Up the Ladder and Under the Spell

UpThe Ladder - Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts
UpThe Ladder – Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts

It was just fifteen minutes before the scheduled performance time and the doors were still closed. The time-keepers in the gathered crowd obsessively checked yet-to-be-turned-off phones, nervous that an important convention of theatre admittance had been well and truly broken and suddenly there was a hubbub at door two of the Cremorne theatre. Our rather charming Spruiker, Sean Dow (beat your drum and ring the bell!) appeared to usher us Up the Ladder and back in time to a carnival tent of 1950’s vintage. Roll up Roll up the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts (ACPA) is in town!

Production designer, Josh Mcintosh imagined a delightful set not just in front of the audience but around and above it as well; there was no mere stage here, it was all encompassing. Audiences often wax lyrical about being ‘taken there’ but Up the Ladder brings there to you evoking the ghost of the travelling show. It was a glorious surprise to walk into the Cremorne and leave it at the same time, finding ourselves standing inside a colourful big-top with carnival performers and wide eyed guests roaming around with us. I found a mime sitting in my seat and while we waited for the main event we watched a magician trick punters and a mysterious clairvoyant terrify people – it was impossible to avoid being swept up in the fantasy, just like Johnny, our hero had been.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) C.E.O, John Kotzas best describes Up the Ladder as ‘A blustery, vibrant surge of hope and lament….’, and from the get-go it was busy and lively with original music performed live through-out the show (Musical Director / Composer Laine Loxlea-Dannan teamed with Composers Bradley McCaw, Garret Lyon and Anita McGrady to write the soundtrack), the band and vocalists produced outstanding performances; Action scenes were well executed and some excitable real-life characters from the audience joined in cheering and jeering to create a hyper-energised air as we met Johnny on his quest to better his life by joining the boxing tents that toured the nation.

I wondered how boxing would translate to the stage and be interesting enough to keep a theatre audience happy. Wesley Enoch achieves this by landing somewhere between the stage and the screen – moments that can only be described as good old fashioned ‘montages’ (remember Rocky) create the distance of time – these filmic styled montages worked surprisingly well on stage and the variety-show nature of the performance kept spirits high without losing the plot beneath. Highly stylised modern dance sequences (in the vein of Bangarra) are used to symbolise the lurking spirit of the crow, although impressive as stand-alone pieces, these interludes proved disruptive and jarring, a time warp of one minute listening to fifties Hillbilly music and the next, heavy beat dance music with interpretive movement. It gave the impression of including everyone’s expertise just for the sake of it but perhaps the symbology could have been achieved in a more complimentary style.

As you’d expect from a school group production, there was a real mix of talent in the cast and there were some hammy or stagy deliveries but there was also some performers with real professionalism to a standard that was unexpected from emerging artists. I already mentioned the talented Sean Dow, but stand-out performances also came from Shakira Clanton as Johnny’s take-no-nonsense love interest Beryl; Dimity Shillingsworth was joyful as Johnny’s Mother; Terry Cassels impressively performed in the role of Uncle (permanently tipsy and fearful of bunyips) and Travis Johnson beautifully played the soft hearted Mick who couldn’t reconcile the disparity between being allowed to risk his life for Australia in the Vietnam war but not allowed to lead his life freely when back home.

Bennett’s play is sumptuous fun and has lots of great humour; it is also an easy story to follow, inspired by the experience of his own father and boxing champion Elley Bennett. The important messages of the lives lead and lost under racist government control are exposed with powerful subtlety and style allowing the audience to both reflect on what was (and in some cases still is), without demanding them to set aside the fun that is also on offer. This is not just the story of an aspiring Aboriginal man, it is also the story of youthful dreams and it’s very fitting to watch the youth of ACPA retell it with such success.

I can understand why Enoch gets such joy from working with this group.  They are enthusiastic, great fun and overwhelming talented. You can pick the real stars from the crowd as they give their all to the performance; it was an absolute thrill to see them taking these impressive steps into what will surely be a wonderful future in the arts.

The ACPA 2012 season has now closed but I implore you to keep an eye out for their next run. Keep watching the group via their website www.acpa.net.au.

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