Friday 24 April 2015

Three Sounds of Melbourne

I have a simple but complicated answer to the question "What's it like to live in the centre of Melbourne?"

We live in an apartment opposite the former General Post Office building, about as central as you can get in the Melbourne CBD, so it's a question I'm often asked.

My answer is: "Great, except for the noise."

That's more complicated than it sounds, because there are different types of noise. 

The most annoying noise, the kind I'm referring to in my answer, is the random noise caused by people leaving bars and clubs at 3am on a Friday or Saturday night. Drunken shouting is thoroughly unpleasant, and disruptive enough to wake me up.

But for every yin, there is a yang (or do I mean the other way round?). Despite the annoyance caused by late-night revellers and garbage trucks, there are sounds which make me smile and add a pleasant moment to my day or night.

Interestingly, each of these three sounds is connected to Melbourne's heritage:

1. The GPO clock. When we first moved into the CBD, the clock in the GPO's tower only chimed briefly to mark the quarter hours. After a renovation a few years ago, however, it now marks each full hour with a stately succession of deep, resonant bongs

It's a wonderfully reassuring sound, conveying a sense that somewhere in the world there is harmony and order. And the best bit? The chimes only operate from 7am to 9pm. Good planning.

2. Horse hooves. When you wander along Swanston Street, Melbourne's hyper-busy north-south thoroughfare, you'll inevitably notice the decorated carriages pulled by horses on tours around the city streets. The LED strips along their sides counteract their heritage appeal, but I suppose it helps motorists see them after dark.

The carriages often come along Elizabeth Street, and as they pass a soft clip-clop sound floats up from the street. I can barely express how atmospheric this is, especially If we happen to be watching a Sherlock Holmes episode or something else appropriately period at the time.

3. Tram bells. It may seem the most mundane of the three sounds, but there's nothing so pleasant as the ding-ding sound of Melbourne's trams as they pass below our building. It doesn't matter whether they're 1970s Z-class vehicles or the latest 21st century models, their chime sounds much the same. 

That continuity in trams doesn't exist to the same extent in other transport. Melbourne's trams have been around since the 19th century and, comfort levels aside, operate along the same basic principles as when they began. And on much the same routes, too.

There's comfort in that, a connection with past eras that cities are not always good at evoking. Those tram bells can interrupt me any time.

And when, very occasionally, we score the trifecta of passing horses and trams at the same time as the GPO clock strikes nine? Bliss.

Friday 17 April 2015

The Shophouse: Singapore's Architectural Gem

Singapore is famous for spectacular modern buildings along its waterfront, such as the Marina Bay Sands resort.

It also has well-regarded older grand structures such as the Raffles Hotel, and the National Museum (a former library):

Fair enough. But on my recent visit to the city state, I fell in love with the humblest of its buildings: the shophouse. 

In the years before high-rise was possible, the shophouse was a very common style of retail building. 

Generally two or three storeys, it was literally a melding of shop and house - the shop at ground level and the residence of the shopkeeper's family above. 

Tightly packed together, these can't have been very roomy places in which to live. 

People generally don't live in them today. But they still do serve as shops, and you'll find a fair number of them in older low-rise areas such as Jalan Besar and Joo Chiat. 

What they are also particularly good for - and why I felt so attracted to them - is housing modern cafes and bars. 

There's something about the space - not too big and with an attractive mix of old-fashioned earthiness and authentically retro architecture - that lends just the right vibe to such a venue. 

One such shophouse I visited was home to Chye Seng Huat Hardware, a hip cafe:

Another had been converted into a cool contemporary bar, Nutmeg & Clove; in this pic you can see the ceiling above the barman has been partly removed to open up the space:

And there were plenty more of these facades around Singapore to admire:

I think the human scale of these compact former dwellings is why I liked them so much. 

Where modern mega-structures can be alienating, these simple buildings were easier to relate to, and connected me emotionally to Singapore's past.

Disclosure: On this trip I was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board, the Raffles Singapore, and the Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen.

Monday 6 April 2015

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2015 (Part 2)

The Melbourne Town Hall,
hub of the Comedy Festival
Last post, Narrelle Harris and I reviewed six shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Here are six more...

1. Stephen K Amos - Welcome to my World
Reviewed by Tim Richards

It's the best of times and the worst of times at Melbourne's beautiful Athenaeum Theatre, where we're seeing two shows back to back.

First up is British comedian Stephen K Amos, regular performer at the Comedy Festival.

Last time I saw him live was at the Fringe Festival in 2006, when he roused a small audience on AFL Grand Final night with a performance that was energetic and funny.

Tonight is not such a success. On the positive side, Amos has lost none of his excellent mimicry skill, and his ability to banter with members of the audience.

In so many other ways though, this show seems under-prepared and flat. The comedian refers to notes, stumbles over punchlines, and generally lacks pace.

He still comes across as warm and sassy, and has some funny things to say about conflict resolution and growing up in big families, but this night isn't Amos at his best.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Adam Hills - Clown Heart
Reviewed by Tim Richards

The next comedian on the Athenaeum stage, Adam Hills, couldn't provide a bigger contrast. He spends the first 20 minutes of the show tangled in a complex web of interaction with audience members that is hilarious in its unpredictability and deft execution.

By the time this sequence has run its course, he's texted a crowd-sourced saucy message to the colleague of a church elder, received the reply, had the lofty white-bearded elder up on stage with a diminutive latecomer from Frankston, and tweeted a pic of the two posing as a boy sitting on Santa's lap.

The main part of his show is - surprisingly - about death. Or more accurately, about living life to the full and never missing an opportunity to kick Death in the dick. There are various strands to this theme, including his attempts to explain death to his daughters, and his late father's struggle with cancer.

It culminates with a guest appearance by someone you may remember from Hills' recent ABC TV chat show, and together they produce an (almost) revealing finale. It's a funny, lively show, full of heart.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Dilruk Jayasinha - Immigrateful
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I've always been fascinated by migrant stories. I've travelled a lot, but that's nothing like the upheaval of moving yourself long-term to another part of the world. The accounts of these epic transitions make for great drama, or comedy.

Having arrived from Sri Lanka a decade ago, comedian Dilruk Jayasinha has one of these tales to tell. But he's definitely from the "glass half full" school of migrant experiences, having had a successful ten years in the country and having recently gained his citizenship.

Jayasinha ascribes much of his trouble-free life to his naturally cheerful face, and claims to have never been the subject of outright malicious racism. But beneath his cheery life story there's some serious content, dealing with casual racism and conflict avoidance.

It's an entertaining hour of comedy from an upbeat performer.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. Daniel Townes - Crash and Burn
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

It takes me a little while to get into the rhythm of Daniel Townes' routine. He moves from a series of dreadful-fabulous puns and jokes about chickens, into a stretch about how, apparently, vegetarianism is a hypocritical waste of effort.

I then realise that a large degree of my discomfort springs from the fact that he's got a point.

By the end of the show, when he's covered issues like the censorship of video games, the real cause of "alcohol-fuelled violence" and the influences on children, the key to Townes' sharp comedy is clear.

He may have the down-to-earth, drawling delivery of a blokey comedian throwing lines to a pub crowd, but he is fact doing a harder job, pulling apart hypocrisy and moral smugness.

Sometimes he takes on the role of Devil's advocate, and sometimes he's skating very close to the sharp comedic edge between funny and plain wrong, but he is questioning a lot of assumptions along the way.

I don't find him relentlessy funny, but he is relentlessly thoughtful and intelligent, and I'll take that over an hour of dick jokes any day.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

5. The Stevenson Experience - Who Dares Twins
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Identical twins Benjamin and James Stevenson aren't shy about their sibling rivalry.

Their arguments about who is funnier/smarter/more handsome are the robust undercurrent of a show full of songs about getting old in the 21st century, standing up for the sisterhood, sex, fame, and the history of the world.

Between literal point scoring and constant digs about whether being first or second born is the greater thing, the brothers use their good-natured charm to both present and mock sexism and racism. They also lampoon less edgy subjects, like modern pop, rap songs and how to get value out of a Thermomix. 

Perhaps it's inevitable that twins will have great rapport on stage, but these guys work the magic with polish and flair, and their harmonies don't hurt either. (For the record, I think James is the cuter of the identical twins.)

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

6. Jekyll & James - Cactus Blastus
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

It can be hard on a comedy act when an audience member is just not in the mood. As this show begins, I'm irritated, hot and losing feeling in my feet from the lack of leg room in the Forum Theatre's cramped Carpet Room.

Despite the fact that the performers are full of energy, confidence and musical talent, I'm in danger of becoming both Stadler and Waldorf from the Muppets.

You know an act is good when someone as grumpy as I am at the start ends up loving the show well before the end.

The show does seem a little slow to find its rhythm (or maybe it's just me), though the music at the beginning is clever and shows off their skills. It's not till the tale of the scaredy cat Cameron James and his partner in crime Jekyll the Kid hits its stride that I'm won over.

The hectic, surreal Western slides back and forth through a disintegrated fourth wall.

The two performers jump in and out of character, and into different characters entirely, playing fast and loose with the narrative and with the audience as well. They walk a fine line in challenging rather than alarming us with some terrific interaction. Along the way there's music, magic and fairly filthy humour.

James and Jekyll remind me a little of The 4 Noels of old, but there's also a big dash of Mighty Booshness in their brash, imaginative, out-of-left-field humour.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

And that wraps up our coverage of this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which continues to 19 April 2015.  Happy laughing!