[Cat on a Hot Tinnie Roof]
Invited as extended family of Johanna Cosgrove’s titular Aunty, the audience act as guests and onlookers to the party at hand. It’s a recognisably bare celebration, featuring bags of chips, a box cask of wine, bikkies and whipped cream. Though essentially plotless, she weaves bawdy anecdotes and personal observations with a confidence and energy that has us eating out of her hands. Interaction with the audience is carefully balanced, not letting it overshadow the show but creating real rapport.
While the Herald Theatre isn’t the most intimate venue with its steep raked staged, it’s a testament to Cosgrove’s performance prowess that she’s able to diffuse the tension between the actual space and the show’s imagined setting, turning it into an effective gag rather than a distraction.
The performance strikes me as a particularly Kiwi form of camp, like one of Tennessee Williams’ faded heroines but as a westie bogan. As tacky and cliche as the characterisation may sound, she doesn’t make herself the target of cheap shots, finding a consistency and honesty in the characterisation that makes her fully realised. Refusing to mock and belittle her subject, she pays beautiful tribute to Aunty and all the women like her. It helps that the character is presented with a sharp wit, quick on her toes and ultimately warm-hearted.
It’s the little touches that bring her to life. From the smiles, the dance moves and wrist flicks, blurring the line between real and cartoon. The simplicity of the costuming, including a robe, sunglasses and towel wrapped around the head, socks and jandals, also age Cosgrove beautifully. Instead of covering her face in makeup, the towel and sunglasses work to build her a new one. It’s tempting to call it a feat of theatrical mask work.
The sprinklings of tragedy lying at the heart of Aunty are broadbrushed, elements that make up your typical family drama. This includes the offstage husband, Derek, suffering from scoliosis of the spine, and the absent daughter Shannon, who provides an emotional absence to the piece. Cosgrove uses these elements to tie everything together and give the show an arc, somewhat at the expense of a consistent tone. Even if the hilarity peters out at the end as it scrambles to find its story, this is a masterclass in comedic timing and playful audience interaction.
Aunty plays The Herald Theatre until 5 May.