REVIEW: Young and Hungry Festival Auckland 2011

Disorder
Disorder

Cow, Tigerplay and Disorder. What a threesome! [by James Wenley]

Young and Hungry Zombies

If you haven’t already, rush to see the Young & Hungry Festival, there’s not much time left… there’s a Zombie apocalypse on don’t you know?

Under Auckland Theatre Company’s guidance, the third year of Young & Hungry in Auckland is arguably the strongest yet, containing two Young and Hungry classics – Cow by Jo Randerson (1997) and Tigerplay by the brilliant Gary Henderson (debuting in the first Wellington festival in 1994), finished off with a new play Disorder, a Zombie splatter-fest by Thomas Sainsbury, that has to be seen to be believed.

There’s a different energy at a Young and Hungry show. The young casts and crew radiate a hope, drive and a hunger to perform and put on excellent work. They work under an impressive mentorship team that includes Elizabeth Whiting, Simon Coleman, Brad Gledhill, and the shows are Production Managed by Andrew Munro. It’s a collective energy that puts many professional productions to shame – it’s immediate, exciting, sometimes raw, thrilling and unpredictable. It feeds and satisfies my theatre needs. 

Cow

The evening kicks off in an absurdly good fashion with Cow, directed by Abigail Greenwood. The ever adaptable Basement is transformed once again with an angled stage covered with printed canvas depicting a fitting bucolic kiwi setting. Everyone walks with a quirky perpetual lean, a physical expression of a script that itself is just a little bit kookily off-kilter, though I did feel sorry for the tall people in the cast who really did have to watch their heads with the low Basement ceiling.

“Some people find social situations very hard” says one of the characters, and this play uses a metaphorical and absurdist frame that looks at human behavior and what is a ‘normal’ way to behave. It’s very funny about it all too.  Daryl Wrightson and Phoebe Mason are a superb double team as Mum and Dad farm owners. She’s the straight one to Daryl’s balding and short-shorted Dad, who she matter of-factly announces has a mental problem (he’s obsessed with cats we learn, even to the point of acting like one, with Daryl does rather well). Their daughter Beth (Alexandra Clare) wants to build a cow made out of leaves. Clare plays Beth like one of those unendingly happy Nickelodeon and Disney starlets – a farming I-Carly – even in the face of tragedy.  The Farm hand (Jordan Blaikie) who has something of a fancy of Beth, wonders around in bare feet looking lost.

Their tranquil country existence, such as it is, is disturbed when a mob of city folk (who also double as Cows..) invade. They have high ideas of how to live your life (If you feel good, there must be something wrong with you) and try to make Beth see error of her ways. There’s a heavily repressed glamour couple (Virginia Frankovich and Jordan Mooney), the self-important American anecdotalist (Tarquinn Kennedy), a paranoid policeman (Jesse Allam, looking much like a young Tim Balme), and a Mute Girl (Chloe Swarbrick) who observes the action and shakes her head. There is much appealing character work from the ensemble (later joined by Katrina Wesseling) although when I went earlyish in the season I felt there needed to be greater trust and cohesion amongst the cast. I suspect this would have grown as they found their hooves.

The play embraces the ‘awkward pause’ – letting moments sit just long enough to become uncomfortably funny (in a good way). The “moovement” that Greenwood has developed with her cast is exceptionably enjoyable, the cast standing and acting as cows, with some fun dancing thrown in.

And while the ending didn’t stand up to the promise of what had come before, it’s an appealing play that really milks it characters and comedy.

Tigerplay

Next we travel upstairs to the smaller Basement Studio to see Tigerplay, directed by Jackie van Beek. A combination of Gary Henderson’s tightly-wound drama, relevant theme, excellent acting and direction, and a so-intimate-you-can-smell-the-actors setting made Tigerplay the stand-out of the festival for me, and if you only see one play, this is the one.

The premise could be one of a mediocre New Zealand sitcom… set in a typical rubbish dump of a flat,  Russ (Jospher Harper), who has recently grown obsessed with a tiger at a Zoo, and Alison (Kayleigh Haworth), who eats and sleeps all day, have to find a new flatmate. That person is Simone (Rose Seton) who brings along her jerk boyfriend Davey (Thomas Moon). Hilarity ensues… Except there’s an undercurrent of tragedy – the old flatmate died after being hit by a bus – and the characters, although funny, aren’t played for laughs, but painfully get under the skin of the 18-25 existence.

Joseph Harper, previously described as rising comedian, can now add rising actor to his resume. He delivers a powerhouse of a performance as Russ, who has an existential crisis through the play. His character is Woody Allen-esque, with tics, nerves and constant worry, going off on ranty tangents about the state of life in general (Why can’t there be ads for things he actually wants?).  It’s a big range of emotions that Joseph has to hit, but he hits them, delivering the right combination of pathos and bathos, truth and pain. He’s in a dysfunctional relationship with Alison, a very recognisablely drawn character who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere very quickly.

Simone enters their messy habitat and shakes things up. Sweetly played by Rose Seton, Russ gains affection for her when he learns that she carries a tattoo on her chest of his new favourite animal – the Tiger. Russ sees something of himself in the Tiger, which doesn’t ever do much, but carries within it immense potential.

The one weak spot is Davey, a role slightly underwritten and less complex than the others – he’s an obstacle to Russ and Simone getting together, and bashes his girlfriend.  Actor Thomas Moon is never quite able to make believable. It’s a small quibble in an otherwise excellently paced and acted play.

Aman Bajaj plays a smaller role as a subtly humorous Zoo Keeper with dreams to become a male nurse, and his subtle comedy work is nicely done.

Scenes are played naturalistically, aided well by a flat environment that is very true to life – we really do feel like we are sitting in their kitchen. The play takes a powerful turn to the theatrical as Russ makes an unexpected transformation (we see after our Gary Henderson very carefully led up to it). I find myself completely invested in the lead actors, so much so that I find myself feeling physically sick at certain critical moments. I felt the drama, I cared.  That’s often the aim in theatre – to move your audience – but it’s rare. Tigerplay has it.

To exit the Studio we have to walk over the carnage onstage; much has been broken – physically and emotionally.  Though written way back in 1994, Russ seems to still speak as the voice of a generation, estranged from the world around them. Henderson’s pieces touches on a pivotal point of life where you either forge out as your own person, or get swept up by the world.

Disorder
Disorder

 For the final play Disorder, we return to the main Basement space, which has undergone a lengthy and dramatic reconfigurement, now containing a raised stage with two pits, which shall prove very versatile through the evening. Special plaudits to set designer Jessica Verryt for all three plays – her sets were all characters in themselves and essential to each work.

In Disorder, Tom Sainsbury imagines an Auckland in the throes of a Zombie attack, which director Ben Crowder takes as his cue to deliver some crowd-pleasing gore and inventive theatrical Zombie attacks.

As typically with this genre, the plot is not the strongest of elements of this work, and the leads aren’t the most three dimensional of characters. It opens promisingly under UV light, with Patricia (Lucy Smith) going to the creepy Dr Stiebel (Yulie Great) to be injected with a serum to make her look ten years younger (even though she’s 26). You guessed it, the Zombie outbreak’s going to have something to do with this…

Next scene is a school yard, where we meet some of the characters who will subsequently try to survive the Zombie outbreak. These include nerdy and picked upon school boys Jarvis (Graham Candy) and Tristam (Chris Bryan), the lesbians Pip (Gerry Jaynes) and Madeline (Kate Castle) who are dropping out of school to live in Wellington together, Pip’s wheelchair bound brother Francis (Caleb Wells), and the trainee teacher (Eddie). I don’t mind the lack of complexity, but I didn’t find them or their stories particularly engaging, and fundamentally I didn’t really  care if they survive… to be honest I’m rooting far more for the Zombies, secretly hoping they’ll rip out our lead’s brains!

The Zombies really are the most fun, played with total commitment and groaning by the huge ensemble cast. They attack when you least expect, and from a couple of surprising places, leading to a few audience frights! Disorder follows in the best traditions of Peter Jackson’s Braindead and his ‘Splat-stick’ genre; Crowder and his cast display a wicked and sick glee from the first sprays of blood and dismembered limbs… front row be warned. These camp gory sequences are the high-point of the play, and I’m restless as the main plot plods through (there are some great turns though from Morgan Albrecht as a personality free Waitress and Dan Vient as a disturbing ‘sick man’). Once we hit the third act, when the lead characters find themselves all back together, the pace speeds up and the drama, thrills and gore comes thick and bloody. Candy’s Jarvis becomes a far more interesting character as he relishes his new found freedoms in the Zombie apocalypse, becoming a villain far worse than the flesh hungry zombies.

The final sequence is stunning, involving a hole in the Basement roof. Disorder might have been a fuller experience with a tighter plot and engaging character, but Crowder and the cast elevate it theatrically, with the special effect work convincing and gruesome.

Well done to the massive Young and Hungry team of youth and mentors for an excellent night. Keep that energy alive!

Disclosure: James was involved in Young and Hungry last year as Assistant Director.

Young and Hungry closes Saturday 6th August. Details at Auckland Theatre Company website.

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