Oo hoo hoo hoo… [by James Wenley]
Poor Boy is a song written by kiwi music royalty Tim Finn and released in 1980 on Split Enz’s True Colours album. The lyrics ‘My love is alien, I picked her up by chance / She speaks to me in ultra-high frequency’ are apparently about a ‘poor boy’ who falls in love with an alien, who he can only hear through radio interference. Righty. It seems a strange choice then for this song to become the title and main musical theme of Poor Boy, a play that makes much use of Tim Finn’s music, about a man killed in a traffic accident who returns 7 years to the day of his death in the body of a 7 year old boy.
Poor Boy, the play, begins surreally. A tricycle moves seemingly by itself. A man walks in wearing a large Zebra mask. This is Danny (Roy Snow) the dead man who will inhabit the body of Boy (Finn McLachlan at my performance, who alternates the role with Mitchell Hageman). He sings the titular track in an almost low key way, the music never quite bursting into the full Split Enz version that we know. An intentional choice.
Poor Boy, a collaboration between playwright Matt Cameron and composer Tim Finn, had seasons in Melbourne and Sydney in 2009 where they apparently aimed to replicate closely the original versions of Finn’s songs, which include Into the Water, Ghost Girl and Unsinkable. In Auckland Theatre Company’s version, under director Raymond Hawthorne and Musical Director John Gibson, the songs and play have been re-jigged. Gibson’s versions adhere less strictly to the originals, a decision, along with removing the interval and tightening the play, I imagine strengthens the experience considerably (John Gibson says they felt the songs needed to be bought more into the world of the play), especially since the connections between some songs and plot is tenuous at best, though points for making Poor Boy’s thematic impossible love and radio references work.
The jukebox musical (think Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You) is an oft-criticised musical theatre form that sees a story shoehorned into an existing body of musical work. Poor Boy seems to me to be a thinking man’s jukebox musical, integrating the moods and themes of the chosen songs from Tim Finn’s oeuvre into the story. Only one song ‘Out of this World’ is written especially for the play, and it shows, fitting directly with the story and imagery. The production is very keen to distant itself from being a musical - it’s billed as a ‘play with songs’ - but as I see it still firmly operates within this genre, albeit in a higher-brow way. The songs often reveal key psychological information about the characters (Sophia Hawthorne’s widow Clare as a Ghost Girl) and the mood and feelings of the character, even if they don’t always directly relate to the plot. They are superbly done, thanks to Gibson’s arrangements, the singers, and band members Brett Adams, Maree Thom, and Chris O’Connor.
It is a story that needs the songs, more than the songs need the story. The music elevates what could otherwise be a very standard Twilight Zone type plot, the haunting feeling of some of the songs doing more for the atmosphere than the text itself could. After the initial takeover by Danny of the 7-year-old boy, things are kept interesting with the interactions and conflicts between the members of the Prior family, who are still grieving for Danny years later, and The Glass family, where the marriage of boy’s mother and father (Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Andrew Grainger) is in disintegration. Matt Cameron’s writing has a wonderful poetic quality which complements Finn’s songs, with many a heady idea and turn of phrase. There are several narrative twists through the play that felt less assured, and the final dramatic revelation doesn’t carry as much emotional weight as it should, getting lost in the mechanics of the plot and onstage action.
Poor Boy has an extremely high class cast with welcome appearances from regular performers Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Andrew Grainger and Sophia Hawthorne. It has been too long since we last saw the excellent Rima Te Wiata on the Auckland stage, and she gives Prior matriarch Ruth much heart and sympathy. Lauren Porteous demands attention as teen Sadie, though her performance reflected the cast as a whole not quite seeming to settle on one performance style – larger than life or nuanced and naturalistic? Danny is a difficult role, but Roy Snow rises too it. The characters in the play see boy speaking to them, but the audience sees Danny, Boy watching silently from a chair or a swing side of stage. This devices allows the ‘boy’ to remember his sexual escapades with his wife, but I wonder if some moments could have worked better if they had been delivered out of the mouth of a 7-year-old boy, and we saw what the other characters saw.
I haven’t mentioned the design work much yet, which is a glaring omission. Tracey Grant Lord’s set is a magic world that has been created in front of our eyes, with a heavy smear of the New Zealand Gothic. A row of seagulls, wings outstretched, are affixed over the stair case, flying nowhere. Philip Dexter’s light design works within this space superbly, using tones of blue and grey which cast just the right enough amount of light.
It has taken me a while to write this review. Part of this was real life getting in the way, but part of this too was that I didn’t feel like I could write it straight it away. It’s a performance and story about grief, regret, pain and moving on that doesn’t wash straight off, still revealing parts of itself days later. It’s not perfect, but that’s what makes it so interesting, and so frustrating.
Poor Boy is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at the Maidment Theatre until 9th April 2011.
More information at the Auckland Theatre Company website.
A special charity performance of Poor Boy for Christchurch's Court Theatre is on Wednesday 30th March, 6:30pm.