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.
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?
Ice-cream is apparently one of the most searched for terms on the internet. Who knew? There’s certainly something about the stuff that makes people happy. On arrival at the Basement for ‘I won’t be happy until I lose one of my limbs’ we were presented with a free ice-cream cone. This made me happy. What a clever way to make a reviewer pre-disposed to liking the play!
Central character O’Gradient, as you might have had an inkling, won’t be happy until she loses a limb. A leg, to be precise. Playwright Julie Hill was inspired by real cases of this unusual psychological disorder. From this germ of an idea she crafted this dark absurdist tale set in the ambiguously NZ town of Love Mountain (“the most beautiful place on earth”), populating it with characters that are looking for the ever elusive happiness, as the town falls down around them.
Between them, actors Gareth Reeves* and Nisha Madhan play 6 of the town’s residents. Derek, who works at a party supply store, thinks he’s God’s envoy for the town, has lots of empty sex, and is struck by lightening. Bogan Barney wants a motorbike. Imaginary friend Bob wants O’Gradient. Hospital nurse Ping (a nice nod to Nisha’s Shorty Street stint) wants to look after people. Mrs Button wants to sing, and has a dark secret. And O’Gradient… the leg. All endearingly odd, the weird and whacky character recipe creates an unusual night in the theatre.
The actors and crew greet you and look after you when you enter the Basement theatre. Gareth Reeves personally showed us to the best seat in the house: a beanbag, almost in the middle of the action (and never a more comfortable seat have I enjoyed in a theatre – can the Civic be refitted with beanbags I wonder?). He presented us with the free ice creams too from writer Julie Hill’s ice-cream tray. He gave my friend a pair of a cat ears.
Channeling the theories of Grotowski, who wanted to create a new rapport with actor and audience, we are occasionally cast as participants within the town. We become the ‘Nobodies’ who have invaded O’Gradient’s house and do nasty things like have sex on the couch. Nisha makes a point of fixing us with her gaze, staring each of us down. She asks why my friend is looking at her. Gareth asks my friend for a drink. Gareth flicks water in my face. Kiwi theatre seems to increasingly like to challenge the audience in this way. Sometimes there can be resistance, but we don’t mind here, they were so friendly at the start. They could even have gone further – the idea only seems half-formed.
Stephen Bain has designed one of the more creative sets on a smaller budget. All of the significant places in the town get featured on the floor of the Basement, pushing most of the audiences to the perimeter walls. It’s great to see the ever customiseable Basement space show its versatility yet again. Green Astroturf with a white sheet on top is the Love Mountain, Mrs Button’s house is made of small cardboard boxes, there’s a party supplies store, and a swimming pool denotes a lake. The set again and again is used with inventive theatrical flourish. Some moments enter the sublime – the best sequence involves a blow up Jesus figure and blow up pink rabbits.
Andrew Foster directs the actors in a playing style that is very low-key; very – dare I say it – Kiwi. When the audience is in, Gareth Reeves gets a microphone and half-apologetically says “I think I’ll start the play”. It never once takes itself too seriously. A microphone is shared between the actors for moments of narration and to tell us of things that can’t be visualized onstage, sometimes they tell us (often incongruous) stage directions ala Brecht. The mike is not consistently used however for this narration which weakens the device, and in the Basement space it was unnecessary.
The characters are understated. Simple things like wigs, glasses and scarves delineate the characters; actual differences in performance are quite subtle. There’s a bit of voice and physicality changing, but never full on caricature. The broadest character is Nisha’s Ping with an ostensibly Korean accent (“ruv mountain”) who is gifted a show-winning rants. The characters seem to fulfill some childhood urges to dress-up (Barney’s mullet wig is very silly) and destroy (the house made of cardboard boxes was asking to be destroyed!). The character work is like a more sophisticated form of playing silly buggars. It’s quite delightful.
Nisha and Gareth are very charismatic together, with superb trust. The play uses the loose device of the actors being actors telling the story. They make mistakes and point it out to each other, which makes for some empathetic humour. I felt the possibilities of this weren’t fully explored; they have such a nice connection.
The play is definitely surreal, with the plot winding on all sorts of unpredictable flights of fancy. The play has a sweet ice-cream covered exterior, with a dark centre that thrills in punishing its characters. There is much to like, though I felt the play did escape from itself a few times, and a further tightening and focus on what is most important could help proceedings. The play doesn’t lay it all out for you, and we are left to make the deeper connections. Both the actors and the audience get to have a good work-out of the imaginative muscle.
By play’s end I am left no more enlightened about why the loss of a limb would make this character happy. Why a leg especially? All we know is that she is unhappy. The leg then is perfunctory. It’s a stand-in for anything – easy sex, love, ice-cream – that can used to fill the gaping voids in an individual’s existence. The play, and especially the ice-cream, helped fill mine for a time.
* In the final week of the play Gareth Reeve’s roles will be played by assistant director Jeremy Randerson
I won’t be happy until I lose one of my limbs plays at the Basement Theatre until Saturday 19th February 2011.
Presented by Win Win Biscuit Factory in association with STAMP at THE EDGE