Children, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

An absolute cracker

Review: shake & stir theatre co, George’s Marvellous Medicine ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 4 July ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Making children’s theatre is hard.  Unlike adults, children will not laugh politely at your jokes or remain silent when bored.  If a heartfelt monologue is a trifle too long, it’s liable to be interrupted with a half-shouted “Can we go now?”  Combine indulgent parenting with whiny kids and it’s a short step to a theatre-maker’s nightmare audience.  And then there’s the issue of dual audiences – can you make a work that kids will love and that adults will also enjoy?  Can you get away with a few ribald jokes?  

I point out the difficulty of the feat because I want you to take what I say next seriously – George’s Marvellous Medicine is the best show I’ve seen in recent memory.  Not the best kids’ show, the best show.

This production, based on the famed Roald Dahl book, is co-produced by Brisbane’s shake & stir theatre co. and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.  Under the direction of Ross Balbuziente, each aspect of the production has been finessed from start to finish.  It’s rare to find a show that so comfortably straddles the stylistic line between charmingly home-made and professional, but this is that unusual spectacle.

The wonderfully elaborate set, representing the farmhouse in which George lives, is a patchwork of jumbled shelves, crammed with all the accoutrements of domestic life.  The shelves are set upon a series of moving panels that shift as the action shifts, large enough for the performers to weave in and through. Part nostalgia trip, part theatrical wonder it’s a piece of exceptional craft from designer Josh McIntosh.  Lighting design by Jason Glenwright is also a central feature – the walls of the set are studded with an assortment that flicker on and off at opportune moments, adding to the magical lustre of the production and providing rich fodder for visual jokes.

And sure, the actors have gold to work with – Dahl’s words beg for dramatic interpretation – but shake & stir has taken brave liberties here with an adaptation that deserve accolades of its own.  The story cleaves pretty closely to Dahl’s narrative, but the characters are airlifted into the modern age with genuinely hilarious results.  George’s mother, played by the fabulous Nelle Lee, has become a saucy, selfie-taking shopaholic replete with chunky red heels, leopard skin skirt and fishnets.  Her sassy rapport with George’s Dad, played with an easy joy by Tim Dashwood, is central to much of the sly adult humour that sneaks its way into the script.  George himself is convincingly depicted by Nick Skubij as a wide-eyed mischief-maker, perhaps a trifle sweeter than Dahl’s own creation but very funny nevertheless.  The chicken in Dahl’s story is here too, embodied by the lithe Johnny Balbuziente who has a grand time incorporating a variety of au courant dance moves into his chickenish antics, much to the awe and delight of the young audience.  Flossing and dabbing anyone?

A wide-eyed mischief-maker: Nick Skubij as George. Photo: Dylan Evans

But for me, it was Grandma who stole the show.  As the anti-heroine, Leon Cain is sidesplittingly evil.  His flatulent, mean spiritedness providing all the justification one needs for George’s drastic actions.  Cain has a perfect gift for comic timing and physical humour, well aided by a bang-on soundscape created by Guy Webster.  From the initial horror of her easy-chair entrance (cue terrifying music) to her sudden expansion and diminution later in the show, each scene featuring Gran had me in extended giggling fits.

The 55 minutes pass extremely quickly – if you recall Dahl’s tale, there’s actually not a great deal that happens.  All the more extraordinary then that this bunch manages to weave such a spell in such a brief time.  As my ten year-old companion exclaimed to me post-show, “It was like magic.”  And the nine-year-old?  He rated it 15/10.  An absolute cracker.

George’s Marvellous Medicine plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until July 8.

Pictured top: Leon Cain in ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’. Photo: Dylan Evans.


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Up, up and away!

Review: Polar Bears Go Up ◆
Awesome Festival, Heath Ledger Theatre, 5 October ◆
Reviewed by Nina Levy ◆

Polar Bears Go Up opened to a small but enthusiastic audience of under-6s and their accompanying adults on Wednesday morning. There’s no question that this whimsical work hits the nail on the head with its target audience.

Created and performed by Eilidh MacAskill and Fiona Manson, Polar Bears Go Up is a simple tale. There’s a tall bear (MacAskill), a small bear (Manson), and a shiny, floating, golden star. When the star escapes into the ether, the polar bears must go… up!

Tracking that runaway star. Photo: Richard Davenport
Clad in all manner of furry accoutrements, topped with goggles, MacAskill and Manson are utterly delightful. Back-scratching, tummy-rumbling, spoon-and-cup drumming antics are all highly relatable and entertaining to young viewers and parents. The duo’s cartoon-like facial expressions and gestures lend a touch of slapstick to the proceedings, while Greg Sinclair’s whimsical score turns milk-bottles into pan-pipes and plates into DJ turntables.

The bear-pair come up with increasingly outlandish ways to reach their lofty goal, with plenty of laughs along the way for young and old alike, as they bounce and boogie their way to the top. Sinclair’s evocative soundscape beautifully illustrates the airy, buoyancy of the stratosphere, the rumbling drama of a rocket.

The bear-pair come up with increasingly outlandish ways to reach their lofty goal. Photo: Richard Davenport.
Of course, the best way to judge a work for children is by the opinions of those children. My two-and-a-half year old companion voted with her feet, choosing to remain pressed against the seat-backs of the row in front of us for most of the 50 minute work… as close as she could get to the action. Thoroughly engaged, she had many suggestions for the furry players.

Gentle and magical, Polar Bears Go Up is perfectly pitched for the two to fives.

Polar Bears Go Up plays until 7 October.

Top photo: Richard Davenport

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Twists, turns and music: Jenny Simpson (Part II)

In “Twists, turns and music: part I”, AWESOME Arts CEO Jenny Simpson told Nina Levy about her past; a childhood cut short by loss, the music that saved her and a career characterised by contrast. Here is the second part of that interview, in which Simpson reflects on what it is that’s special about working at AWESOME Arts.

Ten years since her initial appointment at AWESOME Arts, Jenny Simpson is, if anything, more passionate about her work than ever. So what is it that keeps her interested?

“It’s the challenge,” she responds. “I’ve never got bored. The challenge is constant, of finding enough money to do what we need to do. You’ve got to be clever, passionate, and never give up.
“And then there’s the potential. Artists are amazing. It’s like breathing pure oxygen, sometimes, talking to artists, hearing their ideas. To be a part of a machine that generates oxygen for artists to breathe so they can go out there and change people’s lives is a real privilege. It’s meaningful.

“We did a project last week that profoundly moved me,” she continues. “I’m humbled by the work of the artists, I’m humbled by the creativity of the children. I’m blessed that the funder who provided the money stepped up. When it all comes together and you have a great outcome, you don’t need drugs, it is a drug. Yeah, that’s why I’m still here.”

‘Secret Life of Suitcases’ by Ailie Cohen Puppets at the 2015 Awesome Festival. Photo: James Campbell.

And what have been Simpson’s favourite AWESOME Festival shows over her decade with the organisation?

“It’s funny because one of my favourites was an abject box office failure. that show was called Echolalia,” she replies. “It was a one-hander by an artist from New Zealand called Jenny McArthur. It’s about the experience of autism. It was a show that brought me tremendous anxiety and sadness, all at once. It also gave me my best moment ever in the Festival, in my whole life in the arts, because that character, to bring herself down when she was escalating, she’d count to eight. And at the end of the show, she bravely steps out into the world – the whole show is about her trying to leave her house – and she finally steps out of her house and you see her waving her hand and you know she’s about to start counting. I was in a room full of children and they started to count to eight with her. They were totally on that journey with her. It was like they were helping her step into the world. That was a profound moment for me in the theatre, to see children and that artist as one in the space.

“Other favourites… Last year we had Barrowland Ballet, Tiger Tale, that was such a highlight to bring that show out. It was beautiful story telling, it was exquisite dancing, it was an amazing set and it was underpinned by this composer sitting in the room, who’d written the score, performing it.

“Another one from Scotland was The Secret Life of Suitcases which is about being busy. It had a really profound effect on a lot of the parents who realised, ‘Oh my god, I’m so busy, I’m not living.’ I think that’s such an important message for those parents to have because busy-ness impacts on everyone and we tend to make a bit of a god of being busy.

‘A Mano’ by El Patio Teatro at the 2016 AWESOME Festival. Photo: James Campbell.

“Another show we had last year was a Spanish piece called Amano. It was a really slow, gentle piece of puppetry where they made the puppets out of clay on the stage. I relished the opportunity to sit in the room with about 90 people and for the whole pace of that room to slow down. It’s very special to do that with children, it’s very hard to achieve. A lot of performance for children is about ramping them up and getting quick laughs. For two artists to take children into a space that’s meditative and gentle was just so special. And the ending was really unresolved and left more questions than answers. I love that about Amano as well. So often work for children ties everything up neatly… but that’s just not what life is.

As someone whose own childhood ended so abruptly with the loss of a parent, Simpson speaks from experience. “Losing mum… we don’t all get our happy endings. That idea of supporting conversations about what happens when things are unresolved [is important], of asking how do we go on? Sad things in shows reconnect me with my grief but they also reconnect me with moving past it. I think that’s so important… and for children and adults to know that bad things will happen but you can move past this.”

“That’s another thing about the festival program,” she concludes. “Sometimes it is going to be evocative and at times even a bit provocative because it’s about providing opportunities to have bigger conversations with children. There’s a piece coming into this year’s Festival – the premise is climate change. No way is it controversial, but gosh it will make you think, how do we adapt? What do we do in our everyday lives that is a part of this issue? It’s not about beating people over the heads. It’s about saying, hey here’s a story, or here’s a workshop that is going to gently lead you into a conversation.”

Nina Levy

The AWESOME Festival for Bright Young Things takes place 30 September – 9 October. 


Read Part I of this interview here.

Pictured top: Barrowland Ballet’s ‘Tiger Tale’, performed at the 2016 Awesome International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things. Photo: James Campbell.

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Twist, turns and music: Jenny Simpson (Part I)

This year Jenny Simpson is celebrating a decade at the helm of AWESOME Arts, an organisation dedicated to making incredible arts experiences for WA’s children. Nina Levy caught up with Simpson for a chat about childhood, career paths and what makes a great festival show.

With a splash of colour in her hair and a ready laugh, Jenny Simpson brightens any room. Gregarious,  hilarious, and passionate about the arts, it’s hard to imagine a person better suited to the role of chief executive officer of of WA’s AWESOME Arts. The organisation presents the AWESOME International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things, an annual feast of theatre, dance, music, film and activities designed for children aged 0-12 years and their families, and the Creative Challenge, a year-round program bringing arts experiences to children in regional and remote WA. Like Simpson, AWESOME is recognisable for its colour, joyfulness and engagement with the Perth community.

Simpson’s love of the arts began early in life. Born in Bowral, NSW, she had an idyllic rural childhood. “I grew up running around the paddocks,” she reminisces. “It was a lovely childhood. My family was very musical. I grew up with lots of bonfires, playing music, having musicians come and stay. My parents were involved in running a musical festival. I used to be on the door, ripping tickets. I performed in the festival too. I used to sing – I still sing.

“Community was big for us as well,” she adds. “One of the things that I did as a child and do to this today is performing in nursing homes. Mum would play the accordion and we’d put on a show. I learned a great deal of respect for older people.”

Simpson’s happy childhood was shattered, however, when she was 15. “My mum died. That was a shock. She was young and I was young. My world fell apart.” Looking back, Simpson believes that music played a crucial role in helping her through the difficult years that followed. “I had a very troubled teenage life,” she reflects. “My father wasn’t a particularly teenage-girl friendly father. I found myself playing my guitar and singing in my bedroom, for hours at a time. That’s what got me through.”

Barrowland Ballet’s ‘Tiger Tale’, performed at the AWESOME International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things in 2015. Photo: James Campbell.

After finishing school and completing a degree in history, psychology and English literature, and Simpson’s early career took a turn that may come as a surprise to those who know her now. “I was all set to head to Latrobe to do a graduate diploma in secondary education,” she says. “I withdrew the night before. The prospect of standing in front of children and presuming to know more than they did terrified me. I ended up being a commodity trader in Melbourne. I drove a red car, I had shoulder pads, I did deals,” she dead pans. “At the same time I played in bands.”

Simpson’s day-job saw her visit WA, precipitating her first move West in 1995. “I loved the place, I loved the vibe of Fremantle at that time. Some of the best musicians and artists I knew were from WA,” she recalls. “I figured there was something in the water and I probably needed to drink more of that water.”

Although Simpson remained engaged with music, becoming the co-conductor of the One Voice choir in Fremantle, by day she was still working in the corporate world, this time at Schweppes. “Gee, I was really good at selling soft drinks,” she exclaims with a grin. “And then I was coming up to 30 – I think a lot of women, when they get to a certain age, start to re-evaluate what they’re here for – and it hit me like a bolt from the blue that maybe being really good at selling soft drinks was not going to be something I was going to be proud of at end of my days. Coming from that background of believing in community and doing good things like my parents used to do, I had a bit of a crisis about that.

“I’d always had this interest in finding audiences for good artists. In my spare time I used to tour people, for fun. So when I was having this existential crisis about what to do with my life and I saw a job for touring manager at Country Arts WA come up, I thought. ‘Touring! I do that!’”

In spite of the fact that she was the self-described “wild card” in the interview process, Simpson got the job and she never looked back. From Country Arts she went on to direct the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Then Arts Queensland needed an interim director at Brisbane Multicultural Arts Centre, where she was offered the position of director… but Simpson’s heart belonged to WA. “Fremantle was calling me home,” she remembers. “I felt it in my gut. Even though I wasn’t born here this place had imprinted on to me. The light here is different, the landscape is different. I regard it as home, I just feel it in my bones.”

‘The Secret Life of Suitcases’ by Ailie Cohen Puppets, from the 2015 AWESOME Festival. Photo: James Campbell.

Simpson didn’t have a job lined up but after a short stint at Kulcha Multicultural Arts, she landed the position of general manager at AWESOME. Initially, she recalls, she wasn’t that excited about the role. “For the first couple of years I felt a bit detached. I was the general manager then, so someone else was curating the program… And then I started to see the impact of what we were doing on children. I started to realise that actually this is the future and we’re getting in at ground level and making a better community. The sense of purpose started to burn in me.”

Simpson believes that AWESOME’s role goes well beyond exposing children to the arts. “I’ve realised that if you have something inside you that’s creative, that actually becomes a spring from which you can draw when the external world gets tough,” she explains. “It becomes about having an internal locus of control, as they say in therapy. It’s not letting the world control you, but having something strong inside you.

“I feel what we do, at AWESOME, is about giving children that inner courage through having creative energy. I want kids to be in their rooms, drawing, they can make a film on an iPad, they can dance, whatever… but I want them to have something they’re passionate about, that helps them engage with others and create networks, friendships. I think that supports problem solving, communication and development.

I think every human being needs that… especially children.”

This is part I of Nina Levy’s interview with Jenny Simpson. Read part II here.


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The Arrival
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A strange and beautiful ride

Review: The Arrival –
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre –
The Dolphin Theatre, University of Western Australia –
5 July –
Reviewed by Nina Levy –

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, The Arrival brings to life the strange and wonderful imagination of author and illustrator Shaun Tan through animation, movement, mime, music and puppetry. Adapted, written and animated by Michael Barlow and directed by Philip Mitchell, The Arrival was first presented by Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in 2006 and has enjoyed several re-stagings since.

Set in a world of fantastic creatures and surreal dreamscapes, The Arrival is a migrant story, following Aki (Ellis Pearson), who has farewelled his wife and child to seek a life for his family in a new place. In keeping with Tan’s novel, the play uses no verbal communication. Like a migrant who does not speak the language, the audience must navigate this new place without the aid of written or spoken words.

The Arrival
Ellis Pearson as Aki in ‘The Arrival’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

Animated versions of Tan’s illustrations form the backdrop to the action, and, together with Aki, we discover a world that is nostalgic yet unfamiliar, whimsical yet dark. Elements such as Aki’s ship-voyage, his vintage suitcase and hat seem to place him in the earthly past – maybe he is a twentieth century postwar migrant. On his arrival, however, he travels in a driverless hot air balloon over a densely detailed urban landscape of chimneys and cone-shaped buildings decorated with foreign symbols, and massive discs adorned with geometric designs. Airborne ships float over roads and buildings that interweave and overlap.  Giant curving statues of human and animal figures preside over these surreal scenes. We are  somewhere unearthly and unplaceable.

As Aki searches for a home and a job, he sketches his new world, folding the images into origami birds which he releases into the air, presumably to fly to his family. Like the origami letters, the set folds and fans. On its various surfaces, animated versions of Tan’s illustrations are projected, transforming its pockets into a ship deck, a ticket booth, a bedroom, a field, a street.

The animations are simple but effective. The ship deck tips from side to side and we empathise with a seasick passenger. Unfurling scenery behind Aki’s balloon-taxi creates the illusion of flight. A moving figure on a map shows us his foot-journey through his new town.

It’s all accompanied by Lee Buddle’s dream-like score; a mix of melody and soundscape, with falls of guitar strings or voices, clusters of percussion, odd ringing notes.

As Tan himself has observed, the strange creatures that inhabit his book are well-suited to puppetry. For the play, two of these are transformed into puppets, one of which takes a lead role as Aki’s companion. Whilst this cheeky, squeaky charmer was beautifully portrayed and cleverly operated by various performers (both on stage and out of sight) in the performance viewed, the transformation feels a little jarring. In Tan’s illustrations, the creature is a land-dweller, a sort of rodent/dog/alien, and depicted in sepia (as are all the illustrations). The puppet counterpart seems more like a marine creature – albeit one able to live on land – some kind of eel/dolphin hybrid. Bright blue and reminiscent of a muppet, it doesn’t seem to fit with the muted tones and textures of its surroundings, nor does its yellow friend.

This is, however, a small quibble. The Arrival takes the audience on a fantastical voyage, charting the travails of the migrant experience with a light yet sensitive touch. As Aki, Pearson was vulnerable yet resilient, with a slapstick quality to his movement that kept the audience chuckling. Fleshing out various other characters, Alicia Osyka and Shirley van Sanden underpinned each role with a touch of zany. Kudos also to Adrienne Patterson, who is not seen but voices and operates the puppets at various times, alongside Osaka and van Sanden.

Whether you’re young or not-so-young, The Arrival is a strange and beautiful ride. It’s well worth getting on board.

The Arrival
Ellis Pearson & Shirley van Sanden in ‘The Arrival’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.
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Calendar, Classical music, Music, September

Music: Jump, Jam, Jiggle!

Thursday 28 September – 9.45am & 11.15am, Saturday 30 September – 9.45am & 11.15am @ Perth Concert Hall – Wardle Room

In these 50-minute interactive workshop performances, children will enjoy a hands-on musical journey of instrument playing, song and dance inspired by the music of Holst’s The Planets. At the conclusion of the performance, children can “Meet the Musician” to learn more about the instruments of the orchestra and the people who play them.


More info:

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Calendar, Dance, July, Performing arts, Theatre

Dance Theatre: Saltbush

12 – 14 July @ State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Barking Gecko Theatre Company.
18 July @ Albany Entertainment Centre, Albany.
21 – 22 July @ Mandurah Performing Arts Centre.
25 July @ Arts Margaret River.
By Insite Arts & Compagnia TPO, presented by Performing Lines.

Saltbush is an exquisite interactive journey through the culture and landscape of Aboriginal Australia, celebrated through live dance, music, song and stories. An ensemble of Aboriginal artists collaborated with Insite Arts and the internationally acclaimed Italian company Compagnia TPO to create this highly acclaimed work.

Saltbush centres on the journey of two friends from different Aboriginal backgrounds as they cross Australia on foot. Their journey sees them travel across diverse Australian landscapes (countries) – river country, urban landscapes, the desert and the sea, all the while discovering the land and better understanding and acknowledging our own challenges and personal journey.

Children are invited to explore, play and dance with the performers as the landscape unfolds around them, providing a unique immersive experience where the audience becomes part of this visually beautiful journey.

More info and bookings:


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