REVEALED: Qld’s best and worst theatre shows
How to describe four decades of covering and reviewing the arts? I started my arts career at The Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton covering shows at the then newly opened Pilbeam Theatre, running from the theatre after a performance, filing my review and then running back to the theatre bar for last drinks. In Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and elsewhere I have seen the best and the worst that the performing arts has to offer. When asked to describe the experience once I thought of Irving Stone's 1961 novel (later a film) The Agony and The Ecstasy. Okay that was about Michelangelo but the expression suited perfectly although sometimes I also evoke Dickens …. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Here's how ….
SIX OF THE BEST
SPARTACUS - BOLSHOI BALLET
One of my all-time favourites is seeing this ballet by Aram Khachaturian performed by the Russian Powerhouse company. In 2019 the Bolshoi Ballet brought it to Brisbane as part of the QPAC International Series and it was beyond magnificent.
Spartacus the ballet has it all - enchanting dancing, epic scenes, sword and sandal action and the music of Khachaturian including one of the most beautiful passages ever written - the fleeting but exquisite Adagio from Spartacus. I was lucky enough to see this production, which remains a staple of the Bolshoi's repertoire, in Moscow early in 2019 as a precursor to the Brisbane performances. That was an out-of-body experience. I'm back in my body now.
THE BOY FROM OZ
You're expecting me to say it was the version starring Hugh Jackman but when The Boy from Oz first played in Australia in 1998 it was Todd McKenney as the singer Peter Allen and the incredible Chrissy Amphlett as Judy Garland. McKenney, who has recently been starring in Brisbane in Shrek The Musical, is a talented man. His version toured the country for two years and I saw it at QPAC and McKenney was brilliant. I also saw Hugh Jackman do it at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre and he was fantastic but frankly McKenney was better. He WAS Peter Allen.
MACBETH - QUEENSLAND THEATRE COMPANY
Queensland Theatre Company (now Queensland Theatre) did a production of Macbeth in 2014 that was one of the great theatre experiences. It was directed by British director Michael Attenborough (son of Lord Attenborough and nephew of Sir David) and starred Jason Klarwein as Macbeth and Veronica Neave as Lady Macbeth. The Scottish play as they call it is my favourite by The Bard and this production had it all - witches, ghosts, murder most foul and plenty of perfidy. It was a heightened experience and that is what great theatre is all about.
DARK EMU - BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE
Last time I interviewed Bangarra Dance Theatre's artistic director Stephen Page (a Brisbane boy) I told him I had never seen a bad show by Bangarra Dance Theatre and I meant it. This Indigenous dance company makes us all proud and challenges and educates while entertaining the hell out of us. Their 2018 show Dark Emu, inspired by Bruce Pascoe's bestseller was one of their best. A Bangarra Dance Theatre show takes us all on a journey and their art is sublime. Based in Sydney, they come to Brisbane every year and it's always a highlight.
I had one of the best theatrical nights of my life at La Boite's Roundhouse Theatre when I went to see Prize Fighter, directed by Todd MacDonald and starring Pachero Mzembe as a Congolese refugee who becomes a boxer. I'm a huge fan of Rocky and this was like a little Rocky, powerful, tight, tough. Nothing at all effete about this show which toured the country to great acclaim after premiering in Brisbane. I would see it again at the drop of a hat. Or the ringing of a bell.
KABUKI - WORLD EXPO 88
It was part of the World Expo on Stage program and it featured Living National Treasure of Japan, Kabuki star Nakamura Utaemon. Seeing him performing at QPAC was one of the cultural highlights of my life and I recall standing in the foyer afterwards discussing with friends just what a special experience it was. Kabuki is a form of Japanese dance drama and Nakamura, who died in 2001, was a master. It was so good that this Expo 88 performance has stayed with me as one of my most memorable nights at QPAC.
SIX OF THE WORST
THE BOOK OF MORMON
The buzz about this show set off alarm bells for me. It has a cultish following but I was sceptical. Still I enjoyed it. For 10 minutes and then it went to hell and never came back. A show that makes a joke of someone having sex with an infant is unacceptable.
The racist tropes and the studied edginess of this show make it a laboured and tedious undergraduate piece. Some people apparently love it. I know many others, like me, though who hated it. If I never see it again that will be too soon. I'd rather eat my own vomit.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
In 2013 I went to the Brisbane Entertainment Centre to see Tim Minchin starring as Judas in the arena spectacular version of what was once a great show. This time around it wasn't. The irony of having a virulent atheist starring in a Biblical story wasn't lost on me but everything else was.
It was raucous and discordant and Minchin, a great talent outside this production, was strident and an uncomfortable stage presence and his voice was not subtle enough for the role. I wanted to go outside, dig a hole in the ground and lie down in it.
THE MATHEMATICS OF LONGING
It should have been a good show. Written by Suzie Miller, directed by Todd MacDonald and featuring dance moves by The Farm (a Gold Coast-based outfit) and with music by Regurgitator's Ben Ely … it was full of promise. And the theme of maths and longing seemed interesting. But I swear that despite it being relatively short it was one of the longest nights at the theatre, with no interval for escape. I took my then-teenage son and he couldn't stifle his groans. It was the most pretentious twaddle I have ever witnessed and the performance was, to quote George Costanza from Seinfeld, like "a full body dry-heave set to music".
BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL
In 2019 I caught the 10th anniversary tour of Billy Elliot The Musical while on a trip to Sydney. And I'm sorry I did. So was my companion, a retired professor with bad hearing. He had new hearing aids but they weren't modulated properly and he kept leaning aside to me saying, in what he thought was a hushed tone but was actually more akin to shouting … "It's not very good, is it?" He was right. Tired is one word I could use. It was like a drab high school musical and despite it being an ostensibly uplifting story about a working class boy who makes good as a dancer, by the end of it I thought - to hell with Billy Elliot!
Now I must preface my comments about this production by saying that shake & stir theatre co are brilliant. Their annual production of A Christmas Carol is now one of the highlights of my year. Having said that everyone has a stinker now and then and their 2016 adaptation of Emily Bronte's classic novel should have been called Withering Heights. Opening night was like witnessing a car crash in slow motion. It wasn't helped by comedian Gerry Connolly, who starred as a woman, struggling to remember his lines. It apparently got better but not much and hopefully has been laid to rest forever.
I have to mention this production because the horror is still fresh in my mind. This three-hour self-indulgence, an outdated American play by Thornton Wilder, is Queensland Theatre's opening gambit for 2021 and I challenge anyone to sit through the whole production in the Bille Brown Theatre without wanting to open a vein. A great cast is wasted on a piece of sentimental slop that has long since passed its use-by date. What a turkey! The only thing that got me through was listening to the narration by star Jimi Bani who has one of the most cadence-rich voices I have heard for some time. Does he sing too? I hope so.
Originally published as REVEALED: Qld's best and worst theatre shows