The Pumphouse Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland

18/06/2016 - 25/06/2016

Production Details

Written by Roger Hall
Directed by Regan Crummer

Crummer Entertainment

Venice! Rome! Tuscany!   

With a copy of Lonely Planet in one hand and an Italian phrase book in the other, recently retired librarians Adrian and Alison feel prepared to face the excitement of Italy  in their longed for trip. Travelling with your nearest and dearest is difficult enough… but with a couple you’ve only just met?

This is OE for the over fifties, when tensions can arise from sharing everything from the bathroom to the bill. And as for sharing the driving on the autostrada!  With events from the past looming over their lives, and new excitements possibly just around the corner, the journey does indeed turn out to be the trip of a lifetime.   

Crummer Entertainment and PIC Insurance Brokers are proud to announce their exclusive season of Four Flat Whites in Italy by the legendary Roger Hall.

With design by HLX Ltd, this brilliant New Zealand comedy features a top cast of seasoned and  emerging actors and will open June 18th, at the beautiful Pumphouse Theatre in  Takapuna for eight performances only! 2016 marks Roger Hall’s 40th year of entertaining the nation, come join us to celebrate!    

Do not miss out! Book now to avoid disappointment!  

The Pumphouse Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland.  
18­-25 June 2016  

Alistair Browning (Westside, Shortland St, Rain, Hercules)  
Edward Newborn (Pop­up Globe, The Water Horse, Go Girls)  
Denise Snoad (Xena, Hercules)  
Anna Baird (The Actors Program)  
Brie Hill  (The Actors Program, Shortland St)  
Hadley Taylor (Ithaca, Shortland St)    

ARTISTIC TEAM:  Crummer Entertainment  
Executive Producer:  Reginald Ord  
Artistic Director:  Regan Crummer  
Associate Producers:  Alex Gleed and Carl Drake  
Technical Directors:  HLX Ltd    

Theatre ,

Nuanced plot generates empathy

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 20th Jun 2016

Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “I’ll have grounds / More relative than this – the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” 

This phrase zipped about in my head from early on in this worthwhile production of Roger Hall’s Four Flat Whites in Italy because, as with all good theatre, we look for more and more examples of what we need to validate the narrative journey we’re experiencing whether it’s reflected in the authenticity of actor choices, the interface between character and storyline or the effect that all the bits have when the final curtain falls – or the lights fade to black, or the actors fashionably applaud the technicians. However this plays out, it’s always the play itself and its rendering that sends us home either happy, moved, angry or simply craving our goodnight cocoa. (Yes, I do have a friend who ends each day with cocoa.) 

Roger Hall is a fine playwright and this production, cast as it is with actors of experience and soul, brings much of his immense capacity to the fore. Early in my theatre career I watched some of our best Kiwi practitioner’s mangle Coward by playing his work as though it was Oscar Wilde, and destroy Wilde by playing his work as though the words and plots had been written by Noel Coward and these productions left an unhappy sense of unease regardless of how much money was spent on them or how experienced the actors were.

I couldn’t put my finger on why until I saw a production of The Importance of Being Earnest staged by the National Theatre of Ireland at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Then all became clear. Even the best of ‘English’ literature cannot be separated from its cultural context and Wilde was Irish – and the Irish laugh differently, and at different things. Coward is quintessentially English and of his time. Ignore these factors at your peril – and the two are not interchangeable.

As a young and evolving antipodean art form, our theatre directors fell into this trap and I believe this has also often happened, subsequently, with the works of Roger Hall, Yes, he’s a Kiwi (mostly), and yes he is a very funny man – but this isn’t all he is. He’s also a sublimely good craftsman, an acute observer of the human idiosyncrasies of our cultural nature and, like Cupid, his darts, when they hit, they can have a profound impact on the experience we all have as an audience.

When played exclusively for laughs, the texts can become strained and this should be no surprise. Try cooking salmon in the same way you would a potato. It’s like that. When Hall’s characters are treated as caricatures they mostly don’t work either and we are protected by bad directing and inadequate acting from Hall’s big heart. Comedy is real people in unreal situations and this is what Hall does best. Play his works as real, human comedy and you’ll find the “grounds more relative”, and then you’ll engage, entertain and move our royal consciences exactly as Hamlet says you should.  

Regan Crummer’s production does exactly that. It touches us and deeply, it gets through the resistant outer shell of our opening night selves, our ‘missing the All Blacks v Wales’ Kiwiness, our ‘it might have been better if I’d bought a wine after all’ anxiety and it gives us a good solid belt in the heart just when we least expect it, or, on occasion, exactly when we do.

The first time I read Four Flat Whites in Italy I somewhat arrogantly described it to myself as a fairy story with a happy ending. It seemed to have all the hallmarks of this often overlooked genre and I’m happy to say Crummer and his excellent cast seem to agree with me. It also has all the qualities of Hall at his best.

The play is beautifully structured, the narrative delicately drawn, the trademark one-liners almost actor proof and the characters as accurately and subtly shaded as could possibly be asked for. All that awaits is a cast that can bring this gem to life and a director with the courage to just let them get on with it. 

Casting a play is often where the success, or lack of it, is determined and Crummer has gathered together just the right mix of talent and craft in his excellent team. Hall, in his own writing, creates great roles for the more mature actor and plots that fit them like a glove. While there are a few clunky moments in the production, some around the breaking of the fourth wall and the use of ‘spots’, some that relate to the team getting used to managing the giant doors that constitute the set, once it gets itself underway the action flows well and the plot unfolds seamlessly. 

Adrian (Alistair Browning) and Alison (Denise Snoad), a couple of retired librarians, are off to Italy for the trip of a lifetime, “the adventure before dementia” as the text advises. They’re travelling with their good friends Tim and Erica and looking forward to it in a librarianish sort of way. That’s the strategy, anyway, until Tim falls over in the bath, breaks his ankle, and couple number two can no longer go.

Into the breach step Adrian and Alison’s new neighbours, the obnoxious Harry (Edward Newborn) and his ‘trophy wife’ Judy (Anna Baird). We meet the couples during a bridge game that allows us an excellent glimpse into the personalities of the protagonists and I have to say that the prospects for the Italian sojourn do not look hopeful.

Via the medium of storyteller Adrian, who recurrently steps from the action, breaks the convention of the fourth wall and updates us on the inner workings of the personalities, we are kept in tune with what’s going on and Browning is sufficiently good in the way he approaches this treacherously difficult task that we – even those towards the back of the auditorium – feel as though we’re on the stage there with him. It’s clever stuff and it works best when it happens without any technological intervention.

With an ease that is at times bewildering, Hall, in a ‘been there, done that’ fashion, embraces issues of travel constipation; financial inequity; trousers which unzip to turn longs into shorts; dissimilarities in political persuasion, artistic taste and even religion. At times he’s battering us with a verbal sledgehammer, other times with a dandelion-like delicacy, and on each occasion he makes it possible for us to love his characters more and more. 

Not all the time though – Hall’s too smart for that and so are these actors – so almost in sequence I find myself becoming frustrated, irritated or angry with each of them in turn. Never for long, though, just enough to make them seem real and vulnerable to an ever-welcoming audience.

The plot is nuanced and palpable, and unfolds at its own pace until, by the end, we understand, empathise and are engaged by each of the four main characters in the most human way imaginable. They’re like new friends who we’d be really happy to go on an extended holiday with … perhaps. 

The production succeeds on two principle planes: the storytelling and the acting. As Adrian, Alistair Browning has the additional task of talking to the audience, of drawing us in while informing us and guiding how we should relate to the narrative. Adrian is world-weary and Browning leads us to the big expose towards the end with subtlety and heart. Always a great team player, he’s instrumental in gluing the whole together. 

As wife Alison, Denise Snoad is superb. She’s your archetypical librarian but never a stereotype. She’s organised – we discover why – committed to seeing the sites her Lonely Planet recommends and is the necessary, but not necessarily welcome, Bossy Mum. Her journey of self-discovery is touching and ingeniously drawn but simply wouldn’t work without the collusion of her fellow actors who give ’til it hurts. 

Edward Newborn’s Harry is the travelling companion from hell, or so it seems, but as we get to know him better we see how he fits into this quartet and just how vital his contribution is. In the hands of a lesser actor Harry could simply be a pain in the proverbial but exposed by Newborn we see a vulnerable man and we love him despite his risqué jokes and his obsession with sex without which, of course, an important dimension of the play would be lost. 

Last but not least in this fine quartet is Anna Baird’s Judy. She’s sexy, funny and fits the jigsaw perfectly. There are a series of two hander scenes, each with each, and the scene between Judy and Alison is the one that zings along the best. This is praise indeed because they’re all good and each exposes character and progresses the plot with alacrity.

That said, it’s the four-hander scenes where the tensions and the frictions arise the most, and being witness to how this disparate foursome pull it all together is worth the ticket price alone. 

In case you thought from the above that this is just a four-hander throughout, it’s not.  There are two additional characters – Italian Male played by Hadley Taylor and Italian Female played by Lucy Suttor – who each play multiple roles. They bring the world of Hall’s Italy to life and enable us, selflessly, to see the nature of each of the principles as tourist as well as providing excellent local colour.

Suttor’s Eastern European Waitress is quite wonderful as is her Contessa. Taylor’s sleazy centurion at the Colosseum, his emo gondolier and his classy Count – that’s Count with an ‘o’ – are uniformly excellent as well.

There are moments of genius – the scene with the rental car is fantastic as is the penultimate exchange – and Hall’s threading of themes and subplots is beautifully realised. Equally well realised is the creating of the characters we never see. Adrian and Alison’s daughter Joanne is a force throughout even before we recognise the importance of her narrative to the whole, as are Tim and Erica, the couple we compare Harry and Judy with constantly. This isn’t easy to do but these actors (and director) manage it effortlessly and in a way that enriches, but doesn’t overbalance, the play proper. 

It’s fair to say that I had a great night. I came away with a reinforced respect for Hall as a playwright and humanist – I already had that – and with my love of actors intact. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing excellent performances that aren’t only great in themselves, but that interface with each other in ways that enhance the slice of life that we’re all engaged with.

Crummer Entertainment is a small and still ‘wet behind the ears’ venture but there was a time when Sir Cameron Mackintosh was seen in the same light and look what happened to him – through hard work, vision and a good smattering of luck. Regan Crummer certainly has the former and I wish him all the best for the future with fickle Lady Luck. We certainly need skilled and enthusiastic entrepreneurs in our industry and Crummer scores on both counts.  


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