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Print Version

written by James Cain
directed by Sam Phillips
co-directed by Simon Haren
presented by PlayShop Performance Company

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 11 Dec 2013 to 14 Dec 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 12 Dec 2013

To add to our Christmas cheer, PlayShop has stepped out of their improvising comfort zone to present a sketch comedy show: Sketch Up. Written by James Cain and directed by Sam Phillips (with Simon Haren), it captures many aspects of a secular and materialistic Christmas with more than one reference to snow and none to summer weather (which I find very odd).

The festive tone is set from the get-go by sfx maestro Oliver Devlin and composer /keyboard player Amand Gerbault-Gaylor, who keep busy throughout, enhancing the mood – ranging from sublime through panicked to scary – and backing the nicely-crafted songs.

Will Robertson, Brynley Stent, Johanna Cosgrove and Tom Clarke play to their strengths – which are many – with an eclectic range of often bizarre yet always recognisable characters. The opening sequence captures the childlike wonder and joy of Christmas – but don't be fooled: fear and loathing are never far away.

One splendidly played recurring scenario multi-characterises an extended family gathering, irrevocably infected by inappropriate Aunty Joan and a toxic relationship between a couple that put the kids in differing defensive modes. Surprises abound in each visitation. 

Another involves the simple ritual of gift-giving and cleverly brings an audience member into the loop to help capture the excruciating embarrassment of … (you'll have to go to get it – or not). The titular crackers with their lame ‘jokes' come into their own here too.  

Cast(e) as the inmates of an old folks home we get hyper motivation to have fun. Two very different Santas vie for their share of the ‘market'. A problematic Son runs expletive-added rings around his attempting to be PC Mother while Dad is absent in Abu Dhabi and Uncle Pete radiates his influence from another place.

Pathos comes with a Santa-hatted dog reliving the joys of Christmas as trust humans … do as they feel they must. And punctuating the sketches are ‘personal' stories from each of the cast which each give rise to a song.

Cain's scripts are strong in characterisation, dramatic subtext and conflict – which all four performers exploit to the hilt as the sure directorial hands of Phillips and Haren modulate the flow to pleasing effect.

Jasmine Shadbolt's set of huge and smaller gift-wrapped parcels facilitates swift re-settings for different scenes, her costume elements sketch in just enough for each character and Rowan McShane's lighting abets the whole entertaining enterprise. 

Sketch comedy, delivered in revues, used to be a mainstay of the Wellington theatre scene, giving many scriptwriters – e.g. Roger Hall – a place to play around and find their playwright voice. TV comedy took to it for a while and an Auckland style has emerged ... But in recent decades, sketch-wise – aside from the specifically political satire of James Nokise's Public Service Announcements – improv formats have tended to fill the contemporary satire gap in Wellington theatres. PlayShop's Sketch Up is therefore a very welcome rediscovery of live social satire.
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