Skin Tight

Maidment Theatre - Musgrove Studio, Auckland

22/06/2011 - 25/06/2011

Production Details

Set in the 1940s, Gary Henderson’s irresistible Skin Tight follows the fierce and passionate love affair between Cantabrian sweethearts Tom and Elizabeth.

On an almost bare stage, the two actors wrestle, play, live and love with erotic abandon.

Directed by cutting edge Playwright/Director Melissa Fergusson (Motherlock, Melbourne Fringe Festival 2010, Auckland Fringe Festival 2011, Wellington Fringe Festival 2011, Short & Sweet Festival, Tipping Point 2010)the show features theatre talent Julia Croft (Paper Sky, Red Leap Theatre Company) and Chris Neels (The Sex Show, Outfit Theatre Company) in the principal roles.

“It is hard to imagine a play more physical and intense in which two passionate lives are compressed into a single hour. There is such fire in this marriage, the play becomes a universal homage to love.” – NZ Christchurch Press

Skin Tight premiered in 1994 at BATS Theatre in Wellington; it has since been produced in New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Europe, Canada and the USA. In 1998 it won a coveted Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and continues to be popular worldwide.

The charlatan clinic season of
Skin Tight will be performed in the intimate
Musgrove Studio in the
Maidment Theatre Complex,
22-26 June 2011.
Tickets can be purchased at the Maidment Box Office or
online at  

Elizabeth-Julia Croft
Tom-Chris Neels
Old Man-Jerry Beale

Producer-Amanda Turner
Publicist-Kristina Hard
Lighting Designer-Andrew Potvin
Composer-Howard DK Jang
Original Composer-Chris Ward
Set Designer-Dana Qaseen
Stage Manager-Veronika Gulyayeva
Costume Designer-Harriet Sharpe
Make Up Artists-Oran Fang, Mary Dawson 

Revel in the sensuality of one of our best stories

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 23rd Jun 2011

“When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed …”

So begins Denis Glover’s iconic New Zealand poem ‘The Magpies’, that economic, mono-syllabic paean to life in an idyllic, sun-drenched, post-war South Canterbury.

Glover, probably best remembered for his prodigious appetite for alcohol, ranks among New Zealand’s best poets of the period. He – better even than his contemporaries Baxter, Louis Johnson, Kendrick Smithyman, RAK Mason and ARD Fairburn – captures that angular awkwardness of the ’50’s, a time when men resolutely veiled the torment of war and women toiled the land.

‘The Magpies’ tells the story of Tom and Elizabeth from marital bliss to death and madness; a transitory tale of love and beauty, pitiless bankers, an unforgiving land and all of this to the quavering accompaniment of the magpies trill: “and quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Gary Henderson’s play takes us on the same journey without fear or favour, true to Glover’s vision but with more than a smidgen of the playwright’s excellent fancy. Henderson has a body of work that makes him unquestionably one of our worthiest, most serious and most successful writers for the theatre. Like Glover, his work has a firebrand quality and – again, like Glover – he doesn’t ever say anything that doesn’t need to be said. Skin Tight is one hour long and takes all the breath it needs to live its life and pass on. In lesser hands it might well have run to five acts (with intervals).

Skin Tight, along with Sunset Café, Homeland and An Unseasonable Fall of Snow, all demonstrate Henderson’s astonishing ear for dialogue and the Kiwi vernacular, as well as a fine understanding of narrative. If the success of a text can be measured by the regularity with which it is performed, then Skin Tight confirms Henderson as one of our very best. 

In Melissa Fergusson’s excellent production we get a new look at this fine play and it is absolutely riveting stuff, as much for its fresh, naturalistic approach as for its loyalty to the text.

No amount of research can replace being there and, as someone who grew up in the sweltering summers of Canterbury – at Mesopotamia, Hororata, Allenton and Orari, who went to school with Glover’s son and met the man himself, who lived with a father deeply damaged by the war and a stoic mother who sewed, baked and made good with what she had on a war pension – I was frankly flabbergasted, first at Henderson’s most accurate rendering of the period and, second, at Fergusson’s exquisite recreation of the tensions, sexual and otherwise, that underscored those discontented times.

It’s probably no coincidence that next on Auckland Theatre Company’s Maidment horizon is the September production of Bruce Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather, as adapted by Murray Lynch for ensemble performance. It’s back to the ’50s big time and, while Fergusson, Glover and Henderson share their tale of mortgagee sales, financial hardship and loss in a South Canterbury context in the 1950s, there’s an eerie contemporary familiarity that some won’t want to think too much about as the secret door to Mother Hubbard’s South Canterbury cupboard is laid equally bare a mere 60 years later. 

It has to be said that any new production of Skin Tight will be compared with Henersin’s original 1994 production starring (and I use that word selectively) Larissa Matheson and Jed Brophy, or Cathy Downes’ 1998 recreation, again with Matheson and Brophy, this time in the studio at the Court Theatre prior to an international tour which culminated in a prestigious ‘Fringe First’ award at the Edinburgh Festival later that year.

Other notable productions have included Brophy’s Auckland version in 1999 with Ian Hughes as Tom and Claire Waldon as Elizabeth, along with the Miranda Harcourt-directed production at Downstage in 2004, again with Brophy but with Danielle Cormack as Elizabeth.

Each was received warmly by critics in New Zealand whereas overseas productions have been somewhat less cordially greeted, with some critics seemingly confused by the content of the piece and others bemused by the physical nature of the work. Suffice to say that, like Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament and the Mason plays, Skin Tight speaks powerfully to New Zealanders, most of whom have grown up with the sound of quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle etched deep into their psyches. I’m sure it helps. 

Fergusson’s production stands alone among equals, owing little to its predecessors. Like Fergusson herself, the production has a survivalist tang to it, a tautness that is at once challenging and evasive. Like Fergusson, the production takes a full-frontal approach to all the challenges – and there are many – and nails almost all of them, building inexorably to the climax that Henderson has cleverly heralded very early on and that ultimately affects us deeply.

There is, after all, no escaping death and the ritualizing of Elizabeth’s passing is genuinely moving and made far more important in this production than the future of the farm and Tom’s own looming madness. No Glover-like cynicism here as the love that endures beyond Elizabeth’s demise consumes us in the moment of her sacramental death. 

The Musgrove Studio has long been my favourite boutique theatre venue. The width and depth of the performance space allows for versatile use and the intimacy of the raked auditorium is perfect for this work. Henderson’s simple set requirements – a tin bath, a couple of galvanized buckets, ample water and a floor of tumbling mats – are adequately provided and used largely as scripted.

Lighting is effective (Andrew Potvin) and the sound design (Howard DK Jang) is also suited to the work with a short prelude of insistent drumming tuning our heartbeat to what’s to come. There are stylized summer sounds like those evoked in the work and no more is necessary.

The play starts with a stylized fight, one part anger, two parts lust, a sprinkling of choreographed indecision and a final splendid measure of unprovoked passion. Elizabeth (Julia Croft) is summer-dressed in a simple spaghetti-strapped, button-up-the-front, white cotton frock of timeless vintage which allows for maximum freedom of movement. Tom (Chris Neels) is farm attired in herringbone twill pants with braces and a classic white singlet. Both are unshod. Henderson requires the body beautiful and these actors are more than adequate to all physical requirements. 

Henderson also requires his actors to fight, to kiss and to simulate sexual intimacy, to express a physical lust for each other that may (or may not) cause the audience more than a moment or two of discomfort and possibly even anxiety. These actors are equal to this challenge too, in fact the physicality and commitment throughout is totally laudable. Laudable, and so subtly handled by Fergusson and her team that there is never a moment of over-playing or embarrassment from either. It’s all very, very real and deliciously accessible to us as the emotional voyeurs in the relationship. 

One of the challenges of Henderson’s piece is the integrating of the physical/emotional thread and the built-in metaphors with the naturalistic yet minimalist nature of the text and the times. In meeting this challenge Fergusson and her cast have been largely successful and this will evolve even more as confidence in the direction, the performances and working it all in the space becomes second nature.

After all, a slight disconnect between Tom and Elizabeth is to be expected, especially early on, as their differing experiences of the war years kick in. Tom is more emotionally closed off than the garrulous Elizabeth and this is well reflected in his somewhat stylized speech patterns pitched as they are against her striking naturalism. He is, after all, the archetypical 1950s Kiwi male. 

Henderson (and Fergusson) also insist that their actors to do all that difficult – but metaphorically critical – stuff with apples and knives. Extraordinary trust is required between actors and director and this is evident throughout as we wince in the dark, wildly contemplating the bloody possibilities.

Henderson is a genius at creating ‘what if’ moments and Fergusson and her actors are his equals in ensuring that all options stay on the table: what if he cuts her mouth, what if he chokes on the apple, what if he gets aroused (he is naked after all) … And so all the moments connect and disconnect as prescribed and we remain engaged.

Nothing much happens in Skin Tight that isn’t choreographed but the plumbing is successfully hidden and the suspension of disbelief is maintained throughout.

Chris Neels plays Tom with an easy charm. He handles Henderson’s cagey language well enough and he’s certainly up for the physicals but there’s a dark side to Tom that Neels rarely exposes which could perhaps be a stronger driving force in Henderson’s litany of inner action. He deals with Elizabeth’s blunt admission of infidelity a tad too easily while his reflection on his own wartime indiscretions is held in a deeper, more private, and ultimately more interesting, place. If only forgiveness were that easy.

Neels’ path to Tom’s madness isn’t that clearly defined but it works well enough. He matches Julia Croft’s brilliant Elizabeth very well, which is saying a lot as Croft is simply superb. She exposes Elizabeth’s humanity, her vulnerability, her flashing short-lived jealousy, her fear of death and her sexual passion with a rare naturalism that makes the production fairly zing.

Particularly notable is her war monologue which is phrased and delivered to perfection. Crofts personifies the spirit of the working class post-war Kiwi rehab farmer (Tom has inherited his – the class difference is discussed but never augmented as a necessary textual tension) and she serves as a symbol for the embryonic feminist powerhouses of the following decade. She is a free spirit, one who loves her man in a deep and sensual way, a woman unafraid of her own sexuality or his. Crofts performance is worth the price of the ticket alone but of course there’s much more on offer than just this. 

Rounding out the cast is Jerry Beale as Tom gone mad in the final stanza. I have questions about whether this character is necessary at all but having the image of a post Elizabeth Tom was worth a try and my questions can be answered by simply saying it was the director’s choice and as such it is what it is and you can make up your own mind.

Henderson structures his work with painstaking care and the use of Bob Amos’s classic bluegrass song ‘Where the Wild River Rolls’ is an intelligent touch. Kiwified as someone like Phil Garland might do, the lyric is haunting and adds a bittersweet dimension to the work. Both actors sing competently which helps. 

Skin Tight is a work full of carefully entwined beauty and Fergusson’s production shines with unanticipated moments of remarkable clarity: the tête-à-tête about their ‘first time’ together, the intensely sexual interludes with the knife, the overall mischievousness, the water play, shaving with the cut-throat razor, the profound sexual intimacy, the stripped bare honest nakedness and Elizabeth’s death all unfold on this 60 minute roller-coaster ride, before a psychic backdrop of Southern Alps, mid-summer heat and that incessant and irritating avian refrain. 

Skin Tight is unashamedly about sex and death. Like the magpie’s refrain we can’t get away from it and why should we. There are no more human themes than these and Fergusson’s cast let us have both barrels.

It’s a production with no shame; it makes no apology, and nor should it. It’s a bloody good show, a show that wouldn’t be out of place in the studio at the Royal Court or back for another burst at the Edinburgh Fringe. Clever Mr Henderson to write a wonderful play with only two actors and props and cozzies that can all fit in a carry-on bag. Not only is it excellent art but it’s potentially financially viable as well.

Did I enjoy it? Yes.
Did it have a ‘wow’ factor? Yes, it did.
Should you go and see it? Yes, you should.

Revel in the sensuality of one of our best stories and, as a bonus, check out Croft’s exceptional talent and Fergusson’s gutsy direction.
You won’t regret it! 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


t opiate June 24th, 2011

 That sounds like a choice a playwright would make... not a director or a loved-up techie. Anyway, I won't get to see this production as I'm in Wellington, and will have to make do with Gavin McGibbon's Hamlet Dies At The End, followed hard upon by William Shakespeare's Hamlet. I wonder if the director will choose to have Hamlet die at the end...

Armin Tamzarian June 24th, 2011

Cheers, T Opiate, if that is indeed your real name.  D'you know why you almost never find reference to a third actor in Skin Tight, and why Frank Edwards went uncredited in all those 1990s productions?  Because it's meant to be a surprise!!!!

t opiate June 24th, 2011

 Lexie, this is what the review says: 'Rounding out the cast is Jerry Beale as Tom gone mad in the final stanza. I have questions about whether this character is necessary at all but having the image of a post Elizabeth Tom was worth a try and my questions can be answered by simply saying it was the director's choice and as such it is what it is and you can make up your own mind.' Here, you questioning the validity the character, not explicitly having a third actor on stage.  When you say ' I haven't actually suggested that it's not scripted, just that Melissa chose to include it', well, that's a pointless thing to say. It doesn't really make an argument, defend your review or reflect well on your use of the written word. 

And saying 'At the end of the day everything in a production is there as a choice made either by director, actors or someone else' is just a dopey truism. You were either ignorant of the material or you failed to express yourself clearly. Armin called you on this. Armin was also right to correct you on the play's history, which you misrepresented. 

I know that reviewing is difficult and often thankless, but your churlish attitude to a simple correction suggests that you do not treat your position seriously. Saying you receive no recompense and that you do this for love does not excuse inaccuracy or poor writing. You did not commit a cardinal sin, you got something wrong. Act like a professional and correct it. 'The spirit of accuracy' should be a guiding principle in reviewing, not something for which one seeks reward. Newspapers print corrections, not affirmations that they got some things right. Again, this is not a big deal. If you meant 'actor' and not 'character' in the review, or something else, go back and disambiguate the sentence. I'm still not quite sure exactly what you meant to say, but you should be aware that, at the very least, you did not make yourself clear. Respect your audience. If you are unaware of the specifications of the script, use this as an opportunity to engage in discussion about it. It is, after all 'one of our best stories'. 
And Armin chose to post under a pseudonym. So what? He was the writer/director of that post, and it was his choice. I don't know whether it was necessary, but it was the director's choice. You attacked him for choosing to do this, something which has no bearing on the content of his post. I hope one day my children live in a world where they are judged on the content of their argument, not their online handle. 

Lexie Matheson June 23rd, 2011

Thank you Armin ... are you really Principal Skinner from the Simpsons?

I'll endeavour to get everything right next time for you and until then I thank you sincerely for your wee corrections. It is a long time since I read the script but the seven reviews of productions of the play worldwide and a large number of  press releases I did read including , , , , ,  and  all fail to record a third cast member hired specifically to play Tom in his dotage. One mentions that this image (but not a third actor) had been done away with altogether and there have been instances where there has been only one Tom, this actor creating the final image of the play himself. Only Lindsay Clark's 5 Apr 2008 review of Ross Gumbley's production at the Forge makes reference to a third actor and even Lindsay in her perceptive critique fails to record whether this was a textual requirement or not.

At the end of the day everything in a production is there as a choice made either by director, actors or someone else. Melissa could have chosen not to have a third actor play old Tom whether it's scripted or not. My opinion is that  the image is superfluous and contributes little of note to this production but that it's Melissa's choice to have it there and that future audience members can make up there own mind as to its validity. I haven't actually suggested that it's not scripted, just that Melissa chose to include it.

I assume the rest of my review meets your expectation as I do try to please? I hope so. Please feel free to also tell me if I get something right, won't you? In the spirit of accuracy? That would be fair, wouldn't you say? :-)

And thank God I do this for the love of live performance, a love of actors, directors, designers and techies and a love of our wonderful art form and not for financial reward. If I was being paid, a failure of this magnitude would mean I would just have to give the cheque back to John, or perhaps share it with you, Armin. That would be fair, wouldn’t it? Or perhaps I should just stop spending the many hours it takes to honour the work I am privileged to see and share.

I loved this production and I adore Gary's play. There is nothing more raw, primal and honest than an actor naked before his or her audience, nothing hidden, everything stripped bare as it was in Melissa's production and as has been often done before. I have to say that hiding behind a nom de plume to make carping and, in one case, incorrectly presumptive criticisms of a serious attempt to record this extraordinary beauty for others in the narrowest of timeframes might be seen by some as the absolute antithesis of these actor's courageous achievement but, hey, that's your right. Congratulations on exercising it :-).

John Smythe June 23rd, 2011

 Re the "post-Elizabeth Tom in the final stanza" - this sounds like more than the final image of an old Tom that the script specified.  But I haven't seen it so cannot say.

Editor June 23rd, 2011

Quite right Armin - Gary Henderson directed the original and Miranda directed the Jed and Danielle one at Downstage. Now corrected (plus 1988 corrected to 1998).  Thanks.

Armin Tamzarian June 23rd, 2011

Miranda Harcourt did not direct the original 1994 production at BATS.  And having the post-Elizabeth Tom onstage is not "the director's choice"; it's specified in the text!

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