Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

07/03/2013 - 10/03/2013

Auckland Fringe 2013

Production Details


From the 7th -10th of March 2013Elephant Nation is proud to present: Hummingbird. A brand new play from the people that brought you last year’s critical success: The Seven Funerals of Charlie Morris and These are the Skeletons of Us. With their previous work being touted as ‘beautifully poignant and refreshing’, this new work is sure to move Auckland audiences.

If you wake up at a different time, a different place, could you wake up a different person?

Phoeb ran away. When she came back, she was gone. This is a play about Loss. This is a play about Love. This is a play about Denial. It is an original look at How we are forced to be people who we never wanted to be and how we can escape that fate.

Sean Webb and Perlina Lau have collaborated with the Elephant Nation once more to create a dramatic and powerful new score, to be performed live during this honest and poignant new work.

This new play by Chris Neels, has brought together three exciting, young talents of the Auckland theatre and film industry including Sophie Vowell (Tartuffe, Private Lives), Chelsea McEwan Millar (These are the Skeletons of Us, Eingrau) and Jordan Selwyn (13, Thinning).

These are (if I may be so bold) some of the best young actors working in Auckland’ – James Wenley Theatrescenes

This hardworking truly vibrant company of excellent young theatre professionals has here presented a fully formed, incredibly well realized work and one of the funniest shows I have seen on stage this year’ – Steve Austin Theatreview

Auckland Fringe runs from 15 February to 10 March 2013. For more Auckland Fringe information go to  

7th – 10th March, 8:30pm
Duration: 65 minutes
Venue: The Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Avenue, Auckland CBD
Tickets: $20 $15 (concession and Fringe artists)
Bookings: iTicket – or (09) 361 1000 

1 hr 5 mins, no interval

A brittle chamber work of genuine maturity

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 10th Mar 2013

Three festivals in five weeks, and all with excellent performing arts components?  Pride with all its risqué gayness, a wayward, misbehaving Fringe, and now, in all its pompous glory, that Grande Dame of Celebrations, the Auckland Arts Festival. 

How good is that, and how challenging for a reviewer who quite simply wants to see, and comment on, everything!

I saw Black Faggot, was blown out of the water by it, but didn’t record my opinions anywhere. Why? I reviewed the night before and the night after and time simply passed the moment by.  There will be another chance, there’s nothing surer, because, like Arnie, it will be back. 

I loved After Lilburn and number it among my favourite performance events ever but I didn’t write about it either. It seems only Jay Bennie of GayNZ reviewed it and his sensitively observed comments are all we have to remember that momentous occasion by. Radio NZ made a live sound recording of the concert but have yet to play it publicly. 

The reality is you can’t do it all because there simply isn’t enough time to see and comment on everything and this is undoubtedly a good thing because to leave all the theatre criticism in a few privileged hands would, somehow, feel more than a little dodgy. I like that the days of theatre criticism resting in the exclusive hands of the daily newspapers, the Sundays and The Listener are no more. I like that websites are interactive and that the public – and the industry – get to bite back whenever they feel inclined. I like that we can all have a say. Reviewing is no less a privilege than it was then, it’s just no longer such a privileged privilege. 

There’s also been a sea change in how theatre is being created in Aotearoa New Zealand. There’s more collaboration, more warmth, more cross-over, more sharing than in the past and this shows in the courageous work that is being made and the degree to which it’s being supported by audiences. We no longer go to domestic theatre because it’s good for us, we go because it’s such damn good stuff. 

Take Hummingbird for example. It’s a chamber work, a work of enormous delicacy and made by people who, it seems, know exactly what they’re doing. The subject matter is equally fragile. It’s about surviving loss and don’t we all know how close to the edge we get in situations like this, how unprepared we are for someone’s passing, how our behaviour must sometimes seem bizarre to others while we can’t see the problem for ourselves.

Subject matter of this nature needs to be handled with delicacy, there’s no other word for it. This doesn’t mean that the performers should approach it like precious pups but it does mean that, in grabbing it and shaking it, they have to make performer choices that are vigorous, complex and solidly anchored in reality and, most of all, they have to trust each other.

Trust certainly doesn’t seem to be an issue for this team. I’ve loved much of the work I’ve seen recently but nothing more so than Hummingbird.

It’s by a writer Chris Neels, who is totally on top of his game, and three actors who are sublimely in charge, so much so that they appear to be simply making it up. They’re not, because if they were it would devolve into one big mess and it’s certainly not that. For this, considerable credit must go to the director, Nic Sampson, who has clearly had a deft hand in enabling this ensemble to work.

So what is Hummingbird? Press release material can often help the reviewer and this is what was sent to me: “After having her life disappear, Phoebe takes shelter at her sister’s dairy farm. With nothing left, she decides to do something opposite, unthinkable, exciting. Turn into a Hummingbird and fly. This is a play about Loss. This is a play about Dreams. This is a play about Denial. It is an original look at the lengths people are willing to go to avoid dealing with what they really need to.” 

Then there’s a quote:
“So what will you do now?”
“I don’t know, with wings and shit.”

I checked websites, Chris Neels’ Facebook page, the actors and what I’ve printed above is all there is. I like that there’s not much to go on, especially when the production itself is so rich. It’s almost as though – and someone will slap me for this – it was written before the play was finished so isn’t all that accurate but it’s better than nothing.

The plot is deceptively simple. Phoebe (Sophie Henderson) doesn’t believe that boyfriend Gavin is dead. He’s missing and has been for a while but she’s in denial, or so everyone else thinks. Her sister (Chelsea McEwan Millar) – half-sister, actually – has inherited the family farm and is doing her best to make it work with husband Brian (Barnaby Fredric) and she allows Phoebe to come and stay with them. Brian is a realist, thinks his step sister in law is a user and doesn’t want her there. In fact he’s downright rude to Phoebe, who happens also to be lactose intolerant, a fact that dairy farmer Brian seems to take quite personally and which resonates through the evening.

Yes, there’s quite a lot of humour in the work.   

Brian’s pretty articulate for a farmer and it turns out that he has completed two years of an astronomy degree and knows a bit about stars and stuff and used to play cricket with Gav. Brian is failing in the ‘let’s have a baby’ stakes – headaches and stuff – and seriously upsetting his ovulating wife, who seems to like a wine or two even for breakfast. Eventually he gives in and apologises to Phoebe for being a prat and offers to help her build the wings she has designed to help her fly like the reincarnated Gavin who is, by this time, zizzing around in a shoebox like any other self-respecting hummingbird might. Brian’s not too sure about all this resurrected boy-in-a-shoe-box stuff and shares his concerns with Phoebe only to have his anxiety allayed by the best line imaginable: “It’s alright, there’s holes in it.”

What follows is a change of focus that’s as cleverly handled as any I’ve seen at any time in my theatre-going life. It’s quite simply stunning and the seemingly inevitable denouement that follows is heart-stopping in its implications for the plot and for the characters, and all we can do is watch in horror as the inescapable unfolds.

There are beautiful metaphors too, enacted, first around Gavin’s cricket clothing which is put on, layer after layer, by Pheobe and then, throughout the entire work, by the flying-to-escape imagery which holds to the final moment. It’s not overdone, just there if you want – or need – to see it.

At the heart of this outstanding work are some of the most finely judged performances I’ve seen in many a long day.

Sophie Henderson is a star, pure and simple. She plays the fragile Pheobe with just enough connection to the seeming reality of life on the farm as is necessary to fit in. She’s fragile but Henderson doesn’t play her as fragile because Pheobe doesn’t quite realise how close to the edge she actually is. It’s Ophelia-like, and wonderful to watch. Henderson is an actor we love to like and that helps too. We empathise with her vulnerability, love her sister for caring so much and loathe Brian for being such an asshat.

Chelsea McEwan Millar is an actress I have grown to really admire following her work in Eigengrau and she has even grown since then. She’s capable of playing under and around the text and lets us in just as much as she needs to. She really understands the urgency of this woman whose body clock is chiming and her pivotal role in the climax of the play is as chilling as it is predictable.

Barnaby Fredric is the conduit between the plot and the women and he draws us from one perspective to the other with an inevitability that is both childlike and painfully familiar. It’s wonderful work and he understands the loneliness of the educated farmer and how this can take the head into very strange places indeed.

Add to this some extremely lucid jazz piano before and during the performance, and some very special technicals, and you have a brittle chamber work of genuine maturity from this exquisitely talented young team.

Every one of them – from playwright to designer to actors to musician – takes flight in this deftly-handled piece and I only hope it comes back and has the full season – and full houses – it so thoroughly deserves. 


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