If they spend time to get to know me - Vic McEwan.png

The Empathy Clinic

A series of installations as part of The Big Anxiety.

Just look at the grass dwellers in the Domain at lunch and you get some idea of our desperation for quiet and reprieve in the big city.  Yesterday I whiled away some hours at The Empathy Clinic which is a series of installations, part of The Big Anxiety, at UNSW Galleries in Paddington.   Apart from a welcome calmness and quietude, I wandered back into busy Oxford Street with a spirit enriched and elated by what I had experienced.  Hard work to come though as my learnings are taken with me into my daily life.

The exhibitions explore Empathy; what it is, what the blocks are and why upskilling our empathy improves our mental wellness.  As a reviewer, I get empathy hits all the time from many of the shows I see and the mysterious world of actors, who can engender empathy in hundreds of people quickly, fascinates me.  So I was drawn to the exhibition for that reason.  However, what I found was a space beyond that … to learn and grow and understand and be civically enhanced.

My notes are scattered with ‘this is my favourite’ as I explored for hours, growing a little with each contact; calming down after a rushed drive in and immersing in experiences curated for engagement. (Curated by Bec Dean and Jill Bennett) There’s a questionnaire as you leave and it cultivates reflection even more than it elicits data … words like hopeful, empowered, belonging leap from the page. 

I can’t recommend The Empathy Clinic highly enough.  Diverse, accessible and reflective of modernity in shape and technology, it has an extraordinary melding of art and science which delights and improves.

Just a sample:

Edge of the Present – a VR experience in a room with a table and a door to open and windows to look out on ever-changing seasons. The grass gradually grows on the floor and the door always opens to different future.  This installation from Alex Davies doesn’t reference suicide prevention and treatment specifically but is based on neuropsychological research around the topic, specifically around an inability to create or cultivate positive images of the future.   The beauty of individual snowflakes landing on my invisible outstretched hand is a cherished moment and I might have had a little tear.

Being Debra – is a very different experience.  Also tear-worthy.  A virtual reality film in which one becomes a close companion of Debra Keenahan, an artist with achondroplasia dwarfism.  You sit with her on a bench; it’s a lovely day in the park.  Until the belittling behaviour begins.  People take photos of your friend, laugh out loud in groups and the desire to get up from beside her and thump them is pretty strong!  And in case one thinks that the case is overstated, that surely society has out grown such discrimination …. Debra also has a film #Belittled, where she reads actual tweets from short statured people world-wide.  It is blood-boiling.

Perhaps the most confronting aspect is where you are inside Debra’s head as she lies prone on a hospital bed, in hospital gear and is talked about, not to, by doctors and students who touch her with little care or clinical necessity.  Very upsetting and a clear and present illustration of art and empathy.

Listen_UP – Entering the space there is a gold floor in a circular embrace of earth coloured cloth where one sits on a stump with hanging bark shapes above to experience a meditative landscape where First Nations artists share stories in an aural campfire setting.

While there this first time, as I am going back next week, I had the opportunity to speak with Scientia Professor Jill Bennett; The Big Anxiety Festival Director.

I think often we make the mistake of thinking of the Arts as quite rarefied space. You know, a kind of a luxury pursuit and not the first point of call if you're looking to understand complex feelings, but that's always been what the Arts has done really well.  And what we find now is that mental health is becoming much more interested in doing more sophisticated communications and engagement work … and the reason is because, as they say the mental health sector, 65% of Australians with a mental health issue don’t seek help.

So where are they? What are they doing? And how do we connect with people? There's a need for better communications not just to communicate a message but to hear from people about their more complex things.

We've got this main exhibition here called The Empathy Clinic and on one level, you know, it's very conceptual. Yes, we're trying to play on this idea that the gallery can be a clinic and there can be transactions which are thought of as self-improving in some way.  But then there are works which talk about quite complex and sometimes distressing experiences.  Like there’s this one we made with women with dementia, and there's another one about disability and there's some important work from Aboriginal communities about mental health. 

What we found, actually, in the first week of the Anxiety Festival is that people are coming and they're staying and actually spending a long time with the works.  We're getting feedback already from people coming from outside the Arts sector, and indeed from children and young people, as well, that there's a sort of immediacy – it is really obvious what this is about. 

We’re perhaps not so good at sitting and listening and overcoming the stereotype and so a lot of the works are about sitting calmly and finding out something.  So what the artists are doing, in a way, is providing rich resources in a gallery.  It’s an interesting and stimulating sort of social activity with very accessible works and that's what visitors have been saying. They're very direct. They're not actually these abstract intellectual propositions; they’re about people who are right there.  Vistors have been speaking about them as quite moving.

And you can also do A Course of Empathy on-line and it’s based on research which suggests, very clearly, that perspective-sharing can promote empathy.  Not just as a, sort of, altruistic thing but as something beneficial to us psychologically.  We're not going to freak out if we do have to address someone's mental health concerns or disability.

What we say is … if you come to this show, there are some very rich engagements that will be quite touching and thought-provoking. If you really want to bed down some empathy skills, if you do the Course of Empathy you will be able to do that.

I would really recommend a visit to the UNSW Galleries, Art and Design Campus, Cnr Green and Oxford Streets, Paddington for The Empathy Clinic, details here. There a great many pink shirted guides to help you with the VR equipment and the works are sublime and illuminating and exciting and meditative… transformative.  If you can’t get there, or after you have been, the on-line Course of Empathy utilises some excellent video artworks and discussions and lived experiences. I found it expansive and self-reflective.

The Big Anxiety, an initiative of UNSW, runs until November 9 and the huge range of activities can be found in the program here.

Image: ‘If they spend time to get to know me’ - Vic McEwan

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2014 Cirque du Soleil


Three words: ça me plait

Le magnifique cirque est en ville! Run away to the circus. 

From Cirque du Soleil, Kurios is tented down at the Entertainment Quarter until November 24 and it will scorch the earth beneath it.  With no bad seats in the house, the circus experience is deepened by the fire of ensemble theatre where the acts are surrounded by a dynamic story and mis-en-scene which surprises and delights.  The beauty of the space and the smoothness of the running, meld the audience into more than onlookers … but friends bonded in delight.

Late in the show, a clown, a couch and a companion leads to a cat mimicry than no human can do better!  That moment of watching a feline transmogrification serves to bring the superhuman feats into stark consciousness.  Bodies are not meant to do what we have seen. The ripple of muscle and the flex of sinew amaze as the strength of one hand in another permits big men to fly. 

Sub titled ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, the production is styled in a sepia Victoriana, bordering on SteamPunk, aesthetic - not overdone, a vision of its own; homage not derivation.  During the show the audience may be grounded on the earth by trains and oddities but in the sky humans fly to touch the heavens and beneath the seas, colourful creatures twist and bounce.  Contortions, aerial tramp, balance, strength all on display as the acts flow freely around a loose narrative about a ‘Seeker’, a ringmaster of his treasures. 

Like the three rings of old, there is always something to be transported by. In the past I have had issues with the amount of filler in these kind of shows but here Michel Laprise, Writer and Director and Chantal Tremblay, Director of Creation have structured the night to showcase the excellence of this team without having to fill time between.  It’s always travelling and the emotions are constantly in flux.  The exciting feats that raise the head and draw the breath are modulated against a whimsical fish quartet below the net or a feat of invisible endowment that inspires one to remember the circus of yore. 

It’s a huge cast and an astonishing array of skill around the central acts.  Brilliant lighting, a live orchestra with a superb soprano, pinpoint followspot work and audio which welds it together.  Including an echo inside the mouth of an invisible lion!  Though the deck comes to life when set pieces auto-in and extravagant light bulbs, in period domed glass displays, travel along the apron by modern magic, this is hand-made circus.  Many of the set pieces are pushed in by the mechs, the rigging is dealt with by discrete hands, curtains are hand-parted to allow an oversized character to exit, a musician climbs a 4 metre straight staircase to raise he and his violin above the wonders below.  And the costumes, oh the costumes, become more than apparel in the hands of a performer who evokes a joke, drawing an out-loud laugh, with the flick of collar.

Kurios is warm and funny inside the awe, laughs galore as a juggler points a dismayed finger at an errant pin to call it back to its task.  However, it is the ethereal nature of the show which is the abiding impression as you tumble out, comparing notes with strangers and hearing the kids chatter excitedly. 

An experience to run away with your senses, Kurios is in town.  Bravo! Profitez-en!

RbJ Rating: 5 posing pouches

Kurios from Cirque du Soleil plays until November 24.

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel  © 2014 Cirque du Soleil


Tales of Foveaux

A cabaret teaser of good things ahead.

New musical theatre company, Reprise, is founded by emerging artists and creatives who studied the Australian Institute of Music’s (AIM) Bachelor of Music (Musical Theatre) two year intensive program.  Their recent cabaret, Tales of Foveaux, is somewhat of a statement of intent.  Some of the artists’ names I knew but I was surprised how many of the faces were familiar.  The show was an excellent way to see early work from people who will, with luck, have careers in the industry. 

Tales of Foveaux is about that luck, and sweat and rejection and the inevitable problems of getting a break but also about the joys and camaraderie of living an artistic life.   And it began on a high with a ‘I Will Be Me’ – a lovely blend of voices from Jake Tyler, Jasmine Sands and Levi Burrows and some lower dynamics which carried beautifully.  ‘Don’t Wanna Be Here’ up next and Katy Wright doubled down with a smoky lower register and some expert, smoothly executed, rises.

There were several very enjoyable solos in the playlist.  ‘You’ve Got Possibilities’ was Cassie Leigh Maguire using her acting experience to good effect to create such a nice persona, with an instant appeal to the audience in a funny and well-presented light-hearted song.  Acting chops were also on display from Martin Everett with ‘Extraordinary’ where he hit peak charm and confidence without being abrasive or having character overshadow his fine singing. 

Very enjoyable singing, too, from Elizabeth Gunther with ‘Being Good isn’t Good Enough’ where Gunther evoked a sweetly sad mood and after a bit of a nervous start soared those high notes and superbly nailed that killer final one.  Great job.  Kudos also to Elizabeth Evans for ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ which was a skilled performance where Evans can stand and sway with the music and yet be a perky and intriguing character. Also doing at excellent job with changes within a song was Jake Tyler singing ‘Finishing the Hat’ from Sunday in the Park with George where his transitions from sung to spoken were uncluttered and unobtrusively negotiated.

The vocal work from Levi Burrows for his solo ‘Wondering’ was delightful. Excellent mic use from this artist as his volume modulated down with the cello and rose above the piano and with a real questing in the performance.  Excellent work in that piece, and for the whole night, from the band under the hand of Zach Goldfinch as Musical Director.  Constant changes of tempo and tone for Zach Selmes with ‘Franklin Shepherd’ from Merrily We Roll Along as the character gets animated and snide by turns.  Great patter-ish articulation from Selmes in this offering.

Several of the duets also impressed.  Skye Pollard joined Selmes in ‘Therapy’.  Pollard is personality plus in a song that showcased her very nicely expressed sustained notes. Nicole Quigley teamed up with Everett to interpret ‘Better’ straight in from interval where the theme kicked into high gear on the back of a well created and presented duet.  My pick of the night, though, was Katelin Koprevic and  Jasmine Sands with a breathtakingly good melange of ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Get Happy’.  The blend was vocally exciting and the rapport and atmosphere-building from these two was splendid musicianship and performance.  Not to mention those clear and climbing sopranos.

And there was a delightful trio with Victoria Bullard, Cassie Leigh Maguire and Jasmine Sands, ‘Moving the Lines’, where the women’s voices had an easy period feel and the choreography was particularly elegant. (Choreo: Kayla French)

The program was designed for variety too with a very comic song like ‘12 Bad Auditions’ delivered with enormous fun and flair.  Jake Tyler, Zach Selmes, Jasmine Sands, Skye Pollard, Nicole Quigley, Victoria Bullard seemed to be having contagious fun and the director of the show, Maddison Maie Epthorp moderated the highs and slows to great effect, giving the audience a real sense of the topography of being in the audition room.  The song was quite a treat to watch.

The cabaret was neatly created to vibe with the theme.  The cast seated on either side, disciplined and focussed while supporting their colleagues.  The night felt very warm and collegial and Epthorp had built in some cute little byplays and inclusions to add to that feel.  The final song a real footapper from this troupe to send the audience out humming.

As a fundraiser I hope this cabaret did well for the company as I look forward to seeing a full-length production from them next year.  They added an extra show … so fingers crossed for them. 

Read an interview about the company here and follow Reprise Theatre Company on Facebook.


The Art of Banksy

Rebecca Lawrence took Judith along to the exhibition.

The Art of Banksy Exhibition is currently at the Entertainment Quarter, so I went along with Judith who, unashamedly, has a general public’s knowledge of Banksy and his work. After exiting through the gift shop, we discussed what we had just seen. 

Bec:    So … what did you see?

Judith:    I’m still a bit overawed actually, good thing there’s coffee close.  What I knew before was a bit limited but now, I’m really interested and ready to research and keep up with his work. I think it was seeing how there are incarnations of something, like the flower thrower, that really brought home to me the nature of his work.

Bec:    Over 80 artworks, bigger than the exhibition that’s in Melbourne.  There’s some repetition obviously, because he uses stencils. This can be used in different situations to create layers of meaning. It’s the nature of guerrilla art, operating quickly under cover of darkness.

Judith:    I liked the way you told me beforehand to look out for the rats.  I actually really like the rats … especially the ‘Get out while you can’.  That rat with the peace symbol around his neck really resonated to  my teenaged, growing up in the 70s, self.   

Bec:    A lot of animals.  Monkeys as well.

Judith:    And the bull that has been painted on.  Not to mention the wallpaper elephant in the room!

Bec:    There’s a lot of messages there about consumption of animals, for example, and how we treat animals.

Judith:    I loved the big elephant one but I also loved how the exhibition was laid out, that you can get in to peer at the smaller works like the balloon girl one, what’s that called?

Bec:    Balloon Girl!

Judith:    (laughing) Of course.  Anyway, seeing that as two separate, yet near, pieces with the girl on one canvas and the balloon on another I found fascinating because it speaks so much of isolation.

Bec:    The monkey and bar code and the balloon girl were what began to make him famous.  Next to that framed diptych is a plate which talks about how Banksy’s friend Steve Lazarides was running up stairs and grabbing stray canvases of Balloon Girl or the rat and running back downstairs and selling them for almost nothing. 

Judith:    I missed that.  That’s part of the attraction of the graffiti, guerrilla artform yeah?

Bec:    The whole idea of mass producing and trying out all those different ways to make an artwork … change the meaning ever so slightly, then be able to mass produce them and sell them to a waiting audience! Quick wittedness and experimentation.

Judith:    That’s true.  I was a bit amazed at the depth of political the works on display.  I mean, even in my limited knowledge, the work obviously had political overtones but what this exhibition did was to bring me into the wider concepts of why this work is created.  And in this way.

Bec:    Well, he deliberately makes it accessible, sells on street corners and does it on print or in places that its really visible and uses the internet to take it everywhere but he also makes the message quite simple as well.  It’s artfully disseminated. 

Judith:    Yeah the use of white space around an image to just pull one into the purpose of the work.  So many of the works on display have an uncluttered purity of intent, yet there’s a work like ‘Mosquitos’ which is dense and really skilfully created.

Bec:    Yep and the negative space also has meaning as well … what are we missing? What could be there?  Even what’s ahead of the direction the person is walking is really important as part of the artwork.

Judith:    Makes sense.  The other thing I noticed was the way that the unused space draws the eye in a certain way around the artwork.  So, I had a big smile on my face as I interacted with Winnie the Pooh until my brain perceived the point of it, down the bottom.  But as you came up you got it straight away … poor Pooh!

Bec:    That artwork is so good because it is such a cute image that becomes bitter at the gruesome end which really gets you thinking.

Judith:    Again … animals and how vulnerable they are to us.  I was also pretty touched by the number of war, or rather anti-war, images are on display.

Bec:    The exhibition does have a lot of those, he has a lot to say about Afghanistan and Iraq and war in general.  He uses images from other sources a lot in those, so there’s that post-modern appropriation of images … like Napalm Girl.

Judith:    And the tank with the coloured bow!  Actually, you couldn’t call it a colourful exhibition actually would you?

Bec: As a spray-paint artist, doing say a stencil, it would make a lot more sense to get a high contrast surface; so black and white’s perfect.  You are sneaking up, trying to make a statement, make a show of a concept against a wall. The colours of black, white or red are striking, newsworthy, appealing, attracting the eye.

Judith: Despite the anonymity! I was interested when that journalist asked Steve Lazarides, (the curator and the artist’s former manager and photographer) about Banksy himself and he said – not telling you about anything. Not his eye colour or how tall he is … anything.

Bec: That’s all part of the mystery and myth surrounding the name Banksy!

Judith:    Regardless of who he is, this exhibition really spoke to me.

Bec:  It’s a really impressive collection of his 2D works, and is a wonderful starting point for a conversation! 

The Art of Banksy is currently at the Entertainment Quarter find out more at the official Facebook.

Allegra Dunning.jpg

Sydney Folk Festival

Deb Waterhouse-Watson was there. Pictured is 11 year old Allegra Dunning - stunning performance says Deb.

I think it’s safe to say that the inaugural Sydney Folk Festival was a resounding success! The performances and activities I participated in were top quality, and varied in style, atmosphere and purpose. There really was something for everyone. The events were very well-attended and received – the line to see Australian folk legend Eric Bogle at Pitt Street Uniting Church was so long that the man on the door jokingly announced that it would be ‘over-65s only’! All shows took place on a short section of Pitt Street in the CBD, between Bathurst Street and Market Street, with up to nine different performances, play-along music sessions, dance participation sessions or workshops happening simultaneously, so you could pick a program to suit your interests. And several artists played multiple sets, so you didn’t necessarily have to miss out on seeing an up-and-coming performer because you wanted to see a big name. No tents, mud or iffy toilets in sight, too – definitely my kind of festival. The opportunities to participate were also plentiful, whether you play an instrument, like to get your dancing shoes on or fancy a group sing along.

Each venue offered something different in terms of atmosphere, from the expansive Uniting Church to the main bar of the Eddy (Edinburgh Castle) pub where you could raise a glass as you took in the performance. It was difficult to shake the feeling that I was attending a conference when signing in at City Tattersalls foyer or checking signs on classroom doors at the Sydney Mechanics Institute. But the acoustics in each of the rooms and the incredibly intimate feel created in these spaces brought you right up close to the performers, both physically and aurally. It’s a very real and intense sound with minimal amplification, which for me negated the conference-ness. Besides, conferences are fun!

If you get the chance to see the ever hard-to-classify Chaika perform live, don’t miss it! With wide-ranging influences including Turkish, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Swedish folk styles, with lyrics only sometimes in English, the women and man of Chaika create a soundscape like no other. A dark and sibilantly atmospheric opening between the violin and accordion set a mood and rhythm, from which a solo clarinet emerged, mellow and lyrical, drawing the audience in. And before the set is done, we have experienced an immense tonal palette of light, dark and every shade in between, from exquisitely shimmering soprano lines that give goosebumps, playful ‘oom cha cha’ rhythms, dark soulful melodies, and the unabashed joy of numbers like Colour Song. The band revels in the sounds they create, sometimes repeating an unfamiliar word at length to invite the audience to experience it more fully with them.

The songs are expansive, allowing for long, interweaving melodic lines across instruments and vocals, exploiting the full tonal range of the instruments. The harmonies are lush and full, in some ways reminiscent of jazz, rhythm comes from sometimes unexpected places – from typically melodic instruments in the violin and clarinet to coffee cups, finger clicks, tapping the sides of instruments and strumming the violin like a guitar. These are exceptional musicians – Susie Bishop can even play the violin and sing at the same time, perfectly in tune, which I know from experience is an incredibly difficult feat!

A highlight of the set was an a capella number where the women stepped away from their instruments and microphones and let the Uniting Church’s acoustics carry their voices directly to us in four-part harmony. Like an English madrigal crossed with a Bulgarian folk song, there is a haunting, slightly nasal quality to the main vocal line, reminiscent of Slavic folk style, moving between melody with three-part accompaniment and an intense block of harmony, with the audience hanging on every note. In my notes, I wrote ‘sounds like Xena: Warrior Princess’, one of my favourite TV shows… Chaika’s love of what they do is infectious – not to be missed!

Although Kejafi and Seanchas have two members in common, who play the same instruments, the bands are distinct. I had the privilege of hearing them in a combined extended set, with all five performers joining in on some numbers. Kejafi’s primary driver is the two fiddles (or fiddle and viola), although fiddler McVicar also sang one number. The fiddles are sometimes described as ‘duelling’, but it strikes me as much more collaborative and playful, with the two instruments often running in counterpoint and chasing each other up and down, but always coming back together in a strong unison. Both McVicar and James Gastineau-Hills have the bow dexterity, control and articulations of skilled Scottish fiddlers, creating a remarkably rich sound together with Ken O’Neill’s Irish bouzouki. McVicar explained the history (truth or legend) of the tunes they played, including her own compositions, in the sets of 2-3 tunes typical of Scottish folk, featuring reels and other dances alongside tunes like the one almost like a cradle song, which is about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s encounter with noisy children after Culloden.

Seanchas has a stronger emphasis on voice, telling tales through their music, of Australian convicts and other interesting characters. There are sometimes lush three-part vocal harmonies, and McVicar’s fiddle works as another voice or an instrumental interlude, more rarely the centre of a number. With both guitar and bouzouki in most songs, the tone palette leans more towards the plucked or strummed instruments than the fiddle, sometimes with support from the bodhrán, a traditional drum. The intricate finger work of Rosie McDonald and O’Neill on guitar/bouzouki can provide light, interweaving accompaniment, up to the fuller sound that two strummed instruments offer. It was a relaxed performance all round, with the performers developing an easy rapport with the audience, and on-stage banter, an occasional false start or debate over which key they would play in was all taken in stride. One enthusiastic audience member tried to start a clap during one of Seanchas’ songs! Both bands favour traditional songs and styles, although as McVicar says, traditions are living, not static, and I look forward to seeing how the bands evolve them in the future.

With just her guitar and a little help to set up, 11-year-old Allegra Dunning’s (pictured) stunning performance took place in the Thomas Keneally centre, a library with books lining the walls and couches near the stage (you could even take home a free book if those on offer took your fancy). The audience was left in no doubt as to why Dunning was named Young Folk Performer of the Year in 2019, as her extraordinarily mature and compelling voice took us on a journey through her world of experience and imagination. She describes the ‘movie’ that’s in her head as she writes a song, including one about the daughter of the devil who reserves a special place in hell for the boyfriend who treats her badly. Reminiscent of modern American folk, sometimes with a bluesy feel, Dunning’s delicate finger-picking work on the guitar gives a light and often melodic accompaniment to a spell-binding vocal. With time left over for an encore, Dunning called for a topic from the audience to spark an improvisation, giving us a song about ‘bunnies’ that no-one would know she hadn’t prepared for if she hadn’t told us! Definitely one to watch.

The participatory sessions I went to were immense fun. While on my first foray into the Session Bar I wasn’t quite sure I was in the right place, as there were no signs or anyone to welcome newbies, but if you grabbed an instrument and pulled a chair into the circle, you were welcomed into the group for a couple of hours of solid tunes! There were printed booklets of sheet music for everyone, and plenty of repetition, so readers and those who play by ear could pick them up and play along. For a wonder, there was a good range of instruments, with fiddles, flutes, guitars, accordions and a piano, none over-represented. As with all such gatherings at the festival, anyone could join in, with the emphasis on having a go and making music together rather than putting in polished performances for an audience. There were also sessions specifically aimed at kids.

The Shanty Club at the Eddy had everyone joining in the choruses, as the group taught the crowd their part before starting each song, and it was easy to get caught up in a rousing chorus about getting drunk in Sydney town or coding data (a very old song sung on many ships two hundred years ago, we were assured). I didn’t try any of the dance workshops myself, but they were led by renowned dance teachers in a range of styles and once again open to all.

I found the online program a bit frustrating to navigate, as for several of the events it wasn’t clear what they actually were, with just a vague name and no description on the website. Hyperlinking from the schedule itself, with a brief description of each event, would have made life much simpler. Noting on each artist’s profile when and where they would be playing would also have been useful. Some of the signage at venues could have been better, too, and perhaps a welcomer on the ground floor of the Sydney Mechanics Institute to reassure festival-goers that they are in the right place. It would also have been helpful to have clearer information in the printed program and the Tattersalls building about where to find food, an important part of any festival. These are minor technical quibbles which will probably be ironed out in subsequent years, and did not really detract from the experience.

All in all, I heartily enjoyed the inaugural Sydney Folk Festival – bring on next year!

RbJ Rating: Five non-existent muddy gumboots!


A Two Cabaret Night

At Bondi Feast.

Hitting the Bondi Feast hard we got to see two shows that had very different takes on the cabaret format.  Drag Queen Stole My Dress is a crafted stream-of-consciousness display of fortitude about a decade of life, highs and lows.  Meanwhile, Anya Anastasia: Cabaret Star for Hire brings a star at the end of her tether with the ups and downs of an artistic life and ready to quit.

The former, Gillian English, arrived in Bondi’s tiny theatre space via Canada, Nova Scotia to be precise, and Tasmania and she has a dead set against Adelaide.  One would have thought that someone who was, at school, the President of the Crystal Growing Club, wtf?, would understand boring.  But apparently not.

Her therapeutic show is a rapid fire, manic, hour of personal storytelling from a comic who lurches from body disposal to, eventually, the aforesaid drag queen and from, equally, a classically trained actor who skewers Chekhov and who has impeccable diction.  The delivery is catch me if you can and with little time to think or react before the next clever turn of phrase or bizarre turn of events, it’s a show where laughter is stifled somewhat and wide eyed head shaking takes its place. 

Some concepts stay with you though; I wish I had heard her funny and empowering discussion of big tits when I was an adolescent.  That section would make a great schools show btw.  There’s a lot of self-help in the act … a touch of the Oprahs or Dr Phils or some kind of sharing anonymously.  Home truths arrive without bitterness and with a quirky way of seeing the world. But we wondered how presenting the more painful and sad moments to an audience drives an artist to creating a work such as this… it is a unique performance which despite its frenetic pace captures the less upbeat moments in a life with a striking reality.

Wandering off to Anya Anastasia: Cabaret Star for Hire we were treated to a more musical interpretation of the cabaret form.  Beginning with that old lighting adage - when in doubt use a mirror ball. Advice taken literally by Anya as she arrives with said ball, a big one, in tow. Enlisting audience help starts early when a bloke in the front tow becomes erstwhile spot operator with a domestic torch.

Not that she really wants the limelight as this character is giving up cabaret and looking for a new job ... still entertainment based obviously! A skill set is a skill set and being an internationally lauded star does build a unique CV.  So what to do?  Various choices rise as a possibility. And maybe having James Bond in the front row might lead her audience to believe that it’s not so silly to think that she could be a spy ... acting, costumes, accents and so forth.

There’s some very witty writing here as she careers through some options; burlesque not being part of it apparently... confusion about the two is pervasive.  Accompanying herself expertly on electric piano and ukulele, the show has a clever structure which keeps it flowing and energetic.  Plus it ends where it begins which is always an indicator of quality and thoughtful design.

Apart from the adept performance of the comic songs, she has a lovely warped view of life, there is also some well-conceived audience participation which is engineered in a warm and engaging environment.  Lots of fun to be had from someone who really shouldn’t be giving up because where there’s a sparkly outfit, a mirror ball and a followspot there’s hope.

 Drag Queen Stole My Dress (Gillian English) and Anya Anastasia: Cabaret Star for Hire (Anya Anastasia) played the Bondi Feast. 


Casting Off

Tiiiiming! Flyyying! Bal-an-cing

Trust us, we decided to make a night of it at the Bondi Feast on an evening of arctic winds with nary a heater or coffee anywhere on the premises!  Please fix that for next year … from a begging teetotaller!  Huddling with the tallest of us as a windbreak, the discussion about going home was ramping up.  Lucky we stayed though, because our first port of call for the evening was in the you-don’t-see-that-everyday category.

Casting Off is from Debra Batton, Sharon Gruenert and Spenser Inwood who fly under the name A Good Catch.  They are an intergenerational circus with a distinctly post-modern act.  Stream of consciousness advice whiffles, non-sequiturs abound and the women go flenuring around the space, with only two tables and three chairs for grounding.  And their relationship is so warm as to chase away the Winter outside.

They don’t look like a dangerous trio as we are grandmothered to our seats by the oldest of the troupe and surely they won’t be doing much tumbling because that is a damned solid floor.  As the show begins, the absurdity suddenly goes mach and there is laughter all around and the physicality of these women begins to climb to dangerous and unseen heights.  Literally, because when they tower up they can be lost in the velvet folds at the top of the tent.

It’s a long way down to that scarily unpadded floor if you make a mistake, and by heavens, these chicks don’t make mistakes.  And, yes they tumble … a lot!  The hour show will feature balances and throws and falls and acrobatics and a healthy amount of competition between them.  They egg each other on and muck around with words; wry words often.  Funny as anything as well.  They speak in little moments of women’s things, life lessons, empowering banter with the pre-teen girls in the front row … wise and fluid.  There’s even a trapped in a chair tantrum and some ageing gracefully swipes.

Their physical work, the structure of the show, on the other hand, on both hands, is meticulousness incarnate.  Our elder citizen is not the birdlike, light framed top of the tower but the solid stability and strength of the base quite often.  How the hell they can wear those skimpy, architecturally knitted costumes and simply have no bruises beggars belief.  Much about this show has that intangible magic to it.  How, for example, does the audience instinctively know when to be breathlessly still and when it is ok to nudge and laugh with a companion at the on-stage antics?

For an hour of unparalleled excellence, A Good Catch envelop the audience in an unstoppable display of precision and strength in the comfy warmth of chatty preparation and the frenetic, jaw dropping craziness of implementation.   And laughs, so much fun in the show.  But the North Star here is about women’s health, women’s ageing and the power we have to share.

 You-don’t-see-this-everyday but with the standing ovation for Casting Off it’s obvious we could do with more.  Go out of your way to see the team and the show next time they pop up, are hurled gracefully onto a program or are balanced delicately at some festival.

Casting Off from A Good Catch played at the Bondi Feast.


Reuben Kaye

Tissues required … just sayin!

Three times have I seen Rueben Kaye this week and he is a very naughty young man! Sharply dressed, with sincere forearms and with a show which has the cyclic nature sure to get a good review by crits, what choice do I have but to love him?   And I do.  I adore his work!  I can honestly say that I haven’t had as much fun as I did for the hour of his show since I don’t know when.

It might be art and therefore entirely subjective but I reckon there’s a Master’s thesis in why a trash talking, mic swallowing, audience roaster appealed so much to someone not the specific market of this festival.  Kaye could write that treatise I am sure because the man can craft!  This is a wordsmith of excellence.  When Kaye decides to take the audience into a world of his making, the absorption rate is, resplendently, total - because it’s the optimism that assails, even when it’s got very dramatic in places, according to our host.

Plus Kaye’s ability to make nuanced political commentary and tuck it neatly into a sexually charged moment is ascendant, for a bottom.  That feminist one liner is still my favourite line of the festival.  It’s savvy and subtle and a product of intelligent design.  He may be naughty but Kaye is clever as fuck and educated well beyond a well-placed sparkle.  He liberally laces his show with names from Camus through Tolstoy to Brontë' and the cabaret is crafted for pleasure centre pokes.  Deceptively so, because it flows like seminal fluid around and through the audience eager to lap …. 

Does that work?  Not my field of expertise but I know good cabaret when it’s given!  Thrown really; not presented gently.  Bears and straights and hen’s nights in Thailand get impaled.  Why do we love to be insulted?  Realistically we don’t normally, but Kaye has a deeply ingrained bedrock of respect and absent-malice.  He starts the show by thanking his band and crew!  Which is lucky because the lighting guy has a very passive-aggressive LX style - I have to say, that is the best lighting joke I have ever seen! I, literally had to get out tissues for the spotlight section; it is award worthy in my weeping-with-laughter eyes.  Same for the best-in-show ‘use of a chime tree’ prize.

Kaye is a rude and bold boy!  He flames brightly through craft and outrageous exuberance.  Special K is mentioned but that can’t be all … whatever he’s on I want some.  High energy with dazzle to spare and a very nicely cut quiff, plus with a mascara origin story to stop a Mother’s heart.  And that voice.  His wit is quicksilver and just as fleeting is Kaye’s use of his pipes; not the ones in the outrageously high boots.  The voice can well in Weill or soar up in tragic heroine mode but don’t try to hold it in your mind because that is not what this is about. Rather, it’s an inch by inch proposition…

Rueben Kaye is a singular talent in a merciless production designed for communal laughter, transcendent indulging and, let no-one tell you otherwise, a love of man. Men specifically if I have to label it, but labels are hardly worthy of this wonderful night’s entertainment.   He’s still playing tonight and tomorrow; gather friends and gad gaily along!

Reuben Kaye is playing a part of the Sydney Cabaret Festival.

Reuben Kaye pics (c) John McRae

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The Art of the Mashup

Brian Nash gives the piano a work-out.

There’s no doubt about the art of the mashup, but is there a science to it?  Na … it’s pure showbiz as presented by Brian Nash in his one night only show for the Sydney Cabaret Festival.  The Art of the Mashup is a very winning show with a talented and caffeine riddled host who hears the world differently.  He just does!

Lucky for us, he’s happy to share both the process of how his musical brain works and results of the weird musical friends he makes in his head.  Bette and Whitney … a no brainer.  Tonight he was also joined by a real friend, Natalie Joy Johnson.  They are long time collaborators, doing a songy thingy that they haven’t done before apparently, hovering where Musical Theatre meets Pop.  Faithful and soulful in collision there was a huge climax before a sweet and soft ending.  And their work-inspired mashup found them snuggled together on the piano stool while the assembled were just nodding away in time.    

It was pretty obvious that the room was full of fans as well and since this is Nash’s fifth time in Sydney there was considerable expectation from those who has seen him before.  I hadn’t but at the Gala Opening I had thoroughly enjoyed his Les Miz mashup and that was my fave tonight.  I also very much enjoyed his warm and honest banter with the crowd.  Jetlagged he says; “No filter” as he has a cheeky slag at Russell’s Javert … well, actually, an assassination of Russell’s Javert! Egged on by the audience no less.  But with an adoration of Tim Tams to win over any Australian audience and an obvious pleasure in being part of the Cabaret Festival.

Some mashups sneak up on us with an audience ah as the recognition sets in.  Other times, as part of his intro to the pieces, there is quite an insight into how he puts the elements together. “Clearly this has to tag off Streisand!”  It’s especially fascinating to hear Nash think out loud as he extemporises mashups from the pieces of paper on our table where we are invited to suggest creations. “You are warped but I’m really into this” he says as his fingers assail the keys in search.  That’s F#minor he sort of says to himself; it’s in B so let me take this; oo it’s going to have to go higher! 

Nash says he started piano late - he found C and never looked back in his late teens.  He sure can play!  It’s not just the skill of playing a different tune to one the one he is singing, from basso profundo to falsetto in places, it’s the dynamism of the playing … a serious workout for the man on the keys.  But perhaps that was the caffeine.

Brian Nash, The Art of the Mashup was only on the one night but he’s also playing in the piano bar upstairs at the Seymour and with Natalie Joy Johnson in her show, Relentless.

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The Finals

Sydney Cabaret Competition

Apart from the woman of limited talent in the row in front who thought that all around would rather hear her than Streisand on the pre-show, I had a fantastic night at the Finals of the Sydney Cabaret Competition.  After the talent I have seen on display during the competition, and the event having to move to the ‘big room’ because of demand, it is an earnest hope that someone has a permanent venue in mind to showcase work like this.  A regular and dedicated cabaret space would be such a wonderful asset to this city.

Introduced by Festival Artistic Director, Trevor Ashley, there were 9 successful heats winners performing and the judges for the night were an intimidating panel of Alison Jiear, Brian Nash and Natalie Joy Johnson

Being first and last must be the most nerve-wracking but Irene Nicola took the stage to perform her set with “substance and laughs”.  Accompanying herself on the piano, Nicola’s witty and silly lyrics gave the crowd a great laugh - until a wistful little song about the environment stilled the room.  Her bridge joke was one of the top throws of the evening.

Clare O’Connor has an arresting look with a bald cap and an excess of glitter and pink.  Explaining “I have a thing about hair” O’Connor’s set was personal and surprisingly intimate despite the dazzle.  When she swaps to a dressing gown as her mother, drops down into a lower register and shares a beautifully emotional song, the audience is drawn forward until, in the next bit, all hands are in the air waving.  That must have looked great from the stage.

For Katelin Koprivec’s performance the designer chose a red stage and white spot.  In her period costume and some reverb in the audio mix, Koprivec’s cantorish a Capella opening was mesmerising.   The crystal clear risen notes and the sense of longing as the smoke curled above her was as powerful in the big space as in the small room during the heats.  It’s a lovely persona and the audience easily falls into the period and the narrative.  Koprivec’s final song, the lament of every scorned woman who still loves, is placed with authority and charisma.

Sarah Murr took to the audience to give her character a bit more context than in the heats.  Not dead she explained, merely in B&W, resulting from an obsession with old movies and Mae West in particular. Every eye was attendant as Murr made her way through the crowd with a wicked grace and slowtime glove removal.  Murr’s set was easily accessed this time as she returned to the stage for ‘I Want to Be Loved By You’ interpreted with a great demeanour and sexy, husky speaking voice. And for that final boopboopdedo an embracing lean forward to the crowd.

After a break, Billie Palin eased on in with her Dubbo inspired comic song and a whole heap of Dubbo in the crowd to support a home town artist.  Palin may be in the big smoke looking for a “more alluring, more mysterious” edge but Jazz Fever has her in its grip.  With lively, funny and wry lyrics and the appeal of a generous and open text, Palin inspires an audience’s love before dropping down into a darkly moody song ‘A Piece of Sky’.  With that final note lofted perfectly, the reach into the audience was complete and not just to the Dubbo-ites.  

Nyssa Milligan has her mother’s operatic voice when she wants to and her Brahms before Bedtime routine is still as funny as it was the first time.  Her udder situation comedy is lapped up by the crowd and dang if this large audience didn’t get right into the mooing chorus.  The blokes near me were having waaay too much fun.  That’s pretty impressive work from Milligan.  #cabaretcows

But this crowd wasn’t just responsive to the more comic, Ali Calder inspired just as much attentiveness with her French based set; her magical storytelling through song having such a stylish elucidation.   Calder’s full voiced delivery and wrought sadness, as the relationship in the song dies, was evocative, moving and dramatic before she Wicked-ly moved on.  Well done again to the design team who bathed the stage in green – even the right shade of green.  Huge cheers of appreciation heralded that killer final note.

It was an hilarious beginning for Naomi Livingston whose stellar writing gifts are subtly displayed in a set which has her original writing embedded in a stream of consciousness, non-sequitured patter which allies with the songs for a clever, weirdly logical and scarily possible theme.  Her soul ripping song about the death of a parent has a rising emotion that climbs sentimentally until the true meaning drops with a heartbreaking thud.  Bravura work!

Despite the nerves that must be associated with being last, Rachael Gillfeather’s relaxed and anecdotal style carried beautifully over the footlights with an endearing charm.  Her song about being an aunt hit me in the chest again as a nuanced character emerged without any disruption to the music.  The series of sustained notes and rises are evocative and gifted storytelling; with a tear in the voice and a tear in the heart.

Damned if I know how the judges make any kind of decision! I would be giving them all hugs, flowers and a contract … just sayin’ for all you theatrical entrepreneurs out there.  But the decisions involved a special mention for Naomi Livingston and Katelin Koprivec and with Clare O’Connor  as the runner up.

The winner, both from the judges and the audience choice, of the first annual Sydney Cabaret Competition is Billie Palin.  

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Clare Ellen O'connor
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Bondi Feast Gala Opening Night

Pictured: Nikki Britton

Every year the Bondi Feast grows and impresses with excellence.  This year’s Gala Opening Night will take some beating in the future!

Our host for the night is Juan Vesuvius who is a very lost alter ego of Barnie Duncan and he appears to have wandered onto the stage, into the city in fact, by mistake.  A bit of off stage prompting and he gets that Sydney has something to do with whales and his stream of consciousness, generic city, upthebum crawling to audiences, is off to a cracker start!  He also gets physical with a very odd and unique view of flowers which does send him flenuring around the auditorium at a rapid rate!  He will getaround to introducing the other artists to share his stage though. 

Jude Perl hits the stage first up with comic songs which can only be labelled as so chock full of clever wit and rousing politics that it’s hard to keep up!  Hilarious and heartfelt, truthful and telling Perl has a persona which rips up the roles rule book to put an alluringly wise self-truth agenda out there for the taking. 

I really get Nina Oyama!  I did that course in Bathurst and fitting in to ‘townies’ life is almost impossible when your difference is obvious … I was old and Oyama is Asian, one of 6 in the district! What I didn’t get and now have quite an insight into, is the sexual practices of some young women … fascinating.  And her skewering of the rich, and defensive, bondi-ites was very warmly received; great fun.

Adam Axford doesn’t mind if you use your phone during his act … his website is part of the show.  Quick with hand and patter, Axford is a mesmerist and magician with a nifty set of tricks which are perfect for a modern audience.  An audience awed and amazed but also highly entertained by his warm way with the crowd and his lack of bravado … just intelligent, skilled and accessible work.  Loved it!

But my favourite, if you make me pick, was Nikki Britton.  I was short of breath for her entire set and physically knocked around from the shaking seats as people all along the row percussed with laughter.  Britton does a history of dance moves that is waay too true and zingers off, with complete irreverence, at the Waverley Council Mayor … you know, the guy with the money!  Britton’s response to a 000 baby romper suit has still got me grinning with recognition and remonstrance! “Fair enough” I say.  

To finish off this hilarious night it’s obvious that Anya Anastasia is a woman after my own heart … she carries a mirror ball.  With, no less, its own lighting.  Not only does she have a disco flair entrance but this woman can sing, write songs, play keyboard, have an existential Disney crisis and do a definitely-not-burlesque strip.  These things all at the same time!  Twisting for your art doesn’t cover it.

With Juan Vesuvius back with more bum action is the form of a plug for his show the Galah is done for another year.  What a great night, enormous fun and I want to go to every one of these shows.  Let’s hear a bit of a whoop for the Bondi Feast!

See more about the artists and their Bondi Feast shows here:  Juan Vesuvius; Jude Perl; Nina Oyama; Adam Axford; Nikki Britton; Anya Anastasia.  


Chasing Smoke

Casus Circus at the Bondi Feast.

Every time I see Chasing Smoke from Casus Circus I am struck by the quality of the storytelling and the multi-genre execution.  Currently playing, in modified version, at the Bondi Feast the production is burrowed into intimate surroundings … a small tent where the art of the performers and the power of their stories is touchingly close. 

Chasing Smoke is agit-prop theatre for a contemporary world with a circus skills spine.  There are hoops and tumbling and juggling and acro and aerial, but it also reaches out through skits, comedy and satire.  The skits may be in need of a freshen-up and an updating but the points being made come clearly through the smoke. 

What is luminously clear is the passion.  The voiceovers of each artist telling their origin story as the performers, solo, use creative movement and dance to atmospherically bring home the grief and the joy of being an Aboriginal person in this country – these are thrilling sequences. The dancing is superb, beautiful in places and wild others; vigorous to lithe.  Each muscle is controlled or loosened in the tale; toes make shapes as hands, right to the fingertips, grasp and reach.  These vignettes beckon the audience into the small circle with them, a visceral learning which fades the noise of the wine bar outside to, in that moment, understand what place means.  It’s a moment to be cherished.

There are other less subtle elements to the show but these are brought into perspective by the ironic opening where what we teach in schools comically collides with reality.  There’s a goon bladder, a heartfelt mention of skin tone and a bucket of chicken for that modern world reality hit. 

There’s great fun here too and this is a very tight production, lots of costume changes and an evocative use of blue and purple in the lighting design.  The audio is cleverly created, deliciously witty in places, and there is a delightful atmosphere created by the troupe.  Supportive with each other and often still, watching with as much wonder as we do.  There’s a comic flip-the-bird dance off between the women and men, there’s an acrobatic sequence from the men which is violent and tender and aggressive and caring in a conflicting confrontation which makes one fear for them.  It’s extremely skilful and doesn’t proscribe the emotional reaction. 

By Australia’s only Indigenous contemporary circus ensemble, this a production where the quality of the work shimmers through the welcoming haze. It’s visceral, yet thought-provoking with complex ideas and discussions to take from the tent into the cold, clear, beachy night.

Chasing Smoke is a production with ascendant First Nations and National pride and a chance to support and learn from indigenous storytelling.  It’s an opportunity to be taken.

Chasing Smoke from Casus Circus is playing at the Bondi Feast until July 13. See the promotional video here.

Image Credit: Rob Blackburn

Performers: Lara Croydon, Ally Humphris, Johnny Brown, Dylan Singh and Pearl Tia Thompson.

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Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party

Yep … a short but sparkling party.

With the womb-like, echoing entry, obscuring haze and gothic chant, the opening few minutes of Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party is quite sombre but one can not but see the peeking sparkle of a dazzling frock.  When the glory is revealed and Laura Frew, Rowena Hutson and Tessa Waters emerge in over-engineered and architect-designed sequined onesies it doesn’t take the opening night crowd long to indulge in some, shall we say, clitty clapping. 

The three women, billed as the Fringe Wives Club will sing and dance and game their way through an hour of “cult feminist disco at its finest” and it is a lot of fun.  They have a lovely relaxed attitude to a performance which has audience engagement roots and their fun with each other and “off book” diversions are infectious.  There are songs like a hoe-down patriarchal plot re purloining of pockets and there’s some gyno-patriotism that gets big whoops and a vulvic intensity where required. Some elements don’t gel and there is a bit of down-time in the production but the throughline materializes with a creative and varied flair.

Early on, the emphasis on comedy and enjoyment of the characters does make one think about what the purpose might be, but when the script hits home … it wallops! “I guess I’m safe because he walked away,” right in the middle of a rock ballad was a gut punch for me … only one of several.   The homily of the ending is definitely moving but obviously touched other people more than it did me. What is clear is that this is a seasoned production with an easy flow, a deceptive looseness and well-articulated intentions. 

With some live instruments (“Look out there’s a banjo!” ) some jiggly choreography that is expertly stepped, a symbolically, point-down triangular FWC flag and a decadent excess of pink and purple lighting,  the show sails well technically.  But, as directed by Clare Bartholomew, the main attraction is their skilled and crafted delight in being close to audiences and those moments when some terrific acting sneaks in under the silliness.  The “yeah, nah, hear me out” bogan is a classic and there’s a breath-snatching silent ending to one song that is very emotional.  The game section puts the enormous goodwill of an empathetic and engaged audience on the stage and it is here that the performers offer titbits of fascinating info, anatomically speaking, improvise their ways around the answers and give added points for optimism … such a female thing that!

I would contend that the trio treat the men of the audience with respect and as an ally to be metabolised- I think.  I’m no expert, the blokes, young and old, may wish to differ but they looked pretty comfy and several were on their feet when others stood at the end.  However, consciousness is swelled rather than raised in Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party and that is a girl shared-thing.

RbJ rating: 3 ½ odes to joy

Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party from the Fringe Wives Club is currently playing at Griffin Theatre until July 20. 

The images are of Victoria Falconer, Rowena Hutson and Tessa Waters in a different season of the show.

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Cheeky Cabaret

A whole lot of sexy stuff strutting.

Someone with a good command of language, and of the work, picked that word … cheeky.  That’s a perfect description for Cheeky Cabaret playing as part of the Sydney Cabaret Festival.  Not raunchy or rude, just grownup humour with added sass and gorgeous bodies.

The surf-rock on the preshow mix is worth going a bit early for, because this troupe does have a beachy pedigree, all explained in the show reel which opens the cabaret.  From there we get a variety of acts which are heralded by the defiantly flamboyant, witty and supremely talented Reuben Kaye.  Kaye has a voice to make angels take notice but a devilish delivery which arrives wickedly short of bitchy queen.  And with an ability to make a political point in the most divergent way possible … his feminist bon mot in Act 2 is pure class!

Every act in Cheeky Cabaret is honed like that and each artist we meet is enthusiastically focussed on bringing the best they can offer to the audience.  You can see the delight they take in interacting with the crowd who is so close and having enormous fun.  Like when we meet Mario.  His “confusing sexual charisma” and reproducible moustachios is appealing as hell and his way with the audience, with balls and audience-participation-uni-wheel has style and flair.  And QUEEN!  It is impossible not to bop in your seat when another juggling ball bites the dust.  The music is part of the engagement with the acts, the mic work is terrific and the live piano is very well done to match and complement the recorded music that had me nodding away.  With some great lighting adding to the individual moods of the acts.

There is so much to see and enjoy here.  And one completely look away moment from a balloon handler!  My friend watched, she’s braver than me.  I loved the above ground work.  Beginning with the static trap act and its absolutely pinpoint tethering… beautiful, graceful, and sensual with the shadows making the routine even more elegant in the blue-dark. Then after interval, the double to ‘Alligator Wine’ was sooo sexy with its balances and throws and the single light of the LED strip on the bar bringing the shapes alternatively into silhouette and focus. And Ben Lewis on the aerial straps is pinpoint posing and falling and somersault flips - the viscerality of which takes your tummy on cartwheels of enjoyment.  

Not all is beautiful here, some Cheeky Cabaret acts are downright bravura look at me!  The famous red hanky magic done by its famous strutting, carnal queen and backed up with some don’t-try-this-at-home rope tricks.  And there’s a wine waitress from hell.  Hoops over “giant breasts” and contortions with an electric guitar to put a twisty, turny spell on us to enchant with skill and impossible physicality.   

There’s a whole lot of clever going on as Cheeky Cabaret puts variety and vavavoom in your  humdrum workaday Sydney winter.  A show to send you back out into the cold with senses tingling and the warmth of having been thoroughly entertained.

Cheeky Cabaret is playing as part of the Sydney Cabaret Festival until July 14.



Sydney Cabaret Festival

Early questions: “How is this going to work? How does this work as cabaret?”  Answer: It just does!

Tim Benzie is a superfan of … most things television, I think.  But in this case, his LaserDisc focus is on ‘Murder She Wrote’. 12 seasons, 264 episodes … I looked it up on Wikipedia!  So one might be expected to be having a tour of Cabot Cove, the deadliest place in America, but Benzie knows his audience too well for that!  Instead we are off to the Great White Way... legit, no off off Broadway turkey here.

‘Broadway Malady’ (seriously named that with no shame whatsoever) the episode was first aired 13th January 1985 … I looked that up too.  And when the titles came up I thought I had seen it.  But no, and the reasons why I thought that are part of the show.  Benzie’s eye for the minutiae is backed up by other slices of TV life inserted into the full length episode and his guidance through Season One, Episode Twelve is delightful, knowledgeable and well researched.  The public must be given supreme warning, though, laughter lines the murderous road ahead.

A little bit Rocky Horror participation, a little bit smug face I know who the killer is, and a whole heap of fun interaction, Solve-Along-Murder-She-Wrote is a deceptively clever ramshackle wa wa wa wait exploration of a period of time.  I had Lorna Luft’s haircut at my brother’s wedding!  And when the interval happened -  so our host can Jessica-up wardrobe-wise - the boys I was with had no idea was a commercial was!  It’s an ad, silly, ad is short for advertisement! I had a two South Americans and a Londoner at my squeezey little table, thank heavens one of them grew up here and we could have a  life, be in it in commiseration of our lost early 30’s.

Benzie has a good control over the rowdy elements but when grandma gets cross, (some folks were a bit over-imbibed) she will pull your too sassy arse into line before moving on with an evident charm and enthusiasm for sharing.  Just don’t shout higher when the suspectometer needs to go sideways! Our host is a class act not a schlepper and his games and husbanding of participation bring the show to a weirdly gripping ending … one simply wants to know who the murderer is!  Which is not just down to Benzie but to the MSW itself.  Even after the, way more fun that can actually be explained, popping epiphany.

Solve-Along-Murder-She-Wrote just works, whatever label you feel comfy with.  Nostalgia, a scrabble or monopoly diversion, not bilge or a dog with a fluffy tail just a series of clues leading to a killer that none of us guessed!  Huge small screen entertainment.

Solve-Along-Murder-She-Wrote has only got one more show during the Sydney Cabaret Festival, get along if you can.  

Image Credit: Kate Gabrielle

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Gala Opening Night

What a night! The first Sydney Cabaret Festival.

Photo Credit: John McRea

Tonight I was in the glittering crowd at the Gala Opening and this is what I want to see now the cabaret is in town.  To introduce some of the stars of the Sydney Cabaret Festival Our Trev (Trevor Ashley) was on deck is resplendent Basseyesque cape and gown for a Mama Rose intro.  A passion project obviously as Ashley has brought together his favourite artists from all over for the Festival.  Expats that we don’t get to see now they are so successful and imports who are here for a good time!

Cheeky Cabaret:  Ms Martinez’s magic and burlesque skills are only topped by her ability to put the crowd in exactly the frame of mood she needs.  A little mime, some grind and a red hanky tuck you will not see bettered.  And she’s just one of the Cheeky team. 

No Cabaret for Old Men is Jonathan Biggins and Phil Scott with a Palaeolithic rock, stick and grand piano offering. Witty song lyrics, even a primordial scream, tell the impossible inter-species tale of love with an R and J theme.

Reuben Kaye knows how to make an entrance in resplendent red and though he has never played in Sydney before, this self-confessed Drama Queen doubled down on the tempo in a work out for the band and a try-and-keep-up experience for the audience.  Plus he had the best summary of the current state of politics that I have ever heard!  But it was that killer last note that started the foot stomps.

Brian Nash has the musical mash down to an art and his gateway drug was shared in a whomph of Les Miz.  An epic weld that well and truly out did the 85th Academy Awards rehearsal and that has had nearly 4 ½ million views… a couple of thousand of those are mine.  Brian’s is better!

Natalie Joy Johnson.  Do You Wanna a Dance?  Yup!  This sexy performance was just mesmerism with a mic. And she backed it up with a titch of creative movement before a medley where a total eclipse of the heart would make you do anything for love.  A sparkly cocktail dress of indefinable colour and a diva finale … and people on their feet around the room.

 Alison Jiear is home in Australia and her Lady Be Good is intro is swinging jazz, brilliant scat and whoops from the audience for her effortless improv stylings.  Not even to mention an impression of Trevor that was hilarious.  After she chatted about combining two Yentl songs, a cold blue light dropped the audience right into spellbound.  Breath held!

Kim David Smith , people clap when he says that apparently!, exploded onto the stage like a cherry bomb.  The boy is sex on stick!  And soulful, and Kylied and a with a tribute tempo to be sinuous and lithe on a night like this.  Two songs is not enough, I Want More (Like a Drug).

Frisky and Mannish haven’t been back in 12 years but it didn’t show!  A duo exploring duets kept the snappy songs coming and the refs in the riffs worming their way into ears with facemelting notes and breathy comps and added raunch! George and Elton duet off!

Tim Draxl (Pictured) is simply a favourite.  Merely a singer standing still on centre stage. With a mellow beginning gentled into an upbeat jazz version of The Man I Love with brushed drums and a swingin’, boppin’ ending.  A moving anecdote introducing a version of My Man that takes his voice dipping down to its warmest and rising for an encompassing final, arms-stretched, long note.  Goosebumps.

Then Trevor is back.  Want more? says he.  And he steps aside for Jennifer Holliday.  Words fail but star fucking power in a blue dress does come to mind. I knew I was gonna love her …

Love the lot, had a great night and now need to make some decisions.  Join me at everything!

The Sydney Cabaret Festival is now open, see the program here.

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Sydney Cabaret Competition

Heat 3 winners: Ali Calder (L), Clare O'Connor (M), Billie Palin (R)

What to do with my Sundays now that the Sydney Cabaret Competition heats have finished? Silly question!  There is obviously huge talent out there … go and find it.  People like the nine contestants in Heat 3, some of whom have shows on around the town.  To open proceedings ‘Ain’t that a Kick in the Head’ from this week’s host, Matt Lee.  And Matt’s assurance that tonight will be a uniquely different cabaret.

First to stand before a packed house was Jodie Stubbs with a swinging, upbeat ‘Woman’ly intro.  Apart from her fun 1950s references Jodie, had a great relationship with gorgeous Steven Kreamer on the keys, he being able to pull her back when she got to real in her floral apron and high heels. A finger to housewife rules before ‘Don’t Stop’ with the crowd clapping along.  Clare McCallum begins with ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ in her set titled, Songs for Old Souls.  Slow, low and charismatic alone at the mic you could hear a pin drop until she hit the soar.  A romantic realist, Clare also had a great joke at poor Steven’s expense.

However he was off the hook for the next act who brought her own pianist with her. Billie Palin is a Dubbo girl and seemed also to have a large mob of the town’s population with her but she didn’t seem to need the moral support as her funny, satirical opening wowed the crowd. Billie also let fly with some mystery and allure in a slow jazz fever seated on a stool with considerable raunch.  Her final ‘I want’ song captured the room.  And special kudos to Billie for dealing with the drunk and ignorant assholes who made such a racket during that song! 

Hayden Rodgers’ entry as Death and a reminder from the marvellous Margi de Ferranti put them in their place.  Hayden had a Kubler-Ross inspired taster plate of grieving related songs with some sexy moves on the piano, some hyperbolic alliteration and some floor work that kicked it. He finished off with an enormously fun falsetto while in the middle of the crowd he dubbed ‘Limbo Lounge’.  After a bar break Simon McLachlan took us on a little tour of the Franks of music, boys and girls.  Aretha to Frankie Valli and ‘Lady is a Tramp’ and ‘Come Fly With Me’ and a march behind the mic to bring it home.

A treat for a Francophile from Ali Calder whose contention is that singing in French has a “certain kind of drama you don’t get in English” and set out to prove it.  Piaf to Elphaba the audience were right along with her and the whoops through that final high and clear note were testament to her argument.  The often tardy Stephen Valeri did make it to the stage to explain why he is always late and to share a pretty unique coming out with a terrific song.  If you feel me, he says join me in a banger!  Voices officially raised as the crowd was right there and under his wings as he told us … “You take the chorus, I’m going to show off a bit now.” Fantastic fun to sing along with!

Some Olivia from Jaime Hadwin as her sexy, slow ‘Let’s Get Physical’, complete with hair flick, lead to some surprising info about Olivia’s risktaking before a soft, soulful ‘I Love You’ seated near the piano had the audience in a distinctly sinuous sway.  So powerful was the performance that the claps didn’t arrive until after the fade of Steven’s final piano notes.  No piano for the final act of the evening but a semi acoustic guitar wielded by a masked man. Clare O’Connor was all pink and sparkle and she hit the stage.  After a ‘Vogue’ beginning Clare became her mother with a simple change for a meaningful, caring and loving lament about girls and body image before the rock whomped up and grabbed the crowd by the consciousness.

“The talent in the room is blowing my mind” said Matt and so have all the Heats been.  This week’s winners Ali Calder, Clare O'Connor and Billie Palin are set for the finals on July 10 as part of the Sydney Cabaret Festival.  Don’t miss it … tickets to the Gala Final here.


Sydney Cabaret Competition

Heat 2.

Winners -

Sarah Murr in black,

Naomi Livingston at the mic,

Rachael Gillfeather in red.

Another Heat. Another nine nervous contestants. The Sydney Cabaret Competition is well underway.  Perched up at Ginger’s above Oxford Street on a rainy night, Heat 2 is ready to showcase the talent that makes our city so vibrant. But events kick off with an old hand. Host for the evening Margi de Ferranti gets the crowd heated up with a raise the roof rendition of ‘Barbie: The Bitch Has Everything’. She says she hasn’t sung it in twenty years but it doesn’t show ... audience officially warm.

Tash York hits the stage first with a nifty cut down version of the show she will do for the Bondi Feast. Her alter ego, Trash Talk, makes an appearance as does a life-affirming Jackson et al song and a rap around the meaning of badass! She said it herself in the bio … “ballsy voice”.  A more narrative take on the cabaret form for Andrew Wu as he rushes in late for class and crashing out of his history test.  Is everything answerable by show tunes?  Make a guess … Egypt, Utah 1847 and with Peta on the piano that audience was way ahead of him and loving the Broadway.

Phoebe Heath had a character, too. Norma Norman gives ‘Getting to Know You’ the sex-on-a-stick stylistic make-over with squeaks and whispers and body language drawn from Peggy and Marilyn.  However, Norma will turn and ‘Yesterday When I Was Young’ in French and English gives the persona a new demeanour.  A well-known name in musical theatre circles, Naomi Livingstone takes her place at the “anxiety inducing”, misbehaving, mic stand.   While maybe it’s best not to take her getting to sleep advice in the sheep counting department, Naomi broke hearts all around the room, especially mine, with a bravery anthem that was beautifully soft and powerful.

A bit of a break to get a refill at the bar and a harp onto the stage.  Alana Conway might have begun at the piano with a sad, somewhat lonely, backstage tale before a float over to the harp.  With strings and long, crisp high notes Alana took us away from the rain and ‘Over the Rainbow’.  In killer heels, too, and with totally believable threat to kill harp-touchers!  The audience was applauding before the music died away.  For a change of pace, the next performer was Aaron Gobby a young, white, thin, gay male who set about to confront the dominant paradigm with no shortage of bitchiness and a subversive thoughtfulness about his patter and song choices.  Hard to go wrong with ‘Avenue Q’.

With an outline of her testing occupation, only done to support her attempts to get paid for singing, there was an inherent “thank you for coming” in Rachael Gillfeather’s set.  She then managed an entertaining yell at the lovely Stephen Kreamer, who was his usual talented self at the piano, before wrapping the audience around her little finger with a moving and emotional song which is the lament of every aunt.  It was so quiet in the room that the air conditioner felt oppressive. Good thing Bobbie-Jean Henning lightened the mood with her character from Wagga Radio, Jeannie-Ray.  With a flaccid vegetable joke, a hit of operatic notes and a particularly Oxford Street prop Jeannie-Ray … she sure got the attention.  A unique interpretation of a ‘Follies’ song and the point was made.

Last to make an entrance was a long dead movie star, Madame Noir, in black velvet and sparkles.  Sarah Murr with feathers and opera gloves, for which she required audience assistance, was in Honky Tonk mode with a sashay and oodles of style.  A boop boop dedo and gorgeous relationship with the charming and talented Stephen closed out the night.

Sarah Murr was one of the judges’ winners on the night, along with Naomi Livingston. The audience choice was Rachael Gillfeather.

Buy your tickets here for Heat 3 this Sunday at Ginger's (The Oxford) at 6.30pm with the Grand Final at the Sydney Cabaret Festival featuring Trevor Ashley (and the winners) at The Seymour Centre Wednesday 10 July 2019. Tickets to the Gala Final here


Sydney Cabaret Competition

Heat 1

Pictured: Nyssa Milligan (L), Katelin Koprivec (R)

Always keen to extend the weekend as long as possible, I jumped at the chance to attend Heat 1 of the Sydney Cabaret Competition.  And what a great night it was.  Some artists I know and new ones to follow around the city.  And hosted by the inimitable diva that is Catherine Alcorn, who is warm and quick-witted and knows how to support performers who are stepping into the limelight. As Phil Scott joined her, we also got a sneak peek at their show 30 Something, coming to The Hayes in October … one to look out for!

First up was Sarah Gaul who wowed with a sumptuous red dress and some fast paced comedy after a bit of a heartbreaking beginning in her exploration of ‘Modern Man’. Next into the spotlight was Skye Beker with a defence of romcoms and a fun musical quiz … the boys knew all the answers! Some great whoops here for her sustained and expert high notes.  Stepping onto the small stage to accompany herself on the piano, Sophie Perkins captured the room quickly with a reberbed wistfulness which delicately elided into a knowing comic song before a very moving conclusion.  Last up for the set was Nyssa Milligan who brought a skilled costume change, Brahms, Carmen and the Sound of Music all neatly together … and managed to wrangle the audience into a farmyard chorus.  You had to be there for that, a seriously fun way to end a weekend.

After a top-up at the bar for the crowd – Irene Nicola, who took her place at the piano to second some well-known tunes and bend them to her will, and who does a great line in non-sequiturs. Really clever stuff from this artist who also knows when an ending is an ending!  Whereas Juliette Coates gripped the audience from the first with a bluesy feel until she hit full force with some cracker Broadway treatment of some very relatable experiences from age 5 to now.  Jacqui Dwyer was a hit from entry, too, with the most wildly romantic dress … when it has kittens I want one!  Jacqui took the audience away to a place of reflection with a superb stage presence and lovely moody creation of yearning. Also evocative with a richly created narrative was the final artist for the evening Katelin Koprivec.  Katelin had such command of the room with her cantored a Capella opening as she spun a story and let a few jokes slip in before a sweetly sad ending.

The heats are all being held at Ginger's (The Oxford) at 6.30pm on Sundays with the Grand Final at the Sydney Cabaret Festival featuring Trevor Ashley (and the winners) at The Seymour Centre Wednesday 10 July 2019.

I’m with Catherine when she told them that everyone’s a winner, I’m going to be on the lookout for each of those names going forward.  However, going into the Final are Audience’s Choice also chosen by the judges: Irene Nicola.  And the other two artists chosen by the panel are Katelin Koprivec and Nyssa Milligan. 

Can’t wait for Heat 2 this Sunday, join me!  Buy your tickets here.  Tickets to the Gala Final here.


Degas: Passion for Perfection

Rebecca Lawrence reviews the soon to be released film from Exhibition on Screen.

There’s not much that would entice me out of the house on a miserable Monday night, especially when the 2nd-last episode of Game of Thrones had just been released hours earlier. But, being a lover of fine art, horses and ballet, and with an opportunity to meet the director, Phil Grabsky and promise of a glass of bubbles and 85 minutes without being attached to my newborn, I was swayed to attend the media screening of Degas - Pursuit of Perfection. I was not disappointed.

Degas - Pursuit of Perfection had what it promised, the fine art, the ballet dancers and the horses that I loved. It was artfully produced, with panning scenery of Paris, Florence and Cambridge, the latter included as it is home to seven of the artworks analysed in the film. And then there’s the art, gestural lines on linen paper or built up over layers of oil paint and mixed in with solvent to create complex colours and movement.

As I savoured my glass of bubbles, Phil Grabsky introduced himself and the film, which is one of 22 in the art series. This one happens to based on the Degas exhibition from the Fitzwilliam Gallery in Cambridge and comes with all the expert knowledge from the academics including Ambrose Vollard and Anthea Callen as well as letters and stories from Degas’ private collector’s great-granddaughter who dishes some of the juicier details on the artist.

It had me wondering, who would go to the cinema to see an art exhibition? Students, artlovers, Francophiles, the time poor or anyone who doesn’t have access to an art gallery. That is actually a fairly wide audience. It certainly is easy to relax in this cinema chair and let the scenery and wine come to me.

Was it for educational purposes? Well, no, Grabsky claims. However, it would be of great use to students and teachers. For starters, it explains the start of Modern Art in simple terms to establish a context. It analysed seven key artworks, up close and in detail, with insightful commentary from academics as well as some young artists who had clearly been influenced by Degas. And by the way, even if it didn’t set out to educate, it did. 

I would watch a film if it met these three criteria:

If it was enjoyable

If I think about it for a long time afterwards

If it moved me to do something positive

Degas - Passion for Perfection was certainly enjoyable, with rolling scenery of Paris, Florence and Cambridge, artworks of horses and dancers and a meditative sound-track. It has made me consider my own artmaking, as so much of the film discusses his extensive body of work and his perfectionist mark-making. It had me reaching for the pastels and oil sticks to attack two of my half-finished canvases with renewed energy. And bonus points for being educational.

Degas: Passion for Perfection from Exhibition on Screen is opening in cinemas across Australia from 6th June, 2019 and the website has some wonderful images and behind the camera information.  The blog page is a must for art lovers.


Pamela Shaw - Naughty With a Band

An intimate and warm cabaret.

There’s a special delight in relaxing into a polished show presented by a veteran singer in an intimate space with well operated audio.  Pamela Shaw’s Naughty with a Band is having a short season at Cobbstar Studios and it is a night to nod along in places and sit back restful in others.

Shaw is warming up as we arrive for a show she called a “festival of opposites” and when she steps forward to engage the audience, she is warm and quite a livewire. With an explanation of how the character of Matilda from Roald Dahl was the opposite of the little girl she was, Shaw presages a night of sharing.  What follows is a songbook of variety and elegance as we get an insight into the life of this actor, writer and singer. Flair and failures combine to flesh out the artist with whom we will spend some time.

It’s hard to tie this exuberant performer down as she rocks out to songs like a thumping, flashing ‘Gloria’ but Shaw’s stagecraft will take her to sit on the stool near the piano or pull her up, still and centrestage.  Her acting chops take command occasionally when a slow turn away from the watchers can morph the mood of a song and when a story can reach out to touch the heart.  I had a little tear at a ghost song, coming up to the anniversary of a still resonating loss. 

And that’s what this kind of cabaret does. It’s personal and close with the quality of the audio mix for the 4 piece, 3 member, backing band giving the night an extra excellence and immediacy. The bass, double bass, drums and Musical Director Daryl Wallis at the upright piano are held under Shaw’s sensitive rendering.

In a show that’s part psychotherapy and part oral history, the audience is treated to songs they may vaguely recall and many original offerings which tie in beautifully with the narration.    Broadway appears occasionally, ‘Nice’ from Lucky Stiffs, for example, and there’s a strong blues feel to many of the tunes including ‘Naughty’ which has quite a swing tempo to it.

The timeline is disrupted … “I get a little bit all over the place” Shaw tells us early but this a show crafted with skill and presented with honesty and a genuine charm. 

Pamela Shaw - Naughty with a Band is various dates and times at Cobbstar studios until June 2.  And you can read an interview with Pamela here.

Canapes and Cocktails

Jeromaia Detto at the Sydney Comedy Festival

Canapes and Cocktails is a multiverse from Jeromaia Detto where a dozen or so new characters keep arriving and disappearing and sometimes making a return appearance.  The show is bookended by three waiters. Oblivious to each other, they each rate high on the incompetent scale also on the sweetly, arrogantly, solicitous spectrum.  They are also very recognizable as they re-enter through various doors.

Detto has designed a show which doesn’t require the audience to ponder about who we are meeting; his scripting and physicality and voice choices are not forced and maintain a bedrock of Jeromaia-charm which grounds the show.  The many characters are interpreted with a prop or an attitude or a slight costume (the judge being especially humorous in that regard), which means the audience immerses quickly into the little scene’s intent and environment.  

Detto is an accomplished clown with a mobile body and an easily surprised face and his ability to bring his creations with rapidity also allows the audience an emotional licence to follow the valleys and highs of the show.  A tilt of the head and shy smile and the watcher is captivated and ready for a dip into the sadness of Jason at the mic or the sudden outrage of a photographer thwarted by the discerning crowd.

The quality of this performer’s crowd work was on display last night when someone up the back seemed to think it was her show and kept calling out.  Cool absolutely kept and comic timing intact!  He is gracious and amiable as he calls on audience members to help him out in various ways and his quips are never mean or disrespectful of his public.

He has a lot of returning fans and one could hear people murmur as a familiar creation arrived. Several times I heard “There he is!”  But despite some lovely banter with the crowd, Detto also has a tight scripted hold over the 50 minutes. The puns come fast and concentration is required when we meet an aspirational boy, for example.  There’s no false thematic knotting to the show just a series of enjoyable vignettes from an artist with a skilled comic arsenal. As the waiters return at the end, the show is resolved with considerable warmth.

Canapes and Cocktails is a neat offering which gives an audience a constantly changing parade of characters, some of whom work for you and some don’t, but they just keep coming and their brief lifespans add up to a very fun show.

Canapes and Cocktails from Jeromaia Detto has one more outing today at the Sydney Comedy Festival.  


Mythos - Alice Fraser

This is for Mr Fraser who reads all Alice’s reviews for her.

So the campy, cartoonish Batman of the 1960s was a Greenaway Production. Truly ... look for it in reruns. Just going to leave that with you as I talk about Alice Fraser and her show, Mythos.

This is a woman who knows how important fanfare is and she could give Masterclasses in making an entrance! And then she gets smart and funny. Which we sort of knew as she convivially met audience members as they arrived. Charming and engaged she asks questions of the crowd before the show begins… before the flourish of her re-entry.

Then there’s the explanation of the show and why it’s called that and about the stories and lies we will hear … and believe.  Because some of them are sung to some stellar banjo plucking and banjos don’t lie!  Notwithstanding an apology to the Greek lady who came on the basis of the name alone.  Really though, Sisyphus and Zeus and Penelope do get a mention but so does Buddhism.

This show weaves all sorts of ideas and their comic skewering is a tapestry by the time this sassy performer takes a bow to huge applause for her musings on absurdities. Fraser’s set flows beautifully with insights and observations and her work lacks any non sequitur copout - I’ve got a good joke and I’m going to use it anyway stuff.  Rather, it is finely edited for an effortless sharing of smart questioning and a tenderness of abrasiveness when she gets started on some complex contemporary issues. 

 The silence spreading was my favourite element of her persona for MYTHOS.  Fraser throws out personal stories then reels in the audience with a terrific command of a mic technique which leaves a spare hand.  This way she can gesture us into her notion and stand, pinched fingertips at the side of her mouth and a mobile eyebrow raise, until we catch up.  It’s quick, her set ... she speaks rapidly in places until her perplexity brings her back to slowly and slyly making room for the many laughs.  She’s whip-smart funny and charming.

Now, Mr Fraser, in your meta commentary about my review let Ali know that I, like the many recidivists in the room, will be returning.  Even if I don’t count because I’m a reviewer and even with an entirely suitable last name!

RbJ Rating: 4 nahnahnahnahs ect

Alice Fraser is playing the Sydney Comedy Festival with her show MYTHOS until tomorrow.  

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The Director

Another offering from Festival UnWrapped

Photo credit: Daniel Boud

There’s awkward silences and then there’s the deathly silence that happens at the beginning of The Director which playing as part of Festival UnWrapped at the Sydney Opera House. 

Scott Turnbull was a Funeral Director and here he is, still and shirtless lying on the stainless steel concaved table as the audience arrives. He stays that way … the house lights go down and there is considerable dark until they come back up. Nothing happens. Whoa is that uncomfortable!

Lara Thomas will become many during the show - his apprentice, an Everyman to his sagacity and a knowing equal. But for the moment it is just him and it’s morticians’ putty quiet.  For a show about death, I was pretty ok, it was only one little bit with the aforementioned putty that made me turn my head away.

What we are treated (cough) to here is a master class in the Funeral Industry beginning with how to dress a corpse in a shirt. At first, astonishing and intriguing - then you get to see it again as a suitcoat goes on and it’s a slow immersion chance to really appreciate the niceties.  Engrossing then to the grossing! The cost.

The numbers just roll off their tongues and if you have used such services you are not surprised, until the profit side of the ledger is discussed. Decisions to be made by the listener here about whether the job, the industry, is a tough enough gig to warrant such a payday.  The money is fascinating, as is most of the stuff that comes after. There’s sequences around music and flowers and cremation … they even play a guessing game as they style an audience member into a coffin!

There’s a very entertaining sequence with some unusual percussion, bells and cymbals and was that shaken tambourines on the audio track?  This, while Scott runs (literally) through a pineapple Friday. He made his rake-off that day!  Lara will sit in the audience as director on some occasions, making actor adjustments and technical corrections and suggestions for improvement.  With a lovely camaraderie and fluid (ahem) chemistry, they are easy in each other’s company and the relationship is enjoyable to watch.

Lara will also take on the challenge to negotiate questions from the audience, very difficult in this space. “Clearly nothing is off limits!” It is here, however, that the flaw in the production surfaced for me, this sequence was not clearly Q & A nor scripted.  It felt self-referential and nervous when the rest of the production’s elements are so smooth.

Almost every segment of this show works as a separate section but there’s a cohesion of intent missing.  This, despite a unity of place and content and character.  The text and the excellent scenes cry out for an emotional or thematic skin rather than a stitching together.  The show illustrates approbation for the compassion that is displayed, yet there is condemnation too.

Among the more interesting asides to the content of the show is the invocation of bereavement. They stand and walk with light grace, head bowed, hands crossed in front and faces arranged into knowable and appropriate shapes. It is definitely eerie and disconcertingly accurate.  

The Director has a laid back honesty to charm and inform an audience with believability and lingering unasked questions.  I get a word like ‘purge’ but what the hell is coffin club and why do elderly women attend?

RbJ Rating: 3 ½ Weetabix and coffee

The Director, part of Festival UnWrapped, plays until Sunday May 19.



From Festival UnWrapped comes another marvelous production.

There’s a laugh in their voice, these five young woman.   I have seen this show before and what delighted me then is still ‘Boss as fuck!’  but I have learned some new words since I saw it last and let me say, with hands above head old lady dancing … Playlist is bitchin’  

Photo Credit: Daniel Boud

There’s a laugh in their voice, these five young women.   I have seen this show before and what delighted me then is still ‘Boss as fuck!’  but I have learned some new words since I saw it last and let me say, with hands above head old lady dancing … Playlist is bitchin’  

There were concerns in my thinking that it might not translate to the big stage.  Our House is a big call!  But the thing about the Festival UnWrapped is that the curator, Fiona Winning, and her team is switched on to bringing these voices into the space.  Here we have a production of truth and talent that fits easily into their surrounds and from my quick voxpop of other audience members, coming to a new demographic.

Created by PYT Fairfield, Director Karen Therese and Choreographer Larissa McGowan, the show is a riot and a wander through the musical history and inspirations of Ebube Uba, May Tran, Tasha O’Brien, Mara Knezevic and Neda Taha. 

As singers’ names from Ella through Celine to Beyoncé hit the ear, we are drawn into the realities that these artists experience and it ranges from joyous to concerning.  However, with direct-to–the-audience engagement, movement sequences, dancing and conversation between them, the women will share their empowerment.  Well may we worry about the world we have made for them but they don’t dwell on that – Bolshie to tender they teach us a lesson in resilience along the way.

The production doesn’t shy away from the difficult aspects of a girls’ world. Violence against women is foregrounded in one sequence toward the end of the show and it is chilling.  Kicking and gouging replaced by an impassive speaking of the names ripped from the headlines … women lost; diminishing us all.  But the production doesn’t dwell.  There are constant shifts of mood negotiated with artistry and performance skill.  Suddenly we find ourselves in a narrowing down of celebrity narrative.   

Irrepressible movement goes with music for this cast and the dancing is free and loose and contagious.  Pump up ‘Make it Rain’ and whoops explode from the audience, too.   What impresses here is the sympathy of intention in all the movement work.   Mimetic or stylistic, the faces express individualised conceptual throughlines giving the work its cohesion and power.

The cultural aspects of the Playlist text allows this cast a space for enlightening with fun and sass.  Respect for ancestors, sharing of role models, their diversity of musical solace place and still the best joke about Anglo-Saxon queueing I have heard.  It’s an offhand comment but I swear I think of it every time I line up somewhere.  This show is dense.  It’s quick and subversive in both action and interaction, with the warmth and camaraderie between the women one of its finest attributes.  It really is a work to be cherished.

And to learn from if you are no longer young.  The latest new word these marvellous performers have taught me ‘wankstand’ which is now my favourite insult by far.  See Playlist, you just don’t know what you will learn! 

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ Taylor Swift sceptics

Playlist is part of Festival UnWrapped and playing until Sunday 19th May.  

Frank Elgar and Robert Burton’s New Year Eve Party, 1979. Image: William Yang.

PARTY (verb)

Frank Elgar and Robert Burton’s New Year Eve Party, 1979. Image: William Yang.

William Yang is a national living treasure and the opportunity to immerse in his work is an exciting prospect. Yes, you can see it from your armchair on sites like MCA or National Portrait Gallery but the man, the man is the developer who brings the image to full clarity.  He must have millions of shots at by now and his shows are crafted thematically with a loving eye.  This one is about the parties!

PARTY (verb) is part of the Sydney Opera House’s Festival UnWrapped and it is an evening of soft truth and noisy spectacle from a master storyteller.  The work was originally commissioned by Performance Space and premiered at Day for Night, 2018.  He is accompanied by live music from celebrated DJs Stereogamous, and Yang brings his history to this stage and shares it with skill and empathy and a quiet delivery.  This photographer was granted access where others were barred because he was respectful, gifted and trusted and his social history, visual and experiential, of the gay and lesbian community is unique and important.

Yang has selected the images of this particular show for complete engagement whether you know the people involved or not. Faces and costumes and implicit narratives are endlessly fascinating in this context.  Then hit us with dance music and a few flashing lights and image after image of party crowds and there is an anonymity of thumping energy which pulls you into a moment in time.  When he speaks, the names roll off his tongue. Names sometimes greeted with a cheer or an intake breath of sorrow. This audience is disparate and the sighs and laughs, and for me a few sobs, come at separate times throughout the show.

However, there are occasional waves of laughter or swallowed sadness which sweep through the room, uniting us.  Speak about reclamation of language, fag and poof, and back it up with photos and no-one is immune to pride.  Similarly, we are unprotected from the captured images of the lost.  Times are different now and, while some in the crowd remember, an artist like Yang brings a whole world to life with his stories and pictures.  There’s a nude man as the second image so we are quickly oriented as Yang will talk about the sex, love, community through the lens of the parties ... some of the big ones... but many of the small.

Sleaze and Recovery parties are mentioned but when the time arrived that straight people could win Mardi Gras party tickets on the radio, his history takes a turn to community.  RATS, Sweatbox, lesbian parties, culturally diverse events - so many captured by Yang.  Like the 1981 first Warehouse party where he stuck with photographing people he knew until he got braver and ventured onto the dance floor.  The images are mainly black and white and as the House behind pumps up trance and volume, the photographs take on the blur of dance and action.  It’s thrilling.

Some events and places do require an explanation and there is a chiaroscuro of memory as Yang includes some shots of himself as he ages from that wild haired young man that he was early on; when cruising was “easier than the bars”.  He also says he felt “my destiny was to photograph parties”. 

Yang brings the people and period to back to life as he zooms in on a sequence and we see multiple shots of the same event - a drama piece at a party, the costumes at a party, the aftermath of a party.  And the show is filled with music superbly aligned with the emotional impact and which allows time for introspection and absorption.  The music is fun and value adds to an already emotional evening.  There’s a swing version of ‘Secret Love’ and there’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ and ‘Express Yourself’.  The latter as we relax into some serious leather shots.

PARTY (verb) is a wonderful entertainment.  May William Yang be partying with us for a long, long time.

RjB Rating:   5 sexy nights

Tonight is your last chance to catch PARTY (verb) as part of Festival UnWrapped at the Sydney Opera House.


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80s Nostalgia Sad Hour

Jacinta Gregory writes the songs.

Jacinta Gregory is a talented comic songwriter.  That’s a bit of a lost art.  We hear lots of parody type songs on the comedy stage but putting your own lyrics to someone else’s music does wear a bit thin.  Gregory, on the other hand, her shit is all hers.  And it’s good … consistently good over the years I have been watching her work as performer or writer.

This latest show is called 80s Nostalgia Sad Hour and it played at the Sydney Comedy Festival.   In Gregory’s loose and freewheeling style there is not really much 80s here … it’s more of a conceptual thing.  The 80s is where you go when you are down.  That’s more of Gregory’s tish because she explores ‘down’ in the show.  With skill and style Gregory alludes to, and educates about, her mental health struggles in a funny, warm show with a quirky edginess.

Gregory has more at her disposal than life lessons, a quick wit, musical chops and a capacity for putting the right word in the right place. She can sing. There’s some lovely lower notes in a song like ‘Beautiful Day to Fall in Love’ until she takes the song into the longing tops.   And she can surround herself with likeminded talent.  With a neat little band of three and a sidekick actor friend, 80s Nostalgia Sad Hour is dense with songs and has a chaotic structure which is mysteriously and meticulously repeatable.

‘I thought I’d do a song about it.’ ‘Would it be crazy if I apologised in a song?’ are fun intros and the structure does have inserts like a dance break and skit time and they might need some refining, or the flick, as the show progresses.  The heart of the work is Gregory’s view of life which is positive and presented with a charming openness and considerable variety.

There’s an assassination of penises in an anthem of sorts, there’s a tropey whisper and squat, bad- news- delivered-sexily song and some subversive female costuming.  The props and costumes are part of that deceptive construction that slides right by while the enjoyment of the show compounds.  Gregory also improvises a sad ballad and it’s impressive … not just for the humorous styling and clever creation but for her use of phrasing and contrapuntal on the spot arranging.  All the aspects that make her writing and performance so engaging are hangin out and it’s fascinating to watch the process.  Indeed the whole show is enormous fun.  Gregory does take on the classics toward the end with a ‘Love Shack’ beatup of 80s politics. 

Charismatic and discreetly disciplined Jacinta Gregory is home grown talent to watch out for.  The show has had its run but keep an ear out for her next.

RbJ rating: 3 ½ Matthew Brodericks


Tales of an Afronaut

From poet wāni Le Frère comes a performance as vulnerable as it is resilient.

Photo of wāni Le Frère by Ruth Ruach

Tales of an Afronaut is a revelation. Poet wāni Le Frère gifts his audiences with what he calls “stories that live within my body”.  But his show, which is part of the Batch festival, exists not just as stories but as a way to share black pain.  His words speak in a way that we seldom get to hear on a stage and the opportunities for understanding that one takes from this well-crafted performance reaches into the spirit. 

Le Frère and dancer, Polo, are seated, heads bowed, as we enter.  There’s an impermanent domesticity to the setting they have chosen, the implications of which become clear during the show.  When the poet rises, his voice will echo through a golden microphone as the first of his skilled elucidation of written creations echoes in the space. Most of the show is without amplification but the gravity of this beginning is elemental to the engagement we feel.

The poetry we hear strays from crisp to lyrical ; the presentation honest and fresh.  The vulnerability palpable, especially when the voice is halting and haunted.  Technically, Le Frère strides into the rhythms while keeping the words conversational, intimate.  The rawness of the text aligns with a spare physicality that uplifts his hands and turns them skyward, a universal gesture that reverberates with welcome and genuine openness.  

His rhymes strike the ear with a modern sensibility that carries the weight of a generation.  “livid but timid”, for example, is a stunning use of language.  There are several incredibly good uses of pause and truncation in the performance also.  The ending to the section about his father, before the audio recording, is breathtakingly good theatrical use of tension.

Le Frère is joined by dancer Pollo who performs with the daredevil courage of a dancer invested in the themes.  His dance of dying and doomed has skill and fall to absorb the audience further into the thematic throughline of the show.  There are recorded audio and video sequences also, difficult to listen to in places, warm and human in others.  Our joint humanity is enfolded by Le Frère as he speaks of donuts and binge watching TV and something shameful deep inside but the African/Black experience which is verbatim in the tech is never far from the intent of this work.

The permanence of skin, the violence of words used against people of colour elides with the warmer notes of the show - his mother’s face and where he draws his strength. Le Frère has resisted any temptation to make this a longer show, it runs a neat 35 minutes, and is crafted to take the listener to new places of understanding and inquiry.

Especially as it concludes with a meta sequence which draws together the words which Le Frère has freely shared with us for our consideration and action.

RbJ Rating:  4 stars above each one of us 

 Tales of an Afronaut plays as part of the Batch Festival until May 4.

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Pictures: Songs from Movie Musicals

Picture of Kerrie Anne Greenland by James Terry

Kerri Anne Greenland’s cabaret Pictures: Songs from Movie Musicals is all about the voice. An intimate opportunity to hear, close and live, the complexity of her delivery. An hour to immerse in the encompassing timbre of those lower notes and the operatic soar of the higher. This Helpmann winning artist has been inspired in her creation of the show by her album of the same name and the songs are both familiar and newly interpreted.

With Joshua James Webb on piano and Conrad Hamill on cello, her cabaret has a rainbow start as the classic song draws us into the world of a little girl who grew up in a second-home. A picture palace. Fitting then for Greenland to share some Disney princesses, thereafter leading right into a wish upon a star which leaves the audience reeling with the purity of that final note.

There are many such times during the well-structured show, times when Greenland’s voice gives the audience a breath hold moment. Maybe This Time echoes from the red lit stage as the struck string cello nestles warmly in concert with the richness of Greenland’s long, luxurious, held phrases.  The soulful slow intro to Love is Here to Stay contrasts easily with the upbeat zing of heartstrings.  The orchestrations of The Trolley Song bringing the toes to tapping straight after.

These songs sit simply and delicately in amongst the more character driven pieces. As one might expect from a musical theatre performer of her experience, the songs which fit into a musical story have a gently donned persona.  Wistful and sad, Little Shop of Horrors’ Somewhere That’s Green in a suitably green lighting state.  This melancholy song leading the way into the much anticipated On My Own. Eponine’s cry from the heart as freshly delivered as if Greenland hadn’t sung it over so many performances. Commanding heartfelt work.

My personal favourite of the night?  You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel.  The voice and acting coming together in superb musical phrasing and the moving power of love… enough to make me struggle to hold back tears.

Greenland’s chatter and banter with the accompanists are fun in their way but this is a cabaret to appreciate for the special nature of a voice which brings genuine emotion to these well-known songs from the flickers.  A pure enchantment of an evening.  

There are only two more performances of Pictures: Songs from Movie Musicals at the Hayes Theatre and they must be close to sold out.  The album is available on iTunes.


I Sing Songs

Steven Kreamer steps out from behind the upstage curtain.

Normally when Steven Kreamer steps out from behind the upstage curtain it is to take a bow with his band or when his accompanying is acknowledged by the singer of the night.  His cabaret I Sing Songs is a chance to spend time with this multi-talented artist in an evening of warm original songs and wry introductions, mixed in with a few clever reinterpretations of some well-known works.  Shaped by Director Simon Ward, the show gives an audience intimate insights into the music of this charismatic singer-songwriter.  

Beginning with the boy that was. Exploring the freedom of having a car and with a sweet belief in the consistency of love, this song begins a night where musicianship and stories are shared with audience with candour and style. As the wistful chorus fades on his younger self and the purple of the lighting deepens, a new song about love and about music begins with a single hand on the piano.

Steven’s virtuosity on the instrument is one of the delights of an evening spent in his company.  With a trademark glissando when he just can’t help himself but to finish with a flourish, the music behind the songs and stories has a complexity of arrangement and subtle reach. The song choices stay within a smooth and relaxed atmosphere for the most part but he does cut loose.

With an accent, a silhouette and an accordion, there’s classic gently lampooned with a Kurt Weillian twist.  There’s a soft-shoe themed offering that rhymes ‘occupied’ with ‘genocide’! That particular tune comes with a Steven shame-face.  But he will quickly use the backing track from his orchestration of Dancing in the Dark to stand still and float a soulful and oddly moving reinterpretation into the dark beyond the stage.

Kreamer can travel from warm to red hot in an instant though, after some shared secrets that the man/boys in the audience gave full throated laughter to and a conversation on a bus, the jazz sizzles with skill and charm.  That’s before a bath bomb dance break.  With a willing audience and two conscripts we are treated to a fun song which requires audience involvement.  Kreamer is having way too much fun here as he laughs at his control over the audience’s responses and a 5 minute song flashes by.

As the evening winds down, the personal nature of making music, and who it is made for, reaches into the audience in a pure white light.   Every songwriter’s lament about the inadequacy of words comes with a moving story and an act of defiance.  The Billie Holiday I’ll be Seeing You on the preshow track comes into context for the final song as thematic strings are pulled together and, in tribute to his long-living Nan, a boogie woogie mood concludes an evening of excellence.

I Sing Songs is one of those rare nights when a man we usually see in pitblacks swaps out for a deep black suit and crisp white shirt; steps out from behind the curtain and makes his way to the microphone. A thoroughly entertaining and delightful hour of stylish song and music.

 You have two more chances to catch Steven Kreamer’s I Sing Songs this evening at Hayes Theatre tonight and tomorrow.


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Sydney Comedy Festival Gala

A taster to whet the appetite.

Photo of Joe Lycett by Ben Sanford

As a taster for what you can see at the Sydney Comedy Festival, the Gala event is quite the degustation banquet.  Our host for this delectable feast is Joe Lycett. His solo show I'm About To Lose Control and I Think Joe Lycett sold out quickly so this was Sydney’s last chance to see him. And what a delight he turned out to be.

Relaxed and chatty with the crowd and perched on the edge of the Concert Hall stage of the Sydney Opera House stage, he is quick witted and engaging as he tells us this is the best bill he has ever been on. He also has enormous loving fun with the audience close to him as his charm and obvious interest in people whets the appetite for the comedy to come.

There’s a range of international acts here and as the accents and unique perspectives hit the stage the audience gets to see themselves as others see us. And on Anzac Day!

Tahir referenced his Turkish heritage for one of the best, most respectful Anzac jokes ever and Ivan Aristeguieta summed up the Australian experience of language in three words. My companion is of Chinese origins and that conversation took up our interval! Phil Wang’s Canberra contribution to that discussion adding to the fun. Not to mention Georgie Carroll’s Adelaide accent. And her hilarious assassination of other school mums.

Lots of skewering on this night. The Chaser Quarterly & Shovel made  War On The F*#king Election 2019 and Larry Dean’s self-deprecating gay Glaswegian didn’t hold back with the eye acting and sweet persona.  There’s salty here too. Fern Brady somehow manages to discuss the taste of semen in her potted review of getting caught up in a DUP scandal at home.

There was, though, a worm at the table. A worm and his dad, as a downbeat Mark Forward explained his jokes into a superbly deconstructed art. Jamali Maddix had strong opinions on species-ism and random flavours kept the audience’ hands in motion and heads thrown back.  Secrets were shared after interval as Sean McLoughlin made google his BF and Lauren Pattinson shared the recipe for a delicacy of blending posh and working class.  Mix in Tom Allen’s harried, harassed and had-it teacher and this is a bite-into comedy menu which can’t be bettered.

Always amazing how laughter brings 2000 plus people to the same place. Sore tummy or head shaking in disbelief the Gala had something for everyone. Even Millennials got a fillip when Tom Ballard took on us Baby Boomers … for the kids!  With his unintentional mic stand choreography and his friendliness and charisma, Joe was the perfect host.  Even if his description of vegan toilet habits might have put you off dessert.

To round out the evening was my favourite after dinner mint.  I have been a long time News Quiz pod listener and to experience Phil Jupitus live was to be relished.  His sly humour sending us out jostling and laughing with lip-smacking enjoyment ready to launch into our Sydney Comedy Festival treats.

Sydney Comedy Festival details and program here.

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from the Flying Fruit Fly Circus

The old timers, the flyers, speak of it.  That moment in a circus show where a trapezeist suspends in the air, for the death of a second between mortal and celestial. JUNK from the Flying Fruit Fly Circus takes their cast to that magical place so many times and as these 8 -18 year olds pass through that moment they take their audience with them.  With awe and thrill, we and our young ones understand how beautiful life is.

Artistic Director, Jodie Farrugia has crafted a show which brings skill and daring into the theatre.  Her cast is made up of students from the Circus School attached to the Fruities in Albury/ Wodonga and they are on tour, landing for a few performances at Riverside Theatres.

Finding its origins from discussions with elder citizens about what they did for kid’s play back when, the production is set in a junkyard and the possibilities are endless.   The viewer is treated to enormous fun as the setting affords infinite ways for the cast to entertain.  It begins in darkness and a single piano note as we meet a modern boy.  A boy preparing for guided, safe play.  Safety gear just keeps on coming as he gets ready for the dangers of mucking about.  Through the show this young man will learn from the spirits of the junkyard that bubble wrap isn’t needed if you balance sensible and daring.   

That’s what I love most about Farrugia’s approach to the production, it doesn’t look easy … it’s skilful.   There’s a traditional trope in circus where you fail first time to show how hard it is.  What the Fruities show instead is the preparation.  When the trick is in the air or on the apparatus it looks effortless but we see the planning, the signals, the checking and adjusting… the sweat.  That is what many of us want for our children.  Assess the risk, control it and then attack it with enthusiasm. 

No shortage of the latter either, as these young people laugh across the footlights and interact with the crowd and each other, excited and loving their performing as a range of skills keep the show hurling at speed.  The act names are in the program and it is a lovely way to debrief with the family.  An odd collection of phrases come up then … oohs and ahs and how did they do thats mingle with I would love to learn how to do that.  It’s as joyous as the experience itself.

The rigging is masterful and allows the young people do all on-stage practicalities.  The breathtaking duo straps is entirely tethered by, and musically accompanied by, the children with such an encompassing and moving emotional impact. The production’s audio score utilises the whole team, too, in the sensational creation of sound - body percussion and odd instruments like washboard and slapstick yet it can let loose with drums and brass for the tramp wall.

In a production where boys fly and don’t just catch, where girls use strength and brains equally, where teamwork leads the show and exhilaration rules the space, remember these young circus professionals.  Scour the program, commit the names to memory, follow their careers as they grow to be keepers of the mysteries and wonders.

RbJ:        4 ½ Audience Gasps

Junk from The Flying Fruit Fly Circus plays Riverside Theatres, April 17 -18.

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360 All Stars

This is urban circus with terrific scope for opening up conversations with the younger family members. See the write-up I did for Arts Hub.

Photo credit- Tom Loncar

Babes Ablaze : Photo Kris Ezergailis

Babes Ablaze

A night of strutting their stuff … with flames!

Photo of Sophie deLightful and Cast : Kris Ezergailis

Grey hair, handbag, torn jeans, nike knockoffs and all, I sailed into a group of young people who were having a smoke break outside.  “We welcome your weirdness” says one impeccably suited young man with approving whoops from the cosplay dressed and very goth-glammed diverse group of people around him.  Welcome to Babes Ablaze a raging, fun night of fire obsessed acts in cabaret mode.

What fun we had.  Lots of people, including some of the artist’s mums, a welcoming vibe and an exciting lineup of thrilling, skilled performers who craft their work with care.  That’s what the take-home is actually.  The exhilaration of watching them stays with you but when you have a chance to brood, there comes an understanding of the commitment to excellence you have witnessed.

Under the sultry, sexy hostess Sophie deLightful … she of the superb singing voice, witty, responsive emceeing and wicked taste for trouble … juggle and aerial and burlesque and balance and acro and zephyrs appear - with fire as the leitmotif.  A dedicated Fire Fairy flares the imagination before each set and the audience is quiet and receptive in places and genuinely, enthusiastically loud in others. 

As each item struts their stuff it’s obvious that the performers have been carefully curated by Sophie, who is also the producer.  I’ve encountered her work before and just adore that rich voice and open attitude to musical standards.  All the music is terrific on the night, prepared with care, never too loud and orchestrated to tap into a mesmerism which flames in the watcher.  Slow rock mingles with fast, fluid beats with foot tapping inevitable and head banging optional.

There’s the lost art of pastie wearing; a heart ripped from the willing chest of an audience volunteer; a superb semi-acoustic steel string guitar back-up; a dual spider fan of tiny flickers; a brilliance of crystal balls appearing to float by a dexterity more than human.  The highlight for me was a clear quartz hilted sword ablaze then a flame extinguished with a swoop to obfuscate the user with the smoke of mystery. 

Not just welcoming and fun but thrilling!   

Babes Ablaze only played one night at the Red Rattler but you can look out for it again by following Sophie at her website and Facebook


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Up Close and Intimate

Caroline O’Connor reprises her cabaret for one night only …to a sold out house.

Photo of Caroline O’Connor in Up Close and Intimate by Peter Rubie

You have to open up a bit, which I didn’t want to do, but tell the stories of how you got the job, the tricky things and the good things.” Caroline O’Connor told me in interview.  The reality is, that with a star like O’Connor on the stage, you could just delight in the voice singing the hits and still have a great time.  But when she finishes the first song and walks toward the audience with a relaxed and welcoming smile and a flash in the eyes, you know, you just know, that this is a night of presence and connection. ‘Up Close and Intimate’ had a sold out return season last night with a standing ovation and a knock-out performance.

There’s a Velma feel to the simple, fringed, form fitting black dress that O’Connor wears for the first act and she doesn’t disappoint Chicago fans with a couple of select pieces from the show.  Including the Cell Block Tango … all 6 roles!  But there’s other favourites to relax into or to make you sit upright and lean in.  Like when Cool from West Side Story is given a unique femaleness and when the master singer sits still in a shamrock green to interpret an Irish heritage ballad.  

It’s rare for this restless artist to stay still as she engages the audience in stories about her career between the well-chosen songs.  The dancer is never far in the litheness of the walk and the sinuous carriage. In the chat between, she’s funny and accessible and the memories are shared with detail that brings the meaning even closer to the listener.  Her stories about a gypsy life in London and on the Great White Way are cleverly interspersed and we have the added frisson of watching the artistry of mood creation.

O’Connor has a lovely relationship with her Musical Director and virtuosic accompanist, Daniel Edmonds as she checks in with what’s next and enthusiastically pays attention to his work in the more spectacular piano interludes.  However, it is when she responds to his prompts with a ‘I need to prepare for that one’ that the real meaning of live-in-cabaret catches the breath.  We see the transformation of a moment when an honesty and openness to share brings the nuanced emotion forward… that genuiness of feeling which will allows the words to float on the music to the heart of the watcher. 

It’s thrilling to see this artist live.

And the full house loves the show.  So comfortable are we with this shining star that 200 pairs of hands draw together before the final notes of a song fade and the What’s That Tune quiz brings smiles and laughs all over as a winner beams.  Up Close and Intimate is delicately balanced between craft and spontaneity to be a marvellous night in the presence of a great lady of the theatre.

Caroline O’Connor’s Up Close and Intimate for Darlinghurst Theatre Company was one night only, Friday April 12.    


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Eishan Ensemble

Deb Waterhouse-Watson reviews this ensemble of Persian masters of Middle Eastern Jazz Fusion - tar and oud gets the crowd on its feet.

Hamed Sadeghi tells us that ‘Eishan’ just means ‘these guys’, but this is typical Sadeghi – understated ‘These guys’ are highly skilled musicians – masters of improvisation – who weave awe-inspiring soundscapes that will have you hanging on every note. You’ll be amazed at how seamlessly Persian and jazz fuse – though the harmony and rhythm are distinctly Persian, there’s a contemporary flavour, and the expansive improvised solos passed from instrument to instrument are familiar from the jazz tradition.

Venue 505 provided the perfect relaxed ambience in which to enjoy a quiet drink or a meal while watching the performance. It’s a little quirky, with kids’ toys given out in place of table numbers, and patrons perched on stools along the walls or steps as often as at tables; once the show began, all eyes and ears were fixed firmly on the stage.

Persian-Australian Sadeghi is warm, funny and humble, introducing the group and various pieces, and the music itself is just as welcoming, whether you’re a dedicated fan of Middle Eastern jazz fusion or this is your first taste.

There are no vocals, and the music is built on melodic and rhythmic riffs and refrains that repeat throughout a piece – like a catchy chorus in a rock song, but with instruments – that become more and more familiar as the piece develops.

Sadeghi starts out playing the tar, a plucked, fretted string instrument with a long neck and small body. The first number has a driving rhythm that gets toes tapping, featuring solos that highlight the virtuoso talent of regular band member Michael Avgenicos and local percussionist Adem Yilmaz. Yilmaz has a full palette of percussive tones at his fingertips, from different drum tones to chimes and brushes.

The sets are a mix of old and new, with some established, some never performed before, and others in the process of reinvention. The second number is one of their new works, Black and White, which certainly lives up to its name: melancholy and a touch dark, in a minor key, with passages of brilliance and a bittersweet undertone.

Sadeghi swaps to the oud, a fretless, many-stringed instrument with a large, pear-shaped body. A lyrical saxophone line introduces the piece, a line which is doubled on the oud and passed around the instruments – a distinctive feature of Eishan’s music. Though the tones of sax, bass and guitar might be familiar to most audiences, the scale and rhythms are distinctly Persian. This allows the audience to hear exciting new possibilities in these instruments, with glissando, tremolo and trills providing ornamentation and rhythmic drive.

My favourite number of the night was the second to last, Future, a track which appeared on their debut album but is now being reinvented and possibly re-recorded, to reflect how the band has developed. Future starts with percussion and an insistent guitar drone – a single note repeated – with the other instruments layering on top, driven on by a relentless drum beat. The bass solo by Sydney local Elsen Price is played with a bow, and features lush vibrato high up the G-string and plunging tremolo runs that have the audience gasping.

Wind, another new piece, rounds out the night. It’s an intense journey, with a lot of tar and bass shredding (Sadeghi half-apologetically explains that it’s necessary) and at times repeated percussive sounds from several instruments while another solos. Rapid-fire runs build up to the fullest sound of the evening, before the tension is finally released.

The crowd is on its feet, celebrating a flawless performance from a very talented group of musicians. Don’t miss the chance to see Eishan Ensemble up close at their next gig!

Eishan Ensemble played Venue 505 on Saturday April 30. Find out more about Eishan Ensemble: Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Bandcamp. Their first album Nim Dong was released in late 2018, to critical acclaim. 

RbJ Rating: Five Breathtaking Bass Solos!  

What our ratings mean: 5- Definitely don’t miss this. 4 - You’ll be sorry if you miss this. 3 - If you are not interested in the topic, give it a miss. 2 - You can miss this unless you’re keen. 1 - Definitely on the miss list.