Here's Hilda!

Fortune Theatre - Hutchinson Studio, Dunedin

13/02/2007 - 18/02/2007

Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington

09/10/2006 - 12/10/2006

Production Details

Written & performed by Jan Bolwell
Director/dramaturg: Ralph McAllister

Lighting & set designer:  Lisa Maule
Costumes:  Annie Ferris

The story of a North Otago matriarch

Jan Bolwell’s grandmother was Hilda Blair Gardiner, ‘the terror of the Taieri’, and lived as she drove – in the fast lane! In a beautifully structured journey through 20th century Otago history, Bolwell’s new play – a 2006 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards nominee – compresses Hilda’s remarkable life into seventy poignant minutes.

Glorious, outrageous and indomitable, Hilda was truly larger than life. As a wondrously opinionated blue ribbon battler for good causes she was largely a law unto herself.

Memorable aspects of the matriarch’s life include a hilarious depiction of the 1953 Royal Visit to Dunedin, a hair-raising driving test, the Tokarahi Collie Dog Club 50th anniversary banquet, a feisty battle with Jan over national politics and Hilda’s role as a volunteer driver in the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

Re-enacted anecdotes involve a rich range of classic Kiwi characters, and very specific and idiosyncratic stories blend with iconic moments in history to engage both the heads and hearts of the audience.

Set construction:  John Wraight
Technician:  Katie Fletcher

Theatre , Solo ,

1 hr 10 mins, no interval

Otago character brought to life

Review by Barbara Frame 15th Feb 2007

Hilda was writer and solo performer Jan Bolwell’s grandmother, and Bolwell has taken incidents and impressions from Hilda’s life to craft the 70-minute entertainment playing at the Fortune this week.

Born on the Taieri in 1896, Hilda Blair emerged from a jolly-hockey-sticks girlhood to marry North Otago farmer Arthur Gardiner, and to become a pillar of the National Party, the Presbyterian Church and numerous community organisations, eventually being awarded the MBE.

Through anecdotes, imaginative episodes and re-created dialogues (sometimes with granddaughter Jan) Bolwell adds layer upon layer to our perceptions of Hilda’s character. As a Christian whose favourite hymn is, significantly, Fight the Good Fight, Hilda vehemently opposes a church minister’s emphasis on matters of social justice.

As a Holyoake supporter, she’s convinced that the Labour Party embodies the worst aspects of communism. As one of New Zealand’s first women drivers, she becomes increasingly intolerant of legal requirements such as driver’s licences and the observance of road rules. As an eager royalist, Hilda drags her large family to Dunedin for a glimpse of the newly-crowned Elizabeth.

She’s the kind of woman not intimidated by recipes that start with the instruction “Take ten hares”, and she can go comfortably from spreading manure to attend a tea party, and back again, in the same afternoon.

There is very little story to Here’s Hilda. That doesn’t matter. Its strengths are its presentation, scene by scene, of a complex character — resourceful, generous, prejudiced, often maddening — and the evocation of social history from times only the oldest New Zealanders now remember.

Bolwell’s performance is infused by her adoring, sometimes exasperated, admiration of Hilda. Last night’s largely female audience almost filled the Fortune Studio and clearly enjoyed the production.


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A grandmother’s remarkable story

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 14th Oct 2006

In her first solo play, Standing on My Hands, Jan Bolwell paid tribute to her father and his exploits during the Second World War. Four year on, she is back with another loving and very funny theatrical portrait from her remarkable family. This time her feisty grandmother, Hilda (from the German meaning Battle Maid, which says it all), comes under the spotlight as a woman of the land whose life covered most of the last century.

She was born on the Taieri Plain in 1896, married a North Otago farmer in 1921, and bore her wild, headstrong brood of seven children during the Depression. She also found time and energy to throw herself into politics (a founding member of the National Party), the Fat for Britain campaign during World War II, the local Collie Dog Club, a compost society, and numerous community organizations. She was eventually awarded an M.B.E. for her services to the community. She died in 1991.

Here’s Hilda! starts with Hilda watching and commenting on her funeral and joining in the singing of her favourite hymn, which is not surprisingly Fight the Good Fight. For the next seventy entertaining and touching minutes she tells the story of her life in a series of scenes that jump about in time so that her reminiscences of her days as a driver during the 1918 flu epidemic (told as a letter to her husband away at the war) are followed by her trip to Dunedin with her grandchildren to see the Queen in 1954.

There are hilarious scenes about making hare soup, driving through Oamaru and scaring the daylights out of the local cops, performing with perfect elocution a patriotic monologue to the troops, and telling young Jan a thing or two about the evils of Bolshevism, the virtues of Keith Holyoake, and how it was only her husband threatening divorce that stopped her standing for parliament.

Here’s Hilda! evokes a past that has very recently disappeared and it does so with loving, humorous and life affirming touches that never in the hands of Jan Bolwell and her director Ralph McAllister become mawkish or mere decoration. Hilda may have been a bit of a handful but by golly she led life to the full.


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Fertile memories of a matriarch

Review by John Smythe 09th Oct 2006

Yet again there is a must-see short-season show in Wellington: Jan Bolwell’s new solo performance, Here’s Hilda!

Over 70 minutes – from her opening tap dance and the immortal line, "I died on Sunday morning last," to the final, "Don’t forget the manure" – she paints a truly absorbing and often very funny portrait of her maternal grandmother, Hilda Blair Gardiner MBE (1896-1991).

North Otago born and bred, on a farm, Hilda bore seven children in 9 years. While remaining based in Oamaru she made her indelible mark as a wondrously opinionated blue ribbon battler for good causes. Politically active and ultra conservative, she was nevertheless unconventional, an active multi-tasker and largely a law unto herself. Not given to conceding she was ever wrong about anything, she firmly believed the Reds had finally crawled out from under the bed at the advent of the Lange/Douglas Labour government in 1984: a delicious irony.

Carefully crafted by Bolwell and her director/dramaturg Ralph McAllister, yet as light on its feet as Bolwell is in her brief dancing interludes, Here’s Hilda! is a beautifully structured and modulated journey through 20th century local history from an archetypal viewpoint. Very specific and idiosyncratic stories blend with iconic moments in history to engage our heads and hearts at objective and subjective levels. I love a show that does that.

Clad in an evocative range of costumes, by Annie Ferris, in a simple set of stained plywood panels and boxes in various shades of green, designed and lit by Lisa Maule – and ideal for touring – Bolwell delivers the goods through a series of simple devices. Touches of the funeral service, a red flag and blue flag, conversations with her granddaughter (Jan herself, as herself), straight story-telling, the re-enactment of an hilariously elocuted jingoistic monologue – ‘The Answer of the Anzacs’ – letters, phone calls (used to bridge the costume changes), re-enacted anecdotes involving a rich range of classic Kiwi characters …

Memorable aspects and moments of the matriarch’s life include her hair-raising driving test, the hare soup for the Tokoraki Collie Dog Club’s 50th Anniversary Banquet, husband Arthur at war and returned, the Queen and Duke’s royal visit, her great pride at being a founder of the Dunedin Composting Society … As Here’s Hilda! compresses this remarkable life into seventy pungent minutes, it cannot help but fertilise our own memories and imaginations.

In February 2002, in  my rave review of Standing On My Hands (inspired by her father’s survival of World War Two), I acknowledged Jan Bolwell as "a highly experienced and respected dancer, choreographer and teacher" and wrote:  "Over fifty, with a punishing medical history behind her, Bolwell’s fluency, grace, precision and wit as a dancer is truly remarkable. Her more recently discovered facility with words – with all the same qualities – suggests a whole new creative career in the making."

And so it has come to pass, with new strengths in character acting added to the mix. Her first solo show, Off My Chest – about her breast cancer and double mastectomy – was mostly dance; Standing On My Hands introduced more acting; Here’s Hilda! is mostly acting, greatly enhanced by physical skills that allow Bolwell to fully inhabit old and young bodies.

There is an important musical dimension too, blending the creative skills of such local luminaries as Jan Bolton, Laughton Pattrick and Michael Nicholas Williams. This four-night season of Here’s Hilda! plays until Thursday (starting at 6.30pm).

In the same way that Standing On My Hands was fleshed out in a book called Milord Goffredo, an extended version of Here’s Hilda! is captured in A Pretty Piece of Driving – both published by Steele Roberts and both available in the Gryphon Theatre foyer during the season.


Una OGrady October 17th, 2006

Please receive the following comments in reply to your recent review of Jan Bolwell's show "Here's Hilda" in reference to your point about touring. Arts on Tour NZ Trust toured Jan's one woman show in August this year. The tour was a resounding success and reached the following arts communities; Taumarunui, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Karamea, Greymouth, Darfied, Mayfield, Twizel and Riverton. The show was "very professional...enjoyed by everyone who attended" (Riverton Community Arts Centre). "Jan was outstanding and her show so akin to country folk everywhere...a pleasure to work with. 110 Mayfield ladies on a 'high' today. Just the boost needed after the stress of our awful winter" (Mayfield Rural Women Dinner Club). We at Arts on Tour were delighted to work with Jan and enjoyed the energy and commitment she brought to the tour. Thank you Jan! Una O'Grady PA/Arts Administrator For Steve Thomas Arts on Tour NZ Trust Box 845 Christchurch Phone/Fax: (03) 366 6167 Email:

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