REVIEW: Coral (Basement Theatre)

Review by Maulik Thakkar

Calling the quandaries of employment into question

What responsibility do individual employees have to contribute to a better world when businesses typically are pushed to owe employees very little? Coral leans toward a gradual deconstruction of what mundane looks like in the Aotearoa business context, holding up a mirror to its audience. In a nod to the countless hours of repetitive routines followed by call centre staff, Emma Newborn tells us the story of how plastic waste ends up in the ocean, linking together humanity’s self-destructive impulses with a narrative arc of coral reefs. 

A celebrated Kiwi comic, Newborn appears onstage as a solo performer for all of the action throughout the fifty-minute run. Ramping up the tension in the room by slowly building up her hero-worship of her boss, Newborn holds herself back from direct interaction with the audience for the first third of Coral. The stage is set with a drab filing cabinet in one corner, a non-decrepit desk and ultramarine office chair in the centre, and a whiteboard in the backdrop. I find myself puzzled in trying to connect the frequent announcements about coral in the ocean with a character named ‘Coral’ who seems to deftly switch moods between the mundane clicking on a mouse and keyboard on the one hand, and speaking cheerily to callers with almost animatronic perfection. It isn’t immediately clear whether this is a speaking device to link the character with themes of environmental lethargy perpetuated by the prevailing status quo in the offices of small businesses around Aotearoa, or a mere symbol of how little we celebrate individual narratives in daily working life. 

The protagonist’s pink-hued attire and tendency to engage with pink-coloured props sits awkwardly alongside a narrative speaking to women’s empowerment in making their own decisions in a man’s world – a theme that shines throughout the show. I imagine that this must be an intentional decision to call many preconceived notions about gender into questions. As I mull over this, the audience roars with laughter as Newborn dismantles her own celebration of completing twenty years at this carpet underlay firm. 

Latching onto the idea of proving herself capable by accomplishing a presentation that her boss has abandoned her to sort out on her own, Coral travels beyond loyalty to discover what, if any, confidence lurks beneath her cookie-cutter daily life. As the show approaches its mid-point, Newborn breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, communicating the efficacy of her training by naming everyone ‘Richard’ – every carpet underlay customer, it appears, must be treated the same. 

Newborn’s charm is infectious, inspiring empathy among the audience as her performance pushes us to confront the many uncomfortable realities we take for granted, such as how most of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Newborn’s struggle mirrors our own individual struggles, and we feel like there is a mirror facing us in the person of Coral, providing a penetrating insight into our day-to-day contributions to climate change.

The presentation is repeatedly interrupted by the company’s slide toward liquidation, which we hear about over Coral’s voicemail. Coral pipes up with several ‘facts’ about ‘indestructible’ carpet underlay as an attempt at greenwashing to push the product’s sales up for the bulk of the performance. Newborn’s deliberately calibrated enthusiasm accurately reflects the sincerity of office employees trying to do their best on the job while trying to maintain a sense of equilibrium around their own sanity as they grapple with human needs, like conversing with other humans in social contexts or satisfying lust in the absence of a significant other. The direction by Trygve Wakenshaw, lighting by Molloy and sound design by Thomas Press and collaborative set design complement Newborn’s energetic solo performance by lifting the story off the carpet and nursing it to take on a life of its own in our imaginations.

The last third of Coral is where the climax meets Newborn’s own discovery around the extent to which human actions make life worse for every other species on the planet. The actor succeeds in connecting with her audience’s anxieties by beginning with a relatable situation and building a series of gaffes around an organic representation of her day at work. The intermittent announcements about tendencies and behaviours of coral in the ocean make much more sense after watching the ending. 

Whooping and hooting at the curtain call is indicative of Newborn’s skill at marshalling tension and dispelling it at the most appropriate moment. She is unafraid to be vulnerable, which is a joy to watch. Newborn’s writing is short and sharp, and I couldn’t recommend this powerful call to climate action more for those who are keen to be challenged in how they go about the organised routine of daily professional life.

Coral plays Basement Theatre till 7 September. 

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