REVIEW: Everything She Ever Said to Me (Scratch New Writing)

The pain of everyday [by James Wenley]

Have fun be happy

Jo’s everyday interactions are characterised by a sort of agony. As played by Kayleigh Haworth, she’s an intriguing study of indecision, awkwardness, tension and a constant internal torment about what to reveal, keep to herself, and behave.   

Keziah Warner’s new play Everything She Ever Said to Me, speaks to the painfulness of conversation and the tyranny of the mundane. She’s teamed with Director Benjamin Henson, who arrived in Auckland from Britain around the same time as Warner, and have made a welcome contribution to our theatre scene, with their Scratch New Writing initiative, who they produce this work under.

The marketing material, containing cool stickers on the rules of life –  “Get a job.”, “Fall in Love”, “Pay taxes”, “See the world” “Have fun Be happy” – suggests a examination of contemporary societal pressure and twenty-something milieu. The play itself is more oblique, never quite catching a firm idea of what it wants to say about it all. The external pressures on Jo are largely assumed, the play initially revolving around the struggles, decisions and indecisions of her personal existence, than any wider comment.

Jo works in phone sales at Atkinson Mobility Company, cold-calling the elderly to get them to buy their products. She’s recently returned to work after taking six months off, for reasons she doesn’t like to talk about. As noted, Haworth plays her as a bundle of erratic energy.

Curiously no-one really seems to notice this behavior. Jo’s Mother Sarah, a poised Jen Wolfe, calls and checks up on her constantly, though she skirts around anything much deeper than what she is up to and if she packed her lunch. Jo’s work-mate Adam (Jordan Blaikie), a goofy guy with vague travel plans, and may or may not be into her. He doesn’t seem to take in her strange behavior, too busy perhaps worrying about himself. A dinner date between them, after Jo impulsively asks him out, is awkward to the extreme.

The play shifts tones often, like Jo, never quite deciding what it wants to be. There’s some fun comic satire sending up call centers during an extended sequence where both Jo and Adam unsuccessfully try to sell the company’s mobility scooter and stair rails to a series of elderly prospects. Jo’s next sales pitch to one Mr Andrews (Kerr Inkson) begins in this mode, as she desperately tries to sell to a gentleman who has little interest, but as he begins to talk about his life (he’s a widower after the death of his wife), a small gleam of a connection forms.

The play really gets interesting when Jo visits Mr Andrews in person to deliver a work pamphlet. He’s honest, and will tell people exactly what he thinks with a lovely unassuming quality. Held together by Inkson’s quiet strength and inner direction, there’s a lovely sentimental moment when Mr Andrews slowly lays out a set of China he hadn’t used since the death of his wife.

It’s a special moment, but feels out of place set against the soapy Jo and Adam story, the outcome of which you can see coming from a mile away.  Act Two’s set-up involves a full roast lunch at Sarah’s house, which for plot reasons sees Adam trying to  pretend to Sarah to be Jo’s boyfriend, without his own girlfriend Nicole (Lisa Sorenson), who has been invited along too, clueing in. It’s a good farce set-up, and Warner literally goes to lunch once again sending up small talk. The problem for me is that it plays as a very conventional sequence, a disappointment after the more complex set-up that the early sections of the play seemed to promise. The resulting revelations between Jo, Adam, Sarah and Nicole  aren’t as weighty as the climax would dictate, though Benjamin Henson’s precise direction here is excellent, making watchable two conversations loudly talking over each other. Everyone gets their say – it’s not clear whose story is most important here and Jo herself gets a little lost on the way.

Throughout all this, I could barely take my eyes off Kerr Inkson, an unexpected guest at the lunch, who proceeded to calmly and methodically eating his lunch, before standing and delivering a class act monologue that puts everything into perspective.

It was this character that felt the strongest and most complex, the beating heart of the play, and a solid counterpoint to the mania surrounding him; Haworth’s curious acting behavior not quite matching any subsequent revelations about her character. As it currently runs, the play feels long, longer still in the stifling Basement Studio (though full credit to Benjamin and Keziah, who personally greeted you at the door with an attractively bright glass of water. The program suggests it can double as a fan). Several scenes outstayed their welcome, covering the same ground rather and pushing us along.  

Jessika Verryt’s set design and painted feature wall make the Studio sing, and attuned light and sound design from Ruby Reihanna-Wilson capture Jo’s erratic nature, hurtling us one from interaction to the next, suggesting a focus and pace that for the rest of the play is worth emulating.

Everything She Ever Said to Me is presented by Scratch New Writing and plays at the Basement Studio until 21 April. More details see The Basement.

[Check out Rosabel Tan’s fascinating interview with Director Benjamin Henson]

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe

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