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Print Version
Photo by Stephen A'Court
Photo by Stephen A'Court
Devised and developed by the company
Directed by Leo Gene Peters

at Hannah Playhouse, Wellington
From 26 Jul 2014 to 2 Aug 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 27 Jul 2014

Ignorance, naiveté and an engaging inquisitiveness are the keynotes for the start of An Awfully Big Adventure, devised and developed over nearly three years through “a huge collaborative effort from many artists … guided by [director] Leo Gene Peters,” according to Capital E National Theatre for Children's Creative Producer Stephen Blackburn.

The ensemble cast – Barnaby Olson, Andrew Paterson, Brynley Stent and Chris Swney – has been mixing with the audience, presumably to share (mis)infomation about World War One (I wasn't privy to any such chat) and this segues into a conversation across the auditorium. Clearly pitched at young people (aged 8 and above but entertainingly informative for adults too), their amusing misapprehensions – e.g. “How did the King of England ask New Zealand to join the war?” “He sent an email” – set the four actors off on their dramatic enquiry into what really happened 100 years ago.

This initial lack of understanding, of course, combined with a tendency to make light of it all, mirrors the attitudes of many who joined up for the “awfully big adventure”. The play's title captures that naïve spirit and later, at a well-timed moment, the full quote and its origin, in J M Barrie's bravado-riddled Peter Pan, is revealed: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

The jaunty vaudeville-style songs composed by Gareth Hobbs (shades of Oh! What a Lovely War, devised by Joan Littlewood and her ensemble around the 50th anniversary) include ‘And That's How World War One Began', a paean to New Zealand, ‘Hey There Conchie' and ‘Our Man is William Malone'.

What looks like a backstage jumble of packing cases, props and bits of costume, beneath a rig of lines and pulleys, play their parts in getting the story told. Designer Rose Kirkup has also created an ingenious map of Europe from different coloured shirts stitched to a backdrop, which helps to illustrate the potted history lesson involving silly hats and accents. And where we are heading is presaged with a tubular bell chime and the brief glowing and dying of a light (lighting designer James Kearney) each time a death is mentioned.

Juxtaposed with the Pythonesque ‘big-wigs' is a young soldier called Robert, who embodies the Kiwi experience. He's from farming stock and the monosyllabic Kiwi farming community is but one of the many beautifully crafted ensemble cameos. We follow Robert's progress on the troop ship to training in Cairo and, just when I am beginning to think the light-hearted treatment is inappropriate, we are plunged into the horror of the botched landing at Gallipoli.  

The story of a conscientious objector called Tom is also played out, with three days of ‘Field Punishment No 1' hauntingly depicted using a dummy. Unlike Archibald Baxter, whose experience was dramatised on television recently, Tom succumbs to the order to don a uniform and becomes a stretcher-bearer – which allows the stories of Robert and Tom to converge at Flanders.

But first the debacle that was the Battle of Chunuk Bair is cleverly dramatised utilising, in part, shadow play created from a pile of shirts and toy soldiers. Tin hats (battered stainless steel baking bowls) poking just above the trenches, and some very clever acting, give us a sense of how many very different types of men have been drawn into the war – then an identical routine involving Turkish soldiers makes a very good point about how so-called enemies are more the same than different.

It is only in this sequence that I feel some gratuitous humour about needing to go “to the bathroom” hits the wrong note for where we are in the story. I would also suggest, while I'm quibbling, that technical operator Morgan Whitfield and stage manager Elaine Walsh be identified much earlier so that reference to them at highly dramatic moments is not so distracting (“Who's Morgan?” the little boy behind me wanted to know.)

Lieutenant Colonel William Malone is rightfully lauded for resisting lethally idiotic orders from the British command and he goes on to lead a successful capture of the hill. But its defence becomes a bloodbath and his own death from ‘friendly fire' pretty well sums up the futile stupidity of it all.  

And so to Flanders, where the toll is massive, so the bells and dying lights go into overdrive. The horrifying statistics are given, along with the fact that “20 years later we did it all again” – and the key question is asked: “What was the point?” Their bafflement and the utterly non-theatrical ending are perfectly pitched to ensure our attention remains on the subject matter rather than the performance – which nevertheless is resoundingly applauded by a very appreciative world premier audience.

An Awfully Big Adventure is presented with a lightness of touch that belies the effort that must have gone into its development. The actors' ensemble work is faultless; the music, design and technical elements all support the judiciously devised script to offer an entertainingly potent and finally poignant insight into the WWI experience.
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 Elle Wooton
 Vanessa Byrnes


Hannah Smith posted 28 Jul 2014, 01:52 PM

I really enjoyed the show, but I was suprised (and a bit disappointed) that there were no women in it at all.

John Smythe posted 28 Jul 2014, 04:07 PM

By which you mean no woman characters, I take it, Hannah. And yes, good point. There were none in Once on Chunuk Bair either but Geoff Allen's Sister Anzac reveals the role women played at Gallipoli and, along with her authorial voice, Jan Bolwell's Bill Massey's Tourists touches on the role of women in recruiting soldiers and shaming those who didn't join up.