The December Brother

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

14/08/2010 - 11/09/2010

Production Details


SEEyD Return to Downstage

In her thirties, Rebecca is told she was adopted. She decides to track down her birth family but what she finds are murdered relatives, a sibling in jail, two sides to a story and no idea who to believe.

This is the thrilling final act in The December Brother as Tim Spite (SEEyD) brings two true stories into sharp contrast.

The concept for the show began with the real life story of Tony Spite, Tim’s father, who was adopted at birth. As unlikely as it sounds, his half sister had an astrological reading in which she was told she had a brother born in December. This piece of information began a family’s search for their long lost sibling.

At the same time, in New Zealand, another story was unfolding. The nation was fixated on the Bain family. In Act Two, SEEyD Company explores the two distinct legal perspectives of the case that provoked fierce public opinion, as our community grappled with their own sense of family.

In the Final Act (described in italics above), these two seemingly unrelated stories come together in a third narrative that examines family, adoption and the impossible search for the truth.

SEEyD Theatre Company lead by Tim Spite has a history of exploring public issues from a range of personal perspectives and brings them to life on stage. In 2006, SEEyD premiered Turbine which explored the Makara Wind Farm debate raging in Wellington. They interviewed affected residents and also presented the point of view of the power companies and general public. In 2008, SEEyD devised Paua, an exploration of illegal paua poaching inspired by the shooting of a paua fisherman. It explored the consequences when people take the law into their own hands.

Director: Tim Spite – Best Director, Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards 2008 & 2009
Producer: Stuart McKenzie
Company: Nikki McDonnell, Hadleigh Walker, Brad McCormick, Tim Spite

The December Brother
Dates: 14 Aug – 11 Sep
Times: 6:30pm Tue-Wed and 8pm Thu-Sat.
Matinee: 4 Sep          Prices: $25 to $45.
Meet the Artists: Tue 17 Aug
Tickets can be purchased online,
by phone at (04) 801 6946 or
in person at Downstage’s box office.
For up-to-date information visit

Downstage is proudly sponsored by BNZ.  

Nikki McDonnell, Hadleigh Walker, Brad McCormick, Tim Spite


Sound Design and Original Music.......... Gil Eva Craig
Lighting Design....................................... Jennifer Lal
Set Design.............................................. SEEyD
Production Manager................................ Nathan McKendry
Stage Manager........................................ Sonia Hardie
Assistant Stage Managers....................... Alana Kelly & Rebekah Mora (on secondment from Toi Whakaari.)
Technical Operator.................................. Marc Edwards
Marketing and Publicity............................ Chris Bassett
Coordinator.............................................. Colleen McColl
Graphic Design........................................The Alchemist design + print
Production Photography.......................... Philip Merry

Silent murder hard to watch

Review by Lynn Freeman 19th Aug 2010

A SEEyD production is always an event. For more than 10 years the company has held true to its belief that theatre should be meaningful and provocative, and that it should take time to be created and harvest the ideas of the cast and crew. The December Brother has all the SEEyD hallmarks, and something more – a deeply personal true life story, that of Tim Spite’s father seeking his birth family.

There are three threads to this play – the Spite family story (non-fiction), two near silent reenactments of the Bain family murders (fiction-non-fiction), and a totally fictional story that weaves together elements of the first two acts.

They all involve an exploration of the meaning of truth. Spite’s father delayed searching for his birth family because in part at least he feared what the truth might reveal. The Bain case exemplifies how there can be two compelling versions of one event based on the evidence presented in court.

The three acts make for an emotional evening, on stage and in the auditorium. Spite’s portrayal of his father is moving and respectful without being cloying. The mimed Bain sequences, with a brilliant use of sound effects, are hard to watch, especially the way young Steven Bain fought for his life – and here I should say that I covered the original trial in Dunedin.

These are two hard acts to follow for the third sequence of the play. Here we meet a young woman who seeks her birth family. It’s such a lottery. There is always the risk of rejection. Here though it’s even more complicated. She learns that her birth family is deeply dysfunctional, with her half-brother accused of killing their mother and her husband.

While it’s cleverly conceived and performed, it lacks the punch of the other two and a little suffers for it. That doesn’t detract from the excellence of the performances by Spite, Nikki McDonnell, Brad McCormick and Hadleigh Walker. As always with SEEyD, ensemble acting at its best.

Jennifer Lal lights the set, with its patchwork of carpets and spaces, to perfection.

You leave with a lot to think about. About family and about how truth is not always clear cut, and the dangers of being careful what you wish for.
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. 


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A richly layered work of extraordinary substance

Review by John Smythe 16th Aug 2010

Tim Spite is a true theatre artist. He draws inspiration from what in his own life, family, community, country and world prods his inquisitiveness, concerns and passions, then he forms development and production units to create plays that could not happen any other way.

The December Brother is his company’s eighth play since the first SEEyD was planted in the Te Whaea basement as part of Fringe 2000 (see below*) and possibly the most personal. “How well do you know your family?” is the slug line.

The starting point was Tim’s father Tony’s written account of seeking out his birth family at the behest of his daughter (Tim’s sister, Pip) who – in the ensemble cast re-enactment – makes a ‘what if?’ quip about discovering he’s related to the Bain family.

Just a few months before, David Bain had been convicted of murdering his parents and three siblings in Dunedin. After serving 13 years of a life sentence, the conviction was quashed, a retrial was ordered, and just over a year ago David Bain was acquitted on all charges. Given it was shoddy police work that rendered the case not proven, debate still rages. Did David do it, as much of the evidence would seem to suggest, and if so why? Or did the father, Robin, shoot them while David was on his paper round, then take his own life, for possible reasons that were disallowed as evidence in the first trial?

These reality-based short plays coalesce with a third fictitious one to create a theatrical triptych that investigates the extremely complex nature of truth: the way we edit it to in order to make sense of it, give it meaning and articulate it as a story; the way that process forms and informs the convictions by which we live. The result is not ‘conventional theatre’ but then SEEyD productions have never been moulded to fit our standard expectations, and for this to have done so would have contradicted its own thesis.

While the stories are complex and become quite convoluted in parts, the production is never obscure. The actors – Brad McCormick, Nikki MacDonnell, Tim Spite and Hadleigh Walker; can there really be only four of them? – play multiple characters in numerous settings, and it is always clear who is who, where they are and what is happening. What we make if it all, however … what we remember and how we put it together … Well, that’s the point. That’s life.

The setting – designed by SEEyD – suggests a maze-like floor plan, and Jennifer Lal’s ingenious lighting design brings the lines defining the impenetrable walls to life, in different ways throughout the three acts while unobtrusively illuminating the relevant action (technical operator Marc Edwards does a superb job).

Act 1 plays out the Tony Spite story with son Tim in his role, in which his half sister (MacDonnell) reveals an astrologer told her she had another brother born in December (hence the title). The story doesn’t so much unfold as unravel, twist, tangle and stretch in a web of intrigue that for all its labyrinthine untidiness brings increasing strength to Tony’s state of being.

The compelling storytelling is enlivened by clear and often delightful characterisations by all four actors, and key moments of deep emotion finally render the story profound and moving.

Act 2 comprises methodical re-enactments – within the floor-plan of their Every Street home – of the two possible scenarios by which five of the six Bain family members were murdered. First Walker, as David, plays out the Crown case, then Spite, as Robin, plays it out as it must have been if the Defence case is correct. The rifle, silencer, magazine and bullets are mimed to Gil Eva Craig’s superb sound design; all the more chilling for being almost subliminal.

Presumably the stage manager (Sonia Hardie) and/or her assistants (Alana Kelly and Rebekah Mora, on secondment from Toi Whakaari) make up the sleeping family numbers, with McCormick playing Stephen, the brother who struggled, in a sequence that is gut-wrenching both times. Projected message indicate the times, and where elements of evidence are missing and why. All this is in the public domain and we – like the jury – are left to draw our own conclusions.

Why is this part of the show? Because both versions are ‘the truth’ according to experts; neither is neat, tidy and easy to credit; and our world remains full of people who are either fully convinced one way or the other or are still struggling to form a view. Few are indifferent.

By interval, then, we have absorbed a welter of information, some of it contradictory, and we are either wrestling with the challenge of trying to untangle and re-order it as some sort of coherent ‘truth’ or heading for the bar to escape it all. My tip is don’t rush to judgement at this point; play with it or not as you please and – like the jury in a recess – come back refreshed and with a clear head to witness the ‘closing arguments’.

Act 3A Relative Story – is fiction and also gets very complicated. My attempts to write about it will undoubtedly prove the play’s point by containing half-truths, misunderstandings and distortions born of the incoherence of my scribbled notes and a less-than-reliable memory. (Please use the Comments, below, to correct, question or amplify.)

Jam jars containing what look like urine samples, some of them bloody, now define the ‘walls’ of the maze. A young man, Kane Fraser (McCormick), is contained within one cubicle. Rebecca (McDonnell), a vet aged 35, whose mother has died, discovers from the man she calls Dad that she is adopted. Her psych nurse lover, Jayden (Walker), is 10 years younger and the father of a 9 year-old boy (i.e. a father at 16 but still taking responsibility, albeit on alternate weeks).

I think it’s Jayden who thinks Emerson, his son, will think it’s great that Rebecca’s birth mother turns out to be a murder victim.

Kane has been convicted of murdering his parents and making it looking like a murder-suicide perpetrated by his father. Now two lawyers (Spite and Walker) are gearing up to appeal, based on questionable elements in the police evidence. In the process of getting to know Kane, her half-brother, Rebecca also forms the view he is innocent.

Another prison visitor – played by McDonnell; I didn’t catch the character’s name – is a fantasist who has the hots for him and has created a ‘Save Kane Fraser’ fundraising website. She will gain her 15 minutes of fame in the Women’s Weekly, which may or may not be her motive.

When Rebecca and Jayden visit her birth mother’s decrepit Aunty Joyce (Spite), her reports of Kane as a child make Rebecca – and us – think again. Then the urine motif is decoded as illustrating some very weird beliefs and behaviours that Kane’s mother was getting into; enough to test the patience of any husband – or son? – who happened to also be close to a heavy frying pan.

The parents were also under stress with an intellectually disabled daughter called Carla, which caused them to split up until Carla got very sick, which brought them back together before she died; then Kane was born … (I think that’s how it goes). This is an example of a level of complication that would normally be left out but has been included because real life is this complex and awkward.

It is not Kane’s guilt or innocence that brings this play to its conclusion – that, like the Bain case, is left for us to ponder – but Rebecca’s tracking down of her birth father (Spite). Without disclosing the outcome, I can say that for me this was a powerful moment of confrontation with a prime cause in the whole scenario: if he had not denied her existence 35 years ago, how much of the subsequent tragedy might have been avoided?  

As Act 3 plays out, some broadly comic characterisations – e.g. Spite’s camp barrister and doubled-over Aunty Joyce; McDonnell’s on-the-make prison visitor – surprise me but I soon appreciate their judicious placement as ‘comic relief’ before the next gutsy story element kicks in.  

The December Brother, in its three parts, is a production you need to come to with an open mind, willing to interrogate your own response as much as the work itself. The amount of information you wrestle with is no more than what assaults you from an evening of TV viewing# although I suspect you will pay more attention to this and so find it much more compelling.

That said, I would also like to see the Act 3 story developed into a full length play in its own right, dedicated to exploring the same themes but containing them within the one complex work. That this would represent what most playwrights do (creating a truth-nailing fiction out of their real-world experiences and observations) should not be a disincentive.

Meanwhile Downstage must be commended for partnering with SEEyD – as part of their ‘Resident Company’ programme – to bring this richly layered work of extraordinary substance to fruition. We are indeed extremely fortunate that Downstage has survived to enrich Wellington and New Zealand with such theatrical creativity.

#Mention must also be made of the ‘community service’ announcement that is performed as a ‘curtain-raiser’. The “sleep before you drive” message is delivered in a sketch depicting a driver whose head floats away from his body – an illusion that needs to be tightly lit horizontally and/or vertically to work.  Perhaps this is intended as a ‘dumb show’ that distils the essence of what is to come: it seems real but isn’t; separating your head from your body may prove lethal … Or maybe it’s telling the audience (a bit too late) to make sure they have a good sleep before they commit to an evening with The December Brother.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*The SEEyD Theatre Company (originally the Claw Footed Tomatoes) has produced:
 SEEyD, The Nucleus Theatre (now known as the SEEyD Space), Te Whaea Basement (2000) – Most Original Production of the Year, Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards;
 InSalt, Studio 77, VUW (2001) – Most Original Production of the Year, CTTA;
 SAnD, Old Herd Street Post Office (2002) – Most Original Production of the Year, CTTA;
 the full trilogy: InSalt, SEEyD and SAnD, SEEyD Space), Te Whaea Basement (2004);
 radio adaptation, winner Best Radio Drama, NZ Radio Awards 2005
 The Remedy Syndrome, Bats Theatre then Circa Studio (2005); nom. Outstanding New NZ Play, CTTA
 The Brilliant Fassah, Circa Two (2006) – James Ashcroft, Most Promising Male Newcomer, CTTA; 
 Turbine, Bats (2006); Downstage (2009); nom. Most Original Production of the Year, CTTA;
 Paua, Downstage (2008); Tim Spite, Director of the Year, nom. Production of the Year, CTTA;
 The December Brother, Downstage (2010).
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. 


John Smythe August 20th, 2010

Interesting, Aaron – thanks. Does that make me a bit of a nong for trying to connect it to the themes of the production that followed? Of course I don’t do that with ads at the movies or on TV but (apart from the NZTA branding) there is little indication this ‘curtain-raiser’ / ‘dumb show’ is not part of the play(s) we’ve booked to see.

While I appreciate all the good reasons for having it there, I wonder if it is not also important to separate it somehow, so as not to confuse or bemuse the audience. Except now I look back on it, all that messing about removing the black throws that covered the designed stage did do that, if only I'd realised …

The thing is, I – we – take the opening of a show totally on trust and suspend negative judgement for a significant period of time … Does it matter that the “what was all that about?” question lingered throughout and afterwards and that I'm left with a faint sense of betrayal?

Aaron Alexander August 20th, 2010

 A little discussion here on the SEEyD/ClemengerBBDO/NZTA collaboration that runs before The December Brother at Downstage...

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The truth? It all depends how you look at it

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Aug 2010

Since its inception in 2000 SEEyD has devised seven invigorating and exciting pieces of theatre. With their latest offering, The December Brother, SEEyD has set itself the challenge of performing three thematically linked short plays, two of which are based on true events, while the third is fictional but with loud echoes reverberating from the first two.

The first play is an amusing and in the end a very moving account of Tony Spite’s search for his father after he discovers he was adopted. His family background is unbelievably complicated and would make the TV producers of Who Do You Think You Are? sell their souls for such an unusual story that is laced with name changes, amazing coincidences, adoptions, and family secrets. Tim Spite plays his father and – briefly – his mother too.

The second play presents in mime the Bain murders twice: once as if David killed his family and then as if Robin had. The floor plan of the house in Dunedin is outlined on stage, while occasional factual details from police evidence of the events of that fatal morning are projected onto the backdrop. It is all very clinical but the sound (Gil Eva Craig) and the lighting effects (Jennifer Lal) brilliantly create a chilling and unnerving atmosphere of that cold June morning in 1994.

The third play (A Relative Story) concerns Rebecca who when told she is adopted decides to trace her birth family. She discovers a brother who is in jail for murdering their parents. Did he commit the crime? Who to believe? The police, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer are convinced he did. Others are convinced he didn’t. A surname used in the play is a name associated with a famous murder case.

While watching these short plays I was reminded of the line from Peter Brook’s 11 and 12 in which the Sufi philosopher, Tiemo Bokar, says “There is my truth, your truth, and the truth.” By the time we got to A Relative Story this point was abundantly clear and despite some delicious camp acting from Tim Spite as a doddery old lady and a prissy lawyer who announces that truth is immaterial in an adversarial judicial system, the evening had begun to drag.

And it was a long evening that could have been shorter if a seemingly irrelevant mimed advertisement on road safety had been omitted at the start. The reason for this particular ad (I was told afterwards) is personal but it looked at the time like theatrical self-indulgence to those not-in-the-know.

However, Brad McCormick, Nikki MacDonnell, Tim Spite and Hadleigh Walker are a formidable team and move deftly and speedily from one sharply drawn character or caricature to another in this often bracing, beautifully staged, but lengthy production that questions what we mean by the truth.


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