Suter Theatre, Nelson

13/10/2018 - 14/10/2018

Hamilton Gardens, Medici Court, Hamilton

01/03/2019 - 02/03/2019

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

01/05/2019 - 11/05/2019

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2019

Nelson Arts Festival 2018

Production Details

Stories. We all have them.

Stories that have been told and retold over breakfast tables, barbeques, campfires, and drunken dinner parties. You know the ones. Epic and incredible family stories. Stories passed down through generations about warriors, princesses, ratbags, preachers and visionaries; stories that tell us where we came from and who we are. Maybe. 

Conversations with Dead Relatives is a tale of family histories. An exploration of how these stories shape us, how they affect how we see our ancestors and, in turn, how we see ourselves. And like all good stories there are clashes of ideals, moral dilemmas, epic adventures and romantic tales of love and hope.

But above all, these stories make us question our obligations to our ancestors. Is it enough to just tell their stories? 

“It’s funny, moving, evocative and thought-provoking.” 13TH FLOOR – LIZ GUNN
“…an intimate and heart-warming play.” THEATRESCENES

Sat 13 & Sun 14, 7pm
FULL $39 | UNDER 19 $25
SENIOR $35 | GROUP OF 6+ $35pp
Plus TicketDirect Service Fee
Book Now!  

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2019 
Medici Court 
Friday 1 & Saturday 2 Mar 2019 
$38 General Admission 
$35 Concession 
*Booking fees apply 

Circa Two, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington
1 – 11 May 2019
Tues – Sat 7.30pm
Sun 4.30pm
$25 – $35
Book Now!

Theatre ,

1 hr

An interesting journey through the past

Review by Eleanor Wenman 03rd May 2019

Ever wondered about your family history? Not just who married who, or how many children they had, but what their lives were like, what stories they had to tell.

Conversations with Dead Relatives (directed by Jennifer Ward-Lealand) examines just that.

As soon as you step into the theatre, actor Phil Ormsby is sitting at the table, while Alex Ellis is busy handing out slices of Nana’s honey nougat slice with a welcoming smile. It’s like stepping into a comfortable living room. [More


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A stimulating weave of familial threads

Review by John Smythe 02nd May 2019

That the Circa foyer is abuzz with audience members exchanging their own family histories, following 55 minutes of being engaged in Conversations With Dead Relatives, is a testament to the play’s success.

Having explored their imaginations with Biscuit and Coffee (2006), Murder by Chocolate (2007) and Carol & Nev (2009), and drawn from the lives of (in)famous people with Drowning in Veronica Lake (2011), A Model Woman (2013) and Miss Jean Batten (2017), Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby have excavated their relative heritages to share the stories of fascinating ancestors.  

Inevitably the particulars become universal and the personal is political. The nature of story-telling itself is exposed as questions arise about embellishments and accuracy – yet we sense there is a solid core of truth at the play’s heart. It becomes very clear how things have changed while fundamentally staying the same.

The simple setting of a table, two chairs, a candle, a stuffed folder, three trunks, a box, a spinning-cum-ship’s wheel … (design concept by John Parker) is the physical field on which Ellis and Ormsby play out their stories, each embodying the other’s ancestors. Where they really take flight, however, is in our imaginations – thanks to Ormsby and Ellis’s vivid writing and Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s dynamic directing, enhanced by Nik Janiurek’s lighting and Paul McLaney’s sound designs.

While Orm the Viking’s Shetland descendant, Robert the surveyor, and early English feminist Ellen Elizabeth Ellis (nee Colebrook; author of the extraordinary semi-autobiographical novel Everything is Possible to Will, published in 1882) and her surviving son John (J W) Ellis, established the family names in Aotearoa, both Robert and J W married Māori women.

Thus the progress and choices made in those early days and subsequent generations become especially fascinating as we glimpse key elements of value systems, social structures and lifestyles.

Alex Ellis has a ball with robust accents and is always centred in each role she inhabits. Ormsby is more the amiable raconteur but his physicality is especially impressive, not least in evoking a storm at sea. Between them they deliver a stimulating weave of familial threads, adding a touch of pathos concerning what happens to passed-down family stories when people don’t have children.

Their delight in discovery is contagious. A sense of random selection keeps the action lively and suggests there’s more where this came from, amid the trunks and folders of records, yet order is neatly achieved in a final image of well-stored memories.

It’s a touring show and only in Wellington until the end of next week. 


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Leaves us glowing and deeply satisfied

Review by Sarah Nathan 04th Mar 2019

[Aplogogies for the late publishing of this review – editorial error entirely.]

Themes of mortality, legacy and genetic prodigy have been central to human identity for all eternity. Yet in this time of DNA analysis and obsessive online ancestry research, Conversations with Dead Relatives seems especially relevant. 

I’m a longtime admirer of the works of Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby though their production company Flaxworks.  They clearly have a passion for historical research and then such a gift for romantic and dramatic embellishment where gaps are to be filled, such as in their wonderful works Drowning in Veronica Lake and Miss Jean Batten

Conversations with Dead Relatives is therefore a marvelous evolution on these previous works as they turn the focus of subject matter onto themselves.  Both have extraordinarily rich heritage lines from which to draw narratives, and even more extraordinarily, there are rare parallels that exist in both lineage strands.  Who do you know that has a British male ancestor who, upon immigrating to New Zealand, falls in love with the daughter of an important Māori chief, then goes on to a happy marriage that produces many, many children? Well both Alex and Phil do, and so this exceptional fact weaves a basis for this poignant tale of bi-cultural genetic inheritance. 

Directed by Jennifer Ward Lealand, Alex and Phil have been guided with expert hands through a journey of learning and expression of their whakapapa and turangawaewae.  Jennifer’s touch is clearly evident and the three combined have created something quite magical.

Unlike in previous works where Alex is solo on stage, this time she is joined by Phil and the result is delightful, given their real life relationship and chemistry. The two of them deftly travel through centuries, and across continents and introduce us to a wide array of their fascinating dead rellies.  Accents throw easily from Scottish to Irish to Swedish to early settler Kiwi.  They both alternate male and female roles with ease and the rapid character transitions are akin to watching serial possession by ghosts of lives lost.

The writing is powerful, poetic and poignant; “a child would be proof I was here, and not a withered branch on the end of a family tree”.  It is also hilarious; “The only regret I had on my deathbed was being on my deathbed” and my favourite: “Theatre is the enterprise of liars and whores.”

Clever use of props and imagery, free and dynamic physical movement within the space and intimate engagement with the audience means the flow of this hour of split-personality style conversation is fast and furious. I finish the night feeling like I’ve spent an evening with a dear friend who can make you laugh and cry in the same minute. Or perhaps a night spent with a great book, warm bath and glass of merlot. Either way, we are glowing and deeply satisfied as we wander off into our evening.


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Mining the wealth in ordinary lives

Review by Trish Sullivan 14th Oct 2018

Alex Ellis and Phil Ormsby sit at a dining table centre stage, surrounded by trunks, boxes, files and photos. They are ready to tell us stories. They have handed out sweet treats across the audience, because they aren’t in character – this is Alex and Phil.

Straight away they engage us in tales of their own ancestry. The narrative jumps seamlessly between them, each telling their own story, whilst simultaneously playing characters in that of the other. The clearly well-rehearsed script creates an impression of a natural, perhaps almost spontaneous discussion between them. 

We meet a rather unusual bunch of relatives. From eccentric great great uncles to ancient Nordic heroes, each one is portrayed excellently, with no additional costumes or set, only a handful of props and some particularly admirable accents.  I must also mention the clever use of sound that places us right in the moment; a Kiwi summer of bird-song, a tempestuous ocean voyage.

Conversations with Dead Relatives is a tribute to the ancient art of storytelling. It is a natural thing to want to know our own story, isn’t it? And then to want to share it?

I am not sure my story would be anywhere near as exciting as these, but then might the stories include embellishments that somehow wove their way into the truths of the next generation? Alex’s ancestors question the alien concept of not producing offspring. So if you don’t have children, do the stories come to an end?

This performance is certainly thought-provoking. It invites us to question so much about ourselves and our ancestry, thankfully reminding us to celebrate it too.  It certainly serves as a reminder of the wealth and depth of family histories that can emerge from comparatively ordinary lives. 


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