Four Flat Whites In Italy

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

22/08/2009 - 03/10/2009

Production Details

Written by Roger Hall
Directed by Ross Jolly

Venice! Rome! Tuscany!

Guide book in hand, retired librarians Alison and Adrian are excitedly embarking on their long-awaited (and carefully saved-for) Italian trip of a life-time. But when their best friends pull out at the last minute, they find themselves sharing their precious holiday with their neighbours – Harry, a wealthy plumber and his new wife Judy.

As these delightfully mismatched couples valiantly negotiate the pit-falls of a later-in-life OE it’s not just the Italians the intrepid travellers have to deal with – it’s also each other!

Adrian and Alison have a dark secret that is causing them some strife and as Roger Hall says “any marriage is more interesting than any murder“. “One’s own relationships and other people’s – what makes them tick or not tick – is a never-ending fund of interest. Relationships are what this play – all the plays – are about.” Will the trials and tribulations of their cherished Italian sojourn prove a ‘make or break’ for our Kiwi quartet?  Will the holiday be heaven or hell, or both?

Four Flat Whites in Italy is classic Roger Hall, as NZ’s most popular playwright again deftly satirizes our manners, morals, loves and lusts. Blending cracker one-liners with humour, astute observation and understated pathos the play is a wonderfully funny insight into the character of the Kiwi abroad, and the instantly identifiable situations and compromises that travel (especially with others) involves.

Circa’s production of Four Flat Whites in Italy brings together a great cast of some of NZ’s finest comedians all under the expert hand of leading director, Ross Jolly. We are delighted to have been able to lure Catherine Downes and Jennifer Ludlam away from Waiheke Island and welcome them back to the Wellington stage. Catherine was last seen at Circa in her acclaimed performance of Marcus Antonia in Julius Caesar in 1997, and Jennifer in her award-winning performance as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman. Jennifer has also just been nominated for Best Actress at the Film and Television Awards for her role in Apron Strings. These two audience favourites join Peter Hambleton (Who wants to be 100?) and Tim Gordon (Wait until Dark) as four typical Kiwis off on a great Italian adventure, and the ever-versatile Michele Amas (Clean House, Rock ‘n’ Roll) and Simon Vincent (Year of the Rat) have lots of fun as all the Italians the travellers encounter en route.

The production team is rounded out with set designer, John Hodgkins, lighting designer Philip Dexter and costumes by Gillie Coxill.

A highly entertaining and totally recognisable treat Four Flat Whites in Italy is another sure-fire Hall hit.


Catherine Downes

Adrian: Peter Hambleton

Judy: Jennifer Ludlam

Harry: Tim Gordon

Various Italians: Michele Amas

Various Italians: Simon Vincent


Set: John Hodgkins

Lighting:  Philip Dexter

Costume:  Gillie Coxill


Stage Manager: Eric Gardiner

Technical Operator: Marcus McShane

Sound: Jeremy Cullen, Ross Jolly

Set Construction: Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins

Set Painting: Eileen McCann, Therese Eberhard

Publicity: Claire Treloar

Graphic Design: Rose Miller, Parlour

Photography: Stephen A'Court

House Manager: Suzanne Blackburn

Box Office Manager: Linda Wilson


2 hours 20 minutes including interval

More than one kind of journey

Review by John Smythe 21st Sep 2009

With six reviews covering three productions (so far) of this play – in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington; the Fortune season in Dunedin opens 13/11 – I don’t need to regurgitate the premise and plot. But having caught up with the Circa production four weeks into its six week season, I’d like to make a couple of observations.

The All Blacks were playing the Wallabies at the Cake Tin the night we went so I assumed the full house would largely comprise women whose men were at the rugby. Wrong. The gender-split was only marginally in favour of women. And the biggest laughs of the night came in the scene where the Tuscany-lodged quartet suffered watching the ABs lose to France at Cardiff in the World Cup (the play is recalling their 2007 trip to Italy). It was clear from the reactions to "Forward! That was a forward pass!" etc that this was a rugby-literate audience with excellent memories.

There was a suggestion in the media that Kiwis had largely abandoned the disappointing ABs, and the Cake Tin was filling with Aussies. Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that a Roger Hall play beats a test match when it comes to popular appeal.

As other critics have noted, the tragic underpinnings of this tale are what gives it substance and lasting value. Within the formulaic conflict /revelation /resolution structure, Hall is masterful at setting up and paying off, and at judiciously juxtaposing comedy and pathos, to ensure a good night of entertainment. No argument about that.

Interestingly only three of the four fellow travellers have unresolved issues in their past that impinge, to a greater or lesser degree, on their present behaviour. The librarians, Adrian (Peter Hambleton) and Alison (Catherine Downes), are dealing with a grief that is drowning one in guilt and the other in an inability to forgive, and this has all but overwhelmed their daily lives.

Lapsed Catholic Judy (Jennifer Ludlam), once the secretary and now the relatively recent wife of Harry, is dealing in quite a different way with her inner guilt and grief. As for Harry, who is no longer a plumber but owns a plumbing supplies business, it’s tempting to say that what you see is what you get with him. But he reveals a third dimension too, of compassion beneath his rude and ruthless right-wing exterior, unless it’s just that his bouts of magnanimity are born of liking to feel superior. (Getting to ponder that question is grist to the mill for me.)

The demands on the actors are great and they meet them with alacrity, with seasoned Hall director Ross Jolly at the helm. In a once-over-lightly format they are required to compress weeks of story into a couple of hours, navigating different settings, times of day and costumes, not to mention moods and motivations, while hitting the crucial emotional marks and finding the exact balance between realistic credibility and effective comic timing. It’s a skill we take for granted when they get it right, which this cast almost always do. Rising to the challenge brings out the best in them as individual actors and as an ensemble. No wonder we love watching them at work.  

Conversely, the emotional and intellectual demands on the audience are negligible. We are spoon-fed the narrative in a way that I find patronising (e.g. jet-lagged character nods off during a meal – cue knowing titters – then he wakes up and tells us, "I nodded off" – cue silence, the night I was there). It’s not a radio play – we are eye-witnesses to the action and we have brains in our heads that are more alive when we use them!

I have nothing against narration per se if it avoids tedious exposition within the dramatised scenes. But this play overdoes it and ruthless editing is required. As with the telling of a joke, allowing us to ‘get it’ and relish the moment can only increase our enjoyment of it. Hall understands this with the comedy vein so why does he ignore it with the overall story-telling?  

Over-narrating the story also keeps casting us as objective, passive and potentially bored observers while diluting the opportunities for subjective involvement and empathy. I realise this may be a strategy for maintaining the widely held view that Hall’s plays are always an unthreatening ‘good night out’, but it actually diminishes the entertainment value for me and I don’t think I am the only one.  

Yet in the end Four Flat Whites in Italy does challenge each of us to privately consider those self-defeating parts of ourselves we have seen reflected in the quartet before us, especially Alison, who is the most problematical and potentially to most rewarding character both from an acting and audience perspective.

Throughout most of the play Alison is the anally retentive, would-be controlling misanthrope we inevitably grow to dislike. Hall offers little in the way of saving graces and it is all too easy to write her off as the librarian cliché: a plain, humourless, a martinet who can only find pleasure in the high arts. Thus we are totally unprepared for the revelation that all that has nothing to do with her being a librarian.

In this way Hall subverts our expectations both of the character and his play. Theoretically this could pack a very satisfying wallop in the final moments but, as I see it, this would require a brave decision in performance and direction. (I have only seen the Circa production. If anyone has seen all the productions to date, please share your thoughts on this via ‘Post a Comment’, below.)

As played at Circa, Alison’s failings and limitation are often signalled overtly with physical ticks and twitches that – despite being born of an intelligent understanding of the character’s inner turmoil – sometimes look like attempts to play for laughs (which are not forthcoming precisely because they look try-hard).  

I don’t think Alison is crafted to get an equal share of the laughs and suggest that any attempt to garner them will be counter-productive. This leads me to wonder how it would work if she was simply played as the odd-person-out, even to the point of unsettling us and making us feel (yes) threatened. My guess is we would recognise that part of us which sometimes doesn’t want to play, and empathise even as we cringe …

It is even possible that this approach could, paradoxically, produce laughs. I’m thinking here of the deeply depressed Trevor in Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce. Having seen two very different productions – one in London, the other in Sydney – I can testify that his behaviour is totally unfunny when played for laughs and agonisingly hysterical when played for ‘real’.

Either way, my point is that the more we believe in Alison and see her failings in ourselves even as we judge her, the greater the impact would be, not only when the truth is revealed but even more so when she makes the breakthrough that seemed so hard yet brings such blessed release.

Four Flat Whites in Italy has the great virtue of being about more than one kind of journey. As such I’m tempted to say it rises above the standard Hall fare … Or is it that directors, actors – and maybe Hall himself – have not put in the hard yards to extract the full dramatic and therefore more deeply potential of his plays? I have wavered on this question over the years and would be interested to know how others think and feel.

I should add, in closing, in case it affected my perception of this production, that I saw it from the front row, three seats in from the right-hand end. This was my own fault as I changed our booking at the last minute, when the season was all but booked out. But it did give me the opportunity to see it as others are obliged to, in a seat which I take it is sold at the same price as those with a much better view.

The seating is slightly curved (the most common configuration in Circa One’s reasonably flexible space), so the performance area is neither fully thrusting into the auditorium nor end-on with a straight edge framing the action. John Hodgkins’ ingeniously flexible set tends to force most of the main action onto the forestage and Jolly’s direction rarely triangulates the blocking when more than two are interacting, which means that those in our (minority) position have to put up with lots of masking and backs of heads.

When I enjoy the privilege of excellent seats in the future I will try to remember to check how it must be for those out there on the flaps.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


Make a comment

Full House = Roger Roger

Review by Lynn Freeman 09th Sep 2009

A full house on a Wednesday night – it must be a new Roger Hall play.  Four Flat Whites in Italy has all Hall’s signatures – comedy with tugs on the heartstrings along the way.

Here two couples who don’t know each other well, end up holidaying to Italy together. They are mismatched, the wealthy ex plumber and his trophy wife, and the former librarians who’ve penny pinched to go on this holiday of a lifetime. 

While Judy and Harry (Jennifer Ludlam and  Tim Gordon) want to interrupt sightseeing with fun times and lots of sex, Adrian and Alison (Peter Hambleton and Catherine Downes) are focussed seeing all of the treasures and attractions Italy has to offer, as in the gospel according to the Lonely Planet, in the short time they have available.

The reward comes as we get to know the characters beyond first impressions. Judy is far more than a big-busted good time girl, Harry has a good heart under all his bluster, Adrian is under a shadow but does his best to go on, and Alison has reasons for her permanent grimace and ruthless timekeeping.

Ross Jolly knows how to direct Hall to extract the most laughs and he knows how to cast. Catherine Downes is unrecognisable as Alison, who could easily be loathsome. Downes’ expressions and mannerisms are so evocative that you take Alison into your heart at the same time you laugh out loud at her hitleresque  regime. Hambleton also makes you care for Adrian, who’s also the narrator of the story, with a bumbling warmth and underlying grief. Ludlam’s Judy is a scream but you believe her gentler side when it comes through and Gordon makes Harry a good bloke.  

John Hodgkins’ ingenious set drew two rounds of applause for its gondola and car, you’ll just have to see how it’s done and Gillie Coxill’s costumes worked a treat, especially for the two ‘general Italians’ Michele Amas and Simon Vincent and their many costume changes.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

Smiles Under a Tuscan Sun

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 24th Aug 2009

The first half of Roger Hall’s latest comedy is a series of light-hearted sketches in which two odd Kiwi couples – they barely know each other – end up touring Italy together, spending three days in both Venice and Rome and a whole week in a villa in Tuscany.

Near the beginning of the play Peter Hambleton’s Adrian, who acts as a narrator, says to the audience, as a minor disaster is about to occur, "You can guess what’s going to happen!"

And you can all the way through the play, particularly when Adrian and Alison are retired, Labour-voting, bookish university librarians who swot up on all the great works of art they are going to see, while the wealthier, shoot-from-the lip Harry, a plumber, and his sexually confident wife Judy are die-hard National supporters who can’t tell a Michelangelo from a Bellini.

The second half develops into a play that reveals the tragedies in three of their lives, while Harry, who is not an entirely unsympathetic character, appears to have come through unscathed. All ends happily, of course, with laughter and reconciliation under a starlit Tuscan night.

The acting, like the characterization, is OTT. Simon Vincent and Michele Amas have a lot of fun as all-purpose Italian waiters and scene-shifters with stagey Italian accents, while Tim Gordon’s brash Harry and Jennifer Ludlam’s lively Judy make a strong and amusing contrast to Catherine Downes’s stereotypical librarian (hair in a bun/ glasses) and the bumbling, guilt-ridden Adrian of Peter Hambleton who only has to move his feet slightly apart to get a laugh.

John Hodgkins’s setting is simple, attractive and cleverly allows the action to move smoothly from St Mark’s Square to a gondola to a villa, while projected slides allow us to look at some of the famous paintings.

Though the two librarians occasionally refer the audience to certain books about Italy they never mention E.M. Forster and A Room with a View. The novel does come to mind when the liberating effects of the Tuscan countryside, the wine, the sun, and the open sexuality of the Italians affects the behaviour of the four Kiwis, but the ending to the comedy fails to make any connections except to a purely theatrical sentimental finale.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

Packs emotional luggage in with the comedy

Review by Michael Wray 23rd Aug 2009

Four Flat Whites pits together two couples, who couldn’t differ in many more ways. About the only thing they have in common is they both play bridge.

In one corner we have intellectual, Labour-voting, budget-conscious, ex-university librarians with sensible clothes and sandals – Adrian (Peter Hambleton) and Alison (Catherine Downes). In the opposing corner sit plain-speaking, wealthy, National-voting, retired plumber Harry (Tim Gordon) and his sensual wife Judy (Jennifer Ludlam).

These two couples are not likely to plan a combined holiday. And they haven’t. Adrian and Alison had planned to go with more compatible friends, but an accident leaves them with little choice but to accept their new travel partners.

Right from the off, you know this isn’t going to be pretty. Matching travel hats, a taste for art museums and a preference for self-catering do not sit well with attractive, sexy clothes, expensive dinners and shopping trips. You do wonder why they persist with combined itineraries.

The two couples are excellently cast and comfortable in their roles. For Tim Gordon, Peter Hambleton and Jennifer Ludlam, there is a sense that these are roles they have fulfilled before.

It is a delight to see Catherine Downes return to the stage, after a long period of directing, with her portrayal of the dowdy, rule-obsessed, controlling Alison.

Peter Hambleton too is excellent as he plays Alison’s brow-beaten husband, developing his naughty side as he sees how the other half live.

Tim Gordon gets to exhibit his great talent for comedy. The plumber is a blokey-bloke with an irreverent sense of humour and he enjoys having the bulk of the show’s punch lines.

Jennifer Ludlam has a relaxed sex appeal, against which we see an additional dimension explored as Judy’s depths are revealed.

Michelle Amas and Simon Vincent fill in the supporting characters, mainly a mix of Italians. In these roles, they are given license to display the expected clichéd stereotypes to comic effect. Perhaps this is why the most convincingly real of these characters is Michelle Amas’ English Countess, though Simon Vincent does make a disturbingly sultry waitress!

In addition to playing his role within the play, Peter Hambleton adopts the role of narrator. He has a great skill for addressing the audience with his natural warmth and charm. However, this does feel like a weakness for the play. For the third consecutive Roger Hall production (following Who Needs Sleep Anyway? at Downstage and Who Wants to be 100? at Circa), there is a significant amount of exposition. As with these previous two plays, coincidentally or not, it is Peter Hambleton who takes on the burden of delivering it.

The play is at its best and most rewarding when we see the four main characters interacting directly with each other – particularly when one half of each couple is paired for a scene. It allows the back-story for each couple to be brought out without us having to be told things directly. Three of the four main characters have emotional baggage they are carrying and these elements are explored slowly and patiently, providing a meaningful story arc beyond the comedy. Only Harry has no such luggage, being a what-you-see is what-you-get kind of guy, but he gets to show he is not heartless.

Phillip Dexter’s lighting is subtle and cleverly deployed. John Hodgkins’ set is also very impressive, with some hidden elements and representing various aspects of Italy within the overall theme of a Mediterranean villa. A projection slide portrays various scenic snapshots, in keeping with the holiday setting.

Overall, this is a more universal Roger Hall production than recent times. You don’t have to have holidayed with others to personally connect with it. If you’ve ever experienced an awkward "how do we split this bill" angst after a meal, you’re there.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council