REVIEW: The Factory (Auckland Arts Festival)

Pacific Side Story [by James Wenley]

The Factory Auckland Arts Festival
Our life started at The Factory!

The chance taken on Kila Kokonut’s Krew The Factory – “New Zealand’s first Pacific Musical” – should prove the biggest statement of this year’s Auckland Arts Festival. Dedicated to the parents and grandparents of the creatives and cast who moved to New Zealand from the islands, The Factory began as a modest workshop production in 2010. A 4 week sell-out season of the Musical at Mangere Arts Centre was one of the theatrical highlights of 2011. While the joyous heart remains, The Factory has been completely transformed into a polished, slick, and assured musical theatre offering. The Factory is now West Side Story meets Saturday Night Fever with a Pasifika flavour.

Broadway Musicals famously go through years of workshops and try-outs to get main-stage ready, and the creators have embraced the opportunity to do something similar on a smaller scale. It really is a substantially different production to 2011: they’ve taken a wrecking ball and built it up again from its foundations. An analogy can be made considering the set designs. The original production used the wide expanse of Mangere, with three towers of scaffolding standing in for The Factory, the actor’s sketched in life and a catchy musicality that made for an entertaining skeleton that suffered from a difficult third-act. Now, like Sean Coyle’s grungy, chunky, factory floor set, this new production is concentrated, and tightly built, more concrete. The setting is transferred to the 1970s during the first wave of Pacific migration to New Zealand. The Polynesian boss is now a palagi, emphasisng racial and cultural tension, and the boss’s daughter is now a son, enabling a new romantic plot to become central to the drama. Favourites from the Musical score remain, but many are dropped: there are five new songs, and others have been retooled. Original directors Anapela Polataivoa, Vela Manusaute and composer Poulima Salima are joined by Tama Waipara as Musical Director and Composer, West End director Jonathan Alver as Creative Producer, and a mostly new cast.

The spine-tingles begin immediately as the cast enter with in a soaring Samoan chorus that honours their ancestors – first acapella, with the band led by  Salima easing in – and their voices blend and energise the theatre.  Kavana (Aleni Tufuga) and his daughter Losa (Milly Grant-Koria) are farewelled on their journey to New Zealand – the land of plenty, milk and honey – where they seek work to support their village and family remaining at home.  They are embraced in the camaraderie of the islanders of Wilkinson Textiles Factory, who sing in ‘Working at The Factory’ that “here life is good, here life is free”. Their number include the spirited Fa-afine Misilei (Lindah Lepouh) and soft-militant unionist Mose (Taofia Pelesea). Their positive refrain is revealed however to be a myth that they keep telling themselves in the hopes that one day it might become true. The period’s institutional racism is represented by factory owner Mr Wilkinson (Ross Girven) who insists that his workers should “appear to be civilized” and use only English names. In English and Money he details his priorities – only English is to be spoken on the floor.  The character’s belief system is boo-hissingly nasty – he compares himself to a zookeeper to the monkeys – but Girven rises to the difficult task of making the character more than a one-bit villain: his prejudice is deeply ingrained, and his cruelty is tempered by his mourning for his deceased wife.

All characters in their own ways are trying to survive in this world. Wilkinson wants to make money so his son can achieve his potential. With money going back home, the workers can afford little else but bread. Their work status is under continual upheaval: they rely on their employer to renew their passports and papers lest they become overstayers. Their workplace actively censors their culture. Hope is tempered by their reality. The potential of ‘New new new new New Zealand’ is celebrated in one number (Losa is an “island girl with a hunger for the Maori world”) and the choruses refrain is one of the adoption of ‘Niu Sila’. In other numbers they ask “You don’t have this, we don’t have this. What do you have?”. Mose argues for their employment rights and safe workplace against an uncaring boss. He leads them in a powerful chant of ‘How Come?’. A transcendental moment comes in the ballad when Losa calls back to Samoa, “the pearl of the Pacific”, and the sounds and colours of Samoa are evoked by the cast, contrasting the drab grey world of the factory interior.

These themes of social and cultural poverty are channeled into a romantic plot involving Losa and Wilkinson’s son Edward (Edward Laurenson) who connect in the face of mutual parental opposition. Yes, it’s your classic Romeo and Juliet plot, or to be more precise in this context, that of West Side Story. Laurenson as a romantic lead is a more awkward Marius/Raoul. His operatic vocals serve him brilliantly, but his uncontrolled physicality and tendency towards facial over-reaction distracts. Grant-Koria’s Losa is a young powerhouse of talent.

I await the future opportunity to purchase The Factory cast album. The score is catchy and emotive, the style a potent sampling of musical theatre and opera with the unique core of Pasifika and a fun sprinkling of 70s era disco funk. Choreographer Amanaki Prescott Faletau embraces this era, with lots of Saturday Night Fever moves. It’s a remarkably well-rounded score in that it can sustain disco-fused songs like the entertaining and flirtatious ‘Kissy Kissy’, and a pathos-filled duet between the fathers like ‘Climb’.

By focusing on this important historical period in New Zealand and Pacific history, the creatives have been able to push the story towards a wider relevance. The specific brings the universal. It is a story of coming to a new land and the struggle to retain your roots. It is a story of rights and equality. It is a story of cross-cultural love. It’s a potent formula for Musical Theatre and an intentional positioning so that The Factory becomes a story, as Jonathan Alver in a post-show discussion put it, that “audiences all over the world will recognise”. There are big plans afoot, including interest in a film, and Alver is confident that this Musical is “going to go right around the world”. A laudable and not unrealistic goal: at times I could discern the action coming straight out of a Broadway stage. The Factory is feel good entertainment with an infectious spirit and a beating heart.

I have one caution: by focusing so wholly on the conventional cookie-cutter love narrative, life at the edges is lost. What makes this show unique is its time and wider social context. We’ve seen these young lovers so many times before, but what we haven’t seen before are these voices expressed on a Musical Theatre stage.

The Factory retains its final message that “this place is just a stop on our way home”. In this story, there is no redemption for one-part of the older generation, but instead looks forward to the next generation to make some change, and this message invites reflection about where New Zealand and the Pacific are right now.

It is exciting and exhilarating to have a musical like The Factory to call New Zealand’s own. It’s going to be so fascinating to see where it goes next, and how it goes next. This season of The Factory deserves to be just a stop on a much wider journey.

 The Factory is presented by Kila Kokonut Krew and plays at Q as part of Auckland Arts Festival until Monday 11 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival.

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