REVIEW: Jingle Bellethon Telethon (Basement Christmas Show)

Review by Irene Corbett

It’s Christmas. And every day Australia steals more of our Kiwi kids.

But you, kind caller, can stop this! Donate today to the Jingle Bellethon Telethon and we will send a parcel of Christmas kiwiana to remind our Kiwi kids of just what it means to be a Kiwi! 

Created by Janaye Henry (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa) and Bea Gladding (Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi) with co-writer Jamaine Ross (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu), the 2023 Basement Christmas Show is a theatrical Favourites box. The Jingle Bellethon Telethon offers a delightful mock of the classic telethon format as the hapless team endeavour to bribe Kiwi kids with Christmas parcels in an effort to keep them in New Zealand, but ultimately the production struggles to balance all the moving parts contained in a truly satisfying manner – one too many Cherry Ripes for this reviewer. 

The action is centred on the filming of the telethon and this generates the usual amount of  interpersonal drama. Batanai Mashingaidze as the Floor Manager is effervescent – the role is delivered with refreshing vocal and physical energy. The soon revealed gentle rivalry between Mashingaidze as Floor Manager and Jaackie Black as the Stage Manager elicits knowing laughter from the audience. Ducking between them is Janaye Henry, who is running sound and toting an oversized and overstuffed fabric boom mic; Sean Rivera is stationed to stage right, almost fenced in by a keyboard, synths, hanging chimes, a saxophone, and boxes of other enticing instruments; Talia-Rae Mavaega and Jake Arona glitter as the hosts for the airing; and Brady Peeti dials it to eleven as resident diva ‘Ria Karaoke’.

From this pool of talent a few further characters are produced as the entertainment segments for the telethon – including a cruise ship comedian who has seen better years, and a motivational magician. All of the performances make for engaging viewing but there is a lack of balance in the utilisation of the cast’s skills. In particular the hosts have barely any airtime and become almost obsolete over the course of the play’s action. This is a real pity given the great rapport Mavaega and Arona possess, and the ways in which their characters might have been used to add to the exceedingly cheerful, and at times absurdist, tone of the piece. 

This imbalance extends to prop and design decisions. Some elements are ingenious and delightful -for example the oversized fabric props (goodness knows how many hours of sewing went into constructing those) -while others seem to have fallen by the wayside. The central element of a telethon, the phone, is a piddly iphone on a pedestal at the back of the stage. With the usually less-than-desirable Basement mainstage sightlines further obstructed by the cabaret style festive seating in place of the front rows, this black-screened hand-held device would immediately disappear from view if interacted with. A similar contrast in size, and thus producing the same ‘one tiny phone’ gag, could have been achieved by simply making a tiny fabric rotary phone and sticking the occasional spotlight on it. 

But perhaps I am just being a Grinch. There are plenty of laughs to be had, there’s a superb yet harrowing reminder of Chriscos past, a smattering of guest stars, and it’s worth paying for a ticket just to hear Brady Peeti sing – they should have given her the mic more often! 

Jingle Bellethon Telethon plays the Basement Theatre from the 5th to the 22nd of December 2023

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