BATS Theatre, Wellington

28/08/2012 - 08/09/2012

Production Details

Love, Death and Phone Sex 

Some people just shouldn’t meet. They shouldn’t encounter each other in any shape or form. And they especially shouldn’t meet in a therapy group. Why does Trademe keep Johnny up at night? What did Eddie discover on his smoko break? What’s the worst encounter you could ever have with a pizza driver? 

This award-winning pitch black comedy is the newest work by NZ playwright, Gavin McGibbon (Hamlet Dies at the End). 

BATS Theatre, 8:30pm,
28 August – 8 September
BOOKINGS: www.bats.co.nz/ 04 802 4175  

Christopher Buckham plays Billy.
Emma Draper plays Carla.
Megan Evans plays Beth.
Kate Fitzroy plays Tessa.
Alex Greig plays Steven.
Simon Haren plays Eddie.
John Landreth plays Johnny.

Hannah Banks produced and assistant directed it.
Jody Burrell designed the costumes.
Uther Dean designed the lights, poster and programme.
Nicole Harvey production and stage managed it.
Penny Lawrence designed the set.
Fiona McNamara publicised it.
Phoebe Morris illustrated the poster.
Tania Ngata also designed the set and is operating.
Tane Upjohn-Beatson composed the music and designed the sound.

Show packed with punch

Review by Lynn Freeman 05th Sep 2012

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, the five stages of grief. Gavin McGibbon brings together five people who’ve been ‘touched by the dead’. Some were loved ones, others strangers. These five all have their own ways of trying to deal with life after death. They are all floundering. The play tracks their progress and backwards steps.

McGibbon’s dark humour is interspersed with moments which genuinely shock. The opening sequence with a sex phone worker, Tessa (Kate Fitzroy) and a suicidal stranger is both gripping and disturbing in equal measure.  A struggling single mum to Billy (Christopher Buckham), Tessa is disconcertingly direct and seemingly hard as nails. Flailing Eddie (Simon Haren) sees her as a lifeline. He’s haunted by the death of a child, while Johnny (John Landreth) is devastated by the death of his wife. Landreth has a monologue about the circumstances of the death which leaves you aching for him. It’s a mighty performance and the highlight of the production. 

Alex Greig plays Steven, the therapist, a case of Dr heal thyself. He’s allowed into his therapy group a woman with whom he shares a past – is he helping her or is she there to help him? Or will they end up destroying each other? 

There is so much packed in it’s a bit much to take in, in one go. Otherwise it’s an assured and layered piece of work by the playwright and his production team.  


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Full of angst but leads nowhere

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Aug 2012

The ability to continue “holding on” after the loss of a loved one or experiencing a traumatic event like seeing someone die is the premise behind Gavin McGibbon’s new play Holding On currently playing at BATS Theatre.  

To deal with this people often go into therapy, if not one-on-one then as part of a group. Such a group is central to the play where Steven (Alex Greig) the therapist brings together a group of unlikely and disparate people to share their feelings.  In between sessions we see how their lives intersect. 

First there is Johnny (John Landreth), who lost his wife and lives above the bar he runs and who meets up with Carla (Emma Draper).  She in turn has been deserted by her fiancé Eddie (Simon Haren) who witnessed the death of a young boy and has run off to live with one of the others in the group Tessa (Kate Fitzroy) and her son Billy (Christopher Buckham). 

Tessa used to do phone sex but was traumatised when one of her clients shot himself over the phone.  To bring the group full circle is Beth (Megan Evans) who has been invited to the group to help deal with the death of her daughter who was actually married to Steven, who also sees a lot of his wife in Beth resulting in dire consequences.  

Full of angst and emotional out-pouring – each character gets at least one chance to lie on the floor and cry – the play doesn’t really go anywhere nor have much to say that is new or original. 

This is partly due to the fact that although the dialogue is taut and often humorous, the short scenes never allow for character development or explain why each is where they are.  Even though each is going through various stages of loss, grief and loneliness there is little for the audience to empathise with.  

Nevertheless the cast, under Lori Leigh’s direction, do a good job in bringing as much as they can out of their characters without over doing the melodrama too much or making the play overly crass or corny.  


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Gears not meshing to tragi-comic effect

Review by John Smythe 29th Aug 2012

Last year Gavin McGibbon brought a disparate group of characters together through a community theatre group with Hamlet Dies at the End. This year, in Holding On – directed by Lori Leigh – a trauma counselling encounter group does the job. All are profoundly affected by a different, unexpected and tragic death. 

The group is presided over by Steven (Alex Greig). The idea is that everyone will talk through what happened to them in a supportive environment so they can accept it and move on. But it is not that simple. Meanwhile they are barely holding on.

The play opens with Tessa (Kate Fitzroy) doing a routine shift of phone sex while painting her nails – routine, that is, until her caller, Barry (also Alex Greig), initiates the trauma that sends her to the counselling group. Her coping mechanisms, while solo-parenting her 10 year-old son Billy (Christopher Buckham), will include an amoral commitment to telling the unvarnished truth no matter what.

Boutique bar owner Johnny (John Landreth) has lots to say about anything and everything except the trauma he is there to exorcise, his fear being that the others will laugh at the bizarre incident that took his wife. At work, his chatty nature behind the bar belies the fear and loneliness that awaits after closing.  

What happened to Eddie (Simon Haren) is more random; more suddenly shocking. And he – like Tessa and Johnny – is grappling with guilt: could they have done more to save the lost life? Off work on stress leave, it also emerges that commitmentphobia and lying is a by-product of Eddie’s trauma. And we are made privy to his nightmares.

Eddie’s fiancée, Carla (Emma Draper), suffers the trauma of break-up but doesn’t join the group, of course: apart from Eddie being in it, what’s a break-up compared with death? She finds other ways of holding on and trying to regain her self-esteem.

An initially silent member of the group is Beth (Megan Evans), who [spoiler warning, perhaps …] turns out to be Steven’s mother-in-law, still grieving over her daughter’s premature death while Steven has clearly moved on, given he is now engaged to someone else. [ends]

McGibbon is adept at raising questions we want answered and throwing sudden twists into the plot. Amid all the coping mechanisms there are insightful moments of truth and on occasion raw emotion erupts. By and large the cast handles these moments well: everyone achieves at least one moment of powerful drama. And overall the script offers fertile ground for a perceptive play about how people and their relationships are affected by tragedy.

It is the tone and flow of the show that lets it down on opening night (not helped by the irritating young woman up the back whose ill-timed squeaks, comments, repeating of lines and even singing-along seemed predicated on the idea we were only there to watch performance per-se, without engaging with – or showing the slightest sensitivity to – the story or the performers).  

We are very used to seeing plays that change location constantly (cf: Shakespeare) and over recent years our actors have consistently proven themselves equal to the switching instantly into different modes and moods (and often through multiple characters). So why does this seem to be a problem here? Maybe – as evidenced by one actor missing his entrance – the play is simply under-rehearsed and the way the disparate scenes play out will soon become less disjointed, adding up to more than the sum of their parts rather than seem like a list of tenuously connected events.

The functional set, designed by Penny Lawrence and Tania Ngata, is clunky to look at but, lit by Uther Dean, it serves the multi-location requirement by elevating the group on a central rostrum, placing sofa-beds on either side and using a free-wheeling bar counter for the phone sex, coffee date and bar scenes.

More than once, however, actors are required to get into bed with each other – in varying degrees of passion, or not – and the physical logistics of the action gets in the way of what the scene is really about. At such times, as with the dream sequences, I cannot help but think it would all work so much better on film where the intimacy and emotional truth could be to the fore.

It is intriguing that the only two characters who are not part of the trauma counselling group – Emma Draper’s Carla and Christopher Buckham’s Billy – are the most natural and therefore the most engaging. Perhaps the sense that the others are ‘acting’ is down to the fact that their traumatised characters are; that the characters’ unresolved issues make their behaviours seem relatively phoney. 

Amid what seems like a stressful clutter of changing scenes, interactions and emotions, one stands out as an oasis: where Carla and Johnny overcome their anxieties and awkwardness to simply be together. And of course this works well because it is such a contrast to the rest.

“Love, Loss, Death and Phone Sex” is the publicity headline.Some people just shouldn’t meet,” it tells us. “They shouldn’t encounter each other in any shape or form. And they especially shouldn’t meet in a therapy group.” Questions are raised about the characters’ experiences and behaviours, and we are told: “The answers will stun you” and that “Pitch black insights, laughs and surprising twists await you.”

If ‘black comedy’ is the aim, it doesn’t come off (or didn’t on opening night, anyway). If ‘comedy of anguish’ and/or ‘insight’ is the game, we don’t get close enough or empathise sufficiently for that to happen either.

Objectively I understand that these tragic circumstances and all-too-human responses to them can be the stuff insightful comedies are made on. Again I think film would do a better job of getting under these people’s skins – and ours – to where their stories and our relationships to them really lie, so that we are shocked into laughter by the recognition of unavoidable truths.  

For the record, this is the sixth Gavin McGibbon play we have seen at Bats in seven years. The others have been: After Service (2006), Stand Up Love (2007), Shipwrecked Beneath the Stars (2008), Handy Man (2008) and Hamlet Dies at the End (2011).

Having expressed concern, in the past, that some of his work has suffered from not getting the level of professional production it needs for him to develop to his full potential (he could be our answer to Neil LaBute), I am now unable to decide – on one viewing of Holding On – whether the problem here is in the writing, the production or its mode of presentation. But somehow the gears are just not meshing to tragi-comic effect this time.  


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