Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones star in Driving Miss Daisy.

Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones star in Driving Miss Daisy. Photo: Supplied

As 2013 draws to a close, Brisbane Times arts editor Natalie Bochenski looks back on the best of the cultural offerings in the River City.

The first category is theatre - live, three-dimensional, in your face and on the stage. See what was in Natalie’s Top Five, and give your opinion.

5. Escape from the Breakup Forest (Judith Wright Centre, March)

This whole show embodied the phrase “cute as a button”. Created by Stephen Pirie first as a theatre student, then developed with his Toowoomba-based Mixtape Theatre Collective, this was a charming tale of a young man plunged into existential crisis after a breakup. Pirie and co-stars Ell Sachs and Dan Stewart played dozens of roles, tracking the central relationship from promising start to abrupt end. Then reality jumps into fantasy, as Pirie battles through the mystical Breakup Forest so he can finally move on. It had moments of naivety and fecklessness, but simple and clever staging and a cracking good pace. Overall Escape from the Breakup Forest was the kind of theatre you’d like to see more often: big-hearted and broken-hearted all at once.

4. The Glass Menagerie (La Boite, August)

La Boite’s best work this year was also its annual classic. Artistic director David Berthold took the reins of Tenessee Williams’ yearning ode to the dysfunctional family (well, the first of many) and gave it a sentimental retro feel that never melted into saccharine. Kathryn Marquet’s pleading cries of “Mother!” evoked sympathy without frustration, while Helen Howard’s blazing turn as matriarch Amanda Wingfield was like watching a drowning hurricane, whirling and blustering without realising she has no oxygen left. The Roundhouse theatre’s physical constraints worked well in a play about emotional suffocation; the family’s long departed father loomed over the stage like a billboard, while a stunning collapse of a facade revealed, for a moment, a glorious sky filled with possibility. And then … dismay. Well, it wouldn’t be Tenessee Williams without it.

3. I, Malvolio (Brisbane Powerhouse, September)

The Brisbane Festival was full of theatrical delights, but it was this one-hander from British actor Tim Crouch that captivated me. Presenting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night from the point of view of the maligned and ridiculed servant Malvolio, Crouch ranted and raved about the state of the world, the disrespect of the young, the reticence and sloth of the middle-aged and the cruelty of his fellow characters in Shakespeare’s “comedy”. With only a few clothes and props, Crouch turned the entire audience into his willing oppressors, to the point where he was readying young children to assist in his own demise. There was nothing all year quite so horrifying in the most gut-wrenchingly funny way. If comedy be the food of love, joke on.

2. Venus in Fur (QPAC, June)

The Queensland Theatre Company scored a coup securing the rights to this two-handed Broadway hit before Sydney or Melbourne. Strong writing, clever plot twists and sharp directing by Andrea Moor made it fly, but it was Libby Munro’s star turn as wicked waif Vanda that shot it into the stratosphere. Late for an audition for playwright Thomas’ latest work, she sets about convincing him she would be perfect to play a woman comfortable with dominating a man. Fleshed in leather with burnished ambition in her eyes, Munro owned the Cremorne stage, leaving co-star Todd McDonald a warm puddle in her wake.

1. Driving Miss Daisy (QPAC, February)

This immaculate production came to the Playhouse early in the year, set the bar high, and nothing else all year ever quite reached it. The pairing of Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones was no stunt casting. Rather, a cosy blend of two extraordinary stage presences whose skill, warmth and humour was utterly bewitching to watch. They were both familiar from their own film and TV work, and yet totally original as peevish widow Daisy Werthan and cheerful driver Hoke Coleburn. A deceptively simple set allowed the focus to be on their characters’ friendship as it developed through the racial prism of their time, then deepened with their shared experiences of ageing. Driving Miss Daisy was he only production all year that had me leaping up for a standing ovation before I even knew what was happening. Perfection.

Honourable mentions:

Mother Courage and Her Children (QTC, QPAC) - Wesley Enoch’s transported Brecht’s saga of European war to an outback Australia ruined by mining, with a stunning performance by Ursula Yovich.

Animal Farm (shake & stir, QPAC) - less than three years old and this adaptation of George Orwell’s classic moral fable on tyranny by local dynamos shake & stir is already a cult classic.

A Clockwork Orange (Action to the Word, QPAC) - a terrifying and testosterone-fuelled production of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian-but-very-close-to-home future. The first few rows went home drenched in the actors’ sweat.

Motherland (Ellen Belloo, Metro Arts) - local writer Katherine Lyall-Watson created three strong female characters that traversed Moscow, Paris and Brisbane through the 20th century.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit (World Theatre Festival, Powerhouse) - a little gem of a one-person play, written by an Iranian and performed each night by a different actor who had never seen it before.