Mike and Virginia
31/08/2023 - 10/09/2023
Written by Nick Ward and Kathryn Burnett
Directed by Simon Prast
Tadpole Theatre Productions Inc
By Kathryn Burnett and Nick Ward.
What do you get when you mix two ambitious lecturers in Film Studies – one specialising in romantic comedy and the other in monster movies?
When Harry Met Sally on steroids!*!
The PumpHouse Theatre Takapuna, Auckland
August 31 to September 10 2023
Tuesday to Saturday at 7-30pm
No Monday performances
Matinees Saturday September 9 at 2pm
Sundays September 3 and 10 at 4pm
Tickets from $30 to $45
Bookings Phone (09) 489-8360 or www.pumphouse.co.nz
Andrew Grainger and Laura Hill as Mike and Virginia
With Stephen Papps, Jodie Rimmer and Muna Arbon
Director - Simon Prast
Production Manager - Teresa Sokolich
Set design - John Parker
Charming, complex, bloody funny, often moving
Review by Lexie Matheson 08th Sep 2023
Let’s start with a disclaimer and a comparison. Yes, comparisons are odious, and disclaimers often an excuse to hide something else but please indulge me and let’s do it anyway.
Mike and Virginia, the two central characters in Mike and Virginia, are academics at an unnamed university. All good, so far. In 1998 I began work at The University of Auckland during which time I completed a master’s degree. I saw an awful lot of theatre during that time mostly at the Maidment and in the Maidment Studio. In 2006 I accepted a Senior Lecturer role at AUT University and in February 2023 I ended my tertiary education career while still at AUT. In total I spent twenty-five years in an academic career I never intended to have.
It could be said that I’m something of an expert in academics and their idiosyncrasies and that Mike and Virginia come straight out of every morning tearoom and every lecture theatre I have ever known.
That’s the disclaimer: a massive plus for Mike and Virginia’s authenticity. In this, at least, I know what I’m talking about.
Now for the comparison.
On Boxing Day night in 1997, newly arrived in London, I scavenged a single ticket in the Gods of the Wyndham Theatre to see Christopher Hampton’s translation of Yazmina Reza’s Art, starring Sir Tom Courtenay as Serge, the late Albert – about to turn down a knighthood – Finney as Marc, and the brilliant Ken Stott as Yvan. I knew enough to know that this was the hot ticket in town which should have been no surprise with that cast inhabiting Matthew Warchus’s classy production. What was a surprise, however, was that actors of this quality would be working on Boxing Day night after a run that had already stretched to over a year, even if it was to a full house that was quite literally packed to the rafters. It would have been midsummer in Aotearoa, and everyone would have been camping, on holiday, or on Takapuna Beach watching the annual celebration of End of the Golden Weather, so this was all very new to me, and the show was simply brilliant.
Guardian reviewer Michael Billington described Reza’s script as having a “crisp intelligence” with the reservation that “behind the play’s palpable wit lies an easy populism.” He concludes his review with “but the acting, in this stylish production” – he likens it to Moliere’s The Misanthrope – “is so brilliant you scarcely notice.”
Here’s where the comparison comes in: often, during Mike and Virginia, I am reminded of that evening at the Wyndham. The scripts themselves are similar in many ways: crisp, tart, relatable and oh so very actable. While fundamentally a mimic West End hit in form – nothing at all wrong with that – with characters drawn sharply from life and a plot exposed via a longish series of shortish vignettes, Mike and Virginia could transfer to the Wyndham or the Shaftesbury or even the Old Vic with nary a hiccup.
How cool is that?
Simon Prast’s witty direction thrusts us into the play and supports and sustains performances that are big enough and classy enough to play in any playhouse on the planet. Recognisable characters mostly from the dinner party set, text as sexy as all get out, risqué with enough raunch to titillate, and rich with bon mots, quips, witticisms, banter, and jests … So is there anything in this work for a middle class educated English audience not to like? Well, a bit less of the ‘morning mist when two lovers kissed’ on the piano might be nice. It is great, then it is a bit much, and by the end it isn’t that pleasant at all.
So, my claim that I understand the academic world tells me that Mike and Virginia are true and accurate representations of what the late Sir Ken Robinson called “just another form of life” and that this provides a splendidly authentic platform for this already wonderful production. My love of Art at the Wyndham is certainly matched by the fun I have at the Pumphouse with M & V and friends despite the ghastly Auckland weather, and I can definitely see the transfer as a reality.
So, just what do you get for your night out?
Most pleasing FoH service and a better than average heartwarming merlot, helpful ushering for this disabled audient, and an accustomed ambience created by happy people anticipating a treat to come. Tadpole Theatre Company has been in the business of creating quality work since they staged James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter and Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 2012. They know what they like, and they do it well – plenty of Roger Halls (Sir Rog is Tadpole’s patron) and smart targeted comedies that have entertained this niche market with plenty of lol’s over the past decade. It’s a slick operation and Tamaki Makaurau is so much better off for their presence.
You also get a minimalist John Parker set, Robyn Fleming’s unobtrusive but effective clothes, Gareth and Geoff Evans elegant technicals, with the whole kit and kaboodle pulled together by the vastly experienced Teresa Sokolich in the Production Manager’s chair. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing really. As I’ve intimated already, Prast’s speed-of-light production with these fine actors is genre-specific, doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not, is entertaining to the max, and deserving of every success in its North Shore home.
The marketing tells us that “Mike & Virginia is a romantic comedy about a romantic comedy, a funny, fast-moving romp from two of New Zealand’s busiest writers.” It goes on to ask, “What do you get when you mix two ambitious lecturers in film studies – one specialising in romantic comedy and the other in monster movies?” Answering its own question, it goes on to suggest that what you get is “When Harry Met Sally on steroids!” and it’s not exactly wrong. Add in a cup of academic cynicism, a truckload of gendered professional competitiveness, the eternal race to get published, and the tyranny of solitude and life on the shelf, and you have a roadmap that could go anywhere.
It’s a rom com about rom coms so it nimbly steps past tragedy, tinkers fleetingly with drama, takes a good gobful of farce, before racing off down the path that never does run smooth, straight to romance heaven via loathing, jealousy, intense dislike, competitive flirting, immodest desperation, zipless shagging and simple lust, panting all the way to the finish line, the medals and … that crazy little thing called love. It’s charming, complex, bloody funny, often moving, and we love every moment of it which is a surprise since, at first meeting, none of the characters are in the least bit likeable.
Mike the monster movie man (Andrew Grainger) is especially vile, the sort of arrogant misogynistic prat who struts and frets the dusty halls of academe the world over and sadly our universities are full of them. It’s to the credit of everyone involved that charm and circumstance win the day, enabling us to see past the obvious and want the best for each of these eminently human creations – and to even see ourselves floundering about in them as their world becomes ours and the often intrusive fourth wall disappears.
Kathryn Burnett (The Campervan, Brokenwood Mysteries, My Life is Murder, Fresh Eggs) joins forces with screen writer Nick Ward (Stickmen, Second Hand Wedding, Outrageous Fortune) to “subvert every romantic comedy convention to create a smart love story with a twist”. They’ve done that alright, quite brilliantly, via a set of filmic vignettes that uncover the ingeniously interlocking stories of these odd eccentrics and drive them home with a strange wee sigh of satisfaction. Prast’s polished direction guarantees that the seemingly endless battery of endings and beginnings never flag, and we barely notice the episodic nature of the storytelling.
Laura Hill’s Virginia is magnificent. She’s an actor who honours the text and the ensemble, who makes intelligent sense of the script while openly, and shamelessly, living in the rich subtext. She sheds her academic cynicism early and we enjoy watching her make the decisions that we know will potentially ruin her life. For the audience it’s a ‘been there, done that, but you go ahead’ sort of show – and Hill does it all with an ease that comes from that blissful amalgam of intelligence, talent, and hard work. The relationships Hill builds with Melissa (Muna Arbon) and Sally (Jodie Rimmer) make all the connections necessary for us to understand how these women could, in fact, all be friends.
It would be a mistake to see Andrew Grainger as Mike and think ‘what you see is what you get’ because, like Hill, his work is nuanced, textured and subtle. Grainger is at home playing Mike but is equally at home in an Ibsen or a Shakespeare. Mike, the academic, is arrogant and self-opinionated, overconfident even, but Mike the man is vulnerable, unsure and, when it comes to love, he’s on a big downward learning curve. Grainger is impressive and ticks all the romcom boxes.
Like a fulfilling jigsaw, the three other characters fill out the story with real panache. As Mike’s mate and confidante Harry, Stephen Papps is fabulous. He’s your almost sensitive new age tradie and it’s obvious how these two men are friends. Harry is smart and a good guy. He also has a really cool backstory, some great comic lines and looks good in a suit. Papps is one of those actors I’ll always go to see. He’s subtle, experienced and reliable. We need Harry to deliver and Papps does the business.
Muna Arbon’s Melissa is Virginia’s student, the sort of student who gets lecturers into strife. She’s vivid, excitable, talented, funny and serves the play and Virginia well.
Jodie Rimmer is Sally, Virginia’s crazy theatre buddy. She has sublime moments and is hilarious in both her audition pieces and in the play within the play. She engages with her backstory exquisitely and both she and Arbon enable us, through their fine work, to gain access to a richer, deeper vein of Virginia that we need to completely access her character.
In Mike and Virginia, with this director, this cast and these creatives, Tadpole is onto a winner. Add the pleasure of a visit to The Pumphouse and the evening is complete.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer