Auntie & Me

SKY CITY Theatre, Auckland

07/08/2010 - 07/08/2010

TSB Showplace, New Plymouth

04/08/2010 - 04/08/2010

James Hay Theatre, Christchurch

28/08/2010 - 28/08/2010

Opera House, Wellington

15/08/2010 - 15/08/2010

Baycourt - Addison Theatre, Tauranga

10/08/2010 - 10/08/2010

Production Details

The hilarious West End comedy with an all NZ cast!!!
“Why don’t old folk just do the decent thing and die?” 
“Why do they malinger malevolently, preventing you from getting your hands on the money…” 
Starring David McPhail & Dame Kate Harcourt
Dame Kate Harcourt and David McPhail star in this deliciously dark comedy. When an embittered, self-involved bachelor arrives to care for the dying aunt he hasn’t seen since childhood, his brief visit stretches to interminable lengths. As her health improves against all odds—and against his hopes—their relationship evolves in unexpected ways. This tour de force offers a wonderful and very funny look at family, growing old and the human condition.
To bring this very funny play to the stage producer Ben McDonald has engaged two of New Zealand’s greatest theatrical veterans; making the 2010 tour of Auntie and Me a very special evening of New Zealand theatrical history.
"Deliciously mischievous" —Time Out New York
"Wickedly dark . . . hilarious, quirky, and heartfelt" —Variety
Dame Kate Harcourt DNZM, JP
Dame Kate’s professional career began in the 1960s with the pre-school radio programme Listen With Mother and Junior Magazine, a weekly children’s programme and as Kirkcaldie and Stains’ fashion co-ordinator.
Since then she has worked extensively on radio, television, film and in theatre.
She was a founding member of Hen’s Teeth touring company and in 1990 she toured to the Edinburgh Festival, to Oslo, London and Sydney with the Downstage Theatre production of Hedda Gabler.
In 1996 she appeared with her daughter, Miranda, in the International Festival production of Flowers From My Mother’s Garden. She also appeared in the original production of Renee’s Wednesday To Come and again in the 2005 Downstage revival.
Kate is patron of several arts organisations and in 1996 was honoured to be made DNZM for Her Contribution to Theatre and in 1997 was chosen as The Evening Post’s Wellingtonian of the Year.
David McPhail ONZM, QSM
David McPhail has worked in the NZ theatre industry as a writer, director and performer, he has produced and directed over 300 programmes for New Zealand television and he is one of the most well known and experienced comedy actors in New Zealand. 
His many roles as a writer and performer include A Week of It, McPhail and Gadsby and Letter to Blanchy.
David has received many awards for his work. He has been named both Actor of the Year and Television Personality of the Year on two occasions. He holds the QSM for Service to the Community and was nominated for the 1999 SPADA On film Champion Award.
He has published two books in association with Jon Gadsby and A.K.Grant and is currently a columnist for The Press in Christchurch. David is an articulate and witty speaker, debater and professional MC.
He is currently adding the finishing touches to his biography which has been commissioned by Random House and is due out in time for Christmas 2010.
Auntie and Me
A Very Special Evening of Comedy
New Zealand Tour August 2010
Tue 3rd           Wanganui                   Opera House             Book at Opera House
Wed 4th          New Plymouth            TSB Showplace        Book at Ticketek
Thu 5th            Hamilton                     Clarence Street         Book at Ticketek
Fri 6th              Whangarei                  Forum North              Book at Ticketek
Sat 7th             Auckland                     Sky City                       Book at Ticketek
Tue 10th         Tauranga                     Baycourt Theatre      Book at Ticketdirect
Wed 11th        Taupo                          Great Lake Centre    Book at Ticketek
Thu 12th          Gisborne                    Memorial Theatre      Book at Ticketdirect
Fri 13th            Hastings                     HB Opera House      Book at Ticketdirect
Sat 14th           P. North                      The Globe                   Book at Regent Ticketdirect
Sun 15th          Wellington                 Opera House             Book at Ticketek
Wed 18th         Blenheim                   Civic Theatre              Book at Ticketdirect
Thu 19th          Nelson                       Theatre Royal             Book at Everyman Records
Fri 20th            Greymouth                 Regent Theatre          Book at Greymouth iSite
Sat 21st           Ashburton                   Events Centre            Book at Ticketdirect
Sun 22nd        Oamaru                       Opera House             Book at Ticketdirect
Tue 24th          Dunedin                      Mayfair Theatre         Book at Regent Ticketdirect
Wed 25th         Invercargill                 Civic Theatre              Book at ICC Booking Office
Thu 26th          Gore                             SBS St James           Book at Cairn’s MusicWorks
Fri 27th            Timaru                        Theatre Royal             Book at Newman’s
Sat 28th           Christchurch             James Hay Theatre   Book at Ticketek

Probable perceptions remain unrevealed

Review by Lindsay Clark 29th Aug 2010

A certain way to alienate an audience is to ticket the starting time as 7.30 and get underway at 7.59.Such is the affectionate regard for the calibre and reputation of Dame Kate Harcourt and David McPhail that the applause prompted by their entrances was not, however, ironic. To paraphrase Tom Stoppard, “The play began with a long pause.”

Setting aside the inauspicious beginning, it is difficult to read anything but commercial motives in the decision to perform this intimate study of human need in a venue where at least half the audience would have been unable to see the critical facial expressions of the two actors, although thanks to their microphones we pick up every breath. Parked in the great black void of the James Hay stage, the performance gives us the impression that we are looking into a doll’s house where engagement is almost impossible.

The play itself is a densely black comedy dealing with the desperate consequences of neglect as well as the redeeming power of the human touch. For most of the time we watch a reluctant nephew who has been summoned by a dying aunt, his last remaining relative, as he administers with increasing impatience and impotent hostility to her prolonged stay. In a clever reversal, she is able to offer him, before she dies, a gesture of the affection and care he has never had. Her true identity is another surprise.

Kevin Baddiley’s direction is frankly unfathomable. If this is a genuine reflection of his talent after “63 years in the entertainment industry”, perhaps he should change careers. The laboured pace he calls for drastically reduces the impact of the nephew’s schemes, allowing us to predict the outcome of his dastardly plans and severely inhibiting the revelation of that psychotic, sinister and ultimately pitiable character. 

If the intention is to have this piece played as straight comedy (the title change from Vigil suggests it), such a reading is sadly astray. Perhaps the flushing lavatory sounds marking the old woman’s entrances and her distasteful antics in bed are calculated to provoke sympathy for nephew who seems stuck with them. They are not funny.

Here then we have two of our finest actors struggling to make their story come alive for us. As Auntie, Kate Harcourt is suddenly poignant as she breaks her silence to sing at the end of the first half and her laugh as the wretched nephew suffers an electric shock gives us a significant glimpse of something more than a bundle in a bed. As the second half wears on, a real character does emerge, but we have waited a long time.

David McPhail heroically carries a huge monologue for most of the play but it seems to overpower his resources. Opportunities for subtlety, for mood swings to heighten the unease this character could convey, pass by and oh so slowly. There are moments when, against all the odds, he gives us a glimpse of the awful ways an abused personality can work, but once again, we wait a long time.

There are probably important perceptions somewhere within the play. What a pity they are not revealed to us in this production.
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Review by John Smythe 16th Aug 2010

Can this really be the same play Peter Hawes called “one of the great existential plays” [see here], and John Ross called “a prodigiously clever black comedy, with moments of farce” [and here], when they reviewed Centrepoint Theatre’s 2008 production (directed by Lyndee Jane Rutherford, with Simon Ferry as Kemp and Shirley Kelly as Grace)?  

OK, that was called Vigil (the original Canadian title) and this touring production uses the trite Auntie and Me nomenclature it acquired when adapted for its Edinburgh Festival debut (2002) followed by a London West End season withAlan Davies (Jonathan Creek) as Kemp and Margaret Tyzack as Grace.

The characters had names then; now no mention is made of them, either in the play or programme. The West End season apparently ran 90 minutes without an interval. This one – produced by Ben McDonald and directed by Kevin Baddiley – runs 90 minutes with an interval.

The pace has been described as snappy in other productions, traversing a roller-coaster of emotional states. This one plods, or rather meanders, with little variation in pace at all. Something doesn’t add up. Has heaps been cut? Is that why the talkative male character (previously known as Kemp) seems to just deliver expositional information to fill the space rather than share the traumas of his past life for some truly human purpose?  

Summoned by letter to his dying Aunty’s bedside, the nephew has ditched his city job at the bank in the hope and expectation she will die very soon and leave him all her money, not that there is any evidence of wealth in the drab bedroom setting. Nor is the crucial point mentioned, as I recall, of whether or not she owns the home or rents it.

Formative experiences in a lonely only-childhood – with a mother who cared more for the cat and a disappearing father who owned a magic shop and shot himself (with a gun gifted by his wife), and this then-exotic aunt who visited only once 30 years ago – have made the nephew a morose and misanthropic misfit; a self-pitying, cynical, anti-social sociopath. The lines that indicate all this are delivered by David McPhail.

The aunt, played by Kate Harcourt, is strangely uncommunicative but not in a switched-off way. She is compos mentis, aware of his prattle and behaviour, but over the year-and-a-half or so that it takes for her to finally die, she just chooses not to verbalise her responses. A reason for this does emerge, in the end.

Now both these actors have impressed in the past. “McPhail makes Lear’s fear of going mad so clear,” I wrote of him in The Court’s 2004 King Lear, “I felt tempted to cheer his moments of lucidity. Yet trapped as he was in a world of such unrelenting cruelty, his delightful dementia felt like a blessed release for him. In direct opposition to the old man’s fate, this is a winning performance.” And Kate Harcourt was a truly memorable Granna in Downstage’s 2005 production of Renee’s Wednesday to Come, perfectly capturing the semi-demented role with exquisite timing.

But in this Baddiley-directed Auntie & Me, McPhail simply fails to create a credible character. It’s a complex one, granted, but there are many precedents for perceptive comedy arising from this sort of life. Moliere’s The Misanthrope, for example. Or, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, the achingly funny Trevor (as played by Stephen Moore in the London premiere and the TV adaptation). Woody Allen is another great exponent of ‘comedy of anguish’ (pain + truth = comedy).

Performing in Wellington exactly halfway through a punishing 21-show season of one night stands, McPhail still seems to be focused mainly on remembering his lines and getting them in the right order. He betrays his lack of connection to the character by acting out descriptive phrases and playing up campness for laughs that don’t come. (Kemp)’s mother apparently wanted a daughter and dressed in him girl’s clothes so now, after being confused about his sexuality, he has no sexuality at all. Other actors, by all reports, have tapped the pain and poignancy of such given circumstances but these dimensions have totally eluded McPhail and Baddily.

The toilet flush that opens each half gets laughs from pockets of the Wellington audience; likewise Harcourt gets them for stowing her potty and putting on her bed socks. But when the doorbell rings twice and she dismisses it, then he walks in and starts his endless chatter, the first of many ‘how come?’ moments subverts our willing suspension of disbelief.

Her facial expressions indicate she has feelings about what he says and does but they have not been orchestrated to deliver the big ‘aha, I get it!’ moment near the end, when it is all supposed to add up.

Had we felt empathy with their lonely, pathetic and antipathetic lives, the contraption he builds to help her end it when she’s had enough (hopefully sooner rather than later), and the farcical business that ensues, might have worked. But while seeing him electrocuted in the cods may be shocking, and her gleeful laughter appalling, it just seems gratuitous in this production.  

Vigil-cum-Auntie & Me is supposed to be a darkly perceptive satirical commentary on contemporary lives lived in friendless isolation, wherein people compulsively and self-destructively alienate themselves from the companionship they really desire deep down. Despite this we are supposed to witness their becoming important, if not indispensible, to each other.

The sadly ironic and poignant payoff does work after a fashion but it is too little too late. A tasty truffle cannot make up for a mediocre meal. The busloads of fans who roll up in good faith, paying high commercial ticket prices, deserve a great deal better.

In a word: dire.
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More humour to be extracted?

Review by Deb Meldrum 12th Aug 2010

There was a big turn out on a cold winter’s night by theatre goers in Tauranga keen to enjoy two of New Zealand’s top actors in a “hilarious West End comedy.”

This play is by the Canadian playwright Morris Panych and was first performed in America and Canada in 2002 with the name Vigil. The British, when they put it on in the West End, changed the name to Auntie & Me.  I must admit I prefer the name Vigil as it doesn’t have the connotations of being a giggle a minute British seaside comedy that Auntie & Me conjures up.

This is a funny play, but it is a black comedy about aging, dying, loneliness and the effects a dysfunctional family can have on a child. 

As the audience take their seats their eyes are drawn to the stage where an old lady’s bedroom is in a dishevelled state and the walls are covered in floral wallpaper that has become discoloured with age and mould.   It is an evocative and effective set.

Dame Kate Harcourt’s, and David McPhail’s first entries were greeted with applause and the audience settled back to be entertained. Harcourt established herself as an old woman confined for most of the time to her bedroom. McPhail is Kemp, the nephew, who has given up his dreary job in a bank to respond, after 30 years of silence, to a letter from his aunt telling him she is dying. 

He has assumed it will only be a matter of weeks but a year passes and he is forced to think of ways to speed her demise. Despite these humorous, Heath Robinson attempts to kill her, Kemp does develop as a person and the playwright says, “I guess [it] is a kind of a love story.” 

The old woman is silent for most of the play but as Kemp talks to her she scratches, snores, reacts with facial expressions and occasionally leaves her room to empty the chamber pot. 

The short scenes each finish with a macabre one liner from Kemp such as, “Why are you putting on makeup? Let the undertaker do that.”   In the brief blackouts the ‘Dance Macabre’ by Camille SaintSaëns is a witty choice of music. 

This performance lacked changes in tempo; it may have been a ‘dance macabre’ but McPhail played it ‘andante’. There were some very funny moments and I am sure as this tour speeds around the country the actors will develop all the humour that is written in the text.
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Character-driven comedy of mortality with a twist

Review by Nik Smythe 08th Aug 2010

There’s this really old woman* (played by Kate Harcourt, entering to applause(!)) in an old bed covered with old sheets and eiderdowns in an old room festooned with old furniture, old flowers in an old vase, old pictures on mouldy old faded wallpaper. Oldfest that it is, the set is so well appointed as to be a highlight yet there is no designer credited in the programme(?) …only ‘set painting’ by Chris Reddington.

An old man* arrives (just old, not really old), played by David McPhail, also politely applauded; apparently her nephew, he explains he got the letter she sent claiming she’s ‘old and dying’ and, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s here to make sure she does. It’s been thirty years since he heard from her, he’s quit his job to come and sort out her affairs and he’s not wasting any time with tact or compassion.

His short stay ends up stretching out over a considerable time, through his birthday, Christmas, New Year… Told in scenes of lengths varying from under a minute to several (the music-hall style piano stings linking each time-lapsing blackout is also uncredited), there’s a fair amount of predictable morbid humour interred within an otherwise oddly charming, ironic, light black comedy; character-driven, with a twist. 

Kevin Baddily’s somewhat perfunctory direction seems to aim for naturalistic simplicity, and comes reasonably close to it. Harcourt’s endearing ‘Auntie’ is a geriatric silent clown, dumb but not stupid. Everything she doesn’t say speaks volumes and it’s evident she’s not as senile as her nephew’s insensitive ranting implies. 

Essentially well-cast, McPhail’s misanthropic, self loathing performance is certainly believable although there’s little variation in his tone and rhythm throughout the two short acts and a few well-written quips got a bit mangled in the timing.

My biggest problem is with the venue. The duo is swallowed up to some degree in the Skycity auditorium and the amplified speech is distracting and disengaging. I gather it’s more economical to put one show on in a large theatre than have a weeklong season in a small one but a quietly pithy two-hander set in one small room such as this really deserves a more intimate setting. 
– – – – – –
*It turns out in the programme blurb they have names, never mentioned in the script, which I prefer – there’s no advantage to knowing what their names are and the anonymity somehow adds charm. 


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Confronting mortality with Panych

Review by Ngaire Riley 05th Aug 2010

Of course I ‘know’ the very famous Dame Kate Harcourt and David McPhail ONZM, but I’d never heard of Morris Panych. Until last night, when I went to see Auntie and Me in New Plymouth’s TSB Showplace. It turns out Panych is Canadian and is partial to exploring last, lingering moments of life.

Last call: a post-nuclear cabaret,which Panych wrote and performed, is a musical about two final survivors of a nuclear holocaust. His Seven Stories shows an isolated solitary figure (The Man) on a ledge contemplating suicide, while bizarre characters pop out of windows to live their lives behind, across and through him.

Then – eyes lurch to a halt on the web page – I realise I have seen his work: he co-created the stunning movement piece The Overcoat, which toured New Zealand in 2004.

Auntie and Me opens with a sweet little old lady’s door bell ringing; she ignores it, slides her potty under the bed and slumps under the folded back eiderdown. A man bustles into her bedroom and announces that he’s her long lost nephew. She is unperturbed. He is accusatory. She says nothing. He moves in. For two years.

The first half is a rather long, flat monologue. David McPhail as Kemp is deadpan and colourless – with beige and brown clothes – and determined to organise Auntie’s funeral as quickly as possible. As time passes and she doesn’t die, he reveals his very colourful, painful past to Auntie and us. His recounting of the stories feels rather bland. If Kemp is prepared to carry a tape measure to precisely divide sausages, and fold his underwear, then there is a need to show a more bizarre personality, forged by the childhood he relates. At time words were fumbled and the timing of some wonderful one-liners fudged.

Kate Harcourt as Auntie, is mostly a face on a pillow. Clown like, Auntie frowns, quizzes, sulks and eventually smiles – a gorgeous blooming smile when Kemp says he is not going to dump her on the State. And there are her hands that creep out of the covers and skilfully knit. Sometimes she sneakily eats and on one occasion dabs on lipstick as Kent dryly asks, “Why don’t you leave that to the undertaker?”

The set is a tired but charming bedroom in almost sepia tones. There’s a doll’s house feel to the striped floral wallpaper, the chintz bedspread and the baskets of wool and knitting. This little world with its curving edges sits alone in a sea of blackness, like the people inside. These characters expose isolated worlds that many inhabit; the old woman waiting to die and the bank clerk without friends and family.  

The script is beautifully crafted. Every observation that Kemp makes weaves clues to the surprises, ironic twists and sadness that unravel in the second half. The stillness of the audience as Kemp holds Auntie’s lifeless hand, which clutches her hairbrush, and brushes his own hair, shows a man for whom empathy and touch can only be expressed in death.

The jaunty solo piano piece that links the scenes and blackouts keeps the energy of the piece moving. Often there seems to be too little change in costume and body position to signal the passage of time that is embedded in the script.

It’s well worth a night out and I’ll be looking for more of Panych’s exploration of moments in life when characters confront their mortality and a life mostly lived.

New Plymouth is the second performance of a pacy twenty one show tour that covers the length and breadth of New Zealand. It races up the west coast of the North Island to Auckland and then down the east coast to Invercargill. There’s clearly still plenty of life in Dame Kate Harcourt and David McPhail ONZM, thank goodness. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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