Review: ArstLab Season: Have We Been Here Before? by Shopfront Arts Co-Op

Updated: Feb 13

Review by James Mukheibir

The Artslab program for emerging artists is vital to the growth and development of grassroots art in Sydney. Their showcase seasons are always refreshing and dynamic, giving space and time to young and upcoming voices. They rely on your support to keep it up, so go and enjoy a few amateur pieces and show your love to the future of arts in Australia. While this is a review of the performance pieces within the showcase, I recommend arriving a little early to your show to enjoy the innovative and powerful multimedia exhibitions on display by Robbie Wardaugh, Zi Xin and Frank Dwyer.

Everything Working as Intended, dad

By Sophie Florence Ward

A meta, satire-drama about the legal proceedings post the exposure of a government spying scandal may sound like something for a rather niche audience. However, the excellent writing by Ward guides the audience through this complex and illuminating tale of governmental ineptitude and arrogance with remarkable poise. The use of dynamic multimedia, self-aware breaks of audience address and innovative character management, ensures the audience is always in the loop as we move through time and perspective - with the whispers of conversations from Australia’s most prominent legal figures painting a damning picture of greed and judicial failure.

The tone is balanced and light-hearted while providing a cutting exposé on Australia’s espionage and the manipulation of Timor Leste. The play breaks down the struggles for justice of Bernard Collaery and Witness K - a story many would be unfamiliar with, which provides a stark reminder of how our narrative perceptions are manipulated by those in power. The research involved in constructing this story was admirable considering the complex web of connections that enabled this flagrant and aggressive abuse of power, and yet the tale was presented in a concise and accessible manner, with plenty of fun speculation thrown in.

The cast was well directed, and did a fantastic job in moving between characters, with attention to detail and absolute commitment to each persona. They didn’t have a lot to work with - old white politicians and lawyers could be argued to be some of the least interesting people to build a stage character around, but each was delivered with charisma and tongue-in-cheek irreverence.

This is a very important story. It is vital to never forget the failures of our elected officials and their self-serving disregard for anything that doesn’t have a dollar sign in front of it. To tell this story is a noble undertaking and to tell it so very well is hugely impressive, and the cast and crew deserve props for putting together an immersive, insightful and thoroughly enjoyable piece.

Maa Ki Rasoi (My Mother’s Kitchen)

By Pratha Nagpal

This piece was a privilege to watch. A deeply cathartic experience of a daughter navigating the space around her mother, attempting to connect to a world full of contradictions with her own sense of self, and taking the audience along with her on the journey. It is a culturally rich journey, with the essences of place, language and tribe woven through the script. Nagpal opens her heart to the world, and this intimacy captures and links every member of the audience in a communal exploration of our own relationships with our mothers, and the unique role they play in our lives. The unique meta-styling of the script gave particular insight into the struggles of doing this role justice - how does one encapsulate the power and resilience of a woman who has served us life itself?

It is a brave choice from Nagpal to write from the depths of the difficult writing process but it is one that allows for the essence of her journey to shine through. The struggles break down the walls of expected perfection that can often surround a piece of theatre, and allows the audience to grapple and fret alongside the writer, embracing the human imperfection in our relationships, and in our creativity.

The complex themes of cultural pressures, femininity within tradition and finding art in the everyday are played out and examined with consideration and respect. The performer gives a wonderful performance, delivering a casual but spirited monologue. They expertly move between characters and give life to the simple, effective kitchen set that so perfectly houses this intimate story. The final moments of the performance were wonderful, enveloping everyone in the room in a mother’s hug and moving even the most stoic to dab their eyes.

In the transparent struggle of finding the right way to pay respect to her mother, Nagpal has created a relatable and cathartic piece for all to find warmth and comfort in - the next best thing to a meal prepared by Mum, imbued with childhood memories and love.

Of Stars and Streetlights

By Albert Lin

Art takes many forms, and not always in the child-genius, born to be Picasso, can play Moonlight Sonata three days after being born, kind of way. Sometimes all you need is a love for the medium and persistence. That is the crux of Albert Lin’s spoken word poetry performance crossed with inspiring Ted Talk that seeks meaning in a world that not only fails to offer it up, but seems to purposefully find ways to complicate things. Lin’s current answer is to write a poem every day, and he has done so since 2017 - leaving him not far from the impressive milestone of having written two thousand poems. His day job working with data gives him the tools to represent his poems in graphs but before you switch off out of boredom - this performance is anything but a boring number crunch.

Lin bares his soul in this reflective and inspiring piece that acts as an anthropological study of himself and the society moving around him. Poems are delivered with poise and gravitas are punctuated by charismatic discussion of his life, perceptions and learning as he allows us into the complex workings of his mind and creative process. Particularly due to the events of the last two years, much of the performance is of shared solitude - exploring what it means to be alone with one's thoughts and the desire to be heard. It is unique to embrace the experiences of loneliness in a room full of people and Lin delivers a poignant, thought provoking and often very funny performance.

It is very admirable to stand up and critique your own work in front of a bunch of strangers, and Lin has a wonderful way about him that made the performance feel like a discussion amongst friends, despite such discussions rarely breaking out into quality poetry sessions, at least from personal experience. The lighting was very well designed and added ambience and theatricality to the simple styling of the performance.

If you are looking for something to kick start you drive to bring creativity into your life - Albert Lin’s performance of Of Stars and Streetlights is a great thing to see. Inspiring, relatable, and beautifully mundane - don’t miss it.


Paris Nights

By Tom Crotty

Performing solo for 70 minutes is one of the most challenging undertakings for an actor, particularly if a solid portion of that time is filled with club dancing and sex. Tom Crotty does not seem like an actor who shies away from any challenge, and rightly so. He packs a performative punch that captured the late night audience and took them on an emotional rollercoaster through time and identity. Adapting the D M Crawford novel of the same title, Crotty delivers a powerhouse performance, with energy and authenticity that captures the highs and lows of protagonist Mark’s journey in his quest for self-acceptance and self-love.

The audience is whisked away on a tale of horizons expanding in many ways, as Mark journeys from Wollongong to The Golden Mile of Oxford Street in the mid-80s, not only discovering the offerings and pitfalls of the big city but also growing into accepting himself and the intimacy he craves. It is a foray through a city unburdened by lockouts, an unbridled electricity in the night that is almost unrecognisable to the Sydney of today. Hanging over the haze of sweat and a drug-fueled, uninhibited party, the AIDS crisis and threats of homophobic violence linger and add a desperate edge to Mark’s identity struggles.

Crotty expertly manages the tone of the show - filling the room with the energy and joy of newfound freedom and sucking the oxygen out of it while respectfully performing a brutal breach of trust. There is an authenticity to the performance that creates a powerful connection to the story and the audience can’t help but be there for every breath.

This performance deserves to be seen, if for nothing else for the sheer commitment to craft. Crotty gives it his all, and the raucous applause showed just how much it was appreciated.

The Place Before The Place

By Kobi Taylor-Forder

Purgatory is a funny thing. Even in the texts that claim its existence, there is very little discussion of what goes on there. Does one twiddle their thumbs alone? Or is it a more communal vibe, hanging out with other Purgers, waiting for our turn to walk up to the golden gate? Kobi Taylor-Forder proposes in her play that we are hounded by our own inner-monologue and the various influential people and experiences that got us to where we are today. Not much fun? Wrong. This play is a quirky, heartfelt comedy that transports us to the inner-workings of our protagonist Florence’s brain… where it’s snowing, just like on the day she was born.

Taylor-Forder takes us on a journey of self-exploration, facing up to the embarrassments and failures that we all love to cringe at in the middle of the night. It is a journey and the rag-tag cast of characters guide us through the complicated process of unpacking Florence’s baggage as she searches for answers. Her high school English teacher, father and That Critical Voice in Your Head are all personified to help (or hinder) her personal quest to work out whether she is a good person who deserves to go on living. The ensemble does well to bring the moments of light and comedy to life with energy, while still being respectful to the memories of trauma faced by Florence.

Complex questions of faith and existence are navigated with poise by Taylor-Forder, who shows the foundations of a talented writer and director. It takes a special writer to tackle such big questions of humanity and pull it off, and pull it off she does.


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