Friday, 21 April 2017

By Train (and Train Ferry) to Copenhagen

I paid my own train fare from Lübeck to Copenhagen.

Last year I had an interesting surprise on my way from Germany to Denmark.

Having booked a first class train ticket to the Danish capital, I discovered upon boarding that the journey would include a sea crossing. And we wouldn't be changing trains on the way.

The trip began at Lübeck's main station, an attractive example of German railway architecture:

This was my first class seat. Deutsche Bahn's first class carriages tend to be arranged in a 2-1 configuration, so a solo traveller can get a comfortable spot with a table.

The countryside we passed was flat and green, with the odd crop of wind turbines. The exciting part, however, occurred when we reached Puttgarden.

This German town is a port on the the Fehmarnbelt, an 18km wide strait. On the other side is Rødby, on the island of Lolland in Denmark.

At the water's edge the train was guided toward a massive ferry which was waiting for us, and ran along tracks which extended inside the vessel's loading bay. Once we were snugly slotted between numerous trucks which were also making the crossing, we were requested to leave the train and go aloft via lifts or stairs.

It was a surreal sight, to step down and walk alongside a train parked among other vehicles inside a ferry:

Up top there was a beautiful view, though the hot days of the past week were starting to give way to chillier weather.

On the decks below there were shops, a cafe, a restaurant and even a dedicated lounge for the truckers. Quite a generous spread of diversions, given it was only a 45-minute crossing.

The short voyage over, we returned to the train, where once again I marvelled at the neighbouring trucks:

And a few hours later we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station:

So that was the end of my train ferry adventure. Sadly the train ferry crossing from Puttgarden to Rødby is due to be replaced by a tunnel in the next few years.

It'll cut the train journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen by 90 minutes, which is great; but it won't be half as much fun.

You can find find rail timetables and book tickets between Germany and Denmark at the Deutsche Bahn site.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 3)

So far, Narrelle Harris and I have reviewed four shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival - four in the first week and another four in the second.

Now here are our final three reviews, this time from two smaller venues away from the Melbourne Town Hall hub...

1. Small Car
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

To succeed, improvisational theatre needs a cast with rapport, who trust each other to take bizarre moments and run with them, and know when the moment is running out of steam so they can flip it around to start a new scene.

Andrew Watt, Broni and Mario Hannah come onto the tiny Tuxedo Cat stage claiming the only thing they've prepared is "their friendship". It's clearly all they need to deliver on the aforementioned techniques.

Naturally, every night will deliver a unique show. Easter Sunday's audience provides the prompt of 'a painter's studio', and they're off with an hour of improv that tells a single story.

It's the tale of an artist whose paintings are blurry ruins because his model won't sit still. It's the story of his client, the wealthy Glenroy, whose chauffeur can't eat until Glenroy is happy, and Glenroy won't be happy until his mother is happy, and his domineering mother is never happy. Well, unless she's talking to Glenroy's brother Trevor, because Trevor is just so cool.

There are stolen hats, leading to a heartbroken milliner, onward to a science project and a dodgy dad who pretends to be dead to find out if his son loves him. It ends with Glenroy and his chauffeur finally getting a meal. Or nearly, anyway.

It's mad, it's unexpected, it's hilarious and unpredictable; yet strangely coherent. God knows what story you'll get when you take a ride with Small Car. Judging by their camaraderie and energy this night, the scenery will be great along the way.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Songs in the Key of Awesomesauce
Reviewed by Tim Richards

With his clean-cut, bespectacled appearance, Matt Kilpa looks more like an accountant than a comedian - something he happily admits to. He's a talented guy with a guitar, however, and his show is a stream of comic songs on a variety of topics: including TV shows, sex, naturopathy and science.

It's amusing stuff, though there's nothing groundbreaking in the material; which in the case of Captain Planet, has to be explained to half the audience. However, Kilpa is confident and amusing and well-suited to his 6pm slot; he'll warm you up for the rest of your comedy evening.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Just Like Buddha
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Life can be difficult if you're trying to develop an easy-going Buddhist approach to life, but you have anxiety issues and work in advertising.

Anthony Jeannot explains how he navigates these tricky hazards, explaining what to do when the girl you're dating springs a surprise that doesn't end how either of you expect, and the unhelpful things that go through your mind when meditating. He also conducts an audience poll on whether certain insights he's had are the result of meditation or magic mushrooms.

Jeannot is nervy but likeable. His material and approach feel fresh, though more confident, crisp delivery would give the material extra oomph.

[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, 8 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 2)

Last post, Narrelle Harris and I reviewed four shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Here are four more...

1. Nanette
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Hannah Gadsby is giving up comedy. She tells us so at the start of her show, and insists it's not solely the fault of the surly Nanette who radiated so much hostility at a small town cafe. What follows is a powerful show that is as much drama as comedy.

The thing is, says Gadsby, she's built a career out of making painful parts of her life a joke, and editing out the end of each story - not so much a punchline as a punch in the gut. What we get here is best appreciated if you've followed the last decade of her shows, the themes of which inform an act that is fierce and funny, though not always simultaneously.

She does her comedian's job of building tension and then relieving it, but then builds more and more of it, and relieves less and less of it. The result is unexpected, deeply moving though also shockingly funny. It's almost like she's done a Bill Hicks of her own life, stripping it down and presenting a raw, honest version of it.

I say 'raw' but this is nothing like an undercooked performance. Gadsby may seem understated, but she's very good at what she does, guiding the audience from the usual droll routine to more prickly, more pointed elements of her relationship with the world. It's essentially a crafted theatrical monologue.

"Don't get the impression that because the world doesn't care about me [as a woman, as a lesbian] that I don't care about the world." Gadsby is indeed passionate. When the equal marriage debate hauls up lines like "think of the children!" she does think of the children: the ones growing up marginalised and ashamed of who they are.

This show is full of humour as well as anger, full of love as well as ferocity - often simultaneously, as in life. If this really is Hannah Gadsby's last season on the comedy stage, she's leaving us with her whole story, with tension-relieving laughter but also deep truths. Just as the best comedy should.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Sassy Best Friend
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Rose Matafeo is a likeable, slightly dorky Kiwi who finds herself stuck in the role of the sassy best friend in a romantic comedy. You know, the one with the unruly curly hair and the lighting-fast comebacks, urging the lead character on to triumphs in love.

She'd like to be the lead though, and she has a stab at it in this hour of good-natured stand-up: telling us, for example, about her lonely life when she moved to London, and how she tried to solve that by hanging around Leicester Square and inserting herself into other people's stories.

She also has a stab at seducing a member of the audience over the hour (tonight's victim: Wes the marketing guy), partly through the time-honoured medium of removing her glasses to show how hot she is. In between these forays she relates her shortcomings, and how they keep her from perfection.

Matafeo is a warm, engaging comedian whose comedy revolves around her relatable life and its limitations. Her show is light but fun, and the audience in the tiny venue is won over. The only flaw, perhaps, is that the "sassy best friend" rom-com trope isn't explored enough; with development it could support a whole show by itself.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Organic
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Arj Barker is in love, and he's not afraid to admit it; thought he does submit any new jokes about his relationship to the other half for her approval before delivering them onstage.

Another element of his coupledom is an emphasis on organic food, and even gluten-free food (basically apples), which has made his life... interesting. In laid-back style, Barker hints at the trials healthy eating has caused him, while never varying from his "everything's fine" tone.

Although a relaxed delivery style is Barker's shtick, it sometimes seems too relaxed. The comedian has a habit of holding the microphone away from his face, causing the volume to drop, and there's not much energy as he arrives on stage and fiddles with his phone in order to record the show.

Having said that, there are plenty of laughs in the show, and Barker's familiarity with Australia is a strength as he flawlessly skewers the Aussie penchant for incorporating "shit" into slang, and cunningly subverts an event that's one of Melbourne's holiest of cows.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. P.O.R.T.E.N.Z.A
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

When you enter a room to find a man in an unflattering blue dress, lipstick, rouge and a beret, dancing and greeting everyone ebulliently as they arrive, you know you're not in for the same old stand-up routine.

Absurd, clownish, unpredictable but ultimately rather sweet, Portenza feels like he's channelling absurdist comedy greats of the '70s - perhaps Kenny Everett or characters from Grahame Bond's Aunty Jack Show.

Through running gags (card tricks, poetry and an oft-mentioned family at the airport) and bizarre scenes and characters, the audience quickly comes to trust Portenza. We willingly engage with his banter and interaction. Ridiculous gags are set up early and later return, more ridiculous, to the delight of the crowd.

It's all a bit barmy and utterly absurd; and thoroughly good fun.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

Enjoy the festival!

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 1)

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events, and 2017 is its 31st year of operation.

Every autumn it takes over the city centre, with numerous performance spaces sited within the grand Melbourne Town Hall, along with many others in nearby theatres, pubs and bars.

Several of this year's festival shows will be covered here by myself and Narrelle Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

Here's our first set of reviews.

1. The Cat Show
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Justin Heazlewood sets the tone for The Cat Show by crawling onto the stage in white shorts, spats, a furry bib and cat ears, and inspecting the stage. He gets onto his feet soon enough, but throughout the show he reverts to a dedicated cat-ness in which he gets audience members to dangle cat toys for him to play with, and chases scrunched up paper.

Other very recognisable cat behaviours come and go in between Heazlewood’s trademark comic songs, ranging from diagnoses of the mental health states of our feline friends and the perils of share houses, to more surreal topics.

Heazlewood’s fey charm, musical talent and occasional inspired bit of observation – his analysis of 'Missing' posters for lost cats springs to mind – keep this show going in spite of weak structure and some spots of sloppy execution. When he points out partway through that he really needs a director, you can’t help thinking he’s right.

But then there’s another strange and wistful song about life, and he head-butts a bit of furniture before inspecting the litter tray, and it seems that, like cats, The Bedroom Philosopher gets away with a lot because he’s so engaging.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Something Better
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I should've known that seeing a British comedian in the week Brexit was finally triggered would result in hearing material on that fateful blow to the EU. I just didn't expect it from Josie Long. Last time I saw her onstage, years ago, she was the quintessential "nice guy comedian" full of whimsical humour. This time, however, she's political - though still charming and sweet and endearingly gormless in her application to activism.

The impetus for her rambling but funny act might have been Brexit and Trump, but its subject is more herself than any outside force. Trying to figure out how things went so horribly wrong, she references To Kill a Mockingbird and the Daily Mail, while explaining why wishes always backfire. In the end, it seems, the trouble we're in is all her fault. But at least she can make you laugh about it.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

New Order

3. New Order
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Shows comprising several comedians doing individual sets can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get, except one will probably be a blokey young guy doing dick jokes.

Happily, New Order defies this tradition by giving us four up-and-coming British comedians who are funny, sharp and innovative. Brennan Reece, leading the set, does good-natured stand-up which revolves around family, particularly the nightmare son of his girlfriend.

He's succeeded by Ahir Shah, or "Shit Shag" (you'll have to attend to understand why). This beautifully spoken Brit of Indian heritage makes fun of his posh accent, then twists it to address racism and stereotypes. Brexit gets a run here too, as he works his way up to an eloquent near-rant which remains entertaining.

Third on the bill is Emma Sidi, who performs a large chunk of her set in pseudo-Spanish, as she plays out the scandalous betrayal of her character by her lover, Pablo. Switching to English, she drags a hapless audience member up on stage to harangue him, then reveals her terrible past as an addict of such drugs as Vicks Vaporub, Gaviscon and Paracetamol. She's an energetic breath of fresh air.

The final performer, Steve Bugeja, is a Class-A geek who gets mileage from his awkward love life. He recounts his failed attempts to fit in with the lads, and the horror of his failed attempt to spark a round of "Hip hip hooray". He's a likeable nerd and a funny final act.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. How to be a Middle-Aged Woman (Without Going Insane)
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

As a woman of a certain age, I knew I'd spend this show either laughing or crying. In the end I did both.

There's undeniable hilarity in a brazen, frank woman sharing, brazenly and frankly, the physical, hormonal and emotional experiences of being middle-aged. As someone still new to the hazards of peri-menopause, there's also some tear-inducing relief that I'm not actually going nuts. (Or, as my husband puts it, I am a bit, but there's a reason for it.)

I last saw Jenny Eclair 16 years ago, where she was breathtakingly hilarious about the perils of having turned 40. At 57, she remains earthy, forthright, uproariously inappropriate and gloriously honest about not giving a damn if her bra and knickers match; sudden bouts of incandescent rage; ideas on how to harness the power of the hot flush; and the teeth-grating irritation that is Gwyneth Paltrow.

The audience is largely made up of middle-aged women (laughing so hard they possibly wee a little), and some younger women gaining unwelcome insights into the years to come. A smattering of men laugh just as hard.

And it is a very funny show. This isn't some cosily humorous look at menopause, and despite the title it contains almost no tips on how to survive it. Jenny Eclair is ribald, laugh-till-you-wheeze funny and also, as it happens, hotter than Beyonce (body temperature-wise).

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 24 March 2017

Symphony on Port Phillip Bay

I was hosted by Crystal Cruises for this visit.

I'm not much of a fan of large sea-going cruise ships, though I've been on some smaller river cruises that I've enjoyed.

That doesn't mean I won't have a peek aboard a large cruise ship when I get the chance. In January I was invited with a bunch of other travel writers aboard the Crystal Symphony, which was anchored at Port Melbourne's Station Pier preparatory to a major cruise.

It's a big vessel:

After going through security and boarding the ship, we were split into groups and were led on an informal tour. Our tour leader was a Swiss musician who performs for the passengers by night, and had volunteered to show us around.

The attention to detail in the vessel's interior design was impressive; evolving the golden age of ocean liners with a hint of Art Deco, but not so much as to make it look like a movie set:



I particularly liked the "@" symbol set in marble at the entrance of the computer room:

And the cinema looked pretty cool as well:

We ended up in this ambient bar, having a afternoon tea:

Looking out from the deck, I could see this lettering on the roof of the pier way below:

Seems an appropriate message for those arriving at Station Pier, where many new arrivals in the great postwar wave of migration had their first glimpse of Australia. Passengers on the Crystal Symphony are more well-heeled, but the message still applies. 

For more about the Crystal Symphony, visit this link.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Comics in Hong Kong

I was hosted on this trip by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

On my final day in Hong Kong, I had most of the day free before I needed to head to the airport. I'd researched all the stories I was commissioned to write, so the question was: what to do?

First up, I needed coffee, so I headed to Espresso Alchemy in Quarry Bay (4 Hoi Wan St). I'd been tipped off to this small coffee chain by the day before, and had let them know I'd be dropping by.

Even so, I was surprised to discover its owner had an Aussie accent. I had a coffee with Ambrose Law, the owner, who was brought up in Australia and has done well building up his roastery and cafes in Hong Kong:

Being suitable caffeinated (and I liked Espresso Alchemy's coffee, they know what they're doing there), I headed west via Hong Kong's crazy double-decker trams to Wan Chai.

I'd remembered this was where I'd find Comix Home Base, a place I'd stumbled across earlier in my research.

As a comic book fan, this place was always going to be of interest. Devoted to both traditional comic books and animation, it's a small arts hub arranged around a light-filled courtyard.

The architecture is of more than passing interest, because the complex was created within the facades of ten tenement houses which were built a century ago, between 1916 and 1922.

Constructed under British colonial rule, the houses had an interesting combination of Chinese and western architectural features, such as Chinese tiled roofs and French doors. Some of this original style can be seen by crossing a walkbridge from the main block to the facades on the opposite side:

Inside the main building there are various rooms used for exhibitions and conferences, not all of them open to the general public. However, there are always anime movies playing, which you're welcome to sit down and enjoy:

The other great facility for visitors is the Comix Salon, down a passage from the viewing area:

This marvellous haven is a small reading room, its shelves stacked with comic books from around the world - Asia, Europe, North America:

I picked out a few collections of my favourite characters (I'm a DC guy from way back, not Marvel) and settled down for a read.

On the way out I passed Old Master Q, a character created by Hong Kong artist Alfonso Wong under the pen name Wong Chak:

The character first appeared in print in 1962, and his humorous adventures acted as a medium by which to indirectly explore political and social issues. The character stayed popular throughout the artist's life, which only ended recently; he passed away on 1 January 2017.

So that was Comix Home Base - a rest stop and an education all in one. If you're a comic book or animation fan, I recommend it when you visit Hong Kong.

Comix Home Base is located at 7 Mallory St, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, China. Open 10am-8pm daily (Comix Salon noon-8pm, closed Monday). More details at its website.

Friday, 10 March 2017

A White Night in Ballarat

Last weekend, Narrelle and I headed to Ballarat to experience its very first White Night.

I'd already written a preview of the all-night arts event for Fairfax Media's Traveller section, so I was curious to see how it would play out on the night.

White Night/Nuit Blanche has traditionally been an event staged by big cities - St Petersburg, Toronto, Paris, Melbourne - not a regional city of 100,000 people. Would it work?

It looked good from the start. When we stepped out of our Lydiard Street hotel at 10pm after a strategic nap, White Night had been underway for three hours and the city centre was packed with people.

As at White Night Melbourne, people were moving from artwork to artwork, with the largest pieces being huge illuminations mapped to Ballarat's plentiful historic facades.

In fact, the first thing we realised was that our own accommodation, Craig's Royal Hotel, was one of the buildings acting as a canvas:

There were smaller works to be discovered in the side streets running off Lydiard. One of these, Do Not Go Gentle, was a mesmerising video presentation in a vacant lot, examining ageing and the gaining of wisdom:

There were many of these interesting smaller pieces - including a mobile work, Crate Expectations, a strange object made of crates which trundled around producing curious effects and items as it occasionally popped open...

... and this, a row of "Here's Johnny!" heads smirking maniacally on screens in the window of the Regent Cinemas:

But the star attraction of White Night was undeniable the set of illuminations along Lydiard Street. It was here that White Night Ballarat had several advantages over its Melbourne equivalent.

Firstly, it was much easier to navigate Ballarat's White Night zone, which was basically two connected stretches of the city's broad goldrush-era streets, Lydiard and Sturt. It was crowded, but never did we feel that we couldn't progress.

Secondly, the relatively compact area enabled a visual unity that's impossible in Melbourne's sprawling White Night zone. One could stand at one end of Lydiard Street and see a stretch of illuminated facades along both sides, a kind of magical avatar of the daytime city:

Another asset was Ballarat's tumultuous 19th century history, in which it rocketed into prominence as a rough-and-tumble gold mining community after the metal was discovered there in 1851. This lent a certain thematic unity to the illuminations, several of which drew on the city's past.

As an Australian history graduate I particularly liked this projection on the old post office building, which referred to the Eureka Stockade revolt of 1854:

On the other side of Lydiard was a work drawing on a much deeper past. More Than 1 Nation by local Aboriginal art group Pitcha Makin Fellas told the story of Australia's indigenous people, and wasn't shy about referencing the harsh realities of European settlement.

It was by far the best work of the night, an animated journey through centuries, and much admired by onlookers. It was good to see that such public art could still be frank and confronting.

Here are two clips I filmed on the night, the latter one dealing with more modern times:

The first White Night Ballarat was, to my eyes, a success both in crowd appeal and artistic merit.

The only flaw, it turned out, was the 12-hour timespan. While this made sense in Melbourne, where the huge crowds gave people good reason to enter the city in the wee small hours before dawn, in Ballarat it was easy to see everything during more reasonable hours.

As a result, when we walked back to our hotel at 3am, after drinks with friends at the buzzing Mitchell Harris wine bar, we found Lydiard Street almost deserted:

On reflection, it might have worked better to stage White Night Ballarat from, say, 7pm to 3am, rather than run all the way to the scheduled 7am.

Quiet finale aside, White Night Ballarat provided proof that successful big art events don't have to be the sole possession of big cities.

Whether there'll be a second such event in the goldfields city has yet to be decided, but I hope it happens. It was a great night out among the art, crowds, and colourful history.