Meaty Drama, Sweet Musical [by James Wenley]
Tusk Tusk is a serious family drama, with lots to chew upon. ATC’s Associate Director Lynne Cardy describes it as ‘Arthur Miller for children’. Carried by a stunning performance from its three young leads, they must fend for themselves with absent authority figures.
Checkout Chicks is an unapologetically silly and entertaining Musical. It contains guns made out of Kumara.
One is a new kiwi Musical. The other is an international drama from an award-winning playwright. You’d be hard matched to find two such disparate works.
Next Big Thing is the next evolution of Auckland Theatre Company’s youth wing (a platform for actors and crew 15-25), which started with 2007’s Open Call Shrew’d production.Three years of Wellington import Young and Hungry Festival followed in 2009-2011. For the ecology of Auckland Theatre, it’s a commitment that is really proving dividends. Across the road at the Herald Theatre, positively potent Black Confetti by Eli Kent (himself moving up from Thinning in 2010’s Young & Hungry) features performances by Julia Croft (Open Call 07) and Virginia Frankovich (Young & Hungry 10+11).
Polly Stenham is a big thing. Aucklanders were first introduced to the British wonderkid’s work with Silo’s That Face (which she famously wrote at 19). Both plays deal with family in crisis, ramped up to the extreme, but still pulling off a delicacy of writing and observation that doesn’t feel forced . In Tusk Tusk, Stenham sets up a simple dramatic premise full of potential; siblings Elliot (16), Maggie (14), and Finn (7) are left home alone, in a new city, after their mother disappears. This isn’t the first time either – their mother has fragile mental health – and the trio know that if anyone finds out, they are likely to be separated. But they are sure Mum is going to come back by Elliot’s 16th birthday, and so we begin a sort of Waiting for Mother.
The play captures well the shifting grounds of childhood; at one moment you see them as wise, mature, forced to grow up fast and take the weight of the world on their shoulders, then the next moment, they are running around the stage like Monkeys, then another – hurt, sad, vulnerable, and very, very young.
The central trio of actors (slightly older than their characters) carry the play, and it is their work, with director Hera Dunleavy, that really makes this a triumph. Elliot demands Arlo Gibson takes him to some big places, and Arlo really allows us to come with him on the journey. He has a free unconscious physicality and a very watchable presence. Lucelia Everett-Brown’s Maggie is tightly wound and self-contained, trying to keep strong for her brothers, and fascinating each time we get a little slippage of how she’s really feeling. Then there’s Finn, shared between Flynn Allan and Arlo Maclean. Arlo on opening night was a natural charmer, and wins the audience with some impressive dancing and attitude.
They are joined by Nilianne Ualiu as Cassie, a love interest for Elliot, and adult cast members Mathew Norton and Michelle Leuhart who arrive late in the game, but make a big impression.
The first half takes a lot of time setting up the relationship and interplay between Elliot, Maggie and Finn, and having picked up early on the situation, I did find myself waiting for something to happen. It is a pace however that rewards us in the second half as the ‘lets play adults’ game self-destructs. It helps too have gained a deep layer of care for these characters, especially for Eilliot, who stops being able to handle the situation.
There are many times in the play where you feel like you want to shout out, to get up, to intervene, to help out. But the siblings have to negotiate it all themselves.
Familiarity breeds contempt, but also love. It is this conflict and contradiction that simmers under the play, heightened by the monster of teenagehood. Elliot feels smothered by his siblings, “They always need something… no such thing as privacy”, seeking out the attentions of Cassie at the expense of his family. But it is Eliott that fights the most for keeping them all together. Family, we’re told, “is suffering for each other”.
The conclusion is agony, edge-of-your seat stuff. There are revelations, but no easy answers, and the fate of the kids is left to our own ultimate conclusion.
So we’ve witnessed an emotionally demanding and heavy play. Why not see a Musical?
Checkout Chicks is a bright (and, welcomingly, un-intellectual) dance through a Supermarket aisle. Set in ‘Shop N Pay’ at a very kiwi Paru Bay, it is inspired by Rachel Callinan (book and lyrics) and Julia Truscott’s (music and lyrics) own experiences as former check-out chicks.
Here, the conflict is the classic underdog story; Paru Bay Shop N Pay’s future is threatened by the dastardly Peter Frackwick’s neighbouring mega-conglomerate Food Planet. To save the Pay, all hopes rest on Tashandra at the Checkout Chick of the year competition.
The opening song, in good Musical tradition, introduces us to the world of the Supermarket and the characters that work and shop there (‘We’re checkout chicks / swipe it good / have a nice day / at Shop N Pay!’). You have to keep up – not only are there a number of characters to meet, but the stage constantly shifts and moves before us like some big budget Musical; except here, big attractively painted scenic boxes on wheels are pushed around onstage. It’s stunning choreography, and that’s just the set (Amanaki Prescott’s choreography with the cast itself is all kinds of fun).
The best thing about this show is the ensemble work, played in a broad, slapstick, larger-than-life style. With a trend to ‘serious’ comedies, it’s a style I’ve missed, Director Simon Coleman finding lots of opportunities for gags. There are many highlights – under aged Ben (James Collyer) and Luke (Caleb Wells) who dress up in a series of more ridiculous disguises to try and buy alcohol (well done costume designer Caitlin Brogan). Nominally Jamaican Jah (Lane Twigden) and pregnant girlfriend Hope (Leilani Dave-Ekepati), who makes a great Diva. Exuberant and stressed boss Simon (Reuben Bowen). Kalyani Nagarajan’s old-timer Margaret is a real crowd-pleaser, displaying a real flair of timing. There’s even a Four Square Man (Daksh Juneja) and ensemble members Rachel Smith and Jo Olsen do great character work as some decidedly weird shoppers, and later as a conjoined twin (yes, this Musical is off its trolley!).
Then there’s Young & Hungry stalwart Daryl Wrightson (also Assistant Director), who enters and exits the stage tap dancing, a fabulously full of himself villain as Peter Frackwit - though I couldn’t work out who shined brighter: Daryl, or his camp suit? Amongst these creations, Katy Perry look-a-like Hazel Tansley Broad gives us a character we can relate to – conflicted by her love of her job and her friends, and the demands of her mother Dianne (Crystelle L’Aime), who wants her daughter to become a lawyer like her. Crystelle’s megalomaniac solo mother with a secret is also a standout, soaring in her featured song.
This Musical knows what is it, and goes to town on it: it’s from the school of a character saying, “Let me explain”, as a cue to break out into song. While it touches gently on the issue of social stigma of supermarket workers, it’s purely fun and unpretentious, here to have, and to give us, a good time. The musical numbers are gloriously kitsch – there’s some soul, some rap, a song about the difference between terrorism and heroism, and a warning against the perils of failing exams. A shelf full of songs then, with even some Punjabi MC and Mission Impossible thrown in by Musical Director Jason Te Mete. And if all that won’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will.
Special mention to Jessika Verryt, who excelled herself once again with an adaptable stage design for both shows, with choice of colour for both really capturing the respestive tones of the works.
Tusk Tusk and Checkout Chicks cater for quite different tastes. Both are great successes in their own genre and styles. They are unified by the talents of the young people up on The Basement stage, and the many behind-the-scenes. But take the shows together if you can, they make a great combination – Tusk Tusk the meaty issues drama, Checkout Chicks the sweet desert afterwards.
And I’ve still got one more to look forward to next week – SLEEPOVER – the Midnight Snack.
The Next Big Thing Festival is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 21 July. More details see The Basement.