NO DULL MOMENTS
THE MOTOR CAMP
by Dave Armstrong
based on a story by Danny Mulheron
Directed by Tim Bartlett
at Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch
From 23 Jun 2012 to 4 Aug 2012
Reviewed by Lindsay Clark, 24 Jun 2012
Comedy writing for and about New Zealanders has established Dave Armstrong as a favourite for stage and screen. His ability to find laughter in our cultural confusion and social embarrassments is astute and unerring. When this well-honed talent has the target of ill-matched neighbours, managing the forced intimacy of adjoining sites in a motor camp, expectations run high that we'll be faint with laughter before the night is out, and feel all the better for a little cheerful analysis of our Kiwi ways.
Perhaps it is the very predictability of the experience which left me feeling disenchanted by the end of the opening performance, and reflecting that the short story on which this work is based would have had the advantage of economy and punch, whereas the staged version felt padded and at times contrived as situations were milked for their humour, some of it distinctly dirty. Most people in the audience were not noticing however, and the applause at the end of both halves was warmly approving.
The stage arranged for the Eindhoven camp sets up well to Nigel Kerr's design, with two caravans and camping gear and a communal space. Prominent is the loud speaker which will regularly bray out admonishments from the 'Dutchie' owner. Beyond is the wide blue world of sea and sky, painted by Maurice Kidd to provide that whiff of a paradise which the neighbours might just reach after the life lessons they encounter.
On one hand is the professional couple, the Redmonds, and their sulky teenaged daughter, whose cell phone contact with the friends she has had to desert, brings only misery. Dad is a lecturer in literacy at a teachers' college, pressured to publish (he gets straight on to 'writing'), anti-social and generally sour on life. His wife enjoys higher status as a professor, though her wifely needs are not being met and like her husband's, her liberal ideas about education and parenting will be tested by events.
Across the shared picnic table are those responsible. Their family group is also a threesome. Mike Hislop is a builder, a self confessed 'hard case'. Together with his partner Dawn Tairoa and her adolescent son Jared, he shows an altogether more spontaneous attitude to life, especially pleasure.
The scene is set, then, for a series of situations where mismatches – comical for the viewer but uncomfortable for those involved – will provide our entertainment. Sometimes this arises from broad stereotypes we spot even before the action starts, sometimes from farcical situations and running gags.
Either way, it is Armstrong's facility with language patterns for his characters, as much as what they do, which brings the smiles of recognition. Tim Bartlett's own understanding of comedy guides his direction and there are no dull moments, though some strain credibility. Sometimes, too, the laughter is silenced as a serious issue. For example, violent parental authority erupts, and shared understanding seems a long way off.
The casting brings some new faces to The Court. Juanita Hepi as Dawn and Jill Roberts as her opposite number, Jude Redmond, play their contrasting attitudes clearly. As the adolescent pair, Phoebe McKellar (Holly Redmond) and Tola Newbery (Jared Tairoa) suggest that only adults would let social and racial embarrassment stand in the way of a good time.
But it is the dads who carry the main thrust of the play and each has something to learn from the other. Stephen Papps as the uncomfortable Frank Redmond embodies the taciturn, impractical and unphysical academic. His sparring partner, Tom Trevella (Mike Hislop) is in fine form. He plays a robust bloke, full of importance and crude bonhomie who does not see how he is failing as a parent.
The writer describes this piece as “a love song to families, camping and public facilities.” Certainly it makes the popular songbook, though not exactly a national anthem.
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