Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

01/10/2016 - 04/10/2016

Hannah Playhouse, Cnr Courtenay Place & Cambridge Terrace, Wellington

09/03/2016 - 13/03/2016

Dunedin Arts Festival 2016

New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2016

Production Details

“Trick of the Light manage to conjure a truly rare thing; a story about magic that actually feels magical” – Uther Dean, The Wireless  

The award-winning team that delighted audiences with The Bookbinder and The Road that Wasn’t There return with a darker, more adult tale of the uncanny. The Devil’s Half-Acre is set in the slums of gold rush-era Dunedin, when the powerhouse of New Zealand lay south of the Waitaki River rather than north of the Bombay Hills.

Combining puppetry, live music and a score by acclaimed composer Tane Upjohn-Beatson, it conjures a landscape of brothels, gaming houses and opium dens; a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world — prostitutes, prospectors, beggars and conmen, the newly rich and newly broke, perhaps even the devil himself…

 World Premiere 

Hannah Playhouse
Wednesday 09 Mar 2016– Sunday 13 Mar, 7pm
Sat 12 Mar 2016, 1pm
Adult A: $49.00
Adult B: $39.00
1hr 30mins (no interval)
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Partnered by The Dominion Post
With Support From Infinity Foundation | Creative New Zealand 

Arts Festival Dunedin 2016

“…. local government politics, Otago goldfields, greed, mysterious deals, amazing theatrical effects – highly entertaining.” Dominion Post 

Fortune Theatre
Sat 1 Oct – Tue 4 Oct 2016
Adult $45/$40
Fortune Member $32
Tertiary Student $25
School Student $20
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Ralph McCubbin Howell – Jack
Richard Dey – Dylan, Vogel
Anya Tate-Manning – Scarlett, Mark, Mr. Farthing, Fortune Teller
Tom Clarke – Mr. Pilgrim, Mr. Pounds, Fantan Spieler, Ranter, Fitzherbert, Prospector 

David Goldthorpe – Producer / Production Manager
Meg Rollandi – Set, AV & Costume Design
Jon Coddington – Puppet Design
Marcus McShane – Lighting Design
Tane Upjohn-Beatson – Composer / Sound Design
Nick Zwart – Technical Implementation and Construction
Charley Draper – AV Technician
Ed Watson – Graphic Design
Jenna Kelly – Stage Manager  

Theatre , Puppetry ,

1 hr 30 mins - no interval

Con-artists’ tale magical performance

Review by Kimberley Buchan 03rd Oct 2016

The Devil’s Half-Acre is a Dunedin slum from the 1860s.  

It is populated by prostitutes, gamblers, thieves, the addicted and the afflicted.  

Jack and Dylan are two con artist brothers looking to escape their past who have settled in the titular slum. 

They are scratching a living through sleight-of-hand tricks targeting new arrivals on the wharves. 

A mysterious man watches them from the shadows. [More]


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Consistently tense and engaging

Review by Reuben Hilder 03rd Oct 2016

If you have seen a production by Trick of the Light Theatre before you probably don’t need my recommendation to see The Devil’s Half-Acre because you already know that they deal exclusively in quality. Their offering this time around brings us to Gold Rush era Dunedin for an intriguing, emotionally powerful narrative told with distinctive visual flair and an enthralling score to boot. In other words, standard Trick of the Light stuff. 

The story of The Devil’s Half-Acre revolves around two brothers in 1860s Dunedin who are making ends meet by running simple cons on passers-by until one day a mysterious stranger calling himself ‘Pilgrim’ beats them at their own game and makes them an offer too good to refuse. After that they find themselves drawn into a much more dangerous game than before, where nothing is what it seems at first. 

Meg Rollandi’s set is stark but effective, consisting of three sets of three wide metallic brown columns which serve, depending on the scene, as doorways, as buildings, and most significantly, as screens for AV projection. This projection is put to fantastic use to create crowded streets, taverns and other spaces; populated with silhouettes that move about, speak, and even interact with the actors, lending a surreal air to the scenarios that unfold.

This, combined with Marcus McShane’s evocative lighting design and a simply wonderful score by Tane Upjohn-Beatson, allows Trick of the Light to craft a wide verity of locations, each of which feels vivid and alive without the need for elaborate sets or lengthy, flow-breaking scene changes. 

However, The Devil’s Half-Acre is not without its faults. The two brothers, Jack and Dillan, are played by Ralph McCubbin-Howell (the writer) and Richard Dey respectively, with Tom Clarke and Anya Tate-Manning taking up the remaining parts, and although both actors have the enough ability to pull off multiple roles, this can get confusing from time to time.

In addition, Tom Clarke in his role as Pilgrim sometimes speaks just a little too quickly and quietly to be fully understood and Anya Tate-Manning as Scarlett (Dillan’s love interest) has some similar issues. This gets even worse with the pre-recorded voice-overs for the silhouettes, with only about one third of the lines of a fortune-teller of some significance being readily discernible.

Upjohn-Beatson’s soundtrack, though beautifully crafted, can also prove to be a little overpowering. One particularly galling moment occurs when Pilgrim, quite out of character, is forced to shout simply to make himself heard over the background music.  

The final quibble I have is with the story, which, sadly, is not as original as Trick of the Light’s earlier work. It is, however, written and performed with ample talent to make it consistently tense and engaging despite becoming a tad predictable. 

Flaws notwithstanding, the love and care with which every element of The Devil’s Half-Acre has been crafted make it a wholly rewarding experience, and it is remotely disappointing only when judged by the exceptionally high standard I have come to expect from Trick of the Light Theatre.  


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Political, sensual and dangerous

Review by Ewen Coleman 14th Mar 2016

It’s 1860s Dunedin and a slum area known as The Devil’s Half-Acre, which is also the title of Trick Of The Light’s new production for the NZ Festival.  

Two con artists are on the wharf doing well-to-do- arrivals out of their money. They are brothers, Jack (Ralph McCubbin Howell) and Dillon (Richard Dey), who have arrived from Australia for a fresh start.

But they aren’t doing too well in Dunedin, so when they met a mysterious man and are given a commission to undertake a series of tasks that require a more sophisticated type of con artistry – they jump at the chance. [More


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Sophisticated design elements and highly committed performances

Review by John Smythe 10th Mar 2016

The rusting metallic panels of Meg Rollandi’s foreboding setting, lit as much for shadow as light by Marcus McShane, combine with the narrative voice of Jack (writer/actor Ralph McCubbin Howell) to set the ‘noir’ tone that permeates The Devil’s Half Acre. Not that it is a detective story as such. We are, however, here to bear witness to the decline and fall of [spoiler averted] – and to ask ourselves who amongst us is not susceptible to temptation.

A resounding clang closes us in to the opening scene which turns out to be the murderous end. What follows is the story of how it came to work out this way; an establishing and unravelling of the mystery of who it is in the shadows who has done the deed.

We’re in gold-rush Dunedin circa late 1860s (although a programme note admits it “incorporates aspects of the slum as it continued into the 20th century”). Otago is New Zealand’s richest province and the gulf between the haves and have-nots is great: sound familiar? The titular Devil’s Half Acre, where the poorest subsist, “inspired a rhetoric of blame and poor-shaming that wouldn’t sound out of place in the mouths of some contemporary politicians,” the playwright and director note.

Two Irish brothers – Dylan (Richard Dey) and Jack (Ralph McCubbin Howell) – have made a judicious exit from Ballarat to start afresh in Dunedin. But the diggings in Dunstan are not their turf. It’s easier to glean a living from the pockets of the rich in town – not by picking them but with some sleight-of-hand card trickery.

That their targets step up willingly, to instantly double their money (or lose it), sets the theme of greed – and allows the brothers to believe they are not criminals, they’re just using their skills to redistribute the wealth. It’s late in the game that a memorable scene vividly dramatises the debilitating curse of gambling addiction.  

There’s a love story, of course, involving Dylan and a no-nonsense barmaid called Scarlett (Anya Tate-Manning). And more could be made, I feel, of the effect this has on the bother’s relationship. Nevertheless Jack, Dylan and Scarlett anchor the story well from the perspective of ordinary people trying to make a go of it in the inhospitable jungle of free market economics.

The rich people are comedic manifestations of Dickensian illustrations (e.g. Robert Seymour, The Pickwick Papers), so are readily acceptable as worthy victims. Rollandi dresses them in crisp greys and whites, in stark contrast to the browns and blacks of the poorer people. Anya Tate-Manning and the fourth actor, Tom Clarke, have a ball playing Messrs Farthing and Pounds – and it’s Clarke who tips us toward compassion for the gambling addict.  

Tom Clark also plays a deeply enigmatic character called Mr Prilgrim, who is the go-between to ‘the Shadow’ (not to be confused with the vigilante crime fighter of 1930 comic books). Have the brothers met their match in him, or will he take them to the next level? And if so, what will be the price?

A girl in a mop cap and white lace lives in the Devil’s Half Acre and appears to represent the innocent generation condemned to poverty through no fault of their own. She and her lame Cat are puppets, splendidly designed by Coddington (and manipulated by Tate-Manning and Clark). But every time she appears a deep and distorted voice-over seems to speak for her and I’m unable to make out what it says.  

A fantastic parade of shadow-figures completes the cast via AV projections (designed by Rollandi), manifesting the street life of the busy town and some very specific characters – not least one Julius Vogel (head of the provincial government), campaigning for ‘separation’ (from the rest of the colony, presumably). It’s no secret that he ends up in Auckland, as Colonial Treasurer (and is destined to become Premiere).

Temptation is a core driver in the plot, accompanied by the mystery of who or what exactly is manipulating whom to compromise their values for personal gain. This should – and I’m sure will eventually – make this play extremely compelling. At this, its first outing, however there are issues (and let us remember that elsewhere in the world most great plays and memorable productions enjoy significant development seasons and previews before their designated ‘world premiere’).

First there is a great deal of narration from Jack, which I can’t help feeling is because budget constraints have limited the cast size (13 characters, 10 of whom are played by two actors), so there is more telling and less showing than there could be. And McCubbin Howell, who narrates from downstage left rather than centre, falls into the trap – as does Clarke at times – of delivering his lines with falling inflections, invariably when Tane Upjohn Beatson’s visceral sound design and composition rises in volume. Hence a great deal is missed.

Also missing is humour, which is strange from a couple of Irish lads on the make. Given Dylan, as the older, is the more focused and responsible in “sticking to the plan” it seems to me Jack needs to be lightened up with more than a bit of blarney and malarkey, to provide dramatic contrast and perhaps to inadvertently put their enterprise at risk from time to time.

In consolidating the motives that drive core events, there is more to explore (as mentioned above) in the effect on Jack of Dylan’s growing relationship with Scarlett. And over all, given the story’s ‘decline and fall’ trajectory, it seems clear the boys need to arrive in Dunedin with a high degree of optimism and something of a carefree tone.

I realise that book-ending the play with the darkest moment, then Jack having to tell the story in retrospect inevitably casts a pall on his mood, as narrator anyway, so it’s not a simple fix. But something needs to be done to lift the tone, not least to better set up surprises and dramatic pay-offs. We need to see ourselves in these characters and realise how susceptible we are, too, to temptation.

With so much going for it by way of sophisticated design elements (there are some stunning effects) and highly committed performances from an extremely talented team – directed by Hannah Smith – it’s just a few basics in storytelling dynamics and vocal technique that need to be attended to. Then The Devil’s Half Acre will be ready to grace stages nationwide and even worldwide.  


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