Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark

Wharf 1, June 19

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Richard Higgins as Hamlet and Matt Kelly as Claudius. Photo: Prudence Upton

Anyone familiar with children’s comedy duo The Listies will know that fart, poo and vomit jokes feature large – and a Listies production of Shakespeare is no different.

The Listies are a classic odd couple with Richard Higgins as the sensible straight man and Matt Kelly as the goofy mischief-maker. Their latest show Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark, was created in cahoots with Declan Greene (of renowned queer Melbourne theatre group Sisters Grimm).

It’s a terrific match. Greene, who also directs, has helped them streamline their shtick into a more tightly structured show without losing any of the ridiculous fun that they are known for.

Presented by Sydney Theatre Company, Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark begins with Higgins and Kelly in usher’s outfits doing a lackadaisical job of guiding people to their seats. But when the lights go up on stage, there’s not an actor in sight. It turns out they are all suffering from “the brown plague” having eaten blue cheese that was 400-years past its use-by date, which Matt gave them in an opening night gift basket.

Rather than disappointing the audience, the duo decide to perform the play themselves with Rich in doublet and hose as Hamlet and Matt as everyone else except Ophelia, who they talk the stage manager Olga (Olga Miller) into playing.

However, they only have 60 minutes because that’s how long it takes for the brown plague to turn your innards to liquid, and Matt has made Rich taste the poisonous cheese too.

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Olga Miller and Matt Kelly. Photo: Prudence Upton

Aiming for a “confrontingly traditional” production, Rich does his best to stick to the plot, explaining it in simple terms for children and jumping from one big moment to the next. But before too long things start spinning out of control. Matt can’t help playing up and Olga’s feisty Ophelia isn’t going quietly to a nunnery and instead heads to Planet Nunnery with Claudius, returning as a zombie.

Throw in a dancing dinosaur, tea towel aliens, a giant ear, silly string, a communal version of “To be, or not to be” and a trademark list and you have one of the funniest introductions to Shakespeare imaginable.

Renee Mulder’s set (a painted castle which looks like a storybook pop-up) and wonderfully silly costumes complement the shenanigans perfectly.

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark is recommended for ages 5+ but there is plenty of smart humour for the adults too, with young and old all laughing along together at the riotously funny Bard-arse show.

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark plays at Wharf 1 until July 17. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 26

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2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Calpurnia Descending

Wharf 2, October 11

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Melbourne’s self-styled “gay DIY drag-theatre” group Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) has made a name for itself subverting classic film genres to create hilarious, high camp stage comedies.

Last year, Sydney Theatre Company had a hit when it presented Little Mercy, which played with the tropes of the “evil child” horror film.

Now comes Calpurnia Descending, a Sisters Grimm production commissioned by STC and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, in which Flanders and Paul Capsis play rival divas. It sounds like a match made in heaven but Calpurnia Descending ends up feeling rather less than the sum of its parts.

It’s 1939. Aging, faded, Broadway legend Beverly Dumont (Capsis) is living as a recluse in a New York apartment with her sinister butler Tootles (Sandy Gore). But when a small-town, wannabe starlet called Violet St Clair (Flanders) comes across her by accident, Dumont agrees to make a dramatic return to the Broadway stage.

Dumont will star as Caesar’s third wife Calpurnia in a tragedy written by her late husband, while St Clair will play Cleopatra.

But will Beverly tolerate Violet when the director (Peter Paltos) is so obviously infatuated with her? And will the not-so-sweet ingénue be content in Beverly’s shadow?

Calpurnia Descending begins in familiar territory with echoes of iconic films like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Then a screen covering the entire stage descends and the production turns filmic. Black and white footage shot live (and badly out of sync) transform the narrative – the rehearsal period – into an old movie. This then morphs into a manic, dizzily colourful, pre-recorded animation in which Beverly appears trapped in a nightmarish video clip or web page.

Where Norma Desmond was undone by the transition from silent films to the talkies, Miss Dumont will struggle to survive in the Internet era where pop stars are the new divas.

Beverly is a gift of a role for Capsis who made his name “channeling” divas as a cabaret performer, and he makes the most of it, playing her spotlight-craving, hard-drinking monstrousness to the hilt while still making her tragic. It’s a fine performance.

Ash Flanders,  Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ash Flanders, Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Flanders conveys the ruthlessness beneath the sweet façade beautifully. The cross-gender casting also features Gore in nicely observed, amusing performances as Tootles and Broadway producer Max Silvestri who desperately needs a hit, while Paltos hits just the right note as the dashing, young, diva-struck director.

Calpurnia Descending is technically ambitious and cleverly designed (set and costumes by David Fleischer, AV by Matthew Gingold, animation by Matthew Greenwood, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, sound by Jed Palmer). It’s also fun but the filmic element feels over-long and the plot twists become confusing.

Directed by Greene, the production goes beyond mere homage or parody but in the end what it’s trying to say isn’t clear. Some have read it as an exploration of the commercialisation of queer culture and appropriation of gay icons (think Katy Perry) but I’m not at all convinced that comes across.

Calpurnia Descending is at Wharf 2 until November 8

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 19

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

SBW Stables Theatre, May 7

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography is a provocative title so it should be said right up front that this new play by Melbourne writer Declan Greene is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic.

There is some nudity, but it accompanies a fleeting glimpse of tenderness rather than anything raunchy, and some strong language. Essentially, however, the play is a dark, raw exposé of two desperately lonely people.

Greene has written a very ‘now’ play set in the Internet world where people around the world are connected like never before, while genuine human interaction seems more difficult than ever; a world where everything from groceries to porn are just a few clicks away.

It features two fairly unprepossessing, unfulfilled, middle-aged people. He (Steve Rodgers) works in IT and is unhappily married. She (Andrea Gibbs) is a nurse with two children and a crushing debt. Both are lonely and full of self-loathing. To fill the void he consumes Internet porn, she shops. They connect via an online dating site then meet at a bar.

Written with an incisive economy, most of the spiky dialogue is addressed directly to the audience as the characters confess their fears, dreams and dark secrets. Only now and again do they actually talk to each other. In a way this holds us a little at bay – which is partly the point – but gradually the actors draw us in.

Co-produced by Griffin and Perth Theatre Companies, Lee Lewis directs a stark production on a minimal set by Marg Horwell (pale mauve shagpile carpet on the floor and walls, and large white blinds), colourfully lit by Matthew Marshall, which captures the anonymity of cyberspace and the aridity of their lives, with a nod to the world of porn.

Lewis’s direction is as taut as the writing but she also leavens the bleakness with a surprising amount of humour.

Rodgers and Gibbs give unflinchingly brave performances as they mine their characters’ addictions, vulnerability and longing with devastating authenticity, bringing warmth where it might easily not exist.

Running a tight one hour, Eight Gigabytes is troubling, insightful and terribly sad.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography runs until June 4. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817. It then plays at The Street Theatre, Canberra, June 17 – 21, and Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, July 1 – 12.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden

SBW Stables Theatre, November 22

Agent Cleave and Bessie Holland. Photo: Marg Horwell

Agent Cleave and Bessie Holland. Photo: Marg Horwell

The life-sized horse in the foyer, with a crochet blanket skin and a mane of plastic flowers, is just a taster for what’s to come inside the theatre.

There, Marg Horwell’s dizzily colourful set  – with hanging baskets of iridescent flowers, a spouting golden statue fountain, a cane chair covered in crotchet and adorned with knitted toys, and mountains of cotton wool on the floor – is the perfect setting for Sisters Grimm’s gloriously camp, gothic melodrama Summertime in the Garden of Eden.

Sisters Grimm are a self-styled “queer DIY” theatre group formed by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene in 2006 in Melbourne, where they have built a cult following.

They were first seen in Sydney earlier this year, when Sydney Theatre Company presented their 2010 show Little Mercy, which put a trademark gender-bending spin on a film genre. In the case of Little Mercy, it was the “evil child” movie, with Flanders giving a dazzling performance as the bored, alcoholic wife of a musical theatre director with everything except offspring.

Now comes Summertime in the Garden of Eden, presented in association with Melbourne’s Theatre Works as part of Griffin Independent.

First staged last year in a shed in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury, the current, reworked production arrives direct from a hugely successful season at Theatre Works.

Co-written by Flanders and Greene, and directed by Greene, Summertime draws on the Southern antebellum sweeping epic, notably films like Gone with the Wind and Jezebel, while the repression of desire and family secrets, as well as the onset of madness, is also reminiscent of Tennessee Williams plays Suddenly, Last Summer and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Flanders doesn’t appear this time – though the eagle-eyed may spot a frocked-up portrait of him on the wall as part of the Summertime set design.

Set in 1861 in the Deep South during the American Civil War, Summertime tells the tale of the Washington family: plantation owner Big Daddy and his daughters Honey Sue and Daisy May.

The cross-gender casting sees Bessie Holland as Big Daddy, while Melbourne drag artists Agent Cleave and Olympia Bukkakis don the crinolines as his daughters.

It begins with the homecoming of Honey Sue, who hasn’t been seen since she ran away 10 years ago on the night of her 16th birthday party. It’s clear she is much changed. What was it that happened in Big Daddy’s greenhouse (the so-called Garden of Eden) to make her flee on that fateful night? Where has she been since then and why is she back now?

Waiting at home with Big Daddy is her younger sister Daisy May, recently engaged to the dashing Clive O’Donnell (Peter Paltos). Naturally enough, everything is not as it seems, with revelations aplenty.

Though Summertime is as camp as Chloe, the production is precisely pitched, walking a knife-edge but never tripping over it and going too far over the top. For all the outrageous fun, the performances are played with enough honesty that the production stops short of becoming a drag show – even though it allows for Olympia Bukkakis to include a drag number.

Making an unforgettable entrance, Agent Cleave is entrancing as Daisy May. With his own long, thick hair flowing, he makes an incredibly beautiful southern belle, even with a beard, tattoos and sneakers, his every gesture convincingly demure and girlish – until pushed.

Olympia Bukkakis has all the right mannerisms as the worldly-wise, diva-like Honey Sue, Holland brings a Colonel Sanders-like gruffness to Big Daddy, and Paltos negotiates the plot’s twists and turns with charm and gusto.

Genevieve Giuffre makes up the cast, giving a hilarious performance as the family slave Mammy, with Giuffre manipulating a golliwog doll held in front of her, which makes you wince even as you laugh.

You have to suspend your disbelief more than a little with one of the final revelations in particular but fiddle-dee-dee. Beneath all the outrageous frivolity and tongue-in-cheek fun, there are serious political themes about gender, sexual power, race. privilege and prejudice. There’s even a touch of pathos at the end.

Running 65 minutes without interval, Summertime is as smart as it is fun. The high-camp, lo-fi aesthetic – complemented by Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting and Russell Goldsmith’s sound – is a blast of fresh air from young, audacious theatre-makers who are clearly going places, with political points to make while presenting ridiculously enjoyable shows.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden plays at the SBW Stables Theatre until December 14. Bookings 02 9361 3817 or http://www.griffintheatre.com.au