A Shortcut to Happiness

The Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch

10/12/2011 - 28/01/2012

Production Details

The TelstraClear Opening Season: 2011-2012 at The Court Theatre Addington, commences with: A Shortcut to Happiness by Roger Hall  

There surely is no better way to celebrate the opening of The Court Theatre’s new venue than with the latest play from New Zealand’s most successful playwright.

Novelist Vicki Baum once said “there are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them.” As we see in Hall’s new play, which follows the lives, loves and misadventures of a folk-dancing class.

Christchurch based actress and singer, Ali Harper plays Natasha, a Russian immigrant who, in order to help improve her English and meet new people, teaches the dance class. Among her students are two ladies on the prowl, a widower and a smooth-talking Romeo who is more than he seems. Everyone learns a great deal more than dance moves in this kiwi comedy filled with Hall’s usual trademarks of acute observation, compassion, and plenty of humour.

Roger Hall says, with Shortcut he was inspired in part by his own experiences learning folk dancing in Hawkes Bay.

Dates: 10 Dec 2011-28 Jan 2012
At: The Court Theatre [The Shed], Bernard Street, Addington
Ticket sales: From 1 Nov 2011: Only via ph: 963 0870 or online at www.courttheatre.org.nz 

Natasha – Ali Harper
Ned – Bruce Phillips
Bev – Jude Gibson
Coral – Lynda Milligan
Janet – Helena Ross
Laura – Yvonne Martin
Ray – Tim Bartlett
Sebastian – Matt Hudson

Director:  Ross Gumbley
Assistant Director/Choreographer:  Annette Searle
Stage Manager:  Annabel Butler
Assistant Stage Manager:  Cally Castell 
Set Design: Harold Moot
Set Construction:  Nigel Kerr, Maurice Kidd, Richard van den Berg, Henri Kerr and Richard Daem
Lighting Design:  Grant Robertson 
Lighting Operator:  Darren McKane
Costume Design:  Bronwyn Corbet
Costumes:  Emily Thomas 
Properties:  Helen Beswick 
Sound Design:  Joe Hayes 
Production Manager:  Mandy Perry   

Uplifting and optimistic humour

Review by Tony Ryan 11th Dec 2011

“WE’RE BACK!” was the theme for the opening night of Roger Hall’s new comedy, the opening night of the Court Theatre’s new (temporary?) home ‘The Shed’, and the opening night of the first Court Theatre season since . . . well, since the intrusion of the even more realistic dramas that have upstaged professional theatre in Christchurch this year.

But whether it’s temporary or not, The Shed is a magnificent theatre, and it was an extraordinary privilege to be there to share its birth with the company, its supporters, its board, its guests and anyone else who was lucky enough to obtain a ticket to this heart-warming occasion. Speeches in the spacious foyer from the theatre’s Chief Executive, Philip Aldridge, and chair of The Court Theatre Trust, Felicity Price, brought genuine and heartfelt elation to that “WE’RE BACK” catchphrase, and made the play’s title A Shortcut to Happiness seem the perfect endorsement for the mood of the evening. 

It’s hard to know what to review – the new theatre, the new play, or the new production by the company itself. All three contributed to a memorable night of live theatre and the sense, not so much of returning to normality, as of beginning new adventures and discovering our hidden creativity and resourcefulness. Should we be surprised that the arts and our artists are leading the way?

Inside the walls of an ugly old former grain store, the theatre is bigger, brighter and better than its old, although much-loved and more richly characterful, predecessor. From the audience point-of-view, the seats are more comfortable, the sightlines superior, the atmosphere more expansive. The stage itself is deeper, wider and higher, with the potential to liberate its designers’ and directors’ imaginations.

In this first production, the large revolving partition that enables frequent and effective scene changes would not have been possible in the old space. Many theatre-goers will not be aware of just how limited the backstage area was in that old space – a tribute to the creative solutions of earlier designers and directors – but now a whole new flexibility and freedom of imagination is possible and, in this production, already demonstrated.

The author himself was present at this premiere performance and the response of the capacity audience must have been extremely gratifying for both Roger Hall and for the company that brought his play to life. The title, A Shortcut to Happiness, is derived from a statement by Vicki Baum that “There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them.” Combine that quote with Roger Hall’s own recent participation in folk dancing classes and, as the author himself says, “I can feel a play coming on.”

On paper, a play is words – dialogue, soliloquies, conversations, etc. These words then rely on being brought to life on the stage where the playwright’s imaginings are at the mercy of others. If he is lucky enough to have gifted actors he might sometimes be surprised by what others find in his words. I’m sure that Roger Hall must have been appreciative of the artistic talent that brought life to his words on this occasion. In addition to the words in A Shortcut to Happiness, there is music and dancing which, even considering Hall’s experience at writing scripts for musicals, gives this play an added dimension that brings an enhanced originality and vitality.

The dancing is a delight; at first clumsy and tentative enough to be comic and amusing; by the end confident and accomplished enough for us to enjoy for its own sake. Choreographer, Annette Searle, doesn’t make the mistake of labouring the ‘teaching’ scenes, but rather supports the spirit of the comedy with fast-paced snapshots and effective simplicity of movement. Not one of these lesson scenes outstays its welcome; the variety and diversity adds immensely to the effectiveness of the production.

Each of the folk dance scenes, set in a depressingly familiar community hall, alternates with after-class adjournments to Ned’s (Bruce Phillips) house for coffee, ginger beer, wine and the development of various relationships. These constant alternations between the two settings might well become tedious were it not for a truly brilliant piece of production inventiveness, namely the appearance of a rather gormless community hall cleaner (Matt Hudson) whose brooms, buckets, cloths, vacuum cleaners and mops become props and partners in brief and endlessly inventive folk dances, each of which grows quickly from ungainly parody to graceful and balletic animation before he turns the revolve to the next scene. These ‘interludes’ are so engaging that we began to look forward to the next scene change. They also make very effective use of an excellent performer who would otherwise have spent less than ten minutes on stage as the fraudulent charmer, Sebastian.

The other factor in the play’s variety and novelty is, of course, the music. I’m unsure who to credit with the actual choice of individual selections (Roger Hall, Annette Searle, director Ross Gumbley, or sound designer Joe Hayes), but every piece, extract and collage seems inspired and ideally matched to the scene it accompanies. The folk dance classes are predominantly Eastern European, but the cleaner’s interludes take us to Spain, Vienna, Hollywood and the Hip-Hop streets of Harlem, not to mention a witty Torvill & Dean-inspired ‘Bolero’.

Musically, each of the play’s two halves is introduced by Rachmaninov’s ‘G minor piano Prelude’. This is just one of many subtle production ideas that underpins the play’s variety of literary, cultural and social resonances. The Russian dance instructor is compellingly played by Ali Harper, whose Russian accent and culturally-at-odds character is so totally convincing that I had to check my programme to confirm that some immigrant talent has not been sought out for the part.

The Russian émigré character is a key inspiration on Hall’s part. It provides him with infinite opportunities to comment on a wide range of Kiwi characteristics and on many quirks of the English language. This perceptive commentary on so much that we take for granted has become a Hall speciality. It may not make for ‘timeless’ comedy but, for now, it’s a very funny snapshot of our current social, cultural and political idiosyncrasies. Ali Harper’s well-known singing and dancing talents also prove an asset to this demanding and diverse part.

Equally convincing is Bruce Phillips’ realisation of the aging-but-still-active Ned, while Lynda Milligan’s socially and intellectually challenged portrayal of the middle-aged and sex-starved Coral is as over-the-top as she could make it. These three in particular bring a theatrical sense of timing to the writer’s words which otherwise, on the page, might seem less comic.

The acting and direction certainly plays as much part in the comedy of A Shortcut to Happiness as Hall’s lines. As I left the theatre I made a note of some of the best one-liners in order to quote them here, but seeing them in print made me realise that, for their full comic effect, they need to be seen and heard as delivered by this superbly chosen cast. 

Others in the cast include Jude Gibson (derangedly driven) and Tim Bartlett (non-speaking, but no less amusing for that) as an almost frighteningly possible couple (was it costume designer Bronwyn Corbet’s idea to give her the brown belt and him the white as they dress for their judo class? – A nice detail).

And finally, veteran Yvonne Martin who brings her wealth of experience, alongside Helena Ross in her Court debut, as the two possibly-from-Parnell friends looking for something to occupy their leisure.

The success of the evening was certainly a combination of the new theatre, the play and the production. By itself the script gains in momentum and in comedy as it progresses. For much of part one I found myself sitting quietly, but no less entertained by the performances on stage, and only abandoning myself to some increasingly genuine comic writing as part two built to its faster-paced climax. But a success it was, and a ticket to this opening season at The Shed, is surely an unmissable prospect for anyone who appreciates the exhilaration of live theatre, although future audiences may not get the after-show foyer reception and folk dancing lessons from the production’s choreographer that made this opening night even more memorable. 

As a footnote I should mention that the last time I had a ticket to The Court Theatre was for the opening night of Michelanne Forster’s Don’t Mention Casablanca which was postponed after the 4 September earthquake in 2010. After rebooking for a performance a week or two later, I left the theatre after twenty minutes when a series of quite hefty aftershocks rocked the old stone building. I had not been able to bring myself to go back before the next bit of drama on 22 February. But last night the feeling that “WE’RE BACK!” was very comforting despite a few moments of anxiety as a hefty goods train lumbered past (felt rather than heard) on the nearby railway tracks. 

So – WELCOME BACK to The Court, and BRAVO for giving us what is an ideal Summer show that not only deserves support but, like the fortitude of the company itself, earns our gratitude for its uplifting and optimistic outlook. 


James Levy December 14th, 2011

Yep, the $4.6 million theatre is great, the auditorium the best, with great sightlines. The foyer is a bit of a drab cavern, but I think will look good when finished. This construction is a triumph in such a short time, and is a tribute to their management.

Theatrically though, I have to wonder though if Tony saw the same show that I saw...yes, I am not a fan of the geriatric works of R. Hall but even "Four Flat Whites" is an Oscar Wilde play compared with the trite tedium that is  "A Shortcut To Happiness". The direction was confused,  scene changes laboured, set pedantic and the great cast of wonderful actors strangely half-hearted in attack.

Oh, don't trust me though... perhaps I was just surly at paying $55 to see a Roger Hall show.  I am looking forward to seeing the next shows coming up though, and what the Court will do with an elderly Sondheim revue, elderly Calendar Girls and a Shakespeare- the most exciting and newest thing on the list. Without The Forge the season this year will play it safe and stodgy.  Ah well, you can't blame them- I guess they know their audience, and they have to lure them over to that part of town.

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