Like a movie made out of Yoga Mats and Paper Plates [by Jess Holly Bates]
It’s no secret that I have a raging crush on devised theatre. It is fast, and furious, and often absurd. Providing live experiences made under pressure, the material generated in a devising room operates in a dangerous state of flux, always under threat of performative disorder. This kind of theatre puts the act of making stories at its centre, by unpacking all of the cogs of the theatrical process onto the stage and forcing us to engage with them. We are demanded to use our imaginations, and the risk of doing so is thrilling, for both audience and maker alike.
The People Who Play With Theatre are one of the few young companies in Auckland consistently producing excellent devised theatrical works – see Puzzle (2015) and Just Above The Clouds (2014, 2013). All of Ben Anderson’s signature moves are here – his charmingly daggy love of pun, his taste for physical metaphor and as always, his chorus of puppet characters. For The Last Man On Earth, we are treated to the company of a talking mushroom, a depressive onion and a head of broccoli with a penchant for bullying (among other new friends).
The premise and tone of The Last Man On Earth (Is Trapped in a Supermarket) are all pegged in the title – I am prepared for a grand, banal narrative: this is the comedy apocalypse. Ryan Dulieu plays our hapless hero with gusto and wit, and his world is fleshed out by poker-faced duo Cole Jenkins and Chye-Ling Huang, both of whom are no stranger to Anderson’s wry brand of silly theatre.
Unlike Anderson’s previous work, The Last Man On Earth has a markedly cinematic quality. I use this word with some caution, but hear me out. I mean, yes, we are watching two humans in actor blacks darting about behind cheap aluminium shelves, animating a bunch of boxes, but the hallmarks of an Epic are all there. As Tom endures a journey into the lonely human condition, his tale is accompanied by a full soundtrack, provided by the disarmingly robust harmonies of Huang and Jenkins. There is a dramatic odyssey to the chilled foods section, to which Tom suffers the loss of two dear companions – his brother Gregg (a packet of green jelly crystals) and Uncle Ben (I won’t insult your intelligence on what foodstuff he represents). And the setting itself recalls a suite of film references. Anderson will love it when I call this a Night at the Museum meets the soulless wasteland of One Hour Photo, with the grandiose survivor narrative of I Am Legend. Where Will Smith had a German Shepherd, Dulieu has a Sunmaid raisin packet to talk to. It’s like watching a movie made out of yoga mats and paper plates.
The trouble is, I can feel the pressure cooker on this piece of theatre to compact something with enormous scope into 50 minutes. Perhaps it was my acute angle on the stage, but the set design afforded Dulieu little play space for his journey, and even more problematically, his monologues feel squeezed to make the most meaningful declarative space in the shortest time. I love it when Tom tells me about mundane necessities, needing to get through the cold meats before the generator turns off, but I am less interested in the tale of Joy-the-Elephant, a metaphor which suffers under a monologue format – at times obtusely placed amongst emotional exposition.
Anderson here belies his proven ability to apply a light deft touch to common existential crises and the story feels cut short – I could have watched so much more! I am left wishing Tom had had the indulgence to make discoveries and decisions in a slower, more bored fashion – the kind consistent with life under strip lighting. It is a great premise, that cannot be tackled in such a short space of time. Perhaps, indeed, I just want to see Anderson’s film adaptation – or at least the 90 minute Basement Main Theatre version of the play.
These narrative issues are very forgivable, however, under conditions of couscous percussion, gorgeous puppet work, and possibly the best walking-on-jelly impression I have ever seen. Ruby Reihana-Wilson’s lighting design is haunting and ridiculous in all the right ways, and every transition is so beautifully threaded I feel this is the real glory of the show – it is in the game of two actors pretending not to put down a yoga mat in full view of the audience. It is in the prophetic last words of the humble egg before it hurls itself to a theatre wall. It is in the ba-doom-chh of the live indie-pop soundtrack, providing double percussive lyrics (“you’re on your own now”) at every turn, belted from behind a set of storage shelves. To me, these serve The Last Man On Earth’s purpose best – they are the understated witticisms which act as survey pegs on the vast landscape of difficult (and necessary) matter that Anderson wishes to wrestle with.
Above all else, I am left feeling delighted that work like this is being made – humble, challenging and original. And I only lament the funding conditions that ratify its lonely existence – I wish I could meet more of its kind.
The Last Man on Earth (Is Trapped in a Supermarket) is presented by The People Who Play with Theatre and plays at The Basement until Nov 7. Details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe