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Print Version

By Penelope Skinner
Directed by Paul Gittins
Presented by (potent pause) Productions

at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 25 Sep 2012 to 29 Sep 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 27 Sep 2012

There is a certain magic that arises from excellent actors filling an almost blank space with characters and interactions that truthfully draw us into lives, concerns and worlds we recognise as very real. Human behaviour is endlessly intriguing.

But quite why English playwright Penelope Skinner called this, her second play, Eigengrau, is a mystery. Her first play was bluntly called Fucked, which doubtless won attention amid the plethora of plays on offer in London then the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008. Her more recent titles are The Village Bike and The Sound of Heavy Rain. It was Eigengrau (2010), I think, that won her a spot on the Royal Court Theatre's Young Writers programme. But how do you sell a play with a title like that?

“Meet Cassie,” the publicity blurb goes. “She's just moved in with Rose, who's just had a one-night stand with Mark, who's fed up of living with Tim, who secretly loves Rose, who's just using Tim to get to Mark (who she loves), who's just become very interested in Cassie.” All true. And intriguing. But given it is a highly accessible relationship drama with humorous insights into human frailty and vulnerability, why call it Eigengrau?

Googling reveals it is a German word meaning intrinsic grey, dark light or brain grey; the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness; the light within what seems to be absolute blackness. Knowing that in advance may throw an even more interesting light on the stories that emerge.  

Bats' black box stage is the ideal starting point. Four dark grey boxes, a few other props, appropriate clothes and good technical support (lighting designed by Ruby Reihana Wilson and Ben Williams, and operated, along with the uncredited sound, by Williams) are all the four perfectly cast actors and director Paul Gittins need to bring the play to life.

The ashes in the urn that holds focus at the beginning and end, and plays a seemingly incidental ‘black comedy' role in one scene, may also be described as ‘intrinsic grey': ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

When Tim was a boy it was his Nan who brought light to his life. The dark days for him were at boarding school where unspeakable initiation rites were inflicted on new boys. But now, despite working in a fast food outlet while applying for other jobs, he lives with old school mate Mark, who is in marketing and wants it all – including his cold drink at the end of a hard day.

Simon Ward's under-motivated, pliable Tim and Callum Gittins' go-getting, ever-questing Mark make for a splendid odd couple, subtly calibrated to keep us asking who is using whom in the days of their lives.

But the first interaction is between Mark and Cassie, who are strangers. Mark has just spent the night with Rose, the flatmate Cassie acquired through As a feminist activist who lobbies parliament and gives speeches, she is susceptible to aggressive confrontation when faced with such sublime ignorance as Mark exudes – and Chelsea McEwan Millar nails the role absolutely. Amid the darkness within which so many women still suffer, she is a light-bearer for change.

Cassie and Rose are poles apart too. Rose believes in fairies, fairy-tale romances, and that the universe will provide. There are hints that much darkness enclosed her early life so who would begrudge her this means of moving onward – except when the rent is due and she has no sense of responsibility towards it. Michelle Blundell makes every delicious and infuriating aspect of Rose utterly real.

Skinner's script is strong on character and the interactions between them as she dramatises the relationship dilemmas of modern life. What elevates it from the turgid agitations of soap opera is her perception of paradox within the human condition.

I won't be specific but if, in general, you are fascinated by the deeply sensitive people who try to protect themselves by bullying, or the politically powerful people who frequent B&D parlours, then you will like this play. Likewise the inner conflicts between head and heart, ideals and urges, principles and instincts – as manifested by this exemplary cast – feed the fascination factor as the plot's intrigues deepen.  

There are some credibility issues: an act of theft has no consequences; a debt problem is never resolved; the requirement to use fake cigarettes that don't burn down compromises the final image. And a simulated sex act carried out long enough to be credible slackens the otherwise well-modulated pace.

As for Rose's self-inflicted solution: it verges on the melodramatic but bathos is avoided thanks to the authenticity each actor brings to what follows, as well as to their actions throughout. Again, considering the paradox of light within darkness lifts what happens to an extra-ordinary level.

I saw the second night with a very small audience, which prompts me to urge Wellington audiences not to be parochial but to support Auckland shows in the same way we hope Wellington shows will be supported in Auckland – especially when they are as well done as this.

(potent pause) Productions has a strong following in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand deserves to enjoy their work. Eigengrau is well worth seeing. 
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:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Paul Simei-Barton
 Lexie Matheson