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Review: Flamenco Fire—Veinte Años

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Review: Flamenco Fire—Veinte Años

As ‘Australia’s only national flamenco company,’ Flamenco Fire has established a strong following over its first twenty years. The team celebrated this milestone in Viente Años—a show that combined highlights from their first two decades of performance with the work of visiting Spanish flamenco artists and the strings of Camerata (Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra). Viente Años premiered at Brisbane’s QPAC Concert Hall on Thursday 26 September, as part of the 2019 Brisbane Festival. It’s a large venue, and the premiere was suitably packed with adoring fans of their work, and of flamenco.

Andrew Veivers (Director, and guitarist) compiled a program that touched on some of the different aspects or styles of flamenco—from the more traditional passionate and focused use of shawls and dresses with trains through to the light-hearted, and almost coquettish, early duet between Francesca ‘La Chica’ Grima and Simone Pope (think ‘two little maids are we’ meets flamenco).

Andrej Vujicic’s percussion was a vital engine for the whole show—particularly when Vujicic joined La Chica and Pope with his mesmerising performance with flamenco walking canes. But this was not the only highlight. Personal favourites from the two-hour program included La Chica’s fabulous bata de cola dance (bathed in suitably passionate red lighting), Simone Pope’s solos (for me, in particular the first solo, when attired in black), and the moments when Olayo Jiménez took to centre stage. I may not have understood a word that Jiménez sang, but the expressive vocal work by this renowned flamenco singer was compelling, and his opening solo was virtually a show-stopper (prompting one of his occasional flashes of an almost cheeky smile). But all of the performers had their moment to shine—including the crowd-pleasing second-half performance by Fernando Mira, with an extended masterclass of  thunderous and highly-controlled flamenco dancing.

 
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My previous, limited, experience of flamenco has been in smaller bars and theatres in Spain, giving the opportunity to be much closer to the passionate and focused interactions between dancers, singer and musicians. The QPAC Concert Hall is a large venue, so including Camerata was a sensible choice, but I am sure the show would work equally well in a smaller space and just with the cantaor, dancers (ideally with an additional male dancer), percussionist, and guitarists—perhaps creating the opportunity to hear more from the two guitarists during the evening if a chamber orchestra is not included in a program (Veivers was joined by the equally-talented Kieren Ray). And although the lighting was suitably colourful, it was often better when not churning through all of the colours of the LED rainbow.

But a large following means a large venue is needed for major celebrations—as demonstrated by the very few empty seats in the QPAC Concert Hall. The evening ended with the audience erupting into a standing ovation.  A suitably passionate response to a triumphant celebration of the art of flamenco that will have pleased long-standing friends and attracted many new followers.

Verdict: Look out for Flamenco Fire—particularly if you can find them in a more intimate venue.

Audience notes: 120 minutes, plus 20 minute interval. All ages. Limited haze effects. There was only one performance during the 2019 Brisbane Festival 26 September 2019, 7:30pm. QPAC Concert Hall tickets were $69-$89 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Thursday 26 September 2019 performance (7:30pm).

Pictures Credit: Creative Futures Photography

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Review: You & I

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Review: You & I

You & I is a great concept, and an excellent piece of theatre. The premise of the show is deceptively simple. It’s raining, which means that plans to go out are abandoned and you’re stuck at home with your husband. Fortunately, this is not a day for household chores, as this particular couple spend a loving and tender hour tumbling, hooping, lifting, spinning, dancing and playing together.

Circus certainly lends itself to providing a window into a loving relationship—particularly if you are a married couple, and are two of the co-founders of Casus Circus.  Jesse Scott and Lachlan McAulay’s partnership extends beyond the professional to the personal, which means that the You & I includes powerful strength, great tumbling and control, amazing and memorable trapeze, and a very special twist on the stacking chairs. This piece is also funny, playful, and tender; after all, who hasn’t struggled to walk in heels, had fun exploring dress-up boxes, or wanted to tango in quite such an intimate way.

You & I is a highly-personal piece,  as it is co-created by the two performers in every sense of the phrase. From lighting and soundtrack choices through to trick selection and set design, Scott and McAulay are in control, which means the piece is authentic and every detail thought through (even down to the careful wood-carving and rope-splicing). The lighting, soundtrack and set all complemented the work. The soundtrack is well-chosen (for example, Jamey Johnson’s version of You Are My Sunshine was a perfect choice for  Scott’s solo trapeze piece), and the set establishes a home environment that is used to great effect.

 As skilled circus performers, McAulay and Scott have ensured that this personal show is jam-packed with tricks—drawing gasps of delight, amazement and even incomprehension from the audience (look out for Scott’s walking on ‘top-toe’—a whole new spin on the traditional tip-toes). It’s difficult to choose just one high-point, but I’m certain that everyone went way talking about the trapeze duet that culminated in McAulay’s exceptionally fast spin below Scott.  

Serious circus is a welcome trend, moving away from the trick—ta-dah—applause model, to storytelling through circus. In the last few years, I have seen some very serious circus pieces that have been used to consider many challenging subjects. It’s refreshing to see how McAulay and Scott push the boundaries by creating a story that is positive, loving, and full of hope. Audiences are all the richer for a show which provides a highly-relateable window into a loving relationship. Few of us will live in a yurt, and even fewer will have two trapeze bars hanging from the ceiling. And none of us are likely to even be able to tango with the same precision and focus. But we can all relate to a love story.

 A year on from its first performances, the show continues to evolve. So definitely one to look out for again. Just make sure you get to see it during this short 2019 Brisbane Festival run.

 Verdict: You & I is a show for all audiences. A great piece of theatre, with some exceptional circus skills.

Audience notes: 60 minutes. All ages. Seating at The Block (Theatre Republic) is theatre-style, raked seating. Consider queueing to sit nearer to the front if you can. Strictly six performances only during the 2019 Brisbane Festival performances—24-28 September 2019 (1:00pm & 5:00pm shows on 28 September 2019; 7:30pm shows 24-27 September). Tickets are $20-35 (plus booking fee, note that the Festival uses ‘airline pricing’ for the Show, so select the lowest available price on booking).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Wednesday 25 September 2019 performance (7:30pm), and post-show Q&A.

Q&A Picture Credit: Creative Futures Photography

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Review: Orpheus

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Review: Orpheus

Brisbane Festival’s Theatre Republic is this week visited by two troubadours—newly arrived from the UK to retell a tale of love and loss, trust and colour, youth and age, spring and winter. In this case, the lyric-poet is Tom Figgins (performing a role written and created by Alexander Wright), and the poet-musician is Phil Grainger. In the true style of the troubadours of old, Figgins and Grainger switch between performing and chatting directly to the audience. So we are quickly warned that Eurydice will die, that if we came to the show because we wanted to hear Bruce Springsteen then there is only one of his songs that evening and, finally, that a knowledge of Greek mythology is not a prerequisite. There is a smattering of Bruce Springsteen (Dancing in the Dark, of course), but most of the music is composed by Grainger. Knowing Greek mythology is neither a help nor hindrance, as this love story is beautifully told.

Picture : The tools of the troubadours.  Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Picture: The tools of the troubadours. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Also in the style of the traditional troubadours, Figgins and Grainger rely on few props. As the audience walks into the La Boite Studio, a single book and a guitar are on the floor, and the two performers are chatting. But then that is all they really need to create a world of pubs, mates, karaoke bars, new love, hell and a world that can be transformed into vibrant, living colour: words, song, a book and a guitar. And a story about Dave.

The technical touches were light, and worked well. Simple lighting, but we really felt the warmth when the colour came into the room, and into Dave’s life. The space worked well for the sound-levels (make sure you concentrate on the words), and I loved the musical choices as we filed into the room (what’s not to love about a soundtrack that includes “I want you back” and “I’m coming up” as a prelude to a story about trying to bring someone back from hell?).

The switching between performance and chatter is a great way to relax the audience, to build rapport, and to encourage some laughter. The chatter was also used to great effect when Grainger called a mini interval—encouraging the audience to briefly stand up, but not to leave the room. This ‘tension break’ was a great idea, as there were times during the show when the audience was completely spellbound—listening so carefully to the words of the story and song that a pin dropping would have crashed to the ground.

The applause was warm and well-deserved. Having heard the story from Orpheus’ perspective, I’ll just have to make time to see the companion piece (Eurydice) to hear her side of the story.

Verdict: We all need more of such modern troubadours in our lives—or at least, on our stages. One to look out for.

Audience notes: 70 minutes. Seating at the La Boite Studio (Theatre Republic) is on two sides of the space. Don’t worry, you’ll get a great experience from either side, but try to sit in the first four rows if you can. 13+. Consider booking tickets for both Orpheus and the companion piece, Eurydice; conveniently the two shows run concurrently in the same space. The two shows are part of the 2019 Brisbane Festival, 17-21 September 2019 (7:15pm or 9pm—Orpheus timing alternates with Eurydice). Tickets are $20-35 (plus booking fee, note that the Festival uses ‘airline pricing’ for the Show, so select the lowest available price on booking).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Tuesday 17 September 2019 performance (7:15pm).

Note: Promotional material for the festival includes pictures of Wright, but the show is performed by Figgins (pictured, promoting Eurydice) and Grainger.

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Review: Trevor Ashley’s Double Ds: Two Decades of Divadom

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Review: Trevor Ashley’s Double Ds: Two Decades of Divadom

A lot of fun is clearly had by all, during the time spent waiting for the next cue during some major musicals. The first half of Trevor Ashley’s Double Ds: Two Decades of Divadom gave the QPAC audience the chance to feel as if they were waiting in the changing room with Ashley: enjoying anecdotes about 20 years in ‘the business,’ hearing about auditions won and loves lost, and admiring the stamina of an artist who has had leading roles in shows that have run for many, many hundreds of performances.

Peppered with songs from musical theatre roles that Ashley has made uniquely his own (although not, sadly, Jesus Christ Superstar’s Herod on this occasion), the first half was an enjoyable run through a stellar career on the Australian musical stage. Highlights included songs from Priscilla, the Les Mis ‘Master of the House’, and a Hairspray duet with Jaz Flowers which really entertained.  

But it was the second half of the show where Ashley really shone. Liza Minnelli, Cher, Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston and the magnificent Tina Turner were ‘recreated’ as only an Australian Diva Hall of Fame inductee could.  I just wish I’d had the chance to see Diamonds Are For Trevor, as the Shirley Bassey tribute was just fabulous—entertaining mimicry (that curling Welsh top lip!) combined with the power of the Ashley voice (and that frock!).

Picture: Trevor Ashley’s Shirley Bassey. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Picture: Trevor Ashley’s Shirley Bassey. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Great to see that the 2019 Brisbane Festival did not stint on the budget. Suitably fabulous lighting (Peter Rubie) established a Las Vegas headlining vibe, and James Simpson (Musical Director, piano and backing vocals) and his 10-piece band were a great choice for this musical event. Although perhaps, on occasion, the sound balance needed to be adjusted in favour of the vocalist, particularly in the first half (and for Flower’s second-half number).

The final encore number, Gloria Gaynor’s “I am what I am,” was of course a perfect finale for an enjoyable Show. But it was the Shirley Bassey “I know what love is” that was the high-point of my evening (or was it “Master of the House,” the Turner “What’s love got to do with it?”,or the Kitt “Champagne Taste”?). Choices, choices… a fun reflection on 20-years-and-counting of Divadom.

Verdict: A fun evening. Particularly if you enjoy diva power and/or musical theatre entertainment.

Audience notes: 18+ (coarse language, sexual references, and adult themes). 120 minutes (plus interval). A the 2019 Brisbane Festival QPAC Concert Hall show (13 September 2019), tickets were $57-67 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Friday 13 September 2019 performance (8pm). A shorter version of this review is available at the IMHO website.

Picture: Trevor Ashley’s Gloria Gaynor “I am what I am” encore. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Picture: Trevor Ashley’s Gloria Gaynor “I am what I am” encore. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Pictures from the audience credit: Creative Futures Photography

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Review: From Darkness

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Review: From Darkness

On the anniversary of Vinnie’s suicide, the family gathers for a meal. Grief manifests in a variety of ways. Vinnie’s parents seem unable to talk about their feelings: Mum (Abigail, Lisa Maza) turning to drink, and Dad (Eric, Colin Smith) brooding over the horrendous experience of being the first to find his son. Vinnie’s siblings appear to be retreating from the family: Preston (Benjin Maza) locking himself in his room, with 15-year old Akira (Ebony McGuire) staying glued to her phone. But if the rest of the family is finding it difficult to talk Nanna Lou (Roxanne McDonald)—the feisty, funny and occasionally foul-mouthed matriarch—certainly overcompensates.  

Steven Oliver (writer) has a wickedly funny turn of phrase and a strong stage presence. The ‘voice’ of the writer comes through so powerfully that I could imagine Oliver playing all of the roles; so, it’s just as well that the director (Isaac Drandic) has assembled a strong cast and fantastic creative support. The set design (Kevin O’Brien) worked perfectly for this piece. La Boite is a flexible space, and although I heard one audience member muttering about entering from level 2, I thought it was a good choice; looking down onto the performance space was a great way to start, and end, the experience of the play. Keith Deverall’s videographic work was a standout: compelling visual design that was both a work of art and also a vital means of communicating the dreams and spirit-world relationships which formed a central part of the story.

“R U OK?” Day seemed a perfect time to be sitting in the quirky (and fun) Brisbane Festival Theatre Republic space, waiting to see a play about a family coping with the aftermath of suicide. I’m glad I saw it. The interpersonal relationships were beautifully established, and the messages about family, belonging, and the need to listen to all members of the family (of whatever age) were carefully set up. Go with an open mind…enjoy the dark humour of some of the one-liners… and come away reflecting on the importance of being with those who are close to you. Or, in Preston’s words, “we need to remember us.”

Verdict: Stephen Oliver’s play about family, belonging, and the need to listen is a good investment of 70 minutes of your time. Great cast (and worth the price of admission just to see the standout videographic work), with the bonus of  a great venue (La Boite) and a chance to spend time in Theatre Republic.

Audience tip: Sit in the centre seats if you can. 15+ (coarse language, references to spirits, and themes of suicide, death, grief and loss). 70 minutes. 2019 Brisbane Festival, 7-28 September 2019. Tickets are $35-56 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Thursday 12 September 2019 performance (7:30pm). An abbreviated version of this review is included in the 2019 Brisbane Festival In My Honest Opinion website.

Picture: The anniversary meal. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Picture: The anniversary meal. Picture credit: Creative Futures Photography

Pictures Credit: Creative Futures Photography

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Review: Team Viking (Songs of Friendship)

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Review: Team Viking (Songs of Friendship)

If you enjoy stand-up comedy that is more than a stack of one-liner’s, you’ll love this show. If you are looking for a theatrical event that makes you laugh, flinch and may even make you cry, then you’ll want to see this performer. And if you’re yet to go along and see something from the 2019 Brisbane Festival, then I’d suggest you book a ticket to see James Rowland’s Team Viking. Don’t worry if it’s sold out; try at least one of the other two shows in this Songs of Friendship ‘storytelling cycle’ (Songs of Friendship comprises Team VikingA Hundred Different Words for Love, and Revelations).

The premise is deceptively simple: a man dressed in slightly-shabby funeral attire walks into a theatre, decides to do all of his own technical support, uses his favourite Casio keyboard to set up a looping soundtrack, and addresses the thorny question of just “what do you say when a friend tells you they have 3 months to live. And they want a Viking burial?”

And as with William Blakes’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, the style may be simple, funny and direct; but the show is carefully crafted, the language is beautifully chosen, and the ideas explored go to the heart of what friendship is. As with the musical ‘interludes’ (each chapter is punctuated with a slowly-building musical loop), the layers of the story are laid down with meticulous care. The 2019 Brisbane Festival hosted the Australian premiere of Team Viking, but this is a show which has already received rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, and been finely-tuned through many hundreds of performances.

At the end of the 70-minute opening night show, we came away feeling as if we’d listened to the revelations of a new friend, and wondering if any of it was true. Rowland had introduced us to his two best friends, and shared some very funny memories of their time growing up together and of his family (wait until you see the Parkinson’s Christmas Pudding sketch). Of course it wasn’t all funny. At one point, the opening night audience was so wrapped-up in the tale, that many literally flinched on hearing one memory of loading the van. Not everyone in the stories lives, and Rowland is painfully honest as to how he didn’t always cope very well with the challenges that life threw at him.

Assuming this is Rowland’s personal story, of course. After all, this is a show that has a director (Daniel Goldman) and tour manager (Tom Hall)—and comes from the Tangram Theatre Company (which is ‘dedicated to creating theatre that breaks the fourth wall in order to tell life-affirming stories full of hope’, and has so far produced 15 shows). But then it doesn’t matter if this is all true or not. Rowland (as performer and writer) and his colleagues have produced a truly memorable and enjoyable show.

Don’t miss Team Viking because you’ve heard that the stories focus on dying, death and funerals. The show is also about love, friendship, and the everyday. Which is why I am strongly recommending it to everyone I know.

Verdict: Virtuoso performance of a beautifully-crafted (and often very funny) tale of love, friendship and death. Don’t miss it.

Audience tip: Aim for the first four rows, and arrive early enough to avoid the lockout. Warnings: 13+ (some coarse language, sexual references and adult themes), and Lynx is sprayed at the start of the Show (away from any asthmatics). The 70-minute show is one third of the Songs of Friendship storytelling cycle. Only 3 performances of Team Viking during the 2019 Brisbane Festival (10 & 11September 7:00pm, plus 14 September 5:30pm). The complete cycle is performed on 14th September 2019. Team Viking tickets are $32-35 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the opening night performance (7pm, Tuesday 10 September 2019).

Pictures Credit: Creative Futures Photography

Pictures Credit: Creative Futures Photography

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Review: St Matthew Passion

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Review: St Matthew Passion

Only 14 people walk onto a stage. 70 minutes later, the audience has experienced a retelling of the New Testament stories of the final days of Christ—complete with the Last Supper, betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Even from that short description, aficionados will understand that this was not a traditional performance of the 18th Century Bach oratorio. Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble have created a response to Bach’s St Matthew Passion that draws on recent South African history, English Mystery Cycles, township music, and Bach’s grand choral work. The differences from the traditional performances of the Bach oratorio were many. The Isango Passion has edited highlights (70 minutes, not 3 hours), a variety of languages (including what may have been Zulu and Xhosa), no double choir (a cast of 14 voices), and no double orchestra (music was played on marimba and plastic drums).

But the piece will have been recognisable to those who are more familiar than I am with the Bach oratorio. The key elements of the story were conveyed, often movingly and with great visual impact (look out for the Last Supper tableau, and the use of the ladder for the crucifixion and resurrection scenes). The vocal range and power of the performers was at its finest in singing some of the well-known themes (including 'Erkenne mich, mein hüter'), and the township dancing was uplifting.

The St Matthew Passion is a brave undertaking. The Isango Ensemble, led by Mark Dornford-May (Director) and Mandisi Dyantysis (Music Director, who also plays Christ), proved that they are certainly up to a challenge. As with SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill (which was also part of the 2019 Brisbane Festival), the talented cast are bird-warblers, actors, foley artists, singers and musicians. To attend any of their performances is a treat. But if I had to choose just one production to see, then SS Mendi gets my vote every time.

The Isango St Matthew Passion is very new; the Brisbane 2019 show was the Australian premiere, and only the second ever performance of the production). It was perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the St Matthew Passion did not have quite the same fluidity, nor ‘passion,’ of the wonderful and more established SS Mendi. But this is a performance that I’d love to see again—particularly in a smaller venue. Such powerful voices demand a large stage, but perhaps the QPAC Playhouse (capacity 850) would have better suited the Isango St Matthew Passion than the QPAC Concert Hall (capacity 1,600-1,800). Seated two-thirds of the way back in the Stalls (row M), I found it difficult to enjoy all of the spoken words, and would have much preferred to have an opportunity be closer to the semi-staged performance, in order to better experience the emotional range of the piece.

Time to start saving up for the top seats for next tour by the talented performers of the Isango Ensemble (and here’s hoping they have Jesus Christ Superstar in their sights).

Verdict: One to look out for—particularly in venues of less than 1,000 capacity.

Audience tip: Sit as near to the front as you can, and look out for future performances by Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble—in particular, any shows in smaller venues (their 2019 Brisbane Festival shows closed on 7th and 8th September). Tickets for the 8 September 2019 (3pm) performance of the St Matthew Passion were $47-$65 (plus booking fee).  70 minutes. Suggested 10+ (adult themes , including the representation of a crucifixion).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Sunday 8 September 2019 (3:00pm) performance.

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Review: We Live Here (Brisbane Festival)

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Review: We Live Here (Brisbane Festival)

In an era where so many people speak of having so little time, acronyms can be very popular. So if you want the quick version of this review (and, after all, there are only three more performances of this show in the 2019 Brisbane Festival program. We Live Here opened on Friday, and has two shows on Saturday and a final performance on Sunday)…

FoMO? IMHO DMTS  …that is…do you have a Fear of Missing Out? In My Honest Opinion …Don’t Miss This Show.

The 2019 Brisbane Festival is teeming with many fantastic options. It can be difficult to choose... which might mean that some patrons might first be tempted to skip over a show that is listed under ‘circus’ and ‘family.’ Which would be a pity. This is circus that made the opening night audience smile, brought tears to a few eyes, drew many gasps of admiration, and ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Age & time are important themes in this show. We Live Here was originally commissioned by Metro Arts, as a collaboration between Flipside Circus (known for providing circus opportunities for young people) and Hummingbird House (one of only three hospices for children in Australia—and the only facility providing respite and end of life care for Queensland children). So yes, this is a show that combines the work of young performers, with stories about the short lives of the guests in the care of Hummingbird House, and reminders of the time-pressures faced by the parents of some very sick children.

Watching, enthralled, it was occasionally difficult to remember that the talented performers and co-creators (Indra Garvey, Mia Hughes, Amy Stuart, Skip Walker-Milne and Luke Whitefield) are all under 30. And that three of the cast are under 18. Together, the performers demonstrate a great maturity: in the standard of their theatrical and circus performance, and in their reflections on (and response to) the stories that are at the heart of the show.

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Pictured:  We Live Here,  Brisbane Festival 2019   (Indra Garvey, Mia Hughes, Amy Stuart, Skip Walker-Milne and Luke Whitefield). Pictures credit:  Creative Futures Photography.

Pictured: We Live Here, Brisbane Festival 2019 (Indra Garvey, Mia Hughes, Amy Stuart, Skip Walker-Milne and Luke Whitefield). Pictures credit: Creative Futures Photography.

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We Live Here is an inspired theatrical event: five Flipside Circus performers and creators, a time-focused video projection and a moving soundtrack that includes the words of Hummingbird House staff and parents (Mik La Vage, Audio and Projection Designer), and the leadership and creativity of Natano Fa’anana and Bridget Boyle (Co-Directors). I had the opportunity to see this show in November 2018, and was greatly impressed then (click here for more). The 2019 Brisbane Festival production was even funnier, but also more touching; it also provided an opportunity for the young co-creators to demonstrate their growing circus and acrobatic skills. The 2019 Festival show demonstrates the versatility of the piece and performers. We Live Here works in many different performance spaces, so I do hope that it will tour, and ensure wider audiences can experience the work.

The circus skills are outstanding: amazing loose rope work, impressive strength and lifts, flexible and flowing acrobatics, and some fabulous hula hooping. But this is also an impressive theatrical work; an experience that will stay with you long after the show. It’s funny (watch out for the family pool scene), and it’s thought-provoking (you’ll be mesmerised by the circus work illustrating the minute-by-minute daily pressures faced by the ‘mother’). Your kids will love the acrobatics and fun, and you’ll reflect on an amazing performance that makes you think about what really matters in life (and have a renewed admiration for the work of the parents who devote their lives to their terminally-ill kids, and the vital work of hospice care staff).  Don’t miss out. Go.

Verdict: Go. Brisbane Festival, Hummingbird House and Flipside Circus. Three great reasons to be very proud of Queensland.

Audience tip: Book a ticket while you can—only 5 performances during the 2019 Brisbane Festival (5 September preview, plus 6-8 September, 7:00pm each evening plus 4:30pm on 7 September and 2:00pm on Sunday 8 September). 55 minutes. 5+. Tickets are $28 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the opening night performance (7pm, Friday 6 September 2019). Note: A shorter version of this review appears on the 2019 Brisbane Festival IMHO (In My Honest Opinion) website.  

Pictures Credit: Creative Futures Photography

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Review: SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill

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Review: SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill

If the preview night performance of SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is anything to go by, the 2019 Brisbane Festival is going to be very special. But you have to get in quick, as many of the shows have short runs. SS Mendi closes on Saturday night; so book your ticket now, and then read on to discover why.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is an unsettling tale of a major accident at sea, which happened less than five years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In January 1917, 646 people died in the English Channel, following a collision between two ships. Drawing on Fred Khumalo’s novel, the cast of fourteen tell this ‘hidden’ story of the 823 men who were selected for the voyage as a lament for the loss of the 646 souls. And we can all question whether the relative lack of interest in this story has been because, unlike the Titanic, Mendi’s passengers were black South African volunteers, who were travelling to support the Allied forces in France.

Pictured: Brisbane Festival publicity posters, lighting up the city.

Pictured: Brisbane Festival publicity posters, lighting up the city.

Much of the story focuses on the way in which the disparate group, of many tribal backgrounds, were disciplined. Drills are an important method used to train soldiers. The repetition of set movements, under strict instruction and to set timing, are a means of establishing control—shaping individuals into an army or coherent whole. Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill—the novel that inspired the show—draws on an oral tradition that Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a chaplain on the ship, called the drowning men to attention saying, “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death.”

Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble has created a powerful theatrical experience, introduced as “our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace.” It is not only a lament, but a piece that challenges the white-washing of cultural memory, and is a production that inspires and entertains. Led by Music Director Mandisi Dyantysis (who also plays Dyobha), and under the direction of Mark Dornford-May, it is a theatrical tour-de-force that blends a variety of musical styles, from the operatic through to Township music—and includes a sea shanty, Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta, and a traditional Irish ballad. The cast are narrators (often speaking directly to the audience), foley artists (watch for the sounds created for the burial at sea), actors, singers and musicians. And very fine musicians and vocalists they are too—from drumming on the set, through to performing a riveting vocal range. The QPAC stage rings to some very powerful voices as they perform the rigid, and often-restrained, European music—and almost explodes with the joy of the vibrant Township performances.

The SS Mendi story is much less familiar than that of Titanic, but has many powerful lessons for 2019 Australian audiences. Over one hundred years ago, the Master of the destructive cargo ship received a mere one-year suspension of his licence, despite having caused the disaster and failed to rescue any survivors. After the on-stage representation of this ‘whitewashing’, the play draws to a close with the entreaty “not to hate the man, just hate the system that made him.”  This theatrical event—what the Isango Ensemble describes as a ‘dance for truth’—encourages audiences from all countries to question the whitewashing of their own histories, and to seek out other stories from their own country.

Go if you want a thought-provoking theatrical experience. Look out for the superb portrayal of the Ship itself, relish the moments of humour, revel in some fantastic marimba music, and enjoy the dancing. The spine-chilling harmonies, and superb vocal work by this fantastic cast are unmissable. You’ll be pleased you bought that ticket before it sells out.

 Verdict: Not to be missed: spine-chilling song, great humour, wonderful dance moves, and a story that speaks to Australian audiences.

Audience tip: Book a ticket while you can—only 4 performances during the 2019 Brisbane Festival (5-7 September, 7:30pm each evening plus 1:30pm on 7 September only). 85 minutes. 15+ adult themes (suicide and death references), and limited smoke haze. Tickets are $49-$65 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Thursday 5 September 2019 preview (7:30pm).

Picture credits: Creative Futures Photography (note: images include a picture of a Brisbane Festival poster [design and image created by Brisbane Festival])

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Review: #FirstWorldWhiteGirls Spirit Animal

The Brisbane Comedy Festival is certainly not going out with a whimper, with a final week program that includes Judy Hainsworth’s #FirstWorldWhiteGirls: Spirit Animal—a parody of the narcissistic Instagram-able world, featuring two self-obsessed rich white girls. BFF’s Tiffany (Judy Hainsworth) and Maddison (Kyra Thompson) share some legit first world probs—from the heartbreak of Harry marrying Meagan (“I didn’t love him; I just wanted to be a Princess”) to the challenge of creating the perfect flat lay (that’s an Instagram board of your fave items for sale, photographed from above, for those who don’t know).  

 
Picture (L to R): Tiffany (Judy Hainsworth) and Maddison (Kyra Thompson). Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography

Picture (L to R): Tiffany (Judy Hainsworth) and Maddison (Kyra Thompson). Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography

 

Occasionally “cray,” Spirit Animal is a fascinating review of everything the self-obsessed millennial is likely to care about: the right outfit, the must-have operation, the latest on-trend food to eat (or avoid), and the newest mindfulness and meditation trends… as well as the ongoing demands of Instagram-ing, blogging and YouTube-ing the lot. All interwoven with a darker #MeToo undercurrent, and references to the mental health impacts of trying to live the perfect life in a far-from-perfect world.

The tightly-written 60-minute show (written by Judy Hainsworth, and directed by Lewis Jones) centres on a number of original pieces—with Disney Princess-style songs (albeit with very ‘contemporary’ lyrics) as well as sprinklings of grunge and rap. Highlights included the crowd-pleasing “I’m better than you,” and the ‘flat lay’ song. Thompson is an excellent foil to Hainsworth’s Tiffany, and the show provides each performer with solos as well as providing some close harmony. I last saw Judy Hainsworth’s work in the fabulous Happily Ever After, and Hainsworth’s versatility and harmonies were also on show in Spirit Animal (both shows under the Musical Direction of Luke Volker).

Some of the older members of the audience might have needed an urban dictionary, but I think they got the message (David even stepped bravely on the stage to learn more about creating the perfect flat lay—one of the highlights of the Tuesday night show).

 
Picture: Drawing on the “7% Indian” in  #FirstWorldWhiteGirls Spirit Animal  (Judy Hainsworth) Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography.

Picture: Drawing on the “7% Indian” in #FirstWorldWhiteGirls Spirit Animal (Judy Hainsworth) Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography.

 

I have a feeling that the show would be better-suited to a later evening slot, as the audience energy seemed to drop a little in the second-half of the opening night of this run. #FirstWorldWhiteGirls Spirit Animal is a closely-observed satire that may occasionally step close to the line between humour and offensiveness (such as the “Little Black Babies” song?). But then, that is when satire is working well: constructively criticising, and drawing attention to  issues across society.  Go along and see what you think.

Verdict: Def one for millennials/Gen WE everywhere.

 
Picture: Kyra Thompson. Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography.

Picture: Kyra Thompson. Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography.

 

Audience tip: 60 minutes, Brisbane Powerhouse Rooftop Terrace (15+. Sexual references, coarse language, drug references and adult themes). There are six performances of #FirstWorldWhiteGirls Spirit Animal in the 2019 Brisbane Comedy Festival program (6:45pm, 19-23 March—and 5:45pm on 24 March). Tickets $20-$29 ($20 on 19 March, $25 on 20/21/24, & $29 on 22 & 23 March) plus $6.60 transaction fee. Why not keep an eye on the Powerhouse website, and see what else might tempt you (2019 Brisbane Comedy Festival: 22 February-24 March).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Tuesday 19 March 2019 performance (6:45pm).

Pictures Credit: Creative Futures Photography.

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