REVIEW: Godzonia (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Jess Macdonald

[No place I’d rather be]

A play about the Covid-19 pandemic that was itself postponed due to the February 2021 lockdown, Godzonia‘s delayed season manages to reframe what could have been a dead-end for the production. 

Written by UK actor and writer Georgie Oulton, the production takes inspiration from Flares and Pitchforks – a text co-written by Oulton with fellow actor Markella Kavenagh, crafted during the 2020 six-week lockdown. 

After a successful nomination as part of NZ Playmarket’s B4 25 Playwriting Award, Flares and Pitchforks was redeveloped by first-time playwright Oulton into Godzonia. Partly inspired by devised workshops, the text is based on her own experiences of New Zealand ‘survivors guilt’ whilst trying to reconnect with her British counterparts.  

Utilising a cast of seven within the black-box studio space, the story begins with a comedic vignette when Kate (Oulton) and aging Grandpa Joe (Edward Newborn) try to make a video-call. Seated on bare plastic chairs on a raised stage before us, we learn that out of work waitress/actress Kate has moved in with her boyfriend because of the lockdown, but is eager to get back home. 

On first impression, we believe Kate is UK-based and wants to fly back to New Zealand but, in a subsequent airport scene, Kate meets exasperated mum-of-three Sarah (Catriona Toop). It turns out the two women are trying to get across ‘the bridge to Godzonia’ – a Utopia redolent of our Aotearoa during the covid-19 pandemic – but their way is barred and transport cancelled.

Unaware of her grating privilege, active-wear clad cliché Sarah is played to perfection by Catriona Toop, who is a burst of energy within each of her scenes. It is only during later moments that we see a glimmer of humanity within the caricature. We sympathise for the mum when she makes passing reference to her deep loneliness and desperation to reunite her three young kids with their dad. 

Over the bridge in Godzonia, politician and Sarah’s husband David (Joseph Wycoff) indulges the over-eager local checkout operator, Jake (Steven Glyde) and the two discuss the pitfalls of online dating. Jake – in a ‘single bubble’ – is eager to embark on a new relationship but wants to avoid being catfished. Wycoff embodies the successful, connected man – managing to be likeable despite his planned indiscretions. His role appears to be superfluous in the beginning, but yet again our expectations are flipped when his actions become integral to the plot. 

Meanwhile, through conversations with his carer Mary (Liz Tierney), we learn of Joe’s concern for his granddaughter. Kate is dodging his calls and when they do finally connect her camera conveniently malfunctions. Their interaction is so understated – yet Georgie Oulton’s performance as Kate is remarkable. As the audience, we are gripped by undertones of domestic violence. A reference to banana bread tutorials, used by victims in the dystopia as a cry for help, puts a rather different spin on the lockdown activity.

The main twist is revealed through a tender conversation between Joe and Mary, with the grandpa offering an unexpected solution for Kate’s safe return to Godzonia. The handful of scenes between Joe and Mary sing out and, with their professional friendship pushed to the limits, and both actors navigate the tricky subject matter with understated ease. 

Jake’s online friendship with Lou (Elliot Lloyd-Bell) forms a minor sub-plot within the production and, while adding little to the overall narrative, the awkwardness of a first sexual encounter gives breathing space from the heaviness of the central story. The witty dialogue highlights the two actor’s talents and, with considered comic timing, their rapport results in several moments of cathartic laughter. The script is filled with these points of humour and sweet vignettes, such as this one, continuously demonstrate the importance of connection. 

The lack of props or technology, and the use of mime in place of phones, tablets and computers leads to slick, seamless transitions. The action is swift and, when no longer the focal point of the scene, actors become a finely tuned set of background artists – with stylised mannerisms appropriate for the setting. By keeping all actors on-stage throughout, we are reminded of relationships between characters – a friend or love interest who is just out of reach, as is the case during isolation.

Background noise, composed by Simon Allen, underscores a number of socially-distanced public space scenes and the interweaving of script, sound, lighting states with physical choreography manages to spark the imagination – a credit to director Anna Ledwich.  

When Kate uses the phrase ‘on the nose’ during a call with Joe, I reflect on how Godzonia seems to work effortlessly to break the mould. So much more than a play about the pandemic, the reframing of our current experiences into a ‘utopia’ may allow the piece to withstand the test of time. 

A stellar debut for writer/performer Georgie Oulton and a thoroughly enjoyable – and decidedly divergent – take on the last twelve months. 

Godzonia plays Q Loft 14-17th April as part of Summer at Q and Auckland Fringe. 

Additional Creative Team
Produced by Georgie Oulton & Charlie Underhill
Stage & Production Managed by Lucie Everett-Brown
Autism Consultancy by Tanya Wheeler
Creative-Content by Thomas Hefferon & Mike Newport
Marketing Photography by Matthew Diesch
Graphic Design by Isabel Doraisamy & Miles Harty

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