Writer and director Jamie McCaskill has a knack for capturing the way real people speak, whether it’s the inhabitants of a woman’s refuge (Not in Our Neighbourhood) or a men’s prison (Manawa). In The Biggest, McCaskill turns his ears to the older Kiwi male. You know the one, the classic bloke, often reduced to a simple stereotype.
Set in small town New Zealand, this is a rural love letter with the intention of capturing these men as they are, rather than how they should be. They talk about women, race and sex without much regard for political correctness, censoring themselves for no one. In the wrong hands, these men would be insufferable, but team behind The Biggest capture the earnestness and honesty necessary to bring these men to life, filling them with the familiarity of a family member.
The plotting is well-crafted, though reliant on somewhat soap operatic devices, giving all the characters their own mini-arcs. The central plot device, a fishing competition, becomes an effective backdrop for these characters and their shenanigans. The four main men include: Stu (Tim Gordon), the surly one; Pat (Peter Hambleton), the rude joker; Poppa (Jim Moriarty), the naughty troublemaker; and Mick (Apriana Taylor), the silent but wise one. Despite the reductive descriptions, they all feel real thanks to the spot-on casting. The only character that comes close to really grating is Jan (Nick Dunbar) because of his obnoxiousness and forced attempts at masculine bravado. And even that is given eventual context.
McCaskill is well aware of the conservative flaws that these characters hold. But he acknowledges it through comedy rather than criticism. The only exception to this is when Cassie (Kali Kopae), daughter of one of them men, lambasts the backwater attitudes of the town and its people, and how she longs for a change in scenery. It’s the play’s most self-aware moment, even if it’s limited to lip-service that feels like the writer rather than the character speaking.
Lacking the obvious social value of last year’s Not in our Neighbourhood, The Biggest strives for something simpler. Sentimental without being saccharine, the subjects of the play might be overly romanticised, but it’s a heartfelt ode to a generation we don’t often see on our stages anymore. Tikapa Productions continues to broaden its scope in what and who New Zealand stories are about.
The Biggest plays at Q until 19 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.