Friday 22 December 2023

Top 10 Shows of 2023

It was a much welcomed return for live shows in 2023. The intimacy, connection, and engagement with a variety of works was much needed after the last couple of years. From theatre to dance to live art, from satire to comedy to drama, it was an exciting time once again for the Melbourne independent performing arts scene. This year I managed to attend 141 shows and the below ten are the ones that left an impression on me. If I reviewed the show, a link to the review is provided.

And as I always like to remind people, sometimes the show that you remember for a long time after is not the big splashy extravagant piece with recognisable names and a huge budget, but the one that was on for four nights with ten people in the audience. Support your independent theatre makers and venues - some shows can cost you as little as $20 and can be one of the most original, inspiring and though provoking performances you might see.

As I request of you every year, take a risk, seek something new, unknown and different in the new year.

Here we go:

1. Lé Nør [the rain] - review

FACT: If there is ever a show being presented by The Last Great Hunt, I will be there. This is one of my favourite theatre companies around and I curse the fact they are based in Perth and not here. They never cease to amaze with the innovation and excitement that they make theatre and Lé Nør [the rain] exceeded expectations.
Spoken in a fictitious native language on the fictitious island nation of Sólset and with a fab 80s inspired set and costume design, the team brilliantly combined live theatre with film making allowing the audience to be immersed in the world depicted, while also being privy to see who the magic is created, including witnessing the rising waters in the flooding city and an amusing conversation in an apartment stairwell.
Lé Nør [the rain] is an important piece of work on the effects of climate change where every element came together for a fully realised production that has not only stayed with me all year, but bound to for years to come.

2. Fountain - review

This was one of the first shows I saw this year and it left such an impression on me. Forest Collective have built a strong and credible reputation for bringing classical chamber music into contemporary settings, and with Fountain, they presented an orchestral arrangement of pop singer - songwriter Max Lawrence's music. Fountain explored the fluidity and transient nature in our interactions with our environment and ourselves.
The company's artistic director and director, Evan J. Lawson seamlessly blended these two musical genres that resulted in a deeply moving experience for the audience.
Through the course of the evening Lawrence performed 19 musical numbers, with a mix of their own songs and covers, including a beautiful performance of SOPHIE's "It's Okay to Cry", that all shared the running theme on the changing nature of love, identity and environment. It truly was a privilege to see such stunningly talented performers come together for an incredible evening of music.
3. This is Personal - review   
To many, the name Mary Coustas is an instant reminder of the Australian icon that is Effie Stephanidis, the character Coustas portrayed on the television comedy Acropolis Now that ran between 1989 and 1992. With her solo show This Is Personal, Coustas let free the woman under the big wig and make-up, and opened up about the fears she has on not being alive to be there for her daughter when she will need her most.
I am not a parent and I do not want children, but Coustas' storytelling was so powerful and clever that I could feel the fear and the anxiety she felt about leaving her child behind as if she were my daughter.
Her life is her life and her story is unique but Coustas tapped into something special that connected with every single person in the audience where we were constantly switching from laughing to crying, and sometimes both at the same time. At a minimum, This Is Personal definitively cements Mary Coustas to Australian icon status also.

4. The Fence - review

What I loved about The Fence was how the cast and crew were able to bring complexities and surprises in what is such a common and straightforward story. Louisa Mignone played a happily married woman with a daughter living a content suburban life, but when a couple move in next door and tear down the fence between them, it leads to emotions and feelings that begin to impact her life as she struggles with the implications of turning a blind eye or calling out what she suspects is taking place next door.
Murphy's poetic style of writing complemented the natural language and vocabulary that the Woman used and it was an effective contrast to the disturbing events happening next door that is supported by an imaginative and well thought out set, sound and lighting design.
The Fence was a compelling production about the decisions we are forced to face when our sanctuary and safety of home is challenged by outside influences, and the moral dilemma in minding your own business or stepping in and saying something.  

5. Greece Lightning - review

This was Damien Warren-Smith’s third outing as the dim but absolutely delightful Garry Starr, (Garry Starr Performs Everything and Garry Starr Conquers Troy), and with this, he was bigger and better than ever before as Garry attempted to perform all of Greek mythology in order to save his homeland from economic ruin.
Warren-Smith displayed an amazing skill for wordplay and one-liners, as Garry stumbled through his reasoning for doing this show and constantly mispronouncing his words. The set pieces and props complemented Garry’s personality by being quite basic and simple but highlighted Warren-Smith’s incredible creativity and attention to detail.
Every joke landed in Greece Lightning and if you like your comedy to be utterly ridiculous and absurd, then this is the show for you. Garry Starr is definitely one very clever sausage.


6. Packing - review

Packing was an interactive performance made for one person at a time where we have been hired to help Marigold pack up her art studio. Except Marigold can’t make it and must communicate to us through What’s App on what to pack as she shared snippets of her life, past, present, and future. This was a beautifully captivating work by Eleni Telemachou that is over way too soon.
Through voice memos and texts via What’s App, Marigold gave us clear instructions on what to pack and when, and what to dispose of. This still gave us ample opportunities to look – not snoop - through her personal belongings and find letters, photographs, ticket stubs and other surprises in pockets, frames and sketchpads. Each item provides a deeper indication of Marigold’s story, including what led her to Australia and what is taking her back home to Italy.
The joy of a show like this is that you can create the narrative and have it be whatever you want it to be. It can be as wild as your imagination. At the same time, you are given the freedom to mull over your own experiences of packing and unpacking.
It’s a quiet and contemplative show and amidst the excitable hubbub of Melbourne Fringe Festival, tucked away on the first floor of the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, Packing proved to be the hidden gem of the festival.
Click here for our interview with Eleni Telemachou.

7. Arterial - review

Good circus will always find ways to entertain its audience through the impressive abilities of its performers as they display their strength, flexibility and agility. Amazing circus will have this, but will also be able to make you feel something deeper through its storytelling and performances, and Arterial was one of the best examples of this in 2023.
Harley Mann - founder of Na Djinang and director of Arterial - was extremely specific and clear in creating his vision and showing this connection to story, to people and to country.
While there was a lot of ground to cover, everything we saw and heard - and even felt - in Arterial had purpose. Arterial was an evocative circus experience that highlighted all the ways in which we not only remain connected to ourselves, each other and our land, but what gives us life. It was a flawless production where the ideas and thoughts that are raised during the show and our responses to these, sat with you long after you had left the venue.

8. Miss Peony - review

We have all heard of the expression "be careful what you wish for", but in Miss Peony, the more appropriate expression would be "be careful what you promise on your Poh Poh's deathbed". When Lily agrees to enter - and win - a beauty pageant competition just as her grandmother passes away, she is forced to see it through or risk being haunted by her Poh Poh for the rest of her life. Written by Michelle Law, Miss Peony took its audience into the world of beauty pageants with humour and heart.
The relationship between Lily and her Poh Poh (in the living and the spiritual world) constantly moved from affectionate to exasperating as Stephanie Jack and Gabrielle Chan touchingly displayed the underlying tension, grief and regrets they felt. Chan was full of personality as Adeline, Lily's Poh Poh. Her matter-of-fact attitude and dishing of barbs was a joy to watch and while her fan dance is brief, it was one of Miss Peony’s most powerful moments due to the emotion that Chan carried in it.
Even with the multiculturalism one finds in Melbourne, it's not often we see Asian stories or Chinese stories or women's stories on stage. Miss Peony gave us all three and so much more. There were plenty of laughs to be had, but Miss Peony served as a reminder of the moving and important stories that are still not making their way to the stage.
9. SWAMP - review
Created by Andy Freer and Nick Wilson, and presented by Snuff Puppets, SWAMP sent its audience into a fascinating journey into the impact humans have had on Earth's geology and ecosystems through the adventures of a number of Australian animals.
Large scale intricately designed animal puppets - including koalas, mosquitos, cane toads and lyrebirds - were bought to life by puppeteers in "short stories" of their interactions with each other and their changing environment. Varying in their humour and dramatics, each story effectively showed their plight, and how humans have explicitly and implicitly made their homes a risk to their safety and lives.
Snuff Puppets have been parading their puppets around the world for over 30 years and what they accomplished with SWAMP was phenomenal. It was an immersive experience that delivered unforgettable imagery, strong emotional responses and a remarkable evening of entertainment.

10. Hot Fat Crazy - review

If being mentally unwell was as much fun as Hot Fat Crazy, I would have signed up years ago! Created and performed by Eadie Testro-Girasole and Thomas Bradford, this musical theatre comedy followed Eadie as she admits herself into a psych ward and begins to work through her anxiety and depression.
Testro-Girasole was absolutely charming and won the audience over from the opening number, “Welcome to the Psych Ward”. She showed a vulnerable confidence that grounded the character despite the wackiness and absurdity that took place in this world, which makes sense given that this was based on her own psych ward admissions
. Bradford was the perfect pairing to Testro-Girasole, brilliant in all of his over-the-top characters, particularly when he is Eadie's diary and as a homophobic cat. Yes, a homophobic cat.
The sketches were far-fetched yet believable, I mean, who hasn't fucked someone in a psych ward? Even with a small stage, the performance never felt confined or constricted thanks to the direction of Aubrey Flood. The choreography was lively and animated and used the space appropriately and effectively.
Hot Fat Crazy
is a commentary of mental health and its treatment in Australia but Testro-Girasole and Bradford ensured there was a huge dose of laughter and enjoyment. Comedy value can be found in just about anything and the way this duo has found it for this show is highly commendable and possibly one of the more exciting things to come out of the Melbourne Fringe Festival this year.

And just because rules were made to be broken, here are the shows that were pipped at the post:

11. Stickybeak (review) - Created by Kimberley Twiner, Jessie Ngaio, Laura Trenerry and Patrick Dwyer
12. A Dodgeball Named Desire
(review) - Created by Bloomshed
13. Love Lust Lost  (review) - Created by Broad Encounters
14. For Love Nor Money - Written by Angus Cameron, directed by Justin Nott
15. Burnout Paradise - Created by Pony Cam

If you fancy a further trip down memory lane, then have a look at my Top 10 shows of 2022.

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