Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 (Part 2)

It's the final week of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and Narrelle Harris and I have seen more shows. Here are our final two reviews for 2018...
 

1.  Ladylike: A Modern Guide to Etiquette
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

In her vintage frock, high heeled bubblegum pink shoes and be-ribboned blonde hair, Louise Beuvink presents as the epitome of womanliness. Then she kicks the shoes off, because who can wear those for an hour without crushing foot pain?

There's a fine tradition of salty women puncturing the ridiculous social standards to which women (and men) are held. With her easy tips for entertaining, how to stay beautiful for your man, and how to keep a smile on your face at all times, Louise Beuvink joins the ranks of the best of them.

Along the way we meet Drunk Louise and a vividly awkward scenario involving a cup in which she seizes the day, a woman's guide to cricket, and musical tips to help ladies get their needs satisfied.

My favourite section is a long riff on how women are so emotional and the flipside of the "Friendzone". A few lines are delivered too quickly, reducing the laughs, but most of the time she rollicks along with the audience right alongside her.

Ladylike is Louise Beuvink's MICF debut and it's robust, full of biting humour, and just a spicy touch of rage.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


2. Summer Camp
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Steve Bugeja doesn't seem the perfect role model for kids, especially the 18 year old version he reflects on in this show. Nerdy and squeaky-voiced, young Bugeja was an unconfident teenager when he went to the USA eight years ago to work at a summer camp for autistic children. Assigned to a challenging child named CJ, he struggled to cope with his role.

There's a lot of awkwardness in this show, but it's not at the expense of CJ; the kid did some funny and unpredictable stuff that made adults embarrassed, but Bugeja paints him as a happy, untroubled soul. The comedian himself is the butt of the joke, as he relates how he tried to figure out the best responses with minimal training.

Being a geeky young guy among more confident peers means he was also competing for the affections of a female colleague and being outshone at every turn. Unlucky as the young Steve was in love, however, the adult version is a likeable storyteller and his mishaps generate plenty of laughs.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you had some laughs! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2018 (Part 1)

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is on again, and Narrelle Harris and I have been seeing shows. Here's our first set of reviews for 2018...


1. Good
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I wish I had a dollar for every comedian I've seen who dumped a career in law for a career onstage. Tom Cashman is another one on the list, and his story about a dire interview with a law firm convinces me he made the right choice.

Cashman is a funny guy who combines the physicality of a skinny nerd (and cartoonish raised eyebrows) with the confidence that comes from not having been bullied at school; he says he went to a nerdy institution and never learned to cower.

The theme of Cashman's show is his attempts to be good, but that's a slight premise for an act that's largely observational stand-up. He has entertaining stories to relate about awkward escapades in his past, including the time he ogled a couple making out on Sydney's Oxford Street, the time he needed to have quiet sex, and the time he had a very unfortunate encounter with a treadmill.

There's the odd joke that falls flat - some of his sexual material is tacky rather than funny - but Cashman is an amusing new comedian. It'd be interesting to see him tackle a show with a more substantial theme.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


2. Don't Worry They're Here
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

John Kearns wears a tonsured wig (he won't tell us why) and false buck teeth reminiscent of those of Gromit's hapless owner Wallace. He has the air of that world-weary, slightly aggressive older blue collar worker at the back of the pub, intent on sharing his take on life with you. You're almost certain that at some point you're going to be horribly offended, yet you'll have to politely endure.

Luckily, John Kearns turns out to not be that kind of philosopher.

Instead, he delivers an hour of seemingly unconnected pugnacious-melancholic philosophy, pleading with us to seize life's fleeting joys. He's full of non-sequiturs and warns that 40% of us will be disappointed by his show, "but I'll take those odds".

Kearns may seem to ramble, but he returns to themes and references, employing bathos and absurdism to low-key yet surprising effect.

His style is odd and thoughtful. While not filled from wall to (as he says, reassuringly dependable concrete) wall with laughs, it's a refreshing comedic take.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


3. The Bear Pack
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Improvised comedy can be bad. Very bad. Or maybe, when the performers know what they're doing, very good. Lucky for us, performing duo Steen Raskopoulos and Carlo Ritchie are in control of their created-on-the-spot art as they work with two topics tossed to them by audience members: a sinking ship, and a pickle.

What follows is an absurd tale of a second mate leaving a stricken ship for help, and being led across a mysterious island to a throne room where a malevolent king turns out to be a gherkin in disguise. This silly stuff is expertly given a soundtrack by Ange Lavoipierre, sitting onstage and playing the cello.

The plot matters less than the opportunities it presents for the actors to challenge and test each other, often pushing into awkward territory: setting up a situation where one of the actors has to play two conversing characters at the same time, for example; or one performer fleeing the stage for a snack break while leaving the other to carry the show.

It's a fun hour of unpredictable story-telling, and well scheduled at 11pm as a wind-down from more cerebral work earlier in the evening. And each night's story is, of course, unique.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 6 April 2018

Eerie Masuria: Revisiting the Wolf's Lair, Poland

I visited Poland in 2016 courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
 
In Poland's northeast lies the beautiful region of Masuria.

It's a land of lakes and forests, but also has a dark past. When it was part of Germany in World War II, this was where Adolf Hitler sited his HQ for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

It was given the overly dramatic name of The Wolf's Lair (Wolfsschanze in German, Wilczy Szaniec in Polish).

Only partly destroyed before the Nazi retreat from the Red Army, the once-hidden forest base is now an eerie collection of monumental broken concrete bunkers among the trees; along with a monument to Von Stauffenberg's 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler (see the first photo below).

The site is a fascinating wartime relic, but also an eerie place to visit, walking among the huge shattered structures.

I first visited the Wolf's Lair in the depths of a Polish winter, when the ruins were covered with snow; then two years ago, I revisited in spring, when they seemed no less strange surrounded by vibrant greenery.

Here's what I found on my second visit...









By chance, on both visits (ten years apart), I was met by the same guide, Jadwiga - you can see her in the photo above. If you're ever visiting Masuria and need an English-speaking guide, I recommend hiring her services. You can contact Jadwiga by email, by clicking here.

And as a bonus, here's another shot of Bunker 13 - Hitler's personal bunker - from my first visit in March 2006, when The Wolf's Lair felt like a very cold and lonely place indeed...

Friday, 30 March 2018

The Historic Tree of Albury, Australia

Between Christmas and New Year's Eve last year, Narrelle and I stayed in Albury for a few days.

To anyone fascinated by borders (as I am), Albury is an interesting place. It lies on the north bank of the Murray River, which is the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria.

On the south bank, Wodonga is its Victorian twin; together they form a busy regional centre of about 100,000 people.

We arrived at Albury's impressive railway station (see photo, top right) via the XPT train which runs twice daily between Melbourne and Sydney.

It's a grand edifice partly because of its lofty station building, which marked its importance in the 19th century as the crossing point between colonies.

Another impressive aspect is its very long platform, a product of the insanity by which each colony had different rail gauges. Until 1962, passengers on the Melbourne-Sydney journey had to change trains here, crossing from one side of the platform to the other.

We walked to our accommodation at the Best Western Hovell Tree Inn, on the western edge of the city centre near the banks of the Murray. The river here is fringed by a beautiful section of parkland, the Noreuil Park Foreshore, a lovely place to walk and a credit to the city.


Nearby is Hovell Tree Park. One day Narrelle and I were sitting at a barbecue area there, eating something we'd bought from a bakery across the road, when I found myself wondering what and where exactly was this Hovell Tree?

So I walked across the grass toward the river and found the tree!

 


It was marked by the explorers Hume and Hovell on 17 November 1824, on their epic expedition from Appin, south of Sydney, all the way to Corio Bay near where Geelong now stands.

This journey took place over a decade before Melbourne was founded, so much of this terrain was unknown to the white newcomers to Australia, though had been inhabited for millennia by Aboriginal peoples.

They were apparently surprised to encounter such an impressive river as the Murray, and had to jerry-rig a boat using a tarpaulin, in order to cross it.


The rest of the trip was equally eventful, with many difficulties involving the crossing of rivers and mountains, with occasional backtracking; you can read about it here.

Anyway, it was interesting to discover a fragment of colonial history across from our hotel, almost by accident. I felt a bit like an explorer myself.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 3: Curious Statuary

Here's the final instalment from my recently unearthed diary entries about a visit some years ago to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia...

I encounter some odd recently-placed statues on my way through the Old Town today.

This seems to be a Central Europe trademark, whimsical bits of statuary interacting with the cityscape.

First there’s a moustachioed guy dipping his top hat, then a delightful paparazzo statue leaning around a corner with a long lens, eternally snapping the outdoor sippers at a street cafe.

Then finally, and most famously, the guy who looks like he’s down a manhole, though he’s leaning on its rim and having a rest. There’s even a sort of ‘man at work’ sign next to him.


Like a lot of Central European decor, these statues fit within their context, rather than seeming as cute as they might elsewhere.

It’s sad to realise that communism would never have put up anything like these – that in even in this cheeky, lightweight, irreverent humour there would have been a threat to its existence. Tragic that even humour couldn’t be tolerated. Or, more precisely, the individuality behind the humour and individual reactions.

I duck down an arcade full of fashionable clothing boutiques, to emerge next to U Jakuba.


I’d been looking out for this – an old-fashioned cafeteria of the type that once fed the proletariat in the communist days. And in fact, feeds all kinds of workers now.

It’s about time for lunch, so I go in, grab a tray and cutlery and join the queue. Reaching the counter, I pull the “I’ll have what she’s having” trick, and end up with what must be the lunch special – a schnitzel, mashed potato and pickles.

It’s excellent, simple food – and only costs me about $6.

Just down the road I hit a square, Námestie SNP. In the centre is a set of statues: a man in a robe with a rifle, and two women standing behind him.


Erected (I guess) in the communist era, it commemorates the Slovaks’ national revolt against Nazi rule in 1944. For such an emotional event, the blocky statuary seems strangely lifeless, lacking dynamism.

Though communism lacked a sense of humour, it is itself an enormous font of material for comedic treatment. Anything that took itself so very seriously is naturally asking for it.

And so it is that mock communist nostalgia bars have blossomed across the former Eastern Bloc. Bratislava’s version is a bar named KGB.


Descending to a basement off a busy pedestrian strip, I admire a portrait of Stalin flanked by US and Soviet flags and an electronic darts machine, then enjoy a good Slovak beer just across from a bust of a lecturing Lenin.

And so to the Slovak Radio building, my final communist-era highlight of the day.

It’s amazing, a huge rust-coloured inverted pyramid containing multiple floors of radio workers, each level wider than the next.


Perhaps this was a communist comment about overturning hierarchies? Whatever, it’s so absurd that I'm grinning as I take a photo of it. The structure is absurdly typical of what I expect from that era's architecture.

The communists mostly did bland, but every so often they’d go crazy and do absolutely, absurdly, ridiculously, impractically, over-the-top stuff like this.

No-one’s going to miss them, but at least they’ve left behind some relics from which we can get a good laugh.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 2: Boarding the UFO

Here's the next instalment from my recently unearthed diary entries about a visit some years ago to Bratislava, capital city of Slovakia...

Across a bridge above a busy highway, a quick right... and suddenly I’m transported back centuries to the Old Town.

The narrow laneway leading to Michael’s Gate is an effective filter between the two worlds, funnelling me through an archway onto a gently sloping cobblestoned street.

Not far from here I find Čokoládovňa pod Michalom.

Up to now I’ve been noticing the similarities between Poland and Slovakia... but now I’m reminded again of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna just 60km away with its tradition of coffee houses and cakes.

It’s too hot to sit inside, so I sit under the canopy that’s been erected in the middle of the street, one of a series of mini ‘beer gardens’.

The first page of the menu has dozens of varieties of hot chocolate, more fanciful as you get down the page. They range from Grand Cru (70% cocoa with a touch of vanilla) to the fanciful Sudanese (coconut, orange, honey, whipped cream).

I request a slight alteration to the Grand Cru, adding orange. When it arrives, it’s a revelation. Not only is the chocolate so thick and rich you need to eat it with a spoon; but the orange is actually pieces of orange. Delicious. Some might say it’s too hot for hot chocolate, but not me.


I also notice a lot of whipped cream in the menu items, something I always think of as an Austro-Hungarian emblem. Then, because I’m curious about the non-chocolate items, I order a heated apple juice, with absinthe, cinnamon and lemon (see photo above). Wise?

Beyond the compact splendours of the Old Town, I’m dedicated to exploring the wonders of the communist era. The first stop is, naturally, the ‘UFO’ atop the New Bridge.

It’s extraordinary. I mean, it’s one thing to build an observation platform, but to decide to build it on top of a bridge, its saucer-shaped platform supported by two tall beams that lend it the name ‘UFO on a stick’?

As always with the communists’ more extreme flights of fancy, what were they thinking? It’s as if even anything frivolous, like a viewing platform, had to be attached to something functional, eg a bridge.

I approach from the Old Town, crossing the defiantly green Blue Danube along the pedestrian walkway slung beneath the traffic. Then it’s up up up via a lift inside the eastern support pillar.

From a rather swish modern foyer, one then climbs a few flights of stairs to the open area on the top. And it’s here that you get a good understanding of the different facets of Bratislava.

Stand facing north across the river, and the orange-brown tiles of the Old Town beckon, with hints of its winding alleys interrupted by the spires of churches. The castle, of course, is dramatically poised on the hill to the west.


Turn around and face south, however, and it’s a different story. Beyond modern offices and shopping malls stretches the Petržalka district, a vast collection of huge concrete boxes that look identical.

On the hazy horizon just beyond them are the unmistakeable pipes and vents of industry. It’s like heaven and hell, dramatically speaking; certainly I’ve never seen such immediate contrast in any city, even the Polish ones.

After I’ve had my fill of the view among the gaggle of German tourists, I descend to the bar off the foyer.


There’s nothing communist-era about this; it’s been renovated to cutting edge 21st century standards: stylish low chairs, a lot of white, a gleaming well-stocked bar. And as is inevitable with these places, a fairly steep drinks list.

The place also quivers slightly in the breeze, but not too alarmingly. I drink a $5 doppio, enjoy the view, watch the beautiful people drinking at the bar, then descend once more to the bridge.

It’s a hot day in Bratislava, well over 30 degrees with a dash of humidity, which means the covered beer gardens down here at human level are doing a good trade.

Next post:  The strange statues of Bratislava...

Friday, 9 March 2018

Bratislava Diaries, Part 1: Castle to Clocks

Browsing old files on my laptop, I came across notes I'd written about my visit a few years ago to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. 

I'd intended them to be the backbone of an article, but sadly I never wrote about the city.

So here they are, with but a light edit to preserve their immediacy. Join me, just arrived by train from the Tatra Mountains on the Polish border...

So here I am in the Slovak capital. Hadn’t intended to come, but my schedule was a few days ahead in the end and it made sense.

Slid into the main station yesterday and immediately had a taste of the crumbling architecture of the communist years. The station is a bit shabby, as are the trains, but there’s a splendid mosaic in the main hall featuring folks in shirtsleeves watching Sputnik pass overhead – a sort of a modern Bayeux Tapestry.

Tram to apartment passed some fairly hideous concrete government buildings, then deposited me on crumbling pavement in residential district just outside city centre. Rented apartment has all the usual amenities: hard sofa bed to sleep on, dodgy hot water, not enough furniture. Handy for tram though.

It was a Sunday so I decided on an initial walk from heights of the castle down through the Old Town beneath it; a logical route followed by many in the old days, I’m sure.

But it was 30 degrees by mid-morning – no way was I walking up that hill if it could be avoided, so caught a bus.

This landed me on the quiet western side of the castle, and as I walked back toward it, my attention was caught by a modern white building on the right, its concourse promising lofty views.

I walked to the edge and was rewarded by a view down over the UFO, a strange circular observation deck built high above the structure of a 1970s bridge. But more of that later.

Turning back, I noticed a number of Slovak and EU flags fluttering above an artificial waterfall in front of the building, along with a statue of a woman handing out flowers as if she were Eliza Doolittle.

I realised this was the Slovak parliament, the seat of government for a Slovakia independent for the first time ever.

I felt warmly toward it, its fluttering flags and statue, as I’d felt warmly toward the compact presidential palace I’d spotted from the bus stop earlier, probably the haunt of some minor Austro-Hungarian noble in the old days.

I like these small Central European countries, they remind me of Tintin's Syldavia.


To the castle, less decorative than usual but still rather impressive – a big brown rigidly geometric number on the hilltop, with four towers holding together a square with absolutely straight walls.

Wandered around inside the attractive grounds before beginning my descent, met some Malaysian guys on the way, had a chat about the heat. Finally put on sunblock.

The way down was via impressive castle gates leading to narrow winding streets on the side of the hill.


I stopped at the Blue Star, a tavern on the way whose menu boasted centuries of intrigue: politicians and nobles of the imperial days, meeting here to chew things over. After a Zlatý Bažant beer I felt looser, relaxed, able to keep going.

Stopped at the Clocks Museum, within a tall, narrow house on an intersection, in what was the Jewish quarter in pre-WWII times.

Incredibly dangerous stairs, but led up to small rooms filled with intricate timepieces. There were some intriguing pieces from an age mixing gilt baroque angels with then-new technology

They included a clock with the four stages of life carved on its surf, ending with a skull indicating death. Something to cheer you up on those cold winter evenings.

Next post: I ascend to the UFO...

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Visiting the Russian Woodpecker near Chernobyl, Ukraine

An article featuring my 2016 visit to the derelict Duga-1 radar base in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was rewritten when the publisher wanted a different focus. So here’s my original description of the former Soviet radar base, for your enjoyment…


The eeriest moment on our overnight tour of Chernobyl happens not at the infamous reactor site, which exploded in 1986 and spewed radioactive waste into the sky.

Instead it’s at ‘Chernobyl 2’, a code-name used by Soviet authorities to hide an even more sensitive facility. For hidden within the forest was a huge radar installation guarding against an incoming missile launch.

It’s just one of several strange places visited on the tour, all abruptly deserted after the 1986 accident.


Clearly, this is not the itinerary of your average tourist jaunt. However, in recent years the Ukrainian government has allowed tour companies to take small groups into the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the doomed reactor complex.

The company that’s hosting me, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by one of the emergency workers who helped clean up the site in the 1980s. Most of its customers visit on a day trip from Kiev, two hours away; but there’s the option of a two-day tour, which means a sleepover and more sites to visit.

The exclusion zone contains more than the radar base and the reactor complex with the ruined Reactor 4 under its protective shelter.

Numerous villages were also abandoned, along with the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat. In many ways the villages are the saddest places to explore, with their collapsed houses and empty schools, still scattered with belongings including children’s toys.


The radar complex, formally known as Duga-1 but nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker for its endless clicking sounds when operational, is another memorable site.

It’s a spooky place, reached by turning off the main road past a dilapidated bus shelter painted with cartoon animals – part of its Cold War cover as the supposed location of a children’s holiday camp.

At the end of a bumpy road of concrete slabs is a huge radar array. Over 150m high and stretching for 800m along a forest clearing, it’s a complex structure of metal girders and components.

And it creaks in the wind, a creepy sound in a dead-quiet grove in the middle of nowhere. The sounds of the paranoid past, haunting the present.

Tim Richards was hosted by Chernobyl Tour. You can find details of its tours and make bookings at chernobyl-tour.com.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Mysteries of French Island

I was recently hosted on a tour of French Island, in Western Port Bay southeast of Melbourne. This was a test run for a new series of tours being offered in conjunction with the ferry service which links the island to the mainland.

This was an intriguing invitation. Though it's long been possible to reach the island by ferry, there was no way to get around once there. There's no public transport on French Island, and its road surfaces aren't ideal for cycling.

I knew only a little of the history of the island; specifically that it was named in 1802 upon the visit of the French ship Naturaliste, part of the Baudin expedition to Australia. Other than that, it was a closed book to me.

The first thing I saw after disembarking the ferry was this impressive 4WD vehicle which Naturaliste Tours had purchased to penetrate to the most difficult parts of the island, which is largely a national park:


There's a lot of interesting wildlife on French Island. On our way to its southeast corner we passed this difficult to see echidna, shuffling along in the grass by the side of the road:


Then we broke out from bush into this large open space, an abandoned farm which had an eerie desolate air, with its empty farmhouse and old (but recently re-roofed) chicory kiln:




Near a nearby rocky beach, our guide pointed out many discarded shells, remnants of millennia of Aboriginal use of the foreshore:



On our way to French Island Vineyards, we spotted a koala up a tree:


The winery was a decorative contrast to all this wild nature, and we sampled some its wines while having lunch:


 


We finished our tour with a visit to the striking wetlands at the other end of the island, proof of the variety of its landscapes:




Then it was onto the return ferry to Stony Point on the mainland, and two trains back to Melbourne's CBD. Well worth the trip, and a fascinating insight into a lesser-known island on the city's doorstep.

Details of Naturaliste Tours' French Island tours can be found by visiting its website.