Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reviews: While I'm Away; Yuri Wells


By Telia Neville

Telia Neville knows that a one-woman night of performance poetry might scare off a few punters, so she’s teamed it with a slide session of holiday snaps. Does that make any sense? Isn’t it like trying to sell your 1983 Ford Laser by sexying it up with faded Magic Happens stickers? Or offering the kids an extra helping of tripe if they finish their homework? As it turns out, no.

Neville’s poetry is great – bittersweet without being self-indulgent or twee; clever without signalling its own technical sophistication; and, perhaps most importantly for audiences a bit scared of spoken word, punctuated with a very dry, droll sense of humour. She has the ‘character’ of her poet down pat, walking a line between world-weary melancholy and a hesitant desire to find something worth hoping for.

While I’m Away could seem overly, well, nice. There are no serrated edges to the piece, no painful turns or moments of shock. The sadness beneath the humour isn’t that of a life wasted or an irreversible wrong choice made; more the disappointment of being stuck on the toilet during the final boarding call for love (one of my favourite poems from the show, right there). All the subtle, understated whimsy does build up a kind of critical mass, however, and on the night I attended every poem drew spontaneous applause from people who probably hadn’t expected to find their mitts banging together.

The slide component is just as subtle but also very astute. The contents of the images don’t really do much in a performative sense, but their presence literally adds a comforting kind of colour that defuses the fear of being stuck watching an hour of poetry. Ironically, despite the visual interest offered by the faded photos, you very quickly find yourself watching Neville and sort of forgetting that they’re there.

Till Oct 2 at the Fringe Hub, Lithuanian Club, North Melb.


Presented by The Hayloft Project.

Another solo piece comes from Benedict Hardie and again this one moves from a deceptively simple place to one more complex and, in this case, troubling. As the audience enters Hardie is accompanied by mate Stu Bowden playing warm-up guy, the two exchanging jokes and stories while Bowden plucks his ukulele. Their banter is super-lite and full of whimsy and beaming smiles to the audience and the general feeling that we’re getting into Drama Class Love Your Audience territory. There’s a little more to this preamble than you realise until later.

When the performance proper begins, Hardie plays the titular Yuri Wells, an everyman who works as a nurse and seems to live the clichéd mild-mannered existence. I can’t stand everymen. I’ve never met an everyman and it’s a literary conceit that might have some chops if you’re Robert Musil but if you give me a choice between “a man without qualities” and “a man with many qualities which will be revealed over time and may allow you to rethink your own life and the world in which you find yourself”, I’ll always choose the latter unless there’s some kind of strict word count involved.

Thankfully, then, as Wells’ story progresses his innocent circumstances careen down some unexpectedly dark byways and the character thickens out to become a fascinating and challenging one (and all of those early smiles take on a terrible aspect) It’s a very sad piece, like a sharp short story that doesn’t overextend itself but leaves you with much to contemplate.

It could have been a measured but ultimately throwaway piece of storytelling – the individual elements of the story are somewhat familiar – but Hardie’s performance is superb here, with a sometimes frightening command of his character’s… peculiar… psychological quirks.

Plus there’s a crocodile xylophone-piano thing, which you don’t see enough of these days.

Till Oct 10 at the Fringe Hub, North Melbourne Town Hall.

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