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TOTAL IMMERSION IN HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Print Version
BEDTIME MONSTERS
By Henrietta Bollinger
Directed by Shannon Friday
Presented by The Lord Lackbeards

at Aro Valley Community Centre, Wellington
14 Dec 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 15 Dec 2013


Half a century ago Bedtime Monsters might have been crafted as a naturalistic ‘kitchen sink' drama, contrasting the lifestyles of Adeline, the struggling younger sister who short-circuited her life by getting pregnant as a teenager, and her older sister Greer, who took off the London on the fabled OE and wasn't there for her, as she had been when they were little … Using ‘fly on the wall' conventions, their past would have been reported through adult reminiscence and a bubbling up of recriminations in a ‘slice of life' play stuck in one room.

Now playwright Henrietta Bollinger brings key elements of each sister's story – and those of their male partners – into multi-located present action with the same actors playing themselves as adults and as children, and director Shannon Friday stages it in the round, using simple ‘poor theatre' conventions. It works a treat.

In addition, three roaming ‘Goblins', as they are listed in the programme, become seen by me as ever-present manifestations of Adeline's underlying fear / sadness / depression at how adult life has turned out, although sometimes they are the ‘grey grumps' who inhabit the world when the sisters are coping and happy. Plus they add the odd voice: of children, arguing parents, tube station announcers … (It emerges – and is confirmed by post-play research – that they are the cerebral residue of the book Adeline most liked Greer to read to her: Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There.)

As we find our seats, a young be-suited man sits in the centre of the circle as if awaiting interrogation. The sad-eyed Goblins with dark shadows under their lifeless eyes – Katie Boyle, Michael Hebenton, Ania Upstill – are adrift in the space around him, within and beyond the ring of chairs. Also on the move, with differing dynamics, are a brisk young woman trying to find her way using a cellphone app, a contemplative man taking a stroll and a deeply sad young woman who is given to gazing in desolation at the seated man. Even before the play proper starts, The Lord Lackbeards have set up lots for us to enquire into and discover.  

It turns out Mark (Tom Kereama) is suffering yet another doomed job interview, he is in a relationship – not that he liked to call it that, given his parents' track record – with Adeline (Chennoah Walford), they have a baby, Sophie, and he's too proud to ask his brother for a job. The stress of their current circumstances – concisely characterised with a laundry basket of baby clothes – is contrasted with flashbacks to their lively, energetic and uphill courtship.  

Sheets create a canopy for the sisters in their childhood bed where Greer's role as loving protector of the younger Adeline is firmly established – then tested when Greer goes away on a school camp.

Greer (Cassandra Tse) is now in London where she meets – in a Tube station – Englishman Thom (David Lafferty), who works in Foreign Affairs. Despite intending to return to NZ, Greer misses the birth of Sophie and her first two birthdays …

It requires a bit of work on our parts, keeping up with the changes in location and timeframe and registering intentions and desires compared with what actually happens. I do get a bit lost trying to follow exactly how Thom's job drives their fortunes and what it is that Greer does before they too become parents. And – once Greer has returned to NZ with Thom – a random encounter between compassionate ‘rescuer' Thom and down-on-his-self-esteem Mark, when neither knows who the other is, sits oddly amid what we've been given to understand about the distance between their respective places.

Being, as I understand it, Bollinger's second play (the first was called A Cripple Talks about Anatomy), it's not surprising she's wanted to include every possible relevant, interesting and useful detail. Although there is a ‘tip of the iceberg' feel to what we see, less could still be more. And the question of viewpoint – whose subjective reality is being shared with us? – may also prove a valuable discipline in further writing. But there is no doubt a strong and perceptive playwright, whose understanding of the truth and pain of human existence inevitably produces insightful humour, is emerging here.

What makes this 80-minute play and production so compelling is the actors' total immersion in the ever-changing emotional states through which their characters pass, aided by the fluency of the staging. For all the meta-theatrics there is no doubt they, and we, are fully engaged with the true human experiences the playwright seeks to share. 
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 Gin Mabey