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AN ABSOLUTE BLAST

Print Version

Backstage
by Roy Smiles
Directed by: Ross Gumbley

at The Forge at The Court Theatre, Christchurch
From 30 Oct 2009 to 5 Dec 2009

Reviewed by Lindsay Clark, 31 Oct 2009


Draw deep breaths before you seat yourself at this glorious glimpse of mayhem in a showbiz family. It will be your last taste of calm or serene before interval. Once this play sparks into action, the pace is merciless, riding on wave after wave of appreciative laughter. 

As a world premier, the production adds a particularly scintillating twinkle to the year at The Court and another 'do not miss' tag to the work of this increasingly popular playwright (Roy Smiles' Ying Tong and The Year of the Rat are remembered with relish, and are a better draw than the feral character depicted on the promo material.)

In his element crafting detail and hitting the all-important rhythms of comic theatre, Ross Gumbley could hardly ask for a better script. Structurally nifty and stylistically dynamic, it offers director and actors alike the licence to go to the dizzy lengths of delicious farce.

And they do. Galloping about on Harold Moot's atmospheric set they have a ball. In the wardrobe line Annie Graham must have had nightmares on the way to triumph, turning out costumes to meet the challenges on both sides of the red plush curtain.

The Leibmans are the longstanding backbone of a 1930's New York vaudeville show. Their patter is sharp and swift but explodes into something far more visceral and funny behind the scenes, where their real egos are let loose. The wildly controlling Jewish mother/wife, her thwarted skirt-chasing husband who really wants to play Hamlet, a son desperate to  pick an escape route, any escape route, and a sex bomb daughter are the mad characters blitzing their way through the plot, complemented by an ancient Italian dresser who in turn comforts, spies, betrays and generally manages the maniacs.

An established actor himself, Smiles has explored darker forces than laughter in his plays but this one is his gift to the comic actor ("They're comedians, not real people"). Seizing the opportunities with both hands and one active leg, Rima Te Wiata  creates an unforgettable mother and lead performer, Hanna Leibman. As malleable as the moment, she uses face and voice with marvellous precision.

Her straight man husband Herb has his own triumphs though. Paul Barrett fills the role with the  intelligence and insight  which carries him from hilariously rampant lust to the poignant humour of a man in a red clown nose who dreams of delivering Shakespeare but doesn't know enough not to mutter the M------ word in a theatre.

Their hapless offspring Danny (Daniel Bain ) and Ruth (Laura Hill) are given full treatment as understudy son and nymphomaniac daughter, with Betty Hupple, the chorus girl who can do broom cupboards as well as dance, played in full colour by Georgia -Kate Heard.

If there is one benchmark of 'normal' in the play, it is filled by the remarkable Judie Douglass, bringing to bewildered life Maria Vincenti whose job, apart from frantic garbing, is one of constant comforting, advising and even babysitting. This stalwart player gives us a robustly Italian mama figure well up to her one sided conversations with the Almighty and every bit His match.

The writer in his notes advises that this was 'an absolute blast' to prepare. Well, that goes for the audience experience also.  
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