The Engine Room

BATS Theatre, Wellington

27/09/2011 - 08/10/2011

Production Details

Where were you?  

In 1981 the South African rugby team toured New Zealand, and our country was plunged into chaos. Flash forward a few decades, and the 2008 election saw the conflict make headlines again, when John Key told reporters he couldn’t remember his position on the tour. So what was John doing during these fateful months? And where was Aunty Helen? 

The Engine Room imagines these political icons in a partly factual, mostly fictional account of two seminal moments in New Zealand’s history. Using an explosive combination of storytelling techniques, from documentary theatre to rugby-inspired choreography, The Engine Room charts political and personal conflicts against a backdrop of police brutality and protest lines.

With sport and politics going head to head, the battlelines are drawn. And the whole world is watching.

Season: Tuesday 27th September Sunday 9th October 2011 (no show Sun/Mon)
Time: 8pm
Price: $18 Full / $13 Concession / $14 Groups 6+
Length: 1hr 10min
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Paul Harrop, Alex Greig, Harriet Cowan and Erin Banks

Set: Nick Zwart;
Costumes: Dawa Devereux
Sound: Tane Upjohn-Beatson
Lighting: Uther Dean   

Performance will win many votes

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 29th Sep 2011

Rugby, as the saying goes, is a game of two halves. Though there is no interval in The Engine Room, just about everything else in this entertaining and very funny comedy that mixes fact with fiction is in two halves.

The setting switches back and forth between the Springbok tour of 1981 and the election of John Key as Prime Minister in 2008. All the characters from Helen Clark to Tom, Dick, and Harry (John Key’s mates from the Burnside Rugby Club) sport All Black gear on their bottom halves while they wear ordinary clothes on their top halves. Dawa Devereux’s costuming is a special delight, particularly the knitwear worn by the middle-class intelligentsia in one scene.

Scenes are often divided into two so that on one occasion John Key and his mother are discussing John’s lack of interest in the tour while simultaneously at the end of a long table Helen Clark and her father are arguing passionately about it. Four people in a car turn into four people in another car going in a different direction. The clash between protestors and police at the final game of the tour becomes a dangerous dance in which it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

There’s what the public sees and there’s what goes on in the engine room as John Key is prepared for the election by his minders as well as Key as a student at Canterbury University and there’s Helen Clark as a young, long-haired, serious-minded lefty and as a P.M. losing power and energy after eight long years.

In Alex Greig’s beautifully timed comic performance Key comes across as a smiling Forrest Gump, while Harrriette Cowan’s Helen Clark is in the end treated more sympathetically and her final scene with her friend and electorate secretary is touching.

Paul Harrop and Erin Banks have great fun with their roles. Harrop plays Key’s anxious Senior Press Secretary terrified at what his inexperienced charge will say next; Banks is hilarious as Gerry Brownlee and a tiny mask transforms her into a wicked caricature of Mark Sainsbury.

Nick Zwart’s simple design of a row of metal lockers is amusingly utilised and adds greatly to the comedy which under Hannah Smith’s dynamic and inventive direction her quartet of actors play to the hilt though spoiling it at times by too much shouting.

The comedy’s intent is summed up by a Wellingtonian’s letter to the latest Guardian Weekly: politics and rugby remain enmeshed, with governments prepared to calculate and spend accordingly to win office using the truly political football.  
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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Sport, politics and media make for a vital piece of theatre

Review by Robbie Ellis 28th Sep 2011

The third of BATS Theatre’s rugby-related plays taking place during the Global Oval Ball Sports Tournament, this is another which is only tangentially to do with the sport itself. The Engine Room fuses the physicality, vocabulary, sound worlds and imagery of rugby, protest, politics and the media in a vibrant and provocative way, and raises more questions than answers.  

Two weeks ago, playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell turned 25. He was not yet born when the 1981 Springbok Tour happened, but grew up with its legend: “fundamental to our concept of who we are”, according to his writer’s note. His initial inspiration was a 2006 radio interview with John Key (coincidentally 25 years McCubbin Howell’s senior at Burnside High School). Key was asked where he had stood during the Tour – had he been anti or pro? He claimed quite improbably not to remember. 

The script runs two parallel timelines (1981 and 2008), switching between the two with projected titles, video and an evocative soundtrack. The two principals are Key and Helen Clark, who is depicted by Harriette Cowan. She has the voice nailed, with a statesman-like demeanour to match, donning long hippie hair for the 1981 scenes. Contesting the seat of Mt Albert for the first time, her staunch views and progressive lifestyle meet the reality of electability. 

The two timelines come to their climaxes on specific days: 12 September 1981, the day of the third All Blacks-Springboks test at Eden Park; and 8 November 2008, the day of the General Election when the success of John Key’s National Party ended the Clark Labour Government. While Clark’s journey as depicted in The Engine Room isn’t particularly revelatory, it stands in opposition to Key’s much more uncertain past. 

John Key is played by Alex Greig (his third portrayal of a National Party MP this calendar month after Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Public Service Announcements). His impersonation is broad, closer to caricature than fine nuance, and his vocal mimicry isn’t nearly as precise as Harriette Cowan’s for Helen Clark. That said, he delivers a strong performance which stands on its own merits, and scores audience points every time he talks about “New Zullunders”. 

In the 2008 timeline, Key’s non-confrontational nature is illustrated perfectly by the choice of drinking vessel: he uses a smiley-face coffee mug, while his political advisors consume Starbucks takeaway cups. Both the Key and Clark camps contend with the announcement of the election date, a televised debate, and election night itself. In 1981, the battle lines are drawn early for Key in a rugby locker-room before the Springboks even land in the country: he is literally in the middle as the growing political tension polarises his friends and team-mates. His struggle is not against apartheid or for rugby, but rather in resisting the extremism of both sides. 

This is where the play gets really interesting and starts raising questions. For a start, how many New Zealanders in 1981 had no strong feeling one way or the other? Was it possible to do so? How many were uncomfortable with apartheid but comfortable with following a match if the TV was on? And most importantly, how many didn’t get involved on either side but tried to reconcile people close to them who held strongly opposing views? Surely not every man, woman and child swung one way or the other. 

The character Ralph McCubbin Howell has drawn and Alex Greig plays not only doesn’t commit to a pro- or anti-tour stance, he doesn’t even commit seriously to being a peace-maker. He makes small gestures in all three directions, but ultimately Key doesn’t stand for anything. Would this have been acceptable, or even credible for member of the general public in 1981? I’m under 30, so it’s hard for me to say. When you’re running for Prime Minister, does such past behaviour indicate a spineless lack of conviction or the necessary flexibility for leadership? I’ll stop here to avoid getting seriously off-topic, but there’s room for more personal response in the comments below. 

Director Hannah Smith has elicited an energetic sense of pace, with effective use of split stage and sudden flips in orientation to cut between simultaneous scenes. Uther Dean’s lighting design supports this well and William O’Neill’s operation is quick and sharp. The main set item (design by Nick Zwart) is a bank of changing room lockers and a clever device it is: aside from using it literally as lockers, opening out one or two doors at a time reveals new backgrounds to change location. 

The four actors cover 21 named characters. John Key and Helen Clark I’ve addressed, but between their main roles, Alex Greig finds variously outrageous hairpieces to play Heather Simpson, Peter Davis and Phil Goff; and Harriette Cowan hams up Steven Joyce and his back-room manoeuvrings. 

Paul Harrop’s first appearance as Kevin Taylor, Key’s Senior Press Secretary, is an amusing contrast from the last role I’d seen him in (an anti-Tour protest leader in Tom Scott’s Rage). His range, from the sedate Jim Anderton and the furious Dick from Burnside Rugby Club is impressive. 

However, the frequency of Erin Banks’s character changes is mind-boggling: she and her malleable face pull off a tour-de-force of voices, costumes and comic timing. From the grossly caricatured (Mark Sainsbury, Don Brash – two lines added there since Sunday morning did not go amiss) to the straight and sincere (Bronagh Key, and a long-time friend of Helen Clark’s), she plays everything amazingly. That said, surely John Key’s mother wouldn’t have sounded completely Kiwi; there should be some Austrian in that accent? 

Special mention must go to AV designer Tane Upjohn-Beatson. Working with pop songs and photographs from the time; footage and audio from Merata Mita’s documentary Patu!; and devising original soundscapes, Upjohn-Beatson has created visuals and a soundtrack that lift the performance and turn it into a piece of total theatre. The crowning moment of this approach comes in the simultaneous climax of all four character-timelines in a tightly-choreographed mix of sport and politics which teeters on the edge of overblown and unfocused, but pays off deliciously well. 

Throughout the play, the audio is unobtrusive when it needs to be but sounds great when it’s in the foreground; levels are impeccably balanced; and the whole package of pre-recorded material and the actors’ live performance is incredibly well integrated. I haven’t seen enough Wellington theatre this year to be sure, but I’d suggest Upjohn-Beatson deserves a Chapman Tripp nomination for Best Sound. 

The Engine Room leans fairly clearly to the political left: while not exactly a hagiography for Helen Clark, many moments paint her in a very positive light, especially alongside John Key. Ultimately, in context, this makes Key a more interesting and challenging figure – ironic for his lack of strong conviction.

The play is live and loud, some characters are coarsely drawn, but it’s all steeped in thorough research and attention to detail. Best of all, it plays with resonances between the realms of sport, politics and media; allows for further connections with the issues of today; and opens up questions and uncertainties to be chewed over in the bar afterwards.

It’s a vital piece of theatre which should get people talking, and I encourage you to do so in the comments section below.  

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.


Dane Giraud October 1st, 2011

 As much as I would love to claim that inanity as my own it actually belongs to George Orwell. 

Samuel Jackson October 1st, 2011

 Sometimes I despair of Theatreview’s liberal attitude to postings because it gives space to inanities like that above. Then I console myself that Dan Giraud has to live inside his head all the time and we are let of lightly. Even so … such a test of tolerance.  

Dane Giraud October 1st, 2011

Saints should always be judged guilty until proved innocent, John. 

John Smythe October 1st, 2011

Newsflash, Dane: the ‘get Helen’ campaign is over. She lost because a majority of voters got sucked into it.  The Engine Room and history show that Helen Clark is one of the most principled politicians NZ has ever had. She is also politically pragmatic. And now she is Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the third-highest UN position – i.e. still standing for fundamental human values and doing something about it.

What is Richard Prebble doing now? More importantly (and this is the point of the play), what are we doing now and what values are driving our voting intentions this election? 

Dane Giraud September 30th, 2011

Was it not Richard Prebble who said, when Helen Clark was (finally) ousted "Despite all the years I have known her I still cannot tell you what she really stood for? 

John Smythe September 30th, 2011

Ralph McCubbin Howell’s The Engine Room is an ingenious show, blending the divisiveness of the 1981 Springbok tour with the 2008 elections within the metaphor of a major rugby tournament. The election ‘final’ is a superb piece of physical theatre (choreographed by Ricky Dey).

Dawa Deveraux’s witty costumes and wigs are a great aid to the quick character changes the actors – are there really only 4 of them: Harriet Cowan, Alex Greig, Paul Harrop, Erin Banks – achieve with such alacrity. Director Hannah Smith pulls it all together (as Robbie said in his review) with Nick Zwart’s locker room set, Tane Upjohn-Beatson’s sound and AV, and Uther Dean’s lighting designs to make for a stimulating show (despite an ‘epic fail’ of AV imagery last night, that will doubtless be solved for future performances).  

The three of us who went last night, for whom there were many moments of nostalgic recognition, agree that beyond being hugely entertaining in and of itself, it leaves us focused on the fundamentals of who we are and what we stand for as the Election looms (8 weeks tomorrow!).  Simultaneously intoxicating and sobering.

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