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
John Kander and Fred Ebb know a thing or two about prison musicals, having written Chicago in the mid-1970s. A sexed-up, pared-back revival in 1996 was a smash hit, with the razzle-dazzle of showbiz turning the Cook County Jail into a vaudeville stage. In the late 1980s, Kander and Ebb created another musical set inside a prison, but the wicked sense of fun that permeates Chicago is nowhere to be seen in the grim Argentinian prison we find ourselves in here. Luis Molina (Ainsley Melham) is a gay window dresser, in his third year of an eight-year sentence for having sex with an underage boy. As the show opens he gets a new cellmate, Valentin Paz (Adam-Jon Fiorentino), a Marxist political prisoner who is being tortured to give up the names of his co-conspirators. Molina, a devoted cineast, blocks out the screams of his fellow prisoners and the grim horror of their situation by reliving his favourite films, starring the diva Aurora (Caroline O’Connor). Molina loves all of her roles bar one, the Spider Woman, who brings death with her kiss. Valentin has no time for fantasies and draws a line in their cell to keep Molina and his escapism out. As their relationship begins to develop, prison authorities ask Molina to spy on his cellmate, in exchange for his own freedom. Molina is the heart and soul of the show (William Hurt won an Oscar for his performance in the 1985 movie based on the same Manuel Puig novel), and Melham’s performance is masterful, radiating love, courage, terro
Melbourne audiences have had something of a crash course in the works of UK playwright Simon Stephens in recent years, and it’s given us a sense of the scope but also the inconsistency of his output. Melbourne Theatre Company triumphed in 2015 with his electric Birdland, and had great success with his adaptation of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but came a cropper this year with the hugely disappointing Heisenberg; it was difficult to reconcile them all as coming from the same artist. Patalog Theatre is mounting his 2009 play Punk Rock at fortyfivedownstairs, and it’s an intriguing insight into the strengths and weaknesses of this prolific writer. Set in a wealthy school in Stockport on the outskirts of Manchester, Stephens’ play concerns itself with the specific horrors of growing up, that uneasy shift from the petty grievances of the schoolyard to the unknown but infinitely more terrifying pressures of the outside world. Stephens seems to be in dialogue with Alan Bennett’s History Boys, that raucous but ultimately comforting (read nostalgic and sentimental) play on the troubles with pedagogy. He even names his chief bully Bennett, in what is surely an act of provocation. For class-obsessed Britain, it’s surprising that the play treats the wealth and privilege of the students as something secondary, even peripheral. These kids mightn’t have to worry about the whereabouts of their next meal, but the worries they do have are certainly not mocked; indeed, their
When Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins premiered in 1990, George Bush Sr was in power and the Gulf War was underway. Audiences during war time weren’t really ready for a musical about the dark heart of the American dream, and it closed early. In 2004 it was remounted on Broadway and won four Tonys. Its time had come. Come from Away feels like the reverse: a musical that suits its time, is perhaps even flattered a little by it. It’s of course impossible to predict, but it seems unlikely that this show will play quite so well in 15 years. Something about its message, its attitude and its structure relies heavily on the audience’s willingness, even hunger, to receive it. We are living in dark times, and a show like this certainly hits the sweet spot. Does that necessarily make it a great show? Certainly, it tells a warm and reassuring tale about a community who rallies for people it doesn’t know, and in that regard it is a necessary and timely one. On the morning of September 11, 2001 a total of 38 planes carrying 6,579 passengers were diverted to the remote airspace in Newfoundland, near the town of Gander. They didn’t know why, nor even where they were, but they soon learnt just how kind and welcoming the locals could be. Gander (and neighbouring towns) took them all in, almost doubling the local population in a single day; they fed them, clothed them and housed them. They broke the news of the terrorist attacks in New York, and they gave them phones to contact loved ones. And the
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 1889 in Cornwall. It’s a freezing winter night. A suited stranger interrupts a family dinner and introduces them to a strange, black substance pooled within a lantern. This is oil, and it shocks everyone into excitement or doubt – it ignites into a warm, thick tongue of flame, but gives off a peculiar smell. After the stranger leaves, May, the pregnant wife of a farmer, decides to go outside. She picks up the lantern and starts to walk. She walks through time. It’s now 1908. Tehran. May, a servant, with her eight-year-old daughter Amy in tow, scrounges up one last job. Time jumps forward again, and May and Amy, now in a car, drive through decades, to 1970, where they thunder at each other in a kitchen in Hampstead. Time jumps forward again. May flies. It’s 2021, in the bomb-stricken sands of Baghdad. Time jumps. It’s 2051. Cornwall. And so goes Oil, by British playwright Ella Hickson. It’s a play that moves forward through the centuries like the crawling spread of a flame, tracking the destruction that ambition or love can leave in its wake. Under the direction of Ella Caldwell, this latest Red Stitch production is an experience so full of ideas and feeling that it ought to burst: it’s a mad swirl of hope, love, greed and progress; of geopolitical, ecological, commercial and maternal concerns. It’s the type of play that’s so gargantuan in theme that a review may do little but list. At the heart of Oil, however, lie two major ideas: the oil industry’s knotted co-depen
Long before it was an Academy Award-winning film, Chicago was a hit Broadway musical. Penned by musical theatre's dynamic duo John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical was only a minor splash when it premiered in 1975. But when it was given a stripped back and sexed up new production in 1996, it became an immediate sensation and eventually the longest running Broadway revival of all time. That's the production which Melbourne audiences will see, this time with Natalie Bassingthwaighte playing Roxie (the Renée Zellweger role) opposite musical theatre star Alinta Chidzey as Velma (the Catherine Zeta-Jones role). Jason Donovan is playing the smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn, while vocal powerhouse Casey Donovan is taking on Matron Mama Morton, the prison warden who sings 'When You're Good to Mama'. The show also includes 'Razzle Dazzle', 'Cell Block Tango', 'Mr Cellophane', and, of course, 'All That Jazz'.
This feel-good pub night-meets-performance was a sellout hit at the 2017 and 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and comes to Arts Centre Melbourne after two successful seasons in the Sydney Opera House. Set in a beautifully recreated pub (complete with working beer tap and free pints for those who arrive early enough), nine bearded and occasionally man-bunned blokes belt out harmonies from the likes of Guns n’ Roses, Adele, the Proclaimers, Sia and even the odd Broadway classic, accompanied by tap dancing, arm wrestling, beer mug percussion and plenty of friendly banter about the importance of such spaces for men’s mental health. There’s even a sing-along to John Farnham.
There aren't many plays in the world as successful as the National Theatre's epic staging of War Horse. Since Joey first cantered onto the stage of the Olivier Theatre in London in 2007 – and then galloped all the way to Broadway, the West End and a Stephen Spielberg-helmed film adaptation – it's been amassing fans and honours, including the Tony Award for Best Play. Now it's returning to Australia with a tour that kicks off at Melbourne's Regent Theatre on January 10 2020, continuing to Sydney and wrapping up in Perth. When it was last here in 2013, the show featured an Australian cast, but this time around we'll be seeing a 34-member international touring cast. The show is based on English writer Michael Morpurgo's book about Joey, a horse who belongs to young Albert but is sold to the Army during World War I. Over the course of the play Joey goes on some weird, wonderful and terrifying adventures, all the while Albert is working to bring him home safely. Directed by British theatre dynamos Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the play is known for its innovative staging and the ingenious use of puppetry to bring the four-legged characters to life. And although it's based on a kids' book, we'd strongly advise bringing tissues with you; it's about a boy and his horse and the sort of bravery required to save one another. We're welling up just thinking about it now.
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!
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.