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NZ International Arts Festival
Where We Once Belonged
By Sia Figiel
ddapted for the stage by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Colin McColl and David Fane
NZIAF & Auckland Theatre Company

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 8 Mar 2008 to 16 Mar 2008
[1hr 20 mins, no interval]

Reviewed by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media], 10 Mar 2008
originally published in The Dominion Post

The title of Sia Figiel's novel and Dave Armstrong's lively, free-flowing, hard-hitting adaptation of it for the stage says it all. Where We Once Belonged is both a recollection of a coming of age story of a teenage girl in a small Samoan village in the 1970s and a bitter sweet account of the Canute-like upholders of the traditional ways of life attempting to prevent the waves of change crashing on the shore.

On Michael Tuffery's minimalist, endlessly adaptable, and after awhile almost invisible Perspex setting of a skeleton of a traditional house which has the audience seated on either side of the Perspex stage, five actors, using a few props and numerous black jandals for sound effects and missiles, tell Alofa's story.

After a brief prologue of Samoan mythology, a snapshot of the market and village life and local gossip Alofa's life is explored in flashbacks. Alofa and her friends are constantly put under pressure to conform, to be Samoan, and their natural exuberance is curtailed at almost every turn by family, church and school.

When her father, one of the trinity of the men she most admires (Jesus Christ and Bruce Lee are the other two), is discovered in flagrante delicto with a woman not her mother by Alofa, who returns one day unexpectedly from school, her life changes; adulthood looms.

There are some hilarious sequences: The Prodigal Son as performed by the youngsters of the church, scenes in the classrooms of the ineffectual American Peace Corps teacher Miss Cunningham, and Charlie's Angels as seen through the eyes of three Samoan girls.

There are sharply focused dramatic scenes: brief moments of family violence, a Cassandra-like prediction of the consequences of Western civilization on the Samoan way-of-life, and the classroom of the frighteningly authoritarian teacher Mrs. Samsoni whom the children eventually prefer to the well-meaning Miss Cunningham.

One of the most telling moments is when the children try to explain to Miss Cunningham that what each person writes is just the same as what the others write because 'I is always We.' When I is not always We there lies the new world and not where we once belonged.

Colin McColl and David Fane's production moves smoothly and vibrantly through its 90 minutes. Though it must be said that the use of a transverse stage has not assisted audibility; too many words and sometimes key parts of a humorous sequence were lost because either the actor had his or her back to part of the audience or because they were being spoken too fast.

However, Goretti Chadwick, Pua Magasiva, Robbie Magasiva, and Anapela Polataivao bring enormous vitality and warmth to their quick characterizations of family, village gossips, school children, adults, and mythological gods. Joy Vaele provides a touching sincerity and an emotional force that exposes Alofa's vulnerability as well as her inner strength.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 

See also reviews by:
 John Smythe
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Sian Robertson
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);