Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

774 Culture Club reviews 19th April 2012 [April 23]

Today I will be reviewing four shows, including three Melbourne International Comedy Festival productions. The first two i want to talk about seem most unlikely topics for comedy – a one man show about living with multiple schlerosis, and an opera about netball.

1) Contact! is a new Australian opera being performed in the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre, written by composer, conductor and baritone Angus Grant. I need to declare at this point that I know Angus – we studied opera together at the Victorian College of the Arts in the late 90’s and have performed in recitals together in the past.

A couple of years ago he started writing this opera about an Australian suburban netball team and then he applied to the Arts Centre to be part of their Full Tilt program (supporting new Australian musical theatre works). The work-in-progress performances at the Arts Centre in 2011 were very successful so the Arts Centre commissioned him to finish it off and programmed it for a full season in the Fairfax Studio this year.

In some ways this opera is surprisingly traditional – there’s conflict and jealousy, there are love interests, there’s a woman with a dark and tragic secret which is revealed towards the end of the opera, there are beautiful soaring melodies and harmonies sung by a bunch of operatic sopranos and one tenor, there are characters struggling to work out what their destiny is, and there are even projected sur-titles – well, sort of – there is some text projected on a screen above the performers.

On the other hand, though, no one dies from consumption or is murdered, the characters have names like Kayla and Bev and Bevan rather than Lucia or Mimi or Figaro, and the words projected on that screen are actually hilarious bitchy text messages flying between members of the girls’ netball team.

Above all this opera is really funny. The humour is a bit like ‘Kath and Kim’ – fond mockery of suburban lives – and people were laughing really hard the night I went. It’s quite short, just over an hour I think, and I reckon it would be the perfect introduction to the opera form if you’ve never been before, or have felt intimidated by it. (If you are familiar with opera, it will make sense when I tell you the musical style sits somewhere between Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Stephen Sondheim.)

I particularly love the fact that there are lots of female roles in this work. There are a bazillion excellent sopranos out there and it can be hard for them to find work, but there are about 8 roles for women in this show, and it shows the depth of talented young singers in Melbourne at the moment. So many stunning voices, and the piece is quite challenging vocally, but they’re all totally up to it.

If anyone stands out in terms of acting it’s Frederica Cunningham, who plays the bitchiest, baddest girl in the netball team, Gayle. Cunningham has beautiful comic timing and a great range of p###ed-off facial expressions. There are lots of in-jokes for people familiar with netball (characters are always being told to ‘keep their eye on the ball’), lots of wordplay, and lots of Australian colloquialisms. If you’re in a netball team, i suggest you take the whole team along to see it.

Full credit to the Arts Centre for investing in this project. It must have felt like a bit of a risk, because the idea of a netball opera sounds so bizarre, but I predict it’s going to have a long life. It’s fresh, original, familiar and highly recommended.

Contact! is on at the Arts Centre until April 29th and then will be touring to various suburban and regional areas, including Ballarat and Warrnambool, in early May.

2) I saw Tim Ferguson’s one-man Comedy Festival show ‘Carry a Big Stick’ in the Supper Room at the Melbourne Town Hall. Some people would have read the profile on Tim in one of the weekend papers about a month ago where he revealed that he has Multiple Schlerosis – hence the title ‘Carry a Big Stick’, because he literally does – and he has written what is essentially a comedy monologue about living with MS.

If you’re older than about forty you’d remember that Tim Ferguson used to be part of a hugely successfully comedy trio called the Doug Anthony Allstars. They were stars of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, did multiple international tours, and you can still find a lot of their work on YouTube if you’re curious. They were ‘comedy rock stars’, as Tim describes it – edgy, risk-takers, with the other members of the trio being Richard Fidler (now an ABC radio presenter) and Paul McDermott (who’s since become a really successful TV host). It was right in the middle of all this outrageous success that Tim first started getting the weird symptoms of MS – limbs that stopped working, tingling in his head, etc. At one point his whole face went numb just when he was about to host the Logies, so he had to do it deadpan, and he describes how lots of people thought it was a deliberate comic effect and congratulated him on how hilarious it was!

So in this show Tim sits on a stool and just talks to us, telling us an almost unbelievable tale about being side-swiped by this disease in the middle a stellar career, and somehow he finds the humour in what seems like a pretty horrible situation. He gives us lots of juicy gossip about the world of TV, stories about hanging out with Kerry Packer and various other bigwigs at Channel Nine, there are certain prurient pleasures for the audience in hearing those stories.

A lot of comedians use self-deprecation as the basis for their humour – putting themselves down – but in this show Tim Ferguson goes the other way. There’s a bedrock of braggadocio to his humour – a bragging style – which of course doesn’t fit the stereotype of people with serious illnesses, and for this reason it’s really refreshing. He’s not asking anyone to feel sorry for him, he’s there to make us laugh and tell us what a great and talented guy he is, and that his life is still good – and you come away pretty much agreeing with him.

‘Carry a Big Stick’ is on at the Supper Room at the Melbourne Town Hall until Sunday afternoon 22nd April.

3) ‘Plus One’ is a comic play on at the Trades Hall featuring husband-and-wife team Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish (Mike played Keating in ‘Keating The Musical’).

Written by Fiona, who is a successful TV comedy writer and actor, this is a play about three couples who all meet when they’re young and when some of them are in a rock band together. (Fiona and Mike between them play three characters each.) Then the story moves forward about ten or fifteen years to show us what has happened to them all since then.

There are some familiar character types here (and I mean that in a good way) – the beaten-down husband with the bullying, unfaithful wife; the hippy-dippy woman who has spent her life moving from one new age fad to the next; and the stay-at-home mum who writes a ‘mummy blog’ and is actually quite happy with her life but feels that others judge her for not having a so-called career.

The humour is a mix of snappy dialogue, clever instant character changes from the performers (just add a scarf or an Irish accent or a different facial expression and we totally get who’s playing who) and a couple of hilarious songs from Mike McLeish.

My only complaint would be that it seemed a bit short (most Comedy Festival shows seem to be expected to be about one hour). I’d be happy for it to last a bit longer and add a few more songs to make the most of McLeish’ musical talents.. I hope this show gets another life, maybe tours, because would be very portable and cheap to tour and it’s a totally enjoyable hour of theatrical comedy.

‘Plus One’ is in at the Trades Hall in Carlton till Sunday April 22nd.

4) ‘The Histrionic’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank. It is a Sydney Theatre Company production that has been included in the 2012 Malthouse season, and it’s a new Australian translation of a play by Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard (translated by Tom Wright), originally written in the early 1980’s. And though this is an hour and half long play with seven characters played by seven actors, it is ALMOST a monologue, performed with incredible skill and stamina by Bille Brown.

Brown plays an ageing actor called Bruscon who is at the tale end of his career, trailing around small towns in rural Austria performing a play he’s written himself, using his family members as supporting cast, and he is a MONSTER. He’s labeled a histrionic but I think he’s something worse. I think he’s a classic example of a narcissist – entirely self-absorbed, a bully with a gigantic ego and a persecuted belief that the world fails to understand and acknowledge his genius.

Bruscon arrives in the little town of Utzbach where the pig population is greater than the human population and he spends the day of his first performance haranguing the poor locals (and his long-suffering children) non stop with his demands, his brags, his whinges. Utzbach itself has a dark past – there are still photos of Hitler hanging in the local town hall where Bruscon is to perform – so it’s hard to know who’s more despicable really, Bruscon or the people he’s haranguing.

It all sounds fairly gothic but it is very, very funny – you’re groaning while you’re laughing at Brown/Bruscon. If you want to see one of Australia’s best actors at the top of his form, doing a virtuoso performance, then go and see ‘The Histrionic’.

It’s on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank until May 5th.