A Tribute of Sorts review (Bille Brown Studio, Brisbane)

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“Congratulations! You’re at the theatre”, the banner informs us as we gaze at the shoe-box set on the wide wide stage of the Bille Brown Studio.
Hung with tacky homemade red velvet curtains from the dress-up box, the set (originally designed by the play’s writer Benjamin Schostakowski but adapted for this very different space by Dann Barber) is as innocent, as amateur, as childish and as clumsy as anything any creative children created on a wet school holiday. But wait! Danger lurks, as the subterranean horrors of its two characters Ivan and Juniper Plank, whose minds surface in a morbid version of Theatre of the Absurd.  Think Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, or Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, and you’re almost there.
Think boy-girl cousins in every stage of teenage awkwardness presenting a fantasy tale of the deaths of 26 young children, in alphabetical order. They are presented as through a peep-show at a fairground, photographs of Victorian and Edwardian children meeting their deaths in ways as bizarre, as tragic, as horrible and as side-splittingly-funny as the sickest mind could imagine. Some of the gothic deaths take three minutes to present, while one group of 15 runs through in 15 minutes like a jumpy speeded-up projection, leaving us gasping with exhausted despair and delight.
Everything that can go wrong does, as it ought to, but the show’s two performers Emily Burton and Dash Kruck have us in the palms of their hands from the opening scene, so we almost dare not laugh – it would be like mocking your ten-year-old’s hilariously disastrous efforts.
With less skilled actors this show could just be a wicked parody, as crude as anything Chris Lilley could create, but Burton and Kruck become cousins Juniper and Ivan so effectively that their clumsy relationship adds another frame to the wacky concept at the centre of the shoe-box theatre.  They’re more than just youngsters putting on a black comedy; they’re adolescents in the first flush of puberty, and while Ivan is tense and rigid in all his roles, and especially in his interaction with Cousin Juniper, she is so edgy and sexually taut that we wait in spine-chilling anticipation for her spring to uncoil and become entangled with his. The electricity between them is palpable, but her first and final pass at him is as doomed as young love usually is, and we are left with the 26 deaths to cringe at, and, as in much good drama, wondering what is going to happen after the curtain closes.
Shows like this make your heart sing, as they take off into new and always expanding realms, exploring what theatre can do by building on old traditions.  This second season (the first was in 2012, as part of La Boite’s Indie season, which won four Matilda Awards) was packed out, and although the old lady sitting next to me didn’t really approve of it, she said later, I noticed that she was finding it hard to suppress her shocked laughter.  As for the rest of the audience, a large proportion of whom were high school students, they kicked their feet and squealed and hooted themselves almost sick, and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the classroom discussions afterwards.
Yes, congratulations are in order, because these kids were at the theatre instead of watching TV soaps, and they learned that it doesn’t always have to be well-made plays that can make our hearts soar with sheer joy.
[box] A Tribute of Sorts was a Monsters Appear production, presented by Queensland Theatre Company and Metro Arts. It played at the Bille Brown Studio in Montague Street, West End  from May 7 to 17 [/box]

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