Centrepoint, Palmerston North

17/11/2014 - 31/01/2015

Production Details

written by Peter Hawes

Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North is celebrating its 40th anniversary, as New Zealand’s only professional theatre outside the main centres. 

To celebrate the anniversary, novelist, playwright and actor Peter Hawes has written a history of Centrepoint, which will be published online, and in a limited, hard copy version. An illustrated calendar, based on the history, will also be sold to help raise funds for the theatre.

Book ,

Comedy, tragedy, anguish and joy amid too many inaccuracies

Review by John Smythe 21st Nov 2014

If you absorb Forty Years of Centrepoint Theatre: The History According to Hawes in a couple of sittings, reading fast, you will get a rich and juicy impression of the Centrepoint journey through its first four decades. Peter Hawes’ jocular prose makes for a jaunty read.

While the first full season opened on 22 January 1974 with Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, Pat Evison – described by Hawes as “uber-ample” – performed her solo show, An Evening with Katherine Mansfield, as a ‘curtain-raiser’ the previous November. “Having a bulimiac [sic] played by an endomorph was curious enough to ensure three bulgingly full houses,” writes Hawes (p3).

His prose is robustly wrought, as those familiar with his writings would expect – I laugh aloud a number of times – and it is riddled with unexpected diversions, e.g. concerning Dario Fo (p16), Mervyn (Proc) Thompson (p18), Jennifer Ward-Lealand (p25), Noel Coward (p28) … His opening paragraph includes the chemical properties of cigarette smoke and throughout he manages to make necessary lists and statistics entertaining. Each decade and selected plays are summarised with pungent wit. There is much to relish …

If, however, you read or refer to the 77 pages in search of historical accuracy, I would caution you to verify all facts through alternative sources, including the spellings of names (e.g. Amanda Tollemarche shrinks to Tollmarch later, Vivien Bell transgenders to Vivian, Phil Grieve multiplies into Grieves …).

Trying to work out, over pages 10 to 16, who was Artistic Director and who was whose Associate over which months of which year between Paul Minifie, Murray Lynch and Jan Prettejohns will be a brain-scrambler for any reader. And those in the know will see it as misleading if not downright inaccurate. I’d have thought the editors would have alerted Hawes to such confusing tracts but given the typos and the number of brackets and quotation marks that open but don’t close, or vice versa, I’m guessing they were not the last to tweak the text before it went ‘live’ on line.

Our first-ever Minister of the Arts, Hon Allan Highett (consistently referred to by his successors, the Hons. Chris Finlayson and Maggie Barry, as “our greatest Minister for the Arts”) loses an ell in Hawes’ text and is tarnished with the assertion he is “now best remembered as the minister of ‘don’t say kia ora on the phone’.” (p10) This is news to me, given Rob Talbot was the National government’s Postmaster General who, in 1984, backed the ban in the celebrated Naida Glavish incident (see here).

It is certainly not true that when Sir Ian McKellen embarked on his whistle-stop tour of IAN MCKELLEN ON STAGE – with Shakespeare, Tolkien and you! he was “working to refund the earthquake-smitten Court Theatre in Christchurch” (p69). He was raising funds for the restoration of the now completed Isaac Theatre Royal (in honour of which a box bears his name).

Inevitably such furphies (Aussie slang for a rumour or fictitious story) reduce our faith in the entire text, which offers no end-notes to reference its sources. This is a great shame because the Centrepoint story is one that strongly reinforces the importance and efficacy of the performing arts to any community. (The online version does, however, end with a disclaimer and a request to email Centrepoint with any corrections.)

Having performed in many Centrepoint productions, had two of his plays performed there and reviewed 14 of its productions for Theatreview, Hawes writes with a ‘knowing’ voice and seems to expect his readers to share his ‘insider knowledge’. He drops names with no reference to their place in the scheme of things. Citing Simon Phillips as an example of the young talent to whom Centrepoint offered a career path (p14) will only resonate with those who happen to know he went on to a stellar career as Artistic Director of the South Australian Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company then onwards to Broadway and the wider USA. He assumes we all know Scared Scriptless is an improv show. (p42)

In the process of capturing some aspect of a production, Hawes often mentions one or two of the cast but neglects to say who played the title or leading role, which I find frustrating. This wouldn’t matter so much if a chronological listing of productions and the personnel involved was appended. The lack of an index also reduces its usability as a reference book (although when reading it on your computer you can right-click to utilise a ‘Find’ function). Especially vexing is that the many fascinating photos throughout are captioned with the title and year of the production but not the actors’ names. I’m not sure the adage ‘always leave them wanting more’ applies here.

Choosing turds in a dunny as “artistic imagery” to classify Artistic Directors – “let’s just say some are floaters, others are sinkers” – might work as a gag if Hawes didn’t strain so hard at making it work. He goes on to smear some productions with the splendid epithet “plumbeous clunkers” but doesn’t indicate why they deserve it. (p6)

Nevertheless we do get vivid portraits of each AD and their dramas, both on and off stage: Don Hampton, Paul Minifie, Murray Lynch, Jan Prettejohns, Jill Wheeler, Stuart Devenie, William Walker, Alison Quigan, Simon Ferry, Kate Louise Elliott, Jeff Kingsford-Brown. Amid the many other people mentioned, Ross Gumbley, Bruce Graham, Lucy Schmidt and John Lepper loom especially large.

The ebb and flow of Board support for, and opposition to, artistic plans and decisions becomes inexorably dramatic. There is comedy, tragedy, anguish and joy to be shared in the anecdotes about specific productions, from the disastrous opening of Bullshot Crummond to the triumphs of Steaming, Ladies Night, Bouncers and the locally homegrown plays of Quigan and her collaborators.  Indeed the plays of Roger Hall, Quigan, Gumbly, Schmidt and David Geary have proved crucial to the theatre’s survival. 

Funding issues and financial crises keep surfacing as an ominous thread in the richly-stitched arras of the Centrepoint story and it is inspiring to track how New Zealand plays become seen as the answer to what Hawes calls “bumsonseatability and theatrical sustainability”. Centrepoint stands proud as the professional theatre company in New Zealand which engages its local audience by producing the highest proportion by far of homegrown plays.

Despite this, Creative New Zealand has seen fit to reduce Centrepoint’s funding by tens of thousands over each of the last three years (see here) which raises the question many would like an answer to: by what criteria does Creative New Zealand seek to incentivise professional theatres and encourage a healthy and sustainable supply of New Zealand plays? 

Seen as a work-in-progress destined to have its errors corrected – hopefully before it goes into hard copy – FORTY YEARS OF CENTREPOINT THEATRE: The History According to Hawes should become an important addition to the historical record.


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