Canberra day.  Sandra France is certainly a musical talent to be encouraged.  I look forward to her next work.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM's 'Dress Circle' program, Sunday 22 September 2013

Passion – Five Centuries Of Spanish Music

Marcela Fiorillo, Piano
ANU School Of Music,
Larry Sitsky Recital Room
19 September 2013

Review by Len Power

PADRE Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler Ramos (1729–1783) was a Spanish composer whose influential works spanned the late Baroque and early Classical music eras.  More than 100 Concerts and 84 pianists and organists over five continents are taking part in an international homage to Father Soler for the 230th anniversary of his death.  Here in Canberra, Argentinian pianist, Marcela Fiorillo, presented a fine concert entitled, “Passion – Five Centuries Of Spanish Music” in her homage to the great padre.

It was an excellent program showcasing six Spanish composers with works from the piano repertoire by Soler, Albeniz, Granados, Turina and de Falla.  Each work showed the distinctive touch of the composers and the musical influences of their eras but underlying all of them was the voice of Spain – dramatic, fiery and romantic.  The dances were particularly engaging, especially Soler’s “Fandango”, Turina’s “Orgia” from his Danzas Fantasticas and the well-known “Danza Ritual del Fuego” by de Falla.  Works by Albeniz, “Malaguena” and “Asturias” and Granados with “Oriental” and “Andaluza” were also notable for their intense rhythms and fiery emotions.

Marcela Fiorilla played the works magnificently.  There was great sensitivity and depth in her playing of the quieter passages and great control and attack in the intense, wilder sections.  Fiorilla gave an interesting introduction to each work before playing it.  Her down to earth, warm manner was a welcome touch.  Her insight into the playing of this music and the appeal of each work was a highlight of this excellent concert.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 20 September 2013