Tim Minchin: Part II

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

When Tim Minchin played to adoring, sell-out crowds on the steps of the Sydney Opera House Forecourt in February, he included a song called Seeing You, from Groundhog Day, the new musical he is currently working on.

He has also performed the song at London’s Hyde Park and various other gigs. As a first-taste introduction to Groundhog Day, the gentle, lilting, country ballad is excitingly promising.

“It’s a bit weird because it’s the final song in the whole musical so it doesn’t really give you the tone of what’s gone on before,” says Minchin.

Groundhog Day follows in the wake of the phenomenal success of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda the Musical for which Minchin wrote music and lyrics.

It’s based on the brilliant 1993 film: a comedy classic scripted by Danny Rubin and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Rubin himself is writing the book, Minchin is writing music and lyrics, and Matthew Warchus, who helmed Matilda, is directing.

The show will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year as part of Warchus’s inaugural season as artistic director, prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

Writing on his blog, when news of the project leaked last year, Minchin described the plot in his inimitable way: “For the handful of you who’ve never seen the film (philistines!), Groundhog Day is about a cantankerous weatherman who is sent to a small town to do a weather report, and gets stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again until – eventually – he figures out how to be less of a miserable, egotistical git. It’s about selflessness and acceptance and love and time and life and death and all that good stuff.”

Minchin says that their stage adaptation will be “instantly recognisable and utterly different”.

“The narrative is very similar but tonally it’s completely different. You can’t make the character of Phil like Bill Murray – by which I mean the Bill Murray-ness of that character would not allow him to sing. It can’t be Bill Murray. It has to be a slightly more standard Scroogian character,” he says.

“And also you can’t write a piece of theatre – or I don’t want to in 2015 – with a woman as passive as Andie MacDowell. You take the opportunity to write a stronger woman whose influence is more profound and who has her own sense of humour. Andie was very charming in that movie but we need to know more about her.

“In musicals – just like in Matilda – you want to know more. You can’t maintain a distance in a musical and that’s why you have to consider very seriously which texts you do. Is going into their head – which is what a musical does because they sing their feelings – is going into their head going to help us?

“And if you are going into their head, how do you make sure the character doesn’t become mawkish and over demonstrative? That’s the problem with Matilda and Miss Honey (in Matilda). Miss Honey isn’t a demonstrative person so how do you get her to sing? That’s why I made her sing about her house, which is her singing about herself by not singing about herself. Those sorts of solutions are what musical theatre writers have always done but Groundhog Day is a particular challenge like that because you’ve got to keep it funny and witty and dry.”

In the story, the same scenes keep playing out, with the weatherman Phil gradually responding differently each time he relives a moment. Asked whether the music will repeat with gradual transformations, Minchin says not.

“Music reflects your protagonist’s state of mind. You could take the same music and put different angles on it but I realised early on that it’s not the songs repeating – because songs repeating is not unconventional. It’s dialogue and action repeating which is where the magic is in theatre. You have a complex series of events that are exactly the same. That’s like a magic trick; that’s awesome.”

Minchin says the songs will have a more poppy feel than Matilda. “It’s less Dahly. There are songs you could play on the radio. Anyway, it’s such an exciting challenge. I just hope we don’t fuck it up.”

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Minchin is currently alternating between writing the songs for Groundhog Day and the songs for Larrikins, an animated DreamWorks movie scheduled for release in 2018, which he is also directing.

Set in the Australian outback, Larrikins centres on an anxious little bilby called Perry and a kangaroo called Red.

“The kangaroo is hard-edged and unemotional, thinks everything is a bit of a joke, hates authority and all that good Aussie stuff – though it’s very important to me that the movie moves us beyond that,” says Minchin.

“Perry is an OCD, hyper-controlling, very fearful, very kind little dude compulsively stacking berries all the time. They go on this massive road journey together and Perry has to learn to be brave and Red has to learn to be more caring. It all sounds quite twee but it’s actually very funny. There are lots of laughs in it. The term Larrikin is used, but its definition is actually only obliquely discussed. We never clearly define it, that’s part of the charm of the word – it’s kind of ambiguous.”

“It’s an Australian story and I’m writing very much as an Australian writing about Australia,” adds Minchin.

As you’d expect, he will be making some political points along the way. There’s a song called Proper Aussie, for example. “It’s sung by Howard the crocodile, who is a bureaucratic bully in charge of a bit of river that our heroes have to cross. He sees his job as preventing ‘non-native species’ from spreading. It’s quite fun because we get to talk about fauna issues as well as xenophobia,” says Minchin.

On top of all his composing, Minchin has managed to find time to take to the stage himself in recent years. In 2012/13 he turned in a sensational performance as Judas in an arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which toured around the UK and Australia.

In 2013, he also co-starred with long-time mate Toby Schmitz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company. On screen, he has just been seen as the odious Smasher Sullivan in the ABC’s acclaimed mini-series The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s novel about the early days of Australian colonisation.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

He’s keen to do some more acting. However, he’s unlikely to have time for much theatre in the immediate future, given the demands of Groundhog Day and Larrikins.

“I want to act more but I think it’s more likely to be a few eps on a TV series or a cameo role in a film,” he says. “I’m interested in film and TV now. It’s all weird and a slightly sitty-around industry but it’s great to be a part of something, to do these little scenes and then see it all put together.”

Then there are his solo shows. He had 10,000 people across two nights eating out of the palm of his hand when he performed at the Sydney Opera House in February but, again, it’s a challenge to find the time.

“I think I can do it all,” he says. “I just need to manage my time and not lose my mojo. Comedy is a game of fearlessness and you’ve got to do it lots to stay fearless. I kind of had a wobble last year when I first went back after two years of not doing a solo show. I found it hard. I’d forgotten that you can’t just wander up. You’ve got to get your chops back up. It’s not something that comes with no work, the fast lyrics and all that stuff. But it’s worked out all right.”

Minchin, his wife Sarah and their two young children Violet and Caspar now live in Los Angeles after a decade in London, where his fame had reached the point that he was recognised pretty much wherever he went.

“LA was a lot about the film (Larrikins) and a lot about knowing that I had to leave London one day because it was just getting harder and harder. And also about coming home (to Australia) eventually. So LA is meant to be a stepping stone,” he says.

It was while he was living in Coogee during the STC season of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he decided he wanted his kids to grow up in Australia.

“The Larrikins thing was initially a songwriting gig then they said, ‘would you like to direct it?’ So I said to Sarah, ‘maybe this is our window out.’ It was awful leaving London. It was really, really hard, for Sarah particularly, but LA is kind of fun. We’ve met some really great people. You can drive around in your car. It’s a bit more like living in Perth. (Our house) is not a big place but it’s got a comparatively big garden with a pool and our kids haven’t been sick since moving there.

“People in America don’t really know me apart from Californication (the US TV series in which he played a coked-up rock star) though I was stoked that Spielberg and those people know exactly who I am. That’s their job to know who everyone is, and I am directing a movie for Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“So I’ve been shocked to realise it’s a perfect balance. I don’t get recognised in the street but the people who matter are keeping an eye on me. I sit in my room all day with a piano and when the kids come home I’m there. That’s why we moved to LA. And we can go to the shops and no one cares.”

Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 28

Asian Provocateur

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane is a gorgeous, bubbly, warm, fabulously fierce little dynamo, both on stage and off – and her new cabaret show Asian Provocateur is all of those things and more.

Premiering as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season, it’s outrageously funny, sweet and ballsy. In drawing on anecdotes from her life and career, the show is not only irresistibly entertaining but has serious things to say about discrimination, without ever labouring the point.

Lane is of an “Asian persuasion” as she puts it. Her mother is from The Philippines and her father is from Footscray – making her too Asian to have many friends at primary school but not Asian enough for certain roles (or so she suspects in some instances). Apparently that’s why she didn’t get an audition for The King And I.

On the other hand, she has been prone to typecasting, though her career extends beyond that with credits in musicals such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Sydney Theatre Company, Into the Woods for Victorian Opera and, most recently, Miracle City at the Hayes.

For Asian Provocateur, she makes a dramatic entrance in a sparkly kimono with an ornate headpiece, then tosses the extravagant outfit aside to reveal a sassy little red and gold cheongsam.

With her musical director Mathew Frank providing excellent accompaniment on the piano, she sings a selection of songs with an Asian connotation from shows including Flower Drum Song, The King And I, South Pacific, Chess, The Mikado and Miss Saigon, as well as numbers such as Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You. Frank also sings Pretty Lady from Pacific Overtures while she changes frocks later in the show.

As for her stories, they pour out at a million miles, exuberant, touching, risqué: everything from eating fish semen to her surprise at being asked to play Power Rangers at school (only because they wanted her to be the Asian Yellow Power Ranger).  She does a hilarious imitation of her wonderfully eccentric mother who constantly imagines the very worst happening to her daughter and isn’t above ringing her at two in the morning with dire warnings.

Along the way, she has a dig at the casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes in The King and I, and Emma Stone as Eurasian character Allison Ng in the movie Aloha.

Then there’s the unfortunate, icky toilet incident which left her with Bali Belly for an entire holiday and her recent visits to a couple of Bangkok nightclubs, one called Super Pussy and another with a live gay sex show. (Yep, the show comes with an 18+ rating).

The thing about Lane is that she has the happy knack of being able to tell stories that are completely out-there without coming across as crass or crude. Instead, her vivacious storytelling is hysterically, endearingly funny. It also feels absolutely natural and truthful as if she is regaling friends at a dinner party. And she certainly makes her point.

On top of that, lordy can she sing. She has a glorious, thrilling voice that is true, clear and strong. She can belt with the best but her vocals are also coloured with emotion from the wistful beauty of Something Wonderful (The King and I) to the heartfelt pain of The Movie in My Mind (Miss Saigon).

The show looks terrific too. James Browne has designed a simple but very effective set with rice paper and bamboo screens (lit with plenty of coloured light) and two large lanterns.

Though it was advertised as running 75 minutes, the show ran for more than 90 minutes on Friday and while it never flags, a little tightening might not go astray. And – call me old-fashioned – but I didn’t think she needed to use the f-word quite so much. It felt out of place somehow.

But consider those the most minor of quibbles. Asian Provocateur is a terrific, spunky cabaret show and deserves to be widely seen.

Triassic Parq

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, June 19

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

You can’t fault the timing: Squabbalogic is staging the musical Triassic Parq (“no, not that other park because we don’t want to get sued”) just as the newly released film Jurassic World is doing a roaring business at the box office, generating plenty of dino talk.

And you can’t really fault the production. But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Triassic Parq is only sporadically diverting. Yes, it’s sweet and it’s fun, with a catchy, tuneful pop rock score (by Marshall Pailet) and occasionally witty lyrics and book (Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo) but overall it feels like a mildly amusing, over-extended sketch.

The musical is a comic riff on Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film in which, as you’ll probably recall, scientists clone dinosaurs for a theme park using dino DNA and some frog to complete the DNA chain. All the dinosaurs are female to prevent breeding, but that little bit of frog causes one hell of a problem, allowing the dinosaurs to change sex in order to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species.

Triassic Parq tells the story from the dinosaurs’ point of view. Life for the “Lab” worshipping dinosaur community is thrown into chaos when T-Rex 2 (Adèle Parkinson) suddenly sprouts a penis. Meanwhile, the Velociraptor of Innocence (Rob Johnson) finds her way over the electric fence in search of answers. Bumping into T-Rex 2 outside the park, they work out what a “dick stick” is for, sending T-Rex 2’s bestie T-Rex 1 (Monique Sallé) into a jealous, rampaging rage.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Blake Erickson) – a dino with secrets – is forced to question his trust in “Lab” when the delicious goats the deity normally supplies suddenly stop appearing. And then the exiled Velociraptor of Science (Keira Daley) returns. Completing the dino cast are the mute Mimeosaurus (Crystal Hegedis) and the Pianosaurus (musical director Mark Chamberlain).

Themes of love, religion, science and gender underpin the silliness but it’s all pretty lightweight: fluff and nonsense being the prevailing tone.

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody directs with his usual verve and the production has a bright, chirpy aesthetic. Neil Shotter’s clever set uses towering electric fences, which open up, and a few pot plants to create the park and the jungle outside, with lighting by Mikey Rice. Elizabeth Franklin has designed cute costumes pairing contemporary street clothes with sparkly dino feet sporting padded claws, make-up and a fair bit of bling.

The cast throw themselves into it with hugely committed performances. The singing is excellent and they perform Dean Vince’s tongue-in-cheek choreography with gusto.

Erickson gives a hilarious impersonation of Morgan Freeman before being quickly eaten, Johnson finds just the right level of innocence as the questing dino who is a little different to the rest, while Sallé and Parkinson also shine. In fact, the performances are terrific across the board. But all their exuberance can’t disguise the thinness of the show.

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Triassic Parq won Best Musical at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. You can’t help wondering what the competition was like. Squabbalogic have done their darndest with it, but in the end it’s fun without being that funny and hard to get excited about.

Triassic Parq runs at the Seymour Centre until July 4. Bookings: www.seymour.com or 02 9351 7944

Mother Courage and her Children

Belvoir St Theatre, June 10

Robyn Nevin and the cast of Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin and the cast of Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Mother Courage is one of the great theatre roles for women. Physically and emotionally demanding, she is on stage for virtually the entire play as she navigates her profiteering way through the horror of war, losing all three of her children in the process.

Robyn Nevin makes the role her own in this exuberant, economically staged Belvoir production directed by incoming artistic director Eamon Flack.

Written by Bertolt Brecht in the late 1930s, Mother Courage and her Children was his response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland. He set the play during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), a long, arduous, pointless, religious conflict. (Some things never change). A wily refugee called Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – follows the troops with her three grown-up children and a cart from which she sells food, liquor and other goods, doing whatever it takes to survive. She is desperate for her children not to become casualties but when the chips are down she is unable to protect them.

A rage against war, capitalism and man’s inability to learn from history, it’s a tough play about both the surrender and resilience of humanity during extreme times.

Using a sharp new translation by Michael Gow and new music by Stefan Gregory for the songs, Flack’s production bristles with as much vitality as brutality, with snappily choreographed scene changes keeping the action moving.

Robert Cousins’s set has a black painted area in the corner resembling a backstage room with props and musical instruments where the actors often sit when not performing: a constant reminder that we are watching theatre being made. Alice Babidge’s contemporary costuming includes military gear and clothes the characters might have got from op shops or the cheapest of stores as they struggle to keep body and soul together.

The centerpiece of the design is the cart, which is here bright red with circus-like coloured lights, pictures of hotdogs and other junk food as well as cheap tat like plastic beach thongs. Other than that the stage is bare apart from a few plastic chairs, while firecrackers exploding in a metal bucket help evoke the sounds of war.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Flack has mustered an excellent ensemble cast, who play various characters and musical instruments, and each nail their moments. Paula Arundell is gloriously funny as the feisty prostitute Yvette and sings up a storm, delivering the Song of Fraternisation standing on a plastic chair, while newcomer Emele Ugavule is very touching as Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin. Tom Conroy and Richard Pyros are also particularly strong as Mother Courage’s two sons.

But the production is driven by Nevin’s riveting portrayal of the fast-talking, pragmatic Mother Courage. While the character rarely betrays any emotion, Nevin still manages to convey the tragedy that envelops and batters her, as well as her wicked sense of humour. We glimpse emotions flit across her face only to be immediately concealed; we see her body droop just a tiny bit then steel itself.

Though she’s no singer or dancer, she also throws herself into both with endearing gusto, touchingly reinforcing the fact that Mother Courage will do whatever it takes.

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Then there are the brief flashes of tenderness that strike at the heart. The way she spoons soup into her daughter’s mouth like a mother bird ­– an unspoken vow that she won’t desert her child – is an unforgettably poignant moment.

The famous, final image of her pulling her cart alone, having lost all her children, hits hard as the lights snap off.

Mother Courage plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 14

Kurt

Hayes Theatre Co, June 18

Justin Burford gets on his Kurt Cobain in Kurt. Photo: supplied

Justin Burford gets his Kurt Cobain on in his rock-cabaret show Kurt. Photo: supplied

I’m no Nirvana buff but Justin Burford seems to me to do an amazing job of channeling Kurt Cobain in his rock-cabaret Kurt.

First seen at the 2012 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Burford weaves some carefully chosen words (all of them Cobain’s own, taken from his writings and interviews) through a selection of songs, both the big hits and lesser-known tracks, among them Aneurysm, In Bloom, Come As You Are, Rape Me and, of course, Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Assuming that the audience will have some knowledge of Cobain’s life, Kurt is no Wikipedia-like, A to Z bio-show. Instead, Burford has selected pithy, telling quotes, which capture Cobain’s dry sense of humour and offer an insight into where he and his music came from, the kind of complex man he was, his marriage to Courtney Love, the heroin addiction, his struggle with fame, and how things all got to be too much. At the same time, he maintains an element of enigma.

Burford, the former front man of pop-rock band End of Fashion and star of the musical Rock of Ages, takes on Cobain’s softly spoken voice and captures his grungy look, laid-back demeanour and mannerisms.

As for his singing, he has a great, growling, gravelly rock voice that is perfectly suited to Nirvana’s material and Cobain’s angst-filled, raging vocals.

Performing the show as part of the Hayes Theatre Co’s 2015 cabaret season, Burford is joined by Phil Ceberano on guitar, Nick Sinclair on bass guitar and Ben Isackson on drums – an exceptionally tight rock outfit.

Cobain isn’t your traditional expansive cabaret persona. A self-deprecating, laid-back, almost introverted figure, Burford draws the audience to him rather than reaching out to us. But the band really rips into the music. Kurt is a change of pace to most cabaret shows but still fits under the umbrella of a genre that is an increasingly broad church.

As I said, I’m no Nirvana buff and I didn’t know all the songs as some in the audience clearly did, but the show really takes you into Cobain’s world, offering an insight into his brief but blazingly influential career.

Kurt plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on June 19. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

B-Girl

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 9

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

B-Girl begins in silence with a jumpy young woman sitting nervously at a kitchen table. Suddenly musical chords crash and roar and iOTA appears silhouetted in blue light: an androgynous, glam-rock god in all his strutting glory. Talk about an entrance.

Since bursting onto the theatre scene in 2006, iOTA has established himself as a bona fide star with gender-bending performances in the cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his concept show Smoke & Mirrors, and the Rocky Horror Show.

You can certainly see why director Craig Ilott (who collaborated with him on Hedwig and Smoke & Mirrors) might come up with the idea of a show, featuring iOTA as a fantasy glam-rocker.

As you’d expect, he’s phenomenal: sexy, enigmatic, commanding attention whenever he’s on stage. However, the show itself is a strange hybrid between a concept album and a theatre work, with a clunky structure and flimsy plot.

Co-written by Ilott and iOTA, with original songs by iOTA, B-Girl is about troubled young woman called Rachel (Blazey Best), who uses music to escape the grim reality of life with an abusive husband (Ashley Lyons). Dreaming up the glam-rocking Clifford North (iOTA), he gradually becomes more than just a figment of her imagination, giving her the strength to pack her bags and leave.

Nicholas Dare’s set design is pure rock concert, with the band on stage, a walkway over their heads, and a back wall of LED lights. Matt Marshall’s stunning lighting and the sound levels are equally rock ‘n’ roll.

A standard lamp and a table and chairs on the corners of the stage represent Rachel’s home. However, the domestic scenes feel sketchily simplistic and aren’t convincingly integrated into the show. You find yourself wanting more of Clifford instead – so much so you can’t help wondering whether it would be better if he had just told a similar story about abuse, domination and freedom through song alone in a solo show.

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

That’s no disrespect to Best (who also performed with iOTA in Hedwig). Though her character isn’t given much dramatic complexity, she brings a powerful emotional rawness and strong vocals to the part, while Lyons is suitably menacing in the thankless role of her violent husband.

But it’s iOTA’s show. Costumed by Heather Cairns, he is a vision in electric blue Lycra with platform boots, feathers and silver sequins. You can’t take your eyes off him. And his voice is better than ever.

He’s written some sensational songs, ranging from dirty, thrusting rock to soulful ballads and he sings the hell out of them, powering in rock mode one minute then the next, caressing gentle melodies in heart-breaking fashion. Backed by a fierce four-piece band, led by Joe Accaria on drums, the show really fires musically.

So, B-Girl is a strangely mixed experience, let down by some under-developed dramaturgy. However, iOTA’s fans won’t be disappointed by his electrifying performance.

B-Girl plays until June 21. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 14