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VERBAL GYMNASTICS AND GENTLE DEEPENING CAPTIVATE

Print Version

SONGBIRD
by Richard Huber
Directed by Richard Huber and Erica Newlands

at Globe Theatre, Dunedin
From 6 Dec 2012 to 16 Dec 2012

Reviewed by Terry MacTavish, 8 Dec 2012


And I feel that when I'm with you,
It's all right, I know it's right.
And I love you, I love you, I love you
Like never before, like never before. 

The lyrics of Fleetwood Mac's Songbird are hardly profound, yet the very simplicity is disarming, evoking the essential absurdity of attraction between two people, and it is this elusive magic that outstanding local playwright Richard Huber captures in his Songbird. 

The play opens with an odd couple staring blankly at us from a sofa; instantly recognisable figures: the Bride and the Policeman. The bride has been discovered hiding in the policeman's wardrobe, having fled from the altar in the best tradition of runaway brides.

Her reasons are a little less usual however – when the moment came for the groom to give her the kiss, she suddenly couldn't (literally) face it. (Well, I did once myself decide which of two blokes to go out with based on which I could fancy kissing goodnight, and apparently in the sex industry a kiss is considered more intimate than copulation.)  

The sophisticated verbal gymnastics that follow evolve from that most romantic of kisses, the heart and climax of The Sound of Music, when the Captain gives way to his feelings for Maria. “The kiss transcends the kids in curtains!”  In typical Huber style this leads the couple into a delightful labyrinth of charmingly whimsical banter. Quarrelling, teasing and flirting, they grow closer to each other, and to discovering the true meaning of a kiss. 

Huber's beautifully crafted Glorious was also a romantic comedy with a wittily sparring couple, but while that was firmly set in 30s America, Songbird is Kiwi-as, despite the fact that the bride is Chinese, and the policeman resembles Portwenn's hapless constable in Doc Martin.

The conversation constantly references things dear to our hearts, from lyrically described mountains ‘big enough to make us realise how small we are', to the genius of film maker Peter Jackson.

Huber has worked a good deal in community and verbatim theatre and has an ear for the vernacular but, like Pinter, Huber understands how to reconstruct the non-sequiturs, repetitions and mad leaps of thought to fascinate the ear and ‘transcend' ordinary conversation. 

The dialogue flits in wild flights of fancy round any idea that intrigues Huber: how Jackson would remake the Sound of Music, for instance. The inclusion of a new character, Nazi with Torch, is justified with typically crazy logic: “Peter Jackson has kids! He takes them camping! He knows the value of a good torch!” Somehow we get from there to weird fantasies of sex with Anna Paquin, and much, much more.

The black box set is stark with the lighting focusing attention on the only piece of furniture, the sofa.  The music is lovely: never the banality of whatever song is being discussed, sometimes indeed mocking romantic conventions.

Angie is an enchanting bride in a vintage gown that falls in beautiful folds. She moves with decorative grace, contrasted amusingly with the stolid blue of the police uniform nicely filled out by the rather uptight PC James.

Kate Han, who plays Angie with great assurance and charm, arrived in New Zealand just a couple of years ago, and her Chinese accent gives a cute intensity to her utterances: “You are more Chinese than I am! You use chopsticks!”  As James the policeman and best friend of her jilted groom, Luke Agnew is a fine foil, all slightly pompous respectability: “There is no such thing as police porn!” 

The two have been very competently directed by Erica Newlands and Huber. The slight awkwardness between them at the start actually suits the situation, as does Angie's initial breathless vulnerability, and the relationship develops most beguilingly.

The passing of time is shown by the convention of regular blackouts, light returning to reveal the couple in a new and amusing position. With little action involved, Songbird could seem static except that the dialogue is skipping and fantastical and very funny. Other playwrights could well take a lesson from the spanking pace: this never ever gets bogged down in predictability.

Where Glorious had ingenious twists in the plot, Songbird allows the language to hold us. The gentle deepening of James and Angie's relationship is in itself satisfying.

I think (other theatres note) that at under an hour this would make excellent lunchtime theatre: very easily digestible! As an evening performance it leaves time for a fabulous Reception afterwards, with the Globe foyer decorated for a wedding, and (every night!) real bubbly, finger food and wedding cake.

It is great that the Globe has presented so much NZ theatre this year, and this new play is a captivating choice.  Created by a master wordsmith like Huber, the delicate confectionary of Songbird provides the perfect antidote to the season of Christmas pudding stodge. 
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 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);