Downstage Theatre, Wellington

21/07/2012 - 28/07/2012

Production Details

On this street you’ll discover that magnolia trees have hearts, unexpected friendships are the best kind, and 1944 can be just around the corner.

Using cutting edge multimedia and electronics to blur the line between what’s imagined and what’s real, Australia’s Frank Newman directs with his trademark combination of sharp storytelling and beautifully surprising animation.

Magnolia Street is a funny, fast paced play, created by a talented group of people,” says director Frank Newman. “The show was produced using a creative mix of investigation and playfulness. The entire artistic team contributed in many ways towards the final product with the best ideas rising to the surface. As a non-Wellingtonian it was a pleasure to work with people at the top of their game and to work in such a supportive and inspiring environment. It really feels like Wellington punches well above its weight for the quality and the quantity of the theatre it produces.”

Hold your breath — you’re arriving at Magnolia Street. 

“Newman’s latest theatrical experiment, housed at New Zealand’s Capital E …is allowing him to explore the most cutting-edge and unexpected ways to reinvent the experience of theatre for young audiences.” – TYA Today, USA, 2012

Director Frank Newman is the Artistic Director of Terrapin Puppet Theatre, an Australian company producing innovative contemporary theatre that embraces new technologies. Writer Dave Armstrong has had a career in writing that spans theatre, novels, and award-winning TV shows, Dave is one of New Zealand’s most successful playwrights and screenwriters.

When: Sat 21, Wed 25, Sat 28 July, 6pm
Venue: Downstage Theatre, 12 Cambridge Tce
Tickets: $12 per person. $40 for a group of four
Bookings: 04 913 3740 or  

When: Wed 25 July, 10am
Venue: Downstage Theatre, 12 Cambridge Tce
Tickets: $12 per person. $40 for a group of four
Bookings: Via Margaret Cranney – 04 913 3742 or 

Erin Banks, Byron Coll andRobin Kerr 

Audio Visual Designer:  Johann Nortje
Composer:  Gareth Hobbs
Lighting Designer:  Nathan McKendry 
Set Designer:  Ian Hammond  

Original, innovative, homegrown creativity

Review by John Smythe 26th Jul 2012

Dave Armstrong’s intriguing tale of intergenerational conflict, discovery and loss plays out on a street with a lot of history. But young Jake (Robin Kerr) sees it as a skateboard zone at best and a dirty slum at worst, ripe for tagging. As for the trees, he’s heard all that stuff at school about how important they are but he thinks they’re boring.

It will emerge that Jake’s disaffection with the world is born of an absentee Dad with a new girlfriend and flash high-rise office who keeps breaking his promises to the boy then tries to make it up with expensive presents. This day is another when he is supposed to pick Jake up and won’t.

Jake’s initial contact with big-bummed Beryl (Erin Banks) and her Zimmer frame bodes ill: they collide – in slo-mo – as he attempts to escape an angry fence-owner. And so begins a mutually beneficial relationship. Even as her short-term memory is failing her, she is able to reveal lots of fascinating things about the street and the people who’ve lived there; not least her fighter-pilot husband Lionel, with whom she still chats, despite his being one of the men who never came back.

The street, designed by Ian Hammond, is back-projected onto screens from a visible revolving model and the digital camera also picks up a car, bikes, aeroplane … Even a dinosaur is channelled through Jake’s fertile imagination. Later the screens open to reveal Beryl’s home: sparsely furnished yet rich in memorabilia once you look at the ‘junk’ on her shelves.  

Stories abound about the street and all are played out in some kind of action, often abetted by the multiple characterisations of the indefatigable Byron Coll, and sometimes animated through live puppetry or AV imagery (Johan Nortje) to a rich soundtrack composed by Gareth Hobbs. Nathan McKendry’s lighting is integral, too.

All-in-all Magnolia Street ticks a lot of curriculum boxes, through social sciences and the arts, to facilitate any growing child’s sense of place, self and interest in their actual, physical world and its inhabitants. (Need I point out this is highly conducive to – and even a prerequisite for – making progress in the literacy and numeracy curriculum areas, which the government is targeting with its funding?)

Armstrong’s light touch in the scripting and the fun director Frank Newman and the actors brings to its staging belie the richness and depth of the content, which could generate many areas of further enquiry and follow-up work. Just considering why the street was first named Schofield Street, for example, and why it was changed to Magnolia Street, offers fascinating insights into social history and human behaviour. And the madly imaginative result of mispronouncing the name as Mongolia Street sparks off an entirely different area of enquiry. 

The costumes (also designed by Hammond) are – like Beryl’s bum, back and boobs – larger than life. The obvious and always-exposed theatrics keep reminding us this is creative story-telling and demonstrating its works. While Coll’s constant acknowledgments that he is an actor playing out roles is justified, and entertaining, I’m not sure why Kerr seems to be thinking about the idea of Jake much of the time, rather than just ‘being Jake’. By contrast Banks’ total immersion in her highly comedic ‘being’ of Beryl invests the make-believe with the essential ‘truth’ that is the lifeblood of good theatre.

Assuming primary and intermediate schools still get students to interview people in their community and present the results in some form, Magnolia Street is a superb contribution and offers lots of imaginative ideas for developing such material into performance.

Once more Capital E National Theatre for Children, under creative producer Stephen Blackburn, has set the bar high for original, innovative, homegrown creativity. All New Zealand children deserve to spend time in Magnolia Street and it would travel well to international festivals too.  


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Warm the heart on Magnolia Street

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 23rd Jul 2012

Streets are always full of fascinating characters and Magnolia Street, Capital E National Theatre For Children’s latest production, is no exception.

Writer Dave Armstrong says the inspiration for it came from the old Wellington street where he lives and “where old and young, rich and poor, long-time residents and new immigrants live cheek by jowl”.

And from this he has developed a fascinating and engaging piece of theatre that director Frank Newman and his cast have magically brought to the stage. [More]  


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Heart-warming comedy with emotion and butts

Review by Peter McKenzie 23rd Jul 2012

The theatre was packed and the atmosphere expectant. The lights dimmed, the jaunty guitar strumming started and the three actors trooped on stage. Right from the get-go the use of technology was playful yet smart.  

Positioned in front of a camera hidden in a cardboard box, Byron Coll undid his shirt to reveal the title of the play, which was projected onto the screen. He showed more words on the top of his undies then turned round, bent over and dropped his pants to reveal … [spoiler averted]. This was the first of a number of butt jokes that always got a good laugh. Wellington writer Dave Armstrong and Tasmanian director Frank Newman obviously like to mix serious dramatic emotion with “cheeky” humour. 

The story is deceptively simple, but increasingly moving (and I don’t just mean the set going round!). There are two main characters, the young boy Jake (Robin Kerr) and the old lady, Beryl (Erin Banks). Versatile Byron Coll plays the support characters. They are all terrific, with Coll claiming a lot of laughs with his full-frontal costume changes and smart-arse slapstick. 

We meet Jake skateboarding along Magnolia Street. He leaps over cats and dogs but trips over a letterbox and crashes into Beryl. This accidental meeting is the beginning of a heart-warming relationship. Beryl reveals herself to be lighthearted and playful, while Jake has some pretty weighty issues of his own to deal with — specifically his no-show dad. 

There are many highlights in this story, not least the cutting-edge use of low-rent technology. For example, the scene background is established by videoing and playing round with a beautiful cardboard model of houses, trees and even a tram. In this play, everything is out in the open. I think that’s the theme of the play — openness and communication. Another highlight is the comedy, encompassing zimmer-frames, dinosaur rampages, dementia, bad language, Genghis Khan and — did I mention? — butt jokes. 

My only criticism is that at times the abrupt story jumps and non-sequiturs set up an interference pattern with Beryl’s dementia. This runs the risk of confusing rather than illuminating her state of mind. However, I did appreciate the light touch the play has in dealing with dementia, suggesting it could even be a kind of a freedom in some cases and encouraging a different approach towards those who experience it. 

Well done Capital E National Theatre and the team of talented people who put Magnolia Street together. It is a thought-provoking and moving play. If you’re a kid or an adult you’re going to have a good time. Butt don’t forget your sense of humour. 

[Note: Further public performances are on Wed 25 and Sat 28 July, 6pm – plus a public sign language performance at 10am on Wed 25.] 


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