Te Whare o Rukutia, 20 Princes St, Dunedin

25/11/2022 - 26/11/2022

Production Details

Abby Howells (Writer & Performer)
Directed by Hannah Smith and Anya Tate-Manning

In DREAMER, Abby Howells (7 Days, Comedians Giving Lectures, Guy Montgomery’s Spelling Bee) brings to life a screenplay she wrote when she was eleven years old; an ambitious post-World War Two epic romance titled La Soupco (a word Abby made up, we don’t know what it means either). The show ends with an epic first performance of La Soupco, which has finally (twenty one years later) been given an ending. DREAMER is a worthy follow up to the internationally award-winning HARLEQUEEN, in which Abby wove together stories of female comedians from history with her own tales of triumph, foolishness and heartbreak. This November, Abby brings us even more hilarious triumph and foolishness, but thankfully this time the heartbreak is purely fictional.

“This will be the first time that La Soupco has ever been performed on stage, and I’m so excited that its premiere will be in my home town of Dunedin,” says Abby. “The script has many twists and turns and an ending that will surprise everyone. Mostly because it does not make any sense.”

“A firecracker of a comic” – Backstage Christchurch
“Delightful, educational, meaningful, and most of all, hilarious.” – Kate Norquay, Art Murmurs “…the feeling you leave the theatre with is triumph.. ten out of ten” – Talia Parker, Craccum

Performances at 7pm

Performed and Written by Abby Howells

Directed by Hannah Smith and Anya Tate-Manning

Choreographer Baz Macdonald

Set Design Alex Martyn

Costume Design Krue Love

Lighting Design Anna van den Bosch

Produced by Kate Schrader and Beth Waite

Comedy , Monologue , Solo , Theatre ,

A light-hearted celebration of growing up and finding oneself

Review by Ash Dawes 26th Nov 2022

Walking into Te Whare o Rukutia for Abby Howells’ Dreamer, it feels less like we’re entering a theatre, and more like we’re being invited into someone’s home—an impression that is facilitated in no small part by the complementary wine and cheese we are offered. Howells’ reputation precedes her: there is a buzz of excitement among the crowd, all of us aware that this is the first performance of the Billy T nominee’s new solo show, following the success of HarleQueen.

Dreamer centres on a screenplay titled ‘La Soupco’ written by Howells, aged 11. The title, we are told, meant very little at the time that it was originally written, but the final act, written 21 years later, draws together the threads of the first two acts and ties them off nicely—while maintaining the tone of the original text. The screenplay is not sophisticated (nor would we expect it to be), but it contains all the elements of an epic romance: a historical backdrop (Spain, 1949), a protagonist’s internal conflict (he wants to be in the Navy, but has a fair amount of nautical trauma), and a mysterious love interest (a decorated war hero who is also a shop assistant). Howells assures us that, in the name of preserving the integrity of the text, she has done no historical research in the making of this show; in fact, acts I & II are read, presumably verbatim, from a notebook that she purchased in 2001 from a Whitcoulls in Christchurch, for the steep price of $9.95. This is the charm of the text: the protagonists are unnamed until the final act, the script references the sinking of the “Tienanic”, and there are scenes where the romantic lead is described as saying something powerful and eloquent—the details of which are left entirely to our imaginations.

Passages from La Soupco are punctuated by anecdotes from Howells’ childhood, giving us some insight into her frame of mind as she wrote the screenplay. The protagonist’s nautical trauma, for instance, is drawn from Howells’ own experience of a beach trip gone wrong. I am particularly struck by her portrayal of a conversation between her eleven-year-old self and her current self. Eleven-year-old Abby, we learn, would be disappointed to learn that in the future, she is not married to Clay Aiken, does not live in London, and although she has learnt to tap-dance, it has not been anywhere near as relevant to her life as she hoped. Who among us cannot relate to this, if not in specific then at least in general terms?

The show opens with a disclaimer, of sorts: Howells has recently been diagnosed with autism, so she will not, she assures us, be engaging in the sort of comedy that relies on audience responses (the front row breathes a sigh of relief at this). This disclosure is significant, because Dreamer is fundamentally influenced by autistic experiences. The anecdotes Howells relates from her childhood and teen years are funny in their details and delivery, but they are also deeply resonant: not knowing whether you’re being mocked, rehearsing things in your head before speaking, and creating rich fictional worlds as a means of escapism are all common autistic experiences, especially for girls, women, and those socialised as such (who are statistically far less likely to be diagnosed, not because they are less likely to be autistic, but because it often presents differently). It is refreshing to see such stories being told, especially in a way that is so humorous and engaging.

The design of the set (Alex Martyn) and the lighting (Anna Brodie) is simple but effective, especially in a space like Rukutia, which does not lend itself to particularly complex designs. Most of the show occurs within two lighting states, one signifying the present, and the other indicating that we have shifted into the world of La Soupco. There are two notable moments where this pattern is broken: the first for the reading of a poem, intriguingly titled “Poem!” and the second for Howells’ a-cappella rendition of the confrontation from Les Mis, both parts being played by her. Both lighting and sound support the performance without distracting from it, which is no mean feat for a comedy show. Similarly, the bunting across the back of the stage and Howells’ simple but elegant sailor-style dress create a nautical impression without being over-the-top, and the set has a surprise in store for the end of the show.

Dreamer is purportedly about finishing and presenting La Soupco, but in reality, it is much more than that. It is an attempt to reconcile the past with the present, contrasting the dreams we have as children with the reality of the world that we grow into as adults. Couched in Howells’ signature light humour, which keeps us laughing through even the show’s more serious moments, it is also an exploration of the loneliness that comes with being an undiagnosed autistic kid who just wants to be part of the world that everyone else seems to inhabit with such ease. I cannot speak to the experience of a neurotypical audience member, but from one late-diagnosed autistic person to another: thank you for telling these stories and inviting us, as you put it, into your cave.



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