Old Recycling Centre (Dave Culham Drive, Pohe Island), Whangarei

25/01/2014 - 05/02/2014

Production Details

Northland Youth Theatre (NYT) is delighted to announce its latest summer celebration: EMPTY CITY.

Welcome to your city… 

The dirt, the joy, the rust, the car parks, the late fast food runs, the graffiti, the shadow of Parihaka and the sweep of the Hatea. 

This summer, NYT’s cast will breathe life into the old Recycling Centre on Pohe Island as we lead you through your own streets as they are and as they were, while weaving an ancient tale of a city who broke its promise. A prophetic cartographer will be our guide. The boy who was left behind. A re-imagining of the pied-piper. 

There will be singing, sketching, swinging, playing and scribbling, a city swarming with rats and a stranger who comes to town. 

Follow us… you might never come back! 

At the Old Recycling Centre (Dave Culham Drive, Pohe Island)
8.00pm 25th January – 5th February  [no show Mondays]
Preview 24th January – $10
Tickets $12 & $17
Click here for tickets 
or call Northland Youth Theatre – Ph. (09) 438 4453

Theatre ,

Gorgeousness precedes venality

Review by David Stevens 26th Jan 2014

The Northland Youth Theatre’s choice of venue for their summer show – the Old Recycling Centre on Pohe Island – has caused some head scratching. Quite a few people seem not to know where it is until it is given its more familiar name: the Old Dump. Immediately, light dawns, followed almost immediately by puzzlement: why there? 

Why there, indeed. I had to look it up on a map but when I got there I knew immediately why it has been chosen and that ‘there’ is central to the evening. I have no idea if it was the germinating seed of the production or if the idea of adapting ‘The Pied Piper’ came first, but both ideas meld together into a complete and satisfying whole. I can’t think of one without the other. 

The venue is an old, big, empty building, set in what is now lovely greenland but had once been a mountain of rubbish, at the base of Mount Parihaka. You get to it either by the pleasant Riverside Drive, which is what it says, a pleasant drive by the river, or you get to it by Port Road and over the simple, elegant and evocative new bridge. Either approach – and the use of the venue – suggest a revitalised, perhaps even proud, Whangarei, where civic pride has not been in evident display. 

Something else happens with that alternative drive to the venue. As you approach Port Road, there are new signs alerting you to the fact that you are now in a controlled area, and if go you into the supermarket at Okara Centre, as I did, there are uniformed guards (MAF?) alerting you to the problem: one single fruit fly found at the Port. That area of Whangarei is now a city under a siege. 

It is a metaphor, of course. One fruit fly is hardly a plague of rats, but the effect could be similar, the destruction of at least part of the local economy. 

So by the time I arrive at the venue, I have been softened up for the evening, and suddenly the choice of venue seems brilliant. Mount Parihaka isn’t high enough to lower over the Old Dump, but I am immediately conscious of it, in ways that I have never been before, and it seems almost mystic.

The show begins before we even go inside. In one of those stunning ‘coups de theatre’ which both the two devisers, Laurel Devenie and Katy Maudlin, seem to be able to create with awe-inspiring ease, the mood of the evening is set: it is to be a rowdy, raucous community experience demanding our active participation. 

The show is all about Whangarei, standing in for Hamelin, a city of equivalent size in Germany, which is only famous for its rats – and the tragedy of its missing children, lost to the venality of the city elders. This is surprisingly complex territory (and essential to the success of the show), but made immediately accessible. We are not spectators, we are involved participants, this is about us, and where we live. 

Having been so thoroughly softened up, now something else happens. This show does not have many of the dazzling theatrical moments of Odyssey or even ‘Urchin Theatre’, nor the urgent, propelling imperatives, especially of Odyssey. Both devisers are in pastorale mode, and at least for the first half what they create is a love song to Whangarei, but clear-eyed, not sentimental, and thoroughly entertaining. The city they present is the city that I recognise, and, oddly, have come to love.   

I find it really quite hard to describe what happens next, because nothing much does. There is an MC of sorts, in tatty white, who might be a unicorn with wings or perhaps (I thought) an angel, but who works at the local Pak’n’save, and he introduces us to a bunch of citizens all going through the grind of daily life. There is also an itinerant Maori musician, who seems to have no defined role and, at least at first, little to do, but somehow adds an essential element of the supernatural to the proceedings. 

We also meet old friends in the young cast, kids we have seen before, and whom we are watching grow into adults and just because of that they are familiar to us and our feelings are immediately affectionate. 

Otherwise there is no one story to drive the action, only a number of small, individual stories, of no great consequence (the never-to-be-realised desire for a bigger house in more upscale Maunu) and some oddly endearing characters. There is also, importantly and touchingly, a deaf boy who speaks in sign, whose role becomes, if not crucial, then at least impressive. 

Before our eyes, a complex, intricate tapestry is woven, of daily life – and the machinations of the District Council. It is fascinating, or was to me, and filled with crackerjack, throwaway jokes, some so subtle, so specifically local, that they sailed right over my head but caused many more familiar with Whangarei to laugh out loud. 

In one of the more telling of these throwaways and out of the mouths of these Whangarei kids, the interminable Hundertwasser debate is casually and very quickly reduced to what it has become: seemingly endless hot air. But you have to be on your toes to spot it. 

So this first part of the evening is gorgeous, just gorgeous, and I am filled with good will. 

Then the rats arrive. 

We’ve had hints of the rats before, but like the fruit fly at Port Whangarei they don’t seem to matter much until the implications of their potential to destroy are revealed, and when they arrive in force – I won’t say how – the impact of the rats is stunning. 

This is a continuing essential of the show, it is not a spectator sport, it is participant action. It plays on our knowledge of the city and our relationship with the cast. At one point I find myself playing Pat-A-Cake with a young woman of the cast, who seems to be enjoying herself thoroughly and who communicates that enjoyment to me. 

With the rats, chaos reigns and salvation arrives in the form of the itinerant musician who promises to remove the rats – for a million bucks – to which the Council readily agrees. 

You know the rest of the story, except, perhaps the ending. The venal council reneges on its deal, crying poor, so the vengeful musician enchants the children of Whangarei and leads them into the mountain, to be lost forever. 

The devisers save some of the best inventions for this second half. The story of the vanished children is given by the deaf boy, in sign language. It is an extraordinary metaphor – the truth delivered by a mute – and rightly affected many in the audience. 

And somehow I become aware that quite fierce intelligence is at work. When we learn that the children have disappeared into the mountain it doesn’t seem unrealistic, but part of that whole underlay of the Maori spirituality with which we live. 

I’ll leave the actual ending to your imagination, because it is also a metaphor, but I’ll simply remind you of the title, Empty City: a city without its children is meaningless; a dead thing. 

I said that the first half is gorgeous, and much of the second half is, too. If I have one disappointment, it is that the devisers seem to duck the emotional impact of the vanished children. It’s there, of course, how could it not be, the expressions of shock and horror, but I don’t get a real sense of aching loss, of emotional bewilderment, except by implication. Consequently, the party seems misplaced, because it seems celebratory, which is exactly the reaction I don’t feel – or want to feel.

Too much to ask, perhaps? I don’t think so. We know from Albert Black that the kids of the NYT can handle quite devastating emotional issues, and I suppose that is what’s missing for me: a sense of that devastation. 

But perhaps a greater theme rules. What I get from the evening is a remarkable sense of community in a specific locale. 

When I first moved here, Whangarei seemed to lack a sense of civic pride. Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places because I found that civic pride last night, in countless – if intangible – ways. I’m not sure that I can quite put my finger on what the evening is, except that.

And I’m not sure that the evening will ever communicate itself fully to anyone who isn’t from Whangarei – it is almost defiantly specific. We had a debate about this afterwards: would it transfer to somewhere else? I suppose it would, the old Hamelin legend has had meaning through the generations, and the devisers are so smart, I don’t doubt they might succeed.

But I’m not sure that I’d like it because I became oddly possessive of it, much like the Russians feel about their composers or the French about their philosophers. I hope that the leaders of our city see the show and appreciate what it is they are seeing, because above everything, I do know this:
If the kids of the NYT have anything to do with it, the future of Whangarei is in safe hands.


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