Love not given lightly [by James Wenley]
Watching Daffodils is like watching a little miracle come into bloom. Praise has already been high for this remarkable debut show from Bullet Heart Club, but allow me to add my voice too: this is an incredibly special theatre experience of a kind that almost never comes along. I go to the theatre again and again in the hopes of experiencing a show like this. It’s an intimate personal story about playwright Rochelle Bright’s family, a boy meets girl classic, a love-filled tribute to her parents that does not shy away from their flaws.
That’s the first layer of success. The second, is the way we are invited into their story. A track list of favourites from the kiwi songbook (your Dobbyn’s, McGlashan’s, Runga’s etc), remixed by Lips, and sung by the actors Todd Emerson and Colleen Davis, opens the shared experience, a ripe nostalgia, the kiwi mythic. The combination is an extraordinarily effective and affective 70 minutes spent in the theatre.
You know you are going to love the show when it pretty quickly launches into a boisterous rendition of Th’Dudes Bliss. Its 1964 and Eric, 18, is driving the streets of Hamilton at 3am with a beer in hand. He encounters a tipsy Rose, 16, in the Daffodil field by the lake, and like all good kiwi gentleman, agrees to drive her home, even if it’s an hour away. She seeks him out at his work – an electrical store – and so the love affair begins.
Sort of. It’s a slow courtship – dates once a month (with not much choice of activity – double feature or ballroom?) – and this section of the story is told with warm awkwardness, humour, and a laconic kiwi sensibility (the weather is described as “bitter bloody cold”). While the songs give an insight into their emotional lives, the pair in other ways remain opaque. While we learn that Rose is not the only girl Eric is dating (she feels like he is “baby sitting” her), Eric doesn’t explain exactly what Rose means to him. Nor, though they exchange letters during Eric’s obligatory OE, is there an explanation as to Eric’s decision returns home with designs to make Rose a decent woman. Bright doesn’t give us an answer, maybe she doesn’t know. Maybe Eric himself doesn’t know. In many ways he remains unknowable, a figure of kiwi masculinity that bottles it inside.
Director Dena Kennedy achieves startling intimacy between Emerson and Davis and their audience, largely confining the actors to their microphones in front of them, meaning that when shifts of action occur they come with a punch. A screen behind them evokes the scenic imagery and key events in the story burned into the mind’s eye of the characters, via filmmaker Garth Badger.
Part of what makes Emerson and Davis work so well together are their different energies: Emerson is a jumpy Mod, feeling the rhythms in his body. Davis is still, sensual and thoughtful. Together, they are a sublime pair. They take us along as they grow up together from teenaged naivety to the stress and disappointment of middle age mortgage.
The music doesn’t always fit the period, but it’s integrated into the show by Bright and Lips in a way that fits perfectly. With their contexts personalised and transformed, you hear these radio backgrounders with new life given to them live via Lips (aka Stephanie Brown) herself on the keys, Abrahaim Kunin on Guitar, and Fen Inkner on Drums. Dialogue and lyric are intermingled, and the song’s often don’t finish, the band continuing the instrumental underneath, or a moment of drama taking the story in a new direction.
The music choices, are in a word, brilliant. Counting the Beat by The Swingers becomes Eric’s OE anthem (ain’t no place I’d rather be). Blam Blam Blam’s There is no Depression in New Zealand becomes the backbone of a powerful sequence as Eric and Rose’s story tracks through the 70s and 80s and become increasingly isolated. Davis delivers an aching interpretation of Anchor Me, later Emerson floors us as Eric chokes in Dobbyn’s Language. Our familiarity with these tunes is also cleverly exploited: to dramatise their wedding day, the chorus to Chris Knox’s Not Given Lightly is delayed again and again building the tension until its finally released to create a truly spine-tingly expression of love: “It’s you that I love and it’s true that I love and it’s love not given lightly…”.
Part of us I think want Eric and Rose to have the perfect love story, but Daffodils chips away at these illusions until it finally shatters. From our vantage point in the seats we can see another path for these two, but part of the loss and sadness that the show provokes is that we can’t intervene. Life isn’t clean, and things don’t always work out.
During the show, the songs don’t ask for our applause in the way that musical numbers normally end. And so it’s not till the end of the show that we can express our response to the artists. What happened on opening night I rarely see: a standing ovation and emotional outpouring from the audience.
While the central relationship seems to be that of Eric and Rose, the show’s ultimate success I think is because it’s really, not so secretly, about the writer’s relationship with her parents and the attempt to understand them. Familiar, but forever distant, like us, but irretrievably not like us, it’s a relational position that finds echo in our own histories. Infused with love, wisdom, and wonder, Daffodils makes your eyes weep and your heart bleed.
Daffodils is presented by Bullet Heart Club and Q Presents and plays at Q Loft until 29 March. Details see Q.