Conjugal Rites

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

19/02/2010 - 13/03/2010

Production Details


Who knew marriage could be so funny?

After ending its 2009 season on a record-breaking high note with Roger Hall’s Four Flat Whites in Italy, the Fortune Theatre will open its 2010 season with a long-planned revival of one of Hall’s greatest hits, Conjugal Rites

The play has not been seen in the city for almost 20 years. And after the show’s run on the main stage, February 19 – March 13, Conjugal Rites will be the Fortune’s touring play of Otago and Southland, March 16 to 24.

Roger Hall is without a doubt the nation’s favourite playwright. Among his recent Fortune successes are Taking Off (2005), Spreading Out (2005), Who Needs Sleep Anyway? (2007) and Who Wants to be 100? (2008). 

The Story is as follows…
Barry and Gen are married with two children, two cars, two careers, two bank accounts … and twenty-one year’s worth of little habits that drive each other mad! Dentist Barry’s working life of check ups, fillings and x-rays is starting to pall a little. Gen is building a successful career as a lawyer.

The playplunges us into that mix of affection, irritation and easy familiarity that characterizes any long-term relationship. Lurking underneath the joking and well-honed sparring however are some of the big – and not so big – questions of life and love.

Is she bored with him? Is he threatened by her success? What are they going to do with the goat? What really happened at the law conference? And if that wasn’t enough, who’s going to cook dinner tonight?

Conjugal Rites is vintage Hall, with hilarious but heartfelt scenes of domestic life which audiences as ever delight in finding utterly recognisable.

Returning to the Fortune to recreate a role he played in Campbell Thomas’s original 1990 production is Timothy Bartlett. Tim has appeared in many Fortune shows and in addition to Conjugal Rites will be best remembered for Billy Bishop Goes to War, The Share Club, After the Crash, The Sex Fiend and Weed. He was also a popular presenter on TVNZ’s Play School while based in Dunedin. Tim will be recognized also from his time as Bernie Leach on Shortland Street, and from film appearances like Gussy Dymock in An Angel at my Table and Jimmy Dickson in Out of the Blue.  He is now based in Christchurch where his recent appearances at the Court Theatre include roles in The Great Gatsby, Heartbreak House, The History Boys and Hall’s Who Wants to be 100? Tim trained in the mid 1970s at Auckland’s famous Theatre Corporate Drama School, as did his co-star, Donogh Rees.

Donogh Rees will be familiar to some from her Shortland Street role of Judy Brownlee and from her starring roles in the pioneering New Zealand feature films Constanceand Crush. Her work in television includes Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, Fallout (as Marilyn Waring), Xena and Hercules. She has made numerous stage appearances for Theatre Corporate, the Auckland Theatre Company and Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre. Her production of Stark toured to the Fortune in 1997.

This Fortune revival of Conjugal Rites is directed by Conrad Newport who will be remembered by local theatergoers for his World Premiere production of Roger and Pip Hall’s Who Needs Sleep Anyway? commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Plunket and staged at the Fortune in 2007, followed by an Otago/Southland tour. In 2008 he directed the hit comedy, Dirty Dusting, for the Fortune. His production of King and Country was staged at the Mayfair Theatre in the 2006 Otago Festival of the Arts and his production of Dave Armstrong’s new play, Le Sud, will be seen in this year’s festival. Based in Wellington, his other recent major productions include Lashings of Whipped Cream and Niu Sila for Downstage Theatre and The Cape, The Man that Lovelock Couldn’t Beat and Entertaining Mr Sloane for Circa Theatre.


The set, which pays homage to Campbell Thomas’s original set, has been designed by one of the resident set designers, Matt Best, with costumes by the company’s wardrobe mistress, Maryanne Wright-Smyth.

Bookings are now open for the strictly limited season from
February 19 to March 13
Book online at
or phone box office (03) 477 8323
Tues 6pm
Wed to Saturday 7.30 pm
Sunday 4 pm 

Comedy with a dark tinge allowed to grow old gracefully

Review by Barbara Frame 23rd Feb 2010

Comparisons with the Fortune’s last production, Four Flat Whites in Italy, are inescapable. Both plays are by Roger Hall, and both are dark-around-the-edges comedies featuring middle-aged couples with shaky marriages and prickling awareness of their own mortality.

Conjugal Rites is a two-hander: Barry is a complacent dentist and Gen a lawyer who has come late to her profession. Whereas Flat Whites is a new play, Conjugal Rites is now 21 years old. Updating it would not be impossible, but director Conrad Newport has elected to let it gracefully show its age, revealed most clearly in Gen’s feminism and Barry’s now very dated resentment of her professional success. Visually the play almost dates itself through the two clunky landline phones that connect Barry and Gen with their teenage children, family and friends.

The action happens in Barry and Gen’s large and comfortable bedroom (for Barry and Gen, unlike Flat Whites’ Adrian and Alison, money is not a problem and indications of 80s prosperity abound). In trademark Hall fashion, a series of short scenes shows the couple chatting, laughing, sulking, fighting and making heavy use of the aforementioned phones.

The actors work well together and bring out their characters’ likeability. Timothy Bartlett, who played the same part at the Fortune in 1990, makes the most of Barry’s resigned attitude to his rather boring work and the perpetual jokes that he uses as an antidote to just about everything. Donagh Rees shows us both the invigorating and the destructive aspects of ambition.

Superbly constructed (another Hall trademark), Conjugal Rites is a less substantial play than Flat Whites, but entertaining and of similar appeal. Friday night’s performance was warmly received by a cheerful but less than capacity audience. The season will run until 13 March. 


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Feel-good experience but there could be more at stake

Review by Poppy Haynes and Erica Newlands 20th Feb 2010

The Fortune Theatre’s first production for 2010, Roger Hall’s Conjugal Rites, follows hot on the heels of Four Flat Whites in Italy, also by Hall, which successfully concluded the Fortune’s 2009 season. The Roger Hall name makes us anticipate frothy Friday night fun and a liberal sprinkling of baby-boomer sex jokes. Both are present but there is still something left wanting.

Over two and a half hours we watch the mundane realities of Barry’s and Gen’s marriage give way to increasing moments of friction. Hall begins the play with the couple’s 21st wedding anniversary, where they congratulate each other on the milestone they have reached.

But beneath this celebratory tone are undercurrents of the habitual irritations and lack of spontaneity in the relationship, as is evident in the couple’s self-interested gifts to each other: Barry (played by Tim Bartlett) presents Gen (played by Donogh Rees) with his favourite chocolates while she takes him to dinner at her favourite restaurant. These rituals become the defining feature of the marriage and the foundation of the play’s structure.

Both characters do have aspects of originality and although they play to popular stereotypes they still elicit our empathy. This is in part because Rees and Bartlett really know their craft and build a rapport with the audience.  It is the strength of their acting that is the stand-out feature of this play.

The only major event of the first half is seeded when, noting that Gen has left for work, Barry makes a hushed telephone call from the confines of his wardrobe. Although minor quibbles such as Barry’s underwear and Gen’s personal bank account have been introduced earlier, this phone call sets up the main conflict that the characters face. This is fitting because the insistent ringing of the telephone becomes a central feature of the play. However, the telephone calls would be more convincing if, instead of the phone ringing in surround sound, the source of the ring originated from where the phone was located onstage. 

Most of the significant events and the interactions with other characters are conveyed through telephone calls. Many other important moments occur between scenes.

There are opportunities for more diegetic sound [i.e. arising from the world of the play], especially from the offstage events. This would enable the audience to experience the events as they happen in real time and thus be more invested in the outcome. For example, it would have been satisfying to hear Barry’s bad jokes to Gen’s work colleagues at her dinner party performed from offstage, rather than only see them fought over in retrospect.

The onstage costume changes contribute to the play’s humanity and the audience’s empathy with the characters. We are not implying that we had a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing Barry in his saggy, off-white underwear but it does endear his character to the audience, and is more effective than the majority of the costume changes. Most of these occur offstage and could be achieved more swiftly by changing a key item only. Instead, top-to-toe overhauls leave the audience singing along with the 90s hits that bridge scene changes.

Gen strongly values the career which enables her recently acquired financial independence. The theme of independence versus interdependence is central to the main conflict between Gen and Barry and emerges as the key concern of Conjugal Rites. This theme has scope to resonate on a global level, but in this play it is only executed through the couple’s petty and cyclical conflicts.

All the characters and their respective scenarios have the potential to introduce real emotional grit and surprise the audience with unexpected turns. The sheer number of issues and relationships dealt with, however, prevents any being explored in real depth, and the resolutions that occur would be more satisfying if they were less predictable.

The plot, tension, and pace could have been crafted to achieve more of a climax. The play prepares the audience for the relationship’s deciding fight but this only happens in a diffused way. The son’s unexpected return home prevents Barry from taking refuge in a vacant bed. While it would have been satisfying for the audience to see Gen insist that Barry sleep on the floor, couch, even in the dog’s kennel, Hall does not allow the fight to gain that level of momentum. Instead the couple retreat to their respective sides of the marital bed in uncomfortable silence.

Conjugal Rites does contain ‘Hallmark’ humour. Well timed comic moments delivered by perceptive actors induce spontaneous eruptions of laughter from the audience. These shared laughs are what give this play the feel-good experience we’ve come to expect from Hall. If they were coupled with a more streamlined plot and a greater feeling of something significant being at stake this would have been a much stronger play.
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