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Written by Kathryn Burnett & Nick Ward
Directed by: Kerryn Palmer

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 23 Mar 2013 to 20 Apr 2013
[1hr 40min, no interval]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 24 Mar 2013

It begins and ends with a lift – well, in a lift – and a lift (in spirits) is what we expect from a rom-com, even when it is as ostensibly anti-romantic as Mike and Virginia.

Virginia, a newly-appointed university Film Studies lecturer specialising in romantic comedies, is the first to say rom-coms are, by their very nature, ludicrous. Yet, like audiences at magic shows, we get sucked in time and again … Whether they are illusions or delusions, they feed our insatiable desire to believe love actually is truly possible / does conquer all / is all we need in our real worlds.  

Some of us are also drawn to monster movies, which the well-entrenched lecturer Mike specialises in. They allow us to feel the adrenaline rush of fear without getting hurt; to have vicarious ‘experiences' in domains of ludicrous fantasy that we know, deep down, could never happen in real life.  

At first glance, then, rom-coms and monster movies would seem to be diametrically opposed. And yet …

Playwrights Kathryn Burnett and Nick Ward cleverly allow the twain to meet by exploring the crossover territory, where both Virginia and Mike have good reason to fear ever falling in love again. This is also a play that revels in proving the truth of romantic clichés in the very act of resisting them. And of course it is that resistance that generates its dramatic energy and comedy.

Cast, as we are from the start, in the role of the lecturers' students, we are immediately drawn in by being asked to contemplate such concepts as “the cute meet” or to identify the monsters in well known movies. But it is recognition of the characters and situations, our empathy with the central couple and the ‘will they?' / ‘won't they?'; ‘should they?' / ‘shouldn't they?', and the ‘OMG, what next?' questions that compel our ongoing interest.  

In a welcome return to the Wellington stage, Gentiane Lupi claims Virginia unto herself in no uncertain terms. Her unspoken thoughts and feelings are as eloquent and those she verbalises.

Also back at Circa after a long absence is Perry Piercy, who has a ball as Virginia's ‘best friend' Sally, a wannabe professional actress doomed to eke out a living at the Fairie Shoppe. Skilfully walking a tightrope from which she could easily fall into trite send-up, she insists we believe in her. Thus her screen audition scenes are agonisingly funny.

Reprising the role he originated in the Auckland premiere, Will Hall finds every would-be nuance in Mike, who is not as confident or two-dimensional as he makes himself out to be (a characteristic that makes me think he is over-projecting for Circa Two initially but on reflection I see that as how Mike protects himself from closer scrutiny).  

Likewise reprising the ‘best mate' role (unnamed in the programme because the reveal makes for a good gag), Stephen Papps is as dry as a Waikato paddock in March. Intriguingly both he and Sally directly address the audience at times with no ‘excuse' (like giving a lecture), yet it works, because their characters are ideally positioned to comment on both the action and their roles in the rom-com genre.

Completing the cast is Jennifer Martin as the naïve student Melissa, whose untamed emotions find full expression in her portentous poetry. The knife-edge she walks between truth and send-up is extremely sharp and Martin maintains a perfect balance to render a truly memorable character.

All five characters are blessed with a full range of emotions to explore and all five actors embrace the opportunities with alacrity. What makes this very much a 21st century rom-com (as opposed to, say, the Neil Simon comedies of yore) is the lack of pussy-footing around sexual behaviour, which allows for the whole territory of sex v love – the testing of the myth that a sex-only relationship can ever remain free of complications – to be robustly interrogated.

There are a couple of moments early on when gags are unnecessarily explained but fortunately that doesn't continue. Otherwise the only slight miss-fire, for me, is a sequence depicting an actor-devised alternative theatre piece, where the conventions used remind me only of 1960s drama workshops. Along with the piss-take performances, this rather undermines the potentially more interesting satirical content, which I take to be a somewhat Freudian slant on feminism vis-à-vis the ambivalence of father /daughter relationships.  

That said, the set-ups and pay-offs, the twists and turns, the playing with predictability and subverting of expectations, and the meta-theatrical commentary all conspire to entertain us at every level. Overall the production – directed with seamless fluency by Kerryn Palmer – is pitched with a buoyancy that allows the many moments of truth to hit home and produce laughter through the shock of recognition, even as we are confronted with living proof of our own fallibilities and vulnerabilities when it comes to romance.  

Tane Upjohn-Beatson's sound design and original compositions ingeniously add a filmic quality to some scenes, reminding us that what we are relating to as ‘real life' is also conforming to rom-com conventions and trying to manipulate us accordingly.

Meg Rollandi's ‘his side v her side' set design serves the action well, while her costume designs are as spot-on yet as unobtrusive as Marcus McShane's lighting design. And with so much contributing to the sound and lighting mix, credit is also due to technical operator Miriam Sobey (whose stage managing role is shared by Jennifer Martin).

The animation with which the audience talks about the actual content of the play afterwards is always a good measure of its success and on that score Mike and Virginia deserves full houses. The mix of subjective engagement and objective appreciation engendered by the play and this production certainly lifts our spirits. 
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