Freeway: The Chet Baker Journey

Chet Baker was the ultimate screw up – with film star looks, the softest voice and crooning trumpet, he was meant to take over the world, but instead ended up defenestrated before he was sixty.  In Freeway cabaret star Tim Draxl has created a retrospective work, channeling Baker in every way except for the chaotic and destructive persona that crept behind him his whole life, the ultimate example in modern society’s struggle to look at the ongoing feud between genius and disaster.

And Chet Baker was a disaster, churning his way through addictions, prisons and women, leaving his figure at the age of 58 ravaged and ancient.  It’s understandable how hard it was for Draxl, with a stellar cabaret background and astounding four piece ensemble, to cover the whole story to a sympathetic and knowledgeable audience.  The addictions and fast cars (and the emphasis by Draxl, whether it is to make him more palatable or not, is on the fast cars) shapes the Chet Baker legacy. To me the problem of Baker is finding a way to reconcile the smoothness, the coolness of his jazz with his troubled life behind the scenes.

Which makes Draxl’s position so difficult; his performance is engaging and flawless, and that’s just the point.  When the lights change and he becomes Chet narrating his life, you can see that he, a seasoned cabaret performer, understands, connects, with so many parts of his life.  But when he is narrating Baker’s life to the audience, and sometimes even when he is singing, when Draxl is singing Baker almost note and sultry-perfect, when he is scored along with is amazing, seasoned backing band, even though you are enjoying yourself, part of you nostalgic for why you connected with Baker in the first place.  Though Draxl and his ensemble give a remarkable performance, and the recounting of his life is informative without being overwhelming, when watching Freeway, you do find yourself searching for the more definitive cracks, that made the light get in.

Freeway played played in the Fairfax Studio at The Arts Centre.

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DeAnne Smith – Livin’ The Sweet Life

DeAnne Smith pitched her entertaining show Livin’ the Sweet Life last Saturday night to a full house at Trades Hall.  Canadian and slightly left of centre, her stand up, in particular her story telling, is engaging and funny, with a lot of surprising and dirty thoughts coming out of her self-described adorable mouth.

The title of the show, Livin’ the Sweet Life, refers, by the narrowest of margins, to Smith reflecting on her attempts to live her life as a good, socially conscious (read vegan, doesn’t own a car) life, and how the smallest of luxuries now cause her to go into a stupor of hedonistic delight.  What might snap her out of this idea is going on a ten day silent meditation retreat, where, she discovers, actually trying to have a good time and, you know, talking to people, is, in fact, living that sweet life she never thought obtainable.This kind of neuroticism is the bread and butter of the stand up.  Their experiments into self improvement and self regard is the cornerstone of many a stand up pitch.  That Smith comes at the same battle for self knowledge, but with a different background to many of the stand ups you encounter, is refreshing, and her disarming manner opens doors to a lot of silliness and the aforementioned dirtiness.The best part of the night, however, goes to the story she tells in the middle of her show that involves a woman she went home with, a case of one-upmanship, and, in the end, a night in emergency.  Her knack for telling about her own skewed logic, a joke getting out of hand, and the open-endedness of the story was utterly engaging, leaving you half wondering what was going to happen next, and half how she was going to tell us about it.DeAnne Smith holds a lot of strong cards and deserved the very busy house she had on Saturday night, and her stand up was best when she was not so much trying to figure out what sort of person she was, but when she was telling us about the kind of things she does.

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Tribes, as produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company, creates an engaging family portrait that – despite falling into the pathways of constructed family dysfunction – constructs a narrative that reaches outside of the domestic unit and into the world of the Deaf community, reflecting the suffocation that sometimes comes with those who ‘try to do their best for you’.

An upper middle class family of Jewish intellectuals, the family unit in Tribes use argument and verbal patter as their main form of communication and identification. At least, this is the way they would all like to tell it, the exception being the youngest son, Billy (Luke Watts), who was born deaf and who spends most of the time sitting silently amongst the chatter – an act his relatives take for complicity in the family dynamic. This changes when he meets Sylvia (Alison Bell), a woman heavily involved in the Deaf community. Born hearing, but having deaf parents, she is in the middle of losing her hearing completely. This relationship opens Billy up to the Deaf community, which his parents have deliberately kept from him. In their view, connecting Billy with people who are like him would ‘hobble’ him somehow, pushing him down the path of hearing aids and speech therapy.

For many, this play would act as an introduction to the politics and prejudices surrounding deafness, as well as Deafness. Billy’s increasing awareness of how his family’s good but severely misguided intentions have caused him to miss out is thoughtfully set up in the first act – although the increasingly horrible commentary from his father, Christopher (Brian Lipson), on what he thinks of the Deaf community is often almost too much to take in order for a point to get across. But that is what this commentary, this talk, reveals itself to be; this bluster with lack of tenderness means that not only is Billy’s deafness discounted, but so are the opening paragraphs of his mother Beth’s (Sarah Peirse) first novel, and so are the increasing voices in his brother Daniel’s (David Paterson) head. The family is bound in the field of linguistic battle, but no ground is ever given in the name of empathy; they can argue until they’re blue in the face about the free play of signs and signifiers, but the only signing that Billy is truly interested in is summarily dismissed as a dull pantomime, a pale imitation of the English language.

It is the entrance of Sylvia that interrupts and awakens Billy, and Alison Bell encapsulates the heart of the show with her brilliant performance. Her character pulls all the threads together, with her knowledge of hearing and not hearing, as well as being the outsider who must be begrudgingly accepted into a home that defines itself through verbal cruelty, an act she equally dismisses and struggles to protect herself from. Bell has created a restrained and utterly engaging performance, gathering the audience as well as the family around her, hanging on her every word as she is transformed from a conduit for Billy and a representation of the Deaf community to the very woman who both embraces, and disassembles, the motivations and affectations behind the family’s very dysfunction.

I was greatly encouraged to watch a domestic ensemble piece coming out of the MTC. With an increasing, and occasionally worrying, trend towards spending more time on sets than scripts, this was an interesting and engaging piece of theatre, performed by a tightly bound, very talented ensemble that hopefully has scratched the surface of a few issues that, up to now, have not been properly explored. One jarring note was the ending, which felt oversimplified, in some ways embarrassing an up-until-then well written script.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

By Nina Raine
Director: Julian Meyrick
Set Design: Stephen Curtis
Costume Design: Louise McCarthy
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer/Sound Designer: Tim Dargaville

Cast: Alison Bell, Julia Grace, Brian Lipson, David Paterson, Sarah Peirse, Luke Watts

The MTC Theatre, Sumner
4 February–12 March, 2012

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The Clive James Collection

Clive James has a special place in my heart, and in the heart of every one of my flat mates, who at one stage or another during my ten-hour viewing marathon of the recently released Complete Collection exclaimed the same sentence: “Oh, I used to watch him with my parents when I was little.”

The pudgy, deadpan Australian – a precursor to today’s Louis Theroux – charms his way across continents, lifestyles and sexy foils, all the while retaining an 80s sense of wonder at the ever-expanding world the baby boomers were born into, and have tried to overrun. And after watching ten straight hours of his commentary on everything from Japan to the Playboy Mansion, I have an internal monologue in his tone of voice that I seem unable to snap myself out of.

A lot of enjoyment found in the series comes from James’ attitude. Whether it be approaching wild elephants on safari, challenging the motivations of charity-giving squillionaires in Dallas, learning to not only drive a car but race it in a celebrity grand prix in Adelaide or – my highlight – taking part in Takeshi’s Castle, a Japanese adventure game show, each journey seems to emerge as a result of him saying: “Why not?”

This question has traced the trajectory of most of his critical career, as he has written on the subject of art, poetry and badly made-for-television movies. If it’s something the public is going to want to watch and take part in, why not tag along, commentating with a critical eye? This conceit for adventure does seem to overshoot at times, as in each episode at one stage or another you will invariably find him with nearly no kit on, but I do admire his willingness to take on whatever challenges his subjects throw at him.

This being an 80s television show, and with James having made it when he was already approaching middle age, there are moments of generational cringe that are more obvious now my age has moved into double digits. It’s no more obvious than in the episode where he is welcomed into the Playboy mansion, where – entering the pool for a swim – he voiceovers about his company’s extreme good looks before challenging them, in a patronising tone, about their ‘betrayal of feminism’. While this makes me want to punch a cushion, James has enough saving graces through his adventurous spirit to be tolerated in his moments of thoughtlessness.

These moments that make you cringe are offset by the number of times he exposes himself to humiliation at the hands of his own un-worldliness, an old-world bearing that many were only beginning to emerge from, or were being allowed to emerge from, as a result of cheaper travel options in the 70s and 80s.

I can’t say enough about the importance of Clive James in the shaping of middle-class Australian identity at a time when confusion and cringe reigned in our cultural landscape. Though hopefully times have changed, and hopefully we have moved on somewhat in the past 25 years, this collection is a welcome trip into our recent past.

The Clive James Collection
UK, 1980s, 442 mins (three-disc set)

Out now on DVD
Distributor: Madman
Rated M

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Frankenstein in Love

The Monash University Student Theatre production of Frankenstein in Love, performed for the Melbourne Fringe at Collingwood Underground Carpark, is an ambitious, visually strong, yet ultimately uneven horror story that misses its mark when it comes to the plot in a manner that distracts from its potential.

The play – an early work by writer and filmmaker Clive Barker (The Books of Blood, Hellraiser) – takes place in a Central American country in the midst of a coup led by the mysterious El Coco (Benjamin Marshall). It is quickly discovered that under the previous dictatorship, an exiled European doctor, Josef Frankenstein (Thomas Middleditch) has been allowed to carry out human experiments on enemies of the people. Now the maimed and monstrous survivors of the doctor’s experiments, including El Coco himself, are after revenge.

The play’s use of visual elements is very strong, with the chorus painted in make-up reminiscent of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and the gore being actually gory, with ripped out hearts and flayed characters shouting for revenge being run of the mill events in this unapologetically lurid play. The lighting is also, for the most part, effective and seamless, working well with the use the actors make of the underground venue: slowly creeping out of the dark, the audience seeing them before the other characters do. With all of these elements in play, it was curious that the delivery of the text was decidedly un-camp, with the exception of Tegan Harrod’s Lazaro, who nailed her Igor/Renfield-like character with a great mix of physical performance and vicious buffoonery.

I would have understood the choice of a serious portrayal of all of these elements, had the potentially strong thematic content of the script been explored. At a time when Central America seems to be tearing itself apart, at a time when torture and body horror is the norm for both filmmakers and government superpowers, at a time when fresh batches of war criminals continue to be unearthed from conflicts that ended not so long ago, it seemed a shame that none of these modern anxieties were used to lend a helping hand to the production in any consistent way.

Ultimately, a choice had to be made on what everyone was to run with. Uttering thematic elements as tokenisms is not the same as a thorough and thoughtful exploration of them. Auschwitz, coups, human experimentation, all within an unstable Central American government; so many strong ideas were circulating under the surface of the script. A utilisation of the elements of horror, coupled with some reference to the sociological anxiety or disruption in which most horror stories are contextualised when they are written, was obvious in its absence in this production.

Rating: Two and a half stars

Monash Uni Student Theatre present
Frankenstein in Love
By Clive Barker
Directed by Emma Palackic and Sophie Phillips
Production Design: Sophie Phillips
Lighting Design: Jason Lehane
Sound design/Composition: Ross Unger
Cast: Benjamin Marshall, Alexanda Wynne, Rosie Noone, Joel Skurrie, Thomas Middleditch, Tegan Harrod, Josh Karlik, Nick Fry, James jackson, Henry Brooks and Isobel Roberts-Orr

Collingwood Underground Car Park
September 16 – 17 and 19 – 25 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

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Helen is an American woman who has the perfect life. Musical, a mother, married to a rich lawyer husband, she has no reason to quickly slip into a suicidal depression that tears her family apart, which is exactly what she does. She befriends a younger, yet equally troubled cellist and slowly finds her way towards some form of happiness through electro convulsive therapy.
It’s hard to comment on a film such as this, because you can see the good intentions seeping through the cracks of nonsense and white, upper middle class presumption that present themselves as part of the universal. Let’s put aside Helen’s plight descending from a privileged state which means that her subsequent medical treatment is swift and highly personalised. The thing that baffles me most about American movies is the presumption that the standing husband/wife unit have no friends or support structure outside of family whatsoever. Towards the beginning of the film we meet a bunch of people that the pair sit laughing around a dinner table with, but the only other time we see a ‘friend’ is when she is attempting to seduce the husband now that she’s found out Helen has debilitating depression.
The film commands us to see the big D as an entirely medical problem that comes out of nowhere. But you only have to see the figure of Helen, who is entirely obsessed with her husband and daughter to see where there may be a problem. Any time she focuses on anything outside of that family unit (her piano playing, her new friend Matilda) it is seen as a symptom of her depression. Her husband at one point is even violent towards Matilda, but is forgiven because he is ‘frustrated’ that Helen wont go home with him, to the isolation that probably contributed to her depression in the first place. But no, the only thing that can fix her is drugs, ECT, and going back to the family unit. No other options are explored. At one point, Helen talks about her depression as if she is an addict: I’m terrified I’mgoing to relapse. Take these two pills, and if it’s not working in the morning, then take two more pills.
Judd is very good in the role of Helen. Her portrayal of Helen’s uncommunicativeness, her inability to express her pain except through messy tears is commendable. My main problem with the film was what it was trying to say, as it lay somewhere in-between an in depth study of depression and a redemption story. If it was a study of depression, it was clinical and over-medicalised: of the two mentally ill characters, only the one without previous life problems could be saved. If it was a story of redemption, its quasi-scientific use of mental illness as its ‘trial’ was overly simplistic.

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Ali McGregor’s Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night

Ali McGregor returns to the Melbourne Comedy Festival with her Late-Nite Variety-Nite Night, a splendid way to check out all the acts MICF has to offer while not risking your bank balance on top of your patience.

Nestled in The Famous Spiegeltent, opera singer-cum-cabaret chanteuse McGregor, along with her butler Saxon MacAlistair (alter ego of the surprisingly canny and versatile Asher Treleaven), presented a truly varied number of acts, starting with US stand up Deanne Smith.

Smith cut right to the chase, effortlessly making sometimes uncomfortable social commentary on Australian life as an outsider whilst still making us laugh. And the fact that she made no attempt to win over the diverse yet (as usually comes with the Comedy Festival) relatively conservative audience in relation to her queerness or political bite, won the audience over in itself. She did play the very fashionable ukulele in her act, but you couldn’t hold it against her. Deanne Smith plays at the Victoria Hotel every night of the festival.

The incredibly chaotic magic act produced by Sweden’s Carl-Einar Häckner belies a very clever structure that had the audience slightly confused, but once hooked, in fits of laughter bordering on tears. His act relies on a great deal of clowning, as well as the wordplay that comes with having English as a second language. His surreal bent works best (as it always does) when it’s not highlighted as an integral part of the show. Carl-Einar Häckner performs every night of the festival in The Deluxe at Federation Square.

Irish comedy rockers Dead Cat Bounce have made a massive splash over the last couple of years. Tonight’s short stint may have suffered from their having just finished their own complete set at The Spiegeltent only an hour before. Even so, they’re an entertaining group that are as much about the tropes of an 80’s rock band as the lyrics that go with it.

McGregor herself is a dazzling and accomplished singer, and the main attraction for many of the attending audience, not only for her musical prowess, but for her self admitted love of increasingly elaborate shoes. She’s also an incredibly generous performer; with Saxon MacAlistair bouncing up and down behind her, throwing in a running commentary on the proceedings, she lets him run off his mouth to a great extent, to the benefit of the night as a whole – although recovering from the hilarious trauma of MacAlistair’s diablo act demonstrating ‘How to do Sex,’ will take some time.

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