Picture Perfect

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

09/09/2006 - 07/10/2006

Production Details

Directed by SUSAN WILSON

A new Circa commission by Ken Duncum, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed playwrights and twice-winner of Best New NZ Play at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, Picture Perect is directed by award-winning Susan Wilson (The Cherry Orchard, Death of a Salesman, Taking Off).

Taking an intriguing and amusing look at the impact of virtual reality on family life, Picture Perfect is a fascinating dissection of modern-day life and love.

Jenny and Alex have been given a prototype of an amazing, futuristic entertainment system. At first it provides solace and comfort, but soon Jenny becomes obsessed … and then the technology begins to malfunction, and so does the family.

Talking about the play Ken Duncum says:

Picture Perfect stems from my interest in family relationships. This is a subject that I’ve been looking at different aspects of in my last few plays – Trick Of The Light and Cherish were both about families of one sort or another.

While set in an environment where futuristic technology is available, Picture Perfect is actually about a mother, father and teenage daughter trying to find a way to be a family – it’s about recognisable people and emotions. I want these characters to remind the audience of their own family and of themselves, in their ups and downs, in their jokes, and in the simple and overwhelmingly risky challenge that presents itself every time we dare to love.

“I’ve had the idea for Picture Perfect for some years now – but when you get to grips with the actual process of writing it, then things can be quite different. And they have been – and are – in terms of getting my initial idea to live and breathe through a complete and satisfying story with characters who feel real and engrossing. The process has been challenging and absorbing. I’ve had some time to develop the play and think about it between drafts, and it’s been able to spread out and investigate various nooks and crannies of that original idea and what it could be, before – in the last couple of drafts – pulling back to find the essential heart of it and the most direct and engaging way of putting that heart onstage.

“It’s always fascinating to watch how in rehearsal characters who have lived and talked only on the page or in my head for so long start to take on real form in the shape of the actors who are playing them. There’s a process of actor moving closer to character and character moving closer to actor till they meet somewhere in the middle, and I don’t own or control them any more. They exist as independent beings, both different and more fully rounded than my original conceptions of them. I really enjoy that. It’s very much like watching children grow up and spread their wings.”

Set Designed by JOHN HODGKINS
Costume Design by GILLIE COXILL


Stage Manager           Dushka Blakely
Technical Operator    Marcus McShane
Sound                          Jeremy Cullen, Susan Wilson, Dick Le Fort
Costume making        Gillie Coxill, Cathy Harris
Set Construction         Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins
Publicity                      Claire Treloar
Graphic Design           Rose Miller, Parlour
Photography               Stephen A'Court
House Manager          Suzanne Blackburn
Front of House            Linda Wilson

Wellington, 2008.

Theatre ,

2 hours 5 mins, incl. 1 interval

The wizardry of Artificial Intelligence

Review by Lynn Freeman 13th Sep 2006

Wouldn’t it be reassuring if we could not only erase painful memories of harsh words said to the people we love who’ve died – but rewrite them too.

That way we would always be guaranteed a guilt-free happy ending. In Ken Duncum’s thoroughly thought provoking play, Picture Perfect, this is the opportunity new technology offers a grieving family whose teenage son died two years earlier in an accident.

Artificial Intelligence is nothing new, Duncum simply moves us forward a couple of years to 2008 and imagines the next step.

Alex (Malcolm Murray) reviews new high tech wizardry and brings home a machine, Hol-Life, intended to allow people to feel like they have Hollywood stars in their own living room, in glorious 3D. Desired dialogue and visuals are totally programmable.

Is your fantasy to have Johnny Depp tell you he loves you? No problem, he’ll say what you want him to say. Of course it means nothing and you can’t touch him but that’s what fantasies are.

Alex’s grieving wife Jenny finds a whole new use for Hol-Life, using it as a kind of therapy to fill the hole in her heart left by the death of their son Clydie and ease her guilt at their spiteful last words to each other. The Hol-Life company latch onto this unforeseen marketing opportunity.

Meanwhile Clydie’s flesh and blood kid sister Bailie once again feels overshadowed by her dead sibling. More than that, she understands that what’s happening is perverse and unfaithful to his memory.

The actors are all impressive in their roles, and these roles are incredibly demanding. Nic Sampson makes us feel for both the real and holographic Clydies, Abby Marment captures Bailie’s pain and anger, Carol Smith is totally convincing as the grief-ravaged mother, Malcolm Murray’s Alex is both a sympathetic character and one whose ineffectiveness is frustrating, and Sarah Somerville is a calculating Lila, Hol-Life’s representative.

The only clunky aspect to Susan Wilson’s memorable production is the way the holographic characters have to walk on and off stage into the light.


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Family raises the dead

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 11th Sep 2006

Someone once wrote that the camera relieves mankind of the burden of memory, but in Ken Duncum’s intriguing new play Picture Perfect, which is set in the near future, the burden of memory becomes a very heavy load indeed should anyone use the Hol-Life home interactive image system.

On the front of the play’s programme there is a succinct and very plausible Hol-Life Quick Start User Manual which explains how a hologram can be created and programmed from a DVD or video. The dead can be brought back to a remarkable semblance of life and this virtual reality gives the viewer the seductive power of fixing the past with a desired memory.

However, Ken Duncum, like Alan Ayckbourn in Henceforward with its robot, is using futuristic technology to explore the present. Jenny and Alex are struggling to cope with the death of their son, 18 year old Clydie, while their teenage daughter Bailie, is trying to find her place in her tragically altered family.

In a first act that is leisurely and lacking in tension we observe Jenny and Alex trialling the machine by using a video of a picture perfect family day at the beach to create an interactive hologram of Clydie. Slowly Jenny becomes obsessed with her son’s image to the detriment of her family and her job as a real estate agent.

The tension-filled second act takes off with Alex attracted to Lila, an employee of Hol-Life, and trying to get closer to his daughter while playing a game of badminton with her. At the same time Jenny is arranging a dinner for all the family, while re-living her memories of a birthday party and the last time she spoke to Clydie before he went off in a car with some friends.

If the resolution seems a little too neat and pat, it does not mar the ideas that spin out of the play in profusion, nor does it detract from the enjoyment to be had from the machine’s Help programme and the simple trickery of a real birthday cake becoming a virtual one and the humour in Jenny’s client hearing noises behind stucco walls.

In a strong performance Abby Marment finds both the pleasant and the obnoxious sides of Bailie, while Sarah Somerville is nicely enigmatic as Lila and Malcolm Murray as Alex does what he can with what seems to me an under written part. Carol Smith captures Jenny’s obsession with her dead son’s image with a sort of lightness of manner that is believable and true, and she finds comedy in unexpected places but she also explodes with grief and anger to powerful effect.

Susan Wilson’s production uses John Hodgkins’ spacious setting, which is at times hauntingly lit by Marcus McShane and Wendy Clease, to good advantage. The hologram effect is created without gimmickry and into the lighted space steps Nic Sampson in a convincing and confident performance as Clydie, particularly when Clydie is on fast repeat.


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Facing grief in a ‘smart’ new world

Review by John Smythe 10th Sep 2006

In his new play, Ken Duncum makes manifest the human compulsion to idealise people after death; to remake them, if not in our own image, then according to our own dreams and desires. Hence his Picture Perfect: created by, and about the power of, imagination. Its insightful humour proves that profound drama can generate excellent comedy.

Rooting his only-just futuristic ‘what if’ idea in the timeless turf of family relationships, Duncum also re-proves – and to some extent reproves – the enduring truth that deep emotional need can be the mother of extraordinary invention. The catalyst is that 18 year-old Clydie has died in a diving accident.

Not that Jenny, the dead boy’s mother, has invented Hol-Life, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that can bring him back into her virtual reality, in a form that also lets others witness his hologramatic existence. It’s just (if "just" is the word) that her capacity to accelerate its development, taking it well beyond what its inventors envisaged, is driven by her unresolved feelings of grief, guilt and ambition for his lost future, not to mention her resistance to having to return to a reality that seems relatively unreal, or meaningless, futile, mundane …  

It’s a brilliant stroke to locate a sci-fi story in such emotional territory. While this premiere is set in 2008, I presume future productions (of which there should be many) will always bet set two years hence. And even if or when the AI fiction does become AI fact, the play will still work because it will always be about who we are right now, as children, parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and members of increasingly "smart" communities.

But how smart is such technology, really? Or how smart are we in making use of it? These are the compelling questions that draw us into this three-dimensional picture. And the answer is not glibly come by. Certainly it may be true that escaping from reality doesn’t help the living, and private grief being publicly exploited to commercial ends is clearly repugnant (except who makes the media feed that appetite?). And yet … isn’t this grief going to cause problems anyway, within and between the surviving family members?

If Jenny’s withdrawal into a private space is inevitable, perhaps this outward and visible form is as useful a catalyst as any in provoking the likewise inevitable cathartic eruption that threatens to blow them apart yet prepares the ground for true healing to happen. I love a play that leaves us with such things to chew on.

With great emotional intelligence Carol Smith inhabits every dimension of Jenny’s journey through grief, demanding empathy by honouring the veracity with which Duncum has drawn her supremely human flaws to the surface.

On opening night, Malcolm Murray had yet to share the full range of feelings being experienced by Alex, the IT journalist husband/father who is supposed to be testing and reviewing the Hol-Life package. He articulated the dialogue well enough but too much at the same pitch and pace to engage us much beyond the intellectual level.

An across-the-boards tendency to declaim lines on opening night also mars our initial ability to tune into 17 year-old daughter Bailie’s ‘truth’, but eventually Abby Marment makes us believe in, and care about, her virtual displacement in the real world by her dead brother.

Nic Sampson meets the challenge of playing Clydie with great success, proving how limitations may liberate and render poetic what could be prosaic. With no independent consciousness or free will, a square metre or so to move in and a severely restricted vocabulary he achieves an eerie eloquence which dissipates, significantly, as Jenny imposes her will on him.

The outsider whose very presence helps to distinguish the family as such is Lila. First met as a virtual Help hologram, she turns out to be an actual part of the Hol-Life development team. But in real life, in response to Alex’s corporeal needs, she plays out a similarly untouchable role, and this time the limitation leaves Sarah Somerville working from an unrewardingly monochromatic palette. Either this is as the playwright intended, or an opportunity to humanise her has been missed in performance.

Director Susan Wilson, her cast and production team – and all those who participated in the development workshops from which this play has clearly benefited – must be loudly congratulated for bringing this ingenious and often very funny work to life. Major challenges have produced high quality production values, not least from the designers: Andrew Brettell (video sequences), Gillie Coxill (costumes), Marcus McShane and Wendy Clease (lighting), and John Hodgkins (set).

That said, I’d like to think more will be done as the season beds in to bring more authenticity to the reality aspects. While the multi-levelled set with its large curved back wall and wooden side panels (that seem to have been borrowed from Te Papa, next door) offer ideal surfaces for the video projections, I am left unable to envisage a credible geography for this family home. This adds to the aforementioned sense that the actors are performing in theatre, rather than being at home. I want the women’s costumes to seem more lived in too, and suggest they would seem more justified if it emerged that Bailie’s special elective at school was fashion design (or did I miss that detail?).

But none of that can diminish the thrill of welcoming another work of profound excellence from the desktop of Ken Duncum. And with 15 plays and an impressive slate of TV scripts to his credit – Picture Perfect being his fifth full-length play to be professionally produced in the last seven years – I venture to observe that this is the pay-off for his being able to work full time at his craft (even if half his professional life does involve being Director of the MA Scriptwriting programme at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters).


It’s not easy being a professional playwright in New Zealand. We can only be grateful that Ken Duncum has found a way of making it work for himself, and thereby for us, and that Circa Theatre continues to commit to bringing his plays from page to stage.


John Smythe September 11th, 2006

I’ve made a mistake. Clydie didn’t die in a diving accident, although he did fall down a cliff when going for a pee on a back road at night, returning (I think) from a weekend at the beach with his mates. Without wishing to make excuses for my error, it may be useful to note it was the emotionally charged recurring image of Clydie at the beach, saying he’d go in (swimming) one more time, that made me assume they had been his last words and extrapolate that the fall was from diving. The correct information, as I now recall, was imparted late in the play in a relatively clinical scene between Alex and Lila, where I was – to use the jargon of IT – having access problems due to a lack of emotional engagement. I fully intend to see this play again. Apart from wanting to savour the treat once more, it keeps occurring to me that there is a whole level of verbal wit, being used by Alex as an emotional screen, that somehow wasn’t working as well as it might on opening night and I really want to get that part of it too.

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