FARLEY’S ARCADE: The Wildest Place in Town

Athenaeum Building, The Octagon, Dunedin

28/08/2015 - 06/09/2015

Production Details

Dunedin celebrates 150 years of city status with an original multi-media performance presented in association with biennial the Dunedin Heritage Festival. Farley’s Arcade: The Wildest Place in Town will be a guided, immersive theatre experience that envisions Dunedin’s former premier commercial district as it might have been in 1865; the year it became New Zealand’s first city.

‘The audience will promenade through the historic and cavernous Athenaeum Building in the Octagon, through literal and metaphorical layers of the city. Their journey includes an exploration of early Dunedin features such as Bell Hill, Farley’s Royal Arcade and the Toitū stream’ said Producer Gareth McMillan.

‘We will create an interactive environment reminiscent of gold rush era downtown Dunedin, a la Deadwood, complete with amusements, oddities and mud’ he said. ‘The audience will experience the carnival of a Saturday night in the Arcade and engage with its colourful inhabitants including a troop of Victorian actors presenting a bespoke mini-melodrama titled The Golden Handkerchief, written by Richard Huber specifically for the performance’.

Borrowing the retro-futuristic ethos of steampunk, Farley’s Arcade: The Wildest Place in Town also draws inspiration from an article written in 1862, by a reporter who documented his visit to the original arcade and concluded: ‘…the Arcade of all Arcades. It is, sui generis, a thing of itself – the creation of a bold speculator, and deep financier – a universal emporium – a public mart – a commercial multum in parvo, and a depot for the reception of every description of merchandise, edibles, drinkables, wearables, and (if the word be good English) smokables. It is an inlet and an outlet; a rendezvous – a trysting place. There is no word or number of words, in the English language which could convey to a stranger what Farley’s Arcade is, or is not like. It is an Otagonian phenomenon…’ – Otago Daily Times Issue 205, 5 August 1862.

Farley’s Arcade: The Wildest Place in Town will be presented with the assistance of Creative New Zealand, the Otago Community Trust and the Dunedin City Council. It has been devised by the WoW! Productions Trust, the city’s leading theatre collective responsible for 27 performance events since 1996.

The performance season of Farley’s Arcade: The Wildest Place in Town is
Friday 28 August to Sunday 6 September 2015
Athenaeum Building in the Octagon.

Theatre , Promenade ,

A truly remarkable achievement

Review by Brenda Harwood 05th Sep 2015

Early Dunedin is brought to life in all its raucous, muddy glory in Wow! Productions’ delightful and fascinating promenade theatre event, Farley’s Arcade – The Wildest Place in Town.

A real sense of occasion greets audience members as they enter the Athenaeum building in the Octagon, wads of shilling notes in-hand, to be invited to partake of the water of Toitu stream. The dream-like feeling of stepping back in time grows stronger as we move through further historic tableaux to take our seats in the Athenaeum theatre for Victorian-style entertainment and melodrama The Golden Handkerchief.

Beginning with the spine-tingling sound of Maori karanga (calling) by Rua McCallum (as Old Wiki), the theatrical showcase _ announced by Aaron Hawkins in the role of Mayor of Dunedin _ features Bruce McMillan as ‘comedian and singer of topical ditties’/ Mr Thatcher and Terry MacTavish as the hilarious Madame Vitelli. The pair present an array of amusing vignettes, accompanied by John Drummond.

Then it is on to the main event, the full-blooded Victorian melodrama The Golden Handkerchief, written by Richard Huber, directed by Lisa Warrington, and starring Jared Culling as Henry Farley, Nadya Shaw Bennett as DunEdie (representing Dunedin) and Phil Grieve as Shadrach Jones. Accompanied by the cheers and jeers of the audience, a suitably ridiculous tale unfolds, filled with dramatic gestures, swooning, and some truly lovely singing.

But all is not yet complete. Leaving the theatre and stepping down into the building’s basement, the audience finds itself immersed in a lively arcade scene, complete with Victorian amusements and snake-oil salesmen: a reproduction of Farley’s Arcade itself.

After enjoying a delightful half hour in the arcade, where we finally get to spend our shillings, it’s on to yet another large space in the extraordinary Athenaeum building for the conclusion of the melodrama.

Rich in imagination and steeped in the city’s history, Farley’s Arcade _ The Wildest Place in Town, is fascinating, informative, and hugely entertaining.

Kudos to Wow! Productions’ creative team, artistic director Richard Huber, and the very large team of enthusiastic performers, townsfolk, Arcadians, and steampunkers for a truly remarkable achievement. Highly recommended.

Multiple performances continue until Sunday, see Farley’s Arcade on Facebook for details.


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Great amusement in this arcade

Review by Barbara Frame 05th Sep 2015

The programme reads like a Who’s Who of Dunedin theatre: well over a hundred local people and organisations have contributed, in many ways, to its success. 

Farley’s Arcade‘s creators, WoW! Productions, pop up irregularly and often unexpectedly, and are known for their originality.

The show, part of the Dunedin Heritage Festival, takes its name from the real arcade that operated in what is now Broadway from 1861 to 1931.

Set in 1865, it has three distinct parts. First, the audience assembles in the Athenaeum Theatre for the first act of The Golden Handkerchief, a shamelessly overwrought and derivative Victorian melodrama penned by Richard Huber. In the interval the audience is invited to visit a re-creation of the arcade, an intriguing collection of poky shops complete with trinkets, tools, elixirs, cure-alls, noise and dirt. The second and final act of The Golden Handkerchief is presented in a subterranean gallery where this tragic tale’s conclusion would be both heartbreaking and uplifting if it was not so ridiculously funny.

There’s a lot going on in Farley’s Arcade – drama, dance, gorgeous costumes, frivolity, mirth and menace. The contrasting Maori perspective is provided by Rua McCallum as Wikitoria Irihapeti, mourning the losses of her child and of the Toitu River. Devised by Huber and McCallum with Gareth McMillan, Martyn Roberts and Lisa Warrington, the show seamlessly blends history with multilayered, uninhibited entertainment. The stars of The Golden Handkerchief – Jared Culling as dashing, careless Henry Farley, Nadya Shaw Bennett as beautiful DunEdie, who loves him too much, and Phil Grieve as villain Shadrach Jones – somehow hold everything together.

There’s plenty for the audience to do too: hissing, booing, sighing and clapping on cue, taking part in the unusual experience of ambulatory theatre and gasping at rarely-seen parts of the Lower Octagon. Farley’s Arcade is worth a visit.


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Visceral, entertaining, indescribable

Review by Jennifer Aitken 29th Aug 2015

Quite how I should begin writing this review for Farley’s Arcade I am unsure, but by virtue of the fact I have written this sentence I have now begun. I feel I should offer you all a disclaimer: I will attempt to write this review in a logical and cohesive fashion without letting the erratic chaos of Farley’s seep into my words. Don’t worry, the production is supposed to be chaotic; this review however is not.

Mounted in honour of the 150th anniversary of Dunedin becoming New Zealand’s first city, and presented in association with the Dunedin Heritage Festival, Farley’s Arcade is an immersive, multi-media, multi-faceted and multi-layered theatrical extravaganza. Devised by Dunedin theatre stalwarts Richard Huber, Rua McCallum, Gareth McMillan, Martyn Roberts and Lisa Warrington, it and has been developed around the historic existence of the real Farley’s Arcade: a retail establishment created by Henry Farley in 1861 which was home to many local characters and attractions.

Henry Farley was an entrepreneurial business man capitalising on the economic booms surrounding the discovery of gold, here in Otago as well as in Australia. In 1862 Farley’s Arcade was described as ‘the wildest place in town’ and I think it is this sentiment precisely that is manifest throughout the production of Farley’s Arcade.

Juxtaposing the chaos and energy of the Victorian settler community is the story of Wikitoria Irihapeti, played by Rua McCallum. Wiki is used both as a device to guide us through the arcade and to represent the story of the local Māori community: a community displaced and disoriented by the loss of the Toitū stream.

The Toitū stream was an important part of the lives and identities of the Māori people living in the area, but through the development of the city the stream began being used as an open sewer and was eventually driven underground. The stream ran down through the city on the site where Farley’s Arcade was built in 1861 and Wiki eerily roams the Arcade asking the shoppers “Kei hea te awa?” (“Where is the stream?”).

Wiki is presented to the audience as a symbol of her entire race and community, and I think that although now we can empathise and try to comprehend the plight of Wiki and her people, the sight of Wiki in the original Arcade would have simply added to the exotic atmosphere and dark undercurrents seething below the veneer of shopfronts. 

Before we are even allowed to enter the performance we are issued with some currency, money to use in the Arcade to buy goods, experience wonders and even put a deposit down for a dental appointment if we so wish. The dispersal of this currency to the punters is the key that makes the whole experience of the Arcade itself a success.

Deep in the bowels of the historic Athenaeum Theatre, an imagining of what the Arcade might have looked like has been created. Shabby little shanties have been erected. There is dirt, there is incense and there is noise, lots of noise. Within the arcade we are all encouraged to explore the stores, chat to the shopkeepers and spend our money however we wish. I walk away having eaten an apple, purchased a piece of ribbon and two ounces of gold (an absolute bargain at only one shilling!).

There is also the opportunity to have our photo taken with the mayor! Alas my friend and I have to pay extra to have our photo taken without the mayor, somewhat of a rip-off I would argue but fun nevertheless. I doff my hat to whoever thought of casting local actor, current Dunedin City Councillor and former Mayoral Candidate Aaron Hawkins in the role of the mayor; I, along with many audience members, find this highly amusing.

Bookending our time in Farley’s Arcade is the performance of the utterly silly Victorian-esque melodrama The Golden Handkerchief. Penned by Richard Huber this play-within-a-play is absolutely hilarious. Very consciously didactic in its purpose, the play tells the fictional story of Henry Farley and his sweetheart DunEdie (a symbol of the city of Dunedin in case you couldn’t work that out – as we are told time and time again throughout the performance).

Here is where my ability to be coherent is starting to falter, you see: The Golden Handkerchief is not a true story and the actors playing the characters within it are not based on real people, however, two of the characters they are playing are. Are you following me? In Farley’s Arcade Jared Culling plays the actor Tom Fawcett and in The Golden Handkerchief Tom Fawcett plays Henry Farley. Likewise; Phil Grieve plays Vernon Webster and Vernon Webster plays Shadrach Jones, an historical figure who was at different times both a foe and business-partner to the real Henry Farley.

The reality of their relationship is played out within The Golden Handkerchief as they fight over the beautiful character of DunEdie, played within the play by Emma St Clair who is in turn played by local actress and singer Nadya Shaw Bennett. If you have lost me here, don’t worry, it all makes total sense when you see it and I am simply trying to recount all of this to you to emphasise the skill, creativity and level of historical research that has gone into the creation of The Golden Handkerchief and Farley’s Arcade.

This production functions on many levels: it is deeply entertaining, it is clever, it is based on historical facts and individuals, and it is all made comprehensible and educational through the wonderful words of Huber, the direction of Lisa Warrington and the seamlessly extravagant performances of Culling, Grieve and Shaw Bennett. 

Dotted throughout the production of Farley’s Arcade are impressions of Dunedin pertinent in the mid-1860s. We hear Dunedin being referred to as Mud-edin; we hear of Bell Hill, Farley’s less successful economic venture the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, and of course the Toitū stream. As much as we are taken on a literal journey through the Athenaeum, and as much as we are led to follow the story of the Arcade, these little historic gems are also dropped in for us to grab, to take hold of if we wish to.

Farley’s Arcade is very much an adventure in storytelling. We are encouraged to create our own story within the Arcade and I believe we are also encouraged to go forth and learn more, to continue the narrative for ourselves as we discover some of the bygone characters and attractions that made up Dunedin.

The sheer scale of this production is incredible. I believe that over fifty individuals have been involved in the creation of this production and that is an achievement in itself. The way the creative community in Dunedin has come together in the creation of this phenomenal production is a testament itself to the uniqueness of the project.

Aside from the performances I have already mentioned, highlights for me include: Terry MacTavish’s performance of the (somewhat aging) prima donna Madame Vitelli; live music performed by John Drummond; the gorgeous costumes created by Sofie Welvaert with assistance from Monique Arron; production and lighting design by Martyn Roberts; and finally the set design and construction of the Arcade itself by Richard Clark. All of the elements in this production come together to create an experience that is as visceral as it is entertaining. 

In essence Farley’s Arcade is indescribable: unlike anything I have ever experienced and for this reason alone I urge people to see it! Farley’s definitely benefits from not taking itself too seriously and as such presents itself as the perfect comedic fodder for a very entertaining night out! 


Lisa Warrington August 30th, 2015

Thanks very much for this lively review!

Just to note things that may not be clear in the programme: Tom Fawcett, Emma St Clair and Vernon Webster were themselves all real people, as were Charles Thatcher and Madame Vitelli and Alexander Livingston (the musician). They were all performers who appeared in Dunedin and throughout New Zealand in that period. The songs Thatcher sings were genuine compositions by him, written about Farley's Arcade and the terrible state of Dunedin's roads in 1865.

Actor Tom Fawcett was one of the founders of the Royal Princess Theatre, Dunedin's first theatre, constructed inside a horse bazaar. The horses were all put away in boxes and stalls at night, but you could still smell their presence.

(I've written a couple of articles about the start of Dunedin's theatre, if anyone's curious.)

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