Try, but no conversion… [by Sharu Delilkan]
Admittedly I was apprehensive about reviewing this show because rugby is definitely not my forte. However I decided to go for it in the same spirit that the playwright of The First Asian AB (FAAB) Renee Liang chose to write the play. But just in case I surrounded myself with the right people for the show – two fellow Malaysians as well as Alex Broun, a screenwriter and one of the world’s leading ten-minute playwrights, who also happens to be a renowned rugby journalist.
Enough about me, and onto the show.
The two hander, where two actors play a multitude of characters, stars Singaporean Ben Teh (The Bone Feeder, Odd Socks) who plays Malaysian-born Willy Long who comes to study in New Zealand and Samoan Paul Fagamalo (Pollyhood in Mumuland, Romeo and Juliet, The Factory, Where We Once Belonged) whose character is Samoan-born Kiwi Mook.
Luckily for me the show is not purely about rugby but about two friends growing up, who also happen to be immigrants.
The NZ-born Chinese playwright’s writing skill shines through with the believable relationships she’s crafted as well as the dynamics between Long and his host family the Felisis. The well-developed characters provide great insight into the lives of both migrant cultures.
And although the premise of the play is definitely intriguing and promising, I must admit that I found Long’s journey aspiring to play rugby and then to become an All Black a little short, and somewhat flimsy. And his almost sudden yearning to be an All Black could be construed as simplistic and even unrealistic. But this is forgivable especially since the play is billed as being in its developmental season. I for one am really looking forward to seeing Liang take the show to the next level.
Both Teh’s and Fagamalo’s accents are great for the most part except when they play each other’s mothers– these could do with a bit more work. But again that’s just a minor glitch and totally understandable being part of a developmental season.
With regards to the rugby section of the show, I decided to cop out and defer Broun’s expertise.
He said and I quote:
“I think the play has great potential and I would love to see its next incarnation. However, I feel that Willy’s journey to becoming an All Black is too simplistic. In reality the road to becoming an All Black is a long and complex one. I also feel that the rugby terminology needs a bit of work – something that can be easily fixed with a bit of research or in consultation with anyone well-versed in the games’ jargon. For one reason or another Renee is tapping into the world of Rugby in her play but for FAAB to be totally authentic she needs to make the language of Rugby in the play, in the commentary and coaching scenes especially, far more accurate than it is now.”
The comical dialogue had the audience in stitches for a large portion of the evening, while cleverly driving home the trials and tribulations of immigration.
Fagamalo should be commended for his seamless changes between the numerous characters. His ability to make each of the 11 characters – Willy’s mum Mrs Long; Willy’s best friend Mook; the host mother Margie Willis; eight-year-old Sassie; local rugby diehard in his 60s Monty; politically-correct Timaru High teacher and dean Mrs Mowbray; Mook’s father Mr Felisi; Mooks three sisters Faith (6), Hope (4), and Love (2); and 13-year old Georgie – is truly impressive. They are extremely well-defined with the slightest gesture, change of facial expression and accent. To be honest his energetic performance left me a little winded at the end of the evening.
The live music (Andrew Correa) on stage was a great third character that added to the dramatic effect of the play. My favourite part was the sound effects perfectly timed to simulate driving. And of course the all too familiar Rocky theme The Eye of the Tiger is the perfect complement to the training scene.
Memorable lines include “the teacher thinks I’m exotic” and “your English is really good”.
Director Edward Peni and dramaturg Oscar Kightley (bro’Town) also deserve special mention for their creative choices and use of the upstairs Basement space, as well as for maintaining the show’s excellent pace – something you rarely see on opening night.
The First Asian AB is part of the Real NZ Festival and plays at the Basement Studio until 18 September 2011. More information at the Basement.