22 ACTORS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR
Devised by Leo Gene Peters & Long Cloud Youth Theatre Summer School
In association with Downstage, Whitireia Polytechnic and a slightly isolated dog
at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 1 Feb 2013 to 16 Feb 2013
[1hr 50 mins, incl. interval]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 2 Feb 2013
Long Cloud Youth Theatre's Perfectly Wasted leaves us in no doubt formidable performing arts talent is continuing to emerge in Wellington. It is based on the group's extensive research, with director Leo Gene Peters, into the experiences of young people on weekend nights in Courtenay Place where they routinely get wasted, ritualistically wasting ‘the best years of their lives'.
The quality, commitment and discipline of their ensemble work offers a splendid contrast to the aimless, self-absorbed, somewhat desolate lives they depict in their desperate longing to belong; to not be left out or behind.
But how interesting is it for an audience to watch 90 minutes of this (intersected by an interval)? Watching a good ensemble work well as a team can be its own reward, to a point, but it should be the means to a greater end.
Oliver Morse's set design, surrounded by and surrounding the audience, is brilliant. Made largely of booze boxes that seem to litter the central black pit of despair, it lights up to become a wondrous facsimile of the city at night surrounded by hillside suburbs etched out with street lights. And bed lamps – intimating a place of intimacy, aloneness or both – light most of the action, often hand-held.
Matt Eller's sound design of karaoke tracks and other pop music, his video screen titles of themed sequences (e.g. Morgan & Will) and gossip and txt exchanges about what's just happened, and his operation of it all, make a strong contribution to the rhythm and flow of the action. And hand-held mic stands give us access to particular conversations amid the maelstrom – or is it more of a miasma? The live music sequences are well done too and the singing is strong.
But is it enough for the medium to be the message? When everyone in the cast is clearly having more fun and more profound experiences (as actors if not as characters) than the audience – with the odd exception in a loyal first night crowd – we have to ask what's missing.
In short, it's a spine: a central narrative structure and/or unifying theme that makes the component parts stand up, engage with each other and us, and thereby connect – contribute, even – to the world around it. That's the deal in theatre. Watching creative people at work for its own sake is a relatively limited experience.
The components could well contribute to a whole that adds up to more than their sum if a playwrights' sensibility had been brought to the project – witness LCYT's productions of Wheeler's Luck, by Nigel Collins, Toby Leach & Damon Andrews (also originating actors and director); Assisted Living, devised with playwright Jo Randerson; Tom Keeper Passes, devised with playwright Eli Kent.
If you catch the title prompts on a TV screen within your sightline you will learn what to look for amid the melee of fun-seekers who compulsively break into snatches of song for fear, it seems, that a potential storyline, character or relationship might take hold and demand greater scrutiny or development.
What we get, then, are glimpses of moments that come and go, or thin storylines that thread through the evening. The most sustained sees a couple – Morgan & Wills – hook up, make out, break up and only meet up again when she is booked to go overseas (imminent departure is a great aphrodisiac): a pretty standard scenario simply sketched in with no depth or difference to lift it out of cliché.
There's an intense scene where band members fight because the lead singer and lead guitarist are at odds and someone has invited a girlfriend to band practice without the others' permission. Because the configuration means we don't all always see the faces of those talking, I can only say I think this is connected to the relationship that seems to break up remarkably amicably, only to see the boy serenading the girl at 4am to the displeasure of her neighbours. This is the best scene in the show because it allows us to engage and empathise with both sides of the ‘argument'.
There's a dramatic scenario where a girl gets separated from her group and was seen to get into a car with a group of guys, creating the dilemma of whether her friends should alert her parents. And there's a funny regionalist joke about where she finds herself in the morning. But if we'd got to know all the people involved, even a bit, this could have compelled much more than the passing glance from the distance to which we find ourselves confined as outsiders looking on.
A young man reads from an essay written as a contribution to the research; well written and read to be sure but it's source material for dramatisation and squandered when delivered this way.
Nevertheless by interval, even though there are no questions I want answered or people whose fates compel my return, I fondly believe the multiple set ups, or some of them at least, will be developed and pay off in some way, to reward the time and attention we are investing. “The second act, however, fails to fulfil the promise …” (to quote Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound).
Sure ‘essay boy' surprises us with his response to a girl he met at an 18th birthday party. This may also be the party where a boy collapses and things are done which elicit laughs from those who can see it. A sequence entitled ‘The most miserable night in Finn's life (with dignity)' – involving a ‘bender' apparently – leads to a drinking game called “If the awful thing that's happened to me has also happened to you [insert details here], drink!” Someone gets their head dunked in a bucket in another ‘game' …
A shirtless and drunk guy tries to get past a bouncer. A group of girls try to score some “stuff” which leads to a stoned / trippy sequence that only makes me think how much better they did it in Hair (done very simply last year by another youth company in Wellington). Finn's ex, Sophie, gets off with his mate Phil, which is about as close as we get to a moral dilemma all night. Someone gets arrested for abusing a police officer …
In short we are getting everything in a way that amounts to nothing more than once-over-lightly flip through their undoubtedly authentic research material. It depicts one stratum of lives that are surely lived at more levels than this but given no counterpoint they seem two-dimensional. We get ‘22 actors in search of an author'.
In the end it just peters out. And again we have to ask what's missing when someone ‘in the know' has to lead the applause to tell the rest of us it is over.
Given the narrative and thematic coherence of a slightly isolated dog's masterful Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants, also helmed by Leo Gene Peters, it's surprising such fundamentals have been ignored in Perfectly Wasted.
In her brief after-function speech in the bar, Downstage CEO Hilary Beaton noted that Sir Paul Holmes (whose death was the news of the day) had got his start at Downstage at 18 with John Clarke (21) and Ginette McDonald (15) in a late night review called Knickers (1968), followed two years later by Knackers. It should also be noted that in 1966 an even younger group put on their own late night review at Downstage, directed by Dick Johnstone: My Vote Belongs To Daddy by Jane Hewland with Ginette McDonald, Sarah Delahunty, Cathy O'Shea, Stephen McKenzie and Helen Hewland – all teenagers and still at school. Dare I say that show offered ten times more insight into being young and feeling disenfranchised, in half the time.
Whilst applauding Downstage for partnering up with Long Cloud Youth Theatre and acknowledging the immense commitment involved in everyone's researching, developing, producing and performing of this show, I can only conclude it amounts to a perfectly wasted opportunity.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);