Monday, August 31, 2015

Back to the 80s - Sass & Tease

Joan Jett poses on the Delorean that will take her... Back to the 80s.

Review by John Lombard

I have never seen anyone happier when taking their clothes off than Tiffany Blue.  Tiffany obviously loves her audience and when coaxed into taking off her bra by the hoots and cheers of the crowd gives a big smile that says: “This is fun for you, but it’s more fun for me."

It is Friday night and I am seeing Sass & Tease’s burlesque show “Back to the 80s” at Vivaldi’s restaurant.  Tiffany is the third act, performing to “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”  If that, the title, and the fact that MC Jacob Harlem is dressed as Marty McFly doesn’t give you a hint that these acts are all set to 80s music, nothing will.  

For some people the 80s might be about Bob Hawke or Reagonomics or even Australia’s victory in the America’s Cup, but for me it was mainly about… the Ninja Turtles.  I was a kid.  And apparently Jacob Harlem was too.  At the opening of the show when demonstrating standard burlesque procedure he unzipped his jacket to reveal a Ninja Turtles shirt.  A second mention of the Ninja Turtles later in the show got my hopes up that this meant a performer would literally come out of her shell, but there was no third mention, and following Beetlejuice rules it was not to be.

Of course, since my main association with the 80s is the cartoons I saw on television, I came into the night feeling cocky about my relative age.  But this was not to be because Jacob Harlem took a quick poll of the audience and established that many audience members were not even born in the 80s.  Worse, neither were some of the performers.  Now that really did make me feel old.

One of the themes of the night was that the 80s is big and bold and silly and fun - but also sincere.  Painfully, awkwardly sincere, the sincerity of first love and bad fashion choices made when you were fourteen.   80s love songs are ridiculously, bombastically earnest, and somehow that makes them a perfect fit for burlesque.   Many of the acts were clearly very personal and important to the performers and very well-rehearsed (this is the second time Sass & Tease has performed an 80s show).  I recognised some of the acts as part of the standard oeuvre of the performers but that did not make them any less entertaining, and for regulars they must have felt like old favourites.

The opening performance was Virginia Fizz in Goblin (Drag) King mode as David Bowie for “Magic Dance” from Labyrinth (it wasn’t the Ninja Turtles but it was a start).  Fizz danced around the restaurant in an uncanny recreation of Bowie that, honestly, I thought was a bit sexier than the original.  Cameo appearances of 80s rock stars continued with Ursula Wolfe recreating Joan Jett in a ferocious strip that unfortunately too often dipped below the sightlines of the venue.  This was followed by Tiffany’s act and then a special guest, rapper MC KREWD.  MC KREWD, decked out in a wedding dress, began to strip while attempting to snort cocaine (appropriately enough, white wedding was playing).   So far, so 80s.  She then produced a decapitated fish head and began to make out with it to a mix of delight and horror from the audience.  I can confidently say that nobody was prepared for that to happen at an 80s show.

Fortunately we then went to interval (necessary to process what we had just seen) and the delightful news that there was an actual Delorean parked out the front ready for photos.  Poses and re-enactments of the Back to the Future posters began in earnest, with Jacob Harlem chivalrously offering his Marty McFly jacket to women in need.

After the interval we saw Captain Spitfire, the only “boylesque” performer of the night.  Spitfire’s character was a Chaplinesque heartbroken stripper with no energy left for taking his clothes off.  Initially, for me it felt lazy rather than comically lazy, especially because it followed a chain of kinetic and highly polished acts, but it was a hit with the audience and warmed up as Spitfire fed off their energy.  I also had to dodge a flying shirt, an important skill all burlesque audience members need to develop.  This was followed by Virginia Fizz’s second number, a creative and intense take on the idea of a poisoned apple.  Unfortunately like Ursula Wolfe’s act it was hurt because the performer kept ducking out of sight.  This was a common problem with the acts and unfortunately it especially damaged Abel Fox’s performance.  Abel Fox is a phenomenal, unforgettable burlesque performer but her act was a poor choice for the venue and forced people sitting behind the front row to crane forward to see her.

The final act of the night was for me its great surprise, special guest Jazida.  Jazida won this year’s Burlesque Idol Canberra and holy heck is she good at this.  Jazida performed an 80s medley that nearly stole the show even if it lacked the powerful climax of the other acts.  Jacob Harlem then brought everything together by performing a monologue from The Breakfast Club, the perfect hit of 80s nostalgia to end the night.

If it isn’t clear yet, this was a very fun show.  Between Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club they knew how to push my nostalgia buttons, and as much as we make fun of those drum machines they do make you want to dance, especially when fortified by libations from Vivaldi’s well-stocked bar.  Much like the 80s itself, Sass & Tease has a passionate sincerity that gives it a distinctive, slightly nerdy identity.  This was everything you could want from a night of burlesque.

MATILDA - The Musical

Book: Dennis Kelly, 
Music & Lyrics: 
Tim Minchin 
Matthew Warchus
Choreographer: Peter Darling
Set and Costume Design: Rob Howell

Presented by: The Royal Shakespeare Company and Louise Withers, Michael Coppell and Michael Watt.

Sydney Lyric Theatre from July 2015

Performance on 19th August 2015 reviewed by Bill Stephens.

When in 2000, Tim Minchin played a two-week season at the School of Arts Café in Queanbeyan as accompanist to Todd McKenney; he was unknown beyond his hometown of Perth. In the 15 years since, Minchin has become a household name as a charismatic cabaret artist, a compelling music theatre performer, a successful dramatic actor, and now as the composer of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s hugely successful production of the Roald Dahl musical, “Matilda” which has just begun its Sydney season.

Adapted by Dennis Kelly from Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, “Matilda” is a fable about a 5 year-old girl. Because of her insatiable reading habit, she’s unwanted and unloved by her own self-possessed family.  However, the local librarian, Mrs Phelps (Cle Morgan) can’t get enough of Matilda’s vivid stories and encourages her imagination.  Her gift is also noticed by her teacher, Miss Honey, who, herself, also had a difficult childhood. When Miss Honey invites Matilda to visit her in the shed she calls home, her touching ballad, “My House” inspires Matilda to be proud of her talents, and together with her class mates, stand up to the tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (James Millar) in the show’s most memorable scene “Revolting Children”.

"Revolting Children" - Sydney cast 

The material suits Minchin’s writing style perfectly. His lyrics are witty and fresh and his tunes immediately engaging, capturing perfectly Dahl’s idiosyncratic writing style. Although it’s tempting to attribute the show’s success to Minchin’s catchy songs, there are many more reasons which make this production an absolute “must see”.

Firstly, the show itself is among the more inventive and original musicals to hit the Australian stage in recent times. It has a cracker of a cast whose names you might not immediately recognise, but who bring freshness, wit and skill to their roles.

When I Grow Up - Sydney cast 

The direction by Matthew Warchus is masterful, creating a comic book world that stimulates the imagination and satisfies the intellect, while remaining at all times hugely entertaining.

The busy settings and costumes by Rob Howell are ingenious and colourful. Peter Darling has devised inventive, quirky choreography which is executed with admirable style and precision by the whole cast, children, as well as the adults. A number early in the second act, “When I Grow Up” in which the children take to swings to soar out over the heads of the audience is particularly memorable.

Sasha Rose played Matilda at this particular performance. She’s one of four Matilda’s, who share the title role at different performances. Her triple threat performance was very impressive. Blessed with superb diction, she sang and danced with all the aplomb of an experienced trouper, landed all her jokes successfully and had the audience in the palm of her tiny hand as she tugged on the heartstrings towards the end.

She received terrific support from the eight other young actors in her particular team, all of whom performed with admirable confidence and panache.

Marika Aubrey as Mrs Wormwood 
The adult actors are no less impressive in their ability to create larger than life characters that still retain a sense of humanity and believability.  As Matilda’s ferocious, self-absorbed mother- from-hell, Mrs Wormwood, Marika Aubrey, is a vision of splendid suburban tackiness. More interested in perfecting her dancing skills with her swarthy, “part-Italian” tutor, Rudolpho, (Travis Khan) than her housework, she perfectly fits her own description of herself in her big number “Loud”.  Mr. Wormwood (Daniel Frederiksen), Matilda’s father, is his wife’s perfect match, so disinterested in Matilda that he can’t even remember if she’s a boy or a girl, while her brother Michael (Daniel Raso) can’t drag his eyes away from the television even when he’s moving furniture around the room. All are believable caricatures that are both funny and sad at the same time.

James Millar as Miss Truchbull 

None more so though than James Millar’s creation, the formidable headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, part Aunty Jack and part Les Patterson, gleefully terrorising her charges while still managing to elicit audience sympathy especially when she getting her well-deserved come-uppance at the end.
The only ‘normal’ character in the show is Miss Honey, who provides Matilda with the stability she is seeking, played with warmth and considerable charm by Elise McCann.

This is a show that is clever, anarchic, definitely not PC, but absolutely enchanting from beginning to end, capturing perfectly Roald Dahl’ s ability to subversively serve up important life lessons for both children and adults alike. It’ll have you rushing to your bookshelves to re-read your Roald Dahl, and even looking for an excuse to take the kids back for a second look. 

Photos by James Morgan

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Of Mice and Men

Review by Alanna Maclean

Canberra Times


Review by Alanna Maclean

Canberra Times

The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The Tempest by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare directed by John Bell; set and costume designer, Julie Lynch; lighting designer, Damien Cooper; composer, Alan John; sound designer, Nate Edmondson; movement director, Scott Witt.  The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 19 – September 18, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 29

Only one other production of The Tempest has inspired me as much as John Bell’s farewell to his career as artistic director and founder of Bell Shakespeare.  This was Rex Cramphorn’s “1972 Performance Syndicate production of The Tempest [which] received critical and popular acclaim, being remounted and taken on tour until 1974.”   It’s an irony of history that  Cramphorn’s later production of The Tempest in 1991 was his last show before his untimely death in November that year.

There seems to be something magical in the divergences and points of contact in the histories not only of John Bell and Rex Cramphorn, but even for me.  Our births were very close (1 November 1940, 10 January 1941 and 9 January 1941 respectively), though far apart in Maitland, Brisbane and the UK.  We each were influenced by choreographer and dance-drama teacher, the inimitable Margaret Barr, briefly in my case at summer schools, as his teacher at NIDA for Rex and as his colleague when John taught at NIDA. 

I attempted a few dance classes with Margaret Barr, and remember her home as light, white, almost bare of furniture, spotless, pure and simple.  I began my 20 year drama teaching career at Hawker College, Canberra, in 1976, with a production of The Tempest, keeping in mind my image of Margaret Barr and Rex Cramphorn’s production, keeping the action within a circle, enclosed only by loose unadorned material.  And so it is for John Bell’s production all these years later.

In the tradition of Margaret Barr’s teaching, both Cramphorn and Bell focus on movement of the actors in open space, creating an island of dancing magic – sometimes heavy on the ground, sometimes up and light yet powerful, often ethereal and invisible, yet audible – or, in contrast, silent.  This is The Tempest that was also William Shakespeare’s most original and last major work. 

It was the creation of a spirit world that had inspired me about Cramphorn’s work.  It was a world of philosophic enquiry, where the island became the universe, a place of wonder and mystery.  It was this theme that my late teenage students took up enthusiastically, with an image of a huge eye painted high on the rough hessian backdrop, observing all silently, as if from a different universe.

Bell’s production keeps the same feel and the same philosophical implications, but blends in the complexity of ordinary reality.  Though Cramphorn (and I) had kept all our actors in the circle on stage throughout, as if there were no other place to be, even for those not active in the scene, Bell used the circle as an ever-changing space into and out of which characters come and go, as if the rest of the island is concretely out there somewhere, while the spot we see shifts from place to place – entirely in our imaginations, with nothing more than wind moving the surrounding material drops, a rope or a log, or no more than the characters’ costumes to tell us where we are.

The effect is to add a layer of understanding to those previous productions, anchored as they were in the 1970s.  For me, and I suspect for Rex Cramphorn, influenced so much by Jerzy Grotowski, the freedom of the magical world to explore the unknown was where we needed to go.  We were escaping philosophically, perhaps.  But the new world order today requires us to come to grips with strategic thinking – as indeed it was in Shakespeare’s time as absolute monarchy was beginning to be taken down, at first by extremist Puritans, until over the next centuries a reasonable form of democracy could evolve.  Shakespeare is described in John Bell’s director’s notes as “to have been a remarkably competent businessman and one celebrated by those close to him for his witty, mild and affable companionship”.  The very kind of democrat we would all hope to see – and to be.

So in Bell’s production, Prospero is realistically getting a bit past it, and at times is aware that he can’t keep his powers up to the mark.  At 74 I find I have the same problem, and perhaps John Bell feels a bit the same way.  I asked him if leaving the task of directing Bell Shakespeare, the Company, was to be free in particular of Responsibility (though he is continuing to work, as an actor in Ivanov with Belvoir next month).  “No more applications for funding grants,” was his reply.  And there he was, as director of The Tempest, in the second week of the run, still watching and making notes for cast and crew.

My notes say that the casting is excellent, the set and costumes brilliant, the lighting, sound and music composition wonderful, and the movement exciting and telling: the balance between fantasy and reality, or rather the fact that both exist at one and the same time, is made in the movement design and the capacity of the actors to work as dancers – and singers – while completely grounded in their characters. 

You may not think you are seeing dance for the most part, since the choreography is of symbolic or natural seeming movement.  But watch this perfect apparition of Ariel, played with such grace and strength by Matthew Backer.  Watch the two drunken clowns, Trinculo and  Stephano – Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas, who also amazingly play Sebastian and Antonio – to see what I mean about choreography.  But especially watch the one and only woman in the cast (the others – Caliban's mother Sycorax and Prospero’s wife – die before the play begins). 

Eloise Winestock shows us Miranda as the girl brought up in the wild – she hisses at Caliban with animal ferocity.  Now the hormones of developing sexuality lock her onto the quite proper young man, Ferdinand.  Felix Gentle is exactly the right name for this actor, and his Ferdinand is just as amazed at Winestock’s Miranda as she is by him.

I would have presented Caliban, I think, as much more ugly or wild-looking, but I can see why Damien Strouthos was given a less animal-like hair cut, but one still representing rebellion.  It makes him a genuinely serious threat to Miranda’s safety, which Prospero must defend, while we also realise that Caliban is justified in hating Prospero, in parallel to Ariel’s position – though Ariel is more like an indentured labourer, while Caliban is enslaved.

Finally, Prospero’s awareness of his own ageing frailty explains how he can step out of the fantasy and speak directly to us, asking us to free him from his responsibility as an actor.  This speech, especially under Bell’s direction, places Shakespeare centuries ahead of his time in theatre history – beyond Bertolt Brecht even.  We see this level of sophistication currently in the ABC’s The Weekly, in the relationships between Charlie Pickering, Tom Gleeson, Kitty Flanagan and the studio audience, as well as with us watching our screen at home.  If we thought Shakespeare is no longer relevant after 400 years, think again on Prospero’s final speech.

Which ends “Let your indulgence set me free.”  And so be it for John Bell, except that it’s no indulgence on my part.  Bell writes in his program notes “Prospero is a dreamer and is a disastrously ineffective leader.  He prides himself on being a humanist scholar, but in fact governs through terror, tyranny and the employment of dark forces.  Shakespeare, on the other hand, seems to have been....”  I think the evidence, in this production of The Tempest, proves that John Bell is more like Shakespeare than Prospero, and so thoroughly deserves his freedom.

Ian Maxwell in Australian Dictionary of Biography, at

Garry Lester in Australian Dictionary of Biography, at

Photos by Prudence Upton
Matthew Backer as Ariel, Brian Lipson as Prospero

Brian Lipson as Prospero, Eloise Winestock as Miranda, Damien Strouthos as Caliban

Damien Strouthos as Caliban

Eloise Winestock as Miranda, Brian Lipson as Prospero

Thunder and lightning. Enter Ariel, like a harpy

Eloise Winestock, Arky Michael, Haxem Shammas as Spirit Shapes
Brian Lipson as Prospero

Felix Gentle (Ferdinand) and Eloise Winestock (Miranda) in rehearsal

The Drunks in rehearsal
Arky Michael as Trinculo, Hazem Shammas as Stephano, Damien Strouthos as Caliban

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Into the Woods  Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine.  Dramatic Productions in association with ANU School of Music, directed by Richard Block.  Musical Director: Damien Slingsby; Choreographer: Kathryn Jones; Lighting: Hamish McConchie; Sound: James PcPherson.  At Gungahlin College Theatre, Canberra, August 28 – September 12, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 28

Having only previously seen Into the Woods via the movie, I would like to thank the Dramatic Productions team.  Now I know what Sondheim meant me to understand.  Only on stage, because of the way a playwright structures the drama, do we appreciate both the humour in the breaking of conventions and the genuinely serious theme which results.

At the simplest level, the film does not have an Act I Finale, followed, after an interval of popcorn consumption, by Act II with its Finale.  ‘No One is Alone’ is a powerful expression of humanity in the context of truth about the human condition.  In movie format the guts of the message is lost.

My appreciation also goes to all the performers for clearly understanding the Sondheim style, in the music and in the often surprising structure of the songs, where what would be short sharp dialogue between characters makes duets into lively interactions – little dramas in their own right.  The two princes Alexander Clubb (Cinderella’s Prince) and Anthony Simeonovic (Rapunzel’s Prince) created very effective comedy in their timing in their singing lines, as well as in their choreographed movement; while Veronica Thwaites-Brown and Grant Pegg captured the edginess of the marital arguments of the Baker and his Wife, as well as their tenderness.  Despite the ‘spoof’ nature of the whole idea of the mixed up fairytales, the sudden death, crushed by the Giant’s footfall off-stage, of this Wife made me feel entirely at one with this Baker’s sense of loss.  Her later return in spirit to give him support and direction was played with such simple sensitivity by Veronica, that we could genuinely accept Grant’s new quiet strength as the Baker taking the still impetuous young Jack (Pippin Carroll) under his wing in ‘No One is Alone’. 

The relationship Veronica and Grant had established by then also passed on to Philippa Murphy’s Cinderella in mentoring Siân Harrington’s effervescent Little Red Riding Hood in their half of that quartet.  Here was the formation out of the worst adversity of a new family of the best kind.  For me it was the emotional strength in this scene which lifted the play far above making fun of fairy stories, and beyond conventional sentimentality.  The Giants with their crushing footsteps are all around us, yet on this very day instead of our society understanding the need to bring us all together in positive human feeling, people in Melbourne were on the streets in instant protest against the Australian Border Force proposing to stop people – “any individual we cross paths with” – and demand to see that they are legitimately in Australia.  Within hours Operation Fortitude was cancelled as a result of the Melbourne Jacks’ action.  The Giant was slain.  But I fear this may not be the last of the Giants our Bakers, Jacks, Cinderellas and Red Riding Hoods, or indeed the sons and daughters of the Baker and his Wife, the Baker and Cinderella, and presumably Jack and Red Riding Hood, will have to deal with.

Though there were a few glitches in the lighting and once or twice in the singers’ mikes, the set, costumes and choreography made very good use of the excellent Gunghalin College Theatre.  I could only be jealous in comparison with what for me had been an unusually good school theatre at Hawker College back in the 1990s.  It’s good to see such wonderful – and appropriate – development in government school and community arts facilities.

Finally, the musicianship of the orchestra, directed by Damien Slingsby, must not be forgotten.  Sondheim writes ‘difficult’ music, and this 16-piece orchestra made it a joy to listen to, in combination with singers all of whom mastered what I, as an amateur, would call ‘musical jumps’ – like an obstacle course for an Olympic horse-riding team.

So thanks again for a very interesting night out.

All photos by Peter Stiles

Baker's Wife, Baker, Jack, The Cow
Veronica Thwaites-Brown, Grant Pegg, Pippin Carroll

Cinderella's Family
Jessica Baker, Kitty McGarry, Miriam Miley-Read
Philippa Murphy as Cinerella

Cinderella at The Ball
Philippa Murphy

Kelly Robert as The Witch

The Wolf and Red Riding Hood
Alexander Clubb, Siân Harrington


'No One is Alone'
Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella (holding Baker's son), Baker
Siân Harrington, Pippin Carroll, Philippa Murphy, Grant Pegg


Into The Woods

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Book by James Lapine. Directed by Richard Block. Musical Direction by Damien Slingsby. Choreography by Kathryn Jones. Gunghalin College Theatre. August 28 - September 12 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

I have often sung the praises of the quality of music theatre productions in Canberra, but Richard Block’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods has raised the bar to an entirely new level.  Sondheim’s canon of remarkable works represents the Everest of musical theatre. To scale its challenges demands the pinnacle of performance, the peak of musical direction and orchestration , the heights of choreography and the summit of production. Block’s fledgling Dramatic Productions  delivers in spades at the Gunghalin College Theatre.

Jessica Baker as Florinda. Kitty McGarry as Lucinda. Miriam Miley-Read as the Stepmother and Philippa Murphy as Cinderella in Into The Woods  Photo by Pete Stiles
Part of this production’s astounding success is due to Block’s ability to procure the sumptuous sets, props and costumes of the Victorian State Opera’s original production.  Pictorially, this production of Sondheim’s ingenious take on nursery rhyme characters in search of wish fulfilment is a delightful invitation to Sondheim's twist on the perilous adventures of the popular fairy tale characters : Cinderella (Philippa Murphy) and her wicked stepmother ( Miriam Miley-Read)and step-sisters (Jessica Baker and Kitty McGarry); the childless Baker (Grant Pegg) and his wife (Veronica Thwaites Brown); Jack (Pippin Carroll) and his mother (Debra Byrne),;Rapunzel (Taylor Kunkel) and her mother, the witch who seeks the spell to restore her beauty (Kelly Roberts); Little Red Riding Hood (Sian Harrington) and the Wolf (Alexander Chubb)  and the two princes in search of true love ( Chubb and Anthony Simeonovic).More supporting roles of the Steward (Brian Kavanagh) and Gran (Yanina Clifton) maintain the high performance standard of this production. Sondheim has cleverly interwoven the familiar characters into a search for the things that will bring them true happiness. His use of a storybook narrator (Tony Falla) draws the threads of the mysteries together in a funny, sad, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining magical brew of interwoven relationships and adventures.

Veronica Thwaites-Brown as The Baker's Wife. Grant Pegg as The Baker and Kelly Roberts as The Witch in Dramatic Productions' Into The Woods-  Photo by Pete Stiles
Dramatic Productions’ success must be attributed to the fact that this is an entirely local production, showcasing the most remarkable talent that Canberra has to offer in a musical that is enormously challenging for performers, musicians, and crew. This production offers audiences the opportunity  to experience a highly professional staging of Sondheim’s Into The Woods on their doorstep. Performances by Philippa Murphy as Cinderella, Sian Harrington as Red Riding Hood and Alexander Chubb and Anthony Simeonovic as the Princes  are worthy of any professional production of this musical. So too are the performances of more mature performers such as Pegg, Thwaites-Brown and  Roberts. Special mention should be made of Music Theatre legend Toni Lamond’s superb voiceover rendition of the slain giant’s distraught and vengeful wife. She is the terrifying avenger of unexpected consequence.

Tony Falla as Mysterious and Grant Pegg as The Baker
Photo by Pete Stiles
Musically, Sondheim is the great experimenter with angular harmonies, complex rhythms and a diverse range of styles, inherited from the classics, pop and folk. Into The Woods is less melodic than some of his other works, such as Company, Sweeny Todd or Sunday In The Park With George. Audiences are likely to leave the theatre humming the repetitive title song and the Witch’s Lament, but Sondheim’s occasional haunting atonality leaves a lingering feeling, rather than a popular, hummable tune. Under Damien Slingsby’s superb musical direction, singers and orchestra evoke the atmosphere of Sondheim’s moral musical. The orchestra never intrudes, complementing perfectly the performances upon the stage, and Kathryn Jones’s choreography, combining folk dance and ballet, captures the era of European folk tale  Richard Block’s clean and direct direction is atmospherically complemented  by Hamish McConchie’s lighting and James McPherson’s sound design. Damien Slingsby’s atmospheric musical evocation of Sondheim’s score is skilfully interpreted by his excellent orchestra and Kathryn Jones’s choreography is jubilantly captured by her dancers , Rachel Thornton, Yanina Clifton and Mackenzie Rae Lennard, all of whom double up in other roles. Every aspect of production demonstrates the careful thought that has gone into all aspects of this local production of Into The Woods, making it a highlight upon Canberra’s vibrant Music Theatre scene .
For those who live some distance away on the south side of Canberra, the prospect of venturing out in search of the Gunghalin College Theatre may appear daunting. Cast aside all doubt. The Tuggeranong Parkway offers swift access from even the furthest reaches, and Dramatic Productions’ beautiful staging of Into The Woods by the legendary thinking man and woman’s composer  is not to be missed.


Saturday, August 29, 2015


The 26 Storey Treehouse

Adapted from the book by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton by Richard Tulloch. Directed by Julian Louis and Liesel Badorrek. Set and costume design by Mark Thompson. Lighting by Nicholas Higgins. Sound design by Ross Johnston. Choreography by Katie Kermond. The Q. Queanbeyan Peforming Arts Centre. August 25-28 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


Writer, Andy Griffiths, and illustrator, Terry Denton have once again hit on the perfect recipe to enchant and delight young children with The 26 Storey Treehouse, a colourful, bright and fun-filled sequel to their runaway success, The 13 Storey Treehouse. With a collection of new and exciting adventures, Andy (Luke Carson)and Terry (John Shearman), accompanied by two other actors  and an obliging stagehand set out to  escape their bossy, uncaring parents and enter into a perilous world of Captain Woodhead (James Lee) and  his wooden  cutout band of nasty pirates, Gorgonzola, the cheese smelling, man-eating shark, puppeteered by the busy stagehand, the dangerous Maze of Doom and the devious Edward Scooperhands and his seventy-ninth scoop of icecream with a tricky twist, Versatile actor, James Lee,  revels in his various villainous roles, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to Hector Hautkop, an actor invited to join Andy and Terry on their adventures. But is he to be trusted?  Or is he nothing more than a termite in the tree? 
Luke Carson as Andy. John Shearman as Terry
Photo by Sasha Bradbury
Richard Tulloch’s adaptation of the award winning book demonstrates his longtime and impressive expertise as a writer and adapter of plays for youth and the very young. Every element of successful children’s theatre has been included in this tightly scripted and fast-paced adaptation of Griffiths’ and Denton’s book. The young audience giggled and guffawed at the running underpants joke. Lavatory humour still delights the young. Slapstick moments have the audience breaking into spontaneous laughter and songs with lively actions have the kids clapping along with excitement. Mark Thompson’s bright, portable treehouse design captures the cartoon character of the storybook  and Nicholas Higgin’s lighting heightens the show’s moments of laughter, suspense, danger and mystery.  Katie Kermond’s choreography is simple and slick and the company of performers hurl themselves enthusiastically into this vigorously demanding, physically active and energy charged adventure for 6 to 12 year olds. Perspiration-soaked shirts at the close of the show are proof enough of the energy that Carson and Shearman throw into every action, every song and dance routine and every frantic chase.
Directed with attention-grabbing flair and non-stop business by CDP Artistic Director, Julian Louis, and Liesel Badorrek, The 26 Storey Treehouse remains true to the popular book, and the young audience remain rapt throughout the hour-long performance.

John Shearman as Terry. Freya Pragt as Jill. Luke Carson as Andy
Photo by Sasha Bradbury
Only the anarchic nature of the message could come into question. Andy and Terry are driven from
their homes by seemingly uncaring parents, who neglect them or stifle their liberty. The audience eagerly  claps along to the lyrics of their rebellious song of freedom:

It’s so cool

Better than school

You can break every rule

When you live in a tree

A primary school teacher told me of the trouble she had had with one child who refused to behave after reading an Andy Griffiths’ story. One child in thousands, perhaps, but parents may object that their attempts to have children clean their teeth for two minutes, go to bed at a reasonable hour and clean up their rooms could succumbt to the subterfuge, implied in the subversive message .  In their defense, it might be claimed that the play merely expresses what kids think anyway, and it is only a story of two best friends with a passion to let their imaginations soar. Let’s not get too PC obsessive.
John Shearman as Terry and Luke Carson as Andy
in The 26 Storey Treehouse. Photo by Sasha Bradbury
Anyway, one could hardly complain about the woman’s role in this adventure. Animal loving, plane flying, deep sea diving Jill (Freya Pagt)  is on hand to save the day and rescue Andy and Terry from pirates, sharks and the Maze of Doom. Feisty, clever and brave, it is Jill who saves the day.
There can be little doubt that the young audience loved the show, and I doubt that any will immediately run away from home. After all, in the end, after escaping the dangers of the big wide world, it seems that the age old message remains: “There’s no place like home, especially if it is a 13 storey, 26 storey or even a 52 storey treehouse.  That will be an adventure not to be missed when this imaginative company brings another Treehouse story to the stage.


Book by James Lapine
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Richard Block
Dramatic Productions in association with ANU School of Music
Gungahlin Theatre to September 12.

Review by Len Power 28 August 2015

Stephen Sondheim’s, ‘Into The Woods’ is a deceptive mix of fairy tales leading at first to Happy Ever After but then showing what happens to the characters after that.  With contemporary street-wise sensibilities, the characters are easy to identify with and the modern morals of the story are relevant and poignant.

Richard Block’s production uses the sets and costumes from a production staged by the Victoria Opera.  The costumes are dazzling and colourful and the golden forest set hovering over the action gives a great sense of place.  It would, however, have been better to have an atmospheric backcloth rather than the blank low screen masking the orchestra upstage.

Damien Slingsby has done excellent work with the musical direction and his orchestra play the difficult score very well.  Sound balances between singer and orchestra were fine and, for the most part, the singers’ diction had the necessary clarity.  Despite some first night glitches, the lighting by Hamish McConchie has been well-designed to give the show a good atmosphere.

Debra Byrne as Jack's Mother and Pippin Carroll as Jack
There’s great ensemble work as well as some standout performances from the large cast.  Kelly Roberts gives a strong performance as the Witch, acting and singing with confidence and skill.  Philippa Murphy is an appealing and dramatic Cinderella whose singing of ‘On The Steps Of The Palace’ is a highlight of the show.  Alexander Clubb does his best work ever as Cinderella’s Prince, with fine singing and a great comic performance.  Grant Pegg as the Baker sings superbly and captures the emotions of this character’s journey extremely well.  Veronica Thwaites-Brown gives a clever performance of ‘Moments In The Woods’ and Pippin Carroll is a delightfully dopey Jack with a great solo, ‘Giants in the Sky’.  Everyone else in the cast has their moment to shine and do so very well.
Philippa Murphy as Cinderella sings 'On The Steps Of The Palace'

Richard Block keeps the pace moving briskly but often at the expense of some of the best jokes which needed more punch.  The cross-over wise comments by the cast were often inaudible.  Some of the solos would have been more powerful if staged with less movement.  The dancing in the first and second act seemed to be mindless dance for the sake of it instead of enhancing the action.

Pippin Carroll as Jack sings 'Giants in the Sky'

Dramatic Productions pays their cast a small up-front fee plus a share of any profits, so the question needs to be asked – is this a professional standard show?  No, it isn’t, but it’s a show that is right up there with the best of recent local musical productions.

I believe this is the first use of the Gungahlin Theatre by a local theatre company.  From an audience point of view, it’s a nicely appointed theatre with good sightlines, very comfortable seating and a large, inviting foyer.  It’s easy to find and has plenty of parking, too.

Richard Block’s production of ‘Into the Woods’ hopefully breaks the Canberra drought of musicals with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Considered box office poison in this town after a major loss-making production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ in 1986, Sondheim’s works require more concentration by audiences than other musicals with their complex music and intricate lyrics.  However, once you ‘get’ a Sondheim musical, you can’t have enough of them.

Photos by Len Power (NOT taken during the opening night performance!) 

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast in the ‘Artcetera’ program on Artsound FM 92.7 on Saturdays from 9am.