REVIEW: Next Big Thing Festival 2016 (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Matt Baker

Next Big Thing – Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith

[Start Strong. Subvert, Go Nuts]

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

Next Big Thing – Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith
Next Big Thing – Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith

Devised with the cast under the direction of Ahi Karunaharan, Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda is the most earnest and self-effacing theatrical portrayal I’ve seen about what it means to be young. Theatrical deconstruction can be ostentatious at best when used by practitioners who are still learning its rules, but Karunaharan never allows his cast to waste it, providing content as the fundamental necessity above form.

And from the mouths of babes comes lyrically sharp and theatrically economic content. Using their own, often extremely personal words, the cast don’t shy away from exposing themselves without any sense of ego. It would be easy for some, especially those of older generations, to dismiss these words as superfluous, to think they have nothing to learn from such comparatively unpractised lives, but to do so would only prevent them from sharing in such genuine moments, and perhaps even remember their own struggles.

From the moment the cast enter we are invited to join them on the theatrical journey, and their joy in performing proves difficult not to. The ensemble quality is respectably impressive, and while each performer brings their own unique voice to the stage, Anita Erikson, Michael Lough, and Tessa Rao are particular highlights.

Being young is hard. At a time in your life when you’re trying to discover who you are amongst the chaos of the world, it can be a difficult journey to navigate. Fortunately, the cast of Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda, among the absurdism, selfishness, and nihilism of the world, present their raw honesty with an ultimately optimistic view.

Angels (Re:Born)

Next Big Thing – Angels. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith
Next Big Thing – Angels. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith

Written by Tanya Muagututi’a and Joy Vaele, Angels (Re:Born) is the most scripted narrative of the evening. Think Josie and the Pussycats with a Pasifika style and religious undertones and you’re halfway through experiencing the show. That’s because the script is paint by numbers, but some of the numbers are missing, and the conflict lacks an organic flow.

Fortunately, the entire cast, especially Lyncia Muller, have excellent comedic skill, which carries the entirety of the show. Dylan Thuraisingham provides a strong yet subtle drive in the romantic sub-plot. Most importantly, director Lavinia Uhila, under mentoring by Bronwyn Bradley, mines both the comedic and emotional content within the script, and tunes these natural talents within her cast with surgical precision. The only disappointment in its presentation is the musical component, which starts with live mediocre instrumentals and ends with backing tracks.

While religion has arguable ownership on the origins of theatre, presenting the former in the latter requires stronger arguments than “I love God,” “Yeah, so do I, but not as much as you.” In the hands of less talented performers and direction, the script could easily be condemned. Angels (Re:Born) may be a play with young people in it, but the true objective of providing them with material in which they can theatrically engage has not been provided.

Bravado!

Next Big Thing – Bravado. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith
Next Big Thing – Bravado. An ATC event. Production photographs by Michael Smith

With four writers (Frith Horan, Natasha Hoyland, Beanie-Maryse Ridler, and Billie Staples) it would be easy for Bravado! to devolve into an incoherent mess, but, while there are obvious shifts in the lyricism of this existential piece, dramaturg Phoebe Mason, creative director Ben Henson, and director Nomi Cohen create a cohesively chaotic world in which the show exists. This, however, does not mean that all the stories are as effective as each other, but the few that do truly resonate.

Incorporating the use of Galaxy Bear, an intriguing alternative band, the show’s spectacle component swings from live music gig to installation art piece, with Dan Williams’ set making full use of the empty Basement mainstage, and Kate Burton’s lighting and fearless use of shadow aiding the narrative shifts – though sightlines are a consequential issue on occasion when the two elements are combined.

Framing the show, Horan provides an apt socio-political commentary for the cast, but it’s nothing that youth theatre hasn’t addressed before. A concert scene by Hoyland, feels like it would be more appropriate as a Facebook rant (albeit a justified one) rather than a theatrical piece of writing. It’s polemic, awkwardly delivered, and doesn’t go anywhere. Heading into darker territory with Ridler’s dialogue, it seems the cast cannot connect with either the naturalistic or existential writing. Fortunately, the shift to absurdism lifts the show dramatically with Staples’ Godot-esque bear and turtle, performed by Eden Li’a and Hannah Horsfield’s, followed by a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Jess Chambers’ Stringing Me Along performed by Horsfield.

While the order of the trilogy is appropriately programmed (start strong, subvert, go nuts), the potential awareness of emotional “maturity” by older members of the audience in the first piece is replaced by a physical one by the last. Physical discomfort, crowd psychology, and the invasion of personal space can all be effective methods of breaking through your audience’s initial apprehension, but standing for an hour can also detract from a show when it’s the third you’ve seen in one night.

Next Big Thing Creative Director Lynne Cardy and Festival Manager Whetu Silver have done an excellent job of bringing together a diverse handful of the new-wave of theatrical practitioners with a group of young theatre enthusiasts, who have worked both harmoniously and productively. If this collection of shows represents the future of New Zealand theatre, we are all in very safe hands of the makers of this aptly titled presentation.

Next Big Thing Festival is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until July 30. For details see Basement Theatre.

 SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Skyes of Shoulda, Angels, and Bravado!

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