Our theatre critics spend a scary amount of time sitting in dark rooms, so they usually know what's what when it comes to Melbourne's stages. Here are all their tips for the best shows to see right now, as well as the upcoming shows that we haven't seen yet, but think are going to set your heart racing.
Critics' choice Melbourne shows
Drag superstars, cult cabaret artists and gender-bending performance artists take over the city every summer – not to mention the swag of free parties, events and more. In the past few years, the LGBTQIA-focused festival has begun to come into its own as an international arts festival, pairing a suite of free events and parties with a program of theatre, cabaret, live art and music. It's been more than three decades since the first Midsumma launched, and the festival now attracts talent from all corners of the globe. Whether you're queer or an ally, there's an event for everyone at Midsumma, so break out those rainbow threads and get celebrating!
Melbourne audiences get a rare chance to compare two jailhouse musicals from composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, written 17 years apart but playing only metres from each other. The first to open here was Kiss of the Spider Woman, originally written in 1992 and currently blundering its tonally-confused way through a season over at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner Theatre; their 1975 hit Chicago, in spiky, spiffy contrast, surges onto the State Theatre stage in this vivid and rollicking revival. The contrast couldn’t be starker. Actually, it’s not really a fair comparison. Spider Woman is a noble misfire from the pair, and Chicago is one of their masterpieces. The MTC production is an original, designed and directed by local talent, whereas this is a remount of a tried and tested winner. Nothing originated from here, not the set (John Lee Beatty), nor the lighting (Ken Billington), nor the choreography (the legendary Ann Reinking). Which means there is only one real point of difference between this and any number of productions currently playing around the world: the cast and the musicians. Melbourne has seen several iterations of this production – ironically starring Caroline O’Connor, who is currently hamming it up rather joylessly in Spider Woman – but this is possibly the best of the lot. There’s something about the pops, the slides and the smoky knowingness that is just right; it’s slick without being soulless, and it’s tight without being impacted. It shouldn’t be sur
The first rule of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that you don’t talk about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Safeguarding spoilers is an expected responsibility for anyone who attends the Potter-verse’s first on-stage outing. There’s even a hashtag: #KeepTheSecrets. But in truth (as far as theatre critique is concerned, at least), JK Rowling needn’t have worried. This marathon, five-hour spectacle has a plot so dense and sprawling, so wonderfully, unashamedly elaborate, it would take many thousands of words more than any theatre review to even scratch the surface. While we may have been sworn to secrecy about Cursed Child’s plot, we can reveal that the hype – and rarely has a piece of theatre ever generated such fever-pitched buzz – is entirely deserved. And not just because of the quality of the production. The masterminds behind the show – led by Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany – have not merely set out to put on a play, but rather craft a rich and detailed immersive experience. To this end, Melbourne’s Princess Theatre has undergone a top to bottom $6.5 million makeover, transforming its interiors to match a Hogwartsian, Potterfied aesthetic. If this sounds like an unnecessary extravagance, it’s probably an indication this play isn’t for you. The success of Cursed Child, which has smashed box office records on Broadway and the West End, is powered by its unapologetic exclusivity. Those without any prior knowledge of Harry and co will be b
It’s hard to think of a title more self-explanatory than War Horse – except perhaps Snakes on a Plane, and that one’s a joke. It is a tale about a horse who goes to war, and was written by children’s author Michael Morpurgo back in 1982, to some success. It wasn’t until the National Theatre of Great Britain came along in 2007, though, that this simple story etched its way into the public imagination. A theatrical adaptation of the novel seemed like a ludicrous concept, but the difficulty of making horses the centre of a play became its key selling point. Puppetry is rarely a mainstream art form, unless it’s as astonishing as this. From the opening moments at the birth of a foal, as it struggles to stand and slowly gathers its strength and vitality, to the gruelling charges and driving work of the actual war, the puppetry (by Handspring Puppet Company) is never less than sublime. The puppeteers, fully visible but totally integrated into the physicality of the animals, are so supple and responsive that the horses, and swallows and crows and one fabulous goose, are easily as vivid as the humans. Of course, very fine animal puppetry won’t in and of itself create a hit show – just ask the producers of King Kong, which had a five-star monkey sitting in a one-star white elephant – and the success of playwright Nick Stafford’s adaptation is due to as much to its stagecraft as its conceptual vision. Everything under Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris’s direction – from Toby Sedgwick’s
Chris Edwards’ razor sharp and riotously funny play about what it means to be young, white and queer in Australia started life as part of his final project for a Masters degree at NIDA before going on to have a critically acclaimed season in Sydney’s New Theatre. Now it comes to Theatre Works. Directed by Riley Spadaro, six performers bring to life six different stories of queer millennial life, from dating disasters and dick pics to money troubles and existential climate despair. Insightful, funny and moving, it stars Michael Cameron, Elle Mickel, Matthew Predney, Ariadne Sgouros, Sasha Simon and Alexander Stylianou.
It’s difficult to describe what this wickedly funny play by Nick Coyle is really about. It starts in one place but takes so many detours on its way to its end point that you mightn’t recognise the play itself – or its extraordinary protagonist Kimberly – by the time it concludes. Helpmann nominee Declan Greene is directing the Melbourne premiere for Midsumma Festival, after the play premiered to rave reviews at Sydney's Griffin Theatre in 2018. It’s a determinedly queer play about an outsider trying to make her way in a seemingly insane world.
It's time to don your ballet shoes and practice your plié – Billy Elliot the Musical is on its way back to Australian shores for a tenth anniversary tour. The British musical blockbuster is opening at the Sydney Lyric in October, with four freakishly talented youngsters sharing the title role: Omar Abiad (12, from Brisbane), River Mardesic (10, from Melbourne), Wade Neilsen (12, from Newcastle) and Jamie Rogers (12, from Canberra). They're joined by Australian musical theatre stalwart Kelley Abbey as the tough-as-nails ballet teacher Mrs Wilkinson, and Justin Smith as Billy's father. The musical is set against the background of the 1984/85 UK coal miners' strike and tells the story of Billy, a miner's son who dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer. Lee Hall, who wrote the popular 2000 film upon which the musical is based, adapted the story for the stage with musical superstar Elton John, who penned the score. Elton John said: "Billy Elliot for me is one of the most rewarding and creative works of my career. I have very fond memories of the Sydney production in 2007 as it was the first city outside of the UK we mounted the show and found many incredibly talented children who would go on to carry the show through its successful Australian run." After opening on London's West End in 2005 – where it scored a five-star review from Time Out London – the show had its Australian premiere in 2007, winning a record-equalling seven Helpmann Awards including Best Musical.
Every couple of years, globe-trotting circus company Cirque du Soleil pops up its Grand Chapiteau in Melbourne for a season of good, old-fashioned spectacle and entertainment. Its next show to come to town has got a decidedly retro vibe and has been widely praised as the company's best in years. When it was in New York back in 2016, Time Out gave it a glowing five-star review: "Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities is a procession of wonders: the Canadian circus giant’s sharpest, sexiest, most stylish production in years. In a departure from the otherwordly themes for which Cirque is best known, writer-director Michel Laprise embraces a steampunk aesthetic: metal and leather, chunky robots, glowing filaments under glass, a singer with a phonograph horn on her head. The style may be retro, but the acts—and the technical ingenuity that makes them possible—are fully up-to-date. The show is a mad scientist’s lab of wild invention, in which circus artists from around the planet perform routines of breathtaking beauty and precision." Kurios is at Flemington Racecourse from March 12, 2020. Tickets go on sale March 18, 2019 at 9am.
Even if you missed his Tony-winning musical Matilda (and more fool you if you did), even if you missed his scene-stealing turn as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and even if you missed his Back tour when it first came to Melbourne in 2019, all is not lost for Tim Minchin fans. Tim Minchin is bringing Back back to Melbourne in March 2020 for an encore tour. The original 2019 iteration of Back was the first time Minchin had toured Australia in a decade, an absence that was acutely felt if the 69,000-strong attendance is anything to go by. The irreverent Minchin describes Back as "old songs, new songs, fuck you songs". And he certainly has plenty of the latter – Minchin's version of 'I Still Call Australia Home' provided a small beacon of light during Australia's shameful marriage equality plebiscite debacle, and his 'Come Home (Cardinal Pell)' which threw pointed barbs at Cardinal George Pell (who has since been convicted of child sex offences). Tickets flew out the door last time Back toured so you can expect them to go just as quick this time too. There'll be three shows at Hamer Hall, from March 26 to 28.