The latest production from Phoenix Ensemble is Big Fish. Music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, and the book by John August, it is a show not done nearly often enough. It has an incredible scope for exploration and as Phoenix show, fits into any space and any budge and can be done extraordinarily well. Without spoiling anything, Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, a man who tells his son tall tales, and of his son Will Bloom, trying to understand his father. It is fantastic, and far reaching, and one of the most heartfelt pieces of theatre that I have ever seen.
Directed by Tammy Linde, we got a particularly pared back version of the show , letting the story elements shine through and really honing in on what this musical is all about. The story of a life well lived, of a man who was grander than his lot in life allowed, of people and connection and love and heartache and joy and pain. It was a beautiful, simple telling. Stripping away many excesses in the set and props, simply allowing the honesty in the story to shine, the moments of powerful acting to envelop the audience. Linde sculpted a version of the story that flowed from reality to fantasy and back again easily. Despite the incredible nature of the story, Linde always managed to keep it grounded and accessible, this is no easy task, and she is to be commended.
Some wonderful Musical Direction from Benjamin Tubb-Hearne really allowed the story-telling nature of the show to shine. The orchestral backing for several scenes was simply breathtaking and the moment the orchestra takes over in the final scene didn’t leave many eyes dry in the house. The solo work is overall quite impressive, and the full ensemble singing together was overall very solidly rehearse. The band itself had a full, rich sound, filling the small theatre space easily, and if sometimes it felt as though the vocals were too soft underneath it, those moments were fleeting.
Choreography from Aurelie Roque leant several numbers a strong, high energy feel, and this tied in well with the overall feel of the show. A particular highlight is the early feature ‘Be The Hero’ which featured some wonderful full bodied choreography. If overall, the dance elements were not as tightly drilled as the rest of the show, the energy from the cast more than made up for this.
One thing that this production of Big Fish is, is beautiful. The costume design by Justin Tubb-Hearne is extraordinary, the number of costumes everyone in the show wears is dizzying and I honestly lost count, and the gorgeous style and design somehow makes the tiny space seem so much larger and more transformed than it is. There is almost no set in the show design, only a bench here, a basket of laundry there. Token nods to what is needed.
The predominant feature is ‘The Book’, and upon those pages are painted and projected some utterly gorgeous scenery. It is such a simple device, but in a space as intimate as the Tin Shed, it becomes transformative. Immersing the audience into the stories, and connecting the time period seamlessly. Projections designed by Benjamin Tubb-Hearne moved elegantly, and tied so strongly into the scenes, my particular favourite was the daffodil scene, combined with the work done by the stage crew (headed by Grace Gray) to slowly fill the stage with flowers. It is incredibly impacting.
Far and away the most amazing thing about this show is the performance put in by Nathaniel Currie as Edward Bloom. He holds this show together like glue. Currie runs the full gamut in this show, playing a teenager, a young man, a father, and a man at the end of his days. His performance is funny, obstinate, tender, and most importantly of all; it’s stunningly honest. It is this honesty that lends the “down-the-rabbit-hole” nature of the show credibility and lets the audience escape with him into his adventures. His vocals are rich, warm, and sublime, often drawing a tear to the eye, especially during his renditions of ‘Fight the Dragons’ and ‘How It Ends’.
The anchor that a man like Edward Bloom needs comes in the form of Sandra Bloom, played its such utter charm and poise by Kellie Ireland. Every move she makes onstage seems to both ground, and elevate Currie’s Bloom into a man, and a legend. The chemistry between the two is heartwarming to watch, and Ireland gives a beautiful rendition of ‘I Don’t Need A Roof’ that is as heartfelt as it is beautiful to listen to.
As Edward’s son Will, Connor Clarke provides a sharp contrast. Aloof, cool, and at times wooden in his presence, Clarke is the polar opposite of everything Curry brings to the stage, while always maintaining a similarity in his stubbornness and resilience. As a young man driven to know his father, Clarke hits a believable and measured balance, especially as the frost thaws towards the end of the show.
Patrick Davis plays the child version of Will, interacting with Currie as a younger father. He brings a sweet, sarcastic energy to the role, clearly showing the first signs of distrust and distance of the older Will.
A beautiful counter point to Clarke’s performance, is Violet Rubero as Josephine Bloom. She is warm and engaging and in so many ways, is the voice of the audience onstage. Perpetually inquisitive, Rubero leads us through the rich tapestry that make up the stories within the story, prying and prodding until she finds the underlying themes and lifts them up to the light. Her chemistry with Clarke, Ireland, and Currie is so lovely, and provides the perfect way in to the Bloom family dynamic.
Supporting the “main four” is a myriad of actors who play dozens of characters between them, all of whom go into shaping Edward Bloom’s story; Emma Whitefield as the witch gives her rocking belt a workout in ‘I Know What You Want’. Luke O’Hagan as Karl the Giant breaks up the scenes with some great comedic timing, and brings new heights to the Tin Shed. Bethany Warnes-Jones as Jenny Hill is particularly sweet as a character that constantly gets revisited, and has her own evolving relationship with the legendary Edward Bloom. Steven Days gives a hilarious turn as Amos, the ring master with a lupine secret. Della Days gives another strong anchor to Bloom’s world as a local doctor who has known him ‘forever.’ These characters appear a few times throughout the show, but the actors join an ensemble that is absolutely run ragged with costume and character changes.
An honourable mention must go to Sienna Barney for her work as the assistant to the ring master in the circus scene. Her upbraiding of the audience, and her fierce side eye, was spot on and left no room for argument from any reluctant audience members. With her tilted hat and clip board, she was a force to be reckoned with.
Big Fish is the type of story telling theatre that comes around far too rarely. It is humanity laid bare, a beautiful exposition of a life well lived, and if you miss out on seeing it you will miss something extraordinary. The team at Phoenix Ensemble are to be commended for their commitment to high quality, innovative theatre. Tickets are available at www.phoenixensemble.com.au. Big Fish runs until the 19th of May 2018. Don’t miss out.