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Print Version

By Dean Parker
Directed by David Lawrence
Presented by The Bacchanals

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 11 Mar 2014 to 15 Mar 2014

Reviewed by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media], 14 Mar 2014
originally published in The Dominion Post

Once We Built a Tower is a thoroughly entertaining, good old-fashioned musical documentary in the tradition of Mervyn Thompson's Songs to Uncle Scrim and O Temperance! It is performed with the usual warmth, simplicity and gusto that David Lawrence's Bacchanals bring to their shows. 

The play pays homage to a forgotten hero in the establishment of our welfare state in the 1930s, Dr Gervan McMillan (played by Alex Greig), who chaired the Parliamentary National Health Insurance Investigating Committee in 1936.

But before he became an MP he was formulating and putting into practice his socialist ideals about medicine, medical insurance and the hardships brought about by the Depression while looking after the workers in Kurow who were constructing the Waitaki Dam.

The first act deals with his growing political influence in the religious beliefs of the Rev. Arnold Nordmeyer (Michael Trigg) and his socially timid wife (a touching and funny performance by Brianne Kerr). In the second act their fervent idealism comes up against implacable opponents, the Treasury, the Medical Association, and some of the members of the Labour Government Cabinet.

Sounds dull? Far from it. Apart from an overlong debate between McMillan and the Medical Association (Jean Sergent) the production moves swiftly and ingeniously through the years with period songs (‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' / ‘It's Only a Paper Moon'), rousing anthems (‘Jerusalem'), comic patter and mimes, corny jokes, running gags (wet handshakes), and scenic effects created out of about forty battered suitcases, which are used to make the dam, swing doors, workers' huts, and a tower amongst other things.

Though it is not in any way underlined the unspoken message is crystal clear. The current Labour Party isn't what it used to be and has lost its idealism and drive, and the bland current political parties of both the Left and the Right lack vision, and, as Dr Gervan McMillan says at the climax of the first act "without a vision the people perish."
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See also reviews by:
 John Smythe
 Alison Embleton