Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington

24/07/2014 - 27/07/2014

Museum of Wellington City & Sea, Wellington

19/02/2015 - 19/02/2015


17/03/2015 - 19/03/2015

Waikato Museum, Victoria Street, Hamilton

09/03/2016 - 11/03/2016

4th Wall Theatre, New Plymouth

01/09/2017 - 01/09/2017

Unity Theatre, 209 Ormond Road, Gisborne

06/09/2017 - 06/09/2017

Isaac Theatre Royal, The Gloucester Room, Christchurch

12/09/2017 - 12/09/2017

Globe 2, Globe Theatre, 312 Main St, Palmerston North

12/10/2018 - 12/10/2018


Hamilton Fringe 2016

Dunedin Fringe 2015

Palmy Fringe 2018

NZ Fringe Festival 2015 [reviewing supported by WCC]

Production Details

Jan Bolwell tells the story of her grandfather, Arthur Gardiner, and his experiences on the Western Front in World War One in her new solo play. 

At first her grandfather is reluctant to talk about the war, but gradually she coaxes him to reveal what actually happened to him and his mates in the trenches of France and Flanders. Army training at Sling Camp in England and at Étaples in France are a challenge for Arthur and his mates and provide for amusing confrontations as the Kiwis resist army discipline. The terrible tragedy of Passchendaele is a central focus of the play as the battle is depicted in both movement and storytelling.

‘Bill Massey’s Tourists’ is peppered with movement sequences set to amusing and original WW1 soldiers’ ditties and First World War poems set to music by composer Laughton Pattrick.

Projected images of Arthur and his war mates and general scenes of war are an intrinsic part of the play that also deals with opposition to the war and propaganda that was used to get young men to fight for the Empire. Lord Kitchener visited New Zealand in 1910, and one scene in the play shows schoolboys like Arthur being urged to become soldiers for the Empire.

‘Bill Massey’s Tourists’ is a play designed for general audiences, both young and old. Jan Bolwell has taken her play into local secondary schools, and has been impressed by the student interest in World War One. ‘Students today are much more knowledgeable about New Zealand’s war history than we were, and they have asked some excellent questions after I have performed the play.’

In one scene Bolwell wears an actual replica of a World War One gas mask. ‘I wanted to include the impact of gas on WW1 soldiers, because the gassing the men experienced in the trenches certainly affected my grandfather’s health in the years following the war.’

This is the third in a trilogy of solo plays Jan has written about her family. Standing on my Hands told of her father’s WW2 experiences in Egypt and Italy. Here’s Hilda! depicted her grandmother’s life and now she tells her grandfather’s war story.

Kerryn Palmer directs the play with design by Nicole Cosgrove.

Jan Bolwell: Jan is a playwright, actor, dancer and choreographer. Her most recent play Dancing in the Wake toured to 18 centres throughout NewZealand in 2013 with Arts on Tour New Zealand. Jan is also director/choreographer of Crows Feet Dance Collective, Wellington’s unique dance company for mature performers.  Earlier this year Crows Feet presented ‘The Armed Man’ a dance work in commemoration of New Zealanders in the First World War.

Bill Massey’s Tourists
St Peters Hall Paekakariki
Sunday July 6th at 2.30pm.

Bill Massey’s Tourists
Whitireia Theatre
24 – 26   July at 7.30pm, 27 July at 3pm.


Museum of Wellington City & Sea kicks off the 2015 New Zealand Fringe Festival with a solo performance touching on the themes of family and war. At 5.30pm and 8pm on Thursday 19 February, Wellington solo performer Jan Bolwell shares the story of her grandfather’s war on the Western Front in her one-man show, Bill Massey’s Tourists.

Entry to Bill Massey’s Tourists is free and for both young and old. The show is part of the Museum’s Third Thursday series, which showcases Wellington artists work every third Thursday of each month. 

Museum of Wellington City & Sea
on Thursday 19 February 2015
at 5.30pm and 8pm

TUE 17 – THU 19 March 2015: 6:30PM
1 hour
PRICE:  $20.00 – $23.00 

Waikato Museum
Wednesday March 9 – Friday March 11
at 7.30pm
Tickets: $25 & $20 (concession)

31 August – 30 September 2017 


Thursday 31 August 7pm Whanganui
War Memorial Centre
Doors open 6.30pm. Adult $15, Group, seniors, student $10
Book: War Memorial Centre

Friday 1 September 7.30pm New Plymouth
4th Wall Theatre
$30 Book: 

Saturday 2 September 7.30pm Tokoroa 
Tokoroa Little Theatre 
$20 Book: Tokoroa Clothing Company

Sunday 3 September 5pm Whitianga 
Town Hall 
Adult $20, 18 and under $10
Book: Whitianga Paper Plus

Tuesday 5 September 7pm Opotiki
De Luxe Theatre
Book: Opotiki Library, Travel shop or on door 

Wednesday 6 September 7.30pm Gisborne 
Unity Theatre
Book: Stephen Jones Photography 

Thursday 7 September 7.30pm Waipawa 
CHB Municipal Theatre, Dinner 6.30pm
Adult $25, $40 with Dinner,
Book: or CHB Theatre

Sunday 10 September 2pm Balcairn
Balcairn Public Hall
$25, Book: Sefton Garage, Sally Mac’s Amberley, Stan’s 7 Day Pharmacy Rangiora

Monday 11 September 7.30pm Lincoln
The Laboratory
Book: or over the bar

Tuesday 12 September 5.30pm Christchurch
Gloucester Room, Isaac Theatre Royal
Adult $35, Concessions & Groups 6+ $30 (booking fees apply)

Wednesday 13 September 7.30pm Ashburton
Ashburton Trust Event Centre 
Open Hat – no charge prior to the event – guests pay what they think the evening is worth   

Thursday 14 September 7.30pm Twizel 
Twizel Events Centre
Adult $20, Student $10
Book: Twizel Information Centre 

Friday 15 September 8pm Hawea 
Lake Hawea Community Centre 
Adult $25, Child $10 
Book: Sailz Café, OCD Café Wanaka Medical Centre

Saturday 16 September 7.30pm Arrowtown 
Athenaeum Hall
Adult $25, Child/student $10

Sunday 17 September 3pm Bannockburn
Coronation Hall
Adult $25, SuperGold $20, Student/child $5
Book: Cromwell i-Site

Tuesday 19 September 7pm Roxburgh
Town Hall
Book: i-Site Roxburgh or door sales

Thursday 21 September 7pm Owaka
Memorial Community Centre
Book: Catlins Café 

Friday 22 September 7.30pm Invercargill
Repertory House
$25 pre-purchased, $30 door sales Book:


Saturday 23 September 7.30pm Te Anau
Fiordland Events Centre
$25 pre-purchased, $30 door sales

Tuesday 26 September 7.30pm Oamaru
Inkbox Theatre, Opera House  
Book: or Ticketdirect 

Thursday 28 September 7.30pm Hokitika 
Old Lodge Theatre
Book: Hokitika Regent Theatre 

Friday 29 September 8pm Barrytown 
Barrytown Hall
$20 Door sales only

Sunday 1 October 5pm Takaka 
Village Theatre
$25, concessions $20 Book: at Venue 03 525 8453 

Arts On Tour New Zealand (AOTNZ) organises tours of outstanding New Zealand performers to rural and smaller centres in New Zealand. The trust receives funding from Creative New Zealand, support from Interislander, and liaises with local arts councils, repertory theatres and community groups to bring the best of musical and theatrical talent to country districts. The AOTNZ programme is environmentally sustainable – artists travel to their audiences rather than the reverse. 

Palmy Fringe 2018

“This exceptional performer, Jan Bolwell, is blessed with an irrepressible joie-de-vivre that communicates itself instantly to the audience so that her grandfather’s story is illuminating and memorable, but also surprisingly enjoyable.” — Theatreview

“A terrific script. A great performance. A tale well told. Knocked me for six.” — Raymond Hawthorne, Auckland theatre director.

Friday 12th October
Saturday 13th October
$20 Full, $15 Concession
Duration: 60 mins

Composer: Laughton Pattrick
Dramaturg: Ralph McAllister
Designer: Nicole Cosgrove
Lighting Designer: Janis Cheng
AV Designer: Andrew Simpson
Technician: Grace Riddell-Morgan

Theatre , Solo ,


Powerful and deeply moving

Review by Alexandra Bellad-Ellis 13th Oct 2018

Bill Massey’s Tourists is Jan Bolwell’s dramatisation of her Grandfather’s service during World War One. When she finally gets him to open up about his experiences he tells her everything. From his school days with his friends learning about the British Empire, to the military training camps, through the horrors of war and home again.

Told through a combination of storytelling, song, poetry and dance, it is a powerful and deeply moving story. Jan Bolwell shows real skill, switching from one character to another, making each one unique and memorable. 

Bill Massey’s Tourists, is written and acted by Jan Bolwell, directed by Kerryn Palmer and has music composed by Laughton Pattrick which capture the music and songs of the time, adding a little bit of humour and humanity to the story. The lighting, designed and worked by Janis Cheng, is simple yet effective. The costuming and set, designed by Nicole Cosgrove, are again simple and effectively help tell the story without taking away from Jan Bolwell’s performance. The audio-visual projections, designed by Andrew Simpson, which form a backdrop at the back of the stage, consist of photos, maps and documents and add power to the story and give the different places their own unique look.

This play is the third in a series written and performed by Jan Bolwell about her family history. She has been performing it from 2014-2018 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War.  


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Presented with sincerity, integrity and polish

Review by Lindsay Clark 13th Sep 2017

Here is a consummate performer who surely knows her way around a stage. She also knows her sure-footed way around this account of her grandfather’s ‘tourist’ experiences as a young man from North Otago following the call of duty to the battlefields of World War I.

Almost the whole front row at this performance is also related to Arthur Gardiner, just one of the thousands who made that dreadful journey. The rest of the audience, it is fair to say, could almost all relate her tale to family members of their own. Their stories from 1914-18 are increasingly remembered in theatre and valued, as commemorative events of their sacrifices bring to the surface many a tale of ordinary young men who set off so bravely and ended up so wretchedly. 

For Jan Bolwell, the work fittingly completes a trilogy of solo pieces based on the lives of her family, registering the impact of war across the generations of New Zealanders. Her overarching intention is that it will encourage reflection as we “examine ideas and mythologies about patriotism and nationhood and … our place in global conflicts both past and present.” 

A whole cornucopia of characters, all played by the versatile Jan Bolwell, offers both a factual and a personal perspective. Recruiting propaganda reminds us of the fervour of those times when Empire was all, before, in the course of a history project, a young Bolwell quizzes her grandfather about the real thing.

Arthur Gardiner, like so many returned servicemen, is reluctant to speak about the war which robbed him of his youth and health. Material, carefully researched, has been moulded into truthful dialogue, as his memories eventually flow. Two distinct voices, physicality and attitudes are created in the interview. Many more are developed in fact, for Arthur of the Otago Mounted Rifles has with him his two lasting mates. Cyril, the irrepressibly cheeky one, is an important and effective foil for Arthur’s more sober self, as the trail to Passchendaele winds through high times in Cairo and the miseries of various training camps.

Gathering in detail, Arthur’s world is further coloured by representations of various military personnel and flavoured by a brilliant compilation of songs and poems set to music, composed by Laughton Patrick, all of which adds both authenticity and immediacy to the show. 

Apart from a faithful reconstruction of a dear life, some important questions are raised, though the answers are ones we have heard, alas, too often. The why of it is about the obligation to do the right thing, one’s duty. At the personal level, where life is actually lived and certainly most important for Arthur, is the sense of loyalty to one’s mates. Then there is the understanding that “men are wired differently” and that recruiting propaganda simply sold them a story they could not resist.

Testament to the integrity and polished skill of this talented performer, the story of Arthur’s response to it all brings some clarity to a painful problem that will not go away. Beyond that though, it is a piece of engaging theatre, presented with unadorned sincerity. 


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Makes a huge impact

Review by Liz Minogue 08th Sep 2017

We are now 100 years on from the experiences of the First World War, yet last night those experiences were vividly revived by Jan Bolwell in her one-woman show, recounting her grandfather’s personal story.  

A sense of both honour and duty seems to drive her during this ‘forced march’ of 23 performances over the course of one month – from Whanganui and the East Coast of the North Island to the South Island. Her mission is to commemorate the war and her family’s experiences, so similar to that of other Kiwis: those who served and those who remained at home. 

Using the dramatic device of her 16-year old self interviewing this gruff, laconic man for a school history project, Bolwell leads the audience through this ordinary North Otago man’s extraordinary time as a young recruit and eventual member of the Otago Mounted Rifles. 

The show opens with a simple set – a small stage festooned with limp patriotic bunting, a table, two chairs, a screen for projection of her grandfather’s portrait: a handsome young man, fresh-faced, just twenty years old, on his way to train and then eventually fight in the muddy hell of the Western Front. In simple costume of grey/green cardigan, trousers and white shirt, Bolwell adopts various personae, from propaganda-spouting women and bombastic, jingoistic headmasters, to young, reckless Kiwi soldiers and her grandfather as an old man. Poems set to music by Laughton Pattrick and other songs, often used for humorous effect, are interspersed through the performance. 

We follow her grandfather first to the infamous Battle of the Wazzir (“the Wozzer”) in the red-light district of Cairo, Egypt.  Through bawdy song and clever intercutting dialogue, Bolwell offers a real insight to the ‘boys abroad’ larrikinism that is now perhaps more associated with Kon Tiki Tours: impulsive behaviour, letting off steam, all away from the strictures of home. The sardonic label Bill Massey’s Tourists now makes sense.

From the heat and madness of Cairo, her grandfather then arrives in Sling Camp in Wiltshire, England – a cold, bleak hole judging from the projected black and white photographs – where intensive exercise and blustering Sergeant-Majors are dealt with through typical irreverent Kiwi humour. Bolwell’s command of the Kiwi blokey vernacular is superb. Her stance, gait, mannerisms, are spot on.

There are brief references to conscientious objectors (Archibald Baxter, his brothers and others were sent from NZ to England and interned at Sling Camp to serve as an example to others), the threat of being branded with a white feather of cowardice and the use of ‘Field Punishment’ but this is not the focus of this piece. Instead, we see the developing camaraderie between Bolwell’s grandfather, Arthur, and his mates, Cyril and George. 

Then it is on to Étaples Camp in France, the last staging post before going off to the Front. Renowned for its brutality towards recruits, often doled out by instructors who had not even served at the front, it was a harsh, bleak spot. It must have felt a million miles away from the blue skies of Otago and the quiet sheep farm Arthur had left behind. 

Inevitably, the action moves to the Western Front and the horrors of Passchendaele. This is particularly poignant – 31 August marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the ill-fated Allied push to break the stalemate of trench warfare. We must remember that many more New Zealanders lost their lives at the Western Front than at Gallipoli – 12,500 compared to 2,700. On 12 October 1917 in just two hours, more than 2,800 New Zealand soldiers were killed or wounded or listed as missing. As the population of the country at the time was only about one million, this had a huge national impact. Otago & Southland casualties were particularly heavy here, thanks to the wonderful practice of battalions being formed and assigned based on geographical regions. Hence the reason that our Railway Stations in Christchurch and Dunedin each bear Passchendaele plaques in memory of the 450 railway workers who lost their lives in this ‘Great War’.

It is in this segment of the play that Bolwell makes huge impact. Through lighting and dance, she recreates the horror of the infamous battle. As Bolwell herself says, “You’re trying to describe the inexpressible. The only way to do that is physically.” Backed by a haunting rendition of ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ from Handel’s Serses, sung by Janet Baker, Bolwell’s body twists and turns, spasming in silent screams – a Spandau ballet of ghastly proportions, mirroring the accompanying black and white photographs of the slaughter.

Later, she dons a gas mask as she recites Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’: “… Gas! GAS! Quickly, boys! …” Her sucking breathing beneath the ghastly goggles gives a truly claustrophobic sensation that makes us understand the terror of the time.  

She chillingly refers to the screams of the soldiers’ horses and how they anticipated blasts, burying their muzzles against their riders’ chests. These details strike home – we are used to hearing of the damage to men but must also understand the grotesquery of using animals to combat cannon and machine guns.

Her grandfather is eventually given “a ticket back to Blighty”, suffering permanent damage from a gas attack. He survives but not as the same man who went.

Hard questions are asked of him: Why did you sign up? Why did you let your own son go to fight in the Second World War? Arthur replies that “you couldn’t keep them away”. Young men aspire to adventure. They are “sold a story” and buy it “hook, line and sinker”. The thought of war taps into something primitive and primal within the male psyche.

Yet we are left with the sense that the overriding motivation for these young men is not a desire for honour, or even a sense of duty, but rather a sense of enduring mateship – wanting to be with your brothers and try to protect them at any cost.

Bolwell briefly raises the spectre of the futile campaign in Vietnam. I am also left wondering what the future holds in store as President Trump re-commits American soldiers to extended involvement in Afghanistan and the sabre-rattling escalates between the USA and North Korea. What will happen? If called upon to serve, what will our youth do? In the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, we have had a luxury of choice – there has been no conscription. We encourage our youth to think critically, to question everything and think for ourselves. For surely, as Churchill once said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Seeing this play reminds us of the continuing impact of war – many of the audience will have had fathers and grandfathers who served in various military campaigns. As a child, the jauntier war songs were sung as lullabies to me by my father. Like Arthur Gardiner, he never spoke of his wartime experiences. That only changed when, as an older man, he was in hospital under the influence of heavy pain-killers. It was then that the memories, pain and tears came flowing out.

It is important that we remember – that we never forget. It is our duty. Jan Bolwell’s current play ensures that we honour our call.


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Impassioned recollection deserves full houses

Review by Jan-Maree Franicevic 09th Mar 2016

Tonight my best pal Suzi is my date to see Jan Bolwell’s solo show Bill Massey’s Tourists, part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival. We rush into the Waikato Museum foyer; it is empty, as we have arrived right on show time. We are assured it is not too late to enter, and as we do, I note that there is no great panic for two free seats. I am frankly surprised to see that we make up a small house of theatregoers this evening. 

The lights go down and our player, Jan Bolwell, takes centre stage. She is charming, confident and easy. Immediately I am enthralled by her solid and captivating performance.  

We meet Jan the sixteen year old, who is doing a school history project on the Great War. Her granddad fought in the Great War, her father in the second. Yet neither will talk of their experiences. Jan is persistent, and eventually granddad opens up. Through a beautifully drawn set of characters, Jan tells us his story, superbly intertwined with her own, utilizing her gift for dance, her strong singing voice and her natural flair for acting to bring it all to life, with emotion and power, soft strength and good humour to boot.

It’s my immediate feeling that through her sensible recruitment of a sound support crew, notably dramaturg Ralph McAllister and director Kerryn Palmer, Jan has armed herself with the necessary tools to get this show into ship shape allowing her the freedom to focus on what she is presenting just for us tonight! Smart lady!

Jan’s delivery is immaculate; her performance is well timed, she doesn’t miss a beat. This I hold to her credit, as such a subject and the telling of it might bring a lesser being to great heaving sobs. I feel sure I would be in sobs had I to swap places. But perhaps that’s because, though I didn’t see it coming, I find my heart absolutely bursting as tears spring to my eyes through Jan’s soulfully simple dance routine of war, and again at her parting words describing her last meeting with her granddad before he passed away.  

This show isn’t a ‘glory of war’ tribute it is a work of art.

The show is set in Otago, which was home to my grandfather David, who fought in both the first and second World Wars. In 1951, a mere three years after my mother was born, he passed away leaving my mother without her dad, and me without a grandfather to pester for these same war stories. There are some lovely moments where I wrap up in the moment and am transported to this other place – I feel like this show is my granddad’s story too, and that somehow I am getting a little piece of my granddad. What a gift!

Not only does she beautifully portray her granddad Arthur and his mates Cyril and George, Sergeant Majors, ‘Tommies’ and training officers, she also bounces fluidly back into the youthful semblance of herself, showing us a staunchly anti-war teenaged Jan, one who frankly states that war is “Pathetic.” Amazing! 

There is no glorifying war here at all; there is only an impassioned recollection, which I learn at the end of the show is a manufactured work of fiction, based on fact – drawn from family stories and extensive reading. Great job, Jan. 

Here’s the thing. This is the kind of rare gem one sees at a Fringe, and as such deserves to have capacity crowds. There are two more performances of Bill Massey’s Tourists Hamilton, get out and see one of them, because it’s really, really, very good.


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Impressive in every sense

Review by Terry MacTavish 18th Mar 2015

The fresh face of unsullied youth that beams confidently out from the poster, neatly arrayed in the same school uniform I wore, that is exactly Jan Bolwell as I first knew her.  What I did not know was the back-story, the family history, that she shared with so many of our classmates: the grandfather returned from World War One, the father returned from World War Two, each laden with dark memories that could not but affect the way they brought up their children. 

It might be thought we have had enough already of centennial commemorations of WW1, and that Bill Massey’s Tourists will cover ground as often traversed as those muddy fields on the Western Front.  Not so.  A full year ago I was praising Journey’s End, the Globe’s award-winning production, for its authentic portrayal of English soldiers in the trenches.  But Bill Massey’s Tourists is extraordinarily, unmistakeably ours, a Kiwi interpretation of a war that was never ours, from the appalling school speeches that used false patriotism to sell a European war, to the irreverence for British authority and the very Kiwi sense of humour relished by our soldiers.

Moreover it is told not by a male cast in a realistic dugout, but by one versatile woman peopling the stage with a wonderful variety of characters through narrative, dialogue, song and dance.  This exceptional performer, Jan Bolwell, is blessed with an irrepressible joie-de-vivre that communicates itself instantly to the audience, so that her grandfather’s war story is illuminating and memorable, but also surprisingly enjoyable.  Ghastly incidents like the gas attacks, movingly illustrated by Wilfrid Owen’s poem and the horrendous gasmask itself, are balanced by the camaraderie of ordinary Kiwi blokes with their trusted mates. 

The format is perfectly simple: young Jan has to do a school project on WW1 and tries to coax her disgruntled grandfather Arthur into telling his story.  So plausible does Bolwell make his gradual capitulation, until as she says, she cannot stop his outpouring of suppressed grief, that it comes as a shock to read in the programme that Arthur in fact never did tell his story; that this intimate, utterly convincing account has been cobbled together from other sources. 

It is a huge undertaking to carry so much alone, but ebullient Bolwell shoulders it with the accustomed ease of a soldier cheerfully swinging up his knapsack.  In neutral costume of grey trousers and cardigan over white shirt, with just an adjustment of limbs and a twist of the face, she moves crisply from her naïve schoolgirl self to her bitter grandfather, to the absurd New Zealand identities encouraging the boys to enlist (my favourite is the intimidating woman brandishing the white feather), and then to the battlefields of France. 

Although young Jan and several other characters appear endearingly gauche, Bolwell’s technique is in fact very sophisticated, and ably supported by Grace Morgan-Riddell, an extremely efficient technician who manages both sound and brilliantly-sourced war photographs. Not only does Bolwell change character in the blink of an eye, but lighting up the stage with energy, she breaks effortlessly into perfectly integrated song and dance, whether it’s Arthur’s waltz with his bride-to-be or the more vulgar caperings of the soldiers.

The jocular banter of 20 year-old Arthur and his mates, helpless George and waggish Cyril, which is rendered tragic by our fore-knowledge of their fates, and the appalling details of warfare (I am haunted by the horses trembling, pressing their muzzles against the men’s chests): these heartbreaking scenes are broken up by jolly privates’ songs, compiled by Les Cleveland and expertly set to music by Laughton Pattrick.  Impossible to feel too devastated when your foot is tapping to Bolwell’s rollicking rendition of “If you were the only Boche in the world, and I had the only bomb…”

Through twenty years of performing with Jan Bolwell in Dunedin Dance Theatre (she is now the respected Director of the Crows Feet Collective for mature dancers) I thought of her primarily as a dancer, so it is a pleasure to observe how she has developed polished vocal skills to match those of movement.  And yet the true essence of Bill Massey’s Tourists seems to me to be the agonised dance of death she performs so eloquently, with its ghastly gestus of a silent scream, ending with the slow and poignant collapse that mirrors the projected photograph of a dying soldier caught on barbed wire. Impressive in every sense. 

Through her solo performances, Bolwell has done a remarkable job of honouring her family (grandfather, father, grandmother, and beloved sister), and at the same time giving all New Zealanders a chance to reflect on their own heritage; to grow from the knowledge of the way the past has made the present. Nor does she let the audience escape the question of the future: whether our country can ever justify involvement in a foreign war.  Quite an achievement for that naïve schoolgirl from Dunedin!


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Giving voice to the incommunicable

Review by Lena Fransham 20th Feb 2015

Jan Bolwell’s solo play Bill Massey’s Tourists tells a fictionalised story of her grandfather Arthur’s experiences in World War I. It is the third in a trilogy of solo plays about her family, all of which concern wars. She states in the programme, “The impact of war still ripples through subsequent generations in our family. We are not unique in this regard … my family’s story can be replicated thousands of times the length and breadth of New Zealand.” With director Kerryn Palmer, she confidently combines humour and trauma in a story that I imagine strikes a resonant note for anyone with war veterans in the family. 

With an unpretentious delivery that packs a surprising emotive punch, and a bevy of jolly soldier’s songs composed by Laughton Pattrick, the story crosses complex emotional territory. The framing narrative offers a poignant interplay of naivety and cynicism between the schoolgirl Jan and her reluctant granddad, whom she badgers for help with her school project on WWI. Their mutual reflections position ideas about nationhood and courage against stories of conscientious objectors and Vietnam protests, the feverish patriotism of Kitchener’s WWI manifesto against the bitter lament of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, and the ribald soldier’s ditty against the carnage of Passchendaele, as Arthur’s memories gradually take over the scene.

Jan physically inhabits every inch of herself onstage, giving solidity and animation to her characters, easily moving between them to create a crowd. The banter between Arthur, Cyril and George (who were real life friends) is fabulous. The narrative blends stunningly with music and AV design (Andrew Simpson) with an apex in the heartbreaking sequence of images against Handel’s Ombra Mai Fu.

Reminded of my own great-granddad’s reticence, I can’t help identifying with Bolwell’s portrayal of Arthur as an attempt to give a voice to the incommunicable, to envisage and understand experiences that so many WWI veterans found almost impossible to translate into the language of life back home.

I surprise myself by having a little cry at the end of the show. 


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Personal family story shares experience of bloody war

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 28th Jul 2014

“If you can survive Passchendale, you can survive anything,” says Jan Bolwell’s grandfather in her third and most poignant solo play about her family. Though part fiction and part family stories, it conveys with a compelling simplicity what it was like for a 20 year-old New Zealander to be thrown into the maelstrom of bloody war.

A desk, a chair, a screen for slides and a string of flags provide the setting for young Jan’s class project about the war to end all wars. Jan cautiously approaches her uncommunicative grandfather for stories and details of what it was like and what happened to him.

Like many soldiers he refuses to talk about the war or even attend RSA meetings and Anzac Day parades but Jan persists and eventually the old soldier, who was hospitalized, had electrotherapy shock treatment, and lost so many of his mates to both enemy and friendly fire, starts to tell Jan what it was like.

It is in some ways a one-woman Oh What a Lovely War whose original director, Joan Littlewood, once said that she liked emotion in the theatre because the word means “something that moves forward. Towards people.” Jan Bolwell’s performance moves determinedly towards people through story, characters, song and dance.

At the heart of the play is a short dance that highlights the physical and mental agony of war with an emotional impact that is overpowering as the dancer moves to Handel’s Ombra Mai Fu sung by Janet Baker and slides of men in the trenches show us the reality.

There are snapshots of the blind patriotism of Frank Milner, Headmaster of Waitaki Boys High, the brutality of sergeant majors, and the effect of the war on Private Bolwell and his mates. There are the familiar songs (If you were the only girl in the world) with unfamiliar lyrics which were created by the troops. Most of the music is arranged by Laughton Patrick.

Out of all the death, blood and chaos what does it all add up to? Not much says Jan’s grandfather except one’s mates; they are the ones who matter.


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A profoundly insightful and mutually personal shared experience

Review by John Smythe 25th Jul 2014

Amid the plethora of plays, television dramas and films produced to commemorate the centenary of World War One – the so-called ‘Great War’; ‘The war to end all wars’ – Jan Bolwell’s Bill Massey’s Tourists stands out as a very personal work that distils to its essence so-called humanity’s endless struggle with itself, in the pursuit of … what?

Billed as “the third in a trilogy of solo plays Jan has written [and performed] about her family”, this is in fact her fourth solo show. Her first – Off My Chest (2001), about her experience with breast cancer – was autobiographical and mostly a dance piece. It was her investigation into the genetic source of her powerful drive to survive that generated her second solo show – Standing on My Hands (2002), about her father’s experiences in World War Two – and this involved more acting as such, along with some dance.

Acting, enhanced by physical skills that allowed her to fully inhabit ‘old’ and ‘young’ bodies, predominated in Here’s Hilda! (2006): her absorbing and often very funny portrait of her maternal grandmother, Hilda Blair Gardiner MBE.

Bolwell has also written and performed in multi-cast plays with dance – Double Portrait: Finding Frances Hodgkins (2009) and Dancing in the Wake: the Story of Lucia Joyce (2013)* – and all this century she has directed, choreographed and performed with the Crows Feet Dance Collective, most recently producing The Armed Man, a full length dance work about World War One with 40 dancers (to be remounted in early 2015).

Also looking at WWI, Bill Massey’s Tourists – developed with Bolwell’s long-time dramturge Ralph McAllister and director by Kerryn Palmer – tells the story of Bolwell’s grandfather, Arthur Gardiner (husband of Hilda), through Jan’s gauche and naïve yet determined schoolgirl quest to extract it for a history project. In effect we are treated to a dramatisation of her school project.

By way of a ‘title page’, a consciously ‘am dram’ start launches The NZ Patriotic Society’s Lord Kitchener-inspired quest for “Men! More men!” – asking us to identify with those who enlisted as the titular ‘tourists’. Having to reconcile the image of handsome young Arthur in uniform – “The only one for me,” said Hilda – with the grumpy old man who huddles and coughs by the coal range in Otago gives us a clear indication of the journey ahead.

Bolwell plays out the struggle she, as young Jan, has to get him to talk, then takes us back to his experience with his best mate Cyril and Hilda’s little brother Georgie, whom they have promised to look after. And it is what finally happens to Georgie at Passchendaele that crystallises the whole appalling debacle.

In between we get ‘The Battle of the Wozzer’ in Cairo’s red-light district, the arduous training at Sling Camp and the progression to even tougher times in Étaples (“Eat Apples” the Kiwi’s called it). There is nothing heroic and everything fallibly human in her characterisations.

The drama is variously leavened, heightened or seasoned with poems and propaganda set to music by Laughton Pattrick and popular songs from the trenches – and it has to be said that Pattrick has brought Bolwell’s singing skill up to a whole new level. There’s a moving dance sequence, too, set to Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ sung by Janet Baker and accompanied by haunting images (AV Designer, Andrew Simpson).

Presented in the simplest of settings festooned with red, white and blue pennants (designed for touring by Nicole Cosgrove, lighting designed by Janis Cheng), Palmer and Bolwell ensure the play’s points are well made through well-pitched performance and pacing, abetted by the skills of technical operator Grace Riddell-Morgan.  

In a world where wars continue to dominate our news, Arthur’s experience as a soldier, Jan’s quest as his teenage granddaughter then her point of view as a university student protesting the Vietnam War, combine with our collective memories and differing perspectives to make Bill Massey’s Tourists a profoundly insightful and mutually personal shared experience.

Despite the simple presentation, all the complexities of our attitudes to war are dramatically represented in the inner conflicts Bolwell feels between her general attitude to war and her compassionate understanding of her grandfather’s – and father’s – experiences. No matter how entrenched you are in your opinions, there is every chance this play will move you.
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*DISCLOSURE: I performed with Jan in Dancing in the Wake and therefore wondered whether or not it was appropriate for me to review Bill Massey’s Tourists. I take the position that my professional respect for performing arts colleagues requires an honest and informed response, and it would demean us all to allow personal relationships to colour my judgement. If anything, those I know well are more likely to face more rigour in my unconscious efforts to prove I am not showing undue bias. Besides, Theatreview publishes other reviews to allow for comparison.


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