Raising the Titanics, Raising a Theatre [by James Wenley]
The Maori Volcanics show band in their 60s heyday were arguably our most famous exports. With members included bonafide legends Prince Tui Teka and Billy T James, they took their unique mix of song, comedy, and Maori culture around the world to the USA, Vietnam, Israel, Europe, playing to royalty and appearing on the same bill as other bonafide legends like Sammy Davis Jr.
The Titanics are a band like the Volcanics, though they never existed. Playwright Albert Belz and Producer Tainui Tukiwaho (who coincidentally recently graced our small screen playing Billy T James himself) initially explored doing a play involving the likes of Howard Morrison, Tui Teka and James before going with the story of a fictionalised showband. It’s a clever idea, able to honour the legends without being restricted by biographical details, and to pay tribute to an essential piece of kiwi music history.
It’s a history I fully admit to being quite ignorant of, and by paying homage to the showband culture Raising the Titanics succeeds the most. For those like me, here’s a clip of Billy T James and Prince Tui Teka performing with the Maori Volcanics… enjoy.
Now back to the review…
Raising the Titanics, directed by theatre legend Raymond Hawthorne, is something of a local theatre success story for the rising Smackbang Theatre Company. I missed out on its short debut season at TAPAC last year (it sold out), and this year it’s been touring round the country before having the huge honour of being the opening season for the brand new Q Theatre’s main space Rangatira.
Albert Belz takes a ‘Where are they now?’ approach to the story. In the 1997 ‘present day’ journalist Aroha (Faye Smythe ), daughter of members Louie Devine (Wesley Dowdell) and Ripeka (Lana Garland) thinks that the real story of the Titanics will prove a media coup, but when her parents prove resistant to talking about the past, she seeks out the other former members Zac (Jamie McCaskill), Maria (Riomata Fox) and Api (Tama Waipara), learning much more about her own past than she expected. Flashbacks to the 1960s tell the rise and fall of the Volcanics, from manager Devine’s discovery of East Coast boys and full time shearers the ‘Twin Tikis’ to a fateful night in Saigon where it all went wrong. Band members play both the younger and older versions of their characters with little more than a commitment to a simple physical and vocal change, which helps suspend our disbelief.
The rise and fall of the band is a by the numbers and familiar tale, and in the first half there is little complexity of theme or character.
In many ways it could be the story of a band from anywhere, and we’ve seen this story many times before. There is a spark of tension between Maori and Pakeha worlds when the brothers and Dowdell first meet, but this is a thread not followed through, and I wonder about the role and place of Maori culture in this world of show biz entertainment. The songs kept me engaged, but I was hankering for more than the shallow stereotyped characters and story. I wanted to be swept up on their journey, but as soon as the band are together they are falling apart, and we share little of their collective success.
Thankfully, this was answered in the far stronger second half. With Faye Smythe being about the only non band member, the story relies on the strength of relationships between these characters, and here Belz deepens and complicates them, and not a moment too soon. Smythe meets more of the present day band members who shed new light on the past. Sad news from home makes playing one gig unbearable for one of the brothers, a moving and insightful moment. The breaking point for the band is a Saigon concert (Sammy Davis Jr himself is in the audience!), and the truth about what breaks up the band and the reason why Aroha’s parents don’t want to open up about the past is revealed, and to Belz’s credit it’s not at all what we think. The final reconciliation – to music, fittingly - is heartwarming.
Faye Smythe’s Aroha however never seemed to exist much beyond her narrative function of getting the band back together. At the back of Q she was the only cast member I strained to hear, and she needed more work to get attuned to the space.
The songs - a mix of classics, adaptions and originals – are an easy highlight. Mics and a drum kit stand perpetually onstage, ready for the talented performers to work their magic. McCaskill and Waipara have a great rapport, and their early song 'Battle of Casino' recounting the comic exploits of the Maori battalion brings the laughs. Waipara later comes out in the traditional dress of a wahine, though I expected more of these populist show band songs and shtick – the production certainly could have got away with them. There are a number of ‘serious’ songs (Going to a Funeral) that are beautifully sung and come in the right places for the story, and it is through these that I’m able to connect the most with the characters.
The Band members, most with strong musical background, play and sing live. Waipara, also the Musical Director, oozes talent, and has a rich vocal. McCaskill is cool and charming. Dowdell works the drums, and is the most low-key musician, but as an actor does the emotional heavy-lifting of the play, and is brilliant as the older, wounded Devine. Roimata Fox and Lana Garland soar in their featured songs, and all together the group rise to the demanding showband legacy.
Rise too did Q Theatre, Auckland’s brand new performance space. This was my first time within the venue and I can’t quite believe we have a new theatre of this quality. The foyer décor is a gungry sophisticated mash of flash lighting, the ornate, and exposed walls. In other words: It has personality! The staff and space handled well two sold out shows (Venus Is.. previewing upstairs). Sitting near the back of the raised seating block on the floor of the Rangatira space I still felt sufficiently close to the action, and there can’t have been many ‘bad seats’.
Acoustically it was sounding good (criticism of Smythe excepted), and was impressed when the opening number was performed sans microphones. On the flipside, two audience members at the top level of seats talked loudly throughout the show, their voices travelling across the theatre. Disrespectful, rude, distracting, but bodes well for the space!
Raising the Titanics is presented by SmackBang Theatre Co and plays at Q Theatre until 17 September 2011. More information at Q Theatre.
Sharu previewed Titanics and chatted to actress Roimata Fox in this earlier blog post.