REVIEW: Paper Planes (Basement Theatre)

Review by Tim George

[A dog, a moon and a Belarusian walk into a bar…]

Late one night, Fran (Holly Hudson) lies awake in bed while her neighbours party the night away. Unable to sleep, her insomnia is exacerbated by her canine companion Dog (a superlative performance by puppeteer Tamara Gussy), who insists on playing while her Belarusian landlady, Mrs Withers (another puppet performed by Phoebe Borwick), waits in the wings to add to her misery.

When a mysterious stranger (Katie Longbottom) barges in through her bedroom window, Fran is forced to confront the insecurities which are plaguing her…

Written by Aaron Richardson and directed by Cole Jenkins, from a production standpoint Paper Planes is one of the most visually eye-catching productions I have seen this year. The fact that it is playing in the Basement Studio rather than one of Auckland’s larger venues makes it all the more impressive.

Much of the credit goes to Poppy Serano’s set design, and Amanda Tito’s atmospheric lighting design – focusing on the key details, she manages to evoke Fran’s bedroom (represented by a bedframe with a window on one side), as a space that both protects and oppresses her. The set design also integrates a fable about why dogs howl at the moon (conveyed through shadow puppets) through the shear sheeting which acts as a screen.

The performances are strong across the board – Hudson is an empathetic lead, conveying unspoken trauma with a minimum of spoken exposition. Longbottom’s performance as Moon is a neat misdirect, her playful, slightly aggravating party animal slowly revealing layers of empathy that give Fran a chance to open up.

As far as the (half) non-human cast go, Phoebe Borwick has a great time as the Roald Dahl-esque caricature of the landlady.

Maybe it is my canine preferences coming through, but the standout performer for me was Gussy’s performance as Dog. Small dogs can be the most adorable and the most aggravating things on the planet, and Gussy’s movements and sounds are perfectly pitched. Struck by cabin fever, the little animal tries to needle its owner to play or let it outside (so that it can immediately demand to be let back in). Fran’s interactions with Dog add a patina of gentle comedy to a rather dark but ultimately uplifting story of a woman learning to love herself.

Despite its obvious strengths, Paper Planes took a beat to settle into my brain. I saw it opening night, and left feeling like something was missing. The show it reminded me of the most was Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu’s The Black from a few years back. That show felt like it ended too early, and I had a similar reaction to Paper Planes – it has a clear ending, yet the build-up to that ending is lacking.

Fun yet weighty, contained yet expansive, extravagant yet (mostly) functional, Paper Planes is a terrific little show. I wouldn’t mind a sequel.

Paper Planes plays at Basement Theatre until 6th October. 

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