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Students strut their stuff in sordid story

Review: WAAPA third year acting, Birdland ·
The Edith Spiegeltent, 14 October ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Birdland, the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust rock melodrama by the notable British playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time), has been given a highly charged, highly sexed going over by WAAPA’s final year acting class under the whip of Andrew Lewis in the Academy’s Edith Spiegeltent.

It’s the cautionary tale of Paul (Ben Chapple), a rock star at the zenith of his career, playing the stadia of Europe from Moscow to Berlin to Paris to London, and leaving a trail of self-destruction behind him.

He fucks – no point in beating around the bush – Marnie (Camila Ponte Alvarez), the French girlfriend of the band’s guitarist and his best mate, Johnny (Bryn Chapman Parish), and tortures her with threats of exposure, leading to a catastrophic outcome.

He scoops up Jenny (Ruby Maishman) a young woman working in his hotel and squires her across the continent, including to the home of Marnie’s distressed parents outside Paris where he behaves abominably.

Ben Chapple’s performance is a tour de force. Photo: Jon Green.

He is an abomination, in every way, coming apart under the weight of fame and money, sex, drugs and all that stuff. His generosity is as callously uncaring as it is easily given, even to his hard-up father (Lachlan Stevenson).

His undoing is as swift and inevitable as it is thoughtless and reckless, and when his manager, David (Hamish White), picks up the pieces, he’s not particularly fussed how many of them are what’s left of Paul.

At times the show feels a little anachronistic; although its iPhonic trappings are present day, its feel is more ’70s, more glam than hip-hop, more acid than meth. And it’s surprisingly two-dimensional, coming from a writer who is capable of growing empathy in unpromising soil.

But Chapple’s performance is a tour de force. He commands the stage (which he occupies for the entire show) with a kind of wide-eyed evil. You can’t like him, but you can’t help but worry that you might.

Parish (who has more than a little of David Bowie’s look about him) is both an excellent foil and an impressive individual character, and Maishman juggles Jenny’s opportunism and rising alarm, as Paul disintegrates, with aplomb. The incidental roles in the 17-strong cast (Christian Meares and Poppy Lynch accompany on guitar and drums) are provocative and excellently played.

The creative forces Lewis has marshalled, lighting designer Matthew Erren, sound designer Heinrich Krause and costume designer Maeli Cherel, and a team of specialist coaches and directors from fight to intimacy (hello!) help give this sordid, sad story both its spit and its polish.

Birdland is a great opportunity for a WAAPA graduating class to strut their considerable stuff.

Birdland runs until October 17.

Pictured top: Ben Chapple and Jonathan Lagudi. Photos: Jon Green

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