Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

774 ABC Melbourne Culture Club Reviews – April 5th [April 6]

I’ve been to see four shows in four different venues in the last couple of weeks, including three Melbourne International Comedy Festival shows and a play. I’ll start with the Comedy Festival shows:

1) ‘Die Roten Punkte: Eurosmash!’ at the Spiegeltent on St Kilda Rd.

‘Die Roten Punkte’ translates as ‘The Red Dots’ and they are brother and sister Astrid and Otto Rot who have an indie/pop/rock band – she plays drums, he plays guitar, and they both sing. But actually this is a comedy cabaret act with Melbourne comedians Clare Bartholomew and Andrew Tobias. I’d seen this duo once before and found them completely hilarious. They perform catchy, nutty, original tunes with names like – ‘I am not a Robot, I am a Lion’ and in between they chat and argue and tell stories and flirt with the audience and dream about becoming big stars.

So although this show seems on the surface to be a musical-spoof, a lot of the comedy actually comes from the way the two relate to each. They’re glued together in a weird symbiotic love-hate relationship – at times there’s a hint it might even be sexual. Astrid is tough and sexy and bad and eats junk food the whole way through the show and tries to pick up a random bloke in the audience. Otto is kind of a wimp and is always trying to be a good boy, eating vegan food and writing songs about making the world a better place, and he gets jealous when Astrid flirts with other men.

Otto wears red smeary lipstick and too much eye-liner, and Astrid wears a skin-tight silver concoction that looks like a costume from a 1970’s Dr Who episode and the ongoing joke is that these two characters think they’re really cool – and they’re desperate to BE cool, in the glamourous rock’n’roll world – but actually they’re really lame in ways they just cannot see.

This show would be very funny if you’re seeing them for the first time. My only slight reservation is that I don’t think Eurosmash! takes us any further than the last show of theirs I saw. It doesn’t seem to be covering much new ground. I don’t mean they’ve repeated the last show but perhaps they haven’t pushed the boundaries. In Eurosmash! we learn a little bit more about their childhood and there are some new songs, but although I laughed a lot and really enjoyed myself, I left wanting something a bit more.

If you’re not sure whether you’d enjoy this show, check them out on Youtube, they’ve got half a dozen videos up there.

‘Die Roten Punkte – Eurosmash!’ is on at the Spiegeltent till April 8th.

2) ‘Van Park’ – the musical – at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran (it finished last weekend).

This show was written by two Australian brothers, Greg and Steve Appel, who are in a band together called King Curly. I have been a huge fan of this band for a decade now. They play quirky, gentle, country-pop with a bit of raw rock’n’roll mixed in, and i can highly recommend their albums. ‘Van Park’ stars Australian pop legends John Paul Young and Steve Kilby (former lead singer of The Church) so I went with high hopes of a great night out.

And yes, we got to hear lots of King Curly songs, because what they’ve done is create a loose narrative around existing songs. This is an increasingly common way to create a new musical – think ‘Mamma Mia’ and all those Abba songs – there’ve also been many biographical musicals about stars such as Johnny Cash and Dusty Springfield – which trade on people’s familiarity with (and love of) existing songs.

This is a story about a washed up rock’n’roll hero, played by JPY, a one-hit wonder who’s now living in a caravan park with his long-suffering wife and son, and dreaming of writing another hit, but mostly just drinking, bragging and shagging. Steve Kilbey plays a hippie relic from the ’70’s who has long had a crush on JPY’s character’s wife, and when the son shows some musical promise – and develops a crush on a spunky English backpacker in the van park – Kilby’s character tries to encourage the young man to win her over with his songs. So – a cute story with lots of potential – but actually this show was quite shambolic.

There were a couple of problems. JPY and Steve Kilbey may be great pop singers but they’re not great actors, so they do a lot of waving their arms around awkwardly and stealing each others scenes and it was sometimes funny but often really hammy.

Also the direction seemed to be almost non=existent. Greg Appel wrote and directed the show and it felt like the performers had been left to find their own way through the chaotic script. So there were a lot of those awkward moments where either things were moving too fast and we audience members couldn’t keep up, or there were sudden holes in the show, silences or random lines that left you scratching your head.

The young man who played the son was very good, he had a lovely voice and a sweet stage presence, and the live band is great – basically it’s the King Curly band – but I think this one was mostly for the fans. And if you weren’t a fan of any of those musicians or singers, you’d struggle to have an enjoyable night. Buy the albums, I say – they’re better than the musical.

3) The pick of the bunch for me from the Comedy Festival shows I’ve seen so far is ‘Tina C: Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’ which is on at The Malthouse in Southbank.

This is probably going to be the hardest one to describe, but basically Tina C is a drag character created by British actor and comedian Christopher Green, and this was the first time I’d seen Tina C in action. Tina is tall, slim, pretty, with flicky blonde hair, long legs and a sweet country’n’western voice, and at times it’s almost impossible to believe she’s actually a he.

Tina thinks she’s a star – and she is! – she has the audience eating out of the palm of her well-manicured hand within the first five minutes of this show. She’s warm and sentimental and narcissistic and she had us all giving each other hugs in the audience at the start of the show and line dancing together at the end of the show and i’m still not really quite sure how she did it.

Tina is here to help – she’s figured out that there is an unresolved problem between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – that reconciliation is still a goal, not an achievement – that our history is full of sorry business and that just saying sorry isn’t going to be enough to make reparations for the way indigenous Australians have been treated – and she’s going to deliver a lecture on this topic, and in between bits of her speech, she’s going to sing us some original songs.

Trouble is, Tina calls them ‘Indig-JY-nous Australasians’ or ‘Abori-JYN-als’, and all of her songs have carefully constructed lines to rhyme with those mis-pronunciations, and when she figures this out in the first few minutes of the show it looks like she’s in strife. And to be honest, I had some very nervous moments at the start of this show, wondering how Christopher Green dared to come treading in his stilettos through this minefield of political sensitivities.

But I decided about half way through that actually this guy is a comic genius. Tina the fictional creation can do and say things that a real person would never dare to. She’s faux- naïve, self-obsessed, but has a heart of gold, and what she’s brilliant at doing is pointing out hypocrisy and double standards and unconscious racism and ongoing injustice. And Tina has done her research – she even uses direct quotes from the writings of early Australian colonial governors – and she does this all even while she’s making you laugh yourself sick.

I don’t want to give away too many more of the gags, but DO go and see this show – it’s brilliant, and didn’t want it to finish. Tina C has a beautiful accompanist on guitar, James Henry, who is also the nephew of the late great Jimmy Little who sadly we lost this week. And there is a guest appearance by Aboriginal country singer Auriel Andrew, who used to perform regularly with Jimmy Little. She brought the whole audience to tears with her songs.

‘Tina C: Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word’ is on at The Malthouse in Southbank until April 14th.

4) Finally to a more conventional piece of theatre , a play called ‘Red’, which is part of the 2012 Melbourne Theatre Company program. It is written by John Logan, who is probably best known as a screenwriter – he worked on ‘Gladiator’ and ‘The Aviator’, and more recently the film ‘Hugo’ – and the story goes that Logan fell in love with the paintings of American artist Mark Rothko when he visited the Tate Museum in London about five years ago. He became fascinated with this artist’s life and work, and wrote this play about him.

Rothko was a giant of abstract expressionism. He became very famous and successful in the middle of the last century and his paintings sold for many thousands of dollars, but he committed suicide in 1970. He was born in Russia (part of what is now Latvia) to Jewish parents and the family fled to America to avoid persecution when Rothko was a young boy. But Rothko always felt like an outsider – or at least that’s what this plays argues – and there was clearly a dark side to his creativity.

So this play is a two-hander with Colin Friels playing Rothko and Andre de Venny playing his young assistant Ken, and it’s been directed by Alkinos Tsimilidis, better known as an edgy award-winning Australian film director (directed ‘Everynight… Everynight’, ‘Silent Partner’ and ‘Tom White’, which also starred Colin Friels.)

Everything takes place inside Rothko‘s studio where he paints those luminescent red canvases that New York fell in love with. And while the two men prepare the canvases they talk about art – and talk and talk and talk – and argue – and to be honest I think that becomes a bit of a problem with this play. It becomes more like a two-handed theatrical lecture than a piece of engaging human drama. Yes we can learn a lot about the history of art and of Rothko’s own work in particular, but until the second half of the second half of the play, not very much actually happens.

I almost felt sorry for Colin Friels. He’s a wonderful actor and he puts his heart and soul into this role, but mostly he just has to deliver long diatribes about the nature of art, with the assistant acting as the foil to the monologues. I don’t think it’s a problem with the acting or directing. it’s a problem with the play itself. I felt a bit hectored, and as if perhaps the writer had fallen in love with his research but not necessarily with his characters. So I was surprised to learn that ‘Red’ won a Tony Award two years ago (for the Broadway production) for Best Play.

So – interesting – but not enthralling, I’d say. If you’re a fan of Rothko’s art – and I am – then you’ll be interested, but if you prefer theatre that really engages your emotions as well as your intellect, it might not be for you.

‘Red’ is on at the MTC’s Sumner Theatre in Southbank until May 5th.