REVIEW: Under the Mountain (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth

Under The Mountain by Maurice Gee, Adapted Pip Hall,, dir Sara Brodie, an Auckland Theatre Company production. Production photography: Michael Smith


Written by Maurice Gee in 1979, the story of Under the Mountain takes many of back to our childhood bookworm days, our imaginations set ablaze by children’s adventure stories such as The Famous Five, Where the Wild Things Are, The Adventures of Tintin, and Swallows and Amazons.

The plot is a truly Kiwi story,  inspired by the land and seascape of Tāmaki Makaurau.  Beneath the dormant volcanoes of Auckland surrounding the city, evil creatures are waking from a thousand year spellbound sleep….

The story stars the Matheson twins Rachel and Theo, energetically and convincingly played by Katrina George and Richie Gryzb.  Apart from having red hair, there appears to be nothing very remarkable about them – or so they think!

Our heroes are amazed and horrified to discover that they have a strange and awesome destiny. With the help of the mysteriously otherworldly character Mr Jones (eccentrically played by Peter Hayden) the whole storyline hinges on whether the Matheson twins can save the world from the terror of what is literally under the mountain.

The starry-eyed look on both these amazingly talented young actors in their first entrance definitely sets the stage for the excitement and fantastical journey we are to embark on together.

The evil, semi-human protectors of the buried beasts are the Wilberfi (plural for Wilberforce). Director Sara Brodie’s choreography of these sentient beings [interchangeably played by Nicola Kawana, Kimo Houltham, Daniel Cooper, Melana Khabazi, Joseph Witkowski, Simon Mead and Jesse Wikiriwhi] is ingenious.  Their ability to fill the stage with their mysterious presence is visually stunning.  They had some of us physically jumping out of our seat at times, like one would expect in a perfectly believably frightening horror movie or thriller. The Wilberfi’s scary personas were further augmented by Elizabeth Whiting’s superb costumes.  Her ability to transform every shape-shifting character with subtle tweaks like the addition of a wig or a policeman’s hat brings us further into the realms of the mysterious and murky depths of what lies beneath the volcanoes of Tāmaki Makaurau.

Brodie’s choreography of the fight scenes between ‘good versus evil’ is a sight to behold.  Her astute directorial choices keep the audience  mesmerised and engaged throughout.  It would’ve been easy for these stumbling shuffling creatures to be the stuff of zombified B-movie horror stock, but clearly great care has been taken by Brodie and the actors to make them a terrifying opponent for our young adventurers and their myriad of quirky supporters.

Occasional whimsical humour amuses and also effectively softens the scariness of some of the scenes for the young.  The first half may be a little long for younger audience members and some of the exposition of the impending doom could be refined slightly.  But perhaps we’re underestimating our young friends as Pip Halls script cracks along energetically, while nicely changing pace for some of the more touching family moments.  As previous victims of the baddies, the hilarious Scandinavian accents of Joseph Witkowski and Simon Mead (while playing twins Lenart and John) had us laughing out loud.

The production values of the show are flawlessly executed and greatly create and enhance the magical fantasy environment to set the scene for the action to cone.

Rachael Walker’s epic and monolithic set provides a foil for Simon Barker’s awesome video projection and Jo Kilgour’s dramatic lighting.  The set itself is simple, providing an epic backdrop, moveable props and staging alike.  The multitasking of set pieces moved by the actors is very effective but never distracting, as can often be the case.

Thomas Press’ soundscapes are genius.  More than just setting the scene and raising the tension, they also punctuate the evil movements of the Wilberfi which truly lifts the production to a new level.

Essentially an exciting story about family, Under The Mountain is a cracking fantasy that will stimulate and entertain children and adults alike.  It’s part adventure, part thriller and all action. It’s equally a heartfelt show with poignant messages about love and loyalty.  Recommended.

Under the Mountain plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 21 Feb. 

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