Wednesday, March 30, 2022

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.


Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber – Lyrics: Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe

Director: Simon Phillips – Choreographer and Assistant Director: Simone Sault

Set and Costume Designer – Gabriella Tylesova – Conductor: Guy Simpson

Lighting Design: Nick Schlieper -   Sound Design: Shelly Lee

Assistant Director: Shaun Rennie

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie Point, Sydney until 24th April 2022.

Opening night performance on 25th March reviewed by Bill Stephens

Joshua Robson (The Phantom) - Georgina Hopson (Christine Daae)

Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini achieved a remarkable coup in persuading Andrew Lloyd Webber to agree to an outdoor production of his masterpiece “Phantom of the Opera”.  Terracini is the architect of the hugely successful Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, which in the 10 years since its spectacular inaugural production of “La Traviata” has established itself internationally as one of the world’s great outdoor opera experiences.

Even more remarkable was Terracini’s achievement in securing Simon Phillips, Gabriela Tylesova and Nick Schlieper, the team responsible for the lavish production of another Lloyd Webber musical, “Love Never Dies”, the sequel to “Phantom of the Opera”,  to collaborate again on this project.

“Phantom of the Opera”, a lush, melodramatic musical set in the Paris Opera House, with its story woven around a series of mysterious events occurring during rehearsals of one of its productions, and a wonderful soaring score by Lloyd Webber, is a perfect vehicle for the HOSH treatment.

However, with the bulk of its action taking place either on the stage of opera house or below in a river cave and its famous set pieces requiring a falling chandelier  and the boat-ride under the opera house through thousands of flickering candles, its presentation outdoors presented formidable challenges.

How the creative team Phillips, Tylesova, Schlieper and choreographer Simone Sault, have overcome these challenges, has resulted in a production destined to be the crowning achievement among the many remarkable productions already offered in the HOSH series.

Georgina Hopson (Christine Daae) and dancers

The chandelier remains, and the flickering candles are replaced by an even more astonishing effect. Tylesova’s setting of a decaying lavishly  gilded half-proscenium and huge sweeping staircase, augmented by beautiful set-pieces which glide silently into place, all superbly lit by Nick Schlieper, provides the perfect environment for the hundreds of lavish costumes and wigs she’s created for Phillips’ spectacular staging, for which Simone Sault has created a series of eye-catching dance sequences involving a large team of dancers. The spectacle reaches its zenith in  the stunning masked-ball “Masquerade” sequence, involving the whole company.


However the brilliance of Phillips direction is not in his handling of the spectacle alone, but in his audacious casting and the way he has managed to keep the focus of the production on telling the story, as improbable as it may be, so that the climactic scenes involving just the Phantom, Christine and Raul become quite riveting.

Instead of opting for ‘star’ casting, which might have been expected for such a production, Phillips cast Joshua Robson, Georgina Hopson and Callum Francis, all experienced performers but relatively unknown to the general public, in the roles of the Phantom, Christine Daae, and Raoul respectively. His gamble has come up trumps, for their performances in this production are proof positive that each has earned  their ‘star’ billing.

Georgina Hopson (Christine Daae) - Joshua Robson (The Phantom)

Joshua Robson gives a compelling performance as the Phantom. Not only is his vocal range phenomenal, especially in the all-important title song where he makes interesting vocal choices, he is also a strong actor with an arresting presence, who despite having half his face covered for most of the proceedings, and committing several atrocities along the way, still manages to engage the sympathy of the audience in the final scenes.

No one who saw Georgina Hopson’s performance in “Rags”, another musical ripe for the HOSH treatment, would have been surprised at her casting as Christine Daae in this production. Her clear, sweet soprano voice, impeccable diction, and beguiling stage presence makes her perfect casting in this role. Hopson’s portrayal imbues her Christine with more gumption than usual, bringing additional tension to the final scenes as she begins to realise the danger in which her fascination with the Phantom has placed her.

Naomi Johns (Carlotta) - Callum Francis (Raoul) - Georgina Hopson (Christine)

Similarly Callum Francis, as the strangely coiffed Raoul, fresh from playing the gentle boxer, Joe Scott in  “The Girl From the North Country” and unrecognisable from his starring role as the drag queen, Lola,  in “Kinky Boots”, gives a passionate, superbly sung performance as Christine’s rescuer, quite different from other interpretations of this role.

Other standouts were Naomi Johns as the outrageous diva, Carlotta Giudicelli, not only for her remarkable costumes, but for her soaring coloratura and deliciously over-the-top performance; Paul Tabone, every inch the cliché operatic tenor, Ubaldo Piangi and Kelsi Boyden, quite delightful as Christine Daae’s champion, Meg Giry.

Kelsi Boyden (Meg Giry) - Maree Johnson (Madame Giry) - Martin Crewes (Monsieur Andre)
Michael Cormick  (Monsieur Firmin) - Paul Taboni (Ubaldo Piangi) - Naomi Johns (Carlotta Giudicelli)

Added pleasures include the opportunity to see Maree Johnson, a former Christine Daae from the original Australian production of “Phantom” and direct from playing Madame Giry in the current Broadway production, exuding dignity and authority with her re-imagining of that role for this production. Michael Cormick, who having played Raoul in the West End production, and the Phantom in another, revelling in his opportunity to play Opera Manager, Monsieur Firman opposite the ever-suave Martin Crewes as Monsieur Andre. 

A miraculous sound design by Shelly Lee ensured that every lyric and every note of Lloyd Webber’s remarkable score, gloriously interpreted by Guy Simpson, conducting his excellent orchestra from under the stage, could be savoured. Nature even co-operated by providing a picture-perfect Sydney Autumn night.

A night at a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is a unique Sydney event. This production of “The Phantom of the Opera”, on opening night performed in the presence of the composer, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, is its best production yet. Don’t miss it.   


                                                  Photos by Prudence Upton.

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.







Mother & Son


Mother & Son by Geoffrey Atherden.  Jally Entertainment at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 29 – April 3, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 29

Director - Aarne Neeme
Set Design & Construction - John Bailey
Photography -Tyson Lloyd Films
SKYPE Video - Drew Muir - Qframe
Recordings -Tom Johnson - Jampot Studios
Artwork - Design Central
Lighting - Michael Kilfoy
Sound - John Bailey
Stage Manager - Nathan Cox

Maggie Beare - Julie McGregor
Arthur Beare - Christopher Truswell
Robert Beare - John Rush
Liz Beare/Monica - Alli Pope
Anita - Kate Cullen
Steve - Nathan Cox
Bronte - Sienna Rose
Jarrod - Jasper McRitchie
Voice Overs:
Christina McRitchie
Brandt McRitchie
Nathan Cox

I was surprised – noting that Aarne Neeme was the director – to be disappointed in the opening night performance of Mother & Son in Queanbeyan, the last town on the company’s extensive tour.  Perhaps the small audience, still I suspect Covid-affected, was disappointing for the actors.

The key to Geoffrey Atherden’s success, in both the original tv series (Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald) and this stage adaptation he made in 2015 (with Noeline Brown and Darren Gilshenan) was the depth of humanity in his characters, however frustrating they may be to each other.

In this production, only at the very end of the final scene did Julie McGregor and Christopher Truswell get the right feelings through to us in the audience.  Alli Pope and McGregor got it right for the short scene between Monica and Maggie; and the children on Skype, Sienna Rose and Jasper McRitchie, were good in those recorded scenes.

Otherwise it felt to me that I was watching artificial grass grow instead of real grass growing which my imagination could mow to the right length and put the clippings in the compost bin for the future.  Essentially the acting of both Arthur and his unlikely dentist brother Robert was superficial, without developing our empathy, or sympathy, or even laughter.  I must be honest and report that I seriously considered leaving at interval, except that I should not then have fulfilled my professional responsibilities.

Technically too there were problems, particularly with volume levels for the voice-overs which need to grab our attention as the set is changed between scenes.  Though I knew the play from 2015, the source of comedy in the voice-overs was largely lost for me this time.

And finally, the one scene which caused guffaws all around the audience in 2015, fell completely flat last night, when Steve assessing Maggie for an aged-care package asks:

Aged Care Assessment Test Question: Mrs Beare.  Can you tell me who the Prime Minister is?
Mrs BeareIs he still there?
Tester:  I’m not sure.  I think so.  Can you tell me his name?
Mrs Beare: flaps her hands in a gesture of faint despair, and changes the subject, as the Canberra audience erupts in raucous laughter.

Mrs Beare passed with flying colours.  [ search on this blog: Mother and Son 2015, February 4 ]

Perhaps in the Tony Abbott era the cast improvised to make this the joke of the night, so I was waiting to see if Scott Morrison would get similar treatment.  

But last night there really were no guffaws, very few empathetic laughs.  Perhaps the most successful performance, as I read Atherden’s writing, was from Kate Cullen as Arthur’s woman-friend and potential marriage partner, Anita.  She created the right relationship between her character and Julie McGregor’s Maggie, and even managed to make Truswell’s Arthur more realistically human, allowing us to better accept his rapprochement with his frustrating mother at the end.  Alli Pope’s basically blunt Liz was effective in itself, but still limited as a characterisation; not surprising perhaps when her husband – John Rush’s Robert Beare – was simply a caricature leaving little for any of the other actors to work on to find the depth of feeling and meaning Atherden’s writing can provide.

The best I could hope for is that even in this short season the show will settle in and find the proper style Mother & Son really needs.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Australia in 50 Plays by Julian Meyrick


Julian Meyrick
Photo: Christopher Deere

Australia in 50 Plays by Julian Meyrick.  Currency Press, Sydney, March 2022.
Media Contact: Martin Portus, Phone 0401 360 806

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Julian Meyrick has written an academic work of great importance.  He helps us understand our own culture in a quite unusual way.  I need to begin a little differently in order to explain.

I am sorry.  Sorry that I have not read, and certainly not seen, more than a limited number of the 50 plays Meyrick has selected.  And sorry, therefore, that reviews I have written in the past twenty years, the period covered in his last two chapters out of eight, have not been informed as they might have been – even should have been.  I may even apologise for referencing the English and the Irish – Shakespeare and Shaw – so much when considering the Australians – say, David Williamson and Nakkiah Lui.

My natural assumptions about the theatre canon were established at Sydney University, where in 1960 I failed 3rd Year English.  The crucial question was asked about the future of poetic verse-drama.  I wrote that Christopher Fry, T S Eliot and Douglas Stewart were already out of date, so it had no future.  This was a sociological argument, I was told, not the required literary argument.  Fail!  

I reckon, though, I failed too because I dared to mention Fire on the Snow by the Australian, Douglas Stewart.  I knew it was daring to do so, because in those three years’ formal education it was made clear that Australia had no literature worth academic study.  In 1961 I wrote favourably of Murder in the Cathedral, mentioned no Australian writers, and passed my Bachelors Degree.  My Masters Degree, as you would expect, was a study of Bernard Shaw.

I start with this personal anecdote because Julian Meyrick makes sure we understand how his personal experiences as a theatre practitioner underpins his need to explain why he should open up our cultural knowledge and his reasons for choosing these particular 50 plays, written since Australia became a legal entity by the passing of  the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (UK), s. 9 by the British Parliament; Ratified: 6 July 1900; Date effective: 1 January 1901.

My time at Sydney University becomes relevant when I find that Douglas Stewart’s verse dramas created, even more than they reflected, crucial changes in our culture, well before Ray Lawler wrote The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, first performed at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on 28 November 1955: “While the Doll’s status as a cultural catalyst is important, the environment that conditioned its production and reception was the achievement of prior artists. The Doll may look like the start of the Australian drama narrative, but it is the middle of it, the reward for the steady creative toil of post-federation theatre. Borrowing the observation of Indigenous artist Gordon Bennett, by the 1950s, Australian drama had enough of a past to conceive a future. That this past was—and remains—largely unacknowledged, reflects the difficulty Australia has of owning its past generally. In my Conclusion I consider how our negative view of nationhood is preventing proper understanding of the role and value of Australian drama.

The Contents page of Australia in 50 Plays is the work of a stirrer [my comments]:

Chapter 1. 1901–1914: Ozziewood [not exactly Hollywood]
Chapter 2. 1915–1929: Unknown knowns [not admitting what we don’t want to think about]
Chapter 3. 1930–1945: The real Australia [really?]
Chapter 4. 1945–1960: A step change [waving; not drowning]
Chapter 5. 1961–1975: Not better, just different [just so]
Chapter 6. 1976–1990: The compelling mood darkens [what Lucky Country?]
Chapter 7. 1991–2005: The End (yet the persistence) of History [to the Right or to the Left?]
Chapter 8. 2006–2020: The return of the nation [Black is the New White]
Conclusion "…the historically indisputable fact that drama is a serious mode of inquiry on a par with academic research…"

But this is the sort of stirring the pot that nowadays I find in The Saturday Paper.  Meyrick’s work combines details of information that are alluded to, but often not made explicit by others, with carefully thought-through critical analysis.  New lights are shone from different angles than I expected.  Academic history becomes a personal conversation.  It’s as if I am watching a play, hearing what the characters say, picking up the nuances behind their words and actions, even in the silences.  And thinking and feeling what I might say or do in response.

“There is something deeply dispiriting about the absence of women from key roles in Australian theatre as it ‘professionalised’” he says in Chapter 4, and I’m thinking but there are all those plays he’s told me about in the first half of that century written and directed and presented in theatres led by women – some even Communists, what’s more.  So what happened to the women after World War II?  

What happened to playwrights “such as Betty Roland, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Hilda Bull, Henrietta Drake-Brockman and Dymphna Cusack, and directors like May Hollingworth (the Metropolitan Theatre), Doris Fitton (the Independent Theatre, Catherine Duncan (the New Theatre) and Barbara Sisley (La Boite) [who] are the prophets and pathfinders of Australian Drama, their creative and management talents transforming it into a serious cultural force”?  

Of course I’ve never forgotten One Day of the Year (the first professional season was in April 1961 at the Palace Theatre in Sydney as I was repeating 3rd Year uni) – but it was written by a bloke. Alan Seymour.  But then, at its debut on 20 July 1960 as an amateur production by the Adelaide Theatre Group, Jean Marshall, the Director, and those involved in the Adelaide production had received death threats – as did Seymour when I saw it.  So at least Alan Seymour was my kind of bloke.

And Julian Meyrick is certainly my kind of academic historian, writing the right stuff for anyone active and even merely interested in theatre – Australian or of any other kind.



Adapted by Carolyn Burns – Directed by Simon Phillips

Lighting designed by Nick Schlieper – Set designed by Simon Phillips and Nick Schlieper

Costumes designed by Esther Marie Hayes – Composer and soundscape by Ian McDonald

Audio visual design by Josh Burns – Associate Director: Jessica Burns.

Lyric Theatre, Sydney until 3rd April.

Performance on 26th March reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Amber McMahon (Eve Kendall) - David Campbell (Roger O. Thornhill) 

With the opening of the brilliant Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of “Phantom of the Opera” this week, Sydney audiences have the opportunity to see two examples of the work of Director, Simon Phillips and Lighting designer, Nick Schlieper.

Originally devised for presentation during the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2015 season, this clever stage adaptation of the 1959 classic Alfred Hitchcock American spy film, “North by Northwest”, directed by Simon Phillips with lighting design by Nick Schlieper and stage setting designed by both Phillips and Schlieper, proved so popular with audiences that it was revived for an encore Melbourne season in 2016.   

The production attracted the attention of British company, Theatre Royal Bath Productions, and was remounted with a British cast as part of the 2017 Summer Season in Bath, following which it travelled to Toronto for a six-week season at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Kaeng Chan - David Campbell - Dorge Swallow 

In 2018 and 2019, it was presented for limited seasons in Brisbane and Adelaide, with a cast of British and Australian actors. Now it has finally reached Sydney, again remounted and looking as shiny as a new pin, for this very limited run in the Lyric Theatre. This time with an entirely new cast led by David Campbell playing  Roger O Thornhill, the role originated by Cary Grant in the film.

Supporting Campbell is an all-star cast including  Amber McMahon, perfect as the glamorous, femme-fatale double agent, Eve Kendall (and others), Bert Labonte, suave and mysterious as the villainous Phillip Van Damm (and others) with Genevieve Lemon, Sharon Millerchip, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Alex Rathgeber, Berynn Schwerdt, Dorje Swallow, Kaeng Chan, Lachlan Woods, Nicholas Bell, Wadih Dona, Caroline Craig and Douglass Hansell, between them swapping costumes, manipulating props and transforming the stage with the countless other characters encountered in trains, airports, offices and hotel lobbies, necessary for the fast-moving action demanded by the storyline.  

A scene from "North by Northwest"

Indeed, part of the fun is trying to recognise which actor is portraying which of the myriad of characters  so convincingly that it comes as a surprise in the end to discover that Campbell is the only actor in the show  who portrays only one character, such is the finesse of the others. 

Not that Campbell is slacking. He’s quite brilliant as the focal point of the action capturing a fascinating mix of amused savoie faire and steely confidence to convince that he can cope with any of the unlikely situations in which he finds himself, while taking the audience with him for the rapid-fire adventure.

Genevieve Lemon - David Campbell

The storyline follows the adventures of Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising executive who is kidnapped by thugs who mistake him for a man named George Kaplan. They refuse to believe that Thornhill is not Kaplan and try to kill him.  When their attempt fails Thornhill finds himself implicated in a murder, so decides to flee setting off a series of dangerous escapes.

The complex, sophisticated metal and glass setting allows the audience to share some of the secrets of the special effects being created around the actors, as they re-create the fast-moving,  James Bond-style action, which has Campbell’s character, Roger O Thornhill, narrowly escaping an horrific collision, being menaced by a low-flying crop-duster plane, and best of all, flirting with death while rescuing the blonde and beautiful Eve Kendall by clambering down the famous Mount Rushmore sculptures, hotly pursued by the villains. 

Tony Llewellyn-Jones - David Campbell

It’s all ripping good fun and matters not a jot to the enjoyment of this production, that you’ve never seen the Hitchcock film which inspired this brilliant homage. But if you have, your appreciation of how cleverly the film has been re-imagined for the stage will certainly be enhanced.

As presented in this all-too-brief Sydney season, this production can be celebrated for what it is; a thoroughly entertaining and brilliant piece of theatre-making by world-class Australian creatives and actors. Try not to miss it.   

                                                   Photos by Daniel Boud.

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.

Sunday, March 27, 2022




Tina Arena and the Variety Gala Band

 The 2022 Variety Gala

Hosted by Paul McDermott. Directed by Mitchell Butel. Musical director Mark Simeon Ferguson. Set design Ali Jones. The Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. March 25 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. June 10 -25 2022.  Bookings: or or Ticketek at Adelaide Festival Centre 131245.

Review by Peter Wilkins

Isaac Hannan offers a Welcome to Kaurna Country

 If the 2022 Variety Gala in the Festival Theatre is anything to go by this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival will be a blast! Cabaret lovers are in for a treat and a smorgasbord of scintillating, seductive and sexy acts by national and international stars of cabaret and musical theatre. Opening with Isaac Hannan’s  phenomenal digeridoo solo and welcome to Kaurna Country, the  2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s Variety Gala set the tone for an exceptional line up of national and international talent. Gala Nights are infamously put together with very limited rehearsal time. Director Mitchell Butel can do little more than marshall the talent to fit the running order and ensure that artists, musicians and creatives are relaxed and ready to showcase their remarkable talents. What was immediately unmistakeable during the evening was the excitement and the passion of the many artists who gave their loyal audiences a delectable taste of treasures to come.

2022 Artistic Director Tina Arena launched the night’s entertainment with powerful renditions of her latest single Church and Burn from her In Deep album.  Her fiery spirit infuses the songs with visceral force and we watch an internationally acclaimed artist at the top of her game.  To the accompaniment of musical director Mark Simeon Ferguson on piano and the  amazingly adept Variety  Gala House Band  this year’s line-up of exceptionally talented artists gave the audience a tantalizing taste of what is to come. The variety is astounding from Gary Pinto’s Feel it Don’t Fight it and the  smooth sound of the inspirational Sam Cooke to Carla Lippis’s crazed rendition of Hand from the State Opera’s production of How To Kill Your Husband (and other household hints)by the irrepressible Kathy Lette.

Catherine Alcorn in 30 Something
 Michael Griffith skilfully stepped in for Philip Scott who will be performing 30 Something with the dynamic Catherine Alcorn. The show is set in the shady Bohemian district of Sydney's notorios Kings Cross in the year 1939. Michaela Burger, Amelia Ryan and Michael Griffith  on piano are festival favourites who will be performing songs from New York's Brill Building that defined the emergence of strong female artists in their show that you won't want to miss:Simply Brill-the women who defined Rock and Roll

Another regular favourite is the indefatigable and uplifting Libby O’Donovan. Her medley of nun’s songs and evangelical numbers from O Happy Day to Climb Every Mountain will have you chewing at your Rosary beads with feel good Godliness. Sophie Koh conjures the haunting and mesmerizing melodies of the Orient. With a bewitching voice she creates an aura of calm and gentle soaring meditation. She is an unique artist who will offer a very different perspective when she joins other artists in Tina Arena’s Songs My Mother Taught Me.

This is a Gala and sometimes things can go wrong, as they did with young emerging Asian artist Kieran Beasley whose mike didn’t work initially. A natural comedian and an assured young performer Beasley took it in his stride before his tribute rendition to his parents of Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are .  A 2021 Class of Cabaret graduate, Beasley in his first performance on the Festival Theatre stage proves that he is someone to keep an eye on.

I was impressed by the maturity and innovative ideas of Frank Ford Commissioning Award recipient Victoria Falconer and her original musical And Then You Go – the Valli Myers Project. She was joined on stage by Parvyn, Erin Fowler, Jarrad Payne and Flick Freeman with Go On from her show. This will be her festival debut, but she offers an unique opportunity to see the work of an emerging artist and learn about the remarkable life of Valli Myers.

Marcia Hines and the Gospo Collective

Last but not least on this night of glittering, sparkling and incandescent nights was the phenomenal, sensational and legendary Marcia Hines and the Gospo Collective in Love Me Like A Rock from her show about her life, The Gospel According to Marcia. Unfortunately sound mixing problems that plagued parts of the night meant that sotto voce lyrics were lost in various numbers throughout the night. I suspect that time was precious and sound checks were rushed through. The band, which performed a remarkable job to manage so many numbers was also at times too loud for the artists, and lyrics were lost in the big band sound.

Paul McDermott and Glen Moorhouse

I have left the host till last. Paul McDermott was in top form on the night – witty, wicked, and full of cabaret chutzpah. As well as keeping the action moving, making light of any glitches and generally having a great time on the big stage, McDermott let his satirical psyche loose. He dismissed Scott Morrison with a single quip and heaped derision and scorn on the anti vaxxers. He was the host with the most and in the company of shining stars he was a cabaret comet hurtling through the Gala.

It was only left to announce the 2022 recipient of the prestigious Icon Award which has been awarded in the past to people like Reg Livermore, Rhonda Burchmore, Frank Ford, Robyn Archer and Paul Capsis to name a few. This year Tina Arena awarded it to Libby O’Donovan to the delight of all the cabaret aficionados who have followed her career.

Icon Recipient  Libby O'Donovan

The 2022 Variety Gala offers a morsel of a much richer banquet that will occupy the theatres at the Adelaide Festival Centre from June 10-25 and if this night of nights is not enough to tempt the palate for top rate Cabaret, then you’ll be missing out on all the decadence, magic and revelry that this year’s festival offers. It’s a festival that is sure to lead you all astray!

 Photos by Sia Duff




Saturday, March 26, 2022




Artistic Director Tina Arena. Adelaide Festival Centre. June 10=25 2022 Bookings: 131246

Preview Feature  Peter Wilkins

Tina Arena Photo by Claudio Raschella

It wasn’t quite the conversation I had expected.  But then I hardly expected a conventional phone interview with Australian icon Tina Arena AM.  Arena has taken on the role of Artistic Director of the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival and lovers of Adelaide’s favourite winter festival are abuzz with excitement at what she will bring to audiences at the festival from June 10th-25th. Since delighting viewers as an eight year old performer on Johnny Young’s Young Talent Time, Arena has risen to international stardom as an internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter, record producer, actress and consummate performer.  Arena has been inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame and her contributions to her industry have been recognized by the French and Australian governments. She has worked with leading artists across the world and her appointment as this year’s Artistic Director is a coup for the Adelaide Festival Centre.

It is quickly apparent that Arena is her own woman, immensely talented and acclaimed, forthright, generous and a staunch advocate of diversity and individualism. Her response to my opening gambit about her vision for her festival revealed a highly intelligent woman with a profoundly philosophical aspect on life and the art that has informed and nourished her for the past five decades. The interview became an illuminating and inspiring philosophical discourse on authoritarianism, coercion, discernment, education and diversity.  I was curious to discover how that might be reflected in the Cabaret Festival programme she had created.  

“I want the programme to bring hope and happiness to audiences.” Arena tells me.  “I hope that this year’s festival takes you on a  journey  of  much needed connection and healing. Cabaret is a magnificent fusion of stories, song, dance and all things theatrical. Cabaret is escapism of the most fabulous kind and boy, couldn’t we use a little escapism after the year that’s been?”

Paul McDermott in The Funhouse
 “For me the happiness and healing is absolutely vital.” Arena says. On the other hand, nor does Arena shy away from controversy and neither does cabaret. Paul McDermott’s nightly variety show The Funhouse will offer audiences  a dark carnival of minstrels and misfits, comedy and music featuring Claire Hooper and Dilruk Jayasinha as well as special guests each weekend.

“We can seriously no longer sit back and entirely believe what is dished up.” Arena continues. “Discernment is a human asset that has not been particularly worked on. I find the conditioning especially frustrating. I will not be force fed and told what to think and what to do.” Hers is the voice of reason, of individual empowerment and rebellion.  It is the cry of Cabaret from Le Chat Noir to the Weimar cabaret of Berlin. Her Cabaret Festival will confront. It will provoke, but as Bertolt Brecht claimed, her main aim will be escapism and entertainment, happiness and healing.

Reuben Kaye in Live and Intimate
 This is why Arena has assembled artists who will help her to achieve her vision. “My job is to challenge the status quo.  I have to be challenged so that the audience can be challenged.”  And who better to challenge status quo than the irreverently scintillating Meow Meow with her show Pandemonium or the outrageous Reuben Kaye with Live and Intimate?

In an industry that can be controlling and constantly at the beck and call of managers, agents, producers and networks, Arena has struggled to control her own narrative and survived. It is this that has prompted her to include personal stories by leading performers in her programme.  Nostalgia and cultural heritage provide an invaluable insight into who we are, where we have come from and the lessons we have learned.

“As an Artistic Director that’s what I love to see, everybody coming from different worlds and different perspectives. That is art for me. It’s not the status quo. It’s the challenges and the struggles.”

Marcia Hines. Photo by Daniel Boud

Audiences will have ample opportunity to experience this with Rwandan refugee and comedian Oliver Twist’s belly-laughing one man show about his story as an overpowering antidote to trauma. Arena will be joined by Lior, Thando, Jess Hitchcock, Wendy Matthews and Sophie Koh in Songs My Mother Taught Me and Marcia Hines will perform her show The Gospel According to Marcia about her childhood growing up in Boston and her life and career since she came to play Mary Magdalen in Jesus Christ Superstar.  First Nations stories will be reflected in a special Adelaide premiere by regional musicians and performers, Kuko, Katie Aspel and Rob Edwards. It will be a very special evening of blues, jazz and folk storytelling.

Oliver Twist. Photo by Kiera Chevell
Arena is adamant that she wants to control her own narrative.  “I want to tell my story the way I want to tell it.” For her music is such a big part of that. “We can’t talk about religion anymore she adds as an example.  She is massively frustrated that people misinterpreted her last single.  “It is called Church and everybody assumes that it is about religion. Well, no actually it’s about redemption. It’s the lack of being able to dissect and really understand something . You’ve missed the point altogether. They don’t listen.”

“That kind of assumption is massively frustrating. It is why education is so important to Arena. Each year aspiring young cabaret artists perform in Class of Cabaret and this vitally important and inspiring event will again feature. The young performers will again find themselves in the company of remarkable artists. From America, Davina and the Vagabonds will draw on the past 100 years to celebrate the music of Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin and Tom Waits. Catherine Alcott and Phil Scott will present 30 Something , an immersive show set in Sydney’s Bohemian Kings Cross. Cabaret regulars Amelia Ryan, Michaela Burger and Michael Griffiths will celebrate the golden age of rock and roll and more importantly the women who inspired the sexual revolution and women’s liberation in Simply Brill-The Women Who Defined Rock and Roll.

“Think for yourself!” Arena says to the young up and coming performers. “What is intrinsically human has been left out of the equation. We’ve somehow got to get back to that I think.”

It is the philosophy that the late founding father of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival espoused and he has bequeathed $20,000 to assist a young, promising cabaret artist to realize their dream and establish their voice in the industry. This year, successful  recipient  Victoria Falconer will make her festival debut with And then You Go – The Vali Myers Project about the flame-haired Bohemian and visionary artist.

Audiences will be bombarded with a plethora of wonderful shows from across the genres, I am intrigued by the State Opera’s inclusion with Australian ex pat writer Kathy Lette’s deliciously tempting How to Kill Your Husband (and other handy household hints) . The title says it all. It is Lette at her wittiest and wickedest.

My spine tingles with the announcement that Australia’s leading musical theatre stars will pay tribute to the late, legendary composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim in Songs and Stories of Sondheim, featuring Philip Quast, Geraldine Turner, Queenie van de Zandt and Josie Lane. The unmissable performances just keep coming.

No cabaret festival would be complete without the Famous Spiegeltent.  This  year it will be the venue for divine decadence at the Pina Colada Room where homage will be paid to the icons of disco. This is where you can let your hair down and revel in the late night delights of the cabaret world.

Arena’s passion mounts as our conversation continues. Hers is a very unique vision combining tradition with experience and a love of people and the magical world of the performing artist. She is intrigued by audiences, what they think, what they take and what they give.  “I want to make the audience more discerning. Hers is a festival underpinned by hope and happiness and connection and healing. “I want to see where they’re coming from and I believe and think it’s a very diverse and beautiful life.”

To do this, Arena has programmed a stellar line up of talented and very gifted individuals. It’s primarily Australian. She is acutely aware of how Australian artists have suffered from cultural cringe and the tall poppy syndrome. She struggled for a very long time with her own sense of insecurity, and it was not until she returned to  Australia  after years of living in France and performing around the world that she realized while giving a keynote speech at a JB HiFi Convention of all places,  “My God! What am I apologizing for? It spontaneously came out of my mouth. Everyone was gobsmacked and then leapt up with rapturous applause.”

Rapturous applause is what will resound through the Adelaide Festival Centre when the festival takes to the various stages in June. It will be an affirmation of the enormous font of talent that exists in this country. It will be a triumphant accolade for artists who year after year have made the Adelaide Cabaret Festival a highlight of the calendar’s artistic and cultural events. It will be a tribute to the wonderful directors who have built the reputation and excellence of the festival for many years.

Above all it will be a shining testament to Tina Arena’s  vision for a festival that does more than simply provide first class entertainment but  encourages discernment while promising hope and happiness, connection and healing. From cabaret to circus, from musical theatre to burlesque, from rock ‘n roll to the Blues the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival will have something for everyone. And for those who may not be able to afford as much, there will be free events such as the popular LGBTIQ+ and Elders Dance Club by All The Queens Men and piano Man Trevor Jones in the Quartet Bar to allow all visitors to the Adelaide Festival Centre to immerse themselves in the spirit and adventure of the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival.