Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Lyric Theatre, QPAC

21st November, 2013

Some 45 years since the release of the now classic feature film of the same name, staring the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke, Sally Anne Howes (and, would you believe, Australia’s Sir Robert Helpman as the Child Catcher?) the modern stage incarnation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has finally made it to Brisbane. Wrapping up a successful Australian tour for 2013, it’s been a long and probably quite exhausting run for the company. The show has received a huge amount of publicity, even some glowing accolades but frankly, I struggle to see what all the fuss is about.

Clearly James Bond creator, Ian Flemming had a “thing” for lavish cars with fanciful gadgets and he let his imagination run wild with his series of short stories (originally entitled: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – The Magical Car”) that he penned for his son and first published in 1964. The stories centred on a derelict old car (based upon a real English Derby winner) found rusting at a junkyard, being faithfully restored by “inventor extraordinaire” Caractacus Potts. Acclaimed Children’s author Roald Dahl combined the stories into one and added a few of his own touches when he adapted the curious tales of “Chitty” for the 1968 movie.

By his own admission, stage writer Jeremy Sams said: “the film is definitely the show’s starting point. Roald Dahl’s screenplay had moved things on a long way from Flemming’s original and I think we have moved things on further still.” * The problems I have with this stage script are that it is very thin, almost pantomime in its style and it’s two clear stories. I’d have been quite happy to have gone home at interval - the tale of an old car, its racing history, its impending doom and its spectacular resurrection, had been told by the end of Act I. Act II was another adventure all together and one, to be honest, that felt just a little drawn out and superfluous at times.

However, having said that, this is a delightful cast who work very hard to convincingly maintain some pretty thin characters for almost 2½ hours of performance. Rachael Beck (with whom I worked on Home & Away many years ago!) is thoroughly divine as Miss Truly Scrumptious. I think her voice (which has always been beautiful) just continues to improve with every show in which she appears. David Hobson plays Potts, the inventor. Again, this role suits his stunning tenor voice and his slightly over-played operatic acting style.

A standout amongst the company is wonderfully animated Jennifer Vuletic as the narcissistic, child-loathing Baroness Bomburst. Sadly she’s set against a somewhat two-dimensional Shane Bourne as the Baron, who looked and sounded a little out of place within such a vibrant company. Dana Jolly’s high-octane choreography certainly keeps the ensemble fit and the show’s momentum up whilst the audio, at times, lets it down as some of the spoken dialogue is almost incomprehensible under the otherwise stirring live music.

It is said that the creation of the famed flying Mercedes has become the most expensive theatre prop in all history … and one can see why. It really makes for a delightful piece of theatre magic and when it quite literally “takes off” late in the first act, there is a palpable gasp of anticipation and delight from within the auditorium. It’s just a shame that having “fired that cannon”, there was nowhere left for it to go throughout the entire second act. It’s a shame there wasn’t just one more trick up its manifold to impress again as the intelligent automobile steps in and saves the day at the story’s climax.

Like the magical car, the sets and costumes (by British designer Anthony Ward) are bold and vibrant. The costumes a study in colour and lines - the backdrops created with an interesting perspective. However it seems that they blew all their money before all the sets had been built. It struck me as peculiar that the finale of the show, allegedly set in the Baron’s castle, where the cast actually refer to the “happy ending” … and yet they play the entire scene against standard blacks. Not the effervescent final image I’d have expected from a production of this calibre. A production that had, in earlier scenes, utilised such attractive stage sets, superb costumes and some dead-impressive “invention” props.

As I said at the start, this is not so much a grand, family Musical in the style of Mary Poppins but more a lavish and long Pantomime without the audience interaction. If you can convince your children to sit still for 2½ hours without getting bored and restless (I have to admit that I struggled) then I’d concede that it’s fun, harmless family entertainment but not something I’d rush back to see for a second time.

Glenn T
* History Notes by Mark Fox

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Grand

The Space – The Arts Centre, Gold Coast

14th November 2013


The Arts Centre, Gold Coast runs a season of Independent Theatre upstairs in The Space each year. All are fascinating new works: all are the culmination of months (if not years) of hard work: all are enjoyable theatre experiences. The latest Indi-production by Writer / Producer Victoria Carless is no exception.
"The Grand" *

The Grand is, she tells us in her program notes, about “belonging” … “the unique feeling we get in a place that is both at once comforting and familiar, strangely steeped in memories”. As one might expect, The Grand was once a vibrant, beautifully appointed seaside hotel. But times have changed … the tourists have moved on and The Grand no longer enjoys the influx of excited holidaymakers at the start of each much-anticipated summer season. However one dark evening, there is a knock at the front door and there stands a solitary figure, Euginia - a seemingly shy young girl, offering her services to the stately and unwelcoming manageress, Matilda.

Eugina manages to talk her way into refuge for the “one evening only” … but stays. She learns the ropes: how to make a bed, clean a floor, hand-wash blood from a sheet. Of course, she must never go behind the desk – that is Matilda’s domain.

There is no assuming that this is a story in the traditional sense because, although there is a clear beginning, there really is no end … that, Ms Carless cunningly leaves up to the audience to decide. Interestingly, after the show, I chatted over a glass of bubbles with a number of friends and colleagues also in the audience for the Opening Night performance. Amusingly, we all came up with different scenarios for the play’s outcome – different explanations for what had just happened. Basically, we all had seen different shows. And I suggest that is precisely the writer’s bold intention.

Tammy Wheeler and Anna Mowry * 
Tammy Wheeler plays the young itinerant superbly. Her sweet innocence clearly belies an underlying intention – although that intention is never quite allowed to surface. Anita Mowry is lovely as the matriarchal proprietor of the majestic establishment with (one may assume) spare pillows, a blanket and a skeleton in every closet.

Director, Lisa Smith has blocked the piece beautifully – her use of half-speed, slightly stilted movement, to pass time and blanket scene changes, is most effective. There is clearly a nice rapport between these characters and a cleverly developed fascination with their very being that never seems to wane.

The set design by Luke Ede is charming: simple but again, very effective. The detail in the finishing is simply stunning. Michael Bunen’s carefully considered lighting gives the stage a beautiful, eerie feeling of a fading, but glorious past – for both the tired establishment and the ladies toiling within it.

So is Euginia is really an innocent traveller … or is there an ulterior motive to her unannounced arrival? And is Matilda just a cold old woman protecting a catalogue of family secrets … or are they just two little girls playing a game of “make believe”? We’ll never know … and that’s what precisely makes this play such a clever piece of contemporary theatre.

Glenn T.
* Images by Aaron Ashley

Don’t Just Lie There – Say Something!

Gold Coast Little Theatre

Friday 16th November, 2013


I can remember the early 1970s. I was a young boy in purple flared trousers and a horizontally striped polo-necked jumper … clearly a fashion plate even back then. In the entertainment scene, the free-loving 60s had given way to the sexual ambiguity and innuendo of the 70s. The youth of the Western World were out en mass protesting any involvement in the Vietnam War and comedy writers in smoky studies were turning to their typewriters in a bid to lighten the mood. In the UK, the Carry On team took bawdy Music Hall humour to the big screen and Benny Hill was mastering the art of the double-entendre whilst unashamedly flirting with big-breasted, voiceless girls in his weekly sketch comedy show.

In 1971 that was all terribly risqué – cheeky and, dare I say, “titivating!” “I’m not against half-naked girls …” Hill would say “… not as often as I’d like to be!” At the same time, Dr Who’s brother, Michael Pertwee was penning one of his more than 60 television, film and theatrical scripts – described as a “Whitehall Farce” and entitled Don’t Just Lie There – Say Something! Again, I have little doubt that the steamy nocturnal shenanigans of bowler hat wearing MPs and their lingerie-clad mistresses was all very daring, salacious and terribly amusing to the British middle-class. However now, some 40 years on, I wonder … is it still?

David Edwards, Maria Buckler & Eric James

Opening this week at the Gold Coast Little Theatre, “Don’t Just Lie There …” is certainly energetic and well staged … albeit just a bit dated and, at times, a little unamusing. However it is an interesting look back to that time in our recent history … a time, as they say “when sex was safe and parachuting was dangerous!”

Occasionally laborious scripting aside, the cast work jolly hard both remembering the reams of dialogue and with the quite physical blocking that is common in such a play. Eric James plays the fraternising Sir William Mainwaring-Brown (or “Mannering Brown” according to the program). A self-confessed “old fool”, this part seems to suit Mr James to a tee and he clearly enjoys the nightly frolic with semi-dressed ladies (and one slightly less attractive, hand painted gentleman in a pillow slip). That unfortunate character is David Edwards as the full-time MP and occasional hippie rebel, Barry Ovis. Again, Mr Edwards enjoys little respite through the performance and plays his embattled MP with an enjoyable realism.

Maria Buckler (baring an uncanny resemblance to the delightful Joanna Lumley who played the role in the 1973 film adaptation) and Clare Ryan, are the brave girls in the scanties and despite spending much of the evening shut in a broom closet, Brian Wilson is quite hilarious as the somewhat forgetful but Right Honourable Wilfred Potts MP (or Potty to his friends). Bruce Alker Jr, as the typical bumbling detective, struggles occasionally with his dialogue (and the accent) but is otherwise enjoyably frustrated in the role. Ruth Henderson is pitifully convincing as the ever-suffering fiancé, Jean Fenton and Grace Lennox (as, wait for it, Miss Damina) is in and out from under the bed like a sales-rep’s suitcase.

Director Dorothy Henderson’s long history of comedy comes to the fore in this production and while, as I said, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly funny book, she manages to elicit numerous laughs from her audience (and probably sighs of physical exhaustion from her hard-working cast) as the wordy set-up of the first act allows for more slapstick and becomes more visually amusing in the second. The stage design, by Ted Henderson is ideal and offers all manner of entrances and exits, as one might expect in a farce. The period 70s wallpaper is thoroughly hideous … and absolutely perfect!

One must remind one’s self from time to time that this is actually community theatre. These actors / stage crew and technicians all have other jobs … they remember this dialogue and rehearse these intricate scenes in their spare time. What’s more, they don’t get paid for it - so more credit to them!

Glenn T.

The Full Monty

Phoenix Ensemble - Beenleigh

Friday 15th November, 2013

As Kate Peters would say: if it’s a bad final rehearsal, it’ll probably be a bad performance!” Well I’m only guessing that the Phoenix Ensemble have enjoyed some pretty good rehearsals of late because their performance is something all together wonderful.

We are all familiar, of course, with the now classic 1997 movie of the same name: a touching yet funny tale of six men made redundant after the closure of a mine in Northern England. Well it took the Americans to commercialise the piece, add a musical score and adapt the story for the stage. Now set in Buffalo NY, the musical version of The Full Monty opened on Broadway in 2000 to rave reviews. Whilst I am not always a fan of the “Americanisation” of a great story, this one seems to have worked as the pivotal characters remain, on the whole, unchanged. The fear and insecurity they face and later the camaraderie they embrace remains the same … just the accents are different.

This was my first visit to the “tin shed” in Beenleigh and what a wonderful little theatre it is. Set within the Beenleigh Show Grounds, this is a real “community theatre” – a close-knit company who clearly enjoys working together and is not afraid of putting in the hard work required to stage a show such as this. I have to say, I really enjoyed it.

Director Tracey Hutley has created some lovely moments within her blocking and in the way she has used a very cleverly designed set to move us from one location to the next. The large cast is tightly rehearsed and the normally private emotions these men are feeling are, at times, quite palpable. Whilst I felt the occasional, potentially important line was swallowed, mumbled or just lost in the accent, the principal performances are overall, outstanding. Stephen Dorrington is simply superb as the young dad, Jerry with far more to loose than his dignity. I really enjoyed Mr Dorrington’s performance – his background in ballroom dancing clearly made for his light, almost Puck- like step on stage. That combined with a strong voice and a charming vulnerability made his character portrayal so warm and believable. Speaking of voices, I must mention Adam Bartlett in the role of “mummy’s boy” Malcolm. What a superb set of pipes this man has – Mummy’s last goodbye is a beautifully moving scene.

The rest of the gents, Jason Lawson, Kevin Doyle, Tyler Stevens and Simon Ahhim all deserve a note of congratulations for not only spending much of the second act in their undies but again for the raw “realness” they brought to their characters. Then there is the afore-mentioned Kate Peters in the cameo role of Jeanette, the rehearsal pianist: simply hilarious! With the “Hollywood hair” jammed under a knitted beanie and a collection of nylon track-suits and souvenir t-shirts that would make any energetic Florida retiree proud, Ms Peters gives us a delightfully amusing interpretation of all “has-been” entertainers come repetiteurs everywhere.

It is apparent by the opening number that the choreography by Heather Scott is going to be a triumph … and one is not let down. The live six-piece band under the combined direction of Casy Chadwick and Nick Ng is tight and makes a pretty impressive sound for a small ensemble tucked away in a corner.

As I mentioned earlier, the set by the Director, Luke Hutley and Andrew Lea is a masterpiece of design and is beautifully finished by Mr Lea, Morgan Garrity and Ray Aubrey. Every mobile element serves multiple purposes and the industrial look places the play perfectly. There’s even a car – a real car with functioning head lights, a steering wheel on the left hand side and an American licence plate (it’s all in the detail!)

While I found the oversized headset mics a bit of an ugly distraction, I appreciate the need for them to be there (I just wish they could have found a smaller, more discreet model). Technically, however, the show is strong and Wayne Rudolph’s lighting is well considered and brings the stage beautifully to life.

This is a great script – tick. It has a lovely score – tick. And it is impressively staged and played by this devoted company of theatre-lovers - Tick! I really enjoyed The Full Monty at Phoenix … I look forward to my next adventure to Beenleigh.