ff2012 is dead. Long live ff2013!

With less than three weeks until the start of the next Fringe (and, for the first time in an odd-year, Festival) season, I’ve finally finished writing about the shows I saw in 2012’s season.

One-hundred-and-fifty-five shows. Thirteen in a weird, patchy kind of Festival, and one-hundred-and-forty-two Fringe performances. And that’s not counting the extra Rhino Room Late Shows, the repeated viewings of The Fastest Train To Anywhere, or Tomás Ford’s impromptu Massive Fucking Party. There was lots of chatting to be had – bless the Fringe Club and Barrio – and friends made, re-discovered, and (unfortunately) lost.

But most of all, I got to spend the best part of five weeks drinking heavily from the Art that others make. I love seeing what creative people can conjure out of their imaginations; I love watching the reactions of the audience, wondering whether that particular moment is going to be the inspiration for something amazing in the future.

That’s why I do what I do, as worthless as it may seem. After all, these posts are just memories – fragments of the experience that I want to remember – that really should have no significance to anyone other than me.

But, right now, there’s an untouched Fringe Guide that I must investigate: circling shows of interest, starring the “important” ones, transferring their information into a spreadsheet, and starting the delicious task of planning. The Festival shows have already (mostly) been locked in, so that’s a start… but I doubt it’s going to be anywhere near as big a year as 2012.

I’ll see. That is, after all, what I do :)

[2012155] The Caretaker

[2012155] The Caretaker

Liverpool Everyman Productions @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

8:00pm, Thu 22 Mar 2012

Wandering in to Her Majesty’s, I’m weary – sure, I’ve had a few decent nights of sleep now, and I’ve even been back at work a couple of days. But this is the last show of a bloody long year, and it marks the End of Something. As a result, it feels weighty to be walking into the theatre… significant.

But faced with writing about it? I’m struggling, to be honest. There’s a million-and-one actual reviews out there that analyse the production itself; there’s always Wikipedia for the plot summary (though this production squeezes the first two Acts together). So – as usual – I’ll stick with what I know: my reactions.

The set – the inside of a decrepit flat – is lush with decaying detail. As the three characters – the young and aggressive Mick, his older brother and more circumspect Aston, and the older tramp in Davies – struggle for the minuscule amount of power afforded through management of the flat, the tensions and tenuous truces between them are palpable. Pinter’s dialogue is, as many have suggested, superbly written, especially evident in the verbal battles between Davies (the manipulator) and Mick (who targets superiority through verbiage and threat of violence).

The environment of The Caretaker is bleak – Aston’s brain-damaging past relegates him to be both focussed and sadly confused, and the struggles that the men engage in seem momentous, but remain utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Davies’ moulding of the truth depending on the person to whom he’s speaking reeks of a shameful desperation; Aston’s soliloquy about his time in the asylum verges on hopelessly heartbreaking. But within this world lies little snippets of humour, both physical (the bag-passing tomfoolery early on) or buried within the script: the bucket hanging from the roof is a gorgeous touch, and Davies’ rant about sleeping in bed next to a gas stove (that’s not connected) is sublime. The use of repetition – and occasional hist of racism – in some of the dialogue takes some getting used to, though.

Jonathan Pryce was the big drawcard here: his mannerisms are divine, and there is no doubting that he is Davies when he’s on that stage. There’s something so wonderfully engaging with his performance that even the smallest of details – Davies absent-mindedly checking the pockets of any item of clothing he puts on – seems both important and yet utterly natural. Alan Cox’s portrayal of Aston is well-measured – the electro-shock therapy of his past has dulled the edges, and Cox plays the part with a glassy-eyed contemplation. Alex Hassell’s square-jawed Mick, on the other hand, has a suitable menace that is oddly contrasted by his quirky over-explanation: “You look like my father’s brother…”

It would be a brave person to say anything negative about the quality of The Caretaker: it really was a wonderful piece of theatre. A technical masterclass on all fronts – Christopher Morahan’s direction doesn’t put a foot wrong, and Eileen Diss’ set design is superb – that builds upon a wonderfully balanced play that manages to conjure emotions from all points of the compass… it really was an immensely satisfying production.

[2012154] A Little Horseplay

[2012154] A Little Horseplay

Steve Sheehan @ The Tuxedo Cat – Alley Cat somewhere upstairs

6:00pm, Mon 19 Mar 2012

There’s a lazy group hangover enveloping the assembled patrons at the TuxCat this evening… wobbly smiles accompanying reddened eyes and a happy sense of finality. There’s a lot of familiar faces in the crowd, and it’s great to have the opportunity to have one last chat before hibernating for the winter.

This show is, of course, an evolution of 2011’s A Little Horseplay – which was itself a work-in-progress. And the first thing we notice when we get upstairs is that there’s now a set – my, how things have progressed! This scene of a domestic lounge/kitchen plays host to some largely familiar material from last year’s effort – the opera translation (mezzo-soprano Norma Knight features heavily again), Sheehan playing piano with a horse-head mask, and the quiet and considered comedy of Liszt. And, of course, the appearance of a horse, who pops out for three visits with the audience, quietly nibbling the edibles left for it.

But there’s a few chunks of material that are new (or new to me, anyway – I saw last year’s effort very early on), the most notable of which was a completely inexplicable sequence of pet-icide, during which Sheehan and Knight swapped dog and cat masks. And whilst that content is bizarre, it took a retrospective mull on things to remind myself that the rest of Sheehan’s act is pretty bloody odd as well – and that means that people after a traditional comedic experience may be put off. The couple sitting next to me certainly did not audibly laugh once; I’m not even sure they cracked a smile. But they still clapped fast and loud at the end of the performance.

A Little Horseplay is still a lovely little pocket of surreality. While it didn’t feel as fresh as when I first encountered it – an inevitability, given the familiarity – it was still a really enjoyable (and funny, in a curious kind of way) way to round out 2012’s Fringe.

[2012153] Imperial Fizz

[2012153] Imperial Fizz

Theatre Tours International @ Higher Ground – Main Theatre

6:25pm, Sun 18 Mar 2012

It’s with a sense of relief that I wander into Higher Ground for the last time this Fringe; although Imperial Fizz is the antepenultimate show of the season for me, it represents the last show in the traditional Fringe Block – the final time I have to rush from place to place, the last time I have to worry about cancellations and fighting for seats. I can breath easier now.

The audience is surprisingly thin for this session, though – I wonder whether that’s because of unknown bad press, or just Fringe malaise. Regardless, I take a seat down the front and drink in the stage – an apt term, given the standout presence of the drinks trolley. On come David Calvitto and Beth Fitzgerald – listed in the programme only as The Man and The Woman – and they begin to verbally joust. At times the dialogue feels like a comfortable couple needling each other; at other times, it’s more like a trial, with legal phrasing and appeals to the court.

All the while, they are mixing drinks, then consuming them through wide forced smiles: mixing, drinking, sparring. There’s uncomfortable little hints in their banter that raise questions in my mind: Do they have a son? Did they have a son? What, exactly, is their relationship? Are they actually dead?

…And suddenly, while the soft dance tunes from the twenties played on the radio, Imperial Fizz fell into place for me.

I’m pretty sure that’s not a spoiler… not that anyone’s going to read it, anyway. And, more to the point, not that it’s ever confirmed by the torrent of words coming from the stage. But when there’s a clap of thunder in the background, and the radio turns to static, and The Man and The Woman drop their smiles for the first time and look at each other in expectation… there’s a pretty clear sense that they’re waiting for Death to come to their door.

The text of the play, on first encounter, is quite impressive: it’s chock full of epigrams within little rhyming units and drier-than-dry wit. The huge amount of dialogue, and the speed at which it’s delivered, is most impressive… but a lot of it, in hindsight, feels like it’s only there to pad out the show before The Reveal… but, as I mentioned above, it felt like The Reveal was given away pretty early on. And that’s part of the problem for me: the penny had dropped less than halfway through the play, leaving me to sit through the rest of the performance waiting for the “official” Reveal.

Calvitto and Fitzgerald give undoubtedly good performances, and Guy Masterson’s direction gives the material every chance to succeed, but in the end I’m left thinking that the play suffers under its own weight of verbiage. At the risk of being entirely predictable, Imperial Fizz was a bit of a fizzer.

[2012152] The Big Bite-Size Soirée (Menu 1)

[2012152] The Big Bite-Size Soirée (Menu 1)

White Room Theatre @ Bakehouse Theatre – Main Stage

3:30pm, Sun 18 Mar 2012

And so I came to the final menu of The Big Bite-Size Soirée, preceded by another chat with Nick Brice (director of all the Bites). He’s an utterly lovely chap, and the frank discussions we had were very much appreciated – I’m always interested in the expectations & realities of Fringe artists from overseas.

Menu 1 kicks off with The Rehearsal, which sees Him waiting at a café, rehearsing potential conversations with His ex. Sean Williams is brilliant in this role, full of bluff and swagger, before She cooly arrives – and his game-plan turns to shit. A hackneyed theme, maybe, but bloody good fun nonetheless. Keeping Annabelle felt somewhat reminiscent of another Bite, Nice People… though I’m not quite sure why. Kidnappers have nabbed the wrong girl and, in being snubbed as worthless by one of the kidnappers, the kidnappee takes offence… and, through twisting dialogue, the tables are soon turned. This one was also a lot of fun.

But then the tone of the Menu takes a decidedly darker turn: Stolen has Lisa Beresford playing a kleptomaniac, who intimates that she’d been molested by a priest and subsequently had his child… but that the child was taken away from her because she was “too simple”. The piece wraps up as she steals (another?) baby… and I’m left slightly astonished. It’s a powerful piece of theatre that seems completely at odds with the mood of most of the other Bites.

Taste of Heaven starts off equally serious in tone, with Williams returning as a soldier in Afghanistan. An initially serious secretive mission takes a turn for the worse/comedic, leading to a horseback escape in which the kamikaze, out-of-control horse conspires to make him appear to be a hero. It’s a rollicking ride, but there’s a serious edge to it.

The final Bite for this Menu – for this Fringe – unfortunately felt like the most awkward of the lot; in Match Point, two women playing tennis against each other, watched by the umpire and the ball-boy. It suffers from the same detached lack of convincing physicality that plagued Menu 3’s Thin Air, with the timing of the tennis strokes having to compensate for the extensive vocalisation of the character’s thoughts; having said that, Beresford’s ageing journeywoman snipes are glorious, whilst the young Russian up-and-comer (Alice Robinson) is entitled by her talent. Williams’ thoughts (as the ball-boy) don’t really work, but when the umpire (Andy Hutchison) speaks at the end of the point, it’s ultra-existential… and bloody hilarious.

The variation in tone across these five Bites makes this my favourite Menu of the lot… but I must admit that it was quite a different experience – and a real treat – to be able to return time and time again to see the same cast serve up different theatrical morsels. Out of the fifteen short plays on offer, less than a handful were duds; and the cast and direction was consistently great throughout. Bravo, White Room!

[2012151] The 1/4 Pounding

[2012151] The 1/4 Pounding

BRAVE Theatre @ Bakehouse Theatre – Main Stage

2:00pm, Sun 18 Mar 2012

It’s only now that I’ve really sat down to consider The 1/4 Pounding and, in doing so, have read the programme: “The Quarter Pounding is about the Quarter life crisis – a time in this generation’s lives that often begins after graduation where reality hits and expectations are followed by disappointment.” Suddenly I understood what the title was about – I had completely missed that!

Upon a simple stage – two mobile clothes racks, two boxes – we meet Julie and Rachel, two New Zealand Uni graduates who are struggling to find work and becoming increasingly despondent about their deteriorating bodies. They decide to go to England together – Kiwis are in demand in London, right? – but are immediately betrayed by the media-imposed unrealistic expectations of travel.

Once in England, there’s a collection of scenes that show the young women “living the dream” – sharing a tiny flat in dreary London, working terrible jobs, hitting the speed-dating scene, blowing their wages at tanning salons and pricey nightclubs. There’s occasional tension in the relationship – a tinge of jealousy when one becomes romantically involved – and some touching scenes that hint at homesickness. There’s also a travelogue of sorts, as they compare expectations with the reality of their trips to Paris, Rome, and Auschwitz.

Mel Dodge (previously seen in Jane Austen is Dead) and Nicola Colson are both fantastic in their roles – primarily as Julie and Rachel, respectively, but they often adopt the characters of other people they meet on their travels. Sure, it’s comic acting played for laughs… but it’s really good acting all-round. Will Harris’ direction is, likewise, superb – the simple set is used incredibly well, with the racks and boxes being easily rearranged to give a sense of space and character to individual scenes.

The 1/4 Pounding was a really beautiful comic experience… and, whilst I’m a (fair) bit past the age bracket of Julie and Rachel, i probably live a lot younger than I actually am – so it’s all immediately identifiable. Yes, it did make me regretful of my own mis-spent quarter-life activities; yes, it did make me pine for my youth again. But it also made me laugh and really feel for these characters… and it made me wonder how this generation – the Generation of Choices – is going to handle their increasing disenfranchisement as they age. Maybe they’ll grow into grumpy cynics like myself.

[2012150] Paul Foot – Still Life

[2012150] Paul Foot – Still Life

Paul Foot @ Umbrella Revolution

11:30pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

I tend to prefer comedy that’s a bit… well, out there. Abstract. Verging on the nonsensical, but held together by some thread of coherence that reveals the comedian’s true genius. Hell, Nick Sun is my favourite Australian comedian.

But if you – as a comedian – are going to go Out There, it helps to bring the audience along for the ride… and that, I think, is where Paul Foot loses me.

Now, Foot is clearly confident of his presentation – his awkward physical appearance makes that much clear – but it’s just that his material… well, it seems to be just for him. There’s very little opportunity for the audience to get involved. From the offstage introduction, where Foot babbles to himself (and, eventually, to us) whilst still hidden backstage for a good fifteen minutes, to the absurdly repeated premise of the Pierce Brosnan Cockerel Sanctuary (whose repetition rapidly descends from quirky to grating), Foot takes a sequence of words and plays with them within a very tight space; where other comedians may bounce off words into other stories or trains-of-thought, Foot stays in close, prodding the ideas until the only laughter that remains is out of pity.

When Foot does emerge from backstage, his engagement with the audience is comically confrontational… but that’s still confrontational. There was a lot of uncomfortable shifting in seats when Foot roamed through the audience, and the pay-off from these excursions were often relieved chuckles of I’m-glad-that-wasn’t-me. A long, repetitive ramble about pennies and a horse-head game didn’t help give the act any weight.

Look – I’m all for people trying stuff that’s different; it just has to be somewhat palatable. And Foot seems insistent – almost belligerently so – on keeping the audience as far away from his material as possible. In fact, Still Life almost works better as performance art than comedy; something to observed and interpreted, but not necessarily laughed at.

[2012149] Fourplay

[2012149] Fourplay

Pants Down Circus @ Gluttony – Excess Theatre

9:30pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

I’d seen a lot of spectacular circus this Fringe: my pick had been Knock Off, about whom I raved to anyone remotely interested in circus acts… but a lot of people had raved to me about Fourplay. A gap was made in the Schedule, and I scurried into Gluttony for the last time this year to be greeted with a queue that doubled back on itself… word of mouth, it seems, had spread.

And with good reason.

The four NICA graduates that comprise Pants Down Circus bring a freshness and exuberance to their performances, with a set of circus regulars – and a few new tricks – that are so tightly packed in that it almost doesn’t leave you time to breathe. Normal tricks are given a new lease on life – take, for example, the juggling of glowing skittles – and there’s tons of humour thrown in as well (a nod and a wink with the light sabre bit).

The vertical bar work is fantastic; the tube balances astonishing; the strength work, with one of the cast being slung and tossed about the stage by the other three, is just flat-out awesome. There’s no gender bias, either – the two girls happily get involved with some of the strength-work, and the guys cheekily (partially) strip between segments. The pace never really seems to let up, driven by a great selection of music.

The Excess was packed for this performance… as well it should have been. There may not have been an attempt at an overreaching narrative in the performance, but Pants Down know their tricks can speak for themselves; this was really cracking entertainment.

[2012148] Now & Then

[2012148] Now & Then

Jen Brister @ The Tuxedo Cat – Alley Cat

8:15pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

I’ll always have a soft spot for Jen Brister after her 2011 show; it lifted me out of the stressful emotional funk that I was in at the time and somehow made everything better. But after this year’s show – originally scheduled to be at The Mansions – started appearing as “Cancelled” in the Fringe App, I feared that I’d not be able to see her this time around. Then I bumped into Jen and Markus Birdman one night – Jen had shifted venues to the TuxCat, and grabbed a much more convenient timeslot!

As I grabbed an espresso at the TuxCat’s foodie place before the show, Jen appeared next to me – “You coming in tonight?” she asked in that gorgeous accent. “Please excuse me… I’m hungover as fuck.” And that made me smile.

It’s a decent crowd for the Alley Cat, and I get the feeling there’s a few there on their Artist Pass; regardless, it’s a jovial room without the sneering or snideness that one might expect later on St. Patrick’s Day. And if Brister was hungover, she certainly didn’t act like it: she was bright and effervescent, with a wonderful stage presence – her hand gestures when impersonating her mother are a well-observed work of art. And, whilst some of her material this evening was somewhat familiar, her family still provides a wealth of content – the tale of her brothers pissing on her was fantastic. And, despite her protestations, the reluctant presentation of her red tights at the end of the show was a brilliant theatrical conclusion.

Despite a slightly darker drug story, Now & Then was largely upbeat and compassionate… and funny, let’s not forget funny. Brister’s writing is sharp-as-a-tack, and her delivery is fantastic… she’s most certainly still in my good books.

(The following night, at the Fringe Awards, I bumped into Jen again – “Thanks for coming last night,” she said, “that was one of my best shows.” Which, I guess, shows what a quality hangover can do.)

[2012147] Life in the Late Eighties

[2012147] Life in the Late Eighties

The Deer Johns @ The Big Slapple – Apollo Theatre

6:00pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

So – The Deer Johns were quite the surprise packet last year, combining the music that is near and dear to my youth with a cute coming-of-age narrative to create an experience that was both original and familiar; despite the odd jarring arrangement, I had no qualms whatsoever in signing up for another dose. Having said that, I also felt a little trepidation going in: whilst the early eighties were my formative pop years, by the late eighties my musical interests had started deviating significantly from the mainstream norm… as a result, I was wondering how much the musical selection would colour my opinion of the show.

I arrive at The Big Slapple, and the queue is enormous, stretching well out of the building into the afternoon sun. I jot down some notes as I wait, and eavesdrop on the buoyant crowd; one chap comes running inside to join his friends just in front of me, and proclaims that “the door-guy reckons there’s four hundred seats… there’s only about ten tickets left.”

…wow. Despite the fact that the band’s three Gelatissimo shows had sold out last year, four hundred seats on a lazy St. Patrick’s Day afternoon was a bloody superb effort. There were, of course, subsequent logistical issues in getting the audience into the venue in a timely manner – I reckon the performance started fifteen minutes late – but the great thing about seeing shows alone is that it’s usually possible to get a decent seat.

When The Deer Johns take to the stage (which is littered with instruments – a comprehensive array of guitars, keys, and drums), you can see the joy in their faces – this crowd is their people, and there’s a rush of ebullience towards the stage. Their performance is very similar in style to last year’s effort: singer/guitarist Andrew O’Callaghan tells a tale of three young men, their trials and jubilations, friendships waxing and waning. Again, snippets of songs from the era punctuate the narrative, triggered by a some aspect of the story – a theme, a tone, or even the most oblique of references.

This time, however, some of the narrative is occasionally woven into the lyrics of the songs they use – that’s an interesting idea which leaves me in two minds, but it’s a technique that is sparingly used – and I think is all the more effective because of that. Again, one of the fundamental concerns when reproducing these familiar songs is the quality of the instrumentation: Simply Irresistible works straight-up, with Jessie Cotton’s bass-and-keys filling the space around Chris Marshall’s drums, and O’Callaghan’s guitar kicking in appropriately; Roam is more off-beat proposition, but their arrangement satisfyingly maintains the quirkiness of the original.

The narrative also provides the opportunity for some so-bad-they’re-good visual and lyrical puns – Broken Wings allows Marshall to provide comic relief with the help of an angelic puppet, and the second act sees the appearance of some hammer pants. Money For Nothing gets a great rendition, but unfortunately Kiss gets too much love – it’s supposed to be a thin, spacious track, not filled out with drum rolls.

But the most noticeable step up for The Deer Johns – beside the significantly deeper writing and meshing of music and narrative – was in the more overt parts of the production… most noticeably with the introduction of two bagpipers for tracks in both acts, with You’re The Voice being the standout (as well as getting the entire crowd singing along). If you’re in a position where you can play cards like that, and get a rapturous response from the audience in response, I reckon you must be doing something right; and whilst no musical era will ever entice me as much as the early eighties did, I’ll still be lining up to see how The Deer Johns apply their unique brand of musical storytelling to the seventies in the next Fringe.

[2012146] 5-Step Guide to Being German

[2012146] 5-Step Guide to Being German

Paco Erhard @ Austral Hotel – The Bunka

4:30pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

It sometimes feels like I mention my German heritage more than I reasonably should on this blog; what right to I have to start trading on kraut-traits when my father emigrated out here when he was nineteen, and I’ve only been to Germany once… for six weeks, when I was eight years old? It’s all a bit of a joke at times, which is ironic given the stereotype of the serious German, utterly bereft of humour.

But then I read this Guardian article mourning the death of Loriot, Germany’s king of comedy; it’s worth having a peek at some of the videos linked by that article to get an idea of just how… different the German mainstream sense of humour is. But I like different, and – after spotting the précis in the Fringe Guide for Paco Erhard’s 5-Step Guide to Being German, I figured I’d give it a go… after all, I’m halfway there already, right?

But I must admit, I was stunned when I arrived right-on-time to this show… I was expecting a small room, figuring that a Saturday arvo cross-cultural comedy show wouldn’t hold much attraction to most punters, but I found that the room was nigh-on packed out. Standing-room-at-the-back kind of packed out. And that makes me happy – a full room usually means good things for a comedy show. A full room of St. Patrick’s Day punters should make this a lively crowd, I reckoned.

Unfortunately, Erhard has a really slow start to his show, and it takes him a little while to get the crowd onside using the time-tested-and-true technique of comparing the comical cultural differences between Germany and the UK Australia. But once we’re onboard and laughing, he takes us back into the regional history of the country, comparing its regional variances – the states, their peoples, their idiosyncrasies, their speech patterns. He speaks glowingly of the Autobahn, and its related deaths – the lines on the road indicating the end of reality – and spends some time talking about his observances of his own countrymen when they travel… the average German traveller, Erhard says, spends ages learning about their intended destination before even starting the journey, in an attempt to appear as un-German as possible.

There’s a slightly flat end to the show – and out-of-place beer bottle opening skit, followed by his awkward exchange student story – they’re both reasonable bits, but seem slightly incongruous with the rest of the material. And it’s also clearly a UK-centric show – that’s fine, but some of the “local” references he was making didn’t really have any relevance to this hemisphere. But whilst Erhard doesn’t present the eccentricities of the aforementioned Loriot – his delivery and structure remains very British in nature – he certainly brings some curious material to the party… anyone who can conjure jokes about the rivalry between the Bavarians and the Saxons surely has a bit of talent.

[2012145] Never Did Me Any Harm

[2012145] Never Did Me Any Harm

Force Majeure @ Space Theatre

2:00pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

I look up and down the queue outside the Space Theatre when I arrive – its a far cry from the already stumbling hordes I encountered as I passed through Rundle Mall, with barely a skerrick of green to be seen. It’s a very sedate crowd, and I somehow get the feeling that many in the queue – like me – are happy, but weary.

Inside the Space a suburban backyard has been assembled: green grass, the back patio, a tree, a small shed. And within this comfortable environment, the cast of Force Majeure take a frank – and sometimes troubling – look at the roles and responsibilities of parents in raising their children. Whilst The Slap is most certainly in the background of this production, Never Did Me Any Harm casts a bit of a wider net… and uses some of the most intriguing theatrical trickery this year to deliver its neutral eye.

The opening dialogue seems overall to be quite even-handed, quite agenda-free, whilst presenting a wide range of opinions: voiceovers are used to provide conflicting opinions, with voices proclaiming “whack the kids!”, others crying “you should never strike your children”, and others again bluntly placing responsibility of the child on the parents. The audio is purposefully muddled, creating an air of confusion just in deciphering the content; it hints at the idea that we’re contemplating a grey area.

The cast play various sets of adult and their children, recurring characters creating scenes of domestic bliss – or conflict. It’s a bit jarring to see the adults acting as children, but after the initial encounters they become more acceptable, and we’re left to observe the way these children impact their families – though happiness and frustration and anger – as well as those outside the family unit. Curious, too, is the emphasis put on conflicts between family units: the internalised judging that occurs. But the production never seems to laud one approach as “right” – everyone appears capable of as many highs as lows.

And that desperate balancing act seeps into the wider production, too; there’s often the tangible threat of anger spilling out, of violence in the air – when someone is grabbed by the upper arm, the audience collectively holds its breath, and when the other arm is grabbed and the person is shaken, it’s deathly quiet. But when such a moment occurs, there always seems to be some humour just around the corner: for every threat of abuse, there’s two adults pretending to be kids on a billy cart smashing through a carefully constructed bucket obstacle. For every inadvertent whack of a child, there’s a backyard game that ends with a shoe thwacking the father figure in the head. And let’s not forget that Never Did Me Any Harm had some fragments of dance in it, too – the opening interactions of a mother/father seem to describe both the good times and bad through a quiet, introspective movement piece, while the dialogue of others carries on around them.

But the most impressive element of this production was the absolutely stunning lighting design; Geoff Cobham has surely outdone himself with some of the visual effects on display here. Early on, thin bars of light pick out the eyes of a man and a woman in an otherwise dark room; later, an autistic boy dances by himself in shadow, casting his “shadow” as light – an amazing effect. And the backyard is often overlaid with a grid of light, with the grid lines wavering whenever there’s unchecked anger in the air; at other times, the grid simply drifts, creating the illusion that the tree is moving, that the ground is undulating.

There doesn’t really seem to be a narrative to Never Did Me Any Harm as much as a series of somewhat related scenes; the performance ends with the characters sitting around at a social gathering discussing, in very honest terms, the “joys” (or not) of having children (or not). The variety of characters on display are all familiar – the married couple with kids, the single mother, the older man without kids, the guy who joyfully embraced parenthood but now frets about every potential mis-step, the woman who feels unsure about everything – those characters are me and my friends. And the nice thing about this production is that it shows a side of them, of their lives, that I don’t normally see… and doesn’t cast judgment. It’s a very thoughtful piece of work, beautifully produced.

[2012144] Dreamers – Michael Rother and Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe

[2012144] Dreamers – Michael Rother and Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe

Michael Rother, Dieter Moebius, Hans Lampe, St. Vincent @ Barrio

7:00pm, Fri 16 Mar 2012

Despite my German background, krautrock has always been a bit of a novelty for me. But I’ve always recognised its importance as a precursor to industrial music, which is a genre I absolutely love. And when I saw this lineup in the Festival Guide, I recognised the names of Rother and Moebius… but couldn’t immediately connect them to any particular bands.

A bit of research yields the names Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia – okay, I’m more interested now… but not enough to commit.

So: I’m poking around the Festival site the day before this show, procrastinating over whether to actually buy a ticket; after all, it was probably a three-hour chunk of the schedule, and I could see a lot of other shows in three hours. But I’m procrastinating poking around anyway, when I suddenly spied something at the bottom of the page: “You may also enjoy… St. Vincent”.

And my internal monologue said: Yes… I most certainly do enjoy St. Vincent. How nice of you to bring St. Vincent up, Festival site. Why would you do so?

I click the link… and my internal monologue screamed ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod like a starstruck schoolgirl for a good ten minutes, during which time I’d managed to control myself enough to buy a ticket to the Dreamers session. My reasoning was sound: go to Barrio for the krautrock, stay for St. Vincent.

I arrive at Barrio a good half-hour early; I’m second in the queue, and I chat with the number one guy for ages about everything musical, swapping band stories and talking about great albums. When Barrio eventually opened its doors, there’s maybe a hundred people waiting; there’s no rush to the front, though, just a bunch of friendly mingling. I sit at the front of the little seated area and have a great chat with an older couple, again comparing musical notes that – because of our age difference – are incredibly interesting and challenging.

Dieter Moebius comes out to appreciative applause, waves without smiling, and stands at a small table of Equipment With Knobs. He twiddles a few knobs, a beat kicks in – a bit of a cheer goes up – and then Dieter drops the bass in… and it’s like being punched in the chest. After a couple of minutes, I spot an old Uni friend I haven’t seen for fifteen years; I stand up to join him and am surprised that Dieter’s subwoofer-laden tracks literally vibrate my canvas shorts.

Dieter Moebius: pants-vibratingly good.

After maybe half-an-hour, Dieter leaves; people start scurrying about the stage setting gear up. Eventually Hans Lampe appears, and responds to the crowd’s cheer with a cheery grin; he sits behind his electronic drum kit, puts his headphones on, gives himself a sixteen beat count in, and starts drumming. And then he holds that beat for the best part of fifteen minutes, with maybe a three-beat flourish every minute or so. Dieter reappears and returns to his knob-twiddling without recognition of the crowd; then Michael Rother comes out to a roar, waves, picks up his guitar, and starts meshing his tones in with the rhythms of the other two.

It may sound like a negative to say that every track sounded the same: Hans gives himself a long count in, then lays down the beat; Dieter then creates a wobbly bass underpinning, twiddling over many bars until a groove emerges, and Rother uses guitar (or, occasionally, keys) to create texture. Hold the beat for at least ten minutes, then reverse the buildup. Yes, they played Neu!’s most recognisable track, Hallogallo – listen to that, and stretch it out for ninety minutes.

That’s it. That’s their entire performance. And no-one was complaining; this is what we turned up to see. This was, most certainly, krautrock.

And it was brilliant.

Maybe I was swayed by their personalities; Hans always looked like he was amazed to be there. Even when he was waiting to come onstage he had a smile on his face, and he always removed his headphones to hear the audience applause. Dieter, on the other hand, captured every stereotype of the serious artiste, standing very straight and twiddling knobs with no emotion crossing his face. Rother was awesome, controlling the mood of all pieces with his guitar; he, too, looked amazed to be there, but when he was coagulating their pieces together he was the epitome of focus.

But, when the Germans left the stage – Dieter still yet to crack a smile – the evening was only half-over for me; I still wanted to bask in St. Vincent’s glory.

I held my spot on the fence, which happened to be directly in front of where Annie Clark – who essentially is St. Vincent, especially in a studio sense – eventually played. And when Annie and her band (drummer with an odd double-kick, double-snare, double-hi-hat setup, a young lass on a Moog playing basslines and backing vocals; and a keyboard player) appeared, I was enchanted from the get-go; whilst the crowd seemed most familiar with one of my least favourite songs – Cruel – I was most interested in earlier material: the stunning Marrow. The bludgeoning ascension of Black Rainbow. And I was beyond happy with that.

But then came the encore. And, more specifically, Your Lips Are Red.

Now, that song has always been a little bit special to me – it’s blunt and cold and abrasive up front, but dissolves into the sweetest “your skin’s so fair it’s not fair / you remind me of city graffiti” refrain at the end that I just well up with tears. So to be standing mere metres from Annie when she moulded that gorgeous ending out of noise tonight… well, that was a proper teary emotional moment.

Yep, that was a bloody good evening. One of the best.

[2012143] Tombola, traversing the unknown

[2012143] Tombola, traversing the unknown

Heidi McKerrow, Colette Maclaren, Laura Summers @ Queen’s Theatre 1

11:00am, Fri 16 Mar 2012

Tired, hungover, and emotionally frazzled, I was initially wary when I arrived at Queen’s Theatre – being a matinée, there were a couple of school groups present, and I was not in the most agreeable of moods… so I was a bit perturbed when I discovered that the Tombola girls – Heidi McKerrow, Colette Maclaren, and Laura Summers – had a creative introduction for us.

Entering from the far side of the theatre, we were guided behind the eventual stage, where the idea of “tombola” as a lottery was explained; as a group, we rolled a die four times: 1, 4, 5, 6. We were then through an inexplicable and abstract forrest; across a patch of sand, then the dance floor, past the dancers in their bright primary colours (and mismatched wristbands). It’s a curious start, and warms me up a little – the different textures underfoot grounded me somewhat, dragging me out of my early-morning funk.

Once we’ve walked through the stage and seated ourselves, the performance begins: big bold beats with industrial rumbles (kudos to composer Evan Morgan) supports a vibrant and bubbly opening, though it’s not until the second piece that the visuals really begin to excite. With great use of front-lighting (leading to beautiful large shadows at the back of the stage), the dancers creep around on a bear hunt, constrained by a spotlight… unfortunately, their voices aren’t able to fill the space, so much of the narrative is lost; mind you, they were battling against the ambient noise of building construction outside.

The following piece was even more exciting, as they all perform the same moves but at seemingly different frequencies; the final segment sees the stage bathed in blue light, with burbling water sounds creating an underwater environment. The dancers cluster together, balancing and stretching on and around each other to form weird shapes onstage, and odd creatures created with side-shadows.

In the brief Q&A session that followed – which I dominated on the Q-side, in the absence of any engagement from the school kids – Heidi (who directed Tombola, and was clad in red – with Laura in yellow and Colette in blue) indicated that the sense of the “unknown” that underpins the performance is not just for the audience – the random nature introduced by the die keeps the dancers in a state of mystery, too. And it wasn’t just the ordering of the different segments of the dance that were randomised; the frequency of some of the elements in the first piece were also affected by die rolls.

After a grumpy start, I really quite enjoyed Tombola – there was a freshness and effervescence from the cast that somehow justified the more oddball aspects of the performance. My only concern would be that maybe the idea of the randomness was better than reality; but I’d have been more-than-happy to sit through the show again to find out, so I guess that says quite a lot.

[2012142] La Soirée

[2012142] La Soirée

La Soirée @ Idolize

11:00pm, Thu 15 Mar 2012

Bold, and somewhat contrary, opening statements: La Soirée is an amazing chunk of entertainment. I wish I hadn’t wasted my time in seeing it.

Because… well, I’d seen it – or most of it – before.

A Company of Strangers (amongst other shows) delivered some of Le Gateau Chocolat’s gorgeous deep tones; La Clique had shown me Captain Frodo’s tennis racquet (and bin-balancing) act, the English Gents’ amazing strength, Ursula Martinez’ hanky-hiding strip magic, and David O’Mer’s incredibly polished bathtub balance-and-strength act.

Yes, there was some new acts on show: I’d not seen Clarke McFarlane’s leather-clad Mario character before, who acted as a lecherous emcee for the evening whilst belting out Queen songs and juggling. There’s some incredibly polished hoop work from Yulia Pykhtina, and some more pole strength work. The Canadian Mooky Cornish did a fantastic bit of comedy and crowd interaction, pulling Simon (a “farmer from Bordertown” who had a bunch of friends in the crowd, and a bunch more by the end of the show) out of the audience and getting him to recite a series of notes off cards, then labels, then her body; he was also good for a bit of mime. It was an astoundingly good performance by Simon, and his pissed mates were trying to “sell” him to all the women leaving the show at the end of the night – “he’s on Farmer wants a wife next season”.

…but (apart from Simon’s cameo) it’s all so familiar.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s all pretty spectacular stuff, and I’m pretty sure I’ve typed “incredibly polished” about five times. But, in the end, I almost resented seeing this production – not only for it’s familiar content, but also because it would’ve prevented me from seeing something else. Something new.

But a more convincing reason to resent La Soirée was because of the Premium Ticket option I elected to take. Sure, the in-show drink service was nice, and not having to queue was alright… but the “premium” seats were at the back of the stage (albeit very close to it), which meant that I spent a large amount of the performance with a spotlight shining directly in my eyes. Not all performers were inclined to project their act to the the rear of the stage, either; that had its fringe benefits, though, as we were in prime position to observe Ursula Martinez’ sleight-of-hand as she whipped a “hidden” hanky from her nether regions.