Written by Thomas Sainsbury
Directed by Hera Dunleavy
at The Basement, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
From 16 Aug 2012 to 25 Aug 2012
Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 17 Aug 2012
When the play's not very good The Basement Theatre isn't the best venue to be in - the rake is too shallow, if you sit at the back even the average person is in danger of donging their head on low hanging technical equipment. And on nights when the production is decidedly popular and the weather inclement the foyer can become an unbearable place to be.
Fortunately none of these first night niggles was a concern during Grublette Productions' debut presentation of Thomas Sainsbury's new play Nøughty Girls. While Chelsea McEwan Millar, Elizabeth McMenamin and Hera Dunleavy also get writing credit in what is clearly a team effort, I'd suggest the majority of the work is Sainsbury's and he should get the bulk of the plaudits. I mention this in recognition of all the dramas Shakespeare created without naming his co-writers, so big ups to this team for telling us everything because they have created a script that does the same.
It tells us everything – and we love it!
Nøughty Girls is about a couple of girls up to naughty but nice stuff in the nice and naughty noughties. In so doing they expose a little known fact, that apart from the technology and some changes in the language, heterosexuality is pretty much as it always has been. Girl meets boy, girl likes boy, girl shags boy, girls dumps boy, girl moves on – with only a slight variation to the latter component of the scenario to add spice, should any more be needed.
Jolly good stuff it is, too, with super performances, neat direction and a very, cool ‘fly on the wall' script.
There's an appropriately twee programme containing thoroughly modern bios of the actors in which we discover that Elizabeth McMenamin spent two years frolicking overseas and once played a seagull, and that Chelsea McEwan Millar is working at not referring to herself in the third person and occasionally attempts to give up smoking.
We also discover that both women have considerable experience and training and clearly can't get enough of either. They each have craft to burn and commitment to back it up.
The set is simple: a Karitane yellow three-seater couch upstage centre, large projection screen behind it, a small café scene stage right and another stage left.
Nøughty Girls is the early evening offering of a double bill with Team M&M's production of The Pantry Shelf and is certainly value for money. The works sit separate from each other but, if you're a theatre nut and can't get enough, the two work well together as a complete night out.
The production is splendidly directed by Hera Dunleavy and relies for its success on a delicious amalgam of fine script, quirky concept and first-rate performances. I suspect that Dunleavy is adept at working collaboratively with actors as there is a level of ownership evident that doesn't really come any other way. If I'm wrong I doubt anyone will be telling me any time soon.
The play is structured as a series of brief episodes separated by Facebook and chat room clips projected onto a centrally placed screen. These are poignant and witty and help us to bounce from one scene's end to the beginning of the next. Add a delicious collection of character photographs uploaded from an iPhone and you have a twenty-first century, electronically interactive connection with the characters.
Nøughty Girls explores the growth of a friendship between Anna and Lizzy during which we also experience the unravelling of Anna's relationship with Ben. The characters lie to each other, jokingly own up to their lies then lie again so that there are times when the audience has difficulty recognising what is truth and what is fiction.
Anna (Chelsea McEwan Millar) has been in a relationship with Ben (Elizabeth McMenamin) for seven years which is extraordinary in that she is still only 23. He has been her only sexual partner. She works in a coffee shop and seems to have little ambition beyond pleasing her man, getting married and getting through each day. Alcohol helps.
Ben, Anna's partner, is a ne'er do well with even less ambition than his attractive girlfriend. He is a layabout who spends considerable time on the couch being uncommunicative and … laying about.
Lizzy (Elizabeth McMenamin), though of similar age to Anna, has had quite a number of sexual partners but when we meet her, she isn't committed to anyone. She's a social butterfly but seemingly alone in the world.
Sean (Chelsea McEwan Millar) is a young Irish Lothario who is involved with Lizzy – and a number of other women – in a ‘friends with benefits' setting; a fact that Lizzy finds a bit distasteful when she finally cottons-on. All four are thoroughly modern and the girls are wonderful samplings of the generation who grew to maturity in the twenty noughties.
The women chat, drink coffee, get drunk, share hangovers and talk about themselves. There are times when the text is evocative of one that might have been written by Armistead Maupin as a behavioural tutorial for twenty-first century heterosexuals. It's delicately written and torn to shreds in the best possible way by McMenamin and Millar, who have a command over naturalism that far outweighs their years and experience.
The script takes us from when the girls have just met – a delightful scene in a queue outside a toilet in a night club – through to a somewhat later, though not more sober, time when we know them almost too well and they are sharing a flat together. Sainsbury's zippy script allows us to love these quite distinctive characters and to quickly grow to care what happens to them.
It's hard to imagine a New Zealand playwright currently working who is better able to capture the delightful and accurate social vignettes that Sainsbury's seizes upon time and time again. He finds comedy in situation and observation that interacts with his plot lines with consummate ease.
The linking music is terrific and the introduction of witty, in context, references to Pride and Prejudice and the ubiquitous Mr Darcy are both an appealing addition and great fun. There is, after all, an alluring lack of propriety in Sainsbury's scripts that sometimes takes the breath away.
He is also extraordinarily prolific and part of me wants to tell him to slow down and use his prodigious talent to create a ‘proper play' that will make him buckets of money on the West End before transferring to Broadway and winning him countless awards. I tend to think this when I am at home, intellectualising about his work, and not in the theatre. When I am enjoying his work in situ, it's always quite a different matter. In the case of Nøughty Girls I simply didn't want it to end.
Sainsbury fashions a gaudy modernity but, as with much of Sainsbury's other work, Nøughty Girls is fundamentally fabricated within a traditional ‘fourth wall' construct and there's nothing wrong in this. His actors contribute to this 21st century avant-gardism by having such a handle on the script that, at times, it feels almost improvised. It's not, of course, and we know this. It's just very good work by both director and actors.
Nøughty Girls is a play about a couple of young women living their lives and having a bit of fun. It's what you see and hear if you always frequent the same coffee shop alongside others who do the same. It's what Sainsbury does best – sweet voyeurism – cast with real people doing real things. And this inveterate stalker loved it!
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See also reviews by:
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);