REVIEW: The Next Big Thing Festival 2015 (Auckland Theatre Company)

Sit On It, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Georgina Titheridge, dir. Ben Crowder. Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography - Michael Smith

Inky, Pinky, Go! [by James Wenley]

The Next Big Thing Festival 2015
The Next Big Thing Festival 2015

The girl on the program cover is all wrong. With her exuberant expression and red sparkly jelly party hat, it suggests kids playing dress ups. Next Big Thing is anything but. Maybe it works as an image for their adult subscribers:  come and see what those kooky kids are up to. But as an image for teens and young adults? It’s infantilising. Auckland Theatre’s Company’s Youth Festival is cool and sophisticated. It might be one of the most important initiatives the company does, but they still haven’t learnt how to market it properly.

The imagery might be out of touch, but the shows aren’t. ATC’s youth shows have been running long enough that they are able to revive one of their previous hits from 2009, Sit on It by Georgina Titheridge (once again directed by Ben Crowder), for a new generation of youth coming through. Set in a women’s bathroom at a club (where you wouldn’t be caught dead in a red sparkly jelly hat), we get a new cast, new background beats, a new selfie stick, but the same parade of young women (and two boys) fuelled by alcohol and drama. Young and Hungry alumna Virginia Frankovich directs Bed by Benjamin Henson, devising with the cast all sorts of wonderful tangents in one of the bizarrest dreamscapes you can imagine. Inky Pinky Ponky, directed by Fasitua Amosa, is a confident debut from new writers Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke.

Bed, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Benjamin Henson; dir Virginia Frankovich.  Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography -  Michael Smith
Bed, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Benjamin Henson; dir Virginia Frankovich. Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography – Michael Smith

Bed is up first, and before we even make it out of the foyer, the cast tell us to lower our expectations. Enjoyment is prohibited. No Smiling allowed. That is some serious reverse psychology they are playing on us, because with this show, how can we resist? The hero of the play, Devin Grant-Miles, spends almost the entirety of the play in a large lumpy bed (his parents insist he keeps his hands above the covers). He’s not a very good hero – he doesn’t really do anything. In fact, nothing much really happens. This is the anti-play where the off-beat team of Frankovich and Henson try to subvert theatre conventions and our expectations at every turn. We get Russian soldiers, a talking dog, a song about beer, a talking sausage, and a chorus of men and women in suits who eye ball us through openings in the set. There is so much imagination and inventiveness in this piece.

The humour is often of the so-lame-its-good variety, and the scenarios are whimsical and whacky.  Mirabai Pease, Lizzie Morris, Caleb Wells, Raoúl Shahil, Matthew Kereama and Doug Grant get memorable moments, and special mention to Freya Boyle’s “Fat Waitress” for her flirtatious coffee routine.

The danger with Bed is weirdness for weirdness’s sake. The through-line, such as it is, is that our hero finds life happening to him. Suddenly he has a job, suddenly he is married. His problems, and stresses, remain intangible and distant. There’s potential to go further into the darkness, the hollowness that you feel when you can’t get out of bed, and we don’t quite hit full crisis point.

Inky Pinky Ponky, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke, dir Fasitua Amosa.  Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography -  Michael Smith
Inky Pinky Ponky, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Leki Jackson-Bourke, dir Fasitua Amosa. Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography – Michael Smith

Inky Pinky Ponky has the charm and smarts of a John Hughes film. You know the bones of this story – a new student arrives at school, she’s an outsider, there’s an unlikely romance with the school jock, and there is a school ball where everything will come to a head. Here, Lisa, who identifies as fakaleiti, is the outsider at Catholic School St Valentines, which has the highest PI population and truancy rate in the country. Khloe Lam Kam’s Lisa is combative and tough, someone who expects to deal daily with the ignorant cruelty that comes her way. High school can be hell, and it takes its toll. Rugby Captain Moses (Hannz Jackson) is one of her initial tormenters, but when he’s dared by his mates to bring her to the ball, he begins to learn a lot more about her, and himself too. Khloe Lam Kam and Hannz Jackson are incredibly charismatic performers, and together with the core team of Jahna Batt, Lyncia Muller, Isaac Ah Kiong, and Jono Soochon, they believably and fully inhabit their high-school characters. What finds!

Good teen comedy needs a memorable teacher, and here we have it with Edwin Beats ever optimistic Mr Jensen. It is refreshing to see the Christian figure championing diversity.

Though a little rough around the edges, Inky Pinky Ponky packs in the humour and drama, and rugby training and the school ball are highpoints in Fasitua Amosa’s direction.

Sit On It, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Georgina Titheridge, dir. Ben Crowder.  Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography -  Michael Smith
Sit On It, Next Big Thing 2015, Auckland Theatre Company. by Georgina Titheridge, dir. Ben Crowder. Dress Rehearsal Photographs ; photography – Michael Smith

Sit On It presents another believable slice of New Zealand life, and makes for an entertaining way to complete the evening. Titheridge’s script gives a snapshot of different ladies hoping, and often failing, to have a good night on the town. There are pretty girls, stoner girls, the introverted girl and so on. Rachel O’Connell is an outrageously good drunken train wreck, hair frazzled and makeup smeared, who lifts the show whenever she stumbles through the bathroom door. Because we don’t get long to check in with each one, most of the girls remain stereotypes, though Brittany Clary and Lauren McLay do good work with more fleshed out characters. Ben Crowder makes sure the pace doesn’t get bogged down, and exploits all the opportunities for toilet humour. The cast are having a great time, and we do too.

The technical aspects of the night, led by Christine Urquhart (set and costumes) and Rachel Marlow (lighting) are outstanding as usual. The working bathroom sets in The Basement upstairs, and the more abstract space downstairs for Bed and Inky Pinky Ponky couldn’t be more different, but are both very strong design statements.

Bed is the show for theatre people, who know the rules, and can appreciate how the company break them. Sit On it is for the young adults, or people who want to relive their wild nights. Inky Pink Ponky is for everyone. It has so much heart and an important message.

This review comes as the Next Big Thing Festival enters its final week of shows. At the end of Bed the cast apologise for their play. Caleb Wells deadpans “You should have gone to a film at the Film Festival instead”. My advice? Take a night off the Film Festival and make sure you see these shows. It is exciting to see so many new faces excelling on the stage. You can’t help but leave feeling hopeful.

The Next Big Thing Festival is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at The Basement until 25 July. Details see The Basement

SEE ALSO: Theatreview reviews by Lexie Mathewson – Bed, Inky Pinky Ponky, Sit On It

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