Heartwarming hilarious and horny [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]
From the moment Ronnie Burkett takes the reigns of his exquisitely handcrafted marionettes the audience is transfixed.
The myriad of characters we meet during the course of his show reel us into the seductive sexy show, The Daisy Theatre. And what a treat it is to see his motley yet riotous crew of puppets on stage tonight.
Neither of us has seen a puppet show of this calibre – with a possible 40 characters that Burkett has created, a different mix are on stage each night – and what a mix they are.
Every marionette comes fully formed and beautifully crafted – both physically and in his portrayal of each unique individual. Many of these personas sing musical numbers with bawdy lyrics and raunchy suggestiveness. Burkett is hilarious in his characterisations, his spontaneous one-liners including local references exclaiming “I’ve done my homework!!!”.
Stutterly Memorable [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]
The subtitle of the performance “The Queen’s Speech” is an apt description of the show. In many plays there are pivotal, poignant and powerful moments that you love or remember. For us it was the honesty and plain spoken humanity of the whole evening that will make it memorable, when all those ‘amazing’ shows we have seen have faded, even when we swore they would be etched in our memories.
Sam Brooks’ personal and autobiographical production is unique, in that what he may sometimes struggle to say on a day-to-day basis was spoken loud and clear to the audience tonight. So many elements of the show ring true about how stutterers are treated in social situations. The literal 'timing' of Brooks’ monologues was so familiar in the way that people cut stutterers off finishing their sentences, supposedly to save them embarrassment, but more likely to hide our own social awkwardness of what to do in unfamiliar territory. And that is why watching the audience response tonight was particularly pertinent to gauge how people were reacting to someone wearing his heart on his sleeve and bearing his soul on stage. It was not only gut wrenching but at times so obvious that people were not sure how to react to playwright and star of the show Brooks.
Jack Hartnett and Not Psycho are two new works to debut as part of Q Presents this year that are ambitious, theatrically exciting, yet narratively-flawed works. In the first of a new series of occasional blogs giving his perspective of the Theatre Scenes in Auckland, Theatre Scenes Editor James Wenley asks if we are doing enough to ensure works like these have the best chance of success.
When certain British news rags broke the review embargo and published reviews of the very first preview of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, the theatre community worked themselves up into an antic disposition. Granted, these weren’t “real” critics, but columnists, but publishing preview reviews broke the sacred agreement that critics don’t touch a production until it officially opens – which is often weeks later in the commercial theatre. While social media and audience blogs does make this agreement look increasingly archaic, the argument is that previews are crucial to developing and refining the show. In Hamlet’s example, the ‘To be or not to be speech’™ started previews at the beginning at the play, but is now it is reported to be back in the middle. By the time it actually opens, no doubt the speech will be delivered at the end after the audience have all gone home.
If this all seems a bit foreign here, it’s because we don’t have a culture of previews. Cumberbatch’s royal Dane gets all the luxuries. And this is for Hamlet. Hamlet! Only the most famous play ever. Previews can be useful for any new production, but if it is a brand new work, it can be even more crucial.
Usually, I am invited to review the first public performance of a production (hello Basement Theatre) and very occasionally the second. Auckland Theatre Company gets two previews before the reviewers are called in. Seasons here are terminally short, so if you don’t get the reviewers in on the first night, it’s harder to capitalize on any good pull-quotes if the review doesn’t come out till the end of your run. We also don’t have the money and audience base to sustain a longer preview season. The result is that productions here are largely set by the time they get to the audience. If tinkering and changes do occur during its run, we critics have already cast our judgment (though thoughtful critical reviews can sometimes be used to inform changes the production team make over a season).
The Bourgeois and The Beautiful [by Jess Holly Bates]
It’s the middle-class girl in me that loves the set of this play the moment I sit down: the blonde wood of the stage boards, the stark clarity of three white doors, and the the central divan, draped with shagpile. Everything is like the display bedroom in a linen store, down to the boutique chocolates at the foot of the bed. We are bathed in a soft peachy glow, which not only makes one feel a little drunk at the sight of other people’s faces, but it’s also jolly helpful if you are the kind of bourgeois bastard who likes to write in your moleskin during the show. For once, I can actually see my notes.
Tonight, I am seeing Loving Kurt Vonnegut, a fresh work from writer Gary Stalker, and directed by acting heavyweight Paul Gittens. This is the kind of play made for people like me: English grads with a taste for clean design principles. First of all - I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, and second, I’m a sucker for Christine Urquhart’s in-the-round staging and modernist eye. I am not disappointed - this turns out to be one ‘beautiful’ drama. Our well-to-do literary couple, the famous Colin Freeman, and his beautiful young muse, the sparkling Alice, seek to escape the ennui of their creative drought. In their will to bring interesting narrative to life, the unwitting Casey is lured from the bar downstairs into their home. From this unlikely menage trios, they will engineer a story to inspire the tale for their next novel. And so the games begin.
Sour Aftertaste [by Matt Baker]
In the split second between the first mention of the titular Phoebe and the reveal of who she is, there is a glimmer of hope in Michael Gow's script, but, like the rest of the play, the moment, and the opportunity, is lost to make way for pseudo-dramatic conflict and life-changing subplots, the latter of which are dropped as quickly as they're raised. Sweet Phoebe is the second play presented in Auckland this year in which an award-winning Australian playwright has decided that verbal accounts are more interesting than action, and while this is certainly not a pandemic problem, it does not support the desire to bring our antipodean brethren's stories to our shores [Editor's Note: which follows, also, in the wake of poorly recieved Between Two Waves by Oz's Ian Meadows].
Presented by independent theatre company, Both Sides Now, whose aim is to span the Tasman Sea (at least from Melbourne to Auckland at this point), Helen (Amy Usherwood) is an interior designer and Frazer (Nick Simpson-Deeks) has been given a big account, and if that doesn't concern you, it should. Any intimacy in their marriage requires an awkward vocal exchange, but there's no time to explore that, because drama!
Expect the unexpected [by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth]
A Benjamin Henson show is always distinctly and recognisably his, and Not Psycho is no exception. I must admit that each time I see a Henson play I realise more and more that his creative mind is that of an evil genius. Having seen his most recently creation Ghastly Dash Grimm: A Tale Of Unease, Henson might be in danger of becoming Auckland’s very own Tim Burton but then again who knows what he’s planning to write next!
That being said his plays always have his stamp and quirky take on the well-known. Henson’s ability to take the tried and tested and turn it on its head, keeps Henson junkies coming back for more.
Not Psycho is a clever premise, intelligently delivered, which highlights our desire to please others and displays which moral lines we choose to or not to cross in the process.
Dramatic Collapse [by Jess Holly Bates]
It is a dizzy experience, on the steep rake of the Herald seating block. It always takes a moment to re-adjust. From my high angle I can see a single man on a couch, on a stage, and his tale will be no less giddy than my perch. He is earnestly polar fleeced and stumbling through an introduction. This is Daniel (Emmet Skilton) - our hero for the night. He is an anxious and bumbling intellectual, who begins with the problem of beginning, and eventually utters that well-worn phrase “it starts with a dream.”
Between Two Waves is a studied investigation of Daniel’s psyche - a climatologist whose charming suite of flaws (where indecision meet interpersonal incompetence) stem from a man suffering the full weight of environmental collapse. Daniel seems the only one who understands the true climate disaster in which we are living. The priorities of his antagonists: stressed insurance managers, media darlings and even his sassy love interest Fiona seem to be completely dis-ordered to Daniel, in his increasingly medicated and anxious struggle to make them understand.
Make love... and theatre... not war [by Matt Baker]
The serendipity of coming across the fourth entry in this Cracked article today was not lost on me. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata over 2,400 years ago and, according to the opening night audience, dick jokes are just as funny now as they were then, and if there is one person in New Zealand to not only direct, but adapt, such comedy for the 21st century, it is the ever humorous Michael Hurst. Staying true to the original text, Hurst does not hold back on any of the stereotypical attributes Aristophanes placed on either gender. The women gabble and gossip, Amanda Billing's titular character being the sole motivator of their cause, while the men's excessive egotism wanes in direct opposition to their erections.
Direct opposition is also incorporated in Rachel Walker's traverse set, which, even when sitting predominantly at one end, is not difficult to watch. Traversing said set, the 13-strong ensemble work in excellent cohesion with one another, with Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Naomi Cohen in particular providing an individual flair without detracting from the play. Cameron Rhodes is so perfectly cast he could submit his performance as an Auckland mayoral bid, while Peter Hayden gives a hilarious turn as a gruff, cigarette-smoking, Dr. Strangelove-esque wheelchair-bound misogynist.
High Achiever [by Tim George]
It is hard to write a dramatic story involving stand-up comedians, mainly because it requires good jokes. Everyone remembers Punchline, the Tom Hanks movie about the gritty backstage world of standup, right? No, of course not. If you're going to write a story about comedians, it has to be funny. As with that old story about Chekhov's gun, if you set something up, you have to provide a payoff.
Why should we care about Jack? [by James Wenley]
Did you see Daffodils? Wasn’t it great? For Metro Magazine I named it best debut for the 2014 best in theatre wrap-up. Rochelle Bright and her Bullet Heart Club collaborators have acknowledged their sophomore work, The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett is like a much anticipated second album. The difficult second album. They’ve gone darker. There’s no light relief. Todd Emerson spends half of the show scowling at us. Musically, they no longer have the safety net of the kiwi pop song. I think they know that this time their show won’t be universally adored. I think they know that some people are going to walk out afterwards hating the show.
I hate that I have to write this, but that includes me.
I know what you might be thinking – James, you were just expecting another Daffodils and set yourself up to be let down. I wasn’t. I think their instinct for the tone and subject matter of Jack Hartnett was absolutely correct. They could have given us more of the same. That would have been the easy option. Instead, Bullet Heart Club are experimenting with genre, story, and song. Musically Abraham Kunin’s songs can’t be compared readily to any other musical show. I applaud that. But when I struggle to connect, when they deliver a hollow story and characters, when I’m sitting there actively willing the show to come to an end, that’s where I feel let down.