REVIEW: Well Hung

Auckland Theatre Company presents Well Hung by Robert Lord
Auckland Theatre Company's Well Hung. Or so I've heard...

Auckland Theatre Company give the police a good bollocking

It is one of New Zealand’s most enduring unsolved crimes. The year is 1970. The place is Pukekawa, small town NZ. The bodies of husband and wife Harvey and Jeanette Crew are found in the Waikato River. The murder weapon is established as a .22 rifle. Local Farmer Arthur Allan Thomas is arrested. A shell case from Thomas’ rifle is found in the Crewe’s garden. He’s convicted. A no brainer. End of story. Move on. 

But we didn’t. Peopled talked about a ‘miscarriage of justice’. A second trial returned the same result. BUT a Royal Commission established by PM Muldoon pardoned him. The findings were SCANDALOUS and rocked the public’s trust of the police force.  Two officers had PLANTED the shell case. They were never charged. And the case is still unsolved: Who murdered the Crewes? There are salacious rumours that one of the police investigators did it. But we still don’t know 40 years later. What a farce. 

Auckland Theatre Company presents Well Hung by Robert Lord
Auckland Theatre Company's Well Hung. Or so I've heard...

 And it is. Or at least, it inspired one. Playwright Robert Lord (1945-1992) used the case as inspiration for Well Hung. It centers on a similar small-town double murder case and the complete balls-up bungling of it by the police investigation. 

The play is very, very, very silly. There are silly walks, the actors run into doors, Carl Bland gets rubbish bins stuck on his feet and Pua Magasiva spends much of the show in his underwear.  Director Ben Crowder, making his much welcomed mainstage debut for ATC, notes that Farce is not currently in vogue in New Zealand. He describes Lord’s script as a “grand example of the form lurking in New Zealand’s theatrical past”. And he’s right – the play ramps up the misunderstandings and sticky situations to such a high point that the tension – which can only be released with a large belly laugh – is almost unbearable. I suspect that the reason why farce is so rare on New Zealand stages is not because it is necessarily unpopular, but because it is so hard to do. Farce can be perilous. 

The entire play is set in the main room of a charming retro 1970’s police station, designed by the versatile Andrew Foster. There are lots of doors. Good. They open throughout the play revealing peeks of what is behind…a toilet, a storage cupboard, the holding cells with anti-pig graffiti… and I marvel at the challenge it must have been to get all the sight-lines right! 

The play opens with duty officers Sergent Bert Donelly (Simon Ferry) and Constable Trev Brown (Pua Magasiva) engaged in comic banter, with some (considering the title) obligatory discussion of penis size (eight inches!).  Pua wears flip-flops and a thin mo. Simon wears shorts, knee high socks, and a full police issues 70’s era mustache. Pua’s Brown is a good study of a vain cop who doesn’t take his vocation seriously, constantly preening and showing off his body; he’s using the police phones to facilitate the sale of a second-hand car on which he has wound back the miles. Ferry’s Donelly is the most sympathetic character (for most of the play at least), the only cop appearing to be focused on the case. Ferry plays him with much needed reserve and understatement, grounding a play that is populated by larger than life and high energy characters. 

Carl Bland’s Detective Jasper Sharp is the largest of them all. And I reckon his entrance, with some very literal toilet humour, is the moment audience members will either make the mental switch to embrace Well Hung’s silly humour, or watch in silent bemusement. Sharp bursts in, prancing about the stage like Inspector Clouseau. He’s been assigned the case from the big smoke, but is far more interested in his own media profile and scoring appearances in New Zealand’s Woman’s Weekly. Ignoring the available evidence, he chooses his murder suspect – Adam Turner, the most important man in town – based solely on the amount of column inches he will get. Bland is deft at the double take, and he makes much use of clowning comedy skills;  the character has a habit of physicalising many of his verbal thoughts. Bland walks such a delicate tightrope with the character – too much energy and the character can fall flat. Not all silly walks are inherently funny. Far more often than not, the bold choices do hit and I suspect Bland has a very fun season ahead riding the waves and energies of different audiences. 

In double supporting roles Dena Kennedy and Adam Gardiner are a riot. Dena is a classic and recognizable kiwi sheila as Bert Donelly’s philandering wife Lynette, and on the money as amateur theatre director and backyard abortionist Hortensia. Dena’s commitment to smacking into things deserves special mention. I hope ATC are paying for her bruise ointment! Adam Gardiner displays his flair for character quirks in the backward Wally, a kiwi version of Monty Python’s Gumby characters, and milks all the humour in Adam Turner’s bad leg and crutch. The script calls for them to change character repeatedly, and (like Michael Hurst and Oliver Driver’s character swapping in Irma Vep a few years back) there is much delight when exit as one character and enter as another – helped along by a well used body double at one point! 

Crowder keeps the show moving in a rapid pace, and the ball high up in the air. He has a knack for exploiting all the comedy possible in the already funny scenarios, but sometimes the jokes are over signposted just a tad too much. Crowder indulges in naughtiness too, like a little child pushing to see how much mummy and daddy will let him get away with. It’s juvenile, but amusing.  Lord’s script is very clever, and includes many lines that could only come from a New Zealand writer – “Just popping out for a Pinky”, or even “I’m very proud to be having your abortion”! 

From all this you could be forgiven for thinking there is a disconnect between the silliness of the play, and the seriousness of the Crewe case and murder in general. The case, after all, has left an indelible mark on New Zealand’s pysche, reappearing every few years in the papers (most recently last year when surviving daughter Rochelle was denied a new inquiry). Should something like this be joked about? Murder in the media is often incredibly sensationalised, whether to sell newspaper copy (Carmen Thomas?) or act as a convenient plot device (endless CSI re-runs). 

Robert Lord’s play must have been remarkable at its 1974 opening*, channeling the public anger surrounding Arthur Allan Thomas’ conviction. Though disguised as Farce, Lord COMPLETELY rips into the police, the system, and the institution that could see an innocent man go to jail. Lord portrays the police as fools, buffoons, and criminals. They are well and truly hung. 

With a certain amount of public distrust of the police, and with much work by the force still to be done (witness Dame Magaret Beazley’s report into police culture), Auckland Theatre Company’s revival is not only a welcome airing of what can be surely now recognised as a classic of New Zealand theatre, but a damning reminder that the force is not always infallible.   

Well Hung plays at the Maidment Theatre until Saturday 5th March 2011 

* This production of Well Hung is actually a hybrid form of two versions of the play by Robert Lord. Script Editor Stephen Sinclair took the best parts of 1974’s Well Hung and Lord’s later rewritten version Country Cops in 1985. With what we know now about the Arthur Allan Thomas case this 2011 version seems incredibly on the money. I wonder how prescient Lord was in his original, performed just four years after the murders?

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