The Bowler Hat

BATS Theatre, Wellington

07/02/2007 - 11/02/2007

NZ Fringe Festival 2007

Production Details

Written and directed by Angie Farrow
Musical director Susan Hawes


A basket of the strange, the real, the impossible, and the disorientingly funny

“We are controlled by “presence of mind”, which reveals reality as an absolute mystery… We exist within mystery, whether we know it or not”    René Magritte

The Bowler Hat is a fairground ride into the odd and vibrant world of one’s own reality and unreality.  It exists at the funeral of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967), and includes a detective investigating the death of Magritte’s mother, a director of a play who is under the impression that the people at the funeral are her actors and dancers, and the loss of the dead painter’s clothes.

In award-winning playwright Angie Farrow’s hands this is a piece of absorbing physical theatre and a complex weave of multiple media, genres, live music and dreams.  It is also a basic and rich comedy, a strong narrative, and straightforwardly appealing.

Angie Farrow’s work was last seen in Wellington with the much-acclaimed After Kafka, and the Theatre Pataphysical production of Despatch in the Fringe Festival last year.  This production of The Bowler Hat was seen for the first time as part of the 2006 Festival of New Arts in Palmerston North.

Angie explores the poetry of physical theatre, to create words and theatre around moving pictures.  The enveloping and compelling music (composed for The Bowler Hat by Musical Director, composer, singer/songwriter, Susan Hawes) creates a bath of sound in which the whole play can be immersed. Like a dream sequence, the music changes abruptly and radically before returning again to the connecting waves of sound with which we began our journey.

A surreal comedy featuring the life and death of the artist, René Magritte, by award-winning playwright Angie Farrow. It sweeps from dream to dream through the genres of detective thriller, whodunit, and avant-garde theatre.

…a magical ride with dance, visual projection, physical theatre and original music.

Ralph Johnson and 13 others
six musicians

publicity Marjorie McKee

Theatre ,

1 hr 15 min, no interval

Bogged down Bowler Hat

Review by Lynn Freeman 22nd Feb 2007

The Bowler Hat is a surrealist murder mystery wrapped around the life and death of Magritte, the painter who is particularly famous for his disconcerting bowler hat, apple, fish and sky/window motifs. 

The story begins at his funeral before the past, (his mother’s suicide by drowning decades before), catches up with the present.  Then it all gets very Dada, with mystery and chaos, a missing naked corpse, a dancing detective, a mysterious river. 

There’s also a cast of 14 joined on stage by a six piece band so the tiny Bats stage is full to overflowing much of the time. 

Angie Farrow is an intriguing playwright and this work, brought to Wellington from Palmerston North, sets a high standard in performance, direction (also by Farrow) production values.

Ralph Johnson is especially striking as Detective Tigram. Despite all that it’s got going for it though, it doesn’t quite come off, bogged down perhaps by having to accommodate such a large cast.


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Satisfyingly artistic surreal amusement

Review by Michael Wray 10th Feb 2007

Angie Farrow’s new play uses the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte as inspiration.

The play begins with Magritte’s funeral, attended by various members of his family and friends. The problem is that his clothes – the classic dark suit, white shirt, black tie and bowler hat – are missing. And we’re told that Catholics get so funny about nakedness. The relative normality of the scene is interrupted by Detective Tigram bursting in to investigate the drowning of a woman. Magritte’s mother died by drowning 30 years previously. Coincidence? Indeed not, for that is the very death that the Detective is investigating and his suspect is the late Magritte himself.

From here on in, it is the Detective who will demand our attention. Dressed like Inspector Clouseau, but thankfully without the accent, Ralph Johnson is the star of the show. Exuberant and charismatic, he provides the link that centres the various elements of the show and is a delight to watch. He spends much of his time smoking a carrot in an echo of one of Magritte’s better known works, The Treachery of Images. This is not a pipe!

In genuine surreal fashion, the show weaves three separate strands that would seem to be in contradiction to each other. Moving between whodunit and avant-garde genres, all three are pulled together and given a neat finish. Of course, having a surrealist root, we shouldn’t get too obsessed with making sense of the details. It is satisfyingly artistic and that is enough.

Punctuating the performances are projections of various Magritte paintings and a live band play throughout. The music integrated into the whole piece very nicely, explained by music director Suzy Hawes as representing the ocean.

An amusing play that is greater than the sum of its parts.


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Neatly bizarre, lacking heart

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 09th Feb 2007

As usual the Fringe is up and running before its official opening on Friday the 9th. First up at Bats is a one-act play which, like a lot of other plays and events at this year’s festival, uses surrealism and absurdity.

Angie Farrow has created a surrealistic world that involves the funeral, the paintings, and writings of the famous Belgian artist Rene Magritte as a starting point to delve into and present on stage some of the dreams, illogicalities, confusions, symbols, nightmares that confront us when faced with Magritte’s art as well as our own lives.

Tom Stoppard has also used the painter in his short play After Magritte but Stoppard’s comedy is confined to showing how a logical explanation lies behind even the most seemingly bizarre chain of events.

Like Stoppard’s play Farrow’s is neatly constructed and it too has a detective who solves a mystery. The mystery is the death of Magritte’s mother thirty years before, but there is also Magritte’s missing naked body which his family has come to bury. Into all this intrudes a theatre director under the impression everyone is in her play and should join in with her three dancers.

Along the way we are presented with Magritte’s paintings projected onto the backdrop as well as suggested in the actions of the actors. It is expertly directed by the playwright with a large cast led by Ralph Johnson in commanding form as the detective who finds himself caught up in his own investigations. The excellent group of musicians under the direction of the composer Suzy Hawes gives tactful, atmospheric support.

The play, however, lacks heart and like Stoppard’s is too contrived and always seems to be on the brink of becoming a comedy but then fails to deliver. Maybe the lack of laughter was due to the Black Hole of Calcutta that the full-house at Bats became on the sweltering opening night.

[I am assured steps have been take to alleviate the heat at BATS – ed.]


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Theatre as a meaningless thing

Review by John Smythe 07th Feb 2007

In her programme note Angie Farrow quotes surrealist Belgian painter René Magritte thus: "If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that is raised."

So what is her play, The Bowler Hat – which premiered last year at the Festival of New Arts in Palmerston North? What does it do, never mind why?

It begins with his funeral, attended by a strange array of personages and presided over by a priest in kitsch archbishop attire, then invades it with a carrot-smoking detective who becomes embroiled in rehearsals for a creative dance programme that in turn becomes a detective thriller with him as the terrified star, while a trio of husband, wife and a young man huddle on a park bench attempting to confront a fearsome beyond.

A green apple, a pipe and a fish are recurring images along, of course, with the bowler hat (Magritte’s best known pictures featured such items in place of a face between a bowler hat and a collar and tie against a blue cloudy sky).

But of course it means nothing. It’s just an excuse for a clever writer to paint the stage with 14 actors – performing with reasonable skill in a heightened (sur)reality style, compelling for their clear faith that what they are doing is real – and 6 musicians, enhanced from time to time with projected Margritte images.

Much biographical information and philosophical discussion is skilfully inter-woven into the action, not that we should allow ourselves to be distracted by any of the questions thus raised. So for those who accept the exhortation not to attribute meaning or ponder beyond "the thing itself", when the play stops, it’s over.

Good-O. Next?


neil furby February 22nd, 2007

So where did their characters' back-stories, their motivating wants, needs and desires, and the consequent actions come from, let alone the plot structure and unifying themes? Yes John, the the person I forgot to mention was the interpretative artist the Director

John Smythe February 21st, 2007

I get your point, Neil, but even for a text-based play I challenge the notion that actors are just “people speaking words”. They physically and emotionally inhabit their roles as they perform actions in time and space, and the audience responds as much to their reactions and the subtext as they do to their actions and the words they speak. This may seem like stating the obvious but it links to another oft-stated mis-conception: that all script writers write is dialogue. So where did their characters' back-stories, their motivating wants, needs and desires, and the consequent actions come from, let alone the plot structure and unifying themes?

neil furby February 21st, 2007

A group of people sits and watches another group of people speaking words that originates from the mind of one person. When they speak these words their minds become the words These words permeate into the thought processes of the sitting people who transform the words into their own imaginations Individual thought processes multiplied by the number of people experiencing the theatrical event equals infinite

Grant Platt February 20th, 2007

The Bowler Hat continues to intrigue me and friends. One friends reply is worthy of posting, I believe. Wow! I've seen this play. On one level I understand what Angie is saying - an individual's thought processes in respect of something actually changes it. And so I kind of understand what you're saying about less being more, but its temporal as well isn't it? Wow, a bit heavy for any old Monday morning!

neil furby February 12th, 2007

Please dear comment writers do not bombard me with a green apple, a pipe and a fish Is this not all but” Much ado about nothing”

Elizabeth Booth February 12th, 2007

'What does it do, never mind why?' I thought it was fairly clearly an interrogation of the creative process (including, even, the issue of meaning). The artist investigates his own art and his own process - a meaning, or, to be more precise, a questioning that lingers well beyond the end of the performance for any self-aware artistic practitioner or critic, surely.

Mary Anne Bourke February 11th, 2007

Even if it does mean nothing - ie. manages to mean nothing (this takes effort) - Yay! A holiday from meaning. A moment of pure being. Maybe two. Viva le surrealisme!

John Smythe February 10th, 2007

Um - I was being ironic, in light of the Magritte quote. Of course I agree one should engage one's brain in whatever way one feels inspired to.

Meow Tuna February 10th, 2007

"But of course it means nothing. It's just an excuse for a clever writer to paint the stage with 14 actors" What is meant here by "it means nothing"? A play based around exisiting works of surrealism, and you see no meaning?! Something so surreal requires mental tenacity. You can't just look at something at face value - you have to look deeper. This play should be seen. I personally saw this and thought it was marvellously witty and deeply thoughtful. Anyone who enjoys mystery and the surreal WILL enjoy this.

Danny Mulheron February 10th, 2007

jesus. try reading this out loud while looking into a mirror.

John Smythe February 8th, 2007

"the distillation of the expanse of human experience to a kernel of truth has impact." Whoa there, Grant. Are you not in danger of making it mean something here? If not, how can 'truth' be ascribed?

Grant Platt February 8th, 2007

In her programme note Angie Farrow quotes surrealist Belgian painter René Magritte thus: “If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but thinking of the question that is raised” I like this description, in the review by John Smythe, and it fits in with my view that one shouldn't let the facts get in the way of seeing the wider truth. For if we take an exact slice of life isn't it portraying non-reality in comparison with the wider average experience? Isn't the average reality and the single experience alien? Yet the distillation of the expanse of human experience to a kernel of truth has impact. Less is more but first we have to get more to get less. Understanding of the human condition allows us to focus on key meanings of existence...

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