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‘It was amateur hour’: Phil Brown’s take on the best and worst shows of 2021

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I feel for Hugh Sheridan, I really do. I know he had a bad year but did he have to take it out on us? His late night Brisbane Festival show Hughman, which played in the South Bank Piazza was the nadir of the festival and everyone knew it. I think even Hugh knew it too, God bless him, but he went ahead anyway and threw together what turned out to be a cross between a rave and a traffic accident. He had local dancers and fire twirlers with him but the choreography was awful and the whole thing was tragic. In fact it was so bad I kind of enjoyed it in the end. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I think everyone forgave him though because we know he’s incredibly talented and that he can put on a great show. Next time.OUR TOWN, QUEENSLAND THEATRE:Queensland Theatre began the year with this outdated piece of Americana by Thornton Wilder, a tedious three hours that I will never get back. It had a terrific cast including Jimi Bani, Amy Lehpamer, Libby Munro and all sorts of other good people but the material was dated, irrelevant and kind of insulting considering how much great Australian fare is out there. I was gagging by the end of it. At the first interval someone said to me … “It’s like a big warm hug” to which I replied …“It’s like a big dry heave.” Different strokes for different folks I guess. I got a lot of calls and correspondence later suggesting my damning review was spot on. It gives me no pleasure to can something like that. Okay, I confess, it gives me some pleasure.WEST SIDE STORY, QPAC: West Side Story is a classic but this production, a collaboration between Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment, QPAC and the BB Group just didn’t cut the mustard. I was kind about it at the time because I wanted to be supportive but that’s wrong headed. It has been said that if you haven’t got anything good to say about something, don’t say anything. If I followed that dictum I wouldn’t be true to myself or my readers. This production was amateur hour and was like your average high school musical. There was some lovely singing but the dancing was lame and I’m not the only one who thought so. I mean this is one of the greatest musicals of all time but you wouldn’t have known it.VAN GOGH ALIVE, NORTH SHORE, HAMILTON:The word that comes to mind regarding this audio visual melange is desecration. Too strong? I don’t know but I think that van Gogh deserves something better than this. The room full of sunflowers that is supposed to pay homage to his most famous work looks like the flowers were purchased from one of those cheap dollar stores. The idea of recreating van Gogh’s bedroom so people can pose for selfies in it is insensitive to say the least considering his tragic life and untimely death. Turning him and his art into an amusement park with a bar attached is just gauche. I know lots of people are going to this (it’s still on in a tent by the river at Hamilton) but anyone serious about art will find it offensive. I have spoken to many art lovers who feel the same. If you want art go to APT10 at QAGOMATHE UMBILICAL BROTHERS: THE DISTRACTION, QPAC:What a shambles! This one, by a much loved comedy duo, seemed little more than a rehearsal. It was supposed to be a spoof on life spent in front of screens and a big screen was on stage and the Umbilicals were doing puppetry (thankfully not of the penis) and projecting things onto the screen and they had a guy on stage running that technology. Which didn’t work much of the time. There were actually moments when they were just standing there waiting for it all to be fixed. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and nothing they’ve ever done” promised the publicity blurb and they got that right. And I don’t want to ever see it again. THE BESTCOME FROM AWAY:Who thought a show featuring a Celtic pub band and people in flannelette shirts would be the musical of the year? But it was and if ever a show demanded a standing ovation it was this one. It’s the story of passengers re-routed to Newfoundland in Canada after the 9/11 attacks and how the locals welcomed them with open arms. It’s a heartwarming and inspiring show that sounds a bit hokey. But it’s not. The telling of the tale, based on interviews with the people who were there, is done so beautifully and the fact that it’s a true story makes it all the more compelling. Like Hamilton it’s not the sort of story you’d expect would make a musical but it does and it left us all feeling good as the pandemic raged across the world.KONSTANTIN SHAMRAY:Seeing this brilliant Russian-born pianist play three times in Brisbane this year was such a treat. He’s based in Adelaide and had limited options due to border closures but we’re happy he made it here. His first outing was with Medici Concerts and that’s a treat because it’s just him in all his glory. He also played with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra filling in for Piers Lane who had to hightail it back to the UK. Shamray’s third appearance was with Southern Cross Soloists and he accompanied the exquisite soprano Alexandra Flood. What a treat it was to have them both together. Shamray’s passion and control at the piano are astounding and here’s the good news – we will be seeing him again in Brisbane next year so stay tuned. EUROPEAN MASTERPIECES FROM THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM, NEW YORK AT GOMA:This was artistic manna from heaven, some of the world’s greatest artworks here in Brisbane. Signed off on before the pandemic hit this stunning show went ahead and was the exhibition of the year in Australia and possibly the world. It’s a shame many southerners couldn’t get to Queensland for it but not to worry, locals loved it and each morning there was a long queue snaking all the way down the side of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) as the punters turned up day after day. Titian, Caravaggio, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Turner … all the greats were featured. Each time I visited I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We were so lucky to have it. BRISBANE FESTIVAL:In a warehouse at Northshore, Hamilton, audiences sat spellbound as Dancenorth’s extraordinary RED played out. Two dancers performing, ultimately naked, in a giant plastic bubble. Who would huge hit, a floating art bar with music and conviviality floating down the river on a barge. So mave guessed it would be the hit of the Brisbane Festival? But it was. It’s the sort of show you would expect to see in London or New York but it was here. Brisbane Festival this year was a beacon of hope for the arts and one of the best ever. As well as RED, which people are still talking about, there were many other highlights. The Art Boat for example, was a huch fun. Another highlight for me was Skyfall by The Little Red Company, a tribute to the music of James Bond at the South Bank Piazza. There was Tyrone Noonan’s Marvin Gaye show which had everyone in the piazza boogying and nearby, night after night, Boy Swallows Universe packed out the Playhouse at QPAC. Artistic director Louise Bezzina created a festival that was warm, engaging and one that fostered a sense of community and it was the only major arts festival to actually go ahead this year in Australia.QUEENSLAND YOUTH SYMPHONY MAHLER RESURRECTION:I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised at how good the Queensland Youth Symphony is but their performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, was just so stunning. Philanthropist and art dealer Philip Bacon made the concert possible and he was beyond thrilled with what eventuated in the Concert Hall at QPAC with Queensland Youth Orchestra music director Simon Hewett conducting. Add the Brisbane Chorale, stunning singers – soprano Rebecca Cassidy and mezzo soprano Hayley Sugars and you had a fulsome experience of music that was transcendental to say the least. I heard that someone after the concert said to Mr Bacon “this is what civilisation is all about” which sounds like hyperbole but I agree. It was one of the nights of the year at QPAC. Mahler himself said of his work “The effect is so great that one cannot describe it I think there is no one who can resist it. One is battered to the ground and then raised on angel’s wings to the highest heights.”The young musicians of the QYS took us to those heights.QUEENSLAND BALLET’S DRACULA:Dracula: Dead and Loving It. That was the name of Mel Brooks’ vampire spoof. Hilarious … blood spurting everywhere. This production by Queensland Ballet was a little different to that and it’s different from anything they have done before and proves what depth this amazing company has. It’s quite a theatrical ballet with choreography by Krzyztof Pastor from Poland and music by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. The music was the score to the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula and this ballet sticks to Stoker’s original story, including a trip to Transylvania and it tells this famous Gothic tale well. I saw it twice and wish I’d gone a third time actually. The dancing was spectacular and interesting and the acting was terrific with just the right amount of vampire neck biting. It was scary, erotic and a fitting allegory of the fight between good and evil in the world. And the sets and costumes were amazing. Okay it lacked tutus but that didn’t seem to matter. I love everything our state company does but this was extra special. A show with real bite. Boom boom. 



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