‘Grand Theft Theatre’ was appreciative.
We all have those moments in the theatre that stick with us. For some, it would be seeing the chandelier rise up to the ceiling in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. For others, it may be a monologue from a fringe show that spoke to them in a profound, unique way. It is such moments as these that have inspired the experimental performance collective Pony Cam’s newest show, ‘Grand Theft Theatre’.
Originally commissioned as part of the 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival (where it won the ‘Best Theatre Award’), ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ sets out to showcase a range of moments from theatre history that have inspired the performers of Pony Cam. From allusions to Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Frankenstein’s Monster for the UK’s National Theatre to the burlesque stylings of a chanteuse from a cabaret in Berlin, no performance is off limits. If the onstage moment left a lasting impression on the performer, chances are it ends up in ‘Grand Theft Theatre’.
Performing once again at St Ambrose Hall (venue of the show during the 2022 Fringe Festival), Pony Cam’s collective feel right at home. Situated 5km north of the bustling Melbourne CBD, St Ambrose Hall sits nestled quietly upon the calm, residential streets of Brunswick. Adjacent to the train line and Brunswick Library, the hall provides a prime location for suburban theatre fans to gain their theatrical fix.
The quaint atmosphere continues as audiences enter the hall. Wood beam rafters hang overhead. Wooden floorboards shine with polished veneer. A small stage is blocked from view by navy blue draped curtains. The smell of pretzels waft from the small canteen-come-bar to the right of the room. A selection of plastic chairs is assembled haphazardly in the centre of the room, beckoning audience members to pick one out like a Jenga brick. The room steadily fills with a buzz of excited energy, providing the hall with a deeper feeling of warmth. After several minutes of anticipation, the chatter ceases and the show begins.
As performer David Williams notes during the introductory monologue, much of the show is ‘stolen’ from other productions. While using the word ‘stolen’ is appropriate in a lot of ways, what ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ really does is pays homage to other shows. Pretzels and tonic water are sold at the bar as an ode to a fringe theatre in Berlin. Several intervals take place as a salute to an epic theatrical piece from the early 2000s. Imitations of physical performances before Pony Cam’s time are aplenty. It is through such thematic ‘borrowing’ that ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ pitches its appreciation for the art of live theatre.
As is customary with many fringe shows, ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ revels in its ingenuity. Much like refashioning an old formal dress into a cocktail outfit, Pony Cam utilise everyday objects to get their theatrical point across. There is art in their simplicity, often encouraging audiences to use their imagination in conjunction with their narrative performance. Perhaps their most engaging use of prop elements comes during Act 2 where a story is recounted about an artisan, a rose, and a watering can. While many of the set pieces may be rudimentary, it is through their use in illustrative storytelling that bring about their full value.
The simple aesthetic continues in Pony Cam’s costuming. Dressed in plain coloured shirts, jeans, and sneakers, each performer blends in to the crowd. With audience members seated in the centre of the hall and company members encircling them throughout the performance, one may be forgiven from mistaking an actor for a viewer. This is by no means a bad thing, however. As is often stated throughout ‘Grand Theft Theatre’, the show is about involving audiences in moments that have inspired the group. It is through choices such as the simple dress code that reinforce the inclusive rhetoric of the show.
David Williams’ collaboration with Pony Cam is apparent throughout ‘Grand Theft Theatre’. The show allows each member of the six-piece cast a chance to reflect upon performing arts moments that left an impression on them, whether it be for the better or worse. It is through this collaborative action that ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ both shines and struggles.
Creative interplay between moments flow throughout the show, weaving memories together like a mosaic-like tapestry. With a talented ensemble of performers, the show benefits from the shared vision of highlighting landmark moments of theatre they each had witnessed previously.
The flipside of this however, is that the show also can feel sporadic and unfocused at points. This is not helped in instances where the performers refer to productions unfamiliar to the audience. While this can be a detriment at points, it is nevertheless undeniable that thoughtful and collaborative preparation has gone into ‘Grand Theft Theatre’, allowing its performers an equal chance to resonate with the audience.
At its heart, ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ is a show about loving theatre by a group of theatre lovers. Each of the six-strong cast (David Williams and the Pony Cam collective) demonstrate a resonance with their craft which is affecting and creditable. David Williams grounds the piece with nuanced, considered reflection. Hugo Williams’ reserved, reflective contemplation of theatre contrasts nicely with the show’s more bombastic moments. Claire Bird’s physicality throughout provides the show with some of its most memorable set pieces. Ava Campbell’s interactions with the audience aptly exemplify the ‘passing the torch’ of theatre appreciation from performer to viewer. Dominic Weintraub and William Strom are arguable standouts however. Both elicit an innate knack for comedy while also delving into sombre emotions as required. All members of the collective work in unison to provide a theatrical homage to the art of performance.
Live theatre has the ability to bring people together. It can posit difficult questions, provide side-tickling interludes, and affirm our sense of humanity through engaging performances. No matter whether onstage, behind the scenes, or in the audience, the love of theatre is what drives people to see shows time and time again. For the experimental performance collective Pony Cam, it is this love of theatre that has inspired their latest work, ‘Grand Theft Theatre’. In showcasing moments of theatre that have stayed with them long after the curtain closes, they are paying it forward (or ‘playing’ it forward, if you will) and bringing moments that will stay with audiences long after the pretzels are gone.
Pony Cam’s ‘Grand Theft Theatre’ performs until Saturday, 24 June 2023 at St Ambrose Hall in Brunswick. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit Humantix’s website.