REVIEW: Flightless Birds (Catalyst Theatre Company)

Flightless Birds
Flightless Birds

These Kiwis can Fly! [by James Wenley]

Flightless Birds
Ah, the Big OE.

Flightless Birds – clever name. It’s a new play from Catalyst Theatre Company that follows three mates (and a female intruder) on the night before they are all meant to fly off to Europe for their big OE.

Ah, the OE. The quintessential rite of passage for all self-respecting New Zealanders. As Simon (Colin Garlick) observes, fellow kiwis think there is something wrong with you if you haven’t at some point in your twenties hopped on a plane and gone off to see the world. But as Director Jonathan Hodge notes in the program, “Why should you go away just to learn about you are?”.

Playwright Sam Berkley, who himself is about to embark on his OE, has a written a play about the hopes, fears and realities of flying away that is snortingly funny, but is also a play that is as close to the bone about ‘my generation’ and the NZ experience that I have seen in a long time. Roger Hall can sometimes be a dirty word in NZ theatre (tall poppy?), but this play struck me as an edgy Roger Hall for 2011, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Bill (Ben Van Lier) has long been the long-suffering, level-headed one who has kept his trio of guy mates together, and has done all the organising for their OE trip. Easy going Simon (Colin Garlick) is along for the ride, but only for a month as he doesn’t want to stuff up his work prospects. We all know someone like Joops (Sam Berkley) who rounds out the trio. He is crazy, hedonistic, loves taking pictures of spew and takes zero responsibility for things.  Joops won Lotto a couple of years back, and has been living up the millionaire’s life ever since – a dangerous combination of personality and money! The easy blokey dynamic is shattered with the introduction, naturally, of a woman. Joops arrives with week old girlfriend Ashley (Chelsea McEwan Miller), who he has invited on the OE without telling his mates. But Ashley, it turns out, already knows the other two guys – she used to work with Bill, and she and Simon have history…

It’s a familiar scenario, but one filled with much potential drama, and the play takes its characters in some surprising directions. Those characters are very familiar too, but that is very much part of the charm. That’s ‘us’ out there on the stage. Ben Van Lier’s straight man Ben is a solid, grounding presence, and his journey is great to watch. Colin Garlick has excellent comic instincts as Simon, and Sam Berkley’s Joops is a dynamic train-wreck of a performance! As for the Yoko Ono-esque Ashley, Chelsea McEwan Miller is a powerhouse, especially when laying into the men.

 The alcohol and drugs come out almost immediately, and the group soon disintegrates before having even stepped onto the plane. The actors,Kate Burton’s flashing lights, and Rodney & The Sly Devil’s original  zeitgeist tune “Get Drunk” come together for a wickedly funny theatrical montage of heavy drinking. Yep, very kiwi.

The play isn’t long, running just over an hour. It never drags; the exposition, entrances and exits and character revelations I thought were all paced perfectly.

Catalyst Theatre aim to create ‘energetic, high quality, new theatre, for generations X, Y and Z’. They have more than succeeded here, and this production deserves to have life beyond this first season. I hope Sam Berkley doesn’t stay overseas for too long!

Flightless Birds, presented by Catalyst Theatre Company, plays at the Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre Complex until 21st April.

More information at the Maidment Theatre Website.

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