Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Review: King Roger Opera, Melbourne

Having a happy life is all about balance, it seems. But that’s not as easy to achieve as it sounds, especially when it comes to balancing intellectual impulses against carnal, pleasure against self-control.

That’s the issue at the core of King Roger, a Polish opera from 1926 (Król Roger its original Polish title).

Its composer, Karol Szymanowski, knew well the tensions caused by extremes: as an aristocrat in an age of revolution, and a gay man in a time of sexual repression, he lived the conflict that’s played out on the State Theatre’s set.

And what a set. For the first two acts, the stage is dominated by a huge model of a head, perhaps representing the human mind that’s about to be subjected to psychological turmoil.

For into the rationally-ruled kingdom of King Roger comes a shepherd who is also a holy man, preaching a new doctrine of free love and sensuality, prioritising the pleasures of the body over the stimulations of the mind.

I couldn’t help but be reminded here by Rasputin, that contemporary of the composer who bewitched the Russian royal family and helped bring about their downfall.

The king is torn, condemning the preacher at the same time he is swayed by his all-too-human lust, represented on stage by athletic, writhing near-naked men performing an erotically charged dance on the lower levels of the head’s multi-storey interior. It’s a salacious nod perhaps to Szymanowski’s own conflicted sexuality.

It all ends in tears, of course. By the start of Act III the preacher has seized power, the head has been burnt to the ground, and Roger has been cast out without his beloved queen.

The revolution of pleasure is out of control, books are being burnt, and it’s only by baring his soul to the rising sun that the deposed king is able to seek redemption.

The Opera Australia performers do a fine job in what must have been a difficult production to master. I speak some Polish and I find it difficult enough to pronounce it correctly in everyday speech, let alone in song.

The set, with its giant head and symmetrical galleries, is a clever way to portray a psychological struggle in physical form, and the 1920s-era costumes are simple but effective.

As for the story, I suspect we all feel a little like Szymanowski in these difficult times – as if it’s easy to give in to excess, and balance is near-impossible to achieve.

King Roger continues at Arts Centre Melbourne until 27 May 2017. Click here for more info or to make bookings. [Credit: photos provided by Opera Australia, taken by Jeff Busby.]

Friday, 19 May 2017

Eastern Sleeper: Night Train from Kiev to Warsaw

I paid for my own train fare from Ukraine to Poland.

In June 2016 I caught the night train from Kiev, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland.

This was a full overnight journey (and then some). I boarded at 16:48 at Kyiv-Passazhyrsky station and alighted at 09:10 the next morning at Warszawa Centralna.

It was what you might call old-school European train travel. I'd paid extra to have a 'single', ie the whole compartment to myself.

My bunk was in a sealed sleeper car (with no connection with the rest of the train, and no dining car). My carriage attendant was an impressively tall Ukrainian woman with no English who made me a cup of tea while I dined on sandwiches bought at the station in Kiev.

Then there were the theatrics along the way. A couple of hours waiting at the border in the dim pre-dawn light while Ukrainian border guards searched for smuggled cigarettes, and loud clanking sounds accompanied the adjustment of the train's wheels from the Ukrainian to Polish gauge. Loads of atmosphere!

Despite all this I did get some sleep, and attendant Natasha as I came to think of her (I never did get her name) happily posed for a photo on the platform at Warsaw.

I heartily recommend the Kiev-Warsaw sleeper or its shorter Krakow-Lviv counterpart if you yearn for a little of that old-fashioned night train travel with a dash of intrigue.

Here's a selection of photos I took on the journey:



As it's not possible yet to book these trains online, a reliable service I'd recommend to book these services ahead on your behalf is Polrail. Bon voyage! Or as the Ukrainians say, Щасливої подорожі!

Friday, 12 May 2017

The LA You Don't Know

This article was originally written for the magazine of a travel agency, which was later bought out and never published it. So here it is, for your enjoyment (Disclosure: I've generally been assisted by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board when visiting LA).

If you ask travellers what they know about Los Angeles, they’ll mention some obvious elements off the top of their heads. There’s Disneyland, of course, and the Pacific coast. Hollywood, the home of the movie industry. And linking them, plenty of spaghetti-like freeways.

These are all there, of course, but there’s much more to LA once you take the time to explore its lesser-known districts and its quirkier attractions. Here are several things to try when you’re next in the Californian city.

Eat a French Dipped Sandwich

This classic sandwich has been a popular LA treat since 1908, and the best place to eat it is Philippe the Original. An old-fashioned diner on the edge of Chinatown, it boasts retro decor, sawdust on the floor, and an old-school candy counter.

Its famous French Dipped Sandwich was created when a roast beef sandwich was accidentally dropped into a roasting pan. The customer who ate it loved the result, so since then the beef-and-gravy sandwich has been on the menu.

Nowadays it’s prepared with a rich jus which has been rendered from roasting pan drippings and beef stock over two days. Eat it with pickles and potato salad at one of the long timber tables, maybe with a beer on the side.

Soak Korean-style

West of LA’s Downtown is Koreatown, a sprawling neighbourhood populated by migrants from South Korea. It’s a great place to try Korean food, of course, but also to immerse yourself in a jjimjilbang.

The main attraction of this traditional Korean bathhouse is its series of heated baths. They’re segregated by gender, and it’s an all-nude experience – no swimming costumes allowed. After soaking, patrons get dressed in the provided T-shirt and shorts, and head to the communal relaxation areas which offer dining and entertainment options.

One of the best places to experience the Korean bathhouse in LA is Wi Spa, located near MacArthur Park.

Stroll along Broadway

In past decades the Downtown district was a dodgy part of Los Angeles, and best avoided. Now it’s returning to its past glory as gentrification takes hold, and is worth visiting for the impressive old cinema facades along Broadway.

Owned by the city’s famous movie studios a hundred years ago, these picture palaces were once the showcases of Hollywood’s finest output. Now they fulfil a variety of uses, from shopfronts to live music venues, and some still screen films.

At 10am each Saturday, the Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District Walking Tour heads along this street, showing off its architectural highlights.

Meet a Different Kind of Star

There are plenty of stars in Hollywood, but you can raise your eyes to the original stars at Griffith Observatory. Situated on hills overlooking Los Angeles’ busy sprawl, this scientific complex is a beautiful example of art deco architecture.

Acting as an astronomical museum, its interior includes exhibits both old and new, along with a planetarium. From the outdoor terraces there are great views over the city, and you can also spot the famous Hollywood sign.

Carry a Tune in a Music Hub

On the western edge of the Downtown is LA Live, a complex of entertainment venues and restaurants. Within its contemporary architecture you’ll also find the Grammy Museum, dedicated to every aspect of music.

Over several levels, visitors learn about music genres from rock to soul, via interactive displays and audio recordings. There are also exhibits dedicated to particular singing stars.

See a Real Spaceship

The California Science Centre is the home of many fascinating exhibits involving science and nature. The most impressive of these by far is the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This enormous real-life spacecraft is suspended above the heads of visitors, allowing for a sweeping view of its sleek exterior.

Beyond this spectacular sight, it’s also possible to get up close with the early years of space travel. Encased within transparent shells is a Gemini 11 space capsule, and an Apollo capsule similar to the one that first took men to the Moon. For some hands-on excitement, you can also experience a mission within a Space Shuttle simulator.

For more details of LA's attractions, visit DiscoverLosAngeles.com.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Poutine! The Best in Montreal & Quebec City

For my 2013 visit to Quebec I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

On my most recent visit to Montreal and Quebec City with Narrelle Harris, I had a bright idea.

Poutine! Visit a number of places serving the classic Quebecois dish comprising chips, gravy and cheese curds, and rank them according to highly scientific categories.

So I did. These were the results.

1. Méchant Boeuf, 124 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest, Montreal

Decor Wannabe nightclub
Vibe Loud and energetic
Fill factor Far bigger than expected for a side
Score 3 (out of 5)

"Wicked Beef" is a noisy lively place with a dimly-lit restaurant area and a bright bar lit from beneath, with people rushing around and lots of loud conversation. Not a great place for a first date, but a great place to eat a burger, or seafood from the raw bar.

It doesn't specialise in poutine, instead it comes as a side to the burgers and other dishes. We order a burger with poutine as a side, expecting it to be something small. Instead we get an excellent tasty burger done medium, with a large plate of curds, chips and gravy in the classic style.

We feel we have to eat it before the burger, or it will go cold – and it looks like the kind of dish that shouldn't be eaten cold. It's tasty though not quite as hot as could be, topped with a non-conventional serve of pulled pork.

The only problem is, once we tackle the poutine, it's difficult to eat a whole burger.

2. Montreal Pool Room, Boulevard Saint-Laurent 1217, Montreal

Decor Minimalist diner with a long steel counter and photos of famous Quebeckers who've dropped in
Vibe Trucker stop
Fill factor Perfect late-night drunken fill-up
Score 4 (out of 5)

This century-old institution in the former red light district (actually still somewhat red light - there's a strip-teaseur joint across the road) serves up simple fare. Its highlight is the hot dog steamé, a steamed sausage in a bun with toppings including chopped cabbage and onion, and relish.

It comes, of course, with an optional serve of poutine. I order the combo of two dogs (they're fairly small) and poutine with a drink [see photo above], and focus on the poutine first.

Served in a polystyrene container, it's a sizeable serve of chips, gravy and curds. The curds are nicely firm, the chips aren't too soggy and the gravy is hot; so hot that I burn my lip, a hazard for the novice. On the counter are shakers of cayenne pepper and salt, and I apply the hot stuff to pleasing effect.

After that, the dogs are almost an anti-climax, plain-tasting in soft buns. It's a good combo; but I think the poutine upstages the dogs.

3. La Banquise, 994 Rue Rachel Est, Montreal

Decor Colourful tables and jumbled architecture
Vibe Cheap and cheerful
Fill factor Good way to refuel before hitting the Le Plateau district's very walkable streets
Score 4 (out of 5)

We hit this 24-hour poutine emporium about 9am on a Sunday, when it's nearly empty except for a steady stream of taxi drivers pulling in for a post-shift feed.

What else to order but a breakfast poutine? There are several options including one with the kitchen sink, Le Cassoulet, but I order a version called L'Ensoleillée involving chopped up bacon and sausage mixed in with the poutine, and a serve of scrambled egg on top.

It is, as you'd imagine, even more filling than a standard poutine (if that's possible), with the full, comforting flavour of bacon and sausage clearly evident. It's like a full English Breakfast has been broken down to its constituent parts and added to chips, curds and gravy.

Narrelle chose La Savoyarde, poutine with bacon, onion, Swiss cheese and sour cream. She said it reminded her quite a lot of her Dad's version of bubble and squeak.

4. Chez Ashton, 54 Côte du Palais, Quebec City

Decor Reinvented '50s diner
Vibe Colourful but quick
Fill factor Filling and nominally healthy
Score 4 (out of 5)

Quebec City is often visited after Montreal, and so many locals have told me to try Chez Ashton that we give it a go when we drop into town. Some say this place is the best poutine in Quebec, or at least the best in the provincial capital.

I'm confronted with a poutine menu offering just three choices: standard poutine, Galvaude (with chicken and peas on top) and Dulton (with spicy mince).

I go for the Galvaude, reckoning that the peas will allow me to regard it as a health food. It's actually very tasty, and the combination of chicken, peas and gravy, along with the chips and cheese curds, makes it taste not unlike a Sunday roast chicken and pea combo that your grandmother might have cooked up.

The gravy is particularly tasty, not too salty or thin, and it's a satisfying end to my poutine adventure.

As much as I enjoyed it, I don't feel the need to eat poutine again for a very long time. Or at least not until I next visit Canada.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Review: Bell Shakespeare's Richard 3, Melbourne

Guest reviewer: Narrelle M Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

I first heard that a woman would be playing Richard in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard III (rebadged by the company as Richard 3) via an article the title actor Kate Mulvany wrote for The Age back in February.

Her casting was fascinating not only as a woman intending to play Richard as a man, but because Mulvany herself has a severe spinal malformation resulting from treatment for childhood cancer.

Shakespeare’s King Richard III, with his hunched back and withered arm is not precisely the Richard of history, as we know from the discovery of his remains in recent years. Many people also make good arguments that he’s a lot less evil than the Lancaster-adoring (and by association Tudor-adoring) play would have him.

With this in mind, Bell Shakespeare’s production is a further step away from a play about history and embraces contemporary issues.

In the micro view, it’s about a terrible person whom we learn has been vilified since birth for his physical malformation. Richard is a monster, with a mind as twisted as his body. But which came first – his malice or theirs? Did he grow up so cruelly scorned that he chose to become the monster they saw, just to get back at them?

These are questions I always find fascinating about this play, and which were explored well in the London production starring Martin Freeman which I saw in 2014.

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard makes these questions central to the characterisation of the king, where we see his actions but only hints of his motivations, beyond the fact he hates the world and deliberately chooses to be as vile as possible.

He’s also charming, charismatic, ruthless and clever – or he’d never get away with what he does. He’s much cleverer than the people around him, who are riven by quarrels, rivalries, self-interest, petty ambitions and greed. They’re easy pickings for Richard to divide and therefore conquer.

Despite his cleverness and gleeful treachery, Mulvany’s Richard is a lonely man, “deliberately unloved” as the actress said in her article. As villainous as he is, you can see bent Richard is either patronised or treated with utter contempt by his family.

It’s easy to perceive that this has been his lot throughout his life. That kind of thing has to affect your own self-image, and onstage Mulvany masterfully gives Richard a very believable self-contempt that leads inexorably to his later realisation: “Alas, I rather hate myself.”

On this busy set Richard is forever surrounded by people, but almost nobody ever touches him, and rarely with any kindness. All the hands laid on him as he is declared king bestow on him a knowing glow. He’s tricked them all (and us too), and yet there’s a vulnerable joy for him in the contact.

That’s not as heartbreaking as a late scene where he’s trying to find something to swear on that he hasn’t ruined, and Elizabeth hushes and holds him a way, it seems, he never has been. It’s much too late to save or forgive him by then, but that moment of fragility is profoundly affecting.

Mulvany plays Richard as a man, but the combination of her true gender and her own crooked back (revealed to our awkward discomfort at one point) add to the sense that this prince, descended from kings, is accounted less than fully human because of an accident of birth.

There’s mastery in making an audience fall half in love with a self-confessed villain, leading us to collude with him in dreadful deeds, and then ultimately to feel compassion for someone who has proven himself a pitiless brute. And this is what the actor does with her final speech, lifted from Act V of Henry VI Part III: “I am myself alone.”

The collusion of the audience with Richard is the other brilliant strength of this production and the way it speaks of current politics. In the play program director Peter Evans says plainly: “For our times, this play is completely about Trump.”

The production that plays beautifully with the fourth wall, inviting the audience to egg Richard on as he slyly claws his way toward a crown. The cast make the most of the wicked humour and Mulvany is flawlessly, deliciously, blackly funny.

But like many who have voted for someone who’ll shake up the system – and who perhaps have found entertaining, even when their utterances are demonstrably untrue and contradictory – there comes a time when the sociopath on the throne isn’t funny anymore.

Despite achieving the crown and, it would seem, the love of the people, Richard can’t rest. Brutality follows brutality and the audience stops laughing.  One particular death, shown graphically on stage, renders his previous sass and wit very ugly after all.

I’ve spoken so much of Mulvany here, it’s obvious that she’s the linchpin of this production. She graces monstrous Richard with such humanity that even if you can’t forgive his grievous sins, you can feel compassion for him. Richard might hate the world, but nobody hates Richard more than Richard does.

Her jewel of a performance is ably supported, although the remainder of the cast shine less brightly. Sandy Gore as Queen Margaret curses her enemies with great gravity and intensity, and James Evans’ Buckingham provides an excellent counterbalance in his scenes with Mulvany.

There’s so much more to unpack, but it’s best to see it for yourself. Whether your interest is in the study of a very human man warped in soul and mind as well as body, or in the study of how power can be seized by the plausible from the complacent, you’ll be rewarded.

Whichever it is, the power of Kate Mulvany in the central role sustains the play. Melbourne audiences are rightly grudging with their standing ovations, so Mulvany richly deserves the one she was willingly given the night I saw her perform.

Richard 3 runs to 7 May 2017 at the Arts Centre Melbourne; find details and make bookings here. For more about the Bell Shakespeare Company, visit its website.

Friday, 21 April 2017

By Train (and Train Ferry) to Copenhagen

I paid my own train fare from Lübeck to Copenhagen.

Last year I had an interesting surprise on my way from Germany to Denmark.

Having booked a first class train ticket to the Danish capital, I discovered upon boarding that the journey would include a sea crossing. And we wouldn't be changing trains on the way.

The trip began at Lübeck's main station, an attractive example of German railway architecture:

This was my first class seat. Deutsche Bahn's first class carriages tend to be arranged in a 2-1 configuration, so a solo traveller can get a comfortable spot with a table.

The countryside we passed was flat and green, with the odd crop of wind turbines. The exciting part, however, occurred when we reached Puttgarden.

This German town is a port on the the Fehmarnbelt, an 18km wide strait. On the other side is Rødby, on the island of Lolland in Denmark.

At the water's edge the train was guided toward a massive ferry which was waiting for us, and ran along tracks which extended inside the vessel's loading bay. Once we were snugly slotted between numerous trucks which were also making the crossing, we were requested to leave the train and go aloft via lifts or stairs.

It was a surreal sight, to step down and walk alongside a train parked among other vehicles inside a ferry:

Up top there was a beautiful view, though the hot days of the past week were starting to give way to chillier weather.

On the decks below there were shops, a cafe, a restaurant and even a dedicated lounge for the truckers. Quite a generous spread of diversions, given it was only a 45-minute crossing.

The short voyage over, we returned to the train, where once again I marvelled at the neighbouring trucks:

And a few hours later we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station:

So that was the end of my train ferry adventure. Sadly the train ferry crossing from Puttgarden to Rødby is due to be replaced by a tunnel in the next few years.

It'll cut the train journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen by 90 minutes, which is great; but it won't be half as much fun.

You can find find rail timetables and book tickets between Germany and Denmark at the Deutsche Bahn site.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 3)

So far, Narrelle Harris and I have reviewed four shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival - four in the first week and another four in the second.

Now here are our final three reviews, this time from two smaller venues away from the Melbourne Town Hall hub...

1. Small Car
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

To succeed, improvisational theatre needs a cast with rapport, who trust each other to take bizarre moments and run with them, and know when the moment is running out of steam so they can flip it around to start a new scene.

Andrew Watt, Broni and Mario Hannah come onto the tiny Tuxedo Cat stage claiming the only thing they've prepared is "their friendship". It's clearly all they need to deliver on the aforementioned techniques.

Naturally, every night will deliver a unique show. Easter Sunday's audience provides the prompt of 'a painter's studio', and they're off with an hour of improv that tells a single story.

It's the tale of an artist whose paintings are blurry ruins because his model won't sit still. It's the story of his client, the wealthy Glenroy, whose chauffeur can't eat until Glenroy is happy, and Glenroy won't be happy until his mother is happy, and his domineering mother is never happy. Well, unless she's talking to Glenroy's brother Trevor, because Trevor is just so cool.

There are stolen hats, leading to a heartbroken milliner, onward to a science project and a dodgy dad who pretends to be dead to find out if his son loves him. It ends with Glenroy and his chauffeur finally getting a meal. Or nearly, anyway.

It's mad, it's unexpected, it's hilarious and unpredictable; yet strangely coherent. God knows what story you'll get when you take a ride with Small Car. Judging by their camaraderie and energy this night, the scenery will be great along the way.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Songs in the Key of Awesomesauce
Reviewed by Tim Richards

With his clean-cut, bespectacled appearance, Matt Kilpa looks more like an accountant than a comedian - something he happily admits to. He's a talented guy with a guitar, however, and his show is a stream of comic songs on a variety of topics: including TV shows, sex, naturopathy and science.

It's amusing stuff, though there's nothing groundbreaking in the material; which in the case of Captain Planet, has to be explained to half the audience. However, Kilpa is confident and amusing and well-suited to his 6pm slot; he'll warm you up for the rest of your comedy evening.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Just Like Buddha
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Life can be difficult if you're trying to develop an easy-going Buddhist approach to life, but you have anxiety issues and work in advertising.

Anthony Jeannot explains how he navigates these tricky hazards, explaining what to do when the girl you're dating springs a surprise that doesn't end how either of you expect, and the unhelpful things that go through your mind when meditating. He also conducts an audience poll on whether certain insights he's had are the result of meditation or magic mushrooms.

Jeannot is nervy but likeable. His material and approach feel fresh, though more confident, crisp delivery would give the material extra oomph.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you had some laughs! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 2)

Last post, Narrelle Harris and I reviewed four shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Here are four more...

1. Nanette
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Hannah Gadsby is giving up comedy. She tells us so at the start of her show, and insists it's not solely the fault of the surly Nanette who radiated so much hostility at a small town cafe. What follows is a powerful show that is as much drama as comedy.

The thing is, says Gadsby, she's built a career out of making painful parts of her life a joke, and editing out the end of each story - not so much a punchline as a punch in the gut. What we get here is best appreciated if you've followed the last decade of her shows, the themes of which inform an act that is fierce and funny, though not always simultaneously.

She does her comedian's job of building tension and then relieving it, but then builds more and more of it, and relieves less and less of it. The result is unexpected, deeply moving though also shockingly funny. It's almost like she's done a Bill Hicks of her own life, stripping it down and presenting a raw, honest version of it.

I say 'raw' but this is nothing like an undercooked performance. Gadsby may seem understated, but she's very good at what she does, guiding the audience from the usual droll routine to more prickly, more pointed elements of her relationship with the world. It's essentially a crafted theatrical monologue.

"Don't get the impression that because the world doesn't care about me [as a woman, as a lesbian] that I don't care about the world." Gadsby is indeed passionate. When the equal marriage debate hauls up lines like "think of the children!" she does think of the children: the ones growing up marginalised and ashamed of who they are.

This show is full of humour as well as anger, full of love as well as ferocity - often simultaneously, as in life. If this really is Hannah Gadsby's last season on the comedy stage, she's leaving us with her whole story, with tension-relieving laughter but also deep truths. Just as the best comedy should.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Sassy Best Friend
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Rose Matafeo is a likeable, slightly dorky Kiwi who finds herself stuck in the role of the sassy best friend in a romantic comedy. You know, the one with the unruly curly hair and the lighting-fast comebacks, urging the lead character on to triumphs in love.

She'd like to be the lead though, and she has a stab at it in this hour of good-natured stand-up: telling us, for example, about her lonely life when she moved to London, and how she tried to solve that by hanging around Leicester Square and inserting herself into other people's stories.

She also has a stab at seducing a member of the audience over the hour (tonight's victim: Wes the marketing guy), partly through the time-honoured medium of removing her glasses to show how hot she is. In between these forays she relates her shortcomings, and how they keep her from perfection.

Matafeo is a warm, engaging comedian whose comedy revolves around her relatable life and its limitations. Her show is light but fun, and the audience in the tiny venue is won over. The only flaw, perhaps, is that the "sassy best friend" rom-com trope isn't explored enough; with development it could support a whole show by itself.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Organic
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Arj Barker is in love, and he's not afraid to admit it; thought he does submit any new jokes about his relationship to the other half for her approval before delivering them onstage.

Another element of his coupledom is an emphasis on organic food, and even gluten-free food (basically apples), which has made his life... interesting. In laid-back style, Barker hints at the trials healthy eating has caused him, while never varying from his "everything's fine" tone.

Although a relaxed delivery style is Barker's shtick, it sometimes seems too relaxed. The comedian has a habit of holding the microphone away from his face, causing the volume to drop, and there's not much energy as he arrives on stage and fiddles with his phone in order to record the show.

Having said that, there are plenty of laughs in the show, and Barker's familiarity with Australia is a strength as he flawlessly skewers the Aussie penchant for incorporating "shit" into slang, and cunningly subverts an event that's one of Melbourne's holiest of cows.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. P.O.R.T.E.N.Z.A
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

When you enter a room to find a man in an unflattering blue dress, lipstick, rouge and a beret, dancing and greeting everyone ebulliently as they arrive, you know you're not in for the same old stand-up routine.

Absurd, clownish, unpredictable but ultimately rather sweet, Portenza feels like he's channelling absurdist comedy greats of the '70s - perhaps Kenny Everett or characters from Grahame Bond's Aunty Jack Show.

Through running gags (card tricks, poetry and an oft-mentioned family at the airport) and bizarre scenes and characters, the audience quickly comes to trust Portenza. We willingly engage with his banter and interaction. Ridiculous gags are set up early and later return, more ridiculous, to the delight of the crowd.

It's all a bit barmy and utterly absurd; and thoroughly good fun.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

Enjoy the festival!

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 1)

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events, and 2017 is its 31st year of operation.

Every autumn it takes over the city centre, with numerous performance spaces sited within the grand Melbourne Town Hall, along with many others in nearby theatres, pubs and bars.

Several of this year's festival shows will be covered here by myself and Narrelle Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

Here's our first set of reviews.

1. The Cat Show
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Justin Heazlewood sets the tone for The Cat Show by crawling onto the stage in white shorts, spats, a furry bib and cat ears, and inspecting the stage. He gets onto his feet soon enough, but throughout the show he reverts to a dedicated cat-ness in which he gets audience members to dangle cat toys for him to play with, and chases scrunched up paper.

Other very recognisable cat behaviours come and go in between Heazlewood’s trademark comic songs, ranging from diagnoses of the mental health states of our feline friends and the perils of share houses, to more surreal topics.

Heazlewood’s fey charm, musical talent and occasional inspired bit of observation – his analysis of 'Missing' posters for lost cats springs to mind – keep this show going in spite of weak structure and some spots of sloppy execution. When he points out partway through that he really needs a director, you can’t help thinking he’s right.

But then there’s another strange and wistful song about life, and he head-butts a bit of furniture before inspecting the litter tray, and it seems that, like cats, The Bedroom Philosopher gets away with a lot because he’s so engaging.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Something Better
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I should've known that seeing a British comedian in the week Brexit was finally triggered would result in hearing material on that fateful blow to the EU. I just didn't expect it from Josie Long. Last time I saw her onstage, years ago, she was the quintessential "nice guy comedian" full of whimsical humour. This time, however, she's political - though still charming and sweet and endearingly gormless in her application to activism.

The impetus for her rambling but funny act might have been Brexit and Trump, but its subject is more herself than any outside force. Trying to figure out how things went so horribly wrong, she references To Kill a Mockingbird and the Daily Mail, while explaining why wishes always backfire. In the end, it seems, the trouble we're in is all her fault. But at least she can make you laugh about it.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

New Order

3. New Order
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Shows comprising several comedians doing individual sets can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get, except one will probably be a blokey young guy doing dick jokes.

Happily, New Order defies this tradition by giving us four up-and-coming British comedians who are funny, sharp and innovative. Brennan Reece, leading the set, does good-natured stand-up which revolves around family, particularly the nightmare son of his girlfriend.

He's succeeded by Ahir Shah, or "Shit Shag" (you'll have to attend to understand why). This beautifully spoken Brit of Indian heritage makes fun of his posh accent, then twists it to address racism and stereotypes. Brexit gets a run here too, as he works his way up to an eloquent near-rant which remains entertaining.

Third on the bill is Emma Sidi, who performs a large chunk of her set in pseudo-Spanish, as she plays out the scandalous betrayal of her character by her lover, Pablo. Switching to English, she drags a hapless audience member up on stage to harangue him, then reveals her terrible past as an addict of such drugs as Vicks Vaporub, Gaviscon and Paracetamol. She's an energetic breath of fresh air.

The final performer, Steve Bugeja, is a Class-A geek who gets mileage from his awkward love life. He recounts his failed attempts to fit in with the lads, and the horror of his failed attempt to spark a round of "Hip hip hooray". He's a likeable nerd and a funny final act.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. How to be a Middle-Aged Woman (Without Going Insane)
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

As a woman of a certain age, I knew I'd spend this show either laughing or crying. In the end I did both.

There's undeniable hilarity in a brazen, frank woman sharing, brazenly and frankly, the physical, hormonal and emotional experiences of being middle-aged. As someone still new to the hazards of peri-menopause, there's also some tear-inducing relief that I'm not actually going nuts. (Or, as my husband puts it, I am a bit, but there's a reason for it.)

I last saw Jenny Eclair 16 years ago, where she was breathtakingly hilarious about the perils of having turned 40. At 57, she remains earthy, forthright, uproariously inappropriate and gloriously honest about not giving a damn if her bra and knickers match; sudden bouts of incandescent rage; ideas on how to harness the power of the hot flush; and the teeth-grating irritation that is Gwyneth Paltrow.

The audience is largely made up of middle-aged women (laughing so hard they possibly wee a little), and some younger women gaining unwelcome insights into the years to come. A smattering of men laugh just as hard.

And it is a very funny show. This isn't some cosily humorous look at menopause, and despite the title it contains almost no tips on how to survive it. Jenny Eclair is ribald, laugh-till-you-wheeze funny and also, as it happens, hotter than Beyonce (body temperature-wise).

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 24 March 2017

Symphony on Port Phillip Bay

I was hosted by Crystal Cruises for this visit.

I'm not much of a fan of large sea-going cruise ships, though I've been on some smaller river cruises that I've enjoyed.

That doesn't mean I won't have a peek aboard a large cruise ship when I get the chance. In January I was invited with a bunch of other travel writers aboard the Crystal Symphony, which was anchored at Port Melbourne's Station Pier preparatory to a major cruise.

It's a big vessel:

After going through security and boarding the ship, we were split into groups and were led on an informal tour. Our tour leader was a Swiss musician who performs for the passengers by night, and had volunteered to show us around.

The attention to detail in the vessel's interior design was impressive; evolving the golden age of ocean liners with a hint of Art Deco, but not so much as to make it look like a movie set:



I particularly liked the "@" symbol set in marble at the entrance of the computer room:

And the cinema looked pretty cool as well:

We ended up in this ambient bar, having a afternoon tea:

Looking out from the deck, I could see this lettering on the roof of the pier way below:

Seems an appropriate message for those arriving at Station Pier, where many new arrivals in the great postwar wave of migration had their first glimpse of Australia. Passengers on the Crystal Symphony are more well-heeled, but the message still applies. 

For more about the Crystal Symphony, visit this link.