Friday, 28 September 2018

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2018

It's time again for Melbourne Fringe, the annual festival of performing arts which tests boundaries. I've been in South Korea and Japan for most of September, but have managed to catch a few shows in its final week. Here's what Narrelle Harris and I have seen...

1. Narrelle's Fringe Diary.

Broke
Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

Eggsistentialism
Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

Attendees of Rowena Hutson's show Broke are offered cake on arrival at Studio 2 by 'Rosie', dressed in blue dungarees, a red bandana (a la Rosie the Riveter), and a pair of Princess Leia-like ear muffs.

The last item is no coincidence, as Carrie Fisher is cited as an inspiration for Rosie's stories of her experiences with anxiety, panic disorder and gaslighting: 'It's a show about toxic masculinity and baking.'

Rosie's passion for DIY and baking are intertwined with her history of crippling anxiety, and tempered by her optimism and gentle support of the audience. She explores ways of demonstrating what a panic attack feels like, infused with humour and energy (and mindfulness about not triggering anyone in the audience).

Given a significant percentage of the population is likely to have had experience of anxiety and panic, the show has a strong dramatic effect. Hutson balances the emotional impact of the experiences she describes with an adorable, slightly goofy energy.

The show is in turns sweet and affecting, but is clearly a work in progress as some sections drag, detracting from the impact. Once issues of pacing and flow are addressed, this strong narrative about the seeds of anxiety will have more impact.

In the same venue, just over an hour later, Joanne Ryan undergoes a 35th birthday crisis in Eggsistentialism. Waking with a hangover, her terrifying question is not 'What did I do last night?' but 'What am I doing with my life?'

There follows an hour of wit, warmth and critique as she tries to work out whether or not she ought to have children.

This personal quandary is interwoven with Ireland's history of women's reproductive rights; her own mother's story as a single parent; social attitudes to parenting based on gender; and the pros and cons (she makes a list!) of becoming a mother.

This show is a mix of philosophy and social critique, along with personal history and the exploration of what is a good life. It's interspersed with amusing interjections from her mother, and enhanced with superb audiovisual content. The conclusion is satisfying, and full of wisdom.

2. Tim's Fringe Diary.

Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux
Until 30 September 2018, Courthouse Hotel

Cockroach
Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

In a room above the Courthouse Hotel’s busy bar, a man sits on a stage playing a video game involving soldiers fighting in monochrome streets.

Before long this opening scene of Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux shifts to an actual war, the Great War, as the young man discovers his great-grandfather’s war diary in an old chest and transitions to the character of that soldier.

Actor Shane Palmer maintains the energy onstage as he takes us through the horrors of the Western Front, leading through recruitment and training to the carnage of the frontline. It culminates in the battle for Villers-Bretonneux, famously linked with the valour of Australian troops who helped recapture the town from the Germans.

The material is well paced, but feels similar to other stories we’ve been offered about World War One; I’m not sure what this tale brings to the voluminous canon of work about that conflict that’s new.

Also, there’s something forced about some of the lines - as the character suggests, for example, that this battle might the first ever example of a tank-on-tank skirmish (it was). If more was revealed of the soldier’s feelings and personality, and he stood out more strongly as an individual, we might be more moved.

Having said that, Echoes is a snappy piece, and Palmer neatly projects the mix of wide-eyed naïveté and determination that keeps his character focused. As the 100th anniversary of the Armistice approaches later this year, and the four-year centenary of that appalling conflict draws to a close, this isn’t an unworthy example of First World War remembrance.

Across the road and behind the North Melbourne Town Hall (aka Arts House), something far edgier is hitting the stage. Cockroach is billed as "an amoral revenge tale for the #MeToo generation", and involves a woman who finds she's been transformed into a cockroach.

"Ah, Kafka's Metamorphosis," you think, but you'd be wrong. Performer Melita Rowston has reached back into the pre-Kafka past to riff on the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, a set of tales in which women are raped and/or turned into objects such as trees.

The twist here is that C, our heroine, uses the power of the cockroach to twist these tales of men's domination the other way around. One by one, she punishes abusive men in the style in which they have abused - from the sleazy movie producer to the malpractising doctor.

This revenge fantasy is delivered in raucous style to the backing of high-voltage electric guitar music, and via Rowston's energetic, confident physicality and acid-sharp delivery. Cockroach is not at all polite, but it is darkly funny and utterly timely.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues to 30 September 2018. Find program details and buy tickets at its website.

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