24/04/2015 - 26/04/2015
28/05/2013 - 01/06/2013
From the Whiteboard to the Stage
Relinquishing a 30 year teaching career, Chris Green embarks on his natural calling to the stage in Mervyn Thompson’s Coaltown Blues.
Local audiences will already be familiar with Chris’ acting and singing talents through his appearances in a multitude of musical productions; CATS, Cabaret, Little Shop of Horrors and the recent sell-out season of Burlesque au Moulin among others.
Caught up in Novopay issues this summer, Chris turned to busking to pay his bills and discovered a total delight in street performance. Many Wellingtonians will be familiar with the sound of his voice at the Railway Station and Cuba Street.
Chris relishes the challenge of launching his new career with a one-man musical drama – Mervyn Thompson’s Coaltown Blues in which he portrays numerous characters, both male and female.
An intensely personal play by one of New Zealand’s most significant and controversial playwrights, Coaltown Blues depicts the tragedy and comedy of poverty and politics and the struggles throughout Mervyn’s childhood in a West Coast mining town. It is both a celebration and a lament for the working class roots from which he sprang.
2013 marks the 100th anniversary of New Zealand workers’ first general strike – one of the seminal events that led to the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party (claimed to have had its birth in the West Coast town that the play is based on).
Coaltown Blues captures significant historical moments with relevance not only to West Coasters but to New Zealand as a whole: the Depression and election of the first Labour Government, victory over Japan, the Waterfront Strike and the shutting down of coal mines – a hardship of circumstance which sadly still resonates in the West Coast community of 2013.
Performances: 28 May–01 June 2013
at BATS Theatre, Corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets, Wellington
Tickets: $18 ($15 Concession) or $16 for Groups of 6+
Book Online at www.bats.co.nz or Call (04) 802 4175
Coaltown Blues is planning a National Tour in 2014.
“Chris had to bring each character to life with his acting and singing ability and he did this superbly.” – The Bush Telegraph
The Coop and The Dark Room proudly present
COALTOWN BLUES by Mervyn Thompson
24-25 April, 7.30pm
26 April, 2pm
$20 adult / $12 concession
To book, visit http://www.thedarkroomnz.com
or call Centrepoint Theatre Box Office on 06 354 5740.
Theatre , Solo ,
Creates a whole and engrossing world
Review by Joy Green 25th Apr 2015
Although I was peripherally aware of a history of controversy and conflict connected with it, in order to experience the work as a piece of theatre unclouded by preconceptions, I deliberately avoided reading anything about the history of Coaltown Blues or its author and original performer Mervyn Thompson before I went to see it at The Dark Room last night. And a very fine piece of theatre it is.
Coaltown Blues is autobiography but with a number of fictional twists, because as The Boy, our narrator, tells us, fiction is truer than life sometimes, and “more symmetrical”. So the story opens as the boy is born – in his fiction, if not in fact – on the night in 1935 when Michael Joseph Savage and his first Labour government are elected. He is born to staunch socialist parents in a typical West Coast mining town, called Blacktown for the purposes of the play, and we watch him grow up there.
As he does, the audience is taken through a number of significant historical and local events, including the funeral of a miner trapped in the mine, VJ Day in 1945, the big Waterfront Strike of 1951 and beyond, all seen through the boy’s eyes. So the piece, while being unashamedly and openly political, is also a personal odyssey.
The Boy is the only person on stage in the play. He tells the story through snippets of song and anecdotes in which he adopts the various personas of the people in his life.
These include his gruff, Soviet-worshipping, coal-miner father; the idealistic mother who maintains a desperate gentility in the face of serial pregnancies from the age of 16 and squalid, brutal surroundings; a conservative schoolmaster with a penchant for hair-related tormenting of young girls (of which, perhaps the less said, the better at the moment!) and the boys of the area: bullies, sycophants, victims and the wonderfully monikered ‘Boy of Gibbs’ who manages to escape violence by virtue of being the only bespectacled child in town.
This is a tour de force performance by Chris Green, who succeeds masterfully throughout the play in being simultaneously the boy and the character the boy is playing, and in showing us the vulnerability of the child and the hardness of his life through a fragile veneer of bravado.
Chris Green fits the part he is playing perfectly: he is a talented performer with a warm and engaging presence, a gift for capturing the key elements of character in voice and stance, and a fine, rich baritone voice. These things make it a pleasure to spend an hour and a half in his company and overcome a couple of moments in the writing where Thompson’s urge to get as many details as possible across, or to make a political point, lead to some excesses of exposition or heavy handed ‘messages’ at the expense of the delightful humour which usually leavens the darkness of the piece.
Green is also clearly passionate about the material and the meaning behind it which leads to a commitment that becomes particularly powerful near the beginning of the second half, where the personal and political merge most effectively as The Boy riffs on the nursery rhyme Pease Pudding Hot,to take us on a painful whistle-stop trip through the family’s experience of post-war austerity and his mother’s crumbling mental health and ultimate suicide: the most affecting and profound moment of the play, for me.
Though set well away from any traditional battlefield, Coaltown Blues seems somehow very appropriate for an ANZAC weekend presentation: war and the effects of war in New Zealand loom large in the narrative, and there’s a sense of the indomitable spirit we associate with the ANZACs running through much of it. It makes us think, in much the same way that looking back at the Great War does, of the hard experiences of New Zealanders on which the country we have now is built.
The Dark Room – a small, intimate theatre space – is very well suited to the confidential nature of a single narrator telling their story. Although the set is simple and compact – a few pieces of furniture, some washing, a mine entrance through which The Boy enters and exits at the beginning and end of the play – it fills the space and creates a whole and engrossing world for the duration of the performance in this environment. It’s a great marriage of play and place.
The audience last night was clearly involved, interested and ultimately delighted by Coaltown Blues. It deserves to play to full houses for the final two performances of its New Zealand tour, both in The Dark Room: tonight, 25 April at 7.30 and Sunday 26th April at 2.00pm. I hope it gets them.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Entertainingly insightful and timely revival
Review by John Smythe 29th May 2013
Nearly 30 years after its premiere, performer Chris Green and director Lindsey Rusling allow Wellington audiences to at last separate the content of the play, Coaltown Blues, from the playwright /performer, Mervyn Thompson, despite its autobiographical roots in his West Coast childhood.
“All the stock ingredients of melodrama are there,” Thompson wrote in his autobiography, All My Lives: “the heavy father (not alcoholic, but you can’t have everything), the oppressed mother, the wicked stepmother, poverty, insanity and violence; and, of course, the TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE (my mother’s suicide) that can be carried through life like a torch to light up dark corners or burn through the smug barricades of the privileged.” He left school at 15, worked in a Reefton coal mine, was an Inangahua rugby rep …
Theatre came much later when, at Canterbury University en route to an MA and teaching (first at a high school then back at Canterbury), he got involved in Ngaio Marsh’s Shakespeare productions then went his own less formal way. He wrote and directed plays in ‘popular political theatre with songs’ style, directed Bruce Mason’s Awatea at the Court in 1974, was Artistic Director of Downstage in 1975 and ’76 (arguably its most prolific years), returned to academia as a senior drama lecturer at Auckland University and, in 1980, directed the Playwrights Conference workshop of Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament. He constantly provoked the theatre community to step out of it middle class comfort zones.
Thompson premiered Coaltown Blues at the Maidment in 1984, and later that year another traumatic experience occurred. Accusing him of abusing his position as a charismatic drama lecturer and inveigling a much younger student into sex when she had had a few drinks, masked radical feminists abducted him, stripped him naked, chained him to a tree in the Auckland Domain and spray-painted ‘rapist’ on his car.
In Wellington, a New Depot Co-op formed to perform Thompson’s Songs To Uncle Scrim cancelled their production and replaced it with a hastily-written play that focused on “the responsibility of performers in society and the relationship between the rights of women and other political issues.” And the following year, when Thompson brought Coaltown Blues to Circa (in Harris Street), chanting demonstrators attempted to sabotage his performance by banging on the exit doors.
“All those battles I’ve been fighting for nearly two decades, they won’t be won,” Thompson claimed in his final solo play, Passing Through. “They can’t be. The people I thought were allies (women, Maoris, working class people, even those who believe you can’t have a nation if you haven’t got a national drama) are not allies at all. They’re separate groups with separate agendas, screaming for each other’s blood. There is no popular front! And without that popular front, that community of interest, there’ll never be any justice either!”
Depending on who and what you know about what really happened, and how, opinions remain divided on his culpability regarding female students and the validity or otherwise of vigilante retribution. But despite his undoubted flaws, his plays – apart perhaps from Passing Through – are entitled to be seen as discrete artefacts of intrinsic value.
Yes, while set in fictional Blacktown, Coaltown Blues is autobiographical. As such it proves how powerfully the particular can speak to universal themes, especially when the playwright works his source material – as Thompson does – to serve a greater purpose.
Because “fiction is truer than fact”, and for the sake of symmetry, he blends his birth in 1935 with that of the First Labour Government, headed by Michael Joseph Savage, and traces the rise and fall of the Labour and Union movements through the war years, a memorable ‘VJ Day’, and “post war austerity” to the National Government v Unions confrontation of the 1951 Waterfront Strike to which the Miners were aligned in solidarity.
All is seen from a child’s perspective: a father who revered the Russian Revolution despite being a pacifist; a Tory-hating mother who left school at 12 but wants her children to speak proper English and get a good education; serial pregnancies (the authorial boy and many sisters); Proddies v Micky Doos; school bullies and their targets; school discipline; domestic violence … “Not much Golden Weather for me,” he quips.
Dad on short time
Dad on strike
Dad on compo
Sorry no bike …
His mother’s horror at the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the emerging revelations about Auschwitz and the other death camps, increases her resistance to further babies and her despair: “We live in a world full of terror and atrocity” … Stillness and silence pack a powerful punch when he discovers his mother’s suicide.
As a performer Chris Green is very different from Mervyn Thompson: a much better singer, for a start, and altogether more relaxed. Rather than being driven by an endless class struggle that gnaws at him still, he presents as quite comfortable in the now while conscious of the injustices of the past. His programme note, however, does point to the contemporary relevance of the story, in the wake of “West coast tragedies and national political events”.
Green’s strategy, then – with director Lindsey Rusling – is to lay these lives out for our perusal and consideration, and draw us into the experience, rather than push the message out in agit-prop style. And it works, in that the good and bad points of every main character emerge as the narrator’s consciousness grows from childish acceptance of the way things were to a more mature questioning. That said, a little more vitality at times could make the show more dynamic.
Nestled into Shelley McCarthy’s corrugated iron and sacking set, pianist Sue Windsor accompanies the songs (arrangements by Leslie Carter, Michael Nicholas Williams, Chris Green, Sue Windsor and Bruno Shirley) with alacrity and Lindsey Rusling’s lighting design enhances the storytelling well at key moments.
Playing at 1 hour 45 minutes, including an interval, Coaltown Blues offers an entertainingly insightful and timely social history that we must heed lest we repeat it.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer