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Mystery in a Blimp at the Bluestone Church Arts Space – The Shift Theatre

Review By Ellis Koch

An exuberant, somewhat sleazy man wakes to find himself and four others on a blimp. Or does he? Mystery in a Blimp is a sharp, witty and clever script from writer Nathan Curnow that makes gentle fun of many of the internal elements of stage productions. It's a somewhat meta exploration of writing, the writing process and theatre conventions that revels in acknowledging itself and, tongue somewhat in cheek, explores the limitations of production costs, writers being actors, actors trying to be writers and the woeful and sometimes non-existent pay that performance artists endure to bring a piece of work to life. There’s even a cheeky little dig at reviewers, which I enjoyed and agreed with wholeheartedly so, to (most likely) paraphrase the line and kick off this review; "There is probably someone out there reviewing all of this without any qualifications". Well, it’s hard to argue with that but I’ll do my best to at least try and sound qualified enough to write what I am about to write . . .

Mystery in a Blimp is very much a play for theatre makers and theatre obsessives and it is with these people it will find the most appreciation. That isn't to say the play is inaccessible to the average punter - there is enough madcap energy and the illusion of something happening to keep most people engaged in trying to decipher the action on stage. Mind you, this is in large part due to the very strong direction of Kevin Hopkins and the efforts of his cast. Whilst creatives will find the script itself engaging and find themselves nodding sagely at recognised experiences, or in commiseration with the characters contained within, the incredibly energetic performances of the cast and the sharp, effective staging of Hopkins is what will draw everybody else to this production - the details of the script, however, may be lost on them as it is filled with references to the writing and theatre making processes. It is, however, a very clever script that Curnow has put together - in amongst the blistering delivery and the high octane performances of the cast, one might get overwhelmed or think there is not much of anything going on - but Curnow's script neatly ties in all of its concepts and little asides throughout the play as it unfolds in a gently scathing, comedic exploration of scripts and plays that don’t go anywhere.

Under the direction of Kevin Hopkins, though, the script really shines. For such a small venue limited in resources, there is a big show vibe to this production that is brought about by excellent staging. Nothing ever feels contrived - well, it does, but deliberately so - that is, it is definitely overtly theatrical but this works incredibly well for the script. One gets the sense of something large happening before them, like watching a musical unfold (and there are some musical elements to this) which no doubt comes from the influence of Sue-Ellen Shook who, with an impressive list of credentials, handled the choreography for the production. Speaking of credentials, cast and crew for this production come absolutely loaded with them - so much so it would take up a couple of pages to list them all, which I won't do, but I will say that there is an abundance and absolute wealth of performance history, education, skill and experience presented by everybody involved which is a key reason why the production is thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

The cast are all superb in their roles. Their delivery is sharp and the comedic timing is honestly some of the best I have seen in a live production in quite some time. The dialogue comes at you, sizzling, and every actor handles that dialogue and the perfectly timed spaces in between it with great skill. The delivery of comedy is like a classical piece of music - timing and tempo is everything, the build ups to crescendos that come in waves are critical to whether the delivery succeeds or fails and Hopkins and his cast absolutely nail all of these elements. When everybody involved gives such wonderful performances it is difficult to single out individuals for praise so let me preface these two callouts by repeating: Every single member of the cast are on absolute fire from the beginning and they maintain it for the entire play. With this in mind, though, let me call special attention to the performance of Brian Davison who gives an incredible turn as Richard, a mild-mannered, obsessive geek who goes from meek to feverishly unhinged in seconds and then back to meek again, oscillating between the two with great consideration and control. All actors make choices during rehearsals but those choices are not always role-defining - Davison, however, absolutely makes those role-defining choices and owns the character of Richard in such a way you cannot take your eyes off of him. Truly riveting. Second mention is to Gabriel Partington who plays the lead role of Hershall, a man who, with shock and bewilderment awakens to find himself in a situation he doesn't remember getting into. Partington opens the role with a vigorous and energetic delivery and manages to still find more levels of exasperation to take his character through throughout the rest of the play. The interplay between Hershall and Brian Davison's Richard are a total delight to watch and listen to and Partington drives the play forward with a manic delivery that reaches an atomic level and yet still manages to keep Hershall as the rational one. By the end of the show Partington was utterly drenched in sweat from the immense energy he brought to the stage from his very first line to his very last. Helen Hopkins as Nanna, Mia Landgren as Veronica, Cristina Wells as Tori, Claire Nicholls as Lorinda and Lachlan Watts as Nathan all give superb performances in their own right and the entire cast of seven work incredibly hard to bring Curnow's madcap script to life.

The set design by Greg Carroll was neat - seven simple chairs on a ramp stage left and one ramp on stage right elevated some of the actors and gave some height while also creating a centre aisle, like one might find on a blimp or other mode of mass transport. A really nice touch were the four lamps (I think they were reflectors on stands...) positioned upstage and downstage right and upstage and downstage left that acted as the windows of the blimp. There was also a nice moving set piece/large prop that I won't reveal as it comes in as a rather nice surprise sometime through the show.

Mystery in a Blimp is an excellent way to spend 90 minutes of your time, particularly relevant to those involved with the theatre but still with great appeal to the general consumer. At least in this reviewers ah . . . unqualified opinion. Highly recommended viewing.

Images Supplied


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