It’s a truth universally acknowledged – except by many a proud Sydneysider – that Melbourne’s theatre scene is better than Sydney’s.
As the unofficial culture capital of Australia, Melbourne is our nearest equivalent to London’s West End.
Many of the major shows, from Wicked to Mary Poppins, Jersey Boys to King Kong, open in Melbourne, and while Sydney demolished most of its grand old theatres – Her Majesty’s in 1933, the Criterion in 1935, the Regent in 1970 – Melbourne managed to save its own from destruction.
“Melbourne’s older theatres are historic, they’re grand, they’re plush, they have the romance of harking back to the early history of Australia and they’re part of Melbourne’s identity,” says Tim Brinkman, executive of performing arts at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
So, even when their stages are empty, Melbourne’s majestic theatres are great places to visit.
For example, the Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall, which recently underwent multimillion-dollar renovations, offers tours around the venue so visitors can take a gander at the breathtaking interiors created by Oscar-winning set designer John Truscott, including gold-leaf ceilings, leather walls and kinetic light sculptures.
Brinkman says Melbourne’s historic theatre buildings help attract some of the more commercial productions, which are often created with the older venues in the northern hemisphere in mind.
He cites Hot Shoe Shuffle, which opens at Her Majesty’s Theatre in August, as an example of a production that tends to play well in an older theatre: “It has the perfect atmosphere for the golden era of tap.”
Melbourne also offers a particularly dynamic variety of theatre. With a smattering of independent theatres such as Carlton’s La Mama, seating just 50, the Melbourne scene can engage with small, intimate drama, middle-scale productions and mega-productions at venues including Southbank’s 2085-seat State Theatre, which has one of the biggest stages in the world.
191 Collins Street Since opening as a picture palace in 1929, the Regent survived fire, flood, 26 years in darkness and numerous threats to turn it into a car park or poker machine venue before property developer David Marriner came to the rescue. Saving the Regent, which reopened in 1996, was part of a revival movement for Melbourne’s performing arts theatres that Marriner established during 1991. Today’s Regent has the biggest orchestra pit in Australia, so it’s ideal for large-scale, blue-chip operas and musicals such as The Lion King and Love Never Dies.
What’s on Five years in the making, King Kong is on until July 14, as a Melbourne exclusive. Tickets from $70.
Insider tip Nab one of the ultra-comfy “lounge” chairs in the front eight rows of the dress circle.
Where to stay Westin Melbourne, 205 Collins Street, (03) 9635 2222. At the “Paris” end of Collins Street and just minutes from the Regent, rooms here have fabulous views out to the bustling inner city and “heavenly beds” that are reportedly just that. Prices start at $265 a night.
Where to eat Meatball and Wine Bar, 135 Flinders Lane, (03) 9654 7545. It’s meatballs a go-go at this bare-brick-walled, hipster-filled joint. All ingredients are locally sourced and the balls are rolled and fried by hand. Delish, as are the cocktails.
163 Spring Street This 1488-seat theatre was built in 1854, but when it was rebuilt in 1886 it featured the world’s first retractable ceiling, used to let cigarette smoke out. A century later, David Marriner bought the theatre after it had lain dormant for 20 years and spent $20 million lavishly restoring it.
What’s on This is the place for fun, high-energy musicals. Legally Blonde: the Musical is currently playing; tickets from $80.
Insider tip Keep an eye out for the ghost of Federici, a famous baritone of the late 1800s who died on stage in 1888.
Where to stay Hotel Windsor, 111 Spring Street, (03) 9633 6000. This 130-year-old, 180-room Melbourne institution is a step back into more gracious times. Perched conveniently in the centre of the arts precinct and facing the stately Parliament House, the Windsor is also the city’s go-to venue for an elegant high tea. From $225 a night.
Where to eat Melbourne Supper Club, 161 Spring Street, (03) 9654 6300. This wine bar and restaurant features a junk-shop-chic decor that’s typically Melburnian, an encyclopaedic wine list and fabulous suppers. The gooey croque-monsieur is perfection and ideal pre- or post-show.
240 Exhibition Street Don’t let the name deceive you: it’s not only stand-up comedy you’ll see at this 997-seat theatre, but musicals and theatrical shows. Built in 1928, the theatre maintains original features including the Spanish-influenced balcony seating and interior staircase, and the exterior, which is an elegant replica of a Florentine palace.
What’s on A hilarious adults-only pantomime about a 10-year-old orphan’s gender-reassignment surgery, Little Orphan trAshley opens on July 4. Tickets from $60. Slava’s Snowshow, a fusion of traditional and contemporary theatrical clowning arts, opens on July 17. Tickets from $69.
Insider tip To snap up tickets before they are offered for sale to the public, sign up to the Marriner Group at marrinergroup.com.au.
Where to stay Park Hyatt, 1 Parliament Square, (03) 9224 1234. The rooms overlooking St Patrick’s Cathedral are particularly spectacular, as are the gorgeous indoor pool and day spa at this five-star. From $298 a night.
Where to eat Virginia Plain, 31 Flinders Lane, (03) 9290 0400. With a delicious seasonal menu, walls filled with Robert Doble paintings and a cocktail list arranged by music genre to match the venue’s enormous record collection, a taste and tipple at Virginia Plain is the perfect arty end to a night at the theatre.
Her Majesty’s Theatre
219 Exhibition Street The stunning art deco interiors at “The Maj” – as it’s affectionately known – are the drawcard here, as are the large-scale musicals, plays and pantomimes that show. The Maj originally opened in 1886, but in 1929 a fire forced closure for five years before a 1934 reopening.
What’s on One of the most popular musicals ever to be produced in Australia, Hot Shoe Shuffle opens on August 17; tickets from $65. See Jerry Hall smoulder as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, running from September 24; tickets from $85.
Insider tip Explore the faded grandeur of Her Majesty’s interiors before you visit, by going on a virtual tour at hmt.com.au.
Where to stay Hotel Lindrum, 26 Flinders Street, (03) 9668 1111. A 59-room boutique hotel that’s as renowned for its personal service as it is for its intimate, upmarket vibe. The front rooms with views of Federation Square are the pick of the bunch. From $245 a night.
Where to eat Chin Chin, 125 Flinders Lane, (03) 8663 2000. Casual-chic decor with kitschy fun accents lures a hip crowd to this Asian mash-up restaurant. Grab a crafty cocktail or a glass of vino from an informed Australian wine list, and don’t miss the delicious pork and salmon salad.
Arts Centre State Theatre
100 St Kilda Road, Southbank Sitting beneath its iconic 162-metre spire, the State Theatre boasts one of the largest stages in the world and a ceiling decorated with 75,000 tiny brass domes for incredible acoustics, making it the ideal venue for opera, ballet, musicals and big theatre shows.
What’s on Catch 16 hours of opera over four nights when Opera Australia presents The Melbourne Ring Cycle, with more than 350 singers, dancers, musicians, costume makers and technicians bringing Wagner’s masterwork to life from November 18. Tickets from $1000. Famous classical choreographer Alexei Ratmansky creates a brand-newCinderella for The Australian Ballet, September 17-28. Tickets from $39.
Insider tip Grab a seat in the middle of the front row of the dress circle: you’ll feel like royalty and get a stellar view inside the orchestra pit, which was given a $4 million upgrade last year.
Where to stay Blackman Hotel, 452 St Kilda Road, (03) 9039 1444. Part of the Art Series hotel group and built within a historic mansion, this boutique hotel is colourful, contemporary and crammed full of works from famous Australian artist Charles Blackman. From $219 a night.
Where to eat Sake at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, (03) 8687 0775. A contemporary Japanese eatery that combines polished concrete and honey-hued woods, swathes of embroidered kimono fabric and a cherry tree decorated with fairy lights. The tender prawn dumplings and wagyu beef tartare are delicious pre-theatre snacks.
113 Sturt Street, Southbank Built in 1892 as a brewing and malting facility in the Southbank Arts Precinct, the Malthouse was donated by Carlton and United Breweries in 1990 and is now one of the city’s leading contemporary theatre venues. It houses three theatres (the 500-seat Merlyn, the 175-seat Beckett and the 100-seat Tower), rehearsal studios and the Malthouse Cafe and Bar.
What’s onPersona, which re-imagines Ingmar Bergman’s iconic and disturbing 1966 film, is the most hotly anticipated play of the Malthouse year. Tickets from $59.
Insider tip You’ll want to spend at least five minutes pre-show marvelling, chardonnay in hand, at the old brewing equipment suspended from the lobby ceiling.
Where to stay The Langham, 1 Southgate Avenue, Southbank, 1800 858 662. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better view of Melbourne than those proffered by The Langham’s four terrace rooms overlooking the stunning Southbank riverside promenade. Expect elegance, charm and sumptuous interiors, including glittering chandeliers and a three-tier marble fountain, at this opulent 387-room hotel. From $290 a night.
Where to eat Moon Under Water, the Builders Arms Hotel, 211 Gertrude Street Fitzroy, (03) 9417 7700. Absolutely everything – including the flowers, floors and waiters’ outfits – is white as snow at this 40-seater in the recently reinvented Builders Arms Hotel. There is only a four-course set-menu available, but with Andrew McConnell of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc. fame at the helm, as well as a menu that changes each week, you won’t be leaving disappointed. $75 a head; $55 extra with wine.
King Kong vital stats
Opened Saturday June 15, Regent Theatre.
King Kong stands six metres tall and weighs 1.1 tonnes. It takes 10 puppeteers on stage and three behind the scenes to operate him for every performance.
The King Kong set, which includes more than 65 tonnes of steel, started arriving into the Regent Theatre in December last year, making it the longest pre-production period in Australian theatre history.
As well as its iconic leading silverback, the show has a cast of 50 and a crew of 76.
Kong’s facial expressions are created by 15 industrial “servo motors” (used in the NASA Mars rovers) and two hydraulic cylinders, all of which are controlled in real time by an off-stage puppet operator.
The stage area of the Regent had to be completely rebuilt to accommodate the production, including the relocation of the band room from the substage into a purpose-built studio six storeys up.
More information: Tourism Victoria, visitvictoria.com.
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of Tourism Victoria.