Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Melbourne In A Day

When my wife and travelling companion Sue announced on our recent trip to Kangaroo Island that it was time to bring her teaching days to an end and concentrate on the where new roads could take us - literally - she also asked for a small but exciting trip away to celebrate.

Now apart from Tasmania, there are very few new places in Australia left to take her and as the "apple isle" was the first place on the agenda for our longer days of retirement, other destinations were considered as we closed out the return journey from KI. New Zealand seemed attractive for a few days or a few days at Uluru but it the decision became obvious when news came through from home that a friend of our son was to step up from the ensemble to star as Javert in Cameron Mackintosh's Melbourne production of Les Miserables.

Melbourne is a place we have visited but usually just the suburbs. We spent a day there with the kids many blue moons ago but it consisted mostly of Fitzroy Gardens and Captain Cook's cottage. On another occasion, when my parents lived their, my Dad and I took a tour of the MCG. Visits had always been piece meal and directed at seeing one feature. A visit to the city and a highlights package might be only one step up from those previous visits, as who can see such a cosmopolitan major city in a day but it tagging it on to a performance of Les Miserables looked like a suitable reward for thirty years of teaching.

It only took about an hour to organise, entirely online, with just an iPad and a credit card. I used Expedia to book flights from Sydney, two nights accommodation and tickets to the show, in a package deal for less than $900. As the day got closer, I also booked transport to and from the city using Skybus, all of these seamless and easy, thanks to excellent websites.

Apart from our huge overseas adventure in 2012 - The Before We Get Old Tour of France, Untited Kingdom and Ireland, we have done little air travel. Infrequent flights from regional centres back to Sydney and the long haul back from Broome to attend my mother's funeral have been about the extent of our air travel, so we always find the experience exiting and a little terrifying - Sue does the exciting and I do the terrifying! As a result, I'm always glad when the random checks for explosives, the decloaking in public, turbulence bumps and finding of luggage is over but our Qantas flight into Melbourne was almost enjoyable. I only had to be on the receiving end of thousands of arm squeezes, stolen kisses and thank you's from Sue for my attention to be diverted away from any anxieties.

We arrived at our digs on a Monday lunchtime. Citidines is located on Bourke St, so close to the Paul Kelly's observation of any city but to folks who are used to looking out the window and seeing tall eucalypts and mountains, a cityscape is fascinating. When night falls, its even better, with its flashed warnings to aircraft, gaudy nomenclature, video screens and thousands of little squares of light where other people's lives were being lived beyond the triple glazed safety of our own.
centre of Melbourne as to not split any difference. The Bourke St mall was just a short wander away and her Majesty's Theatre, where we would see Les Miserables, was even closer, just around the corner in Exhibition St. Our studio apartment on the 18th floor opened a vista to the west which might have fitted

Our studio apartment was just as outstanding as one would expect for a high quality hotel and the staff were exceedingly helpful. It may be our working class origins or our paired back provincial existence but such things resonate with us and we felt well spoiled. We spent the afternoon wandering down Bourke St, drinking coffee and planning the next day.

Like most major cities, Melbourne has a well oiled and efficient transport system. Because of the design of the city itself, they have retained the trams which have rattled about its streets for 130 years. The largest urban tramway network in the world - more than 250kms of track and nearly 1800 trams and a staggering 180 million (yes million) passenger trips every year - means that it it takes less than a minute on any street in the city to be aware of them. In the main, unless they are crossing an intersection, they are quiet, driven from the overhead electric cables which run above the roadway. Of course there are cars and the occasional bus but nothing like the streets of Sydney, where you can confidently expect to wait a long time at the footpath before darting across corridors of death. Even if you choose to cross away from the traffic lights, its a task easily done even on a busy afternoon.

Our full day in Melbourne began early, with me writing and Sue being the lady of leisure but despite that, we didn't wander out until after 9:00am. Again, similar to most major cities of the world, Melbourne has an open ended hop on, hop off tourist bus which takes you to the highlights of the city - an all points package which you can use as many times as you like from thirteen stops. The Melbourne Visitor Shuttle is so easy to use, that you can buy your $5 all day tickets from the Visitors Centre in Federation Square or from the vending machines which are located at the stops themselves. We walked from our digs, along Bourke St and then down Swanston St past the Town Hall, a heritage listed building which opened in 1870 and then on through Christmas Square.

Federation Square, located where the St Kilda Road starts its journey from Flinders Street, is the tourist hub of the city. The Yarra runs past on its southern side and the twin iconic old buildings of St Pauls Cathedral and Flinders Street Station occupy opposing corners. On a third corner you'll find the Melbourne Visitors Centre and the oddly shaped and overtly modern Alfred Deakin Building - home to SBS. The juxtaposition of the old with the new is something unique about Melbourne, with the old buildings still given air to breath. In Sydney, they have been knocked down or dwarfed, int the main. People watching as I waited for Sue to emerge with tickets and guides and the usual bag full of maps and brochures that she loves to gather, I saw a cross section of cultures, ages, countries of origin all either standing about or meeting or just hurrying through. I was in writer's heaven.

We caught the shuttle bus across Flinders St from Federation Square and right outside St Pauls Cathedral . Its architecture would be fetching enough, but the sign draped across half of its southern facing wall, appealing for compassion from the community towards refugees and demanding changed political solutions, was a reminder that sometimes its a good thing that the State and the Church should sometimes intersect.

We bypassed the first two stops - the Sports Precinct with the MCG colosseum and the Chinese Gardens - and instead jumped off at the Carlton Gardens. Time would be our enemy all day, so we spent just the half hour between shuttles, mostly consumed by the beauty of the Royal Exhibition Building. Competed in 1880, along with the Carlton Gardens which adjoin its southern border, it was an exercise in one upmanship by the well to do of the southern capitol over its crass Sydney rival and came about as Melbourne had attracted its first major international exhibition. It has served in many roles over the years and remains a magnificent architectural stamp of its time. The building was added to the World Heritage list in 2004. We popped into the Melbourne Museum but only saw the foyer and were impressed by the techno-whiz whizzer rooms.

At Brunettis
Our next stop was the suggestion of the driver. Jumping off at Lygon St, he directed us to Brunetti, a cafe developed by Giorrio Angele in 1985 which has become a Melbourne institution. It was Sue's version of a dying and going to heaven. The array of treats to eat were staggering but it didn't stop her. We took our treats outside with out coffee. The walk down Lydon St was instructive. Every few steps and a new spruiker attached themselves, telling us of the specials and extra pampering we would get if we stepped inside. There were coffee shops, restaurants, bars and various "other" types of entertainment on offer as we walked down Lygon St mid morning.

It was lunchtime by the time our next shuttle reached the Docklands area of Melbourne. An area of urban renewal which will be completed in 2015, this former swamp became wharfs and was heavily used until containerisation of shipping in the 1990's removed the major usage of the area. Docklands Stadium opened in 1996 and was the centrepiece of the new redevelopment. Now a collection of shopping precincts and cafes/restaurants, it is an unexpected picturesque development in the new life of the city. We had lunch at Berth. It was incredibly pleasant.

Two stops after lunch and a short walk later, we reached Eureka Tower, Melbourne's largest building. The ride to the top takes seconds but the walk around the 88th floor takes a while longer, if only because of the staggering view. There is one section where you go out onto an open deck, protected from the fall only by some heavy gauge wire. Another neat trick is a clear Perspex room which slides out from its housing and floats you above the streetscape ... so high above the city. There are a number of other clever innovations, including scopes which are focused on Melbourne icons.

Worth the money to go to the top.

We picked up the tourist shuttle and returned to Fed Square tired and immersed in Melbourne but continued on to link up with the free Melbourne tram loop which took us up to the State Library in Swanston St. Here, the highlight is the octagonal reading room, which rises upward through four floors to a stunning roof. Around the edges, a museum of Victorian history includes Ned Kelly's armour-plated suite and the original of the Jerrilderie Letter.

The tram loop took us within 200m of our digs but we walked past them and down to the Myers store in the Bourke St Mall, decorate for Christmas. This famous sequence of windows, sought out by generations of Melbourne children, this year showed the story of Goldilocks and Santa? What the? A little further on, we sat on the steps of the post office and listened to some fairly decent buskers.

Returning to our digs, we had dinner and dressed for the central reason of our trip: an evening of Les Miserables at Her Majesty's. Dressed in our best, we wandered the 300m up to Exhibition St and file din for the night of our live show lives. The following was my review:

"When my wife decided, during our last road trip, that enough was enough and that the joy of seeing the children in her care grow and change was outweighed by the late nights working on her teaching program, pointless staff meetings and disagreeable parents, it became immediately apparent that a celebration was in order. After all, apart from the more important task of nurturing our own children to independence, teaching was the job that had occupied her adult life.
How? What? Where?
Among the many things we have shared since the last of the spots on our faces cleared and we started pretending at being adults, live music and the theatre have always been a dominant pleasure. It seemed, therefore, that a celebration with a theatre piece central to its delivery would be the most appropriate.
The choice was obvious, not only because we had come late to the musical version of Victor Hugo's epic tale of loves won and lost, honour, loyalty and devotion that is Les Miserables but also because a young lad of our acquaintance, Robert McDougall, was a cast member in Cameron McIntosh's Australian production.
We had only seen Les Mis for the first time in a superb local production in Tamworth, less than ten years ago and neither of us had read Hugo's tale, so the power of story telling almost entirely through music and song was still fresh to us.
Staying only three minutes from Her Majesty's in Melbourne, our walk to the theatre was a measured amble which threatened at any point to break into an excited run that may have undone our refined clothing and certainly pointed to our rural habitat.
Our seats, just six rows from the stage and close enough to collect watery elements of Jean Valjean's early spite and spittle, gave us an ideal spot to view the action, almost as though we were in each scene.
This is a superb production.
Simon Gleeson's portrait of a man changed by circumstance and chased by the unbending and at times sadist Javert throughout his life, goes beyond normal measures of role play. I was not prepared for the strength of his anger in the prequel scenes of his release and then early attempts to escape the chains of a piece of paper which marked and stained his past. The development of his understanding of a duty to God, invested in him by the Christian love of a Bishop who forgives his thievery and sends him in his way with a stake to rebuild his life, is in stark contrast to way Hayden Tee's Javert sees duty to God as allowing him the power to rebuke and break.
This contrast, a central theme of Les Miseables, is admirably portrayed by the two leads and the scenes of their confrontation, where the power shifts over time from Javert to Valjean through the latter's interpretation of love and forgiveness, are a powerful beating heart of this production .
Gleeson is vocally superb, at one moment an angry, powerful voice denying his enemy and the next singing in soft, high tones pleading with his God, in supplication, for mercy toward a young man he hardly knows but is aware his adopted daughter, Cosette (Emily Langridge) loves deeply. The range and evocation of his voice are inspiring and even as an old dying man, satisfied he has lived a good life, his stage presence is undeniable.
Tee is equally as good and pulls of the hardest transformation of the piece, as a character grounded in duty and relentless self-belief, a strength turned to flaw which fuels the inflexibility which in the end can't cope with Valjean gifting him life. His suicide scene is brilliantly done, eerily taking the audience down the descent into death in a moment of surreal theatrical chicanery.
For mine, the standout among the other leads was Kerrie Anne Greenland as Eponine. Her heartbreaking "On My Own", which opens the second act, tears at the emotions of anyone who has suffered the torment of unrequited love and is trapped into living a fantasy of what might have been. Similarly, her death scene duet with Euan Doidge' Marius, where she at times sacrifices her beautiful voice to convincing the audience of her pain and resignation, was enough to cause tears across the eyes of even the hardest hearts.
Laura Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley - the nefarious Thenardiers - nail possibly the best comic roles ever written outside of Shakespeare, with close attention to the smallest detail and the grandest gesture. You are are revolted and relieved in equal measure by the levity that these nasty and unscrupulous characters bring to a hard tale.
Patrice Tipoki scores well as Fantine. Coming on the heels of Ann Hathaway's stunning film version of "I Dreamed A Dream", it would have been easy for her to either lose by comparison or imitate. She did neither and made the song her own, as she did in the desperate death scene, when Fantine passes responsibility for Cosette to Vajean.
Of the other leads, Langridge was less convincing. Her voice was wonderful but her acting less endearing.
Les Miserables is a production that requires a great depth of voices in the chorus. Many of the songs, especially "The People's Song" and "One Day More", require power and multi-layers to stir the audience into time traveling back to days when revolution was part of the political process, unlike today's apathy toward publicly elected officials. The ensemble were inspiring, from the small exchanges that fill in the background, to the coordinated movement in and out of the spotlight in action sequences. Set pieces such as "Lovely Ladies" and "Master of the House" were so engaging a that one would need to view them several times to appreciate the expertise all the cast bring to them.
From a personal perspective, our son's mate McDougall popped up everywhere - from a randy sailor, to an angry policeman, to an easily agreeable student, he was most convincing. Being on stage in such company would alone be an achievement but he did more than enough to show he belonged. His star will rise further in the east and soon enough shine overhead.
If it was at all possible to equate my wife's long and successful career in teaching to a reward, the cast and crew of Les Miserables pulled it off.
Our first Melbourne theatre experience behind us, we left convinced that we will return."

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