[2014099] Jacques Barrett is The Contrarian: Part Deux

[2014099] Jacques Barrett is The Contrarian: Part Deux

Jacques Barrett @ The Producers Bar

10:15pm, Sat 8 Mar 2014

So – Jacques Barrett. I’m a massive fan. Always have been, since the first time I saw him perform (opening for the Tokyo Shock Boys), and I specifically picked this evening to see his full set during this season… I wanted to share his genius with a substantial audience, and a Saturday night is usually the best chance for a decent walk-in crowd. That it also happened to be show ninety-nine for this year was a bonus.

The massive crowd I wanted? It didn’t really happen. I can’t remember how many were there, but in the end it didn’t matter… because we all laughed loud and hard and long. Oo-er.

Barrett’s material is still amazingly solid – the gold far outweighs the less-precious – with the only flat spots being the moments where he chases a thread, gets disheartened halfway through a joke, and bails on it… but even then, Barrett’s self-admonishment has the effect of making him appear more identifiable, more human. Cats & Dogs, such a benign and hacky concept, has become a sterling opener, the full Australians Abroad bit (which morphs into the ecstasy of Blueberry Muffin) is as good a routine as any, and I’d forgotten how good his drug-addled Home Alone piece was.

Throughout, Barrett’s delivery veers from confident to frail in a completely organic manner: the show almost feels like an emotional roller-coaster that you ride with Barrett. And whilst the more enjoyably misanthropic elements of previous shows have been whittled away over the years, they’ve been replaced by fantastic introspective humour… and there’s still plenty of self-denigration to go around.

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy Jacques Barrett’s comedy? Why yes, yes I have. He’s still my current favourite touring Australian comedian, and this show did absolutely nothing to convince me otherwise. In fact, it only further highlighted how much daylight there is between Barrett and second place in my mind: I fear for my (ample) gut if a challenger comes along, because it will most certainly be busted.

[2014097] Em Rusciano in ‘Divorce – The Musical’

[2014097] Em Rusciano in ‘Divorce – The Musical’

Em Rusciano @ Garden of Unearthly Delights – Paradiso Spiegeltent

7:00pm, Sat 8 Mar 2014

It was a bit of a mad dash after the previous show, and while my friend was parking her car I snaffled her ticket from the Garden box office. Then to the bar, where I acquired the requisite drinks and thence waited for her to arrive… and waited. And waited.

The rest of the crowd had already entered the Paradiso and I’d progressed to chatting amiably with the ticketeer on the door when my friend arrived; in the hurried flurry of limbs and objects that follow, a piece of chewing gum arced through the air to land perfectly on the ticket being brandished to facilitate entry. There’s much laughing and apologising and blushing and laughing before we scurried in, miraculously finding two seats near the front on an aisle (a fortuitous bit of pre-planning, as I knew I needed a quick escape at the end of the show).

There’s a frenzied cloud of fabric as Em Rusciano takes to the stage, glittering white wedding dress cut very short, greeting the crowd with a gleeful “What’s up, Bitches?” She pokes fun at the gender inequality of the crowd – “It’s Spot-the-Cock in here tonight, isn’t it?” she quipped, before pointing to a man sitting in the front row and declaring “Homo.”

Now, I knew nothing about Em Rusciano prior to tonight’s show… but it was clear that there were a few hundred people who were quite familiar with her. Still, there must have been a little pandering in her material to people like me: the odd mention of appearing on Australian Idol, of having worked on (and sacked by) the Austereo Network, and – most importantly – there was a lot of talk around her titular divorce. And she creates a real sense of connection as she describes the breakdown of her marriage – the frustration and anger – and then (to the pained gasps from the audience) how her expectations of reconciliation were shot down. The moving-back-home stories that followed were pure gold, and there were plenty of other humorous asides: nipple hair, kids’ school performances, and her return to the dating scene all provided solid laughs.

Divorce! was most certainly entertaining – Em’s well-paced storytelling, uproarious personality, and legion of screaming fangirls certainly saw to that. And she’s certainly got a singing voice (ably demonstrated by a P!nk song – “for all my lesbian fans”), though her songs were more often snippets – except for Wrecking Ball, which stood out in that it felt way too long. But the heart of Divorce! is the interaction between father and daughter onstage: Vincie, Rusciano’s dad, provides guitar accompaniment (and the odd mumble of support) for most of the show, and Vincie’s responses to Em’s onstage antics seemed to be equal parts pride and begrudging acceptance. And that made for a bloody fun performance… maybe not one that I’d choose to re-visit, truth be told, but one that I’m certainly glad I experienced.

[2014095] SNUG & VENT

[2014095] SNUG & VENT

PUMP Theatre @ Holden Street Theatres – The Arch

2:00pm, Sat 8 Mar 2014

Theatre section of the Fringe Guide? Overtly in support of White Ribbon? Intriguing line buried in the middle of the précis? Extremely short run? Matinée?

SNUG & VENT checked all those boxes and drew me, like a moth to a flame, out to Holden Street on a Saturday afternoon. But there’s barely a handful of other people in the audience, and even in the relatively tight confines of The Arch the gaps feel enormous.

SNUG is the first play of the pair on offer, and it explores the idea of feeling “safe” through seven short scenes featuring three featureless characters. By approaching the topics in an abstract way, freed from the expectations that gender could place on the characters, SNUG is a thoughtful (though too earnestly straightforward to be thought-provoking) piece whose message is unavoidable, yet not forced upon the audience.

VENT, on the other hand, forgoes SNUG‘s abstraction in favour of a more literal staging of an abusive relationship: Rosa and Dan’s relationship is disintegrating as their uni-student daughter struggles to hold things together. Dan’s inability to deal with pressures external to the family is clearly the root cause, and there’s uncomfortable scenes as he lashes out and threatens the two women. Resolution is… well, it’s not a feel-good ending.

But suddenly – with only about half of the expected hour duration elapsed – the performances were done. The house lights came up, and one of the production crew – Production Manager Karen Van Spall, perhaps? – addressed the audience; she asked us to suggest alternative actions that the characters could have taken at any point in the play. Met with a wall of silence (I struggled to come up with something valid, but was also taken aback by the requested interaction in such a loaded atmosphere), she threw a few suggestions out; the actors performed the changes, taking them through to their conclusions.

And that’s an interesting idea… but it comes across feeling quite forced, and a little bit unrealistic. And – worse, in terms of “entertainment” – it made me feel uncomfortable as an audience member… and that’s the unfortunate memory that lingers.

It feels awful to say that, especially in conjunction with a show that’s got it heart in absolutely the right place. And let’s be quite clear: both short plays are earnest in their message… it’s just that the audience interaction felt forced and unnecessary. In a school environment, it may work a treat; in a Saturday matinée session, not so much.

[2014094] Pete Johansson

[2014094] Pete Johansson

Pete Johansson @ Rhino Room – Howling Owl

10:00pm, Fri 7 Mar 2014

It had been a bloody good day for comedy so far – starting good and building to brilliant, I had wondered whether one more comedy act would be pushing the theme of the day a little bit too far. After all, I knew nothing about Pete Johansson (other than his wacky Guide précis), but SA Comedy superhero Craig Egan bigged him up, so… I wound up back in the half-full Howling Owl. And I must admit that there was a moment of fear when Johansson – after gently rolling through his Canadian introductory spiel – warned us that he was trying out some new material… that we might miss some of his top-flight jokes.

But if that was his “in progress material”, then I can’t imagine what it would be like when it’s polished. Because I just about wept tears of lunacy for much of his set.

Johansson’s style initially appears to be unremarkable – accent aside, he’s got a very familiar stand-up delivery. But you’re soon getting caught up in his enthusiasm, which he drives with his variations in pitch – his little-girl-woman voice has just enough heart to not be disrespectful, and his emphasis tones are golden. But the variations of his delivery speed really suck me in – he’ll drop from regular joke-merchant to high-speed data pummeller at the drop of a hat, and it’s an utterly bewitching effect.

In terms of material, it seems like pretty standard fare – sex, drugs, travel, and the occasional gentle (well, he is Canadian) political statement – but two jokes alone were worth their weight in gold. The first addressed a muslim-hating friend, which devolved into a fantastic bee-inspired rant; the second was a tiptoeing-on-the-edge discussion of his wife’s rape fantasy, which featured an angry use of the phrase “you’re not a very good rapist.”

But even if those two jokes hadn’t been in the set, Pete Johansson still would have been well worth the effort. Jokes that are deep and creative and a little more obscure than the average fare, delivered by an incredibly likeable chap with an appealing delivery… what’s not to love?

[2014093] Chris Wainhouse – The Anti-Chris

[2014093] Chris Wainhouse – The Anti-Chris

Chris Wainhouse @ Gluttony – The Piglet

9:00pm, Fri 7 Mar 2014

So… I love comedy that pokes fun at religion. Like, really love it. And that’s a little odd, because whilst I’m a happy agnostic, I’ve got no problems with people who do follow a religion (as long as they don’t force that it anyone else). You know, each to their own, as long as they don’t hurt anyone. That kind of thing.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m not a militant atheist.

Unlike Chris Wainhouse.

And Wainhouse is a comedian. A hilarious, cutting, vicious comedian. He has no time whatsoever for religion – especially of the Christian fundamentalist varieties.

Which is super funny, since he was raised in a religious household… a full-on orthodox household. Like, no-doctors-God-will-fix-you-up creationist parents and siblings.

Which made the story of the time he broke a bone (his leg?) as a child unbelievable. That Wainhouse made the story both uproariously funny and an acerbic attack on fundamentalist beliefs was the work of a genius.

He treated us to an edited highlights package of his upbringing, including those moments that turned him into the staunch atheist he is today. And whilst religion is frequently his comedic target, there’s plenty of other material of equally good quality: at one stage, we didn’t laugh enough at a joke he thought deserved better, so he took an aside for an incredibly filthy story that did make us all laugh… “See what happens when you don’t laugh? It goes downtown.”

I’d tried to see Wainhouse the previous night and, as I was being turned away from that cancelled show, I’d explained that I couldn’t guarantee I would be able to squeeze another session into The Schedule… but I’m so very glad that I did. As far as I’m concerned, this was one of the best shows I saw at the Fringe this year: this is the type of comedy that could sustain me unto death. Loved loved loved it.

[2014092] Chris Turner: Pretty Fly

[2014092] Chris Turner: Pretty Fly

Chris Turner @ Royal Croquet Club – Shanty Town

7:30pm, Fri 7 Mar 2014

I’ve no idea who Chris Turner is, but his cherubic face peering out from his posters is a curious contrast to the “Pretty Fly” show title. Tomás Ford’s name attached as presenter is the sealer: I’ve got massive faith in that man.

That’s why I decided to turn up on this Friday night. As for the rest of the nearly-sold-out show? I’ve no idea, but I suspect it may have been a combination of (a) alcohol, (2) the ‘Croquet Club being the boozy trashy hangout du jour, and (iii) more alcohol. Still, an inebriated crowd is sometimes a willing crowd for a comedian, so – as I took my place in the middle of the second row, between two cheery men whose gym routines crushed what little space my seat afforded – I hoped for the best.

And whilst I didn’t get The Best per se, what I did get was pretty bloody entertaining.

Turner is every bit the weedy, unimposing physical specimen suggested by his poster… but there’s a confidence, a swagger, to his stage presence that is at odds with his appearance. His voice carries a certain command, too, as he ably deflects hecklers before they get too rowdy.

Turner opens by taking the piss out of his own appearance, before launching into treatise about his love of gangsta rap. He tinkers with the ludicrous nature of his admission – that a weedy white guy could be obsessed by bling, misogyny, and violence – before juxtaposing the culture around the music with his own relationships: the love and conflict experienced with his parents and girlfriend feature heavily alongside sample lyrics. It’s a neat central narrative thread that really holds the show together.

Turner’s style is very much of the hit-and-run one-liner variety: a short build-up before a witty punchline, with the subject of the build-up often left for dead. But there’s enough continuity that the show doesn’t feel like a disparate collection of gags… I felt like the show was a tumbling evolution, and the occasional callback (the Roman numeral jokes were fantastic) never felt forced.

But the pièce de résistance was Turner’s closer – a freestyle rap using a handful of audience-selected words; not only was it a great bit of free-styling, but it also gelled the audience together: after the inclusion of every key word, a big cheer would go up, and the grins were evident. Sure, it may not have been as good as the one at the end of this video, but it was pretty bloody good (even if he did forget one of the words, requiring a check-in with the crowd).

I had a lot of fun with Pretty Fly: rap isn’t anywhere near my favourite musical genres, but when the most un-rap-looking guy ever is talking about it – and talking about it with deft humour – I’m all ears.

[2014091] An American’s Guide to being like totally British

[2014091] An American’s Guide to being like totally British

Alexis Wieroniey @ Astor Hotel – Astoria Room

6:00pm, Fri 7 Mar 2014

In my experience, audiences at early-Friday-evening comedy shows can be either embarrassingly non-existent, or boisterously buoyant for the performer. However, this Fringe seems to enjoy throwing plenty of curve-balls my way, and so it was that I discovered a new form of audience: the Friday-night-drunken-fuckknuckle.

To be fair, there was only really a trio of said FNDFs in the crowd (of maybe two dozen), but unfortunately they occupied a table just in front of the stage, with two of them freely chatting to each other throughout the show. Or sitting there, not laughing, arms crossed high – which I’d imagine to be almost as useful to a performer. But the brazen nature of their conversations – often starting in the middle of a joke – was just flabbergasting.

But anyway…

I’d arrived a little early this evening and fallen into conversation with Ross Voss, who was running the Astor venues; however, I was somewhat surprised to see him open up the show with a loose five minutes. His wry wordplay always seems at odds with his quirky delivery, and that makes me grin like a loon… but the rest of the audience was a little unsure. That didn’t faze Ross, though, and he hammered through some decent gags before introducing Alexis Wieroniey.

Alexis introduces herself as an American who chose to settle in the UK; there’s a few jokes about her citizenship test, and some expected comparisons between the two cultures… but the show soon devolves into material around her relationships, her breakups, and – more prominently – her sex life. And she’s pretty open about what she chooses to tell the audience – there’s a great story of a pickup-gone-wrong that ended with the phrase “too be less slutty, I had to have sex with him” – and plenty of penis-related material (hey – penises seem to be the In Thing this Fringe) gained through experience. But there’s also less bawdy material – a couple of jokes tinker with statistics (including a fantastic rapid-fire rant about Facebook response times), and a great rumination on the nature of Americans: “we’re raised on blind optimism and hydrogenated corn products.”

Wieroniey’s delivery wavers between two styles: charmingly awkward (where pregnant pauses and wary eyes carry as much comedy as her monologue), and charmingly motormouthed (where facts and figures spill from her like an unstoppable torrent, only to be punctuated with a flourish worthy of a mike-drop). Either way, she exudes confidence: even the front-table fuckwits couldn’t knock her off her game, despite their discussion of her stage-worthiness.

I really enjoyed An American’s Guide to being like totally British, even if it didn’t really deliver on its title: Alexis Wieroniey proved to be a quality comedian who has no qualms belittling herself for the audience’s benefit. A tempered confidence in both her material and delivery shines through, giving her a charm that’s great to watch… I only wish she had a better audience to work with.

[2014090] GLORY BOX!

[2014090] GLORY BOX!

Finucane & Smith @ Garden of Unearthly Delights – Paradiso Spiegeltent

10:30pm, Thu 6 Mar 2014

“Seductive Spectacle, Live” says the subtitle of this show, but before even entering the Paradiso I’ve got a pretty good idea what Glory Box! is going to be about: burlesque acts and physical comedy, half performed by Moira Finucane, half by her colleagues. It’ll be well-produced, well-polished, and – thanks to the positive word-of-mouth evident around the Fringe – well attended.

But upon entering the venue, I discovered that my preconceived notions may be wrong: the crowd was surprisingly light for this performance, and I easily found a front-row seat, sharing a table with an older couple (who, unfortunately, included a piercing whistler who was perhaps a little to keen to show off her own talents). Expectations were satisfied, however, when Finucane took to the stage; all her staple performances (the macho man strip, the Dairy Queen, the red sauce dribbles) were presented throughout the night… as was the brilliantly literal (and tortured) interpretation of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Some high-energy dance twins tried to rock the stage: sure, it looked good from the outset, but I’ve been watching K-Pop for eighteen months now… and, by comparison, their moves need some work. Also lacklustre was the trapeze act, which was notable only for the fact that the performer was wearing tight bands around her limbs and torso that made her look like a svelte Michelen Man.

In fact, the only act that struck me as creatively new was a piece where the performer worked with fabric “wings” that were routed through the top of the stage; it’s an impressive visual effect, but whilst it didn’t outstay its welcome, that injection of something different was sadly too brief. Acts were broken up with an occasional disco-inspired singalong (though the “pussy wussy pussy” song came across as low-bar and infantile), and there was even a get-another-drink-in interval.

Whilst my front-row seat afforded me a great view of the action (and it was the first time I’d been so close to the action that I needed the splash guard for Finucane’s milk spray routine), it wasn’t really of any benefit to me – I’d seen most of the acts before, and the new pieces didn’t benefit from the proximity. What I did see, though, was that the audience was mostly men – maybe eighty percent, I reckon – and there were an alarming number of men hopping on Facebook in the middle of the show. There could be a vibrant hoop act or naked woman dousing herself in liquid on stage, but the familiar blue glow of Facebook would be front-lighting their faces. To which I can just shake my head and say: what the fuck?

Look – Glory Box! was an undoubtedly entertaining show… but due to the familiarity of its content, it has little to differentiate it from other ensemble burlesque acts. As a result, I left the Garden this evening feeling like I’d been appropriately entertained… but a little part of me felt as if I’d wasted the timeslot. It’ll take a bit more than good word-of-mouth to convince me that I need to see another such show, I think.

[2014089] Red Bastard

[2014089] Red Bastard

Eric Davis @ Gluttony – La Petite Grande

9:15pm, Thu 6 Mar 2014

So – I’m waiting outside The Piglet, chatting to the lovely woman running the Face Your Selfie exhibit, eagerly waiting to see Chris Wainhouse… but Gluttony is looking dead, with precious few punters in attendance. I check at the door, and Wainhouse has sold all of one ticket – mine – and, about ten minutes past the nominal start time, I’m told that the show is cancelled. I’ve already got a ticket in hand for later in the evening, so I quickly look for something nearby that was on The Shortlist to fill in the gap… a quick dash across the road led to the discovery that Nunopoly was also cancelled, so back to Gluttony I went: Red Bastard fit perfectly.

It was only after I’d hurriedly bought the ticket and scurried towards La Petite Grande that I thought about what a light audience might mean to Red Bastard – after all, the first time I saw him perform (when he was all but the poster-child for the 2010 Fringe), the audience were as important as the performer. When I tentatively stepped inside the tent, I discovered there were only about twenty people there waiting… my heart sank a little, and I began to wonder how this show could possibly work. The feeling that I could be in for an uncomfortable hour was only exacerbated when I discovered that most of those twenty people were either (a) drunk, (2) not native English speakers, or (iii) both.

Eric Davis’ alter ego strutted its bulbous way onstage (I noticed, for the first time, that he wears red FiveFingers) and started barking instructions at the audience. Initially, the performance panned out in a similar manner to my first Red Bastard experience: we exercised our voices (“FIVE… four… threetwoone”), we’re taught the Space! and Displace! and Suspend! exercises (there were no theatrical performers with prior experience this evening), and we’re psychologically prodded by Red Bastard.

And it’s the questions that make you think that provide the most reward from this performance; in creating a shared space (rather than an artist-over-here, audience-over-there regimen), Red Bastard gives us permission to be a bit more open… to give a bit more than we normally would. Indeed, one of the (handful of) latecomers accepted Red Bastard’s probing with a focused sincerity; when we were asked to come up with a phrase to address a personal pain-point, he proudly stated “My choice is mine” – and when Davis half-goaded him into committing to tell the target of that phrase, he pulled out his phone and rang his Dad. It was pretty uncomfortable watching one side of a deeply personal conversation take place (we essentially watched a blue-haired, shoeless young man receive an emotional battering from his father for five minutes), but once he’d reached some kind of resolution and hung up the place erupted in applause.

(Incidentally, my phrase was – rather petulantly in hindsight – “You only care about yourself.” Sigh.)

I didn’t think Red Bastard would work in a crowd of 20 – I was completely wrong. If anything, this performance was better because of the small audience; there was a humorous repeat of the first couple of minutes when a group turned up late, and the number of people for whom English was not their first language was also a cracking accent to the show. And whilst it didn’t feel as revolutionary as it did the first time, there were still some genuinely moving and inspiring moments: even the Red Bastard façade of Eric Davis melted away as he looked emotionally moved (and somewhat concerned) by the blue-haired guy’s phone call.

[2014088] Sam Simmons – Death Of A Sails-Man

[2014088] Sam Simmons – Death Of A Sails-Man

Sam Simmons @ Garden of Unearthly Delights – Idolize Spiegeltent

7:45pm, Thu 6 Mar 2014

Every time Sam Simmons brings a show to the Fringe, I try to squeeze it in; but, as I seem to write nearly every year since my first (glorious) Simmons experience, there’s a significant chance that it could be a show that completely fails to connect with me.

And what I should have recognised by now is that I don’t get along with Simmons’ narrative-driven pieces; the central narrative thread makes the abstract asides feel somewhat forced, with the entire performance feeling less cohesive as a result. That seems like a pretty weird thing to say, especially when compared to a collection of surreal sight-and-sound gags, but that’s what it feels like to me.

Unfortunately, Death Of A Sails-Man is a narrative piece: in a fanciful flashback, Simmons is a successful corporate man who also happens to be a keen windsurfer. Blown out to sea one day, he suffers a bout of panicked existentialism; “antiquated” technology, delirium, and undersea expeditions provide most of the familiar rants and excursions into surreality.

But also familiar are Simmons’ chuckles of disbelief to himself; but I’m now cynical enough to think that they aren’t necessarily a response to “I can’t believe I thought that would be funny.” There’s an element of self-indulgence creeping in now, and it feels like a backhanded mocking of the audience: “I can’t believe these people give me money for this shit.”

To be fair, the audience itself probably put me in a bad mood for this show: from the moment I realised I was sharing the line with people who were double-fisting beers, I started moping: these were not the people I want to be sharing a show with. Mind you, Simmons’ willingness to bite the hand that feeds him is commendable: the lights dropped to black for a scene change, and a woman two seats down from me started using her phone, her face illuminated by its glow. Simmons saw it from the stage: “Stop using your fucking phone!” he yelled in the darkness, and as the lights come up he’s pointing directly at her.

But corralling the audience is not why I turn up to a Sam Simmons show. I want to see surreality delivered with confidence and conviction; I want to see inside the mind of a professional lunatic. I want to see a tightly-wrangled audio-visual Erotic Cat-like experience again without zealous sound guys causing tinnitus (Simmons’ voice was so dominant in the mix he had to keep asking the tech to bump the volume on his backing track). And whilst I know that Simmons can write a narrative – Problems showed that, with each episode proving a self-contained delight – it’ll be awhile before I commit to another such show from this once-inspiring man.

[2014087] Maybe you could crack my sternum

[2014087] Maybe you could crack my sternum

Emma and Emma @ Tandanya – Firefly

6:30pm, Thu 6 Mar 2014

I’m smitten the instant I walk in the door: two beautiful women dressed in white, in front of a white geometric backdrop, quietly chatting to themselves. I wodge myself between Jane and an elderly gentleman (who quietly dozed through most of the performance) in an optimal seat and prepared to be wowed.

The only problem is that the wows didn’t come.

The beginning of the performance smoothly emerged from the prelude: the two Emmas (Hall and Smith) introduce each other to the audience, prying apart the ways in which they aren’t alike – in fact, they’re quite different, in age as in personality, and I’m left wondering how they came to be working together. Intriguing!

But from there, they bounce from one seemingly unconnected non sequitur to another. The “conversations” between the Emmas were little more then jagged fragments of text, any of which alone could conjure an intriguing response; but when those fragments are rapid-fired at the audience, there’s little opportunity to take stock. It’s overwhelming, but not necessarily in the nonsensically blissful way that one can feel swamped in (say) a Lynch movie.

And I think my lack of engagement with these phrases and proposals was at least somewhat related to my distance from the people onstage. Despite their quirky introductions – and the fact that the Older Emma (Hall?) has ribs like mine – there was no real connection between them and me. No empathy. No reason to chase the meaning of the text.

In the end, their backdrop – a lattice-work of pins and string creating geometric shapes created by Taryn Dudley – actually was of significantly more interest to my brain than trying to figure out where their dialogue was going. And there’s a little bit of shame associated with saying that… but sometimes I’m asked to put in more than I can give. A stream of oddities is all very well and good, but there has to be a reason to care.

[2014086] Jamaican Princess

[2014086] Jamaican Princess

Nicholas Capper @ Gluttony – The Piglet

10:10pm, Wed 5 Mar 2014

I first saw Nick Capper during a Rhino Room Late Show last year, and his material was incredible: in front of a drunken Late Show crowd, he managed to win friends with desert-dry and depressed self-deprecation, coupled with a delivery that positively revelled in the power of his pauses. Unfortunately, when I went to see his show there was a tiny “crowd”, and – whilst I could still see the quality of the material – the experience was… well, less wonderful.

But, as I said at the time, I hoped that he’d return to Adelaide. And he did. So I bought a ticket. And a few other people bought tickets too. And some people, who I suspect don’t really go to a lot of comedy shows, got given freebies by Capper as we waited for The Piglet to get reset.

So – Nick Capper had a crowd. But what he didn’t have was the darkness that made his efforts last year so memorable.

Sure, there were stories about an ice-smoking girlfriend: “[ice is the] best thing ever”, she had said, leading to a little bit of self-deprecation that hinted at glories of old. But that was the undeniable highlight of the show. The crowd singalong to his “hit” song Chubby Wubby? Dressing someone up as ramen? Inexplicably trying to milk the “Bacon’s not Jamaican” couplet for (undeserved) laughs? Sure: I smiled, I laughed, but… it was tough going.

Look, after Capper smashed it at the Late Show last year, I’ve been really looking forward to seeing his work flourish. But his inability to maintain momentum in either of the two full shows I’ve seen him perform leaves me frustrated. Because I remember a chap whose comedy was dark and personal, who knew how to pace his delivery… who gave us peals of laughter from his misery. This newer, happier, bright-as-a-button Nick Capper? I’m not sure I like him very much.

And it feels awful to want to revel in someone’s drama (doubly so when I discovered that he’d quoted this blog for his flyers)… but Jamaican Princess was a real let-down for me. Maybe Capper can slay a big crowd of comedy-lovers who are up for it, but on the evidence of this performance he’s going to struggle with the less adventurous audience.

[2014084] Mama Alto: Countertenor Diva

[2014084] Mama Alto: Countertenor Diva

Mama Alto @ La Bohème

6:00pm, Wed 5 Mar 2014

Over the years I’ve come to accept that early weeknight shows at La Bohème usually struggle for an audience; and, whilst there were sufficient people present at this show to ensure that most of the tables were occupied, the head-count was still sufficiently low that I wondered – yet again – how this can possibly be sustainable for performers… especially when I can spotted a handful of media peeps in the crowd, drinking water to match the cost of their complimentary tickets, notebooks at the ready.

To take my mind of the sadness and disappointment and seething that usually accompanies those thoughts, I attempted to skate over the programme I was given at the door… only to discover that it was dense and heavy with text. Only after the performance did I get to truly appreciate the content on that sheet of paper: not only was there a comprehensive set-list, but a deeply personal narrative written by Mama Alto herself, explaining her journey through song, her influences, her responses. It’s a wonderful read, but I’m kinda glad I didn’t get to read it prior to the performance… because it made the next hour-or-so a glorious surprise.

Mama Alto (Benny Dimas) managed to remain elegant as she negotiated La Bohème’s stage in her tight full-length gown and – along with pianist & musical director Tiffanni Walton – gently slid into the first of five acts, each a collection of songs (or snippets) around a theme. Dimas’ countertenor voice barely wavers throughout, with almost foreign-sounding notes turning familiar songs into completely new experiences; but whilst there’s not much variation in the frequency of her range (there’s no multi-octave ranges here), the control of her volume is exceptional.

In particular, her version of And I Am Telling You was nothing short of stunning (and was then followed by a lovely rendition of Wild Is The Wind). And her I Will Always Love You was proper lump-in-throat stuff… and that’s coming from someone who hates Whitney Houston’s version. As far as I’m concerned, that song belongs to Mama Alto now.

Mama Alto’s movement onstage was hampered somewhat by her inability to move freely (that dress was tight), but that didn’t stop her from having an almost spotlit screen-star presence. In between brackets of songs she chatted amiably to the audience, and – in thanking the audience for being so welcoming – delivered a beautiful speech about acceptance (stemming from an incident where she was verbally abused on Gouger Street). But far from being an exercise in gender terms, there were also moments of humour in her actions: the understanding between Mama Alto and pianist Tiffanni Walton as she struggled with the page turns of her unruly music sheets brought a smile to everyone’s faces.

Mama Alto is certainly a unique performer… but, most importantly, she’s incredibly entertaining. Her Countertenor Diva show was an emotional roller coaster, chock-full of great tunes and music, and I walked away from La Bohème wishing only that more paying punters had been at the show.

[2014082] Wendy House

[2014082] Wendy House

Pixel Theatre @ Salad Days Inc.

10:00pm, Tue 4 Mar 2014

Wendy House starts building its world while we waited outside Salad Days: we’re presented with a flyer that details a set of Law Reforms instigated “[i]n response to recent violence”. The mandatory 7pm-to-7am curfew, and the monitoring of all communications, caught my eye… and thoughts inspired by those words were simmering in my mind when we were permitted entry into the performance space.

The room is trashed. The windows are covered, there’s newspaper strewn everywhere, and there’s a torn sofa, foam rotten and oily, along one wall; audience seating is on crates and broken chairs and tatty cushions. On one side of the room, waiting for the audience to quietly file in, is a young man teenager, pensive and nervous and nail-biting; on the other, a similarly aged girl, oblivious to the mood around her, happily kicking her legs as she sat, probably singing softly and sweetly to herself. With the audience nervously seated around the edge of the room – I was “lucky” enough to get a spot on the sticky sofa – the guy started checking the room, roughly searching for… something.

The girl (Carla, seventeen years young and far more naïve than that due to her privileged upbringing) and the guy (Sebastian, punkish and angry, his perpetual distrust seemingly a product of his tougher youth under a struggling single mum) constantly bicker as he performs his check, but the animosity is terribly one-sided; Sebastian’s anger is fuelled by the Law Reforms and, as they hide out in this house together to escape the curfew, his anti-authority ranting is of little interest to Carla, who continues to believe that everything will Just Work Out.

Suddenly Sebastian finds what he was looking for (but hoping not to find): tomboy Peter (Peta?) is discovered hiding at the back of the room, and the yelling and accusations and mistrust amps up between the two (as Carla blissfully waits). A thump at the door startles them; after much pleading, the trio allow another two country boys a place to hide from the curfew. Will and Luke – brothers-in-law through Will’s now-dead sister – are easily the most likeable characters (and strongest actors) in this Wendy house; Luke’s morose wallowing over his dead wife was the most believable grounding of the quintet.

With five people in the room, all struggling to deal with the invisible dystopian pressure outside their ramshackle hide-hole, things get pretty… well, shouty. There’s a few occasions where two groups of characters – with parties standing in opposite corners of the room – will be having concurrent conversations, with the resultant barrage of words creating a confusing mess. And that works against Wendy House, because much of the dialogue that forms the bulk of the play seems heavily stereotyped and predictable; it’d probably feel revolutionary if I was a teenager, but I’m very far from that.

But if there’s one thing that the cast of Wendy House do well, it’s generate tension: there’s many instances of potent stares across the room, glowering suspicion, festering resentment. But the dialogue feels too obvious, too forced, and rarely provides any real insight into the characters; too much is left to the imagination. And whilst my imagination is great when it comes to extrapolating the tension, it’s not so great at creating drama and plot.

As a result, I left Wendy House feeling… well, a little unfulfilled. Like I’d been shown a glimpse of an interesting dystopian future, full of flawed characters… but those characters were left to fend for themselves with little clear direction. It’s a shame, really, because there’s clearly been some work done on developing this unsettling future.

But the worst Wendy House memory came much later in the evening. After some… people problems following the show, I was leaving the Fringe Club to head home when I passed one of the cast members. She recognised me(!), and asked me what I’d thought; I was in quite an angry state of mind when I asked her, “Honestly?” She had nodded with a smile on her face… a smile which quickly disappeared when I unloaded a far less tempered (and entirely unfiltered) opinion unto her before catching myself. I felt absolutely awful after that, so… well, if you ever read this, I’m really truly sorry :{

[2014081] Lindsay Webb in ‘What’s Your Name? What Do You Do?’

[2014081] Lindsay Webb in ‘What’s Your Name? What Do You Do?’

Lindsay Webb @ Rhino Room – Howling Owl

8:30pm, Tue 4 Mar 2014

I can tell it’s the back half of the Fringe when I start getting grumpy in queues listening to other people. “So… who is this guy?” one of a group of three asked the others, to which the reply was “I dunno… but [someone] reckons he’s alright. What else are we gonna do, anyway?”

And apart from wanting to forcefully point out that there’s a whole fucking Fringe – and Festival – on at the moment, it took every ounce of self-control I had to not start screaming at them: “How can you not know who Lindsay Webb is?”

Webb is easily one of the best comedians working in Australia right now, and he manages that without any real tricks or hooks: he’s not overtly political, he’s not self-deprecating, and he’s not aggressive. But he is an incredibly likeable comic… and he’s also incredibly quick with his wit.

Which is just as well, really… because this show (as the name suggests) is all about audience interactions and, more importantly, Webb’s ability to conjure comedy from the material provided by the crowd.

Very little seems to be scripted as Webb picks people out of the room – “What’s your name? What do you do?” becomes a very familiar rhythm – and starts twisting the responses into laughter. The northern-suburban mother and daughter provide plenty of jokes about the Adelaidean class divide, and Matt – “One ’T’ or two? Two? Don’t you think you’re being a bit greedy?” – copped a lot of good-natured stick. There is some fall-back material that Webb weaves seamlessly into his set – he’s recently turned forty, and his work with Forces Entertainment delivering comedy to serving troops – and his “getting fit” material (gym junkies, personal trainers) could find a home in any five- or ten-minute spot.

Names and jobs are overrated, Webb surmises at the top of the show; they define too much about us. And whilst there could be some debate about whether that argument is made (or even coherent), there’s no denying that Lindsay Webb is a bloody brilliant, straight-up comedian. That he performed so sharply in this show when he was so clearly under the influence speaks volumes about his comic skills.