Category Archives: Theatre

Celebrating 1916 in Brunswick in 2016

Even though it’s only fifteen kilometres from home, apart from a brief house-sitting stint in Brunswick about twenty years ago, attending my doctor’s surgery and the occasional visit to a Turkish restaurant, I have very rarely been to Brunswick. Yet in the last three days I’ve been there twice, both times for events organized by the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Committee 1916-17.


On Saturday night we attended the Metanoia Theatre at the Brunswick Mechanics’ Institute to see ‘1916’, written by local playwright Neil Cole as part of the centenary of the successful ‘no’ campaign during the two referenda over conscription during WWI.  Of course, a play written with an intent to inform and based on real events (as this play was) faces constraints in characterization and plot that a play written purely for entertainment does not. That given, the performance rocketed along for sixty minutes, tracing the activities and perspectives of three women in the months leading up to the referendum in October 1916. Adela Pankhurst, the estranged daughter from the famous English Pankhurst suffragette family arrived in Melbourne, where she appeared in anti-conscription rallies alongside local suffragist and peace activist Vida Goldstein,  the first woman to stand (albeit unsuccessfully) for Parliament. However, fellow suffragist Milly Woods (the playwright’s grandmother) broke with her former colleague Vida  out of a desire to support ‘our boys’ in the war, when her own family members enlisted and were sent to the front. The interplay between these three women demonstrated the rupture of relationships between activists who had fought for women’s votes as just one manifestation of the general fracturing of public opinion during the referendum. The play consisted of multiple scenes, depicted chronologically, which were supported by visual images on a slide show, and separated by songs of the time, very ably sung by girls from the Brunswick Secondary College.  The lead singer of the chorus, in particular, had a beautiful voice and the three main female characters were well drawn, especially, I thought, the older woman Milly Woods.

Then on Monday, over to Brunswick we went again for a history walk conducted by Michael Hamel-Green, seeing places connected with  local Brunswick anti-conscription activists John Curtin, his mentor Frank Anstey and local schoolmistress and activist Julia Guerin.  Brunswick and Coburg were hotbeds of anti-conscription activities, largely because of the strong dominance of Irish Catholics in this working-class neighbourhood.

We started off in St Ambrose Hall, the hall that was attached to the Catholic primary school next door. One of the few 19th century church halls surviving in Moreland, anti-conscription meetings were held here even though the Town Hall was just next door.  The council worthies tended to be pro-conscription, as were most of the major institutions of the day (schools, churches, local newspapers etc) and so meetings were held in the more amenable surroundings of the Catholic church hall.

John Curtin, the future WWII Prime Minister shifted to Brunswick with his family as a young boy in approximately 1899. For a short while he attended St Ambrose Primary School, until leaving school at age 14, as was common at that time for working-class lads.  When Archbishop Daniel Mannix opened a wing of the school on 28 January 1917 (maybe the one with the 1916 foundation stone?) he made his famous ‘trade speech’ where he characterized WWI as “like most wars- just an ordinary trade war”.

The Brunswick Mechanics Institute, constructed in 1868, was used as the recruiting centre for the war during 1914-18. (It was here that we saw the play 1916 on Saturday night). I’m a little surprised that it was used for recruiting, rather than the town hall across the road, although often the committees of Mechanics Institutes tended to be stalwart and ‘respectable’ men of the district and perhaps they were happy to lend their premises to the enlistment effort.


Then into the Town Hall itself and its stunning vestibule covered on all four sides by the names of the 3575 Brunswick men who enlisted.  Those who died were commemorated in a special panel, but it is notable that all enlistees were named, including those who enlisted but did not embark, in alphabetical order, irrespective of rank.

We visited two of the many homes that the Curtin family rented in Brunswick. They lived in the house below for five years between 1903-8 (the longest that they stayed in any one home). By then Curtin was working in a regular job as an estimates clerk with the Titan Manufacturing Company in South Melbourne and his weekly wage of 35 shillings ensured that they could now confidently meet the rent each week- something they had not been able to do previously.  They lived in the cottage on the left hand side, with the arched window.  The four-dwelling terrace has these rather ecclesiastic windows on three of the houses, but the fourth window next door to the Curtin residence has been replaced by a rather unprepossessing aluminium window.  There is no plaque outside this house.  There is now a park beside the house (which has been renumbered since Curtin lived there). The MMBW map shows that during Curtin’s time this was a clay hole, which would have provided clay for the brick factories in the surrounding area.

Not far away is another of the rental properties occupied by the Curtin family (below).  John Curtin lived here with his family between 1913-1915 and it was at this house that he was arrested for refusing to attend the call-up on October 9, just prior to the referendum. At this stage he was working for the Timber Workers Union.  There is a plaque here in the footpath, the only one in Brunswick marking his presence.

Finally, and rather poignantly, we ended up outside the Union Hotel, one of Curtin’s favourite watering holes, close to home and a favourite of the Irish brickworkers.


The walk over, I headed to Jewell Railway Station to catch a train into town. Ah! here’s one of the artworks created along the Upfield railway line out to Fawkner cemetery.  I read about these.

Inside the abandoned ticket window at the unmanned station there’s another little art installation.  It’s of a chemist shop window, but when you look more closely, they’re rather subversive products on sale

And so, as the train bore me the remarkably few stations into the CBD, I bade farewell to Brunswick for now, and its referendum commemorations.  Although, from the sound of the activities that the Brunswick-Coburg Anti-Conscription Commemoration Campaign have planned for next year, I think I may be back….

‘The Trouble With Harry’ Northcote Town Hall


Allow me to rave.  No- before I do, if it’s before November 9 when you’re reading this,  open a new tab and find tickets and buy them. Right now.  If it’s after November 9, then you’ve missed a wonderful show.  Remember the name and look out for it.

I’ve been fascinated with Eugenia Falleni’s story for some time and have reviewed Mark Tedeschi’s book Eugenia here  and Suzanne Falconer’s book Eugenia: A Man here.  If you’re not familiar with Eugenia’s story, you can see her ADB entry here.  Eugenia Falleni lived most of her life as Harry Crawford in post- WWI Sydney where he worked as a ‘useful’ at various factories. He was convicted and found guilty of the murder of his wife, Annie. This play adopts a different slant to the two books that I have read by placing a queer interpretation onto the relationship between Harry and his wife.  The dramatist, Lachlan Philpott does not give definitive answers: instead he opens up possibilities.

Apart from my fascination with the subject, I was drawn to see this because it stars Maude Davey (who played the minister in the excellent movie My Year Without Sex– one of my favourites) and Caroline Lee.  But, by the end of the show, I really couldn’t have identified any one actor out of the six in the cast as ‘the star’ because they were all excellent. Excellent.

It is staged at Northcote Town Hall which is just like any other 1900-ish town hall- stage at the front, large hall behind.  They do not use the platform at all, but instead utilize about 2/3 of the space at the front of the hall as stage, with temporary raked seating placed in the rear 1/3 of the hall.  The set is minimal: a large wooden box, a wall of panelling which looks at first as if it is part of the fabric of the Town Hall itself, and several steel structures, not unlike the legs of a table with the table top removed.  The actors themselves shift these around the performance space, turning them one way to be a pub bar, another way to represent a front porch; another way to represent a window. The set is fluid and changing continuously throughout the play

You are handed a set of headphones as you enter the hall.  Not only does this give scope for the use of a soundscape to supplement the admittedly sparse set – bird calls, fairground, night sounds- but it also acts to unsettle you as listener when you hear whispered asides that would otherwise have been lost in a more conventional sound production.  The script itself comprises mainly short sentences, often uttered over the top of each other.  There is a ‘chorus’ of a man and woman who comment on proceedings  in short stanzas, like a poem. The headphones help, I think, in keeping the different voices distinct.  It is a strange, disconnected experience, though.  You feel very much as if you’re watching it alone, completely immersed, and it’s not possible to nudge the person next to you and comment on what you’re seeing.  At one stage, people laughed and I’m still not sure if it was the audience around me, or whether it came through the headphones.

This is a fantastic production- one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time.  It is lyrical and it has emotional depth.  It’s clever.  See it if you can.

‘Chess’ by Catchment Players


On any Saturday night you could go into the city to see Les Mis or Once or some other musical.  You’d see clever staging and very talented artists. You’d have to book well ahead, and you may have to pay well or you may end up in the gods which is where I often find myself sitting.  Increasingly the show will be one of the franchised, highly commercial ‘biggies’ doing the international circuits and you’ll probably find yourself saying “What? It’s coming back already?” or wondering why anything that succeeds on film inevitably ends up on the stage, or vice versa.

Or, you could go to your local community theatre on a Saturday night.  You’ll see talented artists, doing what they love, for the people who love them, and you’ll be proud and grateful that there are enough people like you to support our shared human love of singing and dance and performance.  And, in my case, I wish that I’d seen this earlier in the season so that I wasn’t blogging about the final performance.

Chess is loosely based on the Bobby Fisher/ Boris Spassky tournament of the Cold War era and the rivalry of Soviet grandmasters Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov.  The lyrics are by Tim Rice (of Jesus Christ Superstar fame) and Benny and Bjorn from ABBA wrote the music.  It’s complex music: lots of words, lots of harmonies.   It’s an ambitious choice for a local theatre company.  The music is non-stop,  there are no set changes and there is very little dialogue.  The ensemble is on stage for much of the performance, and it’s very full on.

When you flip through the biographies in the program, you realize that the cast  have many connections.  Many have performed with other amateur theatre companies, several have undertaken tertiary studies in performance and musical theatre; others have connections with groups like the Production Company or have performed in television roles.

For me, the standout performers were Rosa McCarty (who played Florence) and Dennis Clements, who played Alexander Molokov.  Their diction was good; Rosa McCarty had beautiful, nuanced control over the softer songs, and Dennis Clements had good stage presence.  I had my eye on Courtney Crisfield in the ensemble, too. The whole cast worked hard, without a single flat spot. The chessboard scenes were tautly staged and impressive to watch although at times I felt as if the performers seemed rather more comfortable with singing than dancing.

Unfortunately the performance was poorly served by the design of the theatre itself. There was a live orchestra, but because it was located in a separate room off-stage, it was reliant on a sound system that thinned out the sound. There were some odd crackles and at times the singing sounded a bit shouty and overwhelming, making it hard to distinguish the competing lyrics.

This was an energetic and intelligent performance of a demanding work.  There’s a real intimacy in a small theatre, where the performance is on the same level as the front seats and where the performers are right there.  And as for the last note, a note that had so much riding on it- Rosa McCarty just soared, confidently-  brilliant!

Well done.



For the benefit of Pablo Fanque

I called in today to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, where they are showing an exhibition called “Melbourne Theatres in Transition: 1840 to 1940s An Idiosyncratic View”. This small exhibition at the RHSV has pictures, programs and clippings relating to Melbourne’s theatre industry from the earliest days of the Port Phillip settlement up to the war years.

In his book London, Peter Ackroyd described the palimpsest effect of multiple reincarnations of the particular urban functions found in cities.  Markets, eating places, theatres, charities often tend to be located in particular places, and are constantly renewed as older buildings and enterprises are replaced by newer ones, offering much the same wares. This is largely true of Melbourne’s theatre district.  Theatres particularly in Bourke Street and Exhibition Street were built, knocked down, burnt out, then replaced again.

My attention was attracted to a small scrap book that had press clippings about theatre in Melbourne.  One unattributed clipping looked back fifty years and described the entertainment at Cremorne Gardens in Richmond to celebrate the first anniversary of the Eight Hour Day.  Among the acts described was ‘Pablo Fanque’.

And all of a sudden, the Beatles’ song  ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ began drifting through my head

For the benefit of Mr Kite

There will be a show tonight- on trampoline

On trampoline/

The Hendersons will all be there

Late of Pablo Fanque’s fair- what a scene

The original circus poster from which the inspiration for the song was drawn.

Pablo Fanque was the first black circus proprietor  in Britain.  He was born in England in 1796 and operated his circus for over thirty years. His own acts included rope dancing and equestrian feats. He toured England , Scotland and Ireland. But did he come to Australia?

He was certainly advertised as being here….

Advertisement ‘The Argus’ 8 January 1855

But, alas, it was not THE Pablo Fanque. Instead it was his nephew Billy Banham, who took his uncle’s name and toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1850s and 1860s.  This is the Pablo Fanque who appeared at the Cremorne Gardens (interesting article about the gardens here) and this is the Pablo Fanque for whom a benefit was held in March 1859.

Sydney Morning Herald 10 March 1859

Somehow I think that they really, really, wanted you to attend.

The Melbourne Theatres in Transition exhibition is on at the RHSV, corner a’Beckett and William St until 31 August.  Open 10.00-4.00 Monday to Friday, gold coin donation.

‘Parade’ Waterdale Players

I hadn’t heard of the musical. I had only vaguely heard of the theatre company (Waterdale Players). Neither of these things means much- I’m not really up with musical theatre- in fact, I have rather mixed feelings about the genre- and I’m not exactly a social butterfly. But I very much enjoyed this performance.

‘Parade’ is a musical based on the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jewish factory supervisor who was accused of the murder of a 13 year old factory employee in Marietta, Georgia in 1913.  I was not familiar with the story at all, and so I won’t expand further- you can read about it here .  The case dragged up all sorts of racial stereotypes and conundrums: the Deep South, antisemitism, Yankee capitalism, and  allegations of racism in attempts to redirect attention for the crime onto a negro factory worker.

In thirty years time (maybe less!)  we’ll probably look back to a turn-of-the-millennium fad of large-scale, dramatic musicals that are typified by Lloyd-Webber and Schonberg and Boublil: think Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Phantom, Cats and all those Disney films that hover on the border between stage show and animation – Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, etc.  In many ways, the songs are almost interchangeable between them, and the music style itself bears more connection with record sales and popular taste than with the historical era or culture that it is depicting.  Still- that’s true too of Gilbert and Sullivan, Mozart, Handel, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe- they all seem to have their own distinctive sound that comes to represent a particular era of musical, and you could mix-and-match the songs of one composer between any number of his musicals.  And so, too, Parade is very much of the Les Mis ilk- a big cast, big songs etc.

And so how did a small youth theatre company, based in Ivanhoe, deal with all this? Very well.  It was a large cast- I counted 43 on stage- working in a fairly confined area, so the choreography and stage direction had to be very disciplined. The set was minimal and ingenious, although it seemed to require a lot of manipulation and turning around in the dark.  The singing was robust and clear, and covered a wide emotional range.  It was a good story, well-told, a good musical score, and the whole performance was enacted with enthusiasm and confidence.

Most of all, it was refreshing to turn aside from all the corporate sponsorship and A-list crawling and parasitism to watch talented people doing something that they love doing because they love it.  I’m deeply grateful for people who turn out on weekends and weeknights, giving and receiving in turn – whether it be the local footy-team, the wildlife regeneration people in the local park, or in this case, an amateur theatre company- who are skilled and engaged, and who give pleasure through their talents to other people.

Parade closes this coming weekend and I’m not sure how their bookings are going, but the details are here.

‘Dickens’ Women’ with Miriam Margolyes

Having recently read Colonial Voices, I was very much aware of what an anachronistic performance Miriam Margolyes’ ‘Dickens’ Women’ is.  Generations past may have been the audience for a series of readings and impersonations, but it seems a particularly quaint genre now: a “nice night’s entertainment” as Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone might have said.

But to describe this performance as merely “readings and impersonations” is to undersell it, because it is more like a theatrical essay, with a clear argument that is supported by the anecdotes and examples that she weaves into the work.  She argues that Dickens wove his own biography into the female characters he created, colouring them with his own anger, sense of betrayal, and often misogyny.  She moves back and forwards from argument and explication, to readings and then to performance of both male and female characters, sometimes in soliloquy, sometimes in dialogue.

The performance opens with Sairey Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, and I must admit that it took me a couple of minutes to recognize and recollect her.  Would I know who she was playing each time? I wondered, aware that even though I have read quite a few Dickens, I haven’t read them all and I often forget which character appeared where.  But I need not have feared: she wove into the narrative a clear identification of who each character was, often with a bit of contextualizing information.  It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read Dombey and Son, or The Uncommercial Traveller or The Old Curiosity Shop.

Margolyes has been performing this show since 1989 and it is a very tight, confident performance.  In creating her 23 characters, she uses everything – her body, her beautiful clear voice, timing, lighting, gesture and stance- and at times, she almost seemed to change physically before your eyes.  I found myself scarcely daring to breathe watching her embody Miss Havisham, afraid that the spell would break.  It didn’t.

A very nice night’s entertainment indeed.