Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

21/03/2018 - 31/03/2018

Production Details

From the award-winning Kiwi/Samoan playwright of international festival hit Black Faggot, comes the Wellington premiere season of AT THE WAKE.

Chain smoking, booze swilling Joan (Lisa Harrow in her Wellington theatre debut) holds court at her daughter’s funeral. Keeping it together with the help of a $300 bottle of Johnny Walker, this fading diva is thrilled to see her gay grandson Robert but apoplectic when his estranged Samoan father, Tofi, turns up to pay his respects. Nobody is safe as Joan unleashes hell at the wake. Family drama erupts as these unforgettable characters deal with loss, love and misunderstanding.

Lisa Harrow’s long and storied career has spanned film, television and theatre around the world. From the cult hit 70s British-German TV series Star Maidens to the NZ hit series Step Dave, Harrow has also featured in films like Omen 111: The Final Conflict and The Last Days of Chez Nous (Best Actress AFI Awards).

Penned by award winning Kiwi/Samoan playwright and screenwriter Victor Rodger, AT THE WAKE was inspired by Victor’s own family background, when he asked, “What if my estranged Samoan father, my Scottish grandmother and I were all in the same room?”

Dubbed the “enfant terrible of New Zealand script writing” by The Listener, Rodger is known for creating vivid characters and complex relationships in a series of hit plays including Sons, Ranterstantrum and My Name is Gary Cooper. His hit comedy Black Faggot swept the 2013 Auckland Fringe Festival awards and toured internationally to Melbourne, Brisbane, Wellington, Auckland and Edinburgh winning rave reviews from critics and audiences.

“A Black Comedy with brio, attitude and guts” – NZ Listener

“…has the force of a volcanic eruption that blows away the veneer of social convention to release layers of pent-up emotion and deeply embedded pain” – New Zealand Herald

At the Wake 
Circa One, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
21 – 31 March, 2018
Tues – Thurs 6:30pm/ Fri & Sat 8pm/ Sun 4pm
TICKETS: $25 – $52
BOOKINGS: 04 801 7992 / / 1 Taranaki St, Wellington

Joan:  Lisa Harrow
Robert:  Marco Alosio
Tofi:  Jerome Leota

Writer: Victor Rodger
Director: Jane Yonge
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Lal
Set Designer: Sean Coyle 

Producer: Tanea Heke 
Stage Manager: Desrae Ngatai 
Assistant Stage Manager: John Ulu 
Technical Operator: Alex Sipahioglu 
Set Construction: Grant Hall 
Publicity: Ellie Stewart 
Graphic Design: Walter Moala 
Photography: Sean Coyle 

Theatre ,

1 hr 45 mins including interval

A brilliant execution of an incredibly insightful and original play

Review by Ewen Coleman 22nd Mar 2018

Standing ovations can sometimes be a little suspect as to how genuine they are, but the rapturous applause as the audience got to their feet at the end of Circa Theatre’s latest production At The Wake was as real and heartfelt as you can get. 

This was not only for the performances just seen on stage, but for the writing of Victor Rodger’s incredibly insightful and original play that is set squarely in New Zealand and will resonate with many who see it. 

On a stylish, minimalist set, by Sean Coyle, that serves its actors well, three generations of one family come together in a room for the first time. [More]


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A dynamic fusion of light and dark, drama and humour

Review by John Smythe 22nd Mar 2018

What a ride! The opening night roars of shock, dismay and laughter attest to that. This season is short, it’s a ‘must see’ show, so book now and read on at your leisure.  

The premise for Victor Rodger’s At the Wake is well publicised: “What if my estranged Samoan father, my Scottish grandmother and I were all in the same room?” In his programme note the playwright adds: “I imagined that the only way it would have happened was if my palagi mother (who in real life is still very much alive) had passed away and my father had turned up to the funeral to pay his respects.”

Given the grandmother in the play “has a fondness for Johnny Walker Blue, foul language and recounting her past sexual exploits in excruciatingly explicit detail,” Rodger hastens to add, “Joan is absolutely nothing like my own deeply religious grandmother, except in one crucial regard: her love for her grandson in fierce and unwavering.”

Comparisons are inevitable with his first play, Sons, where – in a cast of eight – Nan is the protective palagi maternal grandmother, Manu’a the dying Samoan father and Tama (renamed Noah in the 1998 revision) the afakasi son. It’s just the three in At the Wake: the outrageous actress grandmother, Joan; the gay public servant grandson, Robert; the estranged skilled gardener father, Tofi. In both plays the runaway father has married another palagi woman and fathered more children.

Rodger states “At the Wake deals with the same three big L’s: life, love and loss.” To that we could add a fourth: Lies.

At the Wake was premiered by Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre in 2012, remounted in 2014 by Multinesia Productions at Auckland’s Herald Theatre with the same director (Roy Ward) and a new cast, including Lisa Harrow as Joan. Now FCC* has brought this new production to Circa Theatre, directed by Jane Yonge with Lisa Harrow reprising her pivotal role.

I have yet to interpret Sean Coyle’s set: a vast wall and floor of variegated timber with one black door upstage right; black transparent walls either side with another door upstage left; an ebony-and-red chair dead centre, a low round table beside it and, upstage centre, a small table holding the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. But it accommodates scenes set in Joan’s home, the church and the venue for the wake, and acoustically it ensures every word is heard.

As the houselights and preset fade, an array of Vintage Edison tungsten filament bulbs glow aloft (lighting design by Jennifer Lal) signifying, as I see it, the essential singularity of people obliged to share space – as we in the audience do. (Alone we may shine but together we’re brilliant?)

The elegant woman-in-black – Lisa Harrow’s Joan – who pensively traverses the stage, looks like a classic middle-class grandmother until she spies dog shit on her front lawn and lets fly with her verbal equivalent, prompting instant laughter. It takes a while to realise her splendidly projected pronouncements are addressed to someone in an adjoining room.

When Robert enters, her reaction to his formal grey lavalava – the ie faitaga he is wearing for the first time ever – is in stark counterpoint to the buoyant banter anchored in their deep familiarity and unconditional love. Instantly the cultural conflict is established, neatly bouncing off Joan’s attitude to her white South African neighbour but not easily written-off as simplistic palagi intolerance of Robert’s Samoan heritage. There’s more to it than that. And it’s clear Robert and Joan are a match for each other when it comes to taking a stand on principle.  

One moment we recoil from Lisa Harrow’s wonderfully poised and ruthlessly articulate Joan, and the next minute we warm to her for reasons hard to pin down. Joan would be the last to admit she is vulnerable but Harrow ensures we sense it. Meanwhile Marco Alosio’s Robert is a model of tolerant affection as they make ready to go to his mother / her daughter Olivia’s funeral – arranged by her husband and father of her other children, Gary.

Victor Rodger excels at writing strong, multi-facetted characters who evade stereotyping, and at distilling contrapuntal emotions into actions that provoke audible gasps and shocked laughter as their undeniable truths hit home. In At the Wake he adds an almost meta-theatrical treat via Joan’s thespian backstory, whereby Robert claims to know when she’s ‘acting’ and she gives him tips for breathing through his grief when he speaks. Harrow and Alosio both rise splendidly to the challenges this offers.

The unexpected (by Joan) arrival of the initially silent Tofi changes the relationship dynamics considerably, with Robert (who invited him) the proverbial meat in the sandwich. Jerome Leota’s subtly nuanced performance honours every twist in the revelations that demand we reassess everyone’s personality and actions, both now and in the past.

As the funeral proceeds – as planned and unplanned – the choice of music (sound design by Alex Sipahioglu) plays out as well set-up and paid-off gags. Then comes the wake, to which we are all invited (Gary is somewhere within our ranks), and here is where the ‘ride’ really takes off with twists and turns that leave us gasping with even more shocked laughter.

Director Jane Yonge has masterminded a dynamic fusion of light and dark, drama and humour, as all three actors draw us into heighted awareness and deeper understandings of their all-too-human characters.

There are minor quibbles – the South African accent needs work; some lines are redundant – but nothing can detract from the great pleasure of responding wholeheartedly with a large audience to this fully committed production of what deserves to be a roaring success. Opening night’s standing ovation is richly deserved.
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*FCC stands for the FLOW of energy; CREATING platforms for Pacific practitioners and CONNECTING emerging practitioners with experienced practitioners. 


John Smythe March 22nd, 2018

In retrospect, having read the title to my review, I suddenly understand the set: the variegated tones of the wall and floor, against and upon which the action is set. Talk about 'hiding in plain sight'! 

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