[Not just Fluff]
Like Toa Fraser’s classic two-hander Bare, Looking at Stuff in Clouds is a character study of a place through the lives of its inhabitants. Instead of Auckland City, though, we are relocated to small town New Zealand. Performed by co-writers Donna Brookbanks and Shoshana McCallum, it offers a humorous insight into our less metropolitan corners.
We move in a gentle, unhurried pace from the likes of neighbouring farmers, visiting cityfolk and other recognisable characters. If they’re often presented as familiar stereotypes the end results, when successful, defy easy mockery, often straddling the line between parody and character study. Even when it’s not always successful at juggling both tones, Clouds unfolds with theatrical honesty, unencumbered by excessive design elements on its mostly bare stage, and putting the spotlight on its stars. This somewhat amorphous structure to the play is fitting too, even if it can feel dramatically inert at times.
The lack of overarching narrative results in a play driven by quiet revelations rather than big reveals. It’s not necessarily conflict that drive the scenes, but often the communication breakdown between individuals, small talk, gossip, misunderstandings and awkward interactions. Though a stronger directorial presence would benefit the play’s sense of cohesion and elevate it beyond its initial appearance as a series of random sketches, there are plenty of poignant truths to be found beneath the recognisable characters and comedic situations that make up for it.
These slices of life might lack stakes but they’re not without their surprises either. In a daring absurdist tangent, the story takes us to a dialogue between a candle and usb stick. It’s absolutely bizarre and unexpected, and despite not fitting obviously with the play’s established setting, it resonates on a deeper level with the existential anxieties underscoring the whole piece. A less creative but arguably more moving conversation between an aging couple also displays an uncanny ability to mix laughter with emotions. Less successful are the scenes which are overly dependent on joke after joke because they reduce the characters into walking cartoons.
If the thread connecting the scenes together can feel dramaturgically thin, the play is held together by its performers who display equal charm and versatility in their countless characterisations. It’s not just their comedic chops on display, but there ability to find truth in what could be obvious stereotypes. Not exactly a shocking subversion or deconstruction of the familiar, but they successfully poke fun at what we know to peel back deeply human layers. You could say the beauty of the show is the same as the act of cloud watching: simple, sweet and sometimes surprising.
Looking at Stuff in Clouds plays until 5 August. Details see The Basement.