Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Flak written and performed by Michael Veitch

Flak written and performed by Michael Veitch.  Ellis Productions directed by Helen Ellis at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, April 28 to May 2, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 28

“To be remembered.  Not always.  Just sometimes – to be remembered.”

That’s all this 90-year-old asks of us, though he was awarded the DFC twice.  That’s the Distinguished Flying Cross [ ] awarded to “Officers and Warrant officers for an act or acts of valour and courage or devotion to duty performed whilst flying in active operations against the enemy".

This was the conclusion to the presentation on stage by Michael Veitch of a number of the “true stories from the men who flew in World War Two” recorded in his 2006 book Flak.  He has made a very effective selection of Australian, English, Welsh and German fliers’ stories, and in the telling he creates the personality of each one as he was at the time and place of Veitch’s original interview.  As the narrator, he presents himself ‘in character’ as the adult man who from early childhood was fascinated by the wartime aeroplanes and who became almost obsessed first with the Spitfire and Battle of Britain story, and now with the history of World War Two through the experiences of those – the relatively few – who survived the ‘trips’ and ‘tours’ across the skies of Europe over six years of conflict.

Along with the men’s stories we are given the context of the machines – many of disastrously dangerous design, and all inevitably vulnerable to destruction by airborne gunfire and flak from the ground.  The result brings to life horrific events, yet leavened by the humour of the old men’s reflections.  The message remains that war and its requirement to kill or be killed is entirely pointless.

Yet there is hope in the message that we must remember, must never forget, that reality.  And in remembering the excitement of such a dangerous adventure as flying in all kinds of weather; dropping depth charges from a Sunderland, just barely above a U-boat’s conning tower (“You got him!” reported the navigator, at once both elated and horrified); being literally ejected at 22,000 feet when flak hit the fuel tank in an explosion which killed all the others on board; using your headphones cable to tie a tourniquet which slowed the bleeding from your shattered leg and then remembering to pull the rip cord on your parachute and enjoying the silence at 15,000 feet; bailing out injured over the Home Counties, landing near a farmhand who thought you were German and having to scream at him “Piss off and get me an ambulance!”  Or even sitting next to Eva Braun in the Eagle’s Nest and asking why she bothered with such an unimpressive man as Hitler (just after you have cheerfully shaken the F├╝hrer’s hand and received an award for your flying prowess).

And especially hope in that even that same German flyer, now living in Australia, had finally seen through it all, when starving and freezing German soldiers fleeing from the Russians were fired on by their own military police as they tried to crowd onto his plane to be rescued.  I will never forget the image of those desperate hands, just their skin, still stuck to the frozen metal of his fuselage when he landed in Poland with the few he was able to take off the Russian ice.

Veitch’s professional history as a comedian perhaps explains his ability to incorporate humour into these stories and his own experiences in seeking out his interviewees, but his acting is at all times entirely true.  There is no hint of exaggeration for effect.  His work is done with all the respect his sources deserve.  Though this production was not specifically to do with the current Anzac ceremonies, I could not help compare the honesty and lack of sentimentality in Veitch’s work with the emphasis on the ‘heroic’ qualities of the Gallipoli stories. 

Flak is storytelling at its best.


Written and performed by Michael Veitch
Directed by Helen Ellis
Presented by Ellis Productions
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan, April 28 – May 2, 2015

Review by Len Power

Everybody likes a good story.  In ‘FLAK’ you get five good stories told by a masterful story teller, Michael Veitch.  His self-confessed lifelong obsession with Second World War aircraft led him to the stories of the men who flew them.  From interviews with these surviving airmen, he presents five harrowing incidents as they were related to him.

On a thoughtfully designed set by Helen Ellis with exactly the type of furniture you would expect to find in these men’s homes, Michael Veitch plays each man as though we were visiting them ourselves.  Although the men are much older than him, his characterizations are quite extraordinary.  He seems to become each one physically as well as vocally.  The stories are fascinating as well as frightening, laced with flashes of black humour and moments of unexpected compassion for the enemy they fought against.  Hanging over every story is a sense of the shocking waste of humanity in war.  The overall effect is very moving.

Another dimension to the show is added when Michael Veitch steps out of character and talks directly to the audience about how his interest in these stories came about.  While he jokes about his obsession as a child with aircraft from that era, it becomes clear to us that without that obsession, many of these brave airmen’s stories would not have been told.  While we knew about the marvellous design of Britain’s Spitfire aircraft, Michael Veitch presents details of other aircraft these men had to fly that could only be described as lemons with wings. This section is one of the highlights of the show.

The lighting design by Michael Brasser and the excellent projections of well-chosen photographs add a haunting atmosphere to the stories.  The subtle sound effects of droning aircraft were also well done.

At a time when our war history is uppermost in our thoughts, this is a memorable, entertaining and moving production from Michael Veitch.  Don’t miss it!

Monday, April 27, 2015



House of Sand presents a new work by Eliza Sanders.

QL2 Theatre. Gorman House Arts Centre. April 24 and 25. 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Eliza Sanders in Pedal.Peddle Photo by Stephen A'Court
Occasionally an artist emerges who possess the thrill to surprise. Eliza Sanders is such an artist. I did not know what to suspect as I entered the QL2 Studio at Gorman House Arts Centre. Eliza had invited me to review her dance work, and although I stressed that I was not a dance reviewer, she insisted that she wanted a theatre reviewer’s perspective of a dance piece that she regarded as owing its inspiration to Theatre of the Absurd that would not be judged in conventional manner.
Eliza Sanders. Photo by Lorna Sim
From the moment she entered the space, carrying a suitcase and entangled within a colourful display of enveloping material, Sanders enticed instant curiosity. Contemporary dance is the outward expression of the internal passion and the audience is invited to engage in a private conversation with oneself. What unfolds is the mystery of meaning and we are left to define its message.

And so, Sanders seduced me into taking a journey with her from the surprising utterance of words as she crossed herself during an itemized reminder of the things required for her impending journey. “Tickets, passport, Tampon, charger” over and over again as her arms jolted and jerked in the sign of the Holy Spirit. Here is the embarkation on Life’s travels, the fears, the doubts, the rituals, the desperate, urgent pleas for acceptance (I can sleep anywhere. I can sleep on the floor, as she writhes in anxious supplication, and finally the unravelling of the baggage that leaves her half naked, exposed and daubed with smears of black paint that mark her for the vulnerable, the exposed and the isolated. And so I watch an artist, whose originality, creative ingenuity and physical command of space entices and mesmerizes. Here is not the aesthetic of dance or the tutored expression of bodily movement, and yet it is the signature of dance that gives expression to feeling. I feel for Sanders’ anxiety, her confusion and her rebellious divestment of Life’s trials and tribulations. As she pedals through Life’s challenges preparing for a journey, hanging out Life’s washing upon the line, unravelling the clothes that define her and besmirching herself in defiance, I am aware that here is an unique and compelling artist, unfettered by convention and forcefully defining her art and her experience.
Pedal.Peddle. Photo by Stehen A'Court

Of course, I may have interpreted my own experience inaccurately in terms of Sanders’ conscious intentions. After all, her 6 a.m. flight could be taking her on a very different journey. But that doesn’t matter. I am moved. I am involved. I am provoked to think and to feel and to wrap my own impressions about her art, as her body speaks the language of movement.
Eliza Sanders in Pedal.Peddle. Photo by Lorna Sim

It is all surprise. I did not expect the witty snatches of dialogue. I did not expect the purity and seduction of her song and the words of Edith Piaff or Laura Marling or Jordie Lane amongst others. I did not expect the sudden touches of comedy as she transformed into a chicken, or the drama of her being in the fluidity of her dance of disrobing.

I approached without expectation and I left with a deeper appreciation of the power of the dancer to persuade and surprise. Sanders defies expectation and excites with the originality of her dance. Her work requires the commitment of an audience to engage with the image, evoke the emotions and arouse the intellect. If this occurs, Sanders’ work will offer a new experience in the lexicon of dance. She emerges as a refreshing new talent in contemporary Australian dance.
Pedal.Peddle at QL2. Photo by Lorna Sim



Created and performed by Eliza Sanders

Presented by: House of Sand

QL2 Theatre – Gorman House Arts Centre, 

Performance on 25th April reviewed by Bill Stephens

A former Quantum Leap dancer, Eliza Sanders has spent the last three years studying in New Zealand. While there she developed “Pedal.Peddle” in which she combines contemporary dance, cabaret and absurdist theatre forms, and which she performed in Canberra as part of curated residency at QL2 Dance.  

Into a space strung with clothes lines, a small figure emerges carrying a large suitcase and wearing what appear to be all her worldly goods wrapped around her body. She begins to chant a mantra to remind herself where she has hidden her keys, money and mobile. As she remembers more items to add to the list, the mantra becomes more convoluted and hilarious. She unpacks some of the contents of her suitcase, pegging on the clothes line an assortment of photos and newspaper clippings (memories perhaps?) and eventually an assortment of bras.  Then she pulls from the suitcase an old pair of tights, which she pulls over her head and morphs, surprisingly and hilariously, into a large chicken which scampers around the stage.

Eliza Sanders 
The effect is mesmerising as the audience is drawn into an ever more surreal and funny world. The multi-coloured cloth around her body becomes a huge lizard-like tail, and eventually a beautiful flowing train. Through-out all these revelations Sanders  recites existentialist poems and sings unaccompanied songs in a sweet, compellingly clear voice, sometimes to herself, sometimes directly at the audience. Many more such moments occur including a lovely sequence involving a conversation with a mirror masquerading as a pool of water.

Eventually she emerges, almost naked, from the flowing costume as if from a chrysalis, moving confidently around the stage, until the mood darkens, and she returns to the suitcase, removes a large paintbrush, and slowly and deliberately proceeds to paint thick black lines over her body, sometimes using her mouth to manipulate the brush. The effect is unsettling and strangely beautiful.

What to make of it all is left to the imagination of the individual observers, but the journey  is infinitely fascinating, absorbing, compelling, hugely entertaining and beautifully executed.

         This review was first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 26th April 2015


(L.- R) Mathew Chardon O'Dea and Josie Dunham (Wk 2)  -Vanessa De Jager and Fraser Findlay (wk.1)
Photograph: Pete Stiles
Director: Richard Block.  Musical Director: Damien Slingsby
Presented by: Dramatic Productions
Teatro Vivaldi - until May 3rd.

Opening night performance on April 24th reviewed by Bill Stephens

Canberra’s newest professional theatre company, Dramatic Productions makes an auspicious debut with this beautifully mounted presentation of Jason Robert Brown’s compelling chamber musical, “The Last Five Years”, showcasing the talents of four outstanding local music theatre performers, over two weeks. (Vanessa De Jager and Fraser Findlay – week 1 and Josie Dunham and Mathew Chardon O’Dea – Week 2)

Essentially a series of solos, “The Last Five Years” charts the love affair of struggling actress, Cathy (Vanessa De Jager), and her novelist lover, Jamie (Fraser Findlay). Their stories are told in reverse chronological order, which demands a deal of concentration from the audience.

Cathy begins the show at the end of the affair and traces events backwards until her first meeting with Jamie.  Jamie begins by reliving his first meeting with Cathy and tells his story in chronological order until their eventual break-up.  Their stories meet only in the middle of the show.

As Cathy, De Jager delivers an arresting, pitch-perfect performance.  The pathos of her heartbreak at the beginning is palpable. Her brilliantly bungled audition is hilarious, while her confusion at Jamie’s growing indifference is affecting.

Findlay’s portrayal of Jamie as a flamboyant egocentric, while technically admirable, is emotionally uninvolving. His best moment comes in the excellently staged “If I didn’t Believe in You” in which he tries to convince Cathy of his love for her. Rachel Thornton makes a brief, but telling, appearance as the mistress.

Thompson Quan Wing’s carefully detailed apartment setting, dominates the show, and indeed Teatro Vivaldi’s elegant dining room, but feels rather irrelevant,  given that most of the action of the piece takes place outside the apartment. Not even some imaginative directorial choices by director, Richard Block, could overcome resulting ambiguities.

An excellent five-piece ensemble, lead from the piano by Damien Slingsby survived some first night sound glitches, to provide superb accompaniment for this excellent inaugural production. 
            An edited version of this review published  CITY NEWS on April 25th 2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015


The Last Five Years

Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Richard Block. Choreographed by Hannah McFadden. Musical Director Damien Slingsby. Teatro Vivaldi. ANU. April 24 - May 2.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Vanessa de Jager plays Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
In a relatively small city that abounds with theatre companies, a new emerging company faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is the availability of talent and the opportunity to launch the company with a new show in an appropriate venue and with the support of the community.
Canberra entrepreneur, Richard Block has launched his new company, Dramatic Productions, at the delightfully charming and intimate Teatro Vivaldi, where Canberrans have come to be assured of fine food, good wines and first class entertainment. For his premier production, Block has chosen to direct the little known two hand American musical, The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. It is a sensible choice, given its Off Broadway nature that fits ideally into a venue such as Teatro Vivaldi. It is a conservative choice, given that it features only two performers, a small band, a  simple setting and a moderate budget. It is wise for a new company to start small and grow and good things can come in small packages. However, it is also a risk. The musical may not be well-known and pale into the shadows compared to some of the more popular and spectacular musicals that have been recently staged by such established companies as Free Rain, Supa, Canberra Philharmonic and Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre.
Block is no wilting flower when it comes to promotion, both of his own work and Canberra’s rich tapestry of performing arts through his website, Stagecenta. I imagine that he has weighed up the risks, and forged ahead with solutions that have guaranteed an inaugural production that is sure to win acclaim and ensure Dramatic Productions a secure place in Canberra’s rich and diverse theatre scene.
Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
The Last Five Years is unabashedly American. It explores the fractious relationship within a marriage, purported to be Brown’s own, and traces the roller-coaster ride from its passionate, love-struck beginning to its eventual disintegration and all the conflicts, frustrations and irritations that pitch career aspirations against relationship expectations and needling insecurities. It is a journey that may be readily identifiable, and one that permeates many Off Broadway musicals. That may be a generalization, but The Last Five Years is not without its fair share of navel-gazing. Some may empathize with struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Vanessa de Jager) and there may be many males in the audience who fail to see where  Jamie Wellerstein (Fraser Findlay) went wrong. Seen it all before?
Not quite. Brown cleverly flips convention to show the audience Cathy at the moment that their marriage breaks down (Still Hurting) and Jamie at the first meeting  (Shiksa Goddess). From there each song takes us back to the beginning for Cathy and forward for Jamie at the time of his parting note and departure. Only at their engagement (The Next Ten Minutes) do Cathy and Jamie come together in the same time period at the end of the first act.
Fraser Findlay as Jamie Wellerstein
Photo by Pete Stiles
What then makes this production such a success, which it undoubtedly is, and I would suggest a music theatre highlight in the intimate musical category? Brown’s two way travel through the marriage helps. So too does the ambience of Teatro Vivaldi. Musical director Damien Slingsby's arrangements of Brown’s score certainly helps as the primarily sung narrative lurches through a host of genres from pop to reggae to jazz with tributes to Hamlisch, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb  and other trail-blazing American music theatre composers.
Where Block has struck gold, however, is in the casting. Vanessa de Jager has already established herself as a leading light upon the music theatre stage. Not only can she sing like a diva, but every pore of her being charts the emotional and psychological pain and pleasure of Cathy Hiatt’s turbulent experience, whether in the relationship (I’m Still Hurting) or at the audition (Climbing Uphill) or at that liberating freedom from her origins (I Can Do Better Than That)

Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
A relative newcomer to the Canberra Music Theatre stage, Fraser Findlay is a phenomenal find. His professional resume reaches from Glasgow to New York and back to Europe and Dubai. What is impressive on paper is well-proven  on stage. His Wellerstein explodes with the self-centred, neurotic obsession of the writer, battling ambition and creativity with the demands of marriage and responsibility. From his idiosyncratic rendition of Moving Too Fast, it is obvious that Jamie is on the road to a doomed future. Findlay flicks the song’s rhythms to suit his character’s eccentricity with a bursting energy and charismatic individuality that holds an audience on every note of his unpredictable story.
Fraser Findlay as Jamie Wellerstein and Vanessa De Jager as Cathy Hiatt
Photo by Pete Stiles
Together, de Jager and Findlay burn with the chemistry of volatility and fluid passion. It is a sheer delight being thoroughly engaged by two such consummate artists and astounded by de Jager’s costume changes. Director Block has double cast the show and next week two other local Music Theatre favourites Josie Dunham and Matthew Chardon O’Dea will take the roles of Hiatt and Wellerstein. That makes the show worth a second visit.
Fraser Findlay in The Last Five Years. Photo by Pete Stiles
The Last Five Years is a wise choice for a fledgling company , launching itself upon a vibrant music theatre scene. Block has decided to stage it as a theatre piece with a box set tucked in a corner of Teatro Vivaldi’s and mikes for the two actors, both of whom should be capable of filling the space without the aid of electronic sound. Apart from some difficulty with the sound levels on opening night, miked numbers in the small space lost the potential poignancy in certain songs. Block has directed the show for a larger space . In the cabaret  environment of Teatro Vivaldi this seemed unnecessary and probably could have been staged with less expense.
Vanessa De Jager in The Last Five Years. Photo by Pete Stiles
This aside, Dramatic Productions has made an impressive debut with The Last Five Years. In August, Block launches into the bigtime with Sondheim’s massive challenge, Into The Woods at Gunghalin College. If he can cast that as well as he has done with The Last Five Years, and gather together the team that has brought this show to Canberra audiences, then here is a company to swell the excellent reputation of music theatre in Canberra and Queanbeyan.


Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Richard Block
Musical Direction by Damien Slingsby
Dramatic Productions
Teatro Vivaldi, April 24 – May 2, 2015

Review by Len Power 24 April 2015
There are two very good reasons to see ‘The Last Five Years’ – the music and the performances.  Both reach the heights in the new production at Teatro Vivaldi.

Jason Robert Brown’s musical dissects the bumpy relationship between Jamie and his wife, Cathy, over a period of five years.  It doesn’t have a happy ending but we know that from the start as the structure of the show starts with Cathy at the end of the relationship and Jamie at the start.  As the show progresses, Cathy goes back in time to the joyful beginning while Jamie goes forward to the sad end of their relationship.  It’s a clever idea on paper but, as Jamie’s songs at the end are especially sombre and Cathy’s are not bright enough in contrast, the conclusion is much too depressing.

However, the music score is mostly very satisfying.  Jason Robert Brown – one of the crop of interesting new composers in American theatre – writes excellent mood music for his characters.  The arrangements are lush and no-one uses a cello for effect quite like he does.  Musical director, Damien Slingsby, and his small group of musicians have presented the score superbly.

The show won’t work at all if you don’t have high-calibre performers.  Both Vanessa De Jager and Fraser Findlay more than met the demands of the music and also gave in-depth character performances that were quite believable and moving.

Given the limits of the venue, the set designed by Thompson Quan Wing was quite substantial and well-executed.  However, its deliberate drab reality reinforced the show’s already sombre feel.  An abstract design could have provided more imaginative opportunities to lift the mood in the happier moments of the show.  The sound balance was variable during the performance, especially in the first two songs and also in Cathy’s ‘Climbing Uphill’ in the second act.  Costumes by Suzan Cooper and Fiona Leach were well-chosen to match the mood of the characters in different moments of their journey through their relationship and the occasional choreographed moments were nicely executed by Hannah McFadden.

Richard Block, the director, has wisely staged the show with plenty of movement.  There were some awkwardly staged entrances and exits, though, which were a bit too challenging for effective lighting and sound in that venue.  Overall, he has provided a mostly satisfying production of this interesting show.

In an unusual move by the director, the cast reviewed here will have finished their performances by now.  A different cast will perform the show in the second week of the season.  The show gives actors a great opportunity to interpret characters in their own individual ways.  It would be interesting to see what the second cast makes of it.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 26 April 2015 from 5pm.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Bookbinder

The Bookbinder written and performed by Ralph McCubbin Howell from a story by Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith. Directed by Hannah Smith. Trick of the Light. C Block Theatre, Gorman House Arts Centre. April 17-18.

The month should not be allowed to pass without a brief mention of a tiny show that passed through Canberra Youth Theatre’s doors from New Zealand with an enchanting and intriguing story to tell.

Surrounded by the tools of the bookbinder and various sources of light Ralph McCubbin Howell as The Bookbinder tells a wry and compelling little story about a boy who finds more than he expected when he is apprenticed to a bookbinder in a seaside town.

This is one of those small scale pieces of theatre that uses cunning cut outs and pop ups and shadows and storytelling and loads of theatrical imagination to pull the audience in.   It’s dark and funny and full of a compelling sense of morality.

A full house on the final night of a very short season clearly found that bookbinding could be spell binding.

And the good news is that later this year CYT will collaborate with Long Cloud Youth Theatre to present 2014 Bruce Mason Playwriting Award winner Ralph McCubbin Howell’s Dead Men’s Wars, a new contemplation of the matter of ANZAC. 

for more information on Dead Men’s Wars at CYT including auditions.
for more information on Trick of the Light and The Bookbinder.

Alanna Maclean

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Written by Glen Berger
Performed by James Scott
Directed by John Concannon
CADA Theatre, 1/9 Lithgow St., Fyshwick
April 16 – 26, 2015

Review by Len Power April 16, 2015

‘Underneath the Lintel’ comes to us with quite a track record, having played Off-Broadway in New York in 2001 for over 450 performances and winning a swag of awards.  It’s an impressive play that you must see.

An obsessed Dutch librarian investigates why a library book has suddenly been returned over a century since being borrowed.  We are drawn into his obsession, too, and are soon on the edge of our seats wanting to know the answer.

The librarian – the only character in the play - is played by James Scott in a bravura performance that is funny, quirky, intense and ultimately moving.  Addressing and involving the audience throughout the play, James Scott gives a reality to this character that is quite remarkable.

The set, designed by Kate Llewellyn, is a wonderful jumble of a living room that seems exactly what you’d expect for such an obsessive person.  The lighting and sound design by Ryan Pemberton is exceptional, especially a moment where the librarian’s hands need to be accurately lit.

The witty, literate script by Glen Berger is a feast for the ears and entertains us from start to finish.  How quickly we become obsessed by the mystery is all due to his masterful writing.  He knows how to grip an audience and not let go.

John Concannon, the director, has done excellent work in all aspects of this production.  Honest Puck Theatre is Canberra’s newest professional theatre company.  ‘Underneath The Lintel’ is an excellent choice for a first show.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 17 April 2015 and broadcast on Bill Stephens’ ‘Dress Circle’ program on Artsound FM from 5pm Sunday 19 April 2015.