POTENT CAUTIONARY TALE DESERVES HEALTHY LIFE ON THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT
Lonely Heart - the musical
Writer/Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Director: Jeff Kingsford – Brown
at BATS, Wellington
From 17 Jan 2012 to 28 Jan 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 18 Jan 2012
Bats has started its year with a cracker: the world premiere of an American musical, based on a true story and created right here in NZ (well, some of it inHong Kongaccording to the programme note). Don't miss it!
It was back in 1996, after seeing the film The Honeymoon Killers (made in 1969 but initially banned in NZ), that writer / composer / musical director Michael Nicholas Williams somewhat flippantly challenged himself to write a musical based on that true story. The journey to production has been long, frustrating and finally and random (see below).*
A darkly comic and salutary story of deprivation and desperation gone very bad indeed, it is superbly scored, told and sung by a talented cast of just five to a one-man band –Williams himself – and directed by Jeff Kingsford-Brown.
(Un)fortunately little has changed regarding the capacity of people to behave atrociously in their quests for love and wealth, so the show remains all-too-relevant.
In the aftermath of World War Two, Martha Beck, a nurse and solo mother of two (to different husbands: one dead; the other fled) is having trouble reconciling her childhood dreams of romance and happy-ever-afters with reality: a carping semi-invalid mother, Julia, who puts Martha down about her morals and weight and has a love-hate relationship towards the grandchildren she has to look after each day.
Martha's girlfriend Bobby has signed her up to Martha Dean's Friendly Club for Lonely Hearts, whence comes ‘Charlie', whose real name is Ray Fernandez. Having served in the navy, he claims the crack he got on his head from a hatch cover was a war wound. The blackouts he gets as a result make him unemployable – so how is he to make a living? By preying on rich widows.
Martha is not a good target, money wise, but the relationship that evolves is complex and rivetingly rendered by Bryony Skillington (Martha) and Nick Dunbar (Ray). She knows how to sexually please a man and he gives her the love she craves. There's just the small matter of money and those lonely rich widows are there for the fleecing. Except it's not as simple as that …
Skillington anchors each moment in undeniable emotional truth, taking us on a guided tour of Martha's descent into a psychopathic disregard for anyone but herself and the man she loves. Such characters are very powerful when we can see our own potential for going that way and have to check what it is that stops us.
Dunbar oscillates between gentlemanly charmer and semi-stunned man with a tenuous hold on reality. His thresholds and lack of them for love, sexual passion and murder are clearly marked. Is he equally ruthless or just as culpable through his inability to take a stand and draw the line? His sudden falls, by the way, are superbly executed.
Emma Kinane (for whom the role of Martha was originally written) also invests the awful mother, Julia Seabrook, with deep-felt truth that commands our understanding even as she compulsively corrodes Martha's self-confidence. Her series of ‘Lonely Heart' widows-turned-brides, culminating in the all-American Mom Delphine Downing, are also ‘true' in the way good cartoons can be.
Natasha McAllister gives excellent accounts of Young Martha, the friend Bobby, and Rainelle – the tap-dancing daughter of Delphine. And Nick Purdie completes the excellent cast as Martha's insidiously friendly brother, an arrogant Maître D' at the soon-to-be-lethal-lovers' first date, and the Priest who officiates at successive weddings and finally at an execution.
The songs flow naturally from the dialogue and action, and are strongly delivered without amplification in Bats' intimate setting. [Jo Hodgson will also write a review that focuses on the musical aspects.]
This is a show that commands our empathy and trusts its audience to judge the ruthless actions of its characters without being spoon-fed by an agent of goodness. Although we are on the outside looking in, the production keeps drawing us into their subjective viewpoints then jolting us back to reality. The final image – of Martha having pearls placed around her neck by the deceased Ray as she stands on the scaffold – reminds us that her perceptions are not rational; not of this world.
The costumes designed by Maryanne Cathro give us instant access to the lives of those who wear them be they drab, suave, sensual red, bright white or polka dot.
Dan Williams' scaffolding set creates two levels and a staircase, uses all Bats' entrance points well and gives the solo musician a place to hide while seeing all the action. Jennifer Lal's lighting maps the moods to unobtrusive effect.
Lonely Hearts is a potent cautionary tale that deserves to have a healthy life on the Festival circuit. Catch it while it's in an intimate theatre – who knows where it could end up!
*More on the provenance of this show:
What is wrong with the infrastructure of NZ theatre, that it has taken so long for this musical to get produced, some six years after it should have been?
From the first inspiration in 1996, Lonely Heart evolved over time, gained development support from Playmarket, was showcased in the 2005 Adam Play Reading – “And then … Nothing happened,” the programme note tells us.
In 2006 another film version came out, called Lonely Hearts, told as a crime investigation story with two detectives to the fore. Williams got involved in other things ...
We have the generosity of key players to thank for what happened next. Last year Williams played for two fundraisers in which Skillington and Bats Programme Manager Martyn Wood also performed. “I told Bryony I thought her voice was amazing,” writes Williams in his programme note, “and she said she wished there was a show she could sing in. I said (again rather flippantly) that I had written a show that had never been produced and she called across the room to Martyn, ‘Michael's got a musical he wants to do.” He replied, “How's January?” And here we are …”
This is a ‘no budget' co-op production with minimal sponsorship that has been rehearsed while Michael Nicholas Williams, Jeff Kingsford-Brown and Nick Dunbar were performing the annual panto at Circa – a gig for which Williams has been writing songs for years. These people are not ‘emerging', they have long-since paid their dues and it is bewildering that our better-funded theatre companies are not hungry for works like Lonely Heart.
Fortunately Williams has, in the meantime, written another musical ”about the dress rehearsal of an NZ version of Wuthering Heights.” Let's hope there is more interest from those with the wherewithal to get that up in reasonable time.
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:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
Craig Beardsworth (Capital Times);