goodnight, Irene

Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

15/03/2012 - 17/03/2012

Regent Theatre, 2/6 MacKay Street, Greymouth

17/11/2011 - 19/11/2011

Dunedin Fringe 2012

Production Details

Written by Dr Paul Maunder

Presented by Kiwi/Possum Productions

When disasters occur in a society, a social drama is played out, as the society tries to heal the disruption. These social dramas in turn, feed into the realm of artistic production, which explores the rift in an imaginative way, by transforming the crisis into ritual, song, images – embodied memory.

With the planned season of our first production, Poison and Purity, coinciding with the Pike River disaster, a co-incidence which questioned the validity and meaning of cultural work, we felt it necessary as theatre workers to undertake the above task.

goodnight, Irene, is then, an exploration of how events become memory. It is a fiction, in every sense of the term.

Regent Theatre, Greymouth
November 17-19 2011

Dunedin Fringe
March 15-17 2012


The Pike River mine disaster registered nationally and internationally, but everyone on the West Coast was intimately involved.

goodnight, irene, brought to the festival by Greymouth-based community theatre group, kiwi/possum productions was triggered by the disaster.

‘As we were about to perform our 1080 play and had to postpone when the Pike explosion occurred, we were forced to ponder the role of the artist in the community,’ states Paul Maunder, writer of the play. ‘goodnight, irene rather than being an exploitation of the disaster, is our affirmation of the role of the artist: to turn such events into ritual, song, drama…heritage.’

goodnight, irene takes place on the night of the explosion. Billy, married to a Russian ‘mail-order’ bride, Irene, is down the mine. Irene, who has never been accepted by the family, turns up at Billy’s father, Sam’s place. She is drinking heavily. Sam, who used to be a miner, is dying of cancer. Experiences and songs are swapped as the wake takes place, interrupted by the arrival of Gareth, the younger, educated brother. Add a district nurse and a teenage granddaughter and a rich social drama, with its moments of humour, is played out.

‘We had been thinking about a project which explored heritage and the place of popular music through the ages,’ states Maunder, ‘ and that theme became part of the play.’

A strong cast includes Heather Fletcher, who trained and worked professionally in the UK, Jason Johnson who has worked professionally in Wellington, with Maunder, a NZ theatre stalwart, playing the old man. UK singer/composer, Helen Chadwick gifted some of her remarkable songs to the production, which thus becomes a global cultural experience.

The play was performed to invited audiences in Greymouth at the time of the recent Pike anniversary. Greymouth reviewer, Greg O’Connell wrote: ‘Like a system of shafts and tunnels, the themes in goodnight, irene connect and reconnect grief and love, place and belonging, memory and song.’ (

‘One is generally wary of taking a community play on the road,’ states Maunder, ‘but in this case we felt the piece achieves a universality which should be shared with other communities.’

goodnight, irene
The Globe Theatre,
Thursday 15th – Saturday 17th March,
at 7.00pm each night,
with a matinee on Saturday at 2.00pm.
Bookings through Dash.


Heather Fletcher
Paul Maunder
Gareth Johnson
Corrina Gestro-Best
Freya Johnson

including songs by Helen Chadwick ( )

Assistant Director: Caroline Selwood
Sound: Prue Bowen
LIghting" Mark Apanui
Set design and construction: Paul Maunderassisted by Freya Johnson)

Theatre , Community-based theatre ,

1hr 30min

The role of the artist affirmed

Review by Sharon Matthews 17th Mar 2012

According to their poster, goodnight, irene (written by Paul Maunder and produced by Greymouth-based community theatre group kiwi/possum productions) was inspired by the Pike River Mine disaster. To a contemporary audience, a reference to that particular incident evokes images of grieving families and exhausted rescuers in the aftermath of the November 2010 tragedy that claimed the lives of 29 miners.

This production, however, subverts these expectations. The set swings open in the initial scene to reveal a screen upon which black and white photos are projected – but these are not the images we remember from national and international news broadcasts. Instead we see photographs of the Battle of Monte Cassino, the replacement of the Collectivist farming system following the break up of theSoviet Union, and other historic images from the traumatic century which preceded the disaster.

As the two central characters speak, it is revealed that these images relate to their individual lives, and to those traumatic events which have shaped them. It becomes clear that this is not a direct dramatisation of a specific time and tragedy. This is, as the programme indicates, a subtle exploration of “how events become memory.”

goodnight, irene takes place on the night of the explosion. Sam (Paul Maunder), an elderly ex-miner, is visited by his ‘foreign’ daughter-in-law, Irene (Heather Fletcher), with a bottle of vodka in her hand. Although estranged from each other, striking parallels in the past and present lives of these two characters become apparent – not least a shared socialist sensibility. Both are also deeply wounded creatures, physically and psychically. Sam is dying of cancer, and Irene is a ‘mail-order’ bride in flight from corruption and sexual violence inRussia.

The vodka serves as a catalyst for an outpouring of memories. Sam and Irene drink sing and laugh together. The conversation ebbs and flows, touching on sex, grief, Johnny Cash, place and belonging, death and hope. This wake for Billy, the son and husband trapped in the mine, is complicated by the arrival of Gareth (Jason Johnson), the successful younger, educated brother (and an archetypical bureaucrat), uniting both Irene and Sam in defiance. This defiance brings out a striking polarisation in the characterisation between the passionlessNew Zealandmasculine psyche (as Gareth himself says, he can’t “feel”) and the passionate European woman who feels too much.

These complex associations are established, drawn together and then dramatized through the musical and vocal elements. This is truly a ‘play with songs’. This production made me regret my lack of musical knowledge as this piece is crammed with popular music through the ages – mostly performed by Irene – containing depth and meaning, acting as an expressive recapitulation of the history of the twentieth century, and especially its working class, folk and oral traditions (Russian folk song, Billy Bragg, Māori waiata, and so on). Freya Johnson — who plays Sam’s grand-daughter Emma — provides a particularly striking vocal force and beauty to the performance.

The programme also acknowledges UK-based Helen Chadwick (, a British musician and singer who writes mainly for the unaccompanied voice, for permission to use several of her songs, though I am personally not well placed to comment further on this striking element of the production.

The overall construction of the piece and its delivery effectively expresses a uniquely New Zealand aesthetic and local identity, from its setting in a modest Kiwi living room hung with black and white photos, retro drapes, and a settee covered with a crotchet blanket, to wry jokes about local high school hockey, power cuts, counselling services, and health promotion.

However, Maunder’s otherwise thought provoking script suffers from a fault common to many playwrights: a tendency to make characters talk too much and too long. This can feel like a lack of trust in the audience’s ability to pick up those undercurrents in the text which are embodied in the physical and mobile space between two actors. Too often characters describe their emotions or motivations to the audience. For example, Tina the nurse (Corrina Gestro-Best) – who as a woman of faith is the polar opposite to the doom-ridden Irene — reiterates her opinion that the characters would be better to rely on the power of ‘faith’ rather than alcohol to support them in this crisis. At the same time, we see her reading a small book – presumably a bible? Would it not be possible to make this prop more of a focal point, cut some of the dialogue, and leave the audience with the space to come to their own conclusions as to which palliative is more effective?

This play was first performed to invited audiences in Greymouth to mark the first anniversary of the PikeRivermining disaster. Writer Paul Maunder explains: “As we were about to perform our 1080 play [Poison and Purity] and had to postpone when the Pike explosion occurred, we were forced to ponder the role of the artist in the community.” Thus, “goodnight, irene rather than being an exploitation of the disaster, is our affirmation of the role of the artist: to turn such events into ritual, song, drama… [and] heritage.”

This unique community project reveals the power of performance to engage both heart and mind.


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A rich, multi-layered, significant work

Review by Greg O'Connell 20th Nov 2011

As their initial offering, Poison and Purity (inspired by 10-80) coincided with the Pike River mining disaster. On this first anniversary Kiwi/Possum Productions felt compelled to respond in a transformative way through the power of live theatre. 

Sam (Paul Maunder) has cancer and the pain’s a bugger – but that’s not about to get him off his rectal exam. So begins the opening scene in Sam’s modest home, complete with bookcase, armchair, black and white photos, retro drapes, and a Formica table with chairs to match.

Soon he is visited by his ‘foreign’ daughter-in-law. With bottle of vodka in hand, it is clear that Irene (Heather Fletcher) is struggling to cope with some devastating news. The relationship between Sam and Irene is fascinating but tricky: their dialogue and songs simultaneously confronting, responding and revealing. 

The set swings open to show two rear corner screens featuring images to complement the evolving story. And the characters, too, start to open up. 

The script skilfully mines history – including the Battle of Monte Cassino, military rule in Russia, and the 1951 waterfront dispute – while also making wry local jokes about high school hockey, power cuts, counselling services, and health promotion. This is what I appreciate about Paul Maunder’s writing: his ability to help us reflect deeply, but with a touch so light we barely realise he’s leading us there.

In contrast to Poison and Purity, each actor in goodnight, Irene plays a single part. Heather Fletcher, in the title role, impresses with her strength of characterisation, emotional range and bravura singing. Jason Johnson as Sam’s younger son, Gareth, demonstrates his ability to express stillness and subtlety.

Corrina Gestro-Best, as Tina the nurse, debuts with quiet flair. Teenager Freya Johnson, as Sam’s grand-daughter Emma, delights with her buoyant energy and sudden vulnerability. Paul Maunder inhabits the role of Sam as though it had been written for him.

The programme acknowledges UK-based Helen Chadwick ( ) for permission to use several of her songs.

Contributing to the polished quality of the production are the technical skills of Prue Bowen (sound) and Mark Apanui (lighting); with set design and construction by Maunder (ably assisted by Freya Johnson); and the expertise of Caroline Selwood as assistant director.

In goodnight, Irene real-life drama becomes the art of drama. With sophistication, Paul Maunder and company re-present ourselves to ourselves. They invite us on an insightful, uplifting journey. Like a system of shafts and tunnels, the themes in goodnight, Irene connect and reconnect: grief and love, place and belonging, memory and song.

In the best traditions of live community theatre, goodnight, Irene delivers a rich, multi-layered, significant work – and a very good night, indeed. 


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