Review: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is wizard … smashing … keen on stage

(image via eventfinder.com.au)

 

Last night, for exactly two hours and thirty-five minutes, I was a kid again.

A whooping and hollering kid, delighted with life, and frankly not caring who knew it.

No, this delightful reversion was not due to some bizarre act of DNA-reversing science, cooked up in some off-the-grid lab hidden in the back blocks of Sydney.

Rather, it was solely due to a flashy vintage car with loads of personality (which deservedly received its very own curtain call), a bright, tuneful singalong score, and an energetic cast, all bundled up in the feel good, permanent-smile-on-your-face musical Chitty Chitty Bang  Bang.

 

… and over the cliff they go! Chitty Chitty Bang bang and the cast drop over the cliff and … then soar into the heavens in one of the show’s centrepiece moments (image via danceinforma.com)

 

I must confess that though I was thrilled when we scored last minute tickets to the musical, which is wrapping up a two month stint in Sydney before moving on to Melbourne, I was a little worried about how a movie I adored as a child with its magical vistas that seemed to stretch on forever, would translate to the stage.

I needed have worried a bit.

From the word go, the director Tim Lawson unleashed a musical experience so joyously uplifting, without miraculously being so saccharine you felt like you had eaten an dessert bar, that any comparisons to the movie went flying out the ornately rendered Art Deco windows of the Capitol Theatre, leaving you to surrender yourself to a show that was awash in cartoon bright colours (Truly Scrumptious in particular, brought to life with just the right amount of brightness and enthusiasm by Rachael Beck, wore a series of lollypop-coloured clothing), enthusiasm for family and life itself, and a sense that anything could be brought to a successful conclusion by sheer belief alone.

The real trick with a musical as relentlessly upbeat as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – even the Child Catcher/Junkman, played with superb menace by Tyler Coppin whose all-black outfit was the embodiment of villainy chic, channelled evil with enough comically camp touches to soften the hard, dark edges – is to make sure it is uplifting and heartwarming without descending into nauseating sentimentality.

And the cast and crew did just that.

They kept the reasonably simple storyline, which sees inventor Caractacus Potts (David Hobson, who has the most divine tenor voice) repair Chitty to her former glory after his children, Jemima and Jeremy (both played by a trio of children depending on the night) discover her in a junk yard where she’s about to be sold for scrap before taking them on am amazing adventure to the kingdom of Vulgaria (with new love Truly Scrumptious, and via a outhouse-centric kidnapping, Granpa played byPeter Carroll) humming along at a brisk pace, with any warm and fuzzy moments expertly wrapped in a dazzling concoction of vibrant and unmitigated fun.

 

The two Vulgarian spies Boris (Todd Goddard) and Goran (George Kapiniaris) were delightfully over-the-top mixing buffoonery with all manner of adult-pleasing double entendres (image via theladida.com)

 

The songs such as “Toot Sweets”, “Me Ol’Bamboo” and of course “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (the score is by the famous Sherman Brothers), are as memorable as ever, with the cast singing their way with plapable enthusiasm from the junkyard where Chitty is found to the fairground where Caractacus tries to sell one of his flawed inventions to raise the money to buy the beloved car and on to the delightfully gaudy surrounds of the Baron (Alan Brough) and Baroness Bomburst’s (Jennifer Vuletic) kingdom of Vulgaria where children are banned, the adults are suitably infantile in response to their absence, and good triumphs, in a gloriously joyful way, over evil.

It is all bright, frothy giddy fun, packed full of amusing one liners and some laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy, with fabulous candy-coloured sets, brisk airy choreography, and just the right amount of sentiment to warm the heart, and silliness to delight young and old alike.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as feel good as they come and one of those musicals that you’ll wish you could move into and never leave.

And I dare you not to want to dance and sing your way home once the show is over …

* Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opens on 30 January at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.

 

It’s love true love for Caractus Potts and Truly Scrumptious in this feel good, life-affirming musical (image via showsaustralia.blogspot.com)

Theatre review: “Entertaining Mr Sloane” (New Theatre)

Entertaining Mr Sloane, New Theatre (image via blogs.crikey.com.au)

 

Entertaining Mr Sloane by the oft-acknowledged master of black comedies, Joe Orton, is a journey to the dark side of humanity.

Albeit one disguised with such witty, euphemism-laden banter that you’re apt to forget you are witnessing people, desperate for the best in life, behaving at their very worst.

And Kath (Alice Livingstone) and Ed (Pete Nettel), in New Theatre’s production of the classic play, directed by Rosane McNamara, are behaving as badly as anyone can, all the while dressing up their behaviour in a see-through thin veneer of flimsy middle-class morality.

They have more reason than most to reach brazenly for the brass ring. Kath and her father, Kemp (Frank McNamara) live in a rundown house on the edge of a rubbish dump. Plans to build more houses were shelved decades before, and they remain socially and physically isolated, holding on to middle class aspirations while all too aware they will come to naught.

Flamboyant Ed (whose homsexuality is accorded the same treatment as everything else in the lives of this blighted family; that is conveniently ignored), who has not spoken to his father in 20 years after he was discovered committing a “felony in the bedroom” as a teenager talks big, extolling the vast extent of his business success at every turn.

But the Shakespearian phrase “the lady doth protest too much methinks” (Hamlet) applies to him more than most, as it soon becomes apparent that his wealth is built on more talk than actuality and may well have criminal underpinnings.

Long suffering Kemp is the irascible father contending with two avaricious and emotionally needy children who push him one way then the other as it suits them. Ostensibly they love him, or so they say, but it is very much a situational love dependent on what he can do for them. Such as when he is dispatched with 5p on the bus to fetch Mr Sloan’es bags, when he moves in from his previous digs by Kath who is more interested in bedding the youthful and charming Mr Sloane than she is about her aged father’s welfare.

 

Brynn Loosemore as the sociopathic Mr Sloane (image via facebook.com)

This is symptomatic of the effect that Mr Sloane, played to charming, and later, menacing, perfection by the gifted Brynn Loosemore, has on this hollowed-out family. They are willing to do anything to accommodate him and he uses this to his own ends, manipulating Kath and Ed, and intimidating Kemp, the one person who doesn’t buy his act, into silence … and worse.

While Loosemore’s British accent may have wandered in and out, his ability to portray a 20 year old orphan who has spent his life in state homes, and is willing to do anything to craft a better life for himself, was spot on through the performance. No matter how dastardly his acts, he managed to keep Mr Sloane as a somewhat sympathetic person whose actions were at least somewhat understandable.

 

A desperate Kath will do anything to keep the love of her "baby" including being the most Odeipal mumma around (image via altmedia.net.au)

 

So too Alice Livingstone as Kath and Peter Nettel as Ed, the almost incestuous brother and sister act, who channel a craving for emotional intimacy so perfectly that their willingness to take all of Mr Sloane’s blatant lies as gospel truth if it keeps him in their lives makes sense. You cringe and recoil, and yes laugh uproariously, as you watch them be robbed by Mr Sloane, literally and figuratively, of the little sense of family they have remaining.

 

Mr Sloane (Brynn Loosemore) and Ed (Peter Nettel) grow closer to their relationship being more about pleasure than business (image via theatrepeople.com.au)

 

 

It is testament to these gifted actors that you almost feel sorry for them, even as they twist themselves into ever more pretzel-like shapes to allow for Mr Sloane’s transparently self-seeking demands, convincing themselves that no price is too high to pay. They remain oblivious to the last they are trading off any semblance of filial piety and ripping the rags of their middle class morality to shreds in order to gain the dubious prize of shared “custody” of Mr Sloane.

For his part, the sociopathic Sloane takes full advantage of the siblings’ craven desire for his company by inciting them to ever more destructive acts all in the name of ensuring his  ongoing well being.

You realise early on, as you witness the downfall of this family – though they get what they want at the end of the story, it is questionable whether what they have is worth anything anymore; or indeed if it was ever worth anything – the gift of Joe Orton’s razor-sharp ability to dissect and lay more the troubled underpinnings of middle class morality.

Though the right words are spoken, and the right conventions observed, it is all done in name only – Kath worries almost reflexively though with little real concern about what people will think even as she wantonly seduces Mr Sloane, masking her naked lust with more righteous-sounding platitudes than a republican party convention – and Joe Orton exposes the unsavoury fact that all is not well in the hallowed bastions of Western democracy – the middle class family.

His observations remain bleedingly sharp in this consumption obsessed age, which is remarkable since the play is almost 50 years old, having debuted on 6 May 1964 at the New Arts Theatre in Central London.

It has held its age well, and as we laughed, cringed and at times looked away in discomfort, it became all too clear that with the right amount of prodding and poking, and the right inducements, that we too could descend into the uncomfortably rotten realm of Kath, Ed, and the duplicitous Mr Sloane, and be every bit as comfortable with the Faustian deal struck.

 

Kath seeks to get closer, much closer, to the charming but deadly Mr Sloane (image via facebook.com)

 

 

Vivid Festival 2012

(Image via news.com.au)

I may have missed seeing this in person this year because life got in the  way but thanks to the wonders of time lapse photography, it is as if I did get to wander amongst all the luminous wonder.

(image via mousetravel.net)
(image via mousetravel.net)

And now you can too…

 

Review: “The Paris Letter” (Darlinghurst Theatre)

In a play redolent with evocative lines, the one that has stayed with me, and sums up the melancholy of the whole story is “the unappeasable misery of the joyless”.

It’s a line used by the central protagonist, Anton (Damian Sommerlad – young Anton / Peter Cousens – older Anton), who contrary to the spirit of the 1960s where homosexuality is regarded as a disease to be cured, embraces his queerness with gusto, regarding it as an intrinsic part of who he is.

His relaxed, almost hedonistic stance is in stark contrast to Sandy (Caleb Alloway), a repressed young Jewish man who is under pressure to get married, and join the family accountancy practice. Supported by a mother who knows he is gay – though neither uses the word, preferring to describe men who like men as “delicate” – he embarks on an affair with the liberated Anton who runs a cafe frequented by gay men in New York, Le Singe Dore (The Golden Monkey).

paris-letter-482x298
Damian Sommerlad and Caleb Alloway star as lovers, Anton and Sandy

At first they spend every waking moment together that they can, indulging every libidinous desire that comes their way as well as taking in art, movies, theatre. In other words, a normal young people getting to know each other and falling headlong, madly in love.

But right on the cusp of true happiness, Sandy retreats, forsaking the chance to be truly content and starts seeing Dr Schiffman who has reputedly “cured” many gay men in the past, and promised to rid a deeply conflicted Sandy of his unwanted desires.

It seems to work, at least enough for Sandy to make some sort of peace with his very active demons. Remaining friends with Anton, he is introduced to a close friend of his former lover, Katie (Susie Lindeman, who also plays Sandy’s mother with great verve and gusto), falls in love and marries her, adopting the acceptable role of husband, father to Katie’s son Sam (also played by Caleb Alloway) and head of the family business.

ipad-art-wide-paris-20letter-420x0

He seems to have successfully “cured” himself – although Anton sneers at one point that “it is often hard to tell the cure and the disease apart” – until he has a brief tumultuous affair with a younger man many years later, and his house-of-cards life, precarious from the start, comes crashing down around him, with tragic consequences for everyone involved.

The play, narrated throughout by Anton – Peter Cousens is impressive as a man who has enjoyed his life yet feels the pain even in his advanced years of losing his only true love – is a moving depiction of the way the choices people make have profound effects many years down the track. It is a story of love found, and then discarded as one party in the relationship caves to intense pressure from a society which prefers people to be normal rather than happy.

Sandy particularly is as joyless as Anton alleges. Though on paper he gained everything he wanted when he made his Faustian pact with Dr Schiffman, and was happy to a degree, he gave up the one thing he truly wanted – the love of Anton. Though they remained friends, neither man truly gained from the choices made by Sandy, whose desire to repress his desires played into a great many other facets of his life including his business career.

Older Anton and Sandy

So at it’s heart, the play is a moving account of regret and loss. You are moved by the desperate need of Sandy to feel truly loved, and fulfilled, and his utter inability to bring this about. You grieve for Anton who stands by as his the love of his life marries a woman and lives the life he thinks he should have, rather than the one he wants which would have included Anton as intimate lover rather than good friend. And you weep for those caught in the middle, Katie and her son Sam who lose in spectacular fashion what they never truly possessed in the first place.

But thanks to sparkling, beautifully written dialogue, and actors who know just how it should be used, the play, for all its great sadness emboldens you to live your live as authentically as possible since that it is the only thing that can truly bring happiness.

The Temperamentals (New Theatre)

It is easy to brave behind closed doors.

You can articulate the most intimate secrets and no one will hear you, unless you choose to let them. But the whole equation changes when you are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, or like Harry Hay (Doug Hansell), and his lover, Rudi Gernreich (Daniel Scott), founders of America’s first gay rights organisation, the Mattacine society, choose to step right into it.

And step into it Harry boldly does, with a more reticent Rudi following as close behind as he can. Harry is a deeply frustrated man. Forced to shelter deep within a closet, which includes marriage to a woman he cares for, but doesn’t truly love, or feel attraction for, he yearns for far more. He wants to live a life with the man he falls in love over a series of clandestine encounters, Rudi, that is as open and free, and recognised by society as that of his heterosexual forbears.

But instead he is forced to hide behind code words – “temperamentals” was code for homosexual back in the 1950s – deny his true feelings, and tone down his innate flamboyance (he takes to wearing brightly coloured scarves later in life), all to keep society comfortable. Emboldened by the spirit of defiance he encounters in Rudi and like-minded souls, he forms the Matticine society with a bold manifesto that he expects everyone else to believe in as fervently as he does.

But the beauty of the play, by Jon Marans, which is peppered with wry observations, witty lines, and heartbreaking truths, is that it doesn’t turn Harry, Rudi and those that eventually join them – Bob the clown plagued by inner demons (Mark Dessaix), and Dale and Chuck (Ben McIvor and Brett Rogers respectively) –  into paper-thin gay stereotypes. They are rendered as complex, flawed men, all struggling to find their place in a society that says they have no worthwhile role.

Obviously they reject that, Harry most aggressively, but not all of them are prepared to nail their colours to the mast and make a declaration. That they are forced to do so when one of their number is falsely accused of soliciting gay sex in a men’s room, and is tried in court, is borne more by necessity than passion pursuit of exposure.

Well with the exception of Harry, who emboldened by his love for Rudi, and free of his marriage is determined to make himself as visible as possible. This costs him a great deal in the end, not least the love of Rudi who reluctantly walks back into the closet in order to claim his place as one of the most celebrated costume designers of Hollywood’s golden age. It breaks his heart and Harry’s but it underlines beautifully that not all the men who joined this movement were of the one mind, and that they all approached the fight for equality with their heterosexual brethren in different ways and at different tempos.

And that is the beauty of this play. It resists the temptation to show all gay men as identical. They may all yearn for freedom from oppression, but go about in different ways, with makes sense since gay people are as diverse in their outlook and aspirations as the rest of society. Jon Marans portrayed this deftly and cleverly, and underlined the inhumanity and it’s consequences on wildly different people. who all react in different ways, as you’d expect.

It is powerful play because it resist easy answers and portrayals. You are left feeling as if you have met five real men grappling with who they are, and the best way to make society acknowledge their uniqueness. The means may vary but the yearning is the same, and it is as powerful as it is moving, especially in the hands of a cast, and a director as talented as the ones directing this production at the New Theatre.

Jane Austen’s Guide to Pornography / Glorious Bastard

This was experimental theatre and then some on a low budget but it worked.

While the plays souns outrageously profane, and the playbill featured a leather harness clad muscle hottie, the plays themselves while witty and clever, weren’t nearly as salacious as we’d been led to believe. My friend Peter was particularly upset at the lack of male nudity but that wasn’t the main reason the rest of us went away. The word play in both plays was clever and playful (no pun intended) and while the sets were cheap and cheerful, the skill of the actors meant that was never an issue.

Great fun stimulating theatre