Martha's Pantry, 276 Cuba Street, Wellington

05/03/2015 - 07/03/2015

Sweet Pea, 259 Jackson St, Petone, Wellington

04/03/2015 - 04/03/2015

NZ Fringe Festival 2015 [reviewing supported by WCC]

Production Details

Mrs. Robert Fortune cordially invites you to join her for afternoon tea. The occasion will include amusing anecdotes of her husband’s botanical adventuring for the East India Company, tea leaf reading, and naturally, tea itself.

An entertaining brew of colonialism, history, botany, theft, and espionage. Sugar? RSVPs required to ania.upstill@gmail.com

Venue #1: Sweet Pea, 259 Jackson St, Petone  
4 Mar 2015 at 4pm FREE/KOHA

Venue #2: 128 Abel Smith St
5-7 Mar 2015 at 4pm
7 Mar 2015 also at 3pm,

Theatre , Improv ,

Good ideas, charming company, fun with fortunes, needs development

Review by Shannon Friday 05th Mar 2015

A Cuppa with Mrs Fortune is a one-woman show based on the audience having afternoon tea with the aforementioned Mrs Jane Fortune.  Jane was the wife of Robert Fortune, who smuggled tea out of China and to India during the height of British Imperialism, thus introducing tea to the Western World. 

The idea behind the show is not only to introduce tea trivia and the fascinating story of Robert Fortune to the audience, but also to explore Mrs Jane Fortune’s life as her husband was off gallivanting about the Far East.  And, of course, share a cuppa with the audience/guests. 

If you think that sounds like a lot for a 45-minute show to do, you’d be right.  While all the ideas are there, the execution feels like the first draft of a show. 

A few of us rock up to Sweet Pea in Petone, a light, open cafe and a perfect venue for a theatre show/tea party. (The next few shows are at Martha’s Pantry and Arthur’s on Cuba, not Abel Smith St as listed in the Fringe Programme.) As almost everyone at the show know each other, it is a lovely, cordial start to the afternoon. The show’s writer/performer Ania Upstill is a genuinely gracious host, helping folks navigate the tea ordering and find seats. 

Throughout the setup, Upstill is constantly reminding us that the show hasn’t started yet, and we’ll know when it does.  I disagree – we’re here, in the venue you have brought us to for an interactive show, and we’re interacting with you.  For all practical purposes, the show has started.  It’s pleasant, and I’d be happy to spend the next hour or so chatting with a genuinely interested and interesting person about the history of tea. 

There is indeed a change as Upstill transitions from her role as host to her role as actor/character. Her body language changes, and her voice, before she is in character, becomes louder and the vocal patterns more formal, as if trying to reach us from behind a podium, rather than across a table in a cafe. While there are nods at the fact that we’re not in a theatre, mostly the show is a series of well-shaped, factual stories about Robert Fortune’s travels and the history of tea. 

The audience interaction feels forced; like when I’m asked if I would like another cup of tea less than two minutes after refilling my own cup – but right after one of the well-shaped stories.  A little more thought put into balancing the informational content and context of the show would go a long way. 

In addition, the character of Mrs Fortune feels underdeveloped.  Upstill is a gifted raconteur – her stories about Mr Fortune’s adventures are well-told and engaging. Aside from a delicate and lovely moment about the symmetry of women working in the tea fields in the Far East to make the tea that is served to the women in Manchester’s factories, Mrs Fortune’s point of view is left out of the show. 

For example, a story about Robert Fortune fleeing from pirates (Pirates!) is painted beautifully – the shape of the cliffs, the fear of the ship’s crew, Robert’s stance as he takes charge are all clear in my head – but I have no idea what Mrs Fortune’s reaction to all this is.  Is she afraid for Mr Fortune?  Does she resent him for placing himself, and therefore his family’s financial security, at risk like that?  Does she admire his ability to take charge and get things done?  I have no idea, and I’d really like to know. 

And that lack of development is a shame. If part of the point of the show is to explore Mrs Fortune’s side of things, then that point of view is absolutely essential.  Without it, A Cuppa with Mrs Fortune is reductive storytelling and a show that doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test; it is theatre where women exist only to reflect men’s glory. 

However, the show finds life when we switch away from Mrs Fortune narrating someone else’s story, and Upstill starts genuinely engaging with the other ladies at the table by reading our tea leaves.  Again, the execution is sloppy – Upstill refers to a library book to check her symbolism – but it is so much fun!  It’s like being thirteen at a slumber party and doing palm reading for your friends.  I love watching Upstill puzzling over the cryptic dregs in our tea cups almost as much as I love watching the ladies around me react to their fortunes. 

A much appreciated post-show conversation reveals that this show was a rush job, and it shows. As an audience member, I’d take the price of admission – koha – as an indication that this is a workshop season rather than a fully fleshed out show. Given the ambition of the ideas behind the show, I’d like to see draft two, where they are more fully realized. 

Upstill has set herself a big challenge: even more so than in a traditional theatre setup, with an interactive show, there are so many basic questions of audience arrangement, preshow, front of house, and acting technique that just cannot be taken for granted. Without this, the whole thing falls flat – except for the tea leaf readings.  However, Upstill may be doing tea leaf readings at high teas around town in the future, which is something I’d love to see.


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