Tag Archives: Theatre Review

In Review: Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Ripponlea House and Gardens, January 12th 2011

Dear Audy,

On Wednesday night, I went along with my mum, my 6 year old niece and her mum to see Glenn Elston’s Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland at Ripponlea House & Gardens in Melbourne.

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Years ago, I did some work at the ABC studios which is location next door to Ripponlea. I used to sneak through a gate and into the gardens to eat my lunch. At the time, I had no idea I was trespassing on a National Trust property, I was simply enchanted by the beautiful little “secret garden” that I had found to enjoy for 20 minutes on what were some hectic days. Ever since I realised that Ripponlea was Ripponlea, I have been wanting to go back and have a look around. I am completely captivated by 18th and 19th Century mansions and gardens, those aristocrats sure knew how to throw together a house and land package.

We arrived to friendly faces, who exchanged our tickets for stickers and directed us to a nearby garden where the show would begin. The White Rabbit, played by Ashley McPherson, is the first character to arrive and interact with the audience. The entire performance was highly interactive, which is perfect when the target audience is under 10. The rabbit was infectiously enthusiastic, warming up the audience, training us to respond and all the while being particularly worried because, of course, he’s ever so late…

After singing entertainingly about his predicament, The White Rabbit runs off in the opposite direction from whence he came and Alice, played by Gemma Bishop, appears, seemingly hot on his tail. Bishop’s characterisation of Alice was delightfully charming, her energetic expressions managed to captivate the children, without seeming too over the top to the adults. This precarious balance between be entertaining for both children and adults is a line that the entire production managed to achieve flawlessly.

Naturally, Alice didn’t stay for long in the first garden, she had a rabbit to chase and the audience was able to participate in that chase by following her along a gorgeous garden path, to the property’s main garden. As we followed, I heard a little girl say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we really did get to go down the hole, like in the real Alice In Wonderland?”. I giggled, thinking how sweet and naive the statement was – although I, myself, had been wondering how the staging of a fall into Wonderland would be approached.

Didn’t I end up feeling the fool when we rounded a bend and there it was. The tunnel into Wonderland! All rainbow and inflatable and a good 20 metres or so for the kids to crawl through. I couldn’t help but laugh and be impressed by the brilliance of that part of the adventure. On the other side of the tunnel, we were in Wonderland.

The main stage was set up wide, so that nobody really had to sit very far from the front, and with a handy tarpaulin thing on the ground so that setting up blankets and things wasn’t a big deal and the show could continue with minimum interruption.

There were a lot of creative staging choices used to bring to life the magic of Wonderland, one of my favourite moments was this take on the classic scene where Alice’s curiosity has her eating and drinking things that cause her to grow smaller and larger.

The script was amusing and performed well, inducing a lot of laughter that was not just from the kids. The cast worked hard, most of them playing many roles as both actors and musicians. I loved the way in which all the music was created live, using talented people, interesting instruments and innovation – such as the cook creating a fantastic beat for the Duchess to sing to using wooden spoons and some pots.

The interactive part of the production made the whole thing more engaging for the kids. They grew taller and shorter with Alice, called out to help her and even became hedgehogs for the Queen of Hearts’ croquet game, participating along with adults who had been recruited to march as playing cards in the Queen’s entourage.

The sun peeked through the clouds to perfectly light the trial that takes place near the end of Alice’s adventures. Thankfully, Alice did not lose her head.

She was safe and able to lead a musical group finale that was a joy to watch and harmonised well amongst the small number of performers.

After the show, we had a little time to explore the gardens. I love the mixture of plant types, all thriving together. I love that old gardens have mature plants that have lived long enough to amaze with their beauty.

I would also very much like to live in this house please.

The pond was looking rather remarkable. In fact, it looked more like the bog of eternal stench from The Labyrinth than a pond. It was covered in some sort of bright green moss/algae type thing. Very strange to see!

My whole body was aching from the effort of walking around and sitting on the ground. I was getting very wobbly on my feet by the time I got back to the car, but it was worth a little exertion to have such a lovely evening.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will be showing at Ripponlea until January 29th. If you are looking for something to entertain the kids, this show is fabulous. Don’t have kids? Borrow one, it was as much fun to watch my niece watch the show as watching the show itself!

Love & Delight,

P.S. I have no idea why apostrophes and ampersands won’t show in my titles…

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  • In Review: Mary Poppins The Broadway Musical, Melbourne, January 8th 2011

    Dear Audy,

    It can be hard going out when you are in a lot of pain. Something that I really enjoy doing is going to see theatrical productions and live music. The problem with wanting to do this and living with CRPS is that tickets need to be booked in advance and having a bad body day on the date on your tickets doesn’t allow you to change the show; you can either suck up the pain and attend, or sacrifice your ticket.

    Yesterday I went to see Mary Poppins at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. Yesterday was also a particularly hot and sticky day, something that my nervous system just cannot seem to find harmony with. I was very sore, very sore, indeed. It was difficult to be upright and extremely difficult to ignore the pain of sitting in a cramped seat for three hours. I tried my best to enjoy the show, however being uncomfortable probably contributed to the exacerbation of my pre-existing status as a harsh theatre critic.

    To start with the things I liked, Verity Hunt-Ballard was practically perfect as Mary Poppins, just as her character sings in a catchy musical number that was written for the broadway show. Verity Hunt-Ballard glided across the stage with poise and elegance, her rosy cheeks and bright eyes conveying a playful and friendly demeanour beyond her neatly dressed exterior. She was cheeky, clever, insightful and when she began to sing, magical. She captured the wonder of Julie Andrews’ well loved portrayal of the character, even succeeding in bringing more mystery and enchantment to the character than what I remember from my childhood viewings of the film.

    I was not willing to fork out for the expensive glossy program, so I have had to guess from the cast photos on the official website as to the actress playing Jane Banks in the performance that I saw. I am fairly certain that it was Sara Reed. I am genuinely certain that if it was Sara Reed, then that little girl is the vessel for one gigantic talent! Her voice was angelic, sweet, pitch perfect and powerful. Whenever she sang, she managed to outshine the older and more practised vocalists that she performed alongside.

    I was very interested to see the performance chops of Matt Lee, most notorious for his role as a judge on the now defunct Australian version of So You Think You Can Dance. Unfortunately, I think he was miscast in the role of Bert. My memories of Bert are as a very manly man – a chimney sweep has to have balls, right? Rough, manly balls.

    There is also the allusion to a past relationship between Bert and Mary Poppins. This implication seemed ridiculous when playing out between Matt Lee and Verity Hunt-Ballard. His characterisation of Bert was rather clown-like and almost cartoonish. He seemed so much younger and less sophisticated than Mary Poppins that his attempt to steal a kiss came across more like the efforts of a schoolboy with a crush than an interaction between a man and a woman with ambiguous history.

    Matt Lee is much more talented as a dancer than a vocalist. Step In Time, a number that filled the stage with tap dancing chimney sweeps was the show stealer for me. When the first male sweep began to sing with Matt Lee, his voice had that deepness and rough edge to it that seemed much more “Bert” to me.

    My fellow theatre goers weren’t as unimpressed by Bert from this different, less manly and more lightly joyful angle. Perhaps it was my preconceptions that did not leave room for a new interpretation of this character.

    I had trouble adjusting to a few of the storytelling decisions that were made in translating Mary Poppins from the film we all know and the books that it was based on originally. To be honest, I had no idea that Mary Poppins did not originate with the Disney film, so I might have to get my hands on the books by P.L. Travers and have a read.

    But now for my biggest gripe…there was no carousel. Oh, there was magic in the park, a little adventure through a painting, even wonderful dancing statues, but no carousel. I was highly disappointed by this. I freaking love carousels, especially old fashioned, gloriously detailed ones. I wanted to see a representation of this on stage, even though I understand that a physical production cannot shift into animation for a horse race, I think they could have adapted the Supercalifragilistic scene to include pretty wooden horses on brass poles.

    This disappointment didn’t leave me particularly open to enjoying the replacement scene involving an African woman who was selling conversation. Mary Poppins and the children purchase some random letters, from which the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is born. Perhaps this scene has come from the books, but from the perspective of only being familiar with the film, it seemed like an odd plot adaptation.

    Also confusing me a little was the amount of time spent singing and dancing about flying a kite. I kept thinking “I don’t care if you want to fly a kite, you have Mary Poppins, do something magic”. I can fly a kite and I don’t have any magic that I’m aware of.

    Mr Banks was well portrayed, although I found the scenes with Mary Poppins and the children overhearing him in his office a little bit hard to swallow. I also kept getting hung up on the fact that the Banks family is financially struggling and yet the mother does a great deal of stuff all whilst they pay nannies to care for their unruly children.

    I know, I know, it was another time, a time when class ranking meant more and certain ways of life dictated your class. Whether people could actually afford to live up to that pretty, porcelain front or not was less important than maintaining the facade. I didn’t mean my mind to get caught up in dissecting the plot when I should have been enjoying a musical spectacular, but that’s just sort of what happened.

    I might have been over-thinking to try to distract myself from my physical pain, but in spite of these observations, I actually did enjoy the show. The costuming, staging and lighting were all fabulous, the show did create a sense of nostalgia and pure enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake.

    Finding some distaste in a theatrical production isn’t without its interest either. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. Back in the days when I did things like study and plan for my future in a way that wasn’t so physically limited, I envisioned myself working wonders on the stage. I love working with a script, with actors and a crew to build a production organically and in such a way that talents are highlighted and flaws glossed over. Critically examining productions is just another way of learning. Who knows? Perhaps I will get to work in theatre again one day, it doesn’t hurt to continue to develop my tastes.

    So being in pain can make me a little grumpy and critical, so what? Every show can’t be up to the standard of Beauty And The Beast, circa 1995, when Hugh Jackman shone gallantly in the role of Gaston.

    If you like fun and music and dancing, pretty lights and pretty costumes, go along and enjoy Mary Poppins before it packs up and heads to Sydney. There’s a lot about the show that you can get wrapped up in, there’s a lot to enjoy and you don’t have to get all nit-picky like me.

    I am currently running on very little sleep for reasons unknown and trying to overcome the pain of living in a body that feels like a rusty terminator. I’ll get by, I have tickets to see a children’s production of Alice In Wonderland later this week, perhaps I will leave my critiquing glasses at home that day.

    Love & A Spoonful Of Sugar,

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  • Waiting For Godot With Ian McKellen…Absurdist Theatre At Its Best.

    Dear Audy,

    Wow, it’s hard to believe that the past week has gone by and that it was really a week long! Parts of last weekend feel like they were hours ago, other parts, decades. I’m not surprised that I am even conflicted about how long I perceived the days to pass, anxiety has been running me ragged lately. Thank you so much for the comments on my last post, I shall muster up some replies as my energy returns!

    I did do something superbly marvelous last weekend. My prince and I headed into town, collected our central, third row tickets and saw Ian McKellen performing in Waiting For Godot at The Comedy Theatre.


    I must pause and give them props for merchandising. I have never before seen a merchandise stall selling prints of paintings of the actors in character. Autographed prints, no less. It took me about three seconds to decide that yes, I would be taking home Gandalf’s signature. Had I been rich, I would have bought the set of characters, I liked the play that much!

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    I had heard a little about Waiting For Godot (a Samuel Beckett play) during my brief foray into theatre studies, however, I had never read it nor seen it performed. I loved it. I feel privileged to have had my first experience with a text that I will, no doubt, revisit to ponder over in the future, performed by such masters of the acting craft.

    Waiting For Godot is an abstractly existentialist play. It belongs amongst a movement that took place around the 1940s and 1950s that has been termed the Theatre of the Absurd. I have had a penchant for absurdist theatre since I first saw a production of The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco as a high school student. Years later, I directed a production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros through the Monash Student Theatre and of all the creative adventures I have taken, I must say, directing the play was the most rewarding. You can see pics from my production here. Exploring the text with some amazing actors through workshopping and discussion helped to reveal its ingeniously woven ambiguities and we were able to bring these out in the staging of the piece. Rhinoceros makes huge comments on the restrictions placed on people in society and the suppression of many aspects of our true natures, it also serves to highlight mankind’s lemming-like propensity to do things simply because others are, even if it means losing one’s own identity. My favourite thing about absurdist theatre is that it is like a painting, it can be seen from many angles and interpreted in different ways.

    In Waiting For Godot, two old tramps, Vladimir and Estragon are filling their time as they wait for the mysterious and never to arrive, Godot. Their conversations leads the audience to believe that they were once successful men and are now down and out, with nothing left to do but wait. Vladimir (played by Roger Rees in the Melbourne production) is the seemingly brighter of the two, he is passionate that Godot will arrive soon and that if he doesn’t, they will simply return the next day and continue to wait until he does. Estragon (played by Ian McKellen) is far less passionate, in fact, he struggles constantly to remember why they are there, why they are waiting and repeatedly tries to leave, much to the frustration of Vladimir who must constantly remind him that they are waiting for Godot.

    The most obvious interpretation of this play, and the way that I viewed it, is that ‘Godot’ in fact represents God and the characters each play a part in a commentary on religion and mankind’s perpetual efforts to uncover why we are here. Vladimir is the faithful, he doesn’t know who Godot is anymore than Estragon does, but he’s convinced that he must wait and nothing will sway his conviction. Whilst it seemed to take a while for him to settle into the part, Rees portrayed this character rather well, giving the audience a rich combination of eagerness, desperation and suppressed despair. Estragon could be seen to represent the common man, the flock, so to say. He cannot remember what day it is or whether they were there yesterday and is only waiting for Godot because Vladimir has told him that’s what they must do. McKellen was outstanding. I have seen very few performances that would even come close to what he gave. He rose a notch above the rest of the cast, despite the high calibre of performers in the other roles. Estragon seemed to be simultaneously an old man, suffering dementia and nearing the end of his life and also a young child, filled with wonderment at everything, innocently questioning the obvious and worrying mostly about his immediate needs such as hunger and the pain in his feet.

    The other two characters who appear in the play are Pozzo, a large, pompous and self important man who is leading another man, Lucky, by a lead from his neck. In keeping with the religious interpretation of the text, Pozzo appeared to be a kind of false god, perhaps he elevated himself to that status, perhaps others did it for him. In any case, he was quite certain he was more valuable than other men. The man on the lead, Lucky, seemed to be a representation of the people following a false god. I found his character fascinating.

    Lucky is burdened by Pozzo’s luggage and stands holding it, rather than setting it down as his master/friend (it is not stated) converses with the two tramps. In one scene, Estragon is repeatedly questioning why Lucky doesn’t set the bags down, why he doesn’t talk and just stands staring, at one point he gets too close and Lucky lashes out like a chained animal, kicking Estragon in the shin. Pozzo claims that Lucky holds the bags because he wants to, simply that, nothing more, nothing less. He then asserts his power by commanding Lucky to put the bags down and dance for their entertainment, which the silent underling does without complaint or enjoyment. Next, Pozzo tells Lucky to ‘think’. I found this incredibly fascinating. On command, Lucky puts down the heavy burdens that he chooses to carry and begins to think out loud. His thoughts pile on top of one another, circling in nonsense until the man becomes visibly distressed and distraught by the pressure of thought and with permission from Pozzo, he returns to his stoicism and burdens (the bags).

    I thought this gave a rather clever example of how thoughts cause anxiety and seem to be ever so important to the thinkee, but are really just zaps of energy zipping between synapses. Rather than battle with these thoughts, or, more importantly, accept their unimportance, Lucky chooses to busy himself with his burdens. To me, this seemed to show the way in which people fill their lives with activities and often put themselves through excessive stress because they feel that what they are doing is of great importance, even if it doesn’t make them happy. Lucky was happy to serve Pozzo, happy to reinforce the larger man’s delusions of grandeur because it was easier than thinking his own thoughts. Plenty of people do this, whether they care to acknowledge it or not, be it following religious leaders or the trends of the latest Hollywood starlets.

    In the program, Simon Callow has written that “The play has been haunted by a remark by one of the play’s first admirers: ‘In Waiting For Godot, nothing happens, twice.’” This is both true and untrue, in terms of story it is accurate, nothing much happens at all. However in terms of character exploration, theme and symbolism, an awful lot happens. I have found my thoughts returning to the play all week, remembering spectacular moments in the performances and also pondering the thoughts behind the text. A week’s worth of consideration? I don’t think I could ask much more of a theatrical production.

    On a personal note, it has taken me two weeks to recover from a filling and during that time I misplaced my prescription for amantadine, thought it wouldn’t be too bad as I’m not so sure it’s helping anymore, subsequently went nuts, couldn’t sleep and had a couple of days of anxiety attacks…finally ending with my prince and I searching the house like crazy until we found the prescription in the ‘safe place that I wouldn’t forget’. I’ve been able to sleep and a one on one Feldenkrais session on Friday helped to relieve a lot of my tension, but I am still battling with anxious thoughts that want to bounce around my brain until they make no sense at all. I guess you can see why I related so much to Lucky…

    I have about a gazillion appointments this week, in fact, Monday is the only day that I am not seeing a doctor or practitioner of some sort. Raise your glasses and let us toast to a productively busy week ahead…because my goodness, I have had quite enough of fretting about it. I feel calmer today than yesterday, which was calmer than the day before, so I can pretty safely assume the increase in anxiety was largely med related, however it’s still taking me a lot of effort to calm down this twitchy body! Effort that is well vested, anxiety does nobody any good at all.

    Love & Theatrical Marvels,

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