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THE COOLNESS OF BEING A NEW ZEALANDER IN AMERICA

Print Version

ONE MAN GUY: Dirty American Decade
written and performed by Jon Pheloung

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 11 Jun 2013 to 15 Jun 2013

Reviewed by Charlotte Simmonds, 12 Jun 2013


Just making the twenty-three year deadline Jon Pheloung had set himself to write a follow-up show to his initial 1991 performance One Man Guy: No Subtitle, he now returns with One Man Guy: Dirty American Decade promising fourteen original songs and, in the press release, nothing but acoustic guitar but in the poster, a banjo! I don't even know if any of that is true. The banjo certainly isn't.

Being still in primary school when One Man Guy was first performed at BATS, I am unable to rate OMG:DAD as a sequel. Loudon Wainwright III is pinched for the title of the show and the lyrics “People will know when they see this show the kind of guy I am / They'll understand what I stand for and what I just can't stand” are amusingly apt for a solo autobiographical theatre piece. 

This is the story of a decade Pheloung spent in the States, trying and failing to come up with a cheap, money-making, chart-topping pop song after the magical formula of three minutes, three chords.

If you can imagine that following the split of Crowded House, Neil Finn went off to the States and did what Flight of the Conchords purportedly did in their TV series, he might have come back and made a show that sounded a lot like this. It's Flight of the Conchords but the soul-searching, wistful tunes New Zealand was better at in the 90s in Finnish style (Finns from New Zealand not Finns from Finland) or perhaps in the vein of other singer-songwriters like James Wilkinson. Better at? No, times just change and we don't write this kind of music anymore, we write other music instead, but sometimes when people talk about the 90s as if they part of history, a sudden shock jolts me as I realise they were twenty years ago already and I feel almost offended at the passing of time. Even “the early 2000s was a long time ago” says Pheloung, reminding us that people no longer burn demo CDs and shove them in the post, to say nothing of tapes. 

As he self-deprecatingly travels around the States, taking us through Missouri, Tennessee, New Orleans, Illinois and the Carolinas, and not in that order, it's clear that Pheloung has been being a New Zealander in America since before being a New Zealander in America was cool, and although his jokes may be low-hanging fruit, he still makes me laugh and his commentary is not without warmth, intelligence and charm. However, he is clearly too smart to be nothing more than a failed musician and I suspect his time in America saw him doing quite different things that aren't let on to in this show.  

After the Rothwellian sentiment of “Whatever we do, it'll all end in tears,” Pheloung gives up his radio hit dream and returns home to an earthquake-struck Christchurch where he writes “everything will fall apart / except the human heart,” bringing to mind the old adage that when everything that can be shaken has been shaken, only what can't be shaken will remain.

I secretly hope he will get the 12-string down off the back wall at some point but it seems to be merely part of the beautiful and immaculate stage dressing. Instead, and to my astonishment, he manages to get the entire audience gustily singing “three minute, three chord pop song, baby” at the end.
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