Strange and Wonderful Programme B

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

23/09/2016 - 25/09/2016

Going West Books and Writers Festival 2016

Production Details

Five playwrights.  Five plays.  Five monsters. 

The most interesting characters are the baddies.  The controlling mother, the off the rails sister, the foul mouthed workmate, and the classic evil step-mother ‘Queen’.  This season of five plays celebrates these ‘baddies’ in all their strange and wonderful glory! 

Gary Henderson and members of his Graduate Studio are presenting these works, at Te Pou Theatre in September.  As part of the Going West Book and Writers Festival, the season showcases five playwrights, all graduates of Gary Henderson’s Theatre Writing Course, who are creating their work from inception to performance, and everything in-between.

Program A has three plays
Thursday 22, Saturday 24 September 2016, 7:30pm
Sunday 25 September 2016, 2pm
See here for details

Program B has two plays:
Friday 23 September 2016, 7:30pm
Saturday 24 September 2016, 2pm
Sunday 25 September 2016, 7.30pm

By Cath Harkins, directed by Alison Quigan
Actors – Alistair Browning, Renee Sheridan, Miryam Jacobi, Jack Buchanan

Interval (15min)

THE BOND (30min)
Written and directed by Korina Tuahine
Actors – Rema Smith, Connor te Brake, Liam Coleman

Te Pou Theatre, Portage Rd, New Lynn
Tickets $15-$20
Book at, ph. 0508ITICKET

Theatre ,

Impressive scripts

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 25th Sep 2016

After a highly successful ‘Strange and Wonderful’ Programme A the previous night, I had fully justified, high hopes for Programme B. Opportunities such as this come along rarely enough so when they do it’s always heartening – and enlightening – to find a wee gem. I hadn’t found it in the first programme but I was sure it was lurking somewhere nearby. 

We are fortunate in Auckland to have a number of theatre festivals which give new playwrights, new directors and new actors the opportunity to express themselves and explore their craft in relatively safe environments. It’s far less common to have a master playwright such as Gary Henderson, after working for some months with a small number of students, make an opportunity available for them to present their work. Given this, ‘Strange and Wonderful’ is an extremely important occasion and both Henderson and Te Pou deserve our sincerest thanks. 

The first production in this brace of longer plays is The Albatross, written by Cath Harkins and directed by Alison Quigan. I can imagine Harkins excitement when she discovered that her play was to be directed by someone as skilled and experienced, not to mention as capable, as Quigan. With new opportunities, focused as these are on the presentation of new texts, I always find it of value to record what the playwright has said their work is about. In this case Harkins tells us that “a soldier brings the promise of happiness to a Dunedin family mourning the loss of their son, but dark secrets threaten to unravel the illusion.” I’m fascinated to know where in her line-up of characters this play’s monster lies. 

We get to the theatre and find the stage already set. There is a dining room table centre with chairs around it, a New Zealand flag on the wall at the back alongside the exact sort of world map that people of my vintage were exposed to at primary school. Vast amounts of the globe are coloured red and the British Empire was clearly alive and well at the time of the map’s creation.

Excellent directors and skilled playwrights use music to evoke mood, to anchor a work in place and time, and Quigan and Harkins achieve this most effectively on every level right throughout the production. The music speaks to us of World War II and the feelings that are deeply entrenched in that devastating conflict. The first sound we hear is classic jazz, perfect for the period. It speaks of mother, father and apple tree – the sort of romantic images we reach for when our world turns to custard.

It’s ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ made famous by The Andrews Sisters and it fades as a young woman appears. She – Alice (Miryam Jacobi) – picks up a loaf of bread and carries it to the edge of the stage. Alice tears chunks from the loaf and throws them like votive offerings onto the floor in front of the audience. I think of Hansel and Gretel but the image I receive is a bit obvious and it turns out to be wrong.

Close behind Alice comes her mother, Margaret (Renee Sheridan). She seems grumpy with her daughter and tells her firmly not to feed the bird. We learn that this is the bird of the title, an albatross, not uncommon in and around the Otago Peninsula. Margaret seems unhappy that Alice is feeding the bird but Alice is unrepentant and says that this is what her brother Charlie used to do. There is loads of information in this short exchange and that’s great playwriting.

Alice’s father, Larry (Alistair Browning), joins them and attempts to soften the situation. He appears avuncular and affectionate and despite the frisson of tension between mother and daughter this seems ultimately to be the picture of a happy family.

There is a real sense of excitement with the sound of a knock on the door and the arrival of Robert (Jack Buchanan). Alice seems emotionally torn between being unhappy to see Robert but excited in the same breath. It seems that the two were in a relationship of some sort before the war but that Alice has written often to Robert who has failed to reply. Larry offers Robert a beer which he refuses and the conversation moves to Charlie. We understand without ever being told that Charlie is dead, a victim of the intense fighting in Crete. Robert says that he didn’t see Charlie as they were on different units and it seems as though that’s the end of the matter. I note a crucifix on the wall and it is clear from her behaviour that Margaret at least is a devout catholic.

Robert is monosyllabic. There is a suggestion of rationing and I find myself back in my childhood, a time of scarcity, anxiety and fear. It’s clear that the family hope Robert and Alice will make a match but when this is mentioned Robert refuses and leaves only to return shortly after with an apology and a proposal which is readily accepted. There is overt excitement all round but there’s a tension already embedded in the subtext of the narrative which the quality of the performances sustain and there’s just enough in the script to make it impossible to deny. The music interjects again, with ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’, a classic made famous by The Mills Brothers. We know that Robert is scheduled to return to the front line with all the horror this implies.

Good plays resonate with audiences and this is a very good play. It is, in fact, the gem I was speaking of earlier. It resonates with me and brings memories from my childhood flooding back. My father, a veteran of the campaigns in Crete North Africa, Tunisia, and finally invalided home from Al Alamein, returned home one day, angry, having been to town for a few beers with his army mates. As they left the hotel, a woman accosted them thrusting white feathers, the symbol of cowardice, at them demanding to know why they hadn’t signed up to go and fight in this crazy war like other able-bodied young men. I recall my father speaking of his friend, who always kept his hand in his pocket, taking out the dead stump and proffering this to the stupid woman. I can’t have been more than three or four when I was told this story but it all came crashing back when Harkins’ play moved into exactly this territory.

Robert, it is claimed, only wants to marry Alice to avoid returning to the front. Robert denies this of course and professes his deep love for Alice and his continued desire to marry her. 

There is more music and, as we progress, it speaks more authoritatively about the text. Nat King Cole’s ‘You’re the Cream in my Coffee’ betrays an appropriate sense of pleasure and delight around the planned union until Larry comes home drunk and, as drunks in plays often do, tells us a few home truths. We find that Larry has contacted a mate and discovered that Robert has not been entirely truthful with us, that he was, in fact [spoiler averted]. This is a shock to both family and audience all of whom, by this stage, simply want a happy ending.

Larry is obnoxious, a most unpleasant drunk, but Robert evades every intoxicated question by saying that nobody knew what had actually happened to Charlie and that “nobody wants to talk about the war”. We all know from our own families that this is true and, before we can think about it too much, the music cleverly invades again. This time it’s Jimmy Durante with the hit from Casablanca, ‘As Time Goes By’.

What follows is a delicious two-hander scene on a moonlit beach, perhaps at Carey’s Bay, and we see the young lovers at their most unguarded. They quote movies to each other and Charlie’s albatross is the only witness. This is crafty writing – a device to soften us up before the knock-out blow – and we return to find Larry drunk and outraged again. He attacks Robert, attempts to punch him in the face, and falls to the floor but not before he articulates the accusation we have all been silently waiting for: [spoiler averted].

The music tears us apart again – the Bing Crosby hit ‘Far Away Places with Strange Sounding Names’. Denial becomes the name of everyone’s game and we are presented with a beautiful speech about roast dinners and told “it’s all gonna be great”. Then Robert, in a moment of extraordinary honesty and courage, tells the true story of what happened to Charlie. It’s horrifying, but we all feel that we have heard the story, or one like it, before. Larry walks out and Vera Lynn tells us that ‘It’ll be a Lovely Day Tomorrow’.

Larry is alone and Alice appears in her wedding dress. It’s the same dress her mother wore and Larry tells her how beautiful she is. Margaret arrives and Larry completely loses it. He says that Robert needs to be charged for what he did and I am in total agreement with him. It’s an army thing, I guess. We go deeper and Margaret speaks of the relationship between Larry and Charlie, father and son, and new doors are opened to the deeper psychology of the play. We hear the Mendelssohn wedding march (incidental music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

It’s too much for Larry and he grabs his rifle and [spoiler averted]. It’s a moment of the most abject horror, an impotent act of grief impossible to deny or to fully comprehend. It’s as powerful as any moment I have experienced in the theatre and as often happens at moments like this, unanticipated humour can soften the day. When Browning shoots, he aims his .303 rifle into the audience and it goes off dangerously close to me. The shot is loud; horrifying. It echoes around the theatre, and a voice from behind me whispers ‘my God, he’s shot the reviewer’. He hasn’t, as it happens, but this production certainly gives me and those around me real food for thought.

It’s a fine piece of work and a script worthy of its presentation and complete in itself. Quigan’s production is extraordinarily good and it contains two performances of the absolute best quality. It’s been my privilege to witness many fine performances from Browning but never one better than this. It’s nuanced, anchored deep in a recognisable wartime male psyche, and the suggestion that perhaps he wasn’t as guiltless of his son’s demise as at first appears is perfectly positioned by Browning and frighteningly credible. In short, it’s fantastic work.

Matching Browning’s Larry is Renee Sheridan’s Margaret. I have seen Sheridan’s work before, had the privilege of working with her and, despite this intimate professional knowledge, I barely recognise her in this outstanding performance. She embodies the spirit of my mother and her wartime friends with her staunch good humour, her love of family and her blindness to what was actually happening out there on the front line.

Great performances come from welding actors and directors to excellent texts and all four of these actors do their job very well indeed. I have found my wee gem. It is The Albatross by Cath Harkins. 

The final production in this is excellent four day season is The Bond, written and directed by Korina Tuahine. The playwright tells us her play records “the special bond between a mother and her son that is stretched to its very limit by paranoia, control, and model aeroplanes.” Again, this is a quality piece of writing.

It’s dinner time and Jessica (Rema Smith) is feeding her son Gordon (Liam Coleman). He’s wearing a dressing down that he never removes and this speaks volumes. Gordon hasn’t been outside for a very long time. He seems quite demanding, insisting that he didn’t want chocolate cake but chocolate soufflé. His mother suggests that he teach her to use his computer and it’s clear from the instruction that this is not something she does often. Gordon tells Jessica, “You must be the only person in the world who can’t use a computer.” She responds by insisting he take his vitamins. They’re not vitamins but we discover this later.

She seems like a nice mum while he seems like a rather unpleasant and demanding son. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve identified my monster. Again, this is a play written in episodes and music again plays an important part in separating these bite sized pieces of psychological action.

There is a knock on the door and it is the new neighbour Sam (Connor te Brake). He has a package for Gordon that has been wrongly delivered to his house. He moved in three months ago but this is the first occasion the neighbours have met. There is considerable tension between Sam and Jessica and this is only mellowed when the young men find a mutual love of model aeroplanes. Each has a collection but Gordon insists that his is bigger and better. Jessica attempts to intervene in the developing friendship between the boys by offering only her son a litany of food. Gordon however forces his mother to make Sam a sandwich. 

The next scene begins with Jessica kneeling next to Gordon and doing his hair. By now we have become used to the injection of an occasional raucous sound but it seems only Jessica and the audience can hear it. Every time she grabs her head Gordon suggests she has a brain tumour. Eventually she responds by hitting him and he responds in kind by telling her that she is a terrible mother. There is talk of monsters outside looking in but Jessica tells Gordon that he is safe, safe inside with her. She speaks of love, he speaks of control.  

The audience begins to catch on that perhaps it’s not Gordon who is the monster after all, but Jessica. Gordon asks, “Who keeps me safe from the monsters inside?” and Jessica replies, “There are no monsters inside, only me.” We start to think she might be right. This seems like a natural ending for the piece but no, it continues, and we’re ultimately glad it does because there are more horrors to come. Lots more. 

[Spoiler warning] Sam invites Gordon to a model plane exhibition but Gordon puts him off. Sam is, however, successful in getting Gordon to come down to the gate. Gordon overcomes his anxieties and his fears and seems to even be enjoying the activity. When Jessica sees what has happened she screams Gordon’s name and he has a serious turn, writhing uncontrollably on the floor. Jessica forces ‘vitamins’ into his mouth and then collapses herself.  

When Jessica revives she lifts Gordon into a chair and it’s clear to everyone but her that he is dead. There is an excellent fantasy scene where Gordon and Jessica talk to each other and we learn much of the underlying issues between them. When the real world returns Sam returns too and by now we are aware of what will happen next. It does. Sam takes Gordon’s place and we have no difficulty whatsoever in predicting, though we don’t actually see it, what will happen next. [ends]

Like The Albatross, The Bond is a most impressive script though less successful as a production than its predecessor. It’s possible that it could benefit from some trimming and focusing but the structure is sound, the narrative is strong and the psychology dangerously, and scarily, accurate.

In summing up these two programmes of new plays written by Gary Henderson’s playwriting students, it’s worth noting that only Gehenna takes itself out of the construct of ‘plays in rooms’ and even then most of the scenes take place within conventional environments. This isn’t a bad thing but it is a thing. There is an old saying that says “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail” and I find this increasingly so with new playwrights. I’m not suggesting for a minute that people should stop writing plays set exclusively in rooms but I am suggesting that, in the conception stage, other options might well be explored. How else might we be able to tell this story? 

All of the texts presented by Henderson’s students, in my opinion, show serious potential. Each playwright is capable, under Henderson’s guidance at least, of writing performable texts set in a context of interest and connected, in complex ways, to the communities and times they reflect. The better the direction however, the more effectively we see the text emerge, and it’s worth remembering this when planning future outings. 

I sincerely hope there has been enough reward for Henderson and his students to warrant a continuation of this performance process. I would also like to hope that established actors and directors of the quality of Quigan, Alistair Browning, and Renee Sheridan are able to make themselves available to support and maintain the overall quality of this work. Who knows where the next Gary Henderson will come from? It may be from just such a workshop production, and that has to be good for all of us. 

I would also like to suggest that opportunities like this, rare though they are, should be supported by the industry in any way possible because every now and again there will be a gem like The Albatross on show and the more people who know about this the better.


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