[First Period – Starring: Brother Vianney]
Brother Vianney, played by Andrew Laing, begins the show in a warm spotlight, and delights us with Rogers and Hammerstein’s Shall We Dance, from The King and I. A tender beginning that then explodes, and our very own Deborah Kerr twirls and floats around the stage, not unlike Maria on the hilltop from another R&H classic, The Sound of Music.
We’re in 1950s Napier, at Napier Marist Boys, with Brother Vianney teaching his class of young Catholic boys. On the stage is a single, solid, teachers’ desk, and hung on the wall behind it are portraits of Pope John XXIII and the leader of the Marist Order.
As Brother Vianney takes the role of the (very Irish) boys’ names, we become Standard 5 school-boys. Using the audience as characters immediately draws us in and is used as a clever tool for engagement and interaction throughout the performance. The intimate space of the Basement’s studio is the perfect venue for this production. The tiered seating, not unlike a lecture theatre, makes the classroom setting even more believable. Laing’s consistency in audience placement for each of the student names is commendable, as we take on the characters set for us with each reprimand.
As we flow, or rather spring, through song and dialogue, the craft of Laing, playwright Dean Parker, and director Conrad Newport are clearly demonstrated. Laing’s talents are undeniable; he is an emotionally versatile performer whose vocal strength in both song and dialogue animates Parker’s remarkable, complex script. The seemingly sporadic storytelling of classic music theatre productions and Hitchcock cinema are expertly weaved through moments of teacher/student (audience) interaction, and nostalgic moments from Vianney’s past. Each time a new plot is discussed, including those from Rear Window and Annie Get Your Gun, Vianney vears off of tangents to illustrate his distinct opinions on actors, and historical and religious figures, and continues for considerable amounts of time before he finally remembers the point of his story.
Brother Vianney’s passion for musical theatre and film is infectious – we long to be touring Australia with him in J.C. Williamson productions, and buy in to his rose-tinted recollections. Parker’s ability to introduce and develop multiple parallel anecdotes initially feels overwhelming and hard to follow, but we find ourselves engrossed in each new idea, and the gratification and laughter becomes intensified by the end of each section.
These moments of fairy-tale reminiscing end abruptly, however, as we return to the Catholic church and and the school class (the actual teaching subject of the class still unaddressed). Vianney reminds us and himself that he “found his vocation”.
As we are given hints at Vianney’s sexuality throughout the production, the final moments, however regrettable, are not unsurprising. Emotions portrayed through careful vocal variation build in intensity as the show reaches its climax and wrenches at our hearts. The subtlety that I so appreciated throughout the performance was disregarded here, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this emotion from the audience could have been drawn out without such a visceral reaction on the stage. Regardless, Laing’s performance is spectacular, a display of skill that brings up such pain and nostalgia for a time I was not even alive for.
Despite the tragedy, it is relatively unusual today to see the story of a Catholic Priest that lived a life to serve others in happiness and passion, when there are so many stories that have come out of previous and current abuse in many Catholic Institutions. Religion in general is such a polarising topic, but this show invoked an appreciation for the sense of belonging and companionship felt by Vianney in his Church. Still, we can’t help but leave wishing he had never found his vocation, as perhaps then he would not have needed his mantra, “it is only through suffering can we hope to find the kingdom of God”.
Wonderful plays Basement Theatre 22-26 June, 2021.