Basement Theatre Studio, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

18/04/2017 - 22/04/2017

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

10/05/2017 - 27/05/2017

BUSKERS BOUTIQUE, Old Boy’s Theatre, Christ’s College, Christchurch

18/01/2018 - 27/01/2018

16th Avenue Theatre, 174 16th Ave, Tauranga

31/03/2018 - 31/03/2018

Suter Theatre, Nelson

16/10/2018 - 17/10/2018

Hamilton Gardens, Medici Court, Hamilton

22/02/2019 - 23/02/2019

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

28/08/2021 - 05/09/2021

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

09/11/2022 - 04/12/2022

Regent Theatre, The Octagon, Dunedin

15/12/2023 - 16/12/2023



Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2019

Production Details

Penny Ashton - Script
Music arranged by Robbie Ellis, recorded by Michael Bell


Following the bounteous worldwide successes of Promise and Promiscuity, Penny Ashton (Radio NZ National) swaps Austen for Dickens and brings orphaned hero Olive, and a squalid gaggle of Victorian characters to pox-ridden London life. Will Olive find a family amongst the brothels, toffs and gruel? Or will Mrs Sourtart break her heart as well as their teeth?

A rollicking one-woman musical journey that will fulfil your greatest expectations and be the best of times and well… the best of times.

Featuring reworkings of classical masterpieces by Chopin, Verdi, Grieg and Anon by the ever talented Robbie Ellis and recorded in Orange Studios Christchurch by the ever talented Michael Bell.

Previous praise for Promise and Promiscuity:

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE GONE WILD IN THE BEST WAY” Rip it Up, Adelaide 5 Stars For Promise and Promiscuity)

“…you’ll be delighted whether or not you know your Bennets from your Dashwoods.” 5 Stars Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

“…Razor-sharp wit.” 5 Stars Three Weeks, Edinburgh

“…a sparkling performer..” 4 StarsThe Scotsman


Basement Theatre Studio, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland CBD
18 – 22 April 2017
Prices: $20 – $25
Book Now

1 Taranaki St, Wellington
10 – 27 May 2017
Tues-Sat, 7.30pm
Sun, 4.30pm

Buskers Boutique Theatre at Christ’s College
18 – 27 January 2018

Arts On Tour NZ 2018

This tour is Penny’s fourth for Arts on Tour over eight years and the biggest yet. She cannot wait to travel through beautiful Aotearoa in the Trusty Arts on Tour van.


Tuesday 27 March 7.30pm Whitianga
Coghill Theatre
$25, Youth $10
Book:  Whitianga Paper Plus

Wednesday 28 March 8pm Coromandel
Hauraki House Theatre
$18 Book: Harcourts Coromandel

Thursday 29 March 7pm Paeroa
Paeroa Little Theatre
$25 Book: Positive Paeroa or Arkwright’s

Saturday 31 March 4pm Tauranga
16th Ave Theatre
Adults $24.90, Concession $22, Children $15

Sunday 1 April 8pm Gisborne
The Dome PBC
Book: The Aviary, PBC and Gisborne i-Site

Monday 2 April 8pm Norsewood
The Old Dairy Factory
$20 on the door

Tuesday 3 April 8pm Upper Hutt
Expressions Whirinaki Arts and Entertainment Centre
$20 Book: www.expressions.org.nz

Thursday 5 April 7.30pm Picton
Picton Little Theatre
$20 Book: Take Note Picton and Alyssums Blenheim

Friday 6 April 7.30pm Hokitika
Old Lodge Theatre
$20 Book: Hokitika’s Regent Theatre

Sunday 8 April 7.30pm Hawea
Lake Hawea Community Centre
$25 Adult, $10 Child
Book: Sailz Café, OCD Café, Wanaka Medical Centre(cash)
or lhcc@gmail.com

Tuesday 10 April 7.30pm Bannockburn
Coronation Hall
Adults $25, SuperGold $20, Student/child $5
Book: Cromwell i-Site

Wednesday 11 April 7.30pm Alexandra
The Stadium Tavern
Adult $25, Gold card $20
Book: Alexandra i-Site, door sales if available

Thursday 12 April 7.30pm Arrowtown
Athenaeum Hall
$25 Adult $10 Child/student
Book: Eventfinda

Friday 13 April 7.30pm Waikaia
Switzers Lodge
$25 Book; Eventfinda, door sales if available from 7pm
Proudly Presented in Association with Southland Arts Festival

Saturday 14 April 7.30pm Invercargill
Repertory House
Pre-purchased $25, Door sales $35
Book: Eventfinda
Proudly Presented by Gillies Creative in Association with Southland Arts Festival

Sunday 15 April 7.30pm Oamaru
Inkbox Theatre
Oamaru Opera House
Book Oamaru Opera House, Ticket Direct

Tuesday 17 April 7.30pm Twizel
Events Centre
Adult $20, Student $10
Book: Twizel Information Centre

Wednesday 18 April 7.30pm Geraldine
The Lodge Theatre
Book: LOUK Clothing, The Old Post Office (Cash sales) 03 693 9070

Thursday 19 April 7.30pm Ashburton
Ashburton Trust Events Centre
‘Open Hat’

Friday 20 April 8pm Akaroa
The Gaiety Theatre
$20 Book: Akaroa Museum or 03 304 8900

Sunday 22 April 8pm Christchurch
Gloucester Room, Isaac Theatre Royal
Adult $35, Gloucester subscribers $30
Table of 4 inc wine and antipasto platter $255
$130 2 adult tickets inc wine and antipasto platter
Booking fees apply

Monday 23 April 7pm Lincoln
The Laboratory
Book: 03 325 3006 or over the bar at the Laboratory

Wednesday 25 April 7pm Darfield
Trinity Church, Darfield
Adult $20, Student $10
Book: mcac.arts@gmail.com
03 3188 702 / 022 637 5296

Friday 27 April 8pm Mapua
The Playhouse Theatre, Mapua
Dinner from 6pm
Book: The Playhouse and Beggs

Monday 30 April 8pm Onekaka
The Mussel Inn
$15 book; Eventfinda or door sales if available

Wednesday 2 May 7pm Eltham
Rawhitiroa Hall
$10 Book: South Taranaki i-Site 06 278 8599

Thursday 3 May 7.30pm New Plymouth
Theatre Royal TSB Showplace
Tickets from $25 (service fees apply)
Book: Ticketek at TSB Showplace
www.tsbshowplace.co.nz and 0800 TICKETEK

Friday 4 May 8pm Tokoroa
Tokoroa Little Theatre
$20 Book: Tokoroa Clothing Company

Saturday 5 May 7.30pm Hamilton
Playhouse Theatre, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts
University of Waikato
Adult $25, Concessions/Seniors/Unwaged $20, Student $10
Book: www.waikato.ac.nz/academy 0800 383 5200

Sunday 6 May 7pm Onewhero
OSPA Theatre
Book: www.ospa.org.nz or The Goodness Grocer Pukekohe

Friday 11 May 7.30pm Taipa
Ramada Resort Reia Taipa Beach
Adults $20, Students $10
Book: Ramada Resort, Essentially Flowers Kaitaia

Saturday 12 May 7.30pm Whangarei
The Riverbank Centre
Book: www.whangareitheatrecompany.org.nz
And Storytime Reyburn House Lane

Arts On Tour NZ (AOTNZ) organises tours of outstanding New Zealand performers to rural and smaller centres in New Zealand. The trust receives funding from Creative New Zealand as well as support from Central Lakes Trust, Community Trust of Southland, Interislander, Otago Community Trust, Rata Foundation and the Southern Trust. AOTNZ liaises with local arts councils, repertory theatres and community groups to bring the best of musical and theatrical talent to country districts. The AOTNZ programme is environmentally sustainable – artists travel to their audiences rather than the reverse. (ends)

Nelson Arts Festival 2018

Warning: Innuendo!
Recommended for ages 16+.

“Ashton is a one-woman-show wonder.”  CBC CANADA

“It sparkles with intelligence, wit and verve.” THE CHRISTCHURCH PRESS 2018

“…a frothy margarita of theatrical fun, with a pronounced tequila kick.”★★★★ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

WINNER – Best Overall Show, Victoria Fringe 2017
WINNER – Best Musical, Victoria Fringe 2017
WINNER – The Iron Chicken – Best Indoor Show, World Buskers Festival 2018

Tue 16 & Wed 17 Oct, 7.30pm
75 mins, no interval

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2019
Medici Court
Friday 22 & Saturday 23 Feb 2019
$38 General Admission
$35 Concession
*Booking fees apply


“Sparkles with intelligence, wit and verve.” – The Christchurch Press

Winner: Iron Chicken for Best Indoor Show, World Buskers Festival

20% of all profits and 50% of merchandise money to
Palmerston North Women’s Health Collective

Centrepoint Theatre, 280 Church Street, Palmerston North
28 August – 5 September 2021
Tuesday & Wednesday, 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday & Saturday, 7.30pm
Sunday, 4pm
All $35


On stage at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin

15 – 16 December 2023, 7pm

Theatre , Comedy , Music , Solo ,

1 hr 10 mins

Versatile virtuoso Ashton

Review by Terry MacTavish 16th Dec 2023

Happily, Penny Ashton does not agree with Dickens’ Mr Tappertit, that there are ‘strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated’ – this audience seated on the Regent’s vast stage is certainly vibrating vigorously with raucous laughter, shocked gasps, and sentimental sighs.

Having relished Ashton’s Austen parodies and been tantalised by the rave reviews of this Dickens lampoon, I have been seriously miffed that despite a heroic touring schedule, Olive Copperbottom has not in the previous five or more years made it to Dunedin. It proves well worth the wait though, rich Victorian plum pudding with the odd gold sovereign and naughty lashings of brandy butter, and indeed the timing is excellent – what is Christmas without Dickens?!

Ashton has devised a pastiche of pretty well every novel Charles Dickens wrote, a one-woman tour-de-force of musical comedy, with our sweet heroine Olive Copperbottom morphing brilliantly into fifteen glorious characters, an hilariously convoluted plot, and wisecracks, ad-libs and saucy innuendo galore (yes, the dick jokes are back!).  

The original author’s fun with suggestive names is taken to a new, joyfully ludicrous level, so that clever Dick is matched with Willy Twist, Fanny Purchase, Max Moneybags, Tiny Tommy Titbit, Mrs Sourtarts of the dubious hygiene, and ta-da! the hero, aristocratic Edward Goodsort, whose heart has always been given to his own succulent Olive.

The satire is subtle, but Dickens with his strong social conscience would rejoice to note that nonetheless it is there – as well as reminding us of the grim fate of pox-ridden women struggling in the gruesome gutters of old London town, Ashton has inserted some sharp digs at our own society, with its hypocritical condemnation of Victorian slums and ill-treatment of children, while our tamariki are neglected and abused. 

That the narrative is formulaic, the tale much older than Dickens of the orphan bravely facing terrible trials to achieve their happy-ever-after, is part of the charm – we eagerly anticipate with giggles, then burst into delighted guffaws when a tricky plot twist confounds us. The rattling pace sweeps us along, with versatile virtuoso Ashton ever ready to cover any gaffe with an even wittier aside.

The vast stage of our lovely Regent has been transformed to a small theatre, the buzzing audience in a semi-circle round a platform supporting rustic chair, wooden chest and barrel against the mysterious backdrop of two thousand empty red seats in the darkened auditorium. Ashton struts her stuff with ebullient confidence, wooing her doting audience in an attractive all-purpose Victorian costume, made, I am delighted to discover, from her very own wedding gown. That’s commitment.

A few sound effects are all she needs – my favourites are the seagulls and the creaks of the dock where the ship ‘Colonial Arrogance’ waits to transport its passengers to the ‘unspeakable horrors of Australia’. The music carries the rest, whether as background ambience or sprightly songs delivered with gusto and total lack of pretension by Ashton, the lyrics so smart and funny that the audience chokes back laughter so as not to miss a word.

The works of various innocent classical composers are cheerfully plundered for the production, including some delicate Chopin and some wild Grieg. Robbie Ellis has woven the songs and background music into a most ingenious toe-tapping snow-globe of sound, and if as happens with travelling shows the sound track is occasionally a tad loud for some of us, Ashton-the-Mighty is never in danger of being over-powered by it, that would take a cyclone at least. 

Indeed, Penny Ashton seems more a force of nature than of art: she whirls about the stage like a small tornado, with dazzling physicality transforming from a pathetic crippled infant to a wonderfully wobbly-bosomed strumpet. Cracking music hall numbers allow for some terrific high kicks in a flurry of petticoats as she hits the gin in a very rudely named pub. A consummate performer who gives her all, she even pulls off bouts of fisticuffs between any number of desperate villains. 

Ashton’s vocal skills are just as impressive, each comical character instantly recognisable by accent as well as deportment – Dunedin appreciates Mrs McShortbread – though as tradition dictates, the heroine no matter how lowly her (apparent) birth speaks the purest King’s English. There is even a sudden burst of rather lovely Shakespearean verse when Olive joins a theatre troupe, The Hamington Players, her rival a jealous Latvian with a particularly luscious accent, not-so-subtly named Ivanna.

Bottoms-up and cheers for the fizzy Christmas spirit this polished yet rambunctiously high-energy show has brought to the South tonight, but whatever the season and wherever you hang your bowler hat, should you not have seen this spiffing spoof yet, on no account miss Olive on her travels.

Fellow reviewers have enthused so eloquently over Olive Copperbottom that all there is left for me to add is that Penny Ashton is surely a national treasure and, like French and Saunders and all those other foreign comediennes, deserves a damehood for generously sharing with us her ‘gift of laughter, which has always been hated by the poor in spirit, and loved by the gods’ – oh wait, that’s not Dickens, but Trollope! Great name – perhaps the next hapless writer to attract Ashton’s wicked wit? Please, Miss, we want some more!


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Caters to a range of tastes with energy and joy

Review by Francesca Emms 10th Nov 2022

I have a confession to make: I have such a good time at Olive Copperbottom that I don’t write a single note during the performance. In my defense, Penny Ashton’s one-woman show is jam-packed with over a dozen characters, a bunch of song and dance numbers, and a sackful of clever word play – if I’d looked at my notebook I might have missed a hilarious gag or plot twist.

All Ashton needs to tell a good story is a simple set, one costume and some backing tracks (music arranged by Robbie Ellis). Her Olive Copperbottom is a Dickensian-inspired tale with a modern, feminist twist. It follows Olive, an orphan with a strong singing voice, a cherished locket and a heart of gold, as she attempts to become the heroine of her own life. Along the way she encounters goodies and baddies and everything in between – brought to life and easily distinguishable thanks to Ashton’s physical, facial and vocal skills.

There is the odd opening-night hiccup, a fluffed line here and a missed music cue there, but these are quickly defused by Ashton’s quick wit. Be it bawdy or brainy, she always has a quip to keep the audience onside.

Peppered with Easter eggs for Ashton fans, literary quotes for Dickens fans, and dick jokes for the others, the show caters to a range of tastes. I particularly enjoy the athletic fight scenes and the duet between Olive and her lover Edward Goodsoul (one-woman show remember).

What really has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand is Ashton’s energy and joy as she bounds around the stage, clearly having a marvellous time and taking everyone along for the ride.


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Sheer fire-power, warmth and skill

Review by Cate Prestidge 23rd Feb 2019

Billed as a Dickensian tale of love, gin and the pox, Penny Ashton is a vision of buxom, corseted fun as she launches into her latest version of her Olive Copperbottom at the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival. First performed in 2017, she has taken the show internationally and as part of an Arts on Tour in NZ, refining the work to reflect the times.

Ashton is an assured performer: with the addition of a few props she flips cleverly between over 15 distinct characters to take us from London all the way to Scotland, and back. The story of our sweet, clever heroine includes misery, deprivation, a quest, betrayal, a talisman, romance, honour, surprises and lots and lots of gin.

Dickensian names give the audience handy narrative shortcuts. Consider our hero, Edward Goodsort, the kindly showman Mr Fivestars, rancid orphanage matron Mrs Sourtarts, brothel owner, Mrs Scabbybits, and who could forget dear, squeaky-voiced little Tommy Tidbits? Throw in a hapless Dick and a friendly Fanny and, well, you get the picture.

Ashton is such a polished and accessible performer, unafraid to deviate from her complicated script if the need arises. When someone’s phone rings she weaves in a gentle reprimand and in the increasing heat of a full house in the wet weather venue in the Victorian Conservatory, ad libs, “I’m really bloody warm – it’s almost like we’re in a hot house.” 

Occasionally you have to hang onto your hat, but it’s just jolly clever and her energy and physical comedy drives the narrative, particularly a fabulous fight and (spoiler alert) a tragic deathbed scene. There’s a tasty smattering of Dickensian-inspired social observation with references to social justice, women’s rights and poverty. The audience love it and as Ashton says, if that’s not your thing, “plenty of Dick jokes”. 

Music inspired by Chopin, Verdi and Tchaikovsky has been reworked by long-time collaborator Robbie Ellis and recorded live for the show. The music and sound FX are a great accompaniment for Ashton’s clever, topical lyrics and help drive her characters and storyline. 

People are on their feet at the end, with huge appreciation for the sheer fire-power, warmth and skill of Ashton’s performance. She is deservedly a festival favourite. 


Editor February 27th, 2019

Cate Prestige talks to Jesse Mulligan on RNZ about the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival including Olive Copperbottom.

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Exhausting, exhilarating, breath-takingly clever

Review by Ruth Allison 17th Oct 2018

Penny Ashton is a marvel. The virtuous Olive Copperbottom, “the heroine of her own life”, could be forgiven if she succumbed to the gin, the theatre or prostitution such are the perils of life for women in Dickens’ England. But she doesn’t and, like Dickens, she delivers her message of injustice, “the rich monopolise all the dignity” and poverty, “despair breeds desperation”, amidst an ever-convoluted plot peopled by endearing characters.

That Penny Ashton achieves this as a one-woman show is credit to her dramatic skills, her fine knowledge of and respect for Dickens and her love of theatre and audience.

“Pilfered from the genius”, this tale is liberally laced with quotes from many Dickens’ novels. Olive’s story plays out on the stage in a riot of colourful characters, song and dance a plenty, and audience participation. Just what we have come to expect from the dramatist who gave us Promise and Promiscuity, a snapshot version of Jane Austen’s life and writing. 

Out of the one costume and a few props emerges characters such as Tommy Titbit, the orphaned midget longing to call someone father, and Mrs Sourtarts, the evil smelling, gin guzzling orphan mistress. Who could not be moved by the plight of Fanny Purchase, the prostitute desperate for a better life for her children.

Few would fail to recognise Clever Dick and his failing actress wife Ivanna Fivestars, ‘The Travelling Hams’, as current US political celebrities. Dickens would be proud of Edward Goodsort, Olive’s steadfast lover, and Max Moneybags, the greedy heir.

For 75 minutes Ashton stirs up a storm of heroes and heroines, villains and villainesses, keeping them all under control as she races around the stage, conjuring fights, lice infected orphanages, ships docks, taverns like ‘The Cock and Swallow’ and a Scottish guest house run by the inimitable Mrs MacShortbread. It’s exhausting, exhilarating and breath-takingly clever.

As Penny Ashton in her character of Olive Copperbottom, kindness personified, says, “I couldn’t have written this better myself.” I believe her and so do her audience. They can’t wait for liberties to be taken with the next great writer Ashton chooses to immerse herself in. 


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Snappy character transitions and quick-witted verse

Review by Vivienne Quinn 01st Apr 2018

The 2018 Baycourt Presents: Arts on Tour NZ Trust has started off with a kick and wallop, with Penny Astons’ Olive Copperbottom: A Dickensian Tale of Love, Gin and The Pox. I love that Baycourt has shared the Arts on Tour undertaking with 16th Ave Theatre, a lovely little venue that suits more intimate performances than Baycourts’ larger Addison Theatre. 

And what a show to start with! Absolutely bursting with character (15 characters in fact), Penny Aston cavorts and romps her way through the riot of colour and song as she brings us the melodramatic tale of lead character Olive Copperbottom, searching for love, fame and breakfast in Victorian Britain.  

The writing, by Aston herself (with snippets borrowed from Dickens), is witty and clever with puns and poetry competing with musical re-workings of classics from Chopin and Verde. My favourite musical tribute (‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ by Edvard Grieg) is a masterpiece of snappy character transitions and quick-witted verse.

I always admire solo performers, just for the sheer nerve involved in putting yourself out there for, in this case, 75 minutes, with no one else on stage to bounce off or back you up. Mistakes are made, of course but a consummate performer embraces slight flubbing of lines, or accent slip-ups. Aston is such a performer, and is an utter delight to watch, as she keeps the audience charmed throughout. She breaks the forth wall frequently but always with style and humour.

Some audience participation is quite risky, especially perhaps for the respiration attempts of one ‘lucky’ man embraced quite lustily into a prostitute characters’ ample bosom. Another audience member is rejected for a similar treatment because his baldness would create a “Tale of Three Titties” scenario.

This is a fantastic show: snappy character transitions and quick-witted verse; saucy, but not so much that you couldn’t take your Mum. Aston is doing a country wide tour so support NZ made talent, and get yourself along, you will love it.  


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Astonishing stage virtuosity

Review by Tony Ryan 19th Jan 2018

Described as “a Dickensian tale of Love, Gin & the Pox”, Olive Copperbottom proves an engaging and enjoyable start to my calendar of Busker acts at this year’s festival. Christchurch’s own international comedy star, Penny Ashton, presents a whirlwind of squalid Victorian characters with such mercurial virtuosity that the stage seems, at times, peopled with a multitude of colourful and eccentric personalities rather than the lone woman who holds the stage and our attention for its seventy-minute duration. Even at the final curtain calls, each of the main characters steps forward for an individual bow.

Unlike other comedy shows I’ve seen, this one relies on its cumulative effect, building the comedy to a final riotous finale where we can barely keep up with the plot twists, changing characters, puns and gags. From a relatively low-key beginning, the audience gradually warms to Olive’s evolving story and Ashton’s particular style of comedy. But, if the show doesn’t contain the steady stream of laugh-out-loud comic punch that many acts of this sort deliver, that’s partly because it relies on so much more than humour.

The diversity of characters is certainly one of its main assets along with its musical and visual flair. Being musically inclined, I pick up on nearly all of the musical references, from Beethoven to traditional folk songs, many delivered with newly imagined lyrics, saturated with clever comic rhymes and, in the case of Verdi’s ‘Brindisi’ (La Traviata), gin-induced lilting with the whole audience. And the clever allusions to the titles of novels by Dickens are a constant, almost groan-inducing (in the best possible way) theme; we manage to note at least ten, along with numerous other Dickensian references. One character (Mrs Sourtarts?) even plans to start a chain of hotels: Dick Inns.

Nor is Olive Copperbottom short on topical references and puns – I don’t think I’ve seen a comedy act in the last year (Netflix, Edinburgh Fringe, etc.) that hasn’t included at least a hint of the Trump phenomenon, and this show is no exception. But as the layers of the plot and its players become increasingly complex, so do the layers of gags and comic situations, until, by the end, the audience is in the palm of Ashton’s hand, responding with loud and willing abandon when almost all the characters come together on stage as the tale spirals towards its chaotic climax with all the best implausibilities of a Dickens plot. 

As a performer, Ashton is at her best when she frees herself from the script and demonstrates genuine comic flair in, for example, her quick-witted comebacks during brief moments of audience participation. And, if any technical cue is slightly out of sync, her ability to draw on such moments for further comic extension is extremely impressive, especially considering the pace of her presentation. I can’t help thinking that the more glitches there are in sound and lighting, the funnier the show. Mention of sound reminds me that sound effects also play an important and entertaining part in Olive Copperbottom and, well-timed or not, each one brings a laugh.

While I’m looking forward to two more World Buskers Festival shows tonight, I do recommend Olive Copperbottom for its originality, astonishing stage virtuosity and its humorous and engaging material. But, as with all the festival’s shows, it’s also the atmosphere. As we emerge from the venue on a warm summer night, the long queues waiting for admission to other nearby venues suggests a week of stimulating entertainment. Great stuff, festival organisers!


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Have a Dickens of a time

Review by Ewen Coleman 12th May 2017

Having successfully lampooned the essence of Jane Austin’s novels in her show Promise and Promiscuity, creator and performer Penny Ashton is back in town with a new musical comedy Olive Copperbottom, this time created from the works of Charles Dickens.

Often credited as being one of the greatest literary figures in the English language since William Shakespeare, Dickens created a wonderful array of wonderful characters through his numerous novels that Ashton has woven into a delightfully original story.

She has also captured beautifully the ambience of Dickens’ Victorian world, providing her tale with many macabre twists and turns, not unlike many of Dickens’ stories. [More


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The best of times to be had confronting our worst of times

Review by John Smythe 11th May 2017

The genuinely shocking thing about the tale of Olive Copperbottom is how redolent the underlying value systems of Dickensian England are of those that afflict us today. The ever-increasing wealth of the few is not shared; nor does it trickle down. It’s dog-eat-dog at the bottom of the heap and human decency, let alone altruism, is hard to come by.

Perversely all this contributes mightily, entertainment-wise, to Penny Ashton’s latest epic. With the same ebullient skill she brought to her Austenesque Promise and Promiscuity, Penny Ashton peoples the Circa Two stage with a plethora of Dickensian archetypes.

Of course Olive herself, despite her unpropitious circumstances, is a model of beautifully articulated virtue, as is her inevitable love interest, Edward Goodsort. Some among the downtrodden have hearts of gold while others are rancid scum. And the little children – Tommy and Dotty – are yet to be corrupted.

Not quite as young as Oliver Twist was when orphaned (or was she?), shamed rejection and ‘mother’s ruin’ having brought them to Hard Times before the maternal demise, Olive Copperbottom has earned her keep these 15 years at Mrs Sourtart’s Orphanage by teaching the children to read and write. She keeps their spirits up with such rousing songs as ‘We’re All in This Together at the Orphanage’ – just one of a number of ditties splendidly set to tradition airs by the redoubtable Mr Robbie Ellis, who has also composed incidental music.

Class, of course, is the issue that causes Olive to resist high-born Edward’s besotted advances. “There are strings in a human heart that are better not vibrated” – but one example of Ms Ashton’s astonishing skill at capturing the flavour of her designated co-writer.

The locket she wears about her neck holds the key but before its secrets can be unlocked she is obliged, having departed the awful orphanage, to make her living as (gasp!) an actress with The Hamington Players, discovering a natural talent that rival the great Myrtle Streep! (I mention this detail as but one example of her clever peppering of contemporary references throughout the show.)

Convolutions of plot keep us riveted, as such characters as Mrs Scabbybits, Fanny Purchase and Mr Sozzle from the Cock & Swallow enter the fray. Escape to New Zealand aboard the HMS Colonial Arrogance even promises a possible solution – for whom exactly I shall not say – until malevolent forces bring it all to a terrible climax at Diddle Diddle Dock. How can a happy ending possibly be retrieved from this?

All seems lost until a merciful manifestation sets truth upon its inevitable path … But will it be sufficient and in good time? You must attend to discover. 

Need I add the entire cast is embodied in the personage of Ms Penny Ashton, abetted by ‘contributing director’ Mr Ben Crowder and clad in just the one colourful frock by Elizabeth Whiting?

I rarely resort to the accolade ‘tour de force’ but here it is entirely appropriate. Olive Copperbottom will give you the best of times, even as it comments on our worst of times. 


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Abundant humour in pointed satire

Review by Nik Smythe 19th Apr 2017

Emerging from her extensive tenure in the world of Jane Austen, writer, performer, et-cetera-er Penny Ashton takes on a new title to further indulge her evident fetish for eloquent nineteenth century melodramatic novelists. 

With adroit directorial assistance from Ben Crowder, Ashton’s inevitably intensely wordy performance hits the ground apace with a nine-year-old Olive Copperbottom experiencing a personal tragedy that will change the course of her already underprivileged life. 

In a more authentic Dickens production, the attendant woe would be played for maximum tissue sales but Penny’s here to deliver laughs and so she does: several per minute, for a relentlessly loquacious eighty or so minutes; no mean feat for a solo performance, with commendably consistent energy to boot. 

I lose count of the dozen or more characters portrayed, every one a broadly drawn, instantly recognisable Dickens archetype with cheekily obeisant names like little Tommy Titbit the wide-eyed waif, Mrs Sourtart the malodorous orphanage governess, and the virtuously forthright love interest Mr Edward Goodsort.

The ensuing original convoluted adventure bears all the hallmarks of classic Dickens, with wonder and true love in constant battle with greed and treachery.  Ashton’s treatment of the source material betrays a clear obsessive reverence for his renowned mastery of language and character, even as she flippantly skewers it time and again.  She also takes every available opportunity to contextualise her heroine’s desperate predicaments with the absurdities of present-day reality.

This affirmative lampooning of the celebrated author’s literary conventions is propitiously matched by the musical curation, arrangement and execution by musical director Robbie Ellis and his (recorded) five-piece chamber orchestra.  The oft-recognisable melodic strains range from nautical shanties and traditional jigs and reels to the classical stylings of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven et al (artists as peerless in their field as Dickens was in his), all overlaid with Ashton’s confidently belted out lyrical wizardry.

Being the world premiere of what will probably become the centrepiece of her performance career for the foreseeable future, she amenably welcomes any critical feedback from her audience, which she will no doubt receive and utilise as she sees fit to further enhance and refine the work.  Essentially however, Olive Copperbottom enters the theatrical world as a fully realised conceptual parody.

As pointed as the satire gets, and acknowledging the effort in redressing the imbalance of strong female protagonists in Dickens and 19th century fiction in general – not to mention 20th or pretty much any time in history including, albeit somewhat improved, the present – the clear priority here is humour which is, as aforementioned, abundant.  Even the odd flubbed line or self-induced corpsing fit contribute rather than detract from the general entertainment. 

Penny Ashton exhibits a definitive extroversion that calls to mind the irrepressible talents of Tracey Ullman: someone so determined to show off for a living that she’ll slog like a workhouse orphan to make sure we keep wanting her to.  Yes Penny, please do keep showing off, we love it at least as much as you do. 


Penny Ashton May 2nd, 2017

Thanks for that Radio NZ link too. x

Editor April 21st, 2017

Here is the link to Nik Smythe's chat with Jess Mulligan about OLIVE COPPERBOTTOM, on Radio NZ Thusday 20 April 2017. 


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