Ruthie Bird and the King of Hearts

BATS Theatre, Wellington

29/02/2008 - 08/03/2008

NZ Fringe Festival 2008

Production Details


Two of NZ’s most experienced actresses, Ellie Smith and Irene Wood, are combining for the NZ premiere of the play Ruthie Bird and the King of Hearts at BATS theatre in the Wellington Fringe Festival.  The play has been written by Ellie Smith, nationally acclaimed actress and director who is a now a full time writer, and stars Irene Wood, one of our most respected actresses.

Inspired by Wellington’s homeless people, the play has a great big heart, lots of grit and four characters that will delight audiences with their eccentric behaviour. Ruthie is one of Wellington’s colourful street people who fiercely protects her mentally challenged son, Cobie.  She is loud and bolshy and is scared of no-one. The consequences are devastating when she breaks the number one rule on the street: she steals from one of her own. 

Irene Wood has returned from a year in Spain to play Ruthie. Ellie says, "There is no-one else I could imagine playing Ruthie.  In fact, I wrote the play for Irene because I don’t think we see enough of her extraordinary talent on stage in Wellington.  She is a great dramatic actress as well as having a wonderful sense of comedy which this part calls for."

The youngest in a cast of four fine actors, Ginna is played by newcomer Anna Wooles who has just graduated from Massey with a degree in Jazz Vocals.  "Anna is a real find", says Ellie.  She is funny, smart and has an amazing gift for performing the blues which she does in the play." 

This night in the theatre will remind audiences that everyone dreams, everyone loves but some of us live life on the outside.  It is funny and heartbreaking. 

BATS Theatre
Feb 29th until March 8th  at 8pm
Tickets $16 / concession $13
To Book:  802 4175 or 

Ruthie Bird:  Irene Wood
Ginna:  Anna Wooles
Cobie Bird:  Oliver Cox
Rostyn Kemp:  C. Smith

Operator:  Sam Downes
Photography:  Lily Wooles
Publicity:  Debbie Hannan

1 hr, no interval

It speaks to the audience about our humanity

Review by Diane Spodarek 15th Mar 2008

Ruthie Bird and the King of Hearts, may be Ellie Smith’s first play but it is a very mature work. Smith, a well-known New Zealand actor and singer brings her theatrical experience to her writing and directing.

Ruthie Bird is about Ruthie and her son, the King of Hearts who are homeless and living their lives on the street. Two other characters, Ginna, the photographer and Rostyn Kemp, a drugged out sweet talking weirdo weave in and out of their lives. Ruthie Bird is very much a play about the present. We don’t really know how these people came to be homeless and it doesn’t matter.

The play opens with Ginna the photographer singing a cool jazz song. As the lights come up Ruthie, played by Irene Wood, is sleeping in a lawn chair. Ginna descends from her perch down a ladder and photographs Ruthie. Ginna is working towards her show, photographing her homeless buddy freaks trying to remember that famous photographer’s name before her who also shot the freaks of her world.

Rostyn, a creepy junkie guy, played wonderfully by the female C. Smith, is always trying to score money and anything he can get his hands on, including Ruthie. He speaks with an elaborate trail of words that make absolutely no sense and yet you know exactly what he is trying to do. Ruthie gets dolled up for her day, applying heavy makeup, making plans to get her Cobie off the street while dreaming about taking a ride in a Porsche.  Cobie Bird, Ruthie’s man-child, played by Oliver Cox, searches for his father and another pie with equal spirit, telling everyone he sees, "Hello. I love you."

As each scene unfolds into the next Ginna sings another jazz or blues number, her beautiful voice reminding us of her humanity and ours. Her private world is hidden from us, she growls and snarls at anyone who tries to get close, sometimes screaming ‘capitalist.’ She’s young, not quite dirty, not quite making the street her permanent home, but she’s on the edge, it could happen. Never removing an odd fur coat reminiscent of an era she was never part of, she clutches her camera as if it’s her baby.

Ruthie Bird is an exciting work; with only four actors, it spans four different generations as it unfolds with humour into a tender tale. An actor’s play, Smith has written the best lines for everyone. Each character has his/her day in the sun, as the audience learns to like them, then love them. Our compassion for street people as those who live on the outside, away from our every day lives, is shattered as Smith brings these characters into our hearts.

It was a shocking jolt to see Rostyn’s path change to violence. The part is so powerful for a woman I couldn’t help but wonder that if a male actor were in the role, that the violence and all his lines about trying to be the top dog would have just been a cliché. Smith reminds us through this casting that gender plays a part in everything.

The Fringe is an opportunity to try new plays for a short run. I believe Ruthie Bird will become an important New Zealand play because it has everything good theatre promises: great roles for actors, a challenging part for directors, and it speaks to the audience about our humanity. Ruthie Bird is about living now in the moment we find ourselves in, but it is also a play that is timeless in how we see the ‘other’.

When it ended it felt like an intermission. I wanted to go back into the theatre and continue to watch these characters that were fully embodied by some of the best acting I’ve seen this season. 
Diane Spodarek is a writer and performer. Read her blog at


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Dramatic tension missing #2

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 07th Mar 2008

[As with Hail to the Thief] Despite containing strong acting, simple but effective settings, good musical support, the play seems wordy and lacking that essential ingredient of vital theatre: dramatic tension. 

Ruthie Bird starts with some marvelous blues singing from Anna Wooles who plays Ginna, a photographer. The bluesy mood is maintained throughout as Ruthie (Irene Wood) attempts to keep up appearances while attending to her mentally impaired son Cobie (Oliver Cox) and sharing competing day dreams with a boulevardier (Carol Smith) very much down on his luck.

Shopping in Oxford Street, driving expensive cars and living in Paris are contrasted with the intrusive Ginna and her camera and the card games of the simple-minded Cobie, who likes to eat pies and wear paper hats. Why they have all ended up on the street is not explored.

These homeless people are very theatrical homeless people and they are presented in a stylized manner with long, often excellent speeches (the unpleasant death of Isadora Duncan that Ruthie harps on about, for example) but if it weren’t for the sheer professionalism of the performances of Irene Wood and Carol Smith it would seem a much longer play.


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Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

One of the absolutely highlights of this year’s Fringe is the first play written by Ellie Smith. The fact she’s performed in so many shines through in her script, where her characters are both well written and well rounded. Her experience as a director is also put to full use in ruthie bird and the king of hearts

Ruthie (Irene Wood at her best) once went to hair salons and traveled, was once desirable and loved.  Now she lives in and on trash in the streets with her son, Cobie (Oliver Cox). 

It’s a dangerous place, but she’s fearless, despite the unwanted attentions of the nasty Rostyn Kemp – C. Smith gives a remarkable and disturbing performance.  As down and out photographer Ginna, Anna Wooles sings like an angel in this place of ugliness. 

Terrific set by Gina Hitchcock and lighting by Jennifer Lal complete this unforgettable piece of theatre. 


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A slice of life, but not as we know it

Review by John Smythe 01st Mar 2008

Ellie Smith’s debut play is the sort of work we might have expected to find in an edge-of-London back-alley venue around the mid 1960s. Why not, given it’s about street people discarded by ‘social progress’ who have in no way kept up with the times despite their plastic-strewn environment.*

Mostly about waste and a little about waists and other aspects of physical appearance (some good on-liners there), Ruthie Bird and the King of Hearts simply characterises four misfits in their here and now, with minimal sketching in if the whys and wherefores that brought them here.

Irene Wood excels as Ruthie Bird (the role was written for her), a bolshie and acerbic escapee from suburban death in Hamilton, to which the wobble-waisted father of their mentally challenged son is lost.

Now adult but still child-like and ever-loving, Cobie – the King of Hearts of the title – is delightfully played by Oliver Cox. His naïve faith that his dad will come, and the unconditional love he and his mum share, are warm and poignant veins in their harsh daily lives.

Also dwelling amid the dustbins – or rather the flash plastic wheelie bins brimming with discarded clear plastic wrap – is would-be photographer Ginna, a young woman whose unresolved bitterness at her father (who hanged himself) contrasts beautifully with the jazz blues songs she – Anna Wooles – is given to crooning. Her first two songs are bird-related: Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ ("Bird flying high, you know how I feel …"); Al Jolson’s ‘Back in Your Own Back Yard’ ("The bird with feathers of blue / Is waiting for you …)

If Ginna finds solace in her music ("Broken windows and empty hallways, a pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey / Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s gonna rain today"), the fourth incumbent of this forgotten corner of the city’s ‘back yard’ attempts to elevate himself and the surrounding tone with florid articulations of great sophistication.  

Rostyn Kemp, wondrously realised by C Smith (Carol), is malevolent charm personified. Not for him anything so common as "Gis back the money y’ took from me, bitch, or I’ll bash your ugly head in." Oh no. "I would be sublimely gratified if you could find it in your heart to replenish the void …" is more his style. But when it comes to the drunken crunch …

Rostyn’s recollections of strolling down London’s Oxford Street are matched by Ruthie’s fantasies of shopping in Paris but in reality their lives are stuck in abject poverty, although it’s up to us to decide whether Ruthie really did talk a car salesman into letting her ride in a flash red Jaguar convertible … .

Geechie Wiley’s ‘Last Kind Words Blues’ ("The last kind word I heard my daddy say …") heralds the final scene, in which the alcohol-fuelled fantasy of "a night of passion" disabuses us of any romantic notions that these birds are ‘free’. Only Cobie has yet to discover reality …

*Apparently set designer Gina Hitchcock purloined most of the plastic for her set from rubbish skips around the city. Her choosing to accentuate that rather than the more prosaic grime and litter makes an excellent visual statement.

Ruthie Bird and the King of Hearts is a slice of life, but not as most of us know it.


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