REVIEW: Chick Habit (Basement Theatre)

Review by Jess Karamjeet

Chick Habit. Photography by David St George

[Punctum’s punk-infused offering packs a punch]

When entering Basement Theatre’s main stage, the first thing I notice is the set design by Minsoh Choi, as the back wall of the stage has been painted a bright, baby pink. Given the show’s punk aesthetic, it’s a bold and fairly bad-ass move and I’m silently impressed after estimating the cost for a tin of paint. This production is part-funded by CNZ and Foundation North, and developed through Proudly Asian Theatre’s Fresh Off the Page initiative and Playmarket’s Asian Ink Award; a lot of hands have helped to bring this mahi to life, and my expectations are high. 

On stage, there’s a stack of amps and other musical paraphernalia, and pink cords hang from the ceiling – a tangled mess, evocative of a recording session gone very wrong. 

Directed by Nahyeon Lee, Chick Habit is Punctum Production’s sophomore production and follows Nathan Joe’s Losing Face which ran as part of August’s Matchbox series at Q. Chick Habit is the latest offering from playwright Nuanzhi Zheng who also co-wrote Yang/Young/杨, and I’m intrigued to know the play began as a comic book zine, wondering how these visual and story elements will evolve.   

As the action starts, we meet our three central characters: school friends Olivia (Louise Jiang), Yolande (Nomuna Amarbat) and Xanthe (Shervonne Grierson), and their combined presence is a ball of youthful energy as they discuss plans to form a punk band. 

The narrative’s non-linear structure allows us to see versions of the three women in their much younger states, with their uniform-clad wide-eyed innocence fuelling the story. We learn of Olivia’s present-day separation from her friends, and, through an entertaining phone call with the crematorium worker (Celine Dam), we hear of Olivia’s challenging relationship with her mother (Jo Lo) – who is dead and also happens to be haunting her. 

Having read the show teaser, the play continues as expected: Olivia is angry that her friends are capitalising on her original music and seeks to challenge them publicly, and does so by interrupting a humorous electro-pop performance. Draped in what I can only deduce is a blue net curtain, Yolande takes centre stage and sings ethereally while accompanied by Xanthe on a synthesiser – fingers rhythmically jabbing at the instrument, complementing her delightful ‘I’m a serious muso’ facial expressions. 

This first duo performance sets the bar high, thanks to some comedic touches from the ensemble. Celine Dam sparkles in every scene as she morphs into caricatures: fans, a security guard, and the previously mentioned crematorium worker. She excels in the chance to show off her range, playing with voice and timing to generate a roomful of laughs. 

She’s not the only character who enjoys playing the fool – Shervonne’s Xanthe gets some of the stellar lines of the show. She exits a scene by asking a simmering Olivia what phone she’ll get next, ‘Motorola or..?’ and her inflection alone makes the room laugh as one.

The play relies upon quality sound – from the orchestration and mixing of live performance to the production quality of onstage voices – and the horseshoe presentation makes it tricky to deliver a full, balanced sound across the audience. Given that the whip-smart dialogue is front and centre, a different iteration of the show could focus on voice projection and sound balancing to avoid key lines being lost. 

A subplot regarding sexuality is fresh and youthful, using playful language to lighten the mood during a final showdown between the threesome, and the approach to queerness is with a relaxed, ‘it’s no big deal’ quality commonly seen amongst Gen-Z. It’s great to see multiple queer, Asian women taking up space on stage and I would’ve liked to have seen this element develop, learning more about who the women are now, able to get to grips with sexuality in their mid-20s.   

I can’t help but feel there isn’t yet enough complexity within the mother-daughter relationship for its resolution to pay-off, a feeling compounded by an audience member’s ill-timed mobile phone alert, sadly breaking the tension of Olivia’s monologue in one of the most poignant scenes of the production. Louise addresses the audience in character, breaking the fourth wall, but the damage has been done. 

Either way, I’m eager to see more between the core friends, and music to drive the story further. It’s later in the production that there’s time to shine, where we see the fire between the three central characters and the skill involved in learning and performing an original punk-inspired song. This moment of after-school garage jam-session is by far the production’s highlight: the song is energetic and catchy, and there’s an impressive cohesion amongst the cast. 

The end of the production focuses on Olivia’s grief and we’re left wanting more, to see an encore of their musical collaboration. Then, as if by magic, we enter the foyer post-show to real-life Auckland-based punk band Club Ruby, founded and fronted by queer Asian performer Jade Lewis, and the band play through their debut EP which they released last week. 

The atmosphere is light and, while not quite riotous, it’s enough to feel subversive. Chick Habit is an uplifting show about queer, Asian women in a punk band – and that alone in our current climate is pretty revolutionary. What more could Tāmaki Makaurau ask for right now?

Chick Habit plays Basement Theatre 24th-28th October 2023 

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