No one could accuse La Boite of playing it safe in 2018. If their plan was to divide audiences and critics it’s worked. With reviews as scathing as Phil Brown’s “La Boite Theatre Company has served us up a confused, unfathomable and vaguely insulting hour of theatre that really shouldn’t be in a theatre,” to as gushing as Kiesten McCauley’s “a profoundly beautiful, meaningful experience. It seamlessly combines art, science, mathematics, drama, physics, music and dance. The result is a unique theatrical experience,” ironically about the same production. It is for that reason I was nervously hopeful walking into Neon Tiger and La Boite didn’t let me down.
In La Boite’s most accessible show of the year Neon Tiger takes the audience to the streets of Bangkok. In this musical the traditional heterosexual love story is replaced by that of two woman, one Andy (Lisa Hanley) an Aussie back backer and aspiring musician, who works at the titular karaoke bar, the other Arisa (Courtney Stewart) a Thai-American who’s on a journey to reconnect with her mother’s homeland. The two-hander is largely told in back and forth internal monologues each describing the action from the characters perspective. Tying it together is a clever soundtrack by co-creator Gillian Cosgriff performed in Character by Hanley as if this is the album of self-discovery she came to Thailand to write.
With an opening line “35 days…I haven’t had sex in 35 days” it was clear from the outset exactly what this show would be. Co-Creator Julia-Rose Lewis’s script is clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny but it is more than that. Underneath the clever quips and quick-witted jokes is an unexpected depth and sadness to the writing that made me question whether the work was autobiographical in nature. While the script is one of the greatest strengths of the piece it is also one of it’s biggest weaknesses. In choosing to tell it’s story in back and forth internal monologues it felt at times that Lewis forgot one of the most basic rules of script writing show don’t tell. That being said this mode of storytelling also brought a humorous depth to the piece and reminded the audience that two people at the exact same event can have vastly different experiences of it.
A musical can have the greatest script in the world but if the music sucks it won’t go far. Thankfully this isn’t the case with Neon Tiger. Gillian Cosgriff- a musical comedian by trade- manages to write funny and insightful songs that range across styles and genres. From a number a rap number about what Aussie tourist do when they are holidaying in Bangkok, to a boppy pop song about bad first dates and a heartfelt ballad about falling in love, Cosgriff’s music manages show her cleverness while still staying true to the character of Andy who wrote the songs within the world of the play and who probably isn’t the best musician in the world.
While the writing of both the script and the music is superb so to are the technical elements. Co creator and director Kat Henry has made simple blocking both effective and precise. On the surface Sarah Winter’s set is just the karaoke bar but it manages to be many locations across the city. From the tourist trap of The Tiger Temple, to the peaceful Erawan Shrine and most importantly to a Hungry Jacks, the set manages to be everything the story needs it be. Guy Webster and Anna Whitaker need to be congratulated on their sound design. In a musical such as this, if the sound design isn’t perfect the music has the possibility of overpowering the performers or the performers overpower the music. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, the sound balance was correct and both the music and the performers could be heard clearly. Andrew Meadows on lighting design was also great using mood and setting appropriate lighting to help tell the story.
The icing on the cake of Neon Tiger is the performances by the two actresses Lisa Hanley and Courtney Stewart. Hanley’s portrayal is authentic and heart-warming as the Aussie tourist who escapes to Bangkok to “find herself” after a breakup. This carries through with or without a guitar around her neck and a microphone in her hand. Stewart is perfect as the Thai-American struggling to figure out her place in the world being too Thai for America and too American for Thailand. Not once does Stewart’s American accent give way to her natural Australian voice which is no easy feet.
Neon Tiger is La Boite’s final show of 2018 and by far the least divisive of the bunch. It is hard to imagine anyone having a bad time. Hopefully this is a sign of what is to come for La Boite heading into it’s 2019 season.
Feel Free to check out the Podcast Review of Neon Tiger with my mother and co host Susan Hetherington.