Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

31/05/2016 - 10/06/2016

Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Road, New Lynn, Auckland

01/09/2016 - 04/09/2016

Production Details

“She doesn’t have to do anything. She just breathes and I want to hit her.”  

What if everything your mother ever told you… was a lie?  

The world premier of Jess Sayer’s SHAM, will be hitting The Basement main stage from May 31st to June 10th. This limited season stars an impressive team of incredibly strong women around this emotionally charged script. Michele Hine (Go Girls) will star as Meryl – a solo mother with a lot to hide. Hine will be ably supported by theatrical veterans Annie Whittle (Worlds Fastetest Indian, Go Girls, Shortland Street) Darien Takle (Xena, Lysistrata, You Can Always Give Them Back) who play lovers, and emerging actor, Torum Heng (Go Girls).

Following her captivating performance in Auckland Theatre Company’s recent production of Lady Killers, audiences can expect to see the incredible Annie Whittle up close on The Basement stage, in a role unlike you have ever seen her before; as Meryl’s sister, Dame Neva Farris. This will be the first time she has graced the Basement main stage since Autobahn in 2009.

Award winning playwright Jess Sayer was the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Bruce Mason Award. SHAM will be the first of her plays to hit the stage since this honour. Her writing has been described as ‘razor-sharp’, ‘brave’, ‘absorbingly dark’ and ‘not for the faint-hearted’, with the ‘ability to be off-hand and flippant, then hard-hitting and punishing, sometimes within the same sentence.’

The only thing Meryl and her sister ever shared was the ability to make each other absolutely miserable. And now, after twenty years – guess who’s coming for dinner? A blistering black comedy peppered with vicious wit and emotional combat, SHAM unflinchingly explores the fallout of a family.

Emerging actress Torum Heng, who plays Fern, Meryl’s daughter, will be taking her solo show Keep out of My Box to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year. Heng is fast developing as a young actress to watch.

Directing this explosive piece, is esteemed Wellington based director Conrad Newport (Rita and Douglas, The Pink Hammer).

SHAM is an absorbing story, that takes a no holds barred look at family secrets and the destruction they can cause.

31 May – 10 June
The Basement Theatre

SHAM season at Te Pou 
Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Rd, New Lynn 
(entrance and parking at rear – off McWhirter Place)
Thursday 1st – Saturday 3rd September 2016, 8.00pm 
Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th September 2016, 4.00pm 
Tickets: Full: $32 | Concession: $27 | 6 or more: $27 
Bookings through iTICKET 

Theatre ,

Masterful characterisations the lynchpin

Review by Nik Smythe 03rd Sep 2016

Jess Sayer’s latest work delivers a shrewdly modern take on an ostensibly conventional drawing-room style comedy-cum-drama. The seventy minute single act play is rife with wit, drama and a steady barrage of twists big and small; so many in fact that it’s not possible to provide a synopsis without giving away at least a couple. 

Michelle Hine is Meryl, a stalwart, devoted mother with a discernible chip on her shoulder.  Amanda Tito plays Fern, Meryl’s bright young daughter, in no hurry to make any major life decisions such as what she wants to do with her life. 

Annie Whittle is Neva, Meryl’s overbearing, patronising big sister and literal diva. My personal favourite is Darien Takle’s Ann, Neva’s unlikely companion: a childishly playful punk-styled alcoholic lesbian with a lame wisecrack for everything.

With the implication of a deep dark secret permeating the play from early on, and kept tantalisingly unspoken until its long-awaited reveal, trying to deduce the truth is a significant part of any first-time viewer’s experience.  The obvious conclusion most punters would assume is somewhat subverted in actuality, and soon trumped by a left-field follow-up bombshell it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to predict. 

Director Conrad Newport is blessed with this sterling cast of local legends whose masterful characterisations are the actual lynchpin of this considerably entertaining production.  In particular, the seething animosity between Meryl and Neva underpins all as they bitch and snipe with all the faux grace of a couple of scrapping alley cats. 

On reflection it occurs to me that besides Fern’s passing mention of a boyfriend, there is essentially zero male presence in the entire tale.  Whether intentional or not, it tacitly demonstrates the lack of necessity for such an element.  Indeed, Fern seems a perfectly well-rounded individual despite growing up ostensibly fatherless, although I am left curious as to what she was told regarding who her progenitor was and where he went. 

Dan Williams’ modest local version of the classic drawing-room type set is well-appointed, although conspicuously shabby in the construction of its walls, which is distracting at first but ultimately fades into the literal background of the compelling dramedy. 

Newport’s sound design is basically a handful of selected diegetic tracks, played on the stereo. I assume the sounds of a basketball game next door (to Te Pou) are not an intentional SFX component, although I chose to regard it as an abstract representation of the sisters’ respective cognitive dissonance.

Sayer’s script is expertly wrought, with consistently great dialogue and well-timed dramatic beats to keep us fully engaged throughout.  By the end it feels like a different play than at the start. The inconclusive conclusion leaves a number of questions unanswered.  While I’m a frequent champion for open-ended ambiguity, the level of non-resolution is disappointing in this instance. 

I believe there’s enough meat in this work to flesh it out further, to both explore peoples’ responses to certain life-changing revelations more deeply and give more of a sense of where they might go from there.  


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Plenty to warm the belly in tasty feud

Review by Janet McAllister 07th Jun 2016

Lord, but it’s good to see Annie Whittle ham the hell out of a bombastic role. As Dame Neva Faris – a magnificent monster of a grand opera singer – she’s the femme formidable pivot of this comedic family feud. 

Fully-rigged as a pseudo-Spanish galleon, with beauty spot, “naice” accent and artfully-arranged shawl, she sails in and – in a perfect summation of suburban smothering – pronounces her estranged sister’s ordinary house to be claustrophobic, “like drowning in a bowl of pumpkin soup”.

Jess Sayer (who won Playmarket’s Bruce Mason award for an outstanding emerging playwright last year) has written an all-female four-hander dinner party to explore just how easy it is to needle detested family members, even if you haven’t seen them for decades. [More


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Exposing the absurdity of family feuds

Review by Elle Wootton 04th Jun 2016

Entertainingly dark, sumptuously tense, surprisingly tender and at times absolutely absurd: whatever your sense of humour is, playwright Jess Sayer, director Conrad Newport and their performers are bound to hit your funny bone at some point in the world premiere of Sham.

Admittedly I am already a fan of Jess Sayer’s writing, well known for its plot twists and dark themes, so I have high expectations on arrival to The Basement Theatre. Daniel Williams’ simple set design places us exactly where we need to be (at the family dinner table of Michelle Hine’s Meryl) and serves the purpose of the text rather than over-saucing the pudding, so to speak. (Please excuse my table manners/dinner puns).

The play begins in a somewhat frantic, high-energy, physical introduction that foreshadows the fraught feast we will soon be lucky enough to witness.  Meryl finally seems to have everything in place for her devious dinner party when her lovely daughter Fern (Torum Heng) unexpectedly arrives home and puts a spanner in the works.  Tension builds between mother and daughter in this initial scene but it isn’t until the arrival of the glorious Dame Neva Farris with Ann in tow (played by Annie Whittle and Darien Takle respectively) that we see the actors fully embrace their roles and watch as the story unfolds, twists and turns.

“I’m just so proud of them,” says playwright Jess Sayer, beaming. “I wrote for them, so it is so nice to see it come to life.”  And come to life they do. It is a wonderful thing to see performers relishing their roles and delighting in the witty banter of their characters. Sayer reveals in our post-show chat that she gets inspired by performers and often writes roles for specific actors. This particular ensemble worked together over three CNZ-funded workshops to develop the play. The performers, most of whom have been involved from the outset, were able to discuss their characters with the playwright and have input into the development of the script. “It’s fun having the actors who are actually playing the characters in the room talking about their character and getting really invested.” 

This results in well-rounded performances and subtle nuances in the relationships we see on stage. “The thing I love about these women: they all have such an amazing chemistry together. You can’t invent that. They just have fun every night.”

In this production Sayer explores a range of relationships between women. On further discussion she reveals this is something that she made a conscious decision to focus on:  “I’m really passionate about writing for women. There’s such a lack of that.  […] I just don’t understand why that can’t be a thing… We’re pretty entertaining people, us women!”

Because of this dearth of opportunities (especially for women over 50) Sayer explains she is focusing on creating these kinds of roles in her more recent writing as well as exploring relationships that we often don’t see on stage. “I had never really seen a lesbian relationship on stage of any kind of great gravity,” Sayer tells me; she wanted to explore the “little nuances and little quirks” of what is just a normal relationship, “but they’re women.”

The production also delves into the sometimes merciless viciousness of siblings and family members, showing what secrets can do to tear people apart. The tensions in the production are palpable and so enjoyable to feel and watch as they get closer and closer to bursting.

Sham’s dark plot is expertly balanced with the comedic prowess of the playwright and performers and allows the audience to stay with the narrative without getting overloaded by the emotional magnitude of the subject matter. Sayer hopes audiences “enjoy [the] female stories” in her production and if it helps someone to realise the absurdity of their family feud that would be an amazing bonus.

Sham, on at 8pm, at The Basement Theatre until the 10th of June, is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which I felt both amused and moved on many occasions. 


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Well-rounded, sublimely performed

Review by Amy Jane Bedwell 04th Jun 2016

SHAM is the latest work brought to the stage by Jess Sayer. The one act play of sixty minutes explores a tumultuous remains of a relationship between two vastly dissimilar sisters after a twenty-year separation, and the familial fallout that follows their unpleasant re-acquaintance. The presence of a mature lesbian relationship sets the work apart from most; both in the forefront of the play and yet seemingly inconsequential. A daughter complicates the mix. A boiling pot of strong, female characters is put over heat. [More]  


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Review by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth 04th Jun 2016

Jess Sayer is a prolific writer who has won numerous awards including last year’s Bruce Mason Playwriting Award. As the company (We Three Productions) state, her work has been described as ‘razor-sharp’, ‘brave’, ‘absorbingly dark’ and ‘not for the faint-hearted’.  So naturally we were expecting a dark story to unfold before our eyes. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The charm of Sham is not the shock factor that she has gained her reputation for.  Sham is incredibly universal, with much of the story themed around family dynamics, including sibling rivalry and parent-child relationships.  Sayer’s amazing ability to write dialogue in such a pithy, cryptic fashion draws us in as voyeurs as Meryl (Michele Hine) and Fern’s (Torum Heng) lives are turned upside down upon the arrival of unlikely dinner guests. [More


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