BATS Theatre, Wellington

14/08/2012 - 18/08/2012

Production Details

Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School graduating production takes on stage adaptation of award-winning, dark children’s novel 

Michael finds a tramp-like creature in the garden shed. He appears to be dying, so Michael becomes determined to save him. But when Michael discovers wings beneath the tramp’s tatty clothes, his life – and his family’s – will never be the same… An eerie, magical and moving tale that will get under your skin, this production of Skellig weaves together elements of puppetry with live action.

The cast and crew of Skellig are all current students of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. Skellig is director Tabitha Arthur’s major production for her Master of Theatre Arts in Directing and is supported by a strong team of inter-discipline students. This show is the graduating production for all seven actors as well as key members of the production team.

Skellig is based on UK writer David Almond’s multi award-winning children’s novel of the same name, and is adapted for the stage by the author. In 2007, Carnegie Medal judges chose it as one of the ten most important children’s novels of the past 70 years. This production, the Australasian premiere, will be presented to a wide audience – children and adults – and will be staged at Wellington’s iconic BATS theatre.

BATS Programme Manager Martyn Wood says: ‘It’s exciting to see that the relationship between Toi Whakaari and BATS has been reignited this year. There have been some truly memorable student-led productions onstage at BATS in our 23 year history, and I am sure that Skellig will be another.’

The director Tabitha Arthur was drawn to this play when she first read it two years ago, and says, ‘I’ve never been able to pin this story down, to wrap it up nice and neatly. Skellig is wonderfully tricksy and slowly creeps under your skin. Its genre of magic realism lets my imagination soar.

The possibility of something existing beyond what I think exists in this world has a rich resonance for me; it allows me to open my mind to deeper themes. One of the characters says, “Truth and dreams are always getting muddled,” and our production explores this exciting muddle.’

BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington
Performances are at 7.00pm,
14–18 August 2012.
Tickets can be booked at the venue,  or phone (04) 802 4175.
Full $18; concession $14. 

You can check us out on the BATS website:
Become part of the Skellig Facebook community at:

About the Master of Theatre Arts in Directing

The Master of Theatre Arts in Directing is taught jointly by Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School and the Theatre Programme of Victoria University of Wellington. Through a combination of practical and theoretical studies during this two-year postgraduate programme, MTA students develop the necessary skills to direct and initiate projects in the professional theatre and related areas.

The current presentation is one of a series of practical directing assignments that constitute a substantial component of the second year of study. The director is responsible for all elements of the production and has an opportunity to explore a particular style of theatre.  


Director: Tabitha Arthur
Set, Costume & Puppet Designer: Crystalyne Willis
Lighting Designer: Sam Dent
Sound Designer: Bridget Carpenter


Lucinda (Luci) Hare: Mum, The Yeti, Lucy Carr, Narrator
Alex Tarrant-Keepa: Michael
Kenneth Gaffney: Dad, Rasputin, Narrator
Jacqui Gwaliasi: Skellig
Tameka Sowman: Mina
Sam Wang: Leaky, Nurse, Man on Bus, Dr McNabola, Narrator
Awhina-Rose Ashby: Mina’s Mum, Coot, Miss Clarts. Woman in Hospital, Narrator.


Production Manager: Nicola Smith
Stage Manager: Ashlyn Smith
Props Master: Antony Goodin
Props Assistant(s): Jake Bryant, Daniel Wilson
Lighting Operator: Ruth Love
Sound Operator: Staci Knox  

Pure Magic

Review by Lynn Freeman 22nd Aug 2012

The last three plays I’ve seen have been adapted from novels. Joan Didion’s essay on grief, My Year of Magical Thinking at Circa is hardly dramatised and feels like a spoken essay (done extremely well). West End Girls sees Ken Duncum and David O’Donnell take an okay biography and turn it into something fantastically theatrical.

Skellig, based on the children’s novel of the same name, has been adapted for the stage by its author, David Almond. In his hands and those of director Tabitha Arthur and her wonderful young cast, it also feels as at home on stage as it does on the page. 

Young Michael (Alex Tarrant-Keepa) finds a tramp in a ramshackle shed at his ‘home handyman’s dream’ new home. His parents (Awhina-Rose Ashby and Kenneth Gaffney) are focused on the new, ill baby so he has time to explore and then to try to help the mysterious Skellig (a remarkable performance by Jaci Gwaliasi) who only eats Chinese takeaways and beer.

With the shed about to be demolished, Michael needs help and calls in his new friend in the neighborhood, the home-schooled Mina (Tameka Sowman). They come up with a plan, and gradually Skellig recovers and shares with them something truly wondrous.

Tabitha Arthur is studying for her Masters in directing at Toi Whakaari. She deserves top marks based on this unforgettable production. She has an excellent eye for a script that offers her infinite opportunities to test herself and her well chosen, hard working cast.

These eight practitioners – with a tiny budget wisely used by set, puppet and costume designer Crystalyne Willis – create two hours of pure magic.  


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Entertaining tale for young and old

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Aug 2012

The essence of any good children’s story is to capture the reader’s imagination and that is certainly the case with Skellig, adapted for the stage by David Almond from his award-winning children’s story. 

Michael and his family have moved into a rundown old house where, in the derelict garage in the back garden, he discovers an old tramp living under a pile of sacks.  He befriends this supposedly old man, bringing him Chinese takeaways and beer. 

Back in the house, however, tension is mounting as Michael’s newly arrived sister, born prematurely, is sick and needs hospital care.  This weighs heavily on Michael’s mind and, coupled with his concerns about the tramp in the garage, he becomes distant from his classmates. 

He finds solace in a girl called Mina, from down the road, and together they rescue the tramp, but they find he is not old, has wings on his back and is called Skellig. 

It is never clear just who or what Skellig is, either to Michael or the audience, but when Michael’s baby sister has a heart operation, his mother has a dream about an angel, and after that Skellig gets a new lease of life. 

This superbly feel-good story is told from both Michael’s perspective and that of various characters who inhabit his world.

But it is as much the telling of the story as the story itself that is so captivating and fascinating about this production. 

With great energy and clarity the actors give life to the story through animated portrayals, using improvisation as well as puppets and props to heighten the imaginative world created by the writer. 

Much of this however must be attributed to the innovative and creative staging by final year Master of Theatre Arts in Directing student Tabitha Arthur and set designer Crystalyne Willis.

The stage at Bats is covered from top to bottom with brown cardboard and many brown boxes.  This evokes many images, all used extraordinarily well, and adds to a wonderful telling of a children’s story that is enjoyably entertaining for young and old. 


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The fertility of imagination

Review by John Smythe 15th Aug 2012

Reading the publicity material for Skellig – “Michael discovers a dying tramp in the garden shed, and becomes determined to save him. But when Michael discovers wings beneath the tramp’s tatty clothes, the real journey begins…” – reminded me of the 1961 film Whistle Down The Wind (starring Hayley Mills, adapted from the novel by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, and since recreated as a stage musical).

“Skellig” turns out to be the (unexplained) name of the hungry, thirsty, sick and rather cranky derelict Michael finds. He is not a fugitive from justice, like ‘Blakey’ in Whistle Down The Wind, but while the children in the earlier story think ‘Blakey’ is Jesus, Skellig is seen as an angel, and there is a similar sense of redemption brought about by his growing relationship with innocent children. Also, the prepubescent Michael’s imagination is similarly provoked by things he is learning at school, and from his home-schooled neighbour Mina.

Objectively, Michael is confronting the challenges of change. He and his parents have just moved house, he has to cope with a new school, his mother has their second child prematurely and complications keep returning the baby to hospital, his young neighbour is formidably bright, he discovers the stranger and he and Mina see intervention by the reluctant angel as being the key to the baby’s survival. It is Michael’s experience – imagined and subjective – that informs the action we witness. 

I can’t say British authors David Almond’s Skellig has the profound social, metaphysical or allegorical resonance of Whistle Down The Wind and his stage adaptation of his own award-winning children’s novel remains too stuck in reported narrative for my liking (why narrate live action in the past tense?). But there is lots of educational value in it and it does offer some good production challenges for Tabitha Arthur’s major assignment in her Master of Theatre Arts in Directing degree (jointly taught by Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School and the Theatre Programme of Victoria University of Wellington).

This is also the graduating production for all seven actors, as well as key members of the production team (the other grad production being Our Country’s Good, opening tomorrow at Te Whaea).

The set, designed by Crystalyne Willis, is entirely constructed with brown cardboard cartons. It features a tall tower which is supposed to represent the about-to-be demolished garden shed/garage. So much is made of the need to get Skellig out of there that it’s disappointing the demolition is never referred to, let alone witnessed.

My impression is that Sam Dent’s lighting design does not fully exploit the set’s potential to represent the different venue, times of day and subjective moods, let alone the ‘magic realism’ aspect. Too often things I imagine would be vivid for Michael remain non-descript, in shadow or blandly lit.

Seen with an entirely adult audience, the play seems too obvious in drawing the lines between the real and imagined worlds – e.g. the repeated questions and answers about shoulder-blades – but of course for the target audience (aged 9 to 12, I’d guess, and I hope many will get to see it) it sets up a lot of material for follow-through work. 

Alex Tarrant-Keepa and Tameka Sowman develop strong characters and a fully dimensional relationship as Michael and Mina. By contrast Michael’s Dad and Mum feel relatively sketched-in, by Kenneth Gaffney and Lucinda Hare, which is probably a function of the writing. Hare does find opportunities to register emotional depth in Mum, and both she and Gaffney do well in their incidental roles.

Awhina-Rose Ashby is always fully focused and grounded in her various roles, offering an especially well-rounded portrait of Mina’s Mum. Sam Wang was a bit all over the place with his characters on opening night, going for ‘commenting’ rather that ‘being’, it seemed. But the ensemble sequences, at school for example, are dynamically realised by the cast – and the bird puppetry (also designed by Willis) is excellent.

In the title role, Jaci Gwaliasi intrigues us as we observe Michael and Mina’s curiosity and imaginations being provoked. I expected more development, more of a transformation as the faith of the children restores Skellig’s powers, and cannot be sure if the lack of it is down to the script or this production. (The only time we see Skelling fully lit is in the ‘curtain call’.)

Overall, on opening night, Skellig seemed to play out at a rather even pace, as if one was reading the book rather than watching the play. I feel there is more to be explored from the ‘subjective / imagined reality’ or ‘magic realism’ perspective, both in the performance dynamics and through the design elements.

I do applaud the decision give it the feel of a local story, using natural Kiwi voices and such props as a can of L&P, so that the focus is fully on the truth of characterisations. Only the Tawny Owls seem out of place and I wonder if consideration was given to changing them to the similar-looking Moreporks. (I guess it’s because Tawny Owls might roost in attics whereas Moreporks don’t.)

The final image, involving a release from the cardboard box lifestyle, vividly indicates a moving on to a future full of possibility: another element school children can discuss and something for all audiences to take away.  

Running two hours including an interval, the season only plays until Saturday (7pm) with a booked-out schools matinee on Friday, I’m glad to say. Playing to its proper target audience will give the most valuable feedback to all those involved. 

Meanwhile jaded adults are encouraged to reconnect with the fertile imaginations they once enjoyed and probably took for granted. 


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