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Vance Fontaine: Command Performance
with Greg Ellis +
Miss Fletcher Sings the Blues
with Hayley Sproull
presented by Downstage

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 13 Oct 2012 to 29 Oct 2012

Reviewed by Michael Gilchrist, 14 Oct 2012

Cocktails were on offer in the Downstage bar last night together with some delightful, complementary club sandwiches. Upstairs in the auditorium that kind of detailed attention to the pleasure of patrons continued as the support for a sparkling cocktail of comedy.

Vance Fontaine's Command Performance is a true surprise for all concerned – being entirely composed and improvised in the course of its performance. Sure Vance is a legend in his own right but when he gives a command performance who commands it?

There's a strange loop running between Vance, his band the Peculiar Sensations, and on out through the audience. His past lies in our future; his story is always just about to be told. Vance exists at the intersection of genres, he lives in the lines between audience and performer, culture and community. He, is in short, a true celebrity – he is celebrity itself, revealed in the moment of its creation and returned to its creators.

Greg Ellis as Vance Fontaine is unfaltering, an extraordinary improvisational talent spontaneously creating narration, lyrics and, perhaps most impressive of all, genuine, distinctive melodies.

His band are equally inspired: Tane Upjohn-Beatson (guitar), Thomas McGrath (drums), Matiu Whiting (bass) and Takumi Motokawa (keyboard) all bring a sure sense of pastiche, inventiveness and bat-ears for their fellow performers to the show.

The beautifully synchronised lighting and sound is due in part to the fact that the technical operators – Alana Kelly (lighting) and Grant Sullivan (sound) – are also improvising. Full marks, too, to the lighting design by Jen Lal and, amazingly, the set design by the aforementioned Greg Ellis.

Tribute must also be paid to the audience whose contribution, both intentional and unintentional, was fully up to the demands of their collaborators. Huge fun was had by all last night with such hitherto non existent classics as ‘Keep your legs together' and a marvellously climactic medley, highlighted by a spot on Flying Nun parody.

The show built steadily on the exemplary refusal of Vance and company ever to say no to a cue from the audience. If there is any note that can be offered it would be about the potential for greater variety in musical dynamics. While Vance's fortes are suitably impressive – and no doubt invaluable when he's never heard the accompanying chord progression before in his life – softness can be outrageous too. Vance's combination of what is aptly described as "the electric stage presence of Ray Woolf with the raw sexual charisma of John Rowles" could fruitfully explore some of that territory.

This is a show with layers of pleasure almost too numerous to mention. It depends on the generosity of spirit of all concerned, and the sheer balls-out courage of the lead performers. Those virtues – together with an admirable care in creating the right theatrical framework – are richly rewarded.

The show turns a cliché about the collaboration of performers and audience into something vibrant, illuminating and uniquely shared. It's very funny but that hilarity is somehow tied up with what the show is telling us about trusting in each other and our own, shared resources. Wonderful. 

If Mr Fontaine and his band are a hard act to follow, he also bequeathed a very lively audience to Hayley Sproull's Miss Fletcher Sings The Blues. It quickly became apparent, however, that this performer would need little help in taking command on her own terms.

Miss Fletcher is described as a motivator, inspirer and music teacher. She is also that teacher who – emotionally volatile, dangerously idealistic and thrillingly imperious – is capable of adding unforgivably to the sexual confusion of a class of adolescent boys. This is something she seldom hesitates to do as she works through global and personal issues in the medium of song: ‘Key Changes for Africa', ‘Moustache Paradise' and ‘Puberty Express' being titles that speak for themselves.

Here again we encounter musical comedy working simultaneously at several levels. I'd heard some of this material on the radio and been impressed. But that didn't prepare me for the live experience. There is something way beyond droll going on here. Many of the lyrics are as sharp as something from Tom Leher while having a reflexive, demented middle class edge all their own.

Sproull's comic acting is equally assured. Then there is her singing – beautifully in tune and attuned to subtleties of vocal tone and vowel shape. Her sense of the inherent funniness of our musical expressions, particularly vocal, is already highly developed, while one senses that there is plenty more to come. If I had any quibble it was that, fuelled by her remarkable facility, her tempi were at times just a little too quick to allow the audience to absorb all the lines.

But there is an accuracy in everything she does that excites at the same time as it amuses. It feels like there is no target her satire could not pierce if it chose. Spike this combination with a real frisson, like a sprinkle of chilli, from a wicked sense of sexual humour and you have a potentially incendiary cocktail.

People are going to want to see a lot more of this writer and performer in the future – not to mention that she is credited, with Tim Nuttal, as co-producer. Indeed, at the risk of burdening Miss Sproull when she is just starting out, it is hard to imagine any limits for a talent like hers.

Likewise, from Front of House onward, I can't think of any reason good enough for you to miss taking a sip of this week-end comedy cocktail. 
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