REVIEW: Tom Scott’s Ma & Da Season: Joan and The Daylight Atheist (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Matt Baker

[In the Light of Day]

Why this play, and why now? It’s the question in every funding application and at every first production meeting that, whether literally asked or not, must be considered, and one for which I often struggle to find an answer when Auckland Theatre Company releases their annual programme. Presented in repertoire as the Ma & Da season, Joan (2018) and The Daylight Atheist (2002) are anecdotal narratives reflecting on the lives of writer and political satirist Tom Scott’s mother and father respectively. As Danny Moffat and the titular Joan regale us with their stories, actors Michael Hurst, and Ginette McDonald and Kate McGill evoke the fiery Irish temperaments of the immigrant protagonists as they navigate their new lives in New Zealand.

The problem, however, with presenting Scott’s scripts now, is that when considering them through either a masculine or feminine lens in the current climate, the effect of any ‘woke’ presentism is incompatible with the nostalgia on which the plays rely to resonate. Danny Moffat lacks connection, a common symptom of toxic masculinity, but instead of being a pitiable product of society, his humour exposes him to be little more than simply a selfish man who abuses those closest to him. And while the Angry Young Men of 1950s Britain have their place in theatre history, there is a loss in any attempted translation to New Zealand culture, because we simply do not have the same depth of political and social turmoil in our history to justify such egoism. At least Joan provides us with a measure of how far feminism has come.

As one of the country’s most prolific actors, a life of successfully treading the boards has provided Hurst with flawless stagecraft, but with it a performative control that can inhibit the emotional freedom for a truly cathartic release. That’s not to say that Hurst cannot provide the pathos required in the dog-eared moments of the script, such as a moving eulogy, but, when stifled by conventional, unimaginative, and boring direction from ATC Artistic Director Colin McColl, the performance is restricted to technique that relies predominantly on the external.

While the eponymous daylight atheist uses others as the targets of his humour, self-deprecation is Joan’s comedic mode – understandably so when the two are considered in tandem. Unfortunately, laughs seems to be director Tim Gordon’s only concern, and while McDonald’s timing and delivery has the audience roaring, there is no promised equal measure of crying, with patrons riding the subsiding wave of giggles through mediocre moments of otherwise heart-wrenching words.

In addition to the lack of connection between text and emotional content, is the discordance in McDonald and McGill as a single character. There is little congruity in the respective performances, and while vocal and physical characteristics alter with age, these traits are often inherent. As a result, the drawcard of seeing mother and daughter not only onstage together, but also inhabiting the same character, simply doesn’t pay off.

Joan and The Daylight Atheist are not plays to be seen, they are scripts to be read. This is not a suggestion that the works be put in memoriam, simply that ATC’s productions offer nothing more than the texts themselves. The only possible interest that could be derived from the productions would be deciding in which order to see them, as hearing one character’s perspective of events after the other’s would inevitably provide a dramatic irony that would influence an audience’s view on both parties. Either invest in both, or save yourself the trip.

The Daylight Atheist and Joan play at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 23 February.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Add to favorites
  • email

4 Comments on REVIEW: Tom Scott’s Ma & Da Season: Joan and The Daylight Atheist (Auckland Theatre Company)

  1. Although I have only seen the original Wellington seasons of Joan (at Circa) and The Daylight Atheist (at Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre, then at Downstage), I feel compelled to take issue with a couple of Matt Baker’s statements (above).

    “Why this play, and why now?” is certainly a fair question to ask but when is it ever irrelevant for one generation (still living) to revisit the historical, cultural and genetic imperatives that informed their very being, or for the next generations to gain a deeper insight into their grandparents’ or great grandparents’ lives and times?

    The particular stories of the actual Joan and fictionalised Danny (Tom snr in real life) are so truthfully wrought they cannot help but resonate into the personal memories and current experiences of anyone’s childhood and adult relationships with parents, through recognition, by comparison or in contrast.

    “The problem, however, with presenting Scott’s scripts now,” Matt Baker continues, “is that when considering them through either a masculine or feminine lens in the current climate, the effect of any ‘woke’ presentism is incompatible with the nostalgia on which the plays rely to resonate.”

    It is an insult to audiences to suggest these plays can only “resonate” at a level of “nostalgia” and/or that they need representations of past experiences to be filters through a ‘woke’ lens in order to find them relevant. While each parent and Tom Scott’s relationships with them are entirely different, the universal need for all adult children to move on from self-preserving subjectivity to objective and compassionate understanding of their parents means we can respond at a much deeper level of humanity than mere nostalgia.

    “Danny Moffat lacks connection, a common symptom of toxic masculinity, but instead of being a pitiable product of society, his humour exposes him to be little more than simply a selfish man who abuses those closest to him,” Baker opines. “And while the Angry Young Men of 1950s Britain have their place in theatre history, there is a loss in any attempted translation to New Zealand culture, because we simply do not have the same depth of political and social turmoil in our history to justify such egoism.”

    Has Baker never heard of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout; of the stresses inherent in attempting to build families, societies and a healthy-cum-wealthy nation in the wake of two World Wars and an influenza epidemic; of the conservative conditioning that relegated woman and men to very restricted gender roles?

    It has always been crystal clear to me that Danny’s alcoholism and consequent toxic behaviour stems from being brought down earth, from his life as a pilot, to becoming trapped in a forced and loveless marriage in an alien country’s rural wasteland, described by Scott as “stupefyingly dull … [where] life didn’t just pass you by, it crossed to the other side of the road when it saw you coming.” Here’s how I described Danny state of being in my National Business Review critique of the 2002 production:

    “Feeling disenfranchised from the age of eight, after being torn from his large family fold to live with a lonely widowed aunt, Danny’s war-time escape into the airforce and a cushy posting to Winnipeg fails to rebuild his self-esteem. Back in Ireland, an unplanned pregnancy from a brief encounter with a fecund Ballybunion lass seals his fate as a put-upon father and provider, forever obliged to a fast-growing and inevitably demanding family.

    “Seeking a new beginning in New Zealand, a sepia photo has deluded him into believing the expectant wife he left behind is a Sophia Loren look-alike. But his eager and unexpected arrival in the berthed ship’s cabin, only to find a temporarily toothless wife (doomed to the nickname “Dingbat”) and literally shit-scared son (“Egghead”), shatters all their romantic illusions.

    “Danny’s denial of his dependants’ needs and his escape into pubs from Marton to Wanganui only deepens his loathing of them and himself, and widens the chasm between them. This is the final irony. He robs himself of the very family life he was denied as a child. Although they’re only a wall away, he is as remote from them as his Aunt’s house was from his mother.”

    My review concluded: “The creative team’s alignment on giving this production an everyday feel allows the humour and pathos to take us by surprise. In the aftermath I am not alone in feeling touched by the play’s inherent compassion; by a sense we’ve participated in a life-changing act of forgiveness.”

    • Thank you John
      Having laughed to tears last night with Michael Hurst’s brilliant performance and yet felt the underlying misery of the Tom Scott family dynamics (which are absolutely transferable in instances today) I have to say that the previous critic is misguided.
      Well done in defense of ATC.

  2. Straight from “Joan” this afternoon and loved it,laughed til I cried, cried til I laughed. What sort of tight arsed critic would fail to be engaged? Haven’t lived yet perhaps?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*