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Print Version

by Nigel Collins, Toby Leach & Damon Andrews
performed by Long Cloud Youth Theatre
presented by Whitireia New Zealand

at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 11 Oct 2012 to 13 Oct 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 13 Oct 2012

Wheeler's Luck seemed to be one of those ‘cast specific' plays that would slip off the radar when its brilliant original cast – Toby Leach and Nigel Collins (co-writers with director Damon Andrews) – moved on. It debuted late in 2004, toured a bit over the next two years and then was seen no more … until now.

But wasn't the magical thing about it that the 55-odd (some very odd) characters were created at breakneck speed and with extraordinary clarity by just two actors? How could an ensemble production compare with that? Oh, but Bruce Mason's solo play The End of the Golden Weather has enjoyed a number of ensemble renditions; Toa Faser's No 2 made the successful transition from solo show (with Madeleine Sami) to fully-cast feature film and plans are afoot for Jabob Rajan's Krishnan's Dairy to do the same.  

It turns out that it's an inspired idea for Long Cloud Youth Theatre to do Wheeler's Luck with a cast of 11. The apparently shonky production values, which are in fact quite brilliant – an overhead projector adding the impression of rolling hills on cream curtains and allowing for shadow acting and puppetry, along with the performances in front of the curtains – give it the feel of a piece of local history re-enacted by, and for, the Cox Point community. 

Legend has it that back in 1882 the horseback elopement from Bell End to Foxton of Jonny Wheeler and Lydia Cox was foiled mid-storm by the floundering would-be survivors a shipwreck off Cox Point. Because heroic Jonny could not desert them, old man Cox reclaimed his daughter.

The contemporary fortunes of Bell End and Cox Point are materially affected by the untimely demise of Nora Cox in her long drop, thanks to a roaming cat and an unfortunately positioned shotgun. And the play's climactic event has a random outcome that at first seems disastrous but actually gives the threatened town the new lease of life it craves.

This, then, is “Wheeler's luck”: random forces beyond mere human control bring mixed blessings. It erupts when chaos and order collide and has a good-with-the-bad, lose-some / win-some quality. It's a philosophy that helps people exposed to radical change regain equilibrium.

The Wheeler legend is drawn as a strengthening strand through the tangled web of local body deceptions that weave the play's central plot. An Auckland developer, Richard Lush, is in cahoots with the mayor, Duncan Sanderson, to develop the economically depressed Bell End in the image of Queenstown. In particular the natural playground of Cox Point is to be remade as a golf course.

But local postie Murray Dickle does not want to pay green fees to stand on land he fish from when he was four; land on which members of his community were ceonceived. With the help of shire secretary Cilla, he discovers the terms of Nora Cox's will. Meanwhile Cilla's daughter, Trisha, is drawn to Richard's sophistication but craves the bright lights of Hamilton …

A typically shambolic community meeting, designed to trick the locals into backing the required referendum, provokes a wager between Richard and Murray, with Trisha and Cilla riding as their respective passengers. What a climactic sequence! 

Director Aaron Cortesi has worked with his cast to create a range of ingenious performance solutions to the manifold story-telling challenges. By today's matinee – the third performance – they are all wonderfully relaxed and whimsical; in total control of the faux chaos.

Despite the broad comical style, each character registers strongly as real and recognisable with true feelings driving their behaviour: essential for comedy of this ilk. 

There are plans afoot to tour this around high schools. I hope that comes off. This Wheeler's Luck brings a truly Kiwi community alive with great ingenuity, humour and integrity.
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 Caoilinn Hughes
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);