BATS Theatre, Wellington

04/06/2015 - 20/06/2015

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

28/07/2015 - 07/08/2015

Production Details

Carl, Jules and Derek are stand up comedians. Starting out in Auckland, they shared dreams, ideas, and a flat, convinced they were changing the world with every laugh they could elicit.

And then Carl went and did something stupid.

He moved to America, and made it big.

Now, ten years later, he’s back; and this time it’s because he’s possibly done something even more unforgivable.

Under siege from the media, these three men will have to confront their pasts, their resentments, their friendship (or what’s left of it), and the ramifications of success.

This new comedy by Stephen Sinclair (Ladies Night, The Bach, The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers) explores themes of betrayal, plagiarism, the tall-poppy syndrome, and the price of fame. A mix of drama, standup comedy and theatrical commentary, Success takes an all-too-believable premise and turns it into a black comedy about jealousy, redemption and the fine line between genius and madness.

Featuring Jeremy Elwood (7Days, The Slapdash Assassin) Stephen Papps (Russian Snark, Shortland Street)and John Glass (Agent Anna, Pitman Painters), Success will have its world premiere season at BATS in Wellington, before a short season at The Basement Theatre in Auckland.

Success is being produced with the generous assistance of Arts Alive and the Wallace Foundation.

BATS Theatre
June 4 – 20, 7:30pm
Tickets from or phone 04 802 417504 802 4175 

The Basement
July 28th – Aug 7th, 6:30pm
Tickets from or phone 09 309 743309 309 7433

Theatre ,

Study in failure proves success

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 31st Jul 2015

Playwright Stephen Sinclair’s latest work could be seen as a meditation on the extreme poles of his own career which has swung between spectacular international success and the hard grind of low-budget productions in studio theatres. 

The story centres on a forced reunion of three middle-aged buddies who forged an intense bond when, as aspiring comedians, they embarked on a chaotic tour of South Island small towns relying on the enthusiasm of youth to get them through the horror of playing to empty houses. [More]


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High Achiever

Review by Tim George 31st Jul 2015

It is hard to write a dramatic story involving stand-up comedians, mainly because it requires good jokes. Everyone remembers Punchline, the Tom Hanks movie about the gritty backstage world of standup, right? No, of course not. If you’re going to write a story about comedians, it has to be funny. As with that old story about Chekhov’s gun, if you set something up, you have to provide a payoff.

Stephen Sinclair’s Success manages to tackle that issue by having three veteran actors with stand-up backgrounds. According to his mission statement in the show notes, the three players were allowed to develop their own routines and comic personae, using their characters as inspiration. The results are a significant part of what makes Success such a, uh, well you know what I mean. [More]


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Yet to resonate soundly

Review by Nik Smythe 29th Jul 2015

Illustrious stage and screen writer and director Stephen Sinclair tackles a stage concept everyone’s thought of but which strangely hasn’t really been done before:* a serious play addressing the issues faced by standup comedians, both successful and … less so.  On the whole, Success is a promising work-in-progress, with its entertaining privileged white middle-class characters and their affected on-stage alter-egos utilising (but not abusing too badly) the implicit contextual free license to inflict any available terrible pun or cliché on us. 

Jeremy Elwood is Carl, an old school rough-as-guts bogan style Kiwi comic back home in Auckland for a visit after years away, having cracked it big time on the international circuit.  Stephen Papps is witty socialist high school drama teacher Jules, only slightly bitter about his own less successful crack at the comedy business.  John Glass is Derek, a friendly, old-fashioned, happily unemployed academic sort with a penchant for history and about twenty different kinds of tea.

It does seem slightly remiss that Sinclair, Elwood, Papps and Glass all have bios in the programme, but not stage manager and singular female cast member Ban Abdul.  Her two-and-a-half incidental roles are all quite different but equally well pitched. 

The three middle-aged lads go way back to when they toured the country together back in the nineties, so when Carl turns up at Jules and Derek’s flat for a visit it’s a happy reunion.  It soon emerges however that Carl has been accused of an act of sexual violation in the States, on a night he claims he was so blasted he doesn’t even recall what did happen. Meanwhile the press have tracked him to their Sussex Street address and have it staked out. 

The unfolding narrative is book-ended and interspersed with each character performing his routine in his personal style: Carl’s brash, obnoxious tirades in a growly voice like Batman; Jules’ deadpan observations on politics; Derek’s awkwardly intellectual treatise on the history of the happening of shit.  Written by the actors in character, these spots generally come off favourably with the audience. 

Running at about an hour forty with no interval, a few scenes have a tendency to drag a bit with an almost whimsical realism, particularly when they reminisce on the good old days.  Discussions about Derek’s burgeoning offstage fuckbuddy relationship provide some amusement but ultimately they seem extraneous to just whatever it is this play is trying to be exactly. Is it a serious drama about humour, or a comedy addressing serious issues? 

Certainly it can be both, but as it stands the various elements have yet to coalesce into a form that resonates soundly.  I feel it either needs to be shaved back to a more essential narrative with clearer, sharper character journeys, or given an interval and a deeper exploration of each character to achieve a level of visceral intensity not reached in the current version, despite the gravity of subject matter. 
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 
*Actually, twenty-plus years ago I wrote a solo show about a standup comedian called What’s So Funny and performed it at the original sub-Watershed Basement theatre.  But that doesn’t count because nobody went.  TV’s A Night at the Classic is another obvious comparison, but that was set in the venue and the performers played versions of themselves. And of course there’s Seinfeld, but as cynical and twisted as it could get, it was never this dark.

[Gavin McGibbon’s Stand Up Love, a two-hander about a problematical relationship, also involves a stand-up comedian whose sets punctuate the play – ed.]


Pax July 29th, 2015

Trevor Griffiths' astonishing 1970s play 'The Comedians' is the grandaddy of serious political plays about humour.

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Comedy rich with jokes and believable characters

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 08th Jun 2015

Oscar Wilde once wrote that anyone can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success. 

In Stephen Sinclair’s latest comedy, Success, Carl Evans, Derek Turnbull, and Jules Donovan are three Kiwi stand-up comedians, friends from way back when they toured in a van playing remote pubs and halls in the South Island as The Hoolum Brothers. 

Now Derek and Jules share a house in Wellington and they only rarely perform stand-up as their careers have stalled. Their lives of quiet desperation are interrupted when Carl returns in triumph from the States where he has become a comedy superstar.

Carl seeks sanctuary in their house when the media find out about a scandal involving a young woman in Las Vegas. The reminiscences of their past tours suddenly turn sour as the media vultures hover around the house.

As Carl tries to fend off the possible end of his career with booze and drugs, Derek, a Mr Nice Guy, tries to be helpful but Jules reveals he does not posses a very fine nature, resenting the fact that Carl, amongst other indiscretions, once told a joke about Jules’s incontinent aunt without asking his permission.

The play starts with Carl performing his act in front of a Wellington audience and later in the play the other two perform their routines, which all three exceptional actors – Jeremy Elwood (Carl), John Glass (Derek), and Stephen Papps (Jules) – wrote themselves, based on the characters created by the playwright.

Carl’s routine is brash, crude and funny; Derek’s reveals his educational background with jokes about Caesar/ Genghis Khan/ guinea pigs, while Jules is hilariously funny and very moving at the same time when he reveals to us and to himself that he is not a comedian.

Success is a comedy rich with jokes and amusing situations and though the first act needs a stronger finish, it is a comedy, as all good comedies are, based on the interaction between interesting, believable characters.


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Mature skills pay off and there is more to explore and exploit

Review by John Smythe 05th Jun 2015

Back in the day they toured as The Hoolum Brothers to the hot spots of the South Island’s West Coast. A poster on the back wall of the Bats Theatre Propeller Stage captures the era perfectly, including headshots of the three fresh-faced comedians and the claim that “West Coast hospitality is destroying our livers!”

Someone (uncredited) has had fun with all four posters which are well worth studying before the play starts. The other three feature the faces as they are today, about 25 years later, I’m guessing.

Most featured is Jeremy Elwood as “Carl Evans Live!! Back in NZ for the first time in ages!!” – in May, which denotes the comedy festival. Playing sold out seasons at the Opera House in Wellington, the Aotea Centre in Auckland, the Regent in Dunedin and the CBS Area in Christchurch, he has clearly hit the pinnacle of live stand-up comedy.  

Off to one side is Stephen Papps as Jules Donovan, this Friday’s feature act after The Cowboys of Improv (Palmy Nth) and Jugglin’ Doug (Levin), in support of the Australian headliner, ROBBO!! The gig is called “Third Person Tense”.

And on the other side is John Glass as Derek Turnbull (BA, Clas), offering free entry to his live comedy spot in Room 521 at the Classics Dept – BYO food and drink (non-alcoholic). 

The set (also uncredited) is your basic flat-dweller’s living room: lounge suite, coffee table and low bookcase adorned with alcohol, glasses, a phone and, tucked away, a coffee plunger. Like Chekhov’s gun, all will be used.

But first we are treated to a slab of Carl’s homecoming gig. An interesting anger has fired him up and he’s ruthless, not least about ukuleles, but he also has a sideways look and a vestigial grin that somehow wins us over, or back.

Meanwhile long-time flatmates Jules and Derek bicker over the rubbish roster and note in passing that Carl has scored a good review. I instantly wonder whether they went to the show: if so, what did they think; if not, why not? (Jealousy? The cost of tickets? Booked out before they got round to it?) But that opportunity is bypassed in favour of banter about Derek’s ‘FB’ relationship with offstage Dorita.

Jules’ featured Friday night ‘fluffer’ spot for Robbo the Aussie shock jock comes next, and very amusing it is too, as the teacher-by-day stirs the proverbial pot-that-might feed-him, if he got properly paid, and reveals his political leanings. Papps’s dry and droll style is a treat to witness.

Next morning we’re back to odd-couple flatmate banter, mostly regarding what has transpired between Derek and Dorita. His ‘Mr Nice Guy’ flaw is well challenged by an acerbic Jules. Then who should turn up but Carl. Clearly they haven’t seen each other since his return (and again the whole question of whether they’ve seen his show, or expected comps, cries out for some mention).

By the time Derek has got them a cuppa and they’re all sitting down (as Jules and Derek have done, throughout their duologue scenes), I’m wondering if this all we are in for: alternating scenes of stand-up and sit-down. What stops that being a bad thing is the inescapable credibility of the characters, both in their writing and performance.

Stephen Sinclair has created three very distinct characters whose natures emerge through dialogue that is so well crafted, as far as it goes, it’s easy to take for granted how much it conveys while being intrinsically entertaining. All three actors embody their characters totally and, in proof of their ownership, they have actually developed their own stand-up routines based on their given characters.

There is a mutually supportive confidence at work here that can only come with maturity, and this is what allows them to compel our interest over two hours (including interval) without resorting to hyper-theatricality. Certainly the stand-up sequences offer a change of tone and pace but they are fairly standard examples of that ‘stand and deliver’ genre. And each routine very funny in its own quite different way.  

The turning point that comes with Carl’s arrival at the Aro Street flat involves (I can say this much without it being a spoiler) his being in big trouble and having to seek sanctuary with his old mates. And the downward pressure of their being under siege combines with unresolved stuff from the past to generate some excellent comedy.

I do, however, find the lack of social media in the mix to be another missed opportunity. Surely Carl has promoted himself with a Facebook page and a Twitter handle – or if he doesn’t (or did and now doesn’t) there has to be a very good reason that we get to hear about. And given he accesses the Guardian on his smart phone, to see what they’re saying about his predicament, how come he didn’t find out about it online in the first place, rather than by acquiring a print edition of the L A Times in his New Zealand hotel?  

It’s Derek’s “shit happens” stand-up set that opens the second half and all I can say is it’s a shocking waste of his undoubted talent to relegate him to free lunchtime gigs in a university tutorial room. What, indeed, if Jesus has been a plumber? As for the ear paradox, he is so right! But Derek is a compulsive loser and only he can turn that around.  

We do get more physical action now; all the more effective, perhaps, for its contrast to earlier scenes.

Lucy Edwards does quadruple and distinguished duty as the stage manager, a Reporter, a ‘Girl’ and an Assistant Floor Manager. I’d have liked to know more about what the ‘Girl’ is up to in the greater scheme of things, to lift her from being just a functional device. Nevertheless the way Carl displays the true nature of his dissolute lifestyle as he hits the pits proves what a consummate actor Elwood is.

Of course when you’ve hit rock bottom the only way is up. The resolution does feel a bit easy, unless the point is that that’s how Teflon coating works, but it does lead Carl into a final stand-up set that chews up the whole fame conundrum and spits it back in unexpected ways, as he approaches the light at the end of his tunnel. 

The premise for Success is sound, the characters are strong and the performances are exemplary. And more could be explored script-wise to better exploit the given circumstances and the dynamic nature of social media as it impacts on celebrities, both in the way they use it and how it bites them back.


Jeremy Elwood June 5th, 2015

Rectifying the lack of credits; (the set came together very late). Poster ideas and copy by myself and Stephen Sinclair, design by Thomas Hanover. Set by Stephen Sinclair, with help from Stephen Bayliss. 

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