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

26/05/2007 - 23/06/2006

Production Details

by David Horrower
directed by Jane Waddell


Blackbird is an astonishing tale of misplaced love.

This powerful drama is both unnerving and compelling from one of the United Kingdom’s most new exciting and acclaimed playwrights, David Harrower. 

Blackbird narrowly eclipsed Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock and Roll to win Best New Play Olivier Award 2007.

Ray, 56, is confronted with his past when Una, 27, arrives unannounced at his office.  Guilt, anger and raw emotions are running high as they recall the passionate relationship they had 15 years earlier.  The details of the love affair spill out in mutual recollection, with changed emphasis between the two versions.

Blackbird has been critically acclaimed overseas.  The Daily Telegraph described the award winning 2006 Albery Theatre’s production as “the most potent of theatrical cocktails … a knock out show”.

Featuring Nick Blake (writer, director Dr Bullers Birds – Chapman Tripp nomination for Most Original Production 2006 and currently performing in Two Brothers at Circa) and Rachel Forman (winner Chapman Tripp Best New Comer 2006 for Fool for Love). 

Director Jane Waddell (director The Country at Circa 2 and last seen in Wild East at Circa 2 in 2006) has an appetite for new and challenging work and is excited by the opportunity to direct this hot-off-the-press award winning play.  She is confident that this extraordinary work will have audiences on the edge of their seats and debating the issues it highlights long into the night.

There will be two post show forums to share your thoughts and those of the cast and crew – Tuesday May 29th and Tuesday June 12th.

Also visit our blog spot for weekly updates of the rehearsal process as we bring this exciting work to fruition.

Circa is proud to present the New Zealand premiere of this award winning play. 

 … irresistible and unforgivable.

Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 4.30pm
Preview Friday 25th May 7.30pm
Adults $35 Concessions $28
Friends of Circa special price $26 (until 7 June)
Sub 25’s special price only $20


Ray . . . Nick Blake
Una . . . Rachel Forman
Girl. . . . Lauren Gibson / Florence Mulheron

Lighting Design by MARCUS MCSHANE

Stage Manager:  Corinne Simpson
Technical Operator:  Katie Fletcher
Set Construction:  Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins
Publicity:  Sarah Griffiths
Graphic Design:  Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography:  Stephen A'Court
House Manager:  Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House:  Linda Wilson

Theatre ,

1 hr 20 min, no interval

An amazing theatrical experience

Review by Simon Sweetman 21st Jun 2007

Scottish playwright David Harrower has, with Blackbird created a frank – intimate almost to the point of claustrophobic – look at innocence and guilt; at how the dynamics behind human relationships are never entirely what they seem; particularly when, as an outsider looking in, the truth of any situation tends to turn on itself as more is revealed. When you have two people both telling their version of the truth it is even trickier. This is what the audience is faced with when enduring Blackbird, an amazing theatrical experience that is most certainly not a light-hearted night out at the local playhouse.

Ray, 56, is confronted with his past when Una, 27, arrives unannounced at his office. She has traveled to see him; to put him on the spot. The visceral action takes place in a generic communal back-office lunchroom. John Hodgkins’ set is the very picture of authenticity, overstuffed rubbish bins and unwashed plates add to the murky feel and the gritty style.

Ray (played expertly by Nick Blake, last seen in Two Brothers) had a sexual relationship with Una (Rachel Forman backs up her superb work in 2006’s Fool For Love). But we are plunged far deeper in to the sexual tensions of these characters when we find out that this affair happened when Ray was 41, making Una just 12.

Nick Blake is a nervous wreck as he shuts the door to the outside world, trapping himself and Una – with their shared past – in the literal mess of the aforementioned room that mirrors the metaphorical mess of their lives. We feel his confusion before we are aware of her pain. We hear her rage before we can gauge its reason; bit by bit the versions of truths unravel. Nothing is quite as simple as the truth – here, nothing at all is simple.

David Harrower’s script allows Blake and Forman to bounce off one another like dueling soloists; long monologues allow each actor to run the gamut of emotions; there’s a jazzy interplay to the way each actor takes time to build their character’s case, receiving full support from the other player, each allowing the silence between dramatic, distinctive cadences to speak in its own right.

Ray, who has changed his name and taken a grey middle-management position now looks cautiously over his shoulder at every turn, his attempts to ignore a past part of his life are clearly futile; his methods suggest a band-aid when what was needed was a tourniquet. Una, on the other hand, has had her future mapped out for her via her past, constantly on the run; her confrontational rage the ultimate mask.

During the course of this 80-minute, one-act play, several audience members seemed to shuffle uncomfortably, a wriggle became a writhe as the dark poetry of Harrower’s script transcended any thoughts of black-comedy, occupying a similar space to fellow countryman Alexander Trocchi’s daring, searing prose.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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In blistering Form(an)

Review by Lynn Freeman 04th Jun 2007

If you’ve seen Doubt on stage, and it really go to you, Blackbird offers more of the same – see-sawing sympathies, moral ambiguities, more questions than answers, unpredictable twists and turns.

After three weeks of covering the Comedy Festival I was desperate for something meaty and absorbing. Blackbird is both and more.

Scottish writer David Harrower brings together 56 year old Ray and 27 year old Una, 15 years after they had sexual a relationship that ended in Ray doing jail time and Una going completely, and understandably, off the rails. She’s tracked him down and they face off across the rubbish-strewn floor of a grubby work room at his work place, echoing the chaos of their own lives since they attempted to run away together.

At the start Ray has clearly been caught off guard. He’s nervous, defensive,, shifty, apologetic – pathetic, almost. Una is sophisticated, alluring, angry, seemingly tough. They remember things differently . But as their memories and stories spill out, in Harrower’s fractured dialogue, the tension becomes somehow sexual.

Rachel Forman reminds us why she won Best Newcomers at last year’s Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. She’s in blistering form as Una. You believe her utterly when she talks about feeling like a ghost, feel her vulnerability beneath the tough veneer, while also seeing the child described as having "suspiciously adult yearnings" during the court case.

Nick Blake finely judges his performance. Is he, as he asserts, not a paedophile but a man who genuinely loved a girl he believed to be much older than her years? Or is he clever and manipulative, a predator lurking beneath the façade? Lauren Gibson has only a few minutes on stage towards the end but so much hinges on her performance – she was terrific.

It’s a tough 80 minutes. there’s no doubt about it. Not just the content, not just the power of the performances and excellence of Jane Waddell’s sure-handed direction. This isn’t a play that you can just watch as an observer. You will react, you will take sides, you will be outraged and you will think about it for a long time.


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Unmissable, challenging and probably unforgettable

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 02nd Jun 2007

"Truth is rarely pure, and never simple," said Lady Bracknell. Though David Harrower’s searing and emotionally riveting drama Blackbird is as far from Wildean comedy as you can imagine, it bears out the truth of her statement in an area of life that is highly complex and clouded by fear, hatred and disgust.

Set in a litter-strewn lunchroom of a non-descript business somewhere in England, Blackbird is a confrontation between 56-year-old Ray, who is in middle management of the business and 27-year-old Una who was sexually abused by him when she was twelve. Or was she?

Ray served a prison sentence and then changed his name and moved to a new city and found a new job. Una has tracked him down through a photograph in some trade paper. What does she want? Revenge? Closure? An explanation of why he deserted her? To show that she suffered more than he did from what happened to her before and after the trial?

Questions that intricately undermine easy assumptions, conventional attitudes, and moral stands are raised throughout the play. Just as the litter in the lunchroom is a reflection of the characters’ emotional turmoil and the shadowy figures seen through the frosted windows of the lunchroom as they pass along the corridor seem to represent us, the audience, who may discover some of the truth but never all of it, Blackbird provides no answers to human frailty and desire, only a devastating and compassionate presentation of it in action.

Jane Waddell’s excellent production is blessed with two superb performances that gripped the opening night audience. Nick Blake’s twitching panic when Ray is first confronted by Una is unnerving to watch, and when later, scrunched up on the floor in a ball of guilt as Una describes what happened to her after he had apparently abandoned her in a strange town, his pain is palpable. But the impressive aspect of his performance is that he makes Ray a decent, ordinary man trying to cope with a guilty past.

Rachel Forman leaves one guessing all the time about Una in a performance that ranges from snarling mockery to ferocious outbursts of anger and mental instability. She creates a sense of danger, that anything could happen, and that Una was a victim as well as a victim of her own desires.

Unmissable, challenging and probably unforgettable.


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Must-see theatre that confronts and challenges

Review by Helen Sims 01st Jun 2007

Finally this year a play that is challenging and confrontational in terms of its subject matter and as a piece of theatrical performance, yet still feels entirely complete. Plays that present difficult moral questions with an accompanying refusal to present easy answers seem to be popular recently, but the production of Blackbird at Circa reaches a new level through its beautiful script, intelligent direction and performances, and astute design. All of these elements combine together for an unsettling yet satisfying experience. I was gripped for the entire hour and a half.

Blackbird is the story of Una’s confrontation of Ray (now known as Peter), fifteen years after they had a sexual relationship when she was twelve and he was forty. Time, maturity and the interference of third parties have muddied the memory of events for Una, and it seems her quest is as much about clarification as it is for personal vindication. The play is, however, far more than an exposition of past events. From the moment that Ray pulls Una bodily into the workplace lunchroom we witness a complex interplay of power, desire and recrimination between the two of them.

According to the blog created for this production of Blackbird, ( the blackbird symbolises temptation, particularly sexual. It is at once a beautiful creature with an enticing song, and a bad omen, associated with the myth of Saint Benedict’s illicit desire for a young girl. What seems to have followed in the realisation of the forbidden sexual desire in this scenario is disorder and deception in all the lives it touched, especially those of Una and Ray, who were at the centre of the relationship.

We can never be sure whose account is more reliable. Both actors deliver lengthy, mesmerising accounts of their final day together before discovery and the intervention (and judgment) of society. Una’s account is problematised by the sense that she may have an imperfect memory of events due to her age at the time and the extensive counselling she evidently went through after the arrest of Ray. What she perceived of at the time as love has been made into something ugly and immoral by the judgments of others, most notably her parents. The unreliability of Ray’s account is far more subtle and difficult to pin down. He seems at many points sincere and still genuinely unable to account for his attraction to Una at such a young age, but this is undermined at other points when a more slippery side of his character is tantalisingly revealed. The responsibility that he purports to take is revealed as entirely superficial – to some extent he still blames Una for what happened between them. Perhaps she is the blackbird of the title – the irresistible sexual lure that leads to downfall.

The performances of both Nick Blake as Ray and Rachel Forman as Una are fantastic. They deal well with the use of English accents, which reveal a lower middle class background that seems to come with its own baggage. The energy and chemistry between them is forceful, even when they are on opposite sides of the stage. They chart a range of emotions without loosing the realism needed to make the play successful. Blake in particular is incredibly subtle and complex – at the end of the show I still couldn’t quite decide whether I thought he was entirely reprehensible or not, even in the face of an ambiguous indication that history may be repeating itself. Harrower leaves this ambiguous in the script, and I was glad to see that the production remained true to this, resisting the urge to place an easy conclusion on a play that is otherwise free of clear judgments as to right or wrong.

Walking into Circa 2 you are confronted with a sterile yet disordered atmosphere. John Hodgkin’s set, littered with both organic and inorganic rubbish, perfectly evokes the starkness of the industrial lunchroom and reflects the mental debris of the protagonists. This is enhanced by Marcus McShane’s subtle yet effective lighting design – a mix of blues and stark white light create a harsh and de-personalising tone. A backdrop that casts eerie and ambiguous shadows is used to great effect throughout the show.
I wish I saw productions of this depth and quality more often – where all the essential elements combine, and although it is obvious that a significant amount of work has gone into the production, it doesn’t have to strain to impress us. Even though resolution is not reached, the ending is highly effective and not in any way disappointing. It led many of the audience into post-show discussion on opening night. Definitely not for anyone wanting a cathartic, light piece of entertainment, but for those who prefer theatre to confront and challenge, a must see.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Metaphor-enriched realism

Review by John Smythe 27th May 2007

The first thing to confront us in this challenging play is mess, actual and metaphorical.

The staff lunch and locker room in the dispatch facility where Ray – now known to his new world as Peter – works is awash with litter. No-one accepts actual responsibility for cleaning it up, you see. He makes the odd gesture towards it but something else always takes precedence.

As for Una – who has tracked him down here after seeing him in a ‘winning team’ snapshot while flicking through a trade magazine in a dentist’s waiting room – well, this mess is hardly her responsibility. This is the first time she has set foot in the place. The metaphor holds whichever way you look at it.

But the real mess lingers from something that happened 15 years ago when he was 40 and she was 12. [spoiler warning] His life was a mess; she was sad and lonely; he took advantage; she took it as love, feeling it as intensely for him as he apparently did for her; he took her away … then abandoned her. She sought him, then help; parents were phoned and he was arrested. Now he has served his time, reinvented himself and moved on – or has he? She has tried to move on but is emotionally stuck and, quite rightly, blames him. But is that all she has come for? [warning ends]

This is the sordid story that surfaces during their 80-minute non-stop confrontation, modulated with dynamic shifts in status, power, defensive strategies, vulnerability and desire.  Blackbird is not simple a tale of revenge or a polemical lesson in moral rights and wrongs – not that there is any doubt that Ray was totally in the wrong, back then (and now, in my opinion, but that is a question we are left to wrestle with).

Nor does the conflict get neatly resolved in a cleansing catharsis. By the end of the play there is an even bigger mess, and the one in the room is nothing compared to the havoc about to be wreaked outside. Again, it is up to us to imagine exactly how that will play out.

What elevates UK playwright David Harrower’s play above turgid exposition – and presumably what convinced the judges to award it Best New Play in the 2007 Olivier Awards (beating Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Rock ‘n’ Roll) – is the way he confines the story to a box in real time, yet brings all the key experiences and emotions from that traumatic past into the present action.

Thus the play is also a major challenge for the actors and their director, Jane Waddell. Nick Blake’s Ray and Rachel Forman’s Una burst into the room running on gut-level emotions and ride the ghost train-cum-roller coaster with an intense focus that cannot help but rivet our attention.

Foreman succeeds totally in pursuing Una’s quest moment by moment, even – and maybe especially – when Una is not consciously clear on what that real quest is. Her changes from child to woman and back again, through fear, confidence, despair, desire, sensual strength and sexual vulnerability are as convincing as they are unpredictable, intriguing and finally compassion-inducing.

Anyone wanting or needing proof that telling the warts-and-all truth about human behaviour is a powerful way to make a socio-political and moral point, will find it here. 

Blake has a harder nut to crack. I take it the ‘blackbird’ of the title is Ray-cum-Peter. "Black feathers and a melodious song make the blackbird a symbol of the darkness of sin and the alluring temptations of the flesh," notes publicist Sarah Griffiths on their production blog. "The beautiful song of the blackbird suggests temptation, especially sexual."  

The question that confronts us throughout the play, and the one we are left to ask ourselves and each other, is this: has Ray truly reformed or is he still in denial about his own true nature while singing his song with seductive charm? As played on opening night, Blake’s Ray arrives in a state of nervous agitation – clearly scripted in staccato dialogue – and remains largely in that state until towards the end.

[spoiler warning] The first time he seems at home with himself and his world is when his affectionate stepdaughter (played with natural innocence by Lauren Gibson)* comes looking for him. His ability to cope in this awkward situation sends a double message: the more he appears to be mature and in control, the more possible it seems that he’s getting away with it again. [warning ends]

The substantive part of the play focuses on a revisiting of what may be termed ‘the night of abandonment’ in both senses of the word. First Una relives it (a mesmerising tour-de-force by Forman) then Ray reveals his side of the story. At this point Blake (presumably abetted by Waddell) chooses to maintain the agitated and rather aimless movements and averted eyes that have characterised Ray’s behaviour from the start. And – because I am more conscious of the actor than the character, as this plays out – I cannot help but wonder how it would be if he held his ground, looked her straight in the eye and won her empathy, at least, with his plausible ‘song’.

That said, the chemically combustive interactions that Rachel Forman and Nick Blake generate make for a compelling evening of distilled vicarious experience that plays on in our thoughts and feelings long after the final blackout. [Those who have seen it, please go to ‘Blackbird: the forum‘ to share your responses …]

John Hodgkins meets the requirement for realism with a splendidly unattractive set astutely lit by Marcus McShane to throw duplicitous shadows on the opaque back wall as the world beyond passes by. A corridor meeting between Ray and a female colleague, for example, looks either business-like or intimate, depending on which shadows you take as ‘true’.

In the script and in this production, metaphor enriches the realism.

*Lauren Gibson shares the un-named stepdaughter role throughout the season with Florence Mulheron.


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