Review: The Top Secret Violin Case at La Mama

Review By Anja Bless


Currently showing at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton, The Top Secret Violin Case is an original work by Sofia Chapman developed after she and her partner made seven trips together to Eastern Europe to study folk music. An absurdist dark comedy, it centres around a well-loved violinist, Ionel Stoican (Alana Hunt) who wants to make it big in Bucharest but faces the barriers of his unconvinced fellow musicians, Tony Covaci (Kirri Büchler) and Nicu Valentinu (Sofia Chapman), as well as the communist regime of dictator Ceausescu.


Then Brad (Sasha Čuha) arrives on the scene. An American man who is leaving the closet in spectacular fashion with a soul-finding trip to discover folk music in communist Romania. But it’s not long before the Secret Police get involved and the characters’ lives become increasingly intertwined.


Featuring the all-female band, Vardos (Hunt, Büchler and Valentinu), live on stage and dressed in drag, it’s a rambunctious cocktail of music, slapstick, and the darker elements of Romania’s recent past.


Unfortunately, the premise does not quite translate to the stage. While all the performers give their most to the show, mistakes in sound and lighting throw it off from the first cue. The script is quick and punny, but the comedy doesn’t land as often as it should and some of the jokes are hard to catch sitting at the back of the audience. The projection art and set paintings created by Chapman accompany the show well, and deliver a clever use of the transitionary space.


The most enjoyable part of the show is the energy of Vardos when they start to play, all talented performers in their craft, their renditions of Romanian folk music lift the energy and drive forward the plot, smooth out transitions and lend to the comedy. Some of the best comedic moments were almost delivered by the instruments themselves, in particular the ‘slap’ of the bass string during the interrogations with the Secret Police.


These musical moments could have been used more, it was a joy to watch them play and too often they were hidden back stage or cut short. Running the music throughout the show would have maintained the energy and eased the transitions between scenes, almost like a backing track.


Čuha as Brad had his magic moments of authenticity and was largely convincing in his role, with some of the awkwardness of scenes seemingly down to under-rehearsal. Fine tuning the performance to tighten up the comedy, improve the articulation and audibility of delivery, and smoothing out the transitions would have immensely helped this piece reach its potential.


The Top Secret Violin Case has an exciting premise. The ability of actors to transform into musicians and back again is a joy to watch. The concept is perfect for its dark comedy style and the plot and content has a lot to offer. As this original work develops, it will benefit from refinement, an uplift of confidence and energy in acting rather than just performing the music, and for the performers to play to their strengths, which are ample.


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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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