Friday 29 September 2017

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2017

It's time again for Melbourne Fringe, the annual festival of performing arts which pushes boundaries. As Narrelle Harris and I were in Britain for most of this year's fest, we've only had a chance to catch a few shows in its final week. Here's what we've seen...

1. Narrelle's Fringe Diary.

The Yonder
Until 30 September 2017, Lithuanian Club

Title and Deed: Monologue for a Slightly Foreign Man
Until 30 September 2017, Arts House

It’s a challenge attending the Fringe Festival when you’ve returned home from the UK just the previous evening.

Fortunately, a great show can keep you alert even when your body’s circadian rhythms are staring dry-eyed into the stage lights and on to infinity.

Sadly though, the first show of the evening is not that show.

The Yonder, a “stupid race through deep space” is sadly just that. Three actors (Elizabeth Davie, Ezel Doruk and Shannan Lim, pictured above) play out a science fiction farce via tropes that were already outdated by the '80s.

The gay love sub-plot gives the best moments in a show that otherwise lacks pace, punch or originality. Otherwise it makes me miss the genius of the 4 Noels, or Rama Nicholas, who's so ably taken up where they left off.

But hurrah for Title and Deed, exactly the tonic my jetlagged brain requires. Keith Brockett (pictured left) plays a traveller, a stranger in our land – a man in transit in the world and in life.

He tells us stories of an unidentified home and a half understood ‘here’ that render both places odd and liminal.

Brockett delivers Will Eno’s script with Wildean deftness, superb timing, and a fine sense of its absurdity and pathos.

It’s a performance which is funny, clever and often surprisingly contemplative. It’s also full of the joy of words and imagery, drawing together meanings and contrasts.

My head was full of three weeks of England and Wales; so the themes of countries, cultures and life being strange places where we are all lost sometimes was resonant.

Kudos to director Laura Maitland too. Kudos to everyone. Title and Deed is charming, funny, a delight.

I shall now resume staring into lights until I can see infinity.

(Oh, there it is).

2. Tim's Fringe Diary.

The Interpenetration of Opposites
Until 30 September 2017, Howey Downstairs

The Basement Tapes
Until 30 September 2017, Arts House

In one of PG Wodehouse's short stories, a character decries novels which feature "married couples who find life grey, and can't stick each other at any price."

I try to banish this amusing line from my mind as a recorded voiceover strikes up an argument between an apparent couple later in life, arguing over the everyday grind.

But The Interpenetration of Opposites is, in fact, that kind of story. It actually starts years earlier, with the actors portraying friends at university who progress from uncertainties about their study choices to uncertainties about their life choices.

There's tension between the pursuit of personal fulfilment, versus grasping for hard-edged security. Which could make the spine of a good drama, if the actors were up to the challenge. Unfortunately there's a lot of flat and unconvincing delivery onstage, leavened by the occasional dash of sarcastic intonation.

It doesn't help that the cast make the already difficult sightlines worse by sitting in the front row when not performing. Overall it's hard to like any of the characters, or even to identify with them. Maybe Wodehouse had it right after all.

I have more luck in North Melbourne, after hopping the 57 tram back to Arts House for The Basement Tapes.

In the Warehouse venue behind it, a young woman (played by Stella Reid) is fossicking among a jumbled collection of household objects.

They turn out to be the contents of her deceased grandmother's basement, which she's sorting through.

Then she finds an old cassette tape which her grandma recorded her memories on, and things take a sharp turn into strangeness.

No spoilers here, but what follows is an intriguing - at times, frightening - piece of theatre that's expertly delivered. Reid gives us a sympathetic, emotionally awkward character who we warm to, adding weight to her fate.

Everything about The Basement Tapes is well judged - including Jane Yonge's direction and Thomas Lambert's sound, which adds an eerie depth to this small-scale production.

It's a perfect piece of Fringe theatre, the sort of work that stays with you for some time. Even if it gives you nightmares.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues to 1 October 2017. Find program details and buy tickets at its website.

Friday 22 September 2017

A Horse! A Horse! In Richard III's Footsteps near Leicester, UK

On my visit to Leicester I was hosted by the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, the King Richard III Visitor Centre, and the Belmont Hotel.

"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

There was a good chance I'd quote Shakespeare's famous line from Richard III at some point, the day I visited the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. The moment I heard about the marshy ground which had unhorsed him on the day of his final battle, out the words came.

That marsh had long been remembered, but its exact location in this much-drained modern era was uncertain until recently, when a comprehensive survey established precisely where the Battle of Bosworth Field had taken place in 1485.

It turns out that the Heritage Centre, established in the 1970s, is actually on the site of the king's camp rather than the battlefield itself, which stretches down from the site over privately-owned farmland.

However, there are great views from the centre's extensive parkland, which features old and new memorials to this epochal battle which ended the reign of the Plantagenet kings and ushered in the Tudor dynasty...


There's also much to learn from the exhibitions within the buildings of a former farm.


Weaponry is well covered, with a wall of evil devices explained by intelligent captioning. The visitor also learns about the different classes of soldiers present at the battle, and how they would have fought.


There's some useful audio-visual content, including a depiction of the battle, and commentary from characters (a farmer-soldier, a mercenary's wife etc) who might have witnessed the events.

At the end of the exhibition is the interesting story of how the location of the battefield was debated over the decades, and how it was finally decided by a scientific survey which turned up cannon shot and other military debris.

This being England, the task was complicated by the locale also witnessing a battle in the later Civil War, but there was enough period evidence to fix the site once and for all.

Given the significance of the Tudor monarchs' era - including the break with the Catholic church, and the start of Britain's empire - it seems fitting that the place where their reign began should be appropriately marked and remembered.

With the recent rediscovery of King Richard III's remains in nearby Leicester, there's much more for the historically interested to do in the area - starting with a visit to the excellent King Richard III Visitor Centre, followed by a visit to the late monarch's tomb in nearby Leicester Cathedral.

But that's a story I'll expand upon another day. As Shakespeare has Richard say, "An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told."

Friday 15 September 2017

Review: Jumeirah Carlton Towers, London

Disclosure: I was hosted by the Jumeirah Carlton Towers.

Narrelle and I started this trip with two nights at the Langham Hotel, then yesterday Ubered around to Belgravia for two nights at the Carlton.

The Carlton Towers was not a hotel I knew anything about, and its postwar exterior doesn't do much to catch the eye. But the location, near Knightsbridge Tube station, Harrods and Hyde Park, is appealing; and the rooms are lovely.

This is the interior of our Junior Suite, basically a joined bedroom and sitting room, with a balcony overlooking the leafy Cadogan Place Gardens (a private space, but one that hotel guests have access to)...


The room is very pleasant, the decor a nicely-judged mix of classical elements and modern lines. Very tasteful and soothing, as is the garden view from the balcony.

As for the hotel's public spaces, there's an ambient cafe/lounge off the lobby called the Chinoiserie (whose central tree is re-dressed as each season changes)...


... and a restaurant which is about to undergo a major refurbishment. It's a pleasant spot in which to have breakfast, and there are hints of the hotel's Middle Eastern ownership in the spread: including hommus, labneh, etc.


Other guest facilities include a pool with a view...


... and on the 9th floor, alongside the wellness centre and gym, is The Peak. This is an unexpectedly light-filled space with great views across London to the south. Appealed to me as a great place to sit and write.


The hotel is, as you will have guessed, not cheap. But it's in a great location, and manages to be surprisingly serene in the centre of such a busy city.

The Jumeirah Carlton Towers is located at 1 Cadogan Place, Belgravia, London. Find more info and make bookings at the Jumeirah website.

Friday 8 September 2017

Art in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Sunshine Coast.

On my recent visit to Queensland's Sunshine Coast, I joined a couple of media tours.

The first one, held before the Australian Society of Travel Writers' annual convention, spurned the region's famous beaches and headed inland.

There's quite a rise in altitude as you head west, and a dramatic change in landscape. Instead of sleepy holiday towns along a strip of beach, you find villages scattered through mountainous green countryside.

The focus of this media tour was art, and I think our small group was fairly dubious about its abilities. We could all write, of course, but our skills at painting and pottery were largely untested.

Our first artistic stop was at the Mary Cairncross Reserve. There's a great view from here of the Glass House Mountains (named by Captain Cook; but I urge you to look up the Aboriginal story of the mountains' formation on Wikipedia, it's fascinating).

Set up on a grassy area next to the visitor centre, and instructed by veteran artist James McKay, we had a go at painting the scene in watercolours...

I think we didn't do too bad for beginners.

The next day, the challenge was clay rather than paint. We dropped into Fried Mudd, a pottery studio near Maleny, to fashion a chicken in only two hours.

Again we were assisted by an expert (thank god), in this case potter Cathy Lawley. Cathy guided us through the process, as we fashioned two 'bowls' from strips of clay, which would then be joined to form the body of the chicken.

Tricky business, especially when we progressed to the finer details of markings, and fashioning the beak and comb. Here's how it went...

And here's what they looked a day later, after they'd been fired and delivered to us at the convention:

I don't think we did a bad job here either, though I was happier with my painting.

But we learnt the basics of the two crafts, had some fun while creating, and saw some beautful scenery on the way.

If you're wondering how we got our two very heavy chickens home to Melbourne, by the way, we didn't.

We gifted them to my colleague Kerry Heaney, who lives in Brisbane, so she could add them to her chicken and have a trio of ceramic chooks in her garden.

And the names of our creations? Dahlia and Agatha. PG Wodehouse fans will know where we got those from.

Friday 1 September 2017

Seattle's Living Computer Museum

I stayed in Seattle as a guest of Railbookers, Visit Seattle and the Fairmont Olympic Hotel, though I paid my own airfare to the USA.

When I visited Seattle in 2015, I was struck by how many museums it had which referenced either technology or the future (or both).

One exception that referenced both technology and the past was the Living Computer Museum, in the industrial district of SoDo; named in the American style after its location South of Downtown.

Established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the museum is dedicated to presenting the history of computing via working models of computers over the decades, which visitors are welcome to use.

To its credit, it has Apple computers on display as well as PCs.

This is the Apple Lisa, a 1983 computer which was one of the first to feature a graphical interface rather than a simple command line. It was inspired by a then decade-old groundbreaking graphical design by Xerox, which never fully capitalised on this brilliant leap in usability.

A large room at one end held a assortment of huge mainframe computers that looked as though they'd been salvaged from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey...

... though I most enjoyed sitting down and interacting with the individual computers. This early AT&T machine had a vertical page-shaped monitor. I wonder why that didn't become more of a thing? For writing, it would have made a lot of sense.

I enjoyed a game of Hangman on this DEC VT131 terminal...

... and wrote a note in Notepad on an early IBM PC running Windows 1.0:

And of course, I had to play a game of Pac-Man on one of the early games-based computers, the Atari 400:

There was a lot more to the museum, including guided tours. It may look a bit dry in images, but all the explanatory captioning was very good and it was involving, even for a layman who's merely used computers a lot in his work.

Since I visited, the museum has renamed itself Living Computers Museum + Labs, adding a section dedicated to emerging technologies such as virtual reality and self-driving cars.

But I'll always have a soft spot for these older devices, which helped us in the transition from the hard copy working world, to that dominated by the IT of today.

Living Computers Museum + Labs is located at 2245 First Ave South, Seattle, USA. Entry fee US$12. For opening hours and other details, visit its website.