Friday, 27 September 2019

Big Things of Normanton, Queensland

In March 2018, I spent a few days in the remote Outback Queensland town of Normanton, awaiting the weekly run of the Gulflander train.

I’d arrived early in order to leave plenty of wriggle room for delays caused by rain at the end of the wet season, and even so there was some doubt whether the train would run.

Killing time while I waited for news, one morning I walked to the site of the old river port which had once connected the town to the Gulf of Carpentaria. 

I was surprised to find a well-marked cycling and pedestrian trail leading to the old wharf, 700 metres north of the town’s edge. Perhaps in the dry season people cycled along it in droves, but I was the only one using it today. 

Though I was happy the rain had paused, with the sun out it was oppressively hot and humid. I was feeling grateful for my Akubra hat, as I walked along the exposed asphalt.

On the way I passed a flood marker which topped out at seven metres. No wonder the town was built at a slight remove. I could already see evidence that the Norman River didn’t keep to its course: to one side of the trail was a green-brown lagoon of half-submerged trees, and flowers blooming above floating pads. I heard a large splash, and braced myself to see what had caused it. Just a wallaby among the foliage, who hopped away ahead of me.

It was deserted at the riverbank, though two parked utes with empty trailers spoke of locals out on a Sunday fishing excursion. Two heritage sites were signboarded: the modernised boat ramp which had had a winch-operated punt from the 1880s to 1965, and the remnants of the old wharf, which had been wrecked by a flood in 1974. Powerful floods were something Alice Springs rarely had to endure, but it was a common hazard in this would-be Town Like Alice (on which that famous novel was based).

I was sitting in the shelter next to the boat ramp, taking notes, when my eye was caught by a sign by the water featuring “ACHTUNG” in black lettering. The German word was more noticeable than the red “WARNING” in English above it, and the gist of the sign was that a saltwater crocodile had been sighted here recently and people should keep away from the water’s edge.

I relocated to the picnic area several metres farther back, and scoped out a place to climb higher should a crocodile attack. What I’d taken to be a children’s playground next to the picnic area I now saw was an outdoor gym, a set of boards with rails and inclines.

If a crocodile appeared, I was probably doomed. But possibly I could scramble to the top of the inclined exercise bench. There was also an old crane set in concrete by the wharf. Though farther away, it would be easy to climb.

Escape route considerations aside, it was pleasant by the river, though never quiet - I could hear the call of birds in the trees around me, along with the deep croaks of frogs and the buzz of insects. Small black flies crawled annoyingly over my face when they felt they could get away with it, and at one point a kite flew under the canopy of the picnic area, right over my head, to land on a nearby vantage point.

Cooling breezes blew from the river in unpredictable patterns, and the occasional car pulled in to offload a boat on the ramp. Mostly I was alone. It was a soothing experience, despite the heat and my little insect friends.

Jake, a barman at the Albion pub, had given me a card for Gulf Getabout, a local transport service which acted like a taxi. Its card promised “Like a taxi, but BETTER!” I asked them to pick me up from the river. It beat walking.

Mel the driver chauffered me to the Big Barra, Normanton’s entry in Australia’s fabled pantheon of Big Things. It was a huge replica of a barramundi, standing upright on its tail, outside a motel. Barramundi fishing was a big thing around here. 

On the way back into town, Mel swung onto the other side of the road to let me photograph the Welcome to Normanton sign: 

Welcome to Normanton
Population small
We love them all
Drive carefully

When I remarked on the flexibility of road rules in small towns - I’d noticed a ute driving by without licence plates the day before - Mel said the local police had recently made themselves unpopular by actually enforcing the law, including the need for licence plates.

She dropped me at the Purple Pub, the Albion’s rival on the main street. It was an archetypal Aussie pub, except it was painted a distinctive shade of eggplant. I ordered a beer and asked the barmaid how it had ended up that way.

“One of the previous publicans ordered new paint,” she said, “But when it showed up it was the wrong colour. He was something of a tight-arse, and didn’t want to pay to freight to send it back. So now it’s purple.”

Fair enough. I ordered a beer, and waited for my train.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 (Part 2)

Narrelle Harris and I have seen more shows at the 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Here are four new reviews...


1. Apex Predator
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Lucretia Mackintosh arrives on stage with her Disney princess eyes and smile and a bright red clown nose. She’s offering to do a stand-up routine for Elizabeth Davie, who's lurking fearfully behind the curtain, and takes to the task with gusto.

In fact, Lucretia turns out to be a kind of slasher revenge clown, a charming psychopath, and she deals with one unseen predatory male after another in very decisive fashion. There’s gleeful transgression in the audience participation after Lucretia mimes a decapitation, and glimpses of character motivation ("They say don’t fight back in case it makes them angry. But what if I get angry?").

Recently on Twitter, someone said the Joker should actually be a woman who was told by a man she should smile more - once too often. Elizabeth Davie’s creation feels like the prototype of that Joker.  

Apex Predator is playfully savage (or savage and playful), with some of the most horrific and blackly funny mime I’ve ever seen. The pacing between encounters can be a bit slow, but it’s wickedly funny. For anyone who has endured a creeper, a groper, or any unwanted sexual advance, it's disturbingly satisfying too.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


2. Side A
Reviewed by Tim Richards

In the late 20th century, before the arrival of CD players and MP3s, a kid’s identity was still wrapped up in tape: cassette tape. Amanda Santuccione is accompanied by a big reel-to-reel tape player, portable cassette players, and a stack of mix tapes. She uses these to intersperse tales of growing up in Geelong with snippets of music and the words of her family and friends.

It’s a warm, nostalgic trip through childhood, puberty and young adulthood accompanied by memorable tunes... until first a friend and then Amanda herself end up in abusive relationships. Music is a part of the healing process, bound up with her friendships and family bonds from start to finish.

It’s an enjoyable show, though the performer’s lines are sometimes lost to the music and the noise seeping in from the Trades Hall corridor. Audience members will find plenty to relate to in the way Amanda’s favourite music acts as the soundtrack to her life.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


3. The Kick Inside
Reviewed by Tim Richards

On stage, Kerensa Diball dons the colourful headdress of Athena; the Greek god who, as she says, was responsible for the creativity that led to the conquest of Troy via a wooden horse. Along with Helen Mirren, she’s one of the few role models for a woman who decides not to have children.

That’s what this show’s about, Diball’s decision not to have kids and her coming to terms with that. As part of that process, she does some '60s dancing in '60s gear, takes us through her history of work and travel, and responds to recordings of her partner and her mum.

It’s a good topic for a show and Diball is a likeable performer, but she needs work on her voice projection and other performance skills to give the act the snappy execution it needs. The script also feels a little slight - at 35 minutes’ actual run time it could stand fleshing out with more complex aspects of her child-free decision.

Having said that, the sequence presenting Diball as an egg-laying insect is a piece of prop-driven genius.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


4. Monster / Woman
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Medusa’s story is generally well known. An evil woman with snakes for hair, whose deadly look turns all to stone, fated to be decapitated by the hero Perseus.

That’s one version anyway, and not even the most original. Medusa’s mythology is full of dichotomies and contradictions about beauty/monstrosity. All of them are explored by Sabrina D’Angelo in this superb, engaging, thoughtful and funny black comedy.

The tale begins with Medusa’s severed head on a table in the afterlife. She’s naturally bemused (and a bit distressed about her lack of a body) while a prissy Afterlife Border Security officer (David McLaughlin) quizzes her about her life and death.

After some delicious snake puns as she introduces him to the individual snakes on her head, Medusa finds some old VHS tapes. These take her back through the ages as she re-learns her origin story and how she’s been reinterpreted through the centuries - almost exclusively as a way for men to frame their own interests and fetishes.

But there’s a feminist take on Medusa as well, one which happily reminded me that Luciano Garbarti’s 2008 turnabout statue of Medusa holding Perseus’ severed head exists.

D’Angelo is endlessly excellent onstage, flowing between vulnerability, comic delivery, femme fataleness and heroic poses, with splendid physicality and a marvellously expressive face. McLaughlin provides terrific support and some sly commentary on the Medusa myth as together they work through the changing symbolism.

Monster / Woman is funny, strange and wonderful. Go see it.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here] 

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

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 (Part 1)

The Melbourne Fringe Festival is on again, and Narrelle Harris and I have been seeing shows. Here's our first set of reviews from the 2019 program...


1. It All Sparks Joy
Reviewed by Tim Richards

As far as staging goes, It All Sparks Joy is an intriguing production. Crammed into a tiny room on the first floor of Trades Hall, its clutter of books and household objects allows just ten audience members to sit along one wall. Performer Dylan Cole stands within his character’s banked-up personal possessions, as if within a fort.

They do represent a fortification of sorts, an emotional one, which he’s vowed to break down in order to move on from divorce and related trauma in his recent past. Aiding him in this task is a pile of self-help books: the more genteel ones with “The Art of...” in their titles, the raffish newer ones with the word “F*ck”.

Flipping through them, starting with Marie Kondo’s volumes, he tries to discard items from his broken past, and fails utterly as nothing ends up in the discard pile. No matter how useless or torn the object, it has links with his history which he’s not ready or able to sunder.

In the meantime, an occasionally ringing phone hints at something so dark and traumatic that the experts’ advice becomes quite trivial. This is a moving performance, amplified by the compact venue, and a reminder that not every human hurt can be solved by the trite formulations of media-friendly gurus.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


2. Wednesday Morning 3am
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

The tagline for this show is “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you," and that seems apt. Its likeable presenter, Doctor Thomas D Richards, begins by weaving a rich tapestry of theories of how the universe was created, adding his feeling that such a huge and sudden event probably happened on a Wednesday morning at 3am, when humans are at their most vulnerable.

That’s the show’s most coherent point, after which it clambers through aspects of pigeon taxonomy, the intersection of pigeons and background radiation,  moon landings, origami, and a strange and superfluous sequence of the Earth as a little girl and her inappropriate daddy, before winding down into a weird entropy.

The pacing is choppy though the blend of science, chaos and mysticism is engaging even when the slow pace undermines it.

It’s admittedly very Fringe, and there’s a sense of a stronger though still surreal show lurking behind the space dust. Richards has a gentle, goofy, knowledgeable charm which holds this odd act together better than you’d expect.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


3. Quite Drunk, Very Jesus-y
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

In a world where social progressives and religious conservatives seem at irreconcilable odds, Grace de Morgan’s play takes a refreshing look at the challenges of Christian faith in modern society. In it, three friends are helping a fourth to celebrate a significant birthday. To make Agnes’ 30th just that bit more significant, it’s revealed that she’s still a virgin.

Quite Drunk, Very Jesus-y covers a lot of ground in its uninterrupted 85 minutes. With Australia's equal marriage plebiscite in the background, discussions encompass being gay and Christian, attitudes to pre-marital sex and virginity, different approaches to faith, shifting power in group dynamics, love, lies, honesty, loyalty, forgiveness, and growing up and apart from the friends of your youth.

Every character is nuanced, in turns being sympathetic and “a bag of dicks”. Their innate humanness makes them warm and funny, and the conflicts very real. I’ve had similar discussions on faith and modern society with friends and family, so the play's concerns feel immediate and credible. It approaches these topics with compassion as well as humour, so we feel engaged rather than preached at.

The performances lack a little confidence at the beginning, and need more confident projection. But the ensemble cast is excellent, and uniformly believable as adults who are now less certain of the friendships and attitudes formed in their youth group days.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


4. Sweet & Sour Dilemmas
Reviewed by Tim Richards

In the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in a Victorian country town, a chef is forming dumplings while chatting to us about his life. We can see he's doing the former, as his benchtop is projected onto the side wall of the room, with the dumplings being shaped in pace with the monologue.

Its subject is migrant life in Australia, as seen through the eyes of a recent arrival with Chinese heritage via Indonesia and Malaysia. It's complicated, but not so to his Australian customers, who see him simply as "Chinese".

Peter the chef (played by Brendan Wan) is a likeable character dropping observations on his strange new homeland one by one, and pondering whether his newborn son would fare better in Australia, where he might not fit in, or in Indonesia, where he'd have less opportunity.

Some of Wan's broader gags fall flat, and the actor's timing needs work to make the most of his material. But overall it's an enjoyable patter, with effective (and often funny) observations of Australian culture: including a curious origin story for the Westernised marvel that is sweet and sour sauce.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 6 September 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 4: South)

Continuing my guide to Melbourne's hotspots, taken from a downloadable guide I once wrote which is no longer available in that format (don't worry, I've updated it). Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 3 – Cross the River

Gritty laneways and converted shopfronts have their appeal, but Melbourne’s natural attractions are also worth seeing. Catch any tram except the number 1 down St Kilda Road to Stop 19. Walk across the road and up the green slopes beyond, pausing at the impressive Shrine of Remembrance and the old Melbourne Observatory, then enter the Royal Botanic Gardens.

This vast and beautiful collection of plant life is arranged between green lawns and a lake, and is threaded by pathways and dotted with decorative buildings. Created from a swampy arm of the Yarra River in the 19th century, the gardens are the lungs of central Melbourne. Wander, admire, then stretch out on the grass and enjoy the serenity.

Find it:
Shrine of Remembrance (Birdwood Ave, shrine.org.au)
Melbourne Observatory (Birdwood Ave, rbg.vic.gov.au)
Royal Botanic Gardens (Birdwood Ave, rbg.vic.gov.au)

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Cakes and the bay

Catch a number 3a or number 16 tram from St Kilda Road to the bayside suburb of St Kilda. Overlooking the broad, placid waters of Port Phillip Bay, this area has long been Melbourne’s playground.

A short walk from Stop 138 (Luna Park/Esplanade) is Acland Street, famous for its old-fashioned cake shops which were set up by an early wave of migrants from Central Europe; my favourite is the Europa.

Walking along the Esplanade, you encounter some magnificent buildings including the Palais Theatre, which often hosts live music, and the Coney Island-style Luna Park with its famous roller-coaster and other amusement park rides.

For lunch at a local secret unknown to the tourist hordes, visit Cowderoy’s Dairy. This former grocery is now home to a popular cafĂ© within a residential zone, overlooking a small park.

After that, if the weather is warm enough, take a dip in the bay at sandy St Kilda Beach, or relax in the palm-tree-studded Catani Gardens. If you feel like some exercise, follow the trail for walking, cycling and rollerblading which stretches from St Kilda to Port Melbourne, with continuous water views.

Find it:
Europa Cake Shop (81 Acland St, europacakeshop.com.au)
Palais Theatre (12 Lower Esplanade, palaistheatre.com.au)
Luna Park (18 Lower Esplanade, lunapark.com.au)
Cowderoy’s Dairy (14 Cowderoy St, cowderoysdairy.com.au)

Fine food and entertainment on tap

In the evening, have dinner at one of the many restaurants on busy Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. You could treat yourself to tasty Mediterranean dishes at Prince Dining Room, or top-quality modern Chinese food at Lau’s Family Kitchen.

To finish the evening you have two options: either take in a new Australian theatre production at Theatre Works, or enjoy some live music at the Esplanade Hotel. The Espy, as it’s affectionately known, is the home of live music in St Kilda and often has free gigs in its basement bar. With a beer in hand and live music to listen to, it’s a great place to end your Melbourne visit.

Find it:
Prince Dining Room (2 Acland St, theprince.com.au)
Lau’s Family Kitchen (4 Acland St, lauskitchen.com.au)
Theatre Works (14 Acland St, theatreworks.org.au)
Esplanade Hotel (11 The Esplanade, hotelesplanade.com.au)

Conclusion

There’s so much more to see in Melbourne. If you have more time, check out the ultra-modern architecture of Federation Square and visit its great museums, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the National Gallery of Victoria. Take the lift to the Eureka Skydeck at the top of the strikingly modern Eureka Tower and dangle above the city streets via its Edge Experience.

Even better, jump on one of the city’s iconic trams at random and explore a neighbourhood along the route. You never know what you might discover.