The Birthday Boy

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

09/10/2010 - 06/11/2010

Production Details

A wickedly funny Kiwi Comedy 

What happens to long-term friends when life takes them in completely different directions? Award-winning writer Carl Nixon explores middle class parenthood with exhilarating gusto, covering 25 years of family, friendship, careers and complications in a series of male birthday occasions.

When Stuart and Elizabeth meet their oldest friends, David and Kathy, to celebrate David’s 40th birthday, they’re not expecting the shock announcement that changes all their lives. The play starts in present day Wellington then moves into the future, showing us the journey of these characters, the choices they make and the consequences.  

Peter Hambleton and Phil Vaughan are the birthday boyswith Geraldine Brophy and Jude Gibson, respectively, playing their wives. Donna Akersten is the mother and completes the very talented cast.

Carl Nixon is an acknowledged playwright, short story writer and novelist.
The Birthday Boy was originally commissioned by the Court Theatre and premiered in Christchurch in 2008 to critical acclaim.

Circa Theatre is proud to present this work which offers a terrifically entertaining look at how life never turns out according to plan. 

"Thoughtful, funny and thought-provoking" – The Press.
"Best to laugh, really" – Theatreview
"plenty of light-hearted pokes at political correctness and middle-class angst”  The Listener.

Circa One
SEASON: 9 October-6 November
Performance Times:
Tues & Wed 6.30pm,Thurs to Sat 8pm
Sunday 4pm
Talk-back Tuesday 12 October
Adults $38, Concessions $30
Friends of Circa (to 14 October) $28
Groups (6+) $32, Under 25’s $20
Bookings: Circa  801 7992

Pre-show dinner available at Wharfside – phone 801 7996

Having a birthday? Celebrate at The Birthday Boy
For details and options contact Cara at Circa Ph: 801 8137

(in order of appearance)
David Williams:  Peter Hambleton
Stuart Marshall:  Phil Vaughan
Kathy Williams:  Geraldine Brophy
Elizabeth Marshall-Clarke:  Jude Gibson
Rita Williams:  Donna Akersten

The Video team:
Video production:  Christof Müller
Lachlan Rossiter Williams:  Gavin McGibbon
Cameron Rossiter Williams:  Isaac Heron
Polly:  Stella Reid
The baby – David Barrington Williams Sierra Smith
(with thanks to her mother, Andrea Tutt)

Set Designer:  Andrew Foster
Lighting Designer:  Ulli Briese
Costume Designer:  Emma Ransley

Stage manager: Deb McGuire
ASM: Ruthie Morris
Technical operator: Ulli Briese
Set built by Iain Cooper

Set pack in and finishing: Iain Cooper, Petar Petrovich, Eric Gardiner, John Hodgkins, Eileen McCann, Penny Angrick
LX crew: Matt Eller, Isaac Heron, Miriam Sobey, Jordan Heron
Architectural model: John Hodgkins
Publicity: Colleen McColl
Graphic design: Rose Miller, Toolbox Creative
Photography:  Stephen A’Court & Christopher Brougham
House manager:  Suzanne Blackburn
Front of house:  Linda Wilson 

The Birthday Boy was originally commissioned by The Court Theatre, Christchurch, New Zealand, with assistance from Creative New Zealand

Friendship and jealousy

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 14th Oct 2010

With The Birthday Boy we are taken on a 25 year journey travelling through the very familiar New Zealand theatrical landscape of middle-class comedy. It’s a rambling comic trip passing through a number of birthdays and on the way we are confronted with the trials of friendship, parenthood, marriage, and the search for personal fulfillment.

The journey starts with the 40th birthday party of a would-be architect David Williams (Peter Hambleton). His best mate since secondary school, Stuart Marshall (Phil Vaughan) and his wife Elizabeth (Jude Gibson) are on hand to celebrate and also to entice David and his wife Kathy (Geraldine Brophy) to go with them to the Barrier Reef. But David and Kathy have a surprise: Kathy is pregnant.

Not only is Kathy coming to motherhood late but she is also about to become famous nationally, and later internationally, as the author of children’s books that bear a jokey similarity to the Hairy Maclary stories. Her firstborn is a nervous boy and her next pregnancy produces twin boys who are clearly delinquents and terrorize their fellow pre-schoolers.

The sight of David with his son leaves Stuart wishing he was a father too and it leads him to a moment of unconscious jealousy that has some darkly comic reverberations throughout the play as well as bringing up the subject of parenthood with the dominating Elizabeth who firmly rejects motherhood because she is determined to succeed in her legal career despite not knowing what guardianship of a child might mean legally.

Kathy’s fame as a writer takes her away from home and family on book signing trips and publishing deals, while Elizabeth’s devotion to her legal career leaves the joking, immature Stuart bereft of purpose. David takes to drink and the family only survives because his mother (Donna Akersten) comes to the rescue with her funny befuddled logic and practical common sense.

It’s a wordy comedy, often clichéd (sleepless nights of parents) and corny (puns on lay/lei) and relying on a lot of off-stage comedy concerning the boys, but it’s most telling moment is a wordless gesture made in the final moment of the play. This gesture provides one aspect of the story with a truthful ending after we have been given, via a Skype-type technology, a sentimental ending concerning the boys.

While Andrew Foster’s startling white modernistic setting allows the action to move from domestic scenes to a hotel in Raratonga and to a futuristic Heathrow Airport with ease, the cast on opening night seemed a little too determined to let us know they were acting in a comedy. Only Donna Akersten created a fully comic portrait in a role not burdened with significance.
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Entertainingly provocative play needs to be trusted

Review by John Smythe 10th Oct 2010

The publicity image (above) and the way the actors play up the first two scenes – loud and large – leads us to believe we are in for a light comic romp. Or maybe they are over-compensating for having to play well below their actual ages (the first big laugh comes from discovering Peter Hambleton’s character is turning 40).

Perhaps the director (Jane Waddell) and actors don’t trust Carl Nixon’s play to be as good as it is. Or they feel a need to signal – not always, but a number of times throughout the play – that this is a heightened reality, to be performed in inverted commas. Whatever the reason, it’s counterproductive.

Almost all great classics are larger-than-life distillations of aspects the human condition and the more they are played for truth the better it is for our willing suspension of disbelief. Hopefully the cast will have already sensed, from where the stronger and deeper laughs come, that their audience is more engaged by credibility, truth and revealing insights than by being told it’s supposed to be funny.

The Birthday Boy – which premiered at the Court two years ago – captures the zeitgeist of the post-feminist generation, from a white, middle class and largely male perspective. Opening in 2008, it tracks the next 25 years via eight scenes, each set on or near a boy’s birthday. I’d have been tempted to say it was inextricably set in Christchurch if it hadn’t been for the recent earthquake (such is the danger of writing into the future).

David and Stuart have been best mates since school. David (Hambleton) dropped out of architecture school to become a draughtsman while his art-teacher wife Kathy (Geraldine Brophy) also dabbles in writing and illustrating children’s books. Stuart (Phil Vaughan), who is in advertising, married Elizabeth (Jude Gibson), a lawyer. And for the 6 years prior to the ‘now’ of scene one, they have holidayed together every October.

At David’s 40th – the opening scene – the seismic shift occurs that will change their ongoing relationships forever, despite Kathy and David’s declaration the baby they are expecting will fit in with their lifestyle.

But their becoming parents – first to Dougal, then to twins Lachlan and Cameron – coincides with the escalating international success of Kathy’s Furry McLurry books. David cuts back his work hours and eventually – given Dougal’s sensitivity and the terrorising tendencies of Lachie and Cam – his widowed mother Rita (Donna Akersten) moves in to help, reducing him to feeling like an eight-year-old again.

Liz, whose sense of betrayal is palpable given the pact she and Kathy made when they were students, holds to her vow never to have children. Stu bonds with the growing boys as their favourite ‘uncle’, ever ready to stir things up for a bit of a lark. Meanwhile they continue to enjoy the relatively high life, free of their own dependent encumbrances.

It is in scene three, between Liz and Stu on his 42nd birthday, that Nixon’s deeper understanding of human nature is allowed to come to the fore, not to mention his ability to subvert our value judgements and expectations.

This is also the scene that reveals the incident at the playground that traumatises 2 year-old Dougal and will resonate throughout. It haunts Stuart (except when he’s in denial about his role in it), materially affects the way the little brothers interact and impacts David’s life every day.

Both men are somewhat circumscribed by their dominant partners (that vice having been versa in so many more relationships). Stu takes it on the chin and works with what he’s got while Dave takes to the bottle and digs himself into a hole. This generates dark comedy-of-insight to be enjoyed from different perspectives by parents and non-parents, the young and the more experienced.

Each actor does find moments of truth that prove there is depth in the work. Once they’re believable all the way through the play should be deeply satisfying. Hambleton is at his best in David’s darkest hours. Brophy compels us to share her career v family dilemma when she’s being defensive about it or continuing to believe ‘normality’ will soon be resumed, before challenging us with her declaration of guiltlessness.

From the moment she explains why she doesn’t want children, and takes the time to tune Stuart into what it would actually involve, Gibson’s Elizabeth engages our empathy even if we might not make the choices she does. And Vaughan draws us to Stuart most strongly when he’s feeling stuff he’s not expressing.  

Hermetically sealed in her life as a career mother, Akersten’s Rita serves her purpose of reminding us how limited the woman’s role once was, and yet there are times the value of her ‘being there’ for the boys comes through, although we may question her compulsion to defend them against all criticism. A recurring gag involving her inability to get a joke or know when she’s being made fun of gained traction a few times on opening night and should add more value in future.

Andrew Foster’s attractive vinyl-padded set with illuminating panels, lit by Ulli Briese, does a good job of changing locations and advancing the years although the preset prop requirements for each new scene – efficiently managed by Deb McGuire and Ruthie Morris – requires some quite long and loud bridging music.

I do have a niggle about the ‘Furry McLurry’ illustration that is neither furry nor child friendly. And some of the sound effects (uncredited) are poorly managed, like the baby cry ‘off’ that remains ‘off’ when the baby is ‘on’.

Given the depths of dysfunction and incipient delinquency that are plumbed as David’s family grows, it is interesting that Nixon opts for an outcome, in a futuristic Heathrow lounge, that affirms the capacity of the bad to come good, even if the ‘moving on’ means some things once valued are lost. Some may feel prompted to ponder: has this family got off lightly, has some intensive counselling work happened in the interim, or could the anxiety we feel about the downstream effects of negative formative experiences be misplaced?

Put it this way: a generation or more ago it was widely quipped that the creative arts were dominated by those who had suffered the overbearing inputs of Catholic or Jewish upbringings. Maybe the great artists of the future will be driven by the neglect they experienced as children.  

Despite the unevenness of the opening performance, The Birthday Boy is revealed as a well-crafted play that entertainingly provokes us to reconsider some of the 21st century’s prevailing values and concerns.
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