The Fundraiser

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

27/04/2006 - 03/06/2006

Production Details

By Cheryl Amos
Directed by Kate-Louise Elliott

When the word Fundraising is mentioned it often sends a shiver down the spine of those who know they are going to be involved. Written by Cheryl Amos and directed by Kate-Louise Elliot The Fundraiser is an hilarious journey through the haywire world of bake sales, raffle tickets and sausage sizzles, commonly known as fundraising. From primary schools to bowling clubs there aren’t many people who can say they have never been involved with fundraising, and while the end result is very worthwhile and gratifying the trials and tribulations of getting there are a whole other story, as The Fundraiser will show.

The Fundraiser tells the very Kiwi story of a group of committed parents who must band together to raise some money, after they find that their small town playgroup is in a spot of financial trouble. Unfortunately the trusty sausage sizzle won’t quite cut it and bigger ideas have to be thought up. Of course, having the idea to fundraise is the easy part, the thing that makes real life fundraising so crazy, and the area the play focuses on, are all the different personalities involved and the power struggle that evolves out of the type of chaos that only fundraising can create.

In The Fundraiser’s case there’s the control freak mum, the totally unorganised mum, the ‘lets just get on and do it’ mum and the ‘I don’t know how to do this’ mum, who all try valiantly to combine their powers to raise the much needed cash. Everyone has the same end goal, but unfortunately they all have totally different ways of getting there, not to mention a decent array of personal problems to bring with them on the journey.

Margo - Dushka Blakely
Sharmaine - Angela Green
Delma - Irene Wood
Faylene - Jane Donald
Andy, Rooster (& others) - Sebastian Hurrell

Production manager - Shelley Irwin
Set design - Toby Papozoglou
Lighting design - Laurie Dean
Costume co-ordinator - Anne De Geus
Set construction - Dean Wright & Mark Willoughby
Stage Manager - John Lepper
Choreography - Jennifer Cowan

Theatre ,

1hr 30 mins, incl. interval

Way too premature

Review by John Smythe 01st May 2006

If a suburban amateur theatre group had come up with The Fundraiser to give themselves and their friends a bit of a romp through familiar ground, I’d have said fair enough, if that’s what you want to do with your spare time, go for it.

But Centrepoint is a professional company that draws on taxpayer, ratepayer and corporate funding as well as its box-office. We have a right to expect better from them and indeed with Sebastian Hurrell’s Palangi Loi / Tongan White Boy (reviewed 9 April) Centrepoint showed it could nurture a new work through to its premiere with excellent results.

Written by Cheryl Amos, The Fundraiser follows a homegrown popular theatre tradition begun nearly a decade ago by then artistic director Alison Quigan, usually working with a co-writer. Being actors first, writers next, their shows generally offer plenty of wacky performance opportunities but lack the depth that could make them classical Kiwi comedies.

Ideally Centrepoint could be New Zealand’s answer to actor/ writer/ director Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (UK), which has incubated plays that have invariably gone on to be produced by Britain’s National Theatre, transfer to the West End and enjoy new incarnations around the world.

If Quigan et al were making paint-by-numbers imitations of the likes of Ayckbourn, Amos has dished up the kitsch tea-towel replica. Frankly I am shocked that The Fundraiser could be scheduled for a 6-week season when the script, let alone the production, falls so far short of its potential. This suggests to me that the perpetrators don’t even know what’s missing, like credibility for instance.

The premise is fine in principle. A slack treasurer has failed to open mail and the Longburn Playgroup finds itself with one week to raise $1,400-odd or they’ll be turfed out of their local church hall premises. Leaving aside the notion that no-one is this small community actually talks to each other – wouldn’t the vicar or a vestry person have said something to someone as the situation worsened? – at least it gives motive force to the forward action.

But the ineptness of the small committee of playgroup mums in running a sausage sizzle then a cake stall at the side of a state highway, rather than at a shopping centre, is beyond belief. Besides which, do they have no experience let alone friends, neighbours and families to lend even a modicum or support? What kind of community is this?

Committee chair Margot Mitchell-Potts is a totally two-dimensional control-freak harridan and – as if she and director Kate Louise-Elliott think we’ll be too thick to get it – Dushka Blakely plays it so over-the-top that when the opportunity for pathos and empathy is suddenly and arbitrarily introduced, it has no effect. If a writer, then their actors and director, can’t warm to the fallibilities and vulnerabilities that make their flawed characters human, why should the audience give a damn?

Faylene, the disorganised, lactating, farting (yes, it’s that level of humour), cheap wine-drinking treasurer, gets a better go in the writing and at the hands of Jane Donald, although since she tries so hard to do a Kiwi accent (being English), I do wish someone would coach her properly. Faylene’s journey from inept to successful organiser, however, is marred through slim motivation and a pseudo magic-realism sequence that makes her transition meaningless, even if it does get the scene changed for the karaoke finale.

Angela Green finds humanity and humour in Sharmaine, a refugee from an exclusive sect. Her daughter, Shania, is the centre of her life but the father is a Mâori gansta bludger called Rooster, given the full stereotype treatment by Sebastian Hurrell. When diminutive Charmaine summons the capacity to knee him in the balls, after he threatens to take Shania off her, he just whimpers off.

And does she concern herself that he now has even more reason to avenge himself by abducting Shania (wherever she is – we’re not told)? No, she stays around for the karaoke and her character’s big payoff is that she gets out of her drab clothes into a gorgeous little blue number with matching strap shoes. This failure to follow through on the created circumstances is typical of the script.

Hurrell also plays another racial stereotype as the Japanese karaoke machine guy, but does better as his main character, Andy, the hall caretaker with a soft spot for Sharmaine. The script, however, offers no opportunity for this relationship to develop. He’s just joshed about it by the other women, who’ve seen something we haven’t, then it all turns out nice and predictably in the end with narry a challenge or twist to make it exciting.

Irene Wood turns in a good performance as Delma, the curmudgeonly grandma (of Norton and Harley), who turns out to be a dab hand, leg and foot at line dancing and hoe-down. Again there are umpteen possibilities for making the most of a character like this that are ignored by the writer.

When a playwright considers "what if?", they must follow through with "then what?" then ask themselves, "so what?" They stand or fall on their ability to turn obstacles into opportunities with creative flair. The children, for instance, are mentioned but never made real in the emotional lives of these women. While sayable dialogue is essential – and that can be said to be one strength of this play – there’s a lot more to wroughting a good play than that.

I have had my gripes with Alison Quigan et al’s plays in the past but they’re infinitely better crafted than The Fundraiser. And people have flocked to them. They’ve filled the coffers to fund more challenging works and one or two of them have been produced elsewhere. The market has spoken and who am I to argue with that?

I’ll be fascinated to see how The Fundraiser fares. Will the good people of Palmerston North realise they’re being sold a lemon or will they go like lemmings to the long-drop? If there is any justice it won’t see out its 6-week season and Palangi Loi, which only played two weeks, will return to full houses.

Toby Papazoglou’s local hall set is excellent and well lit by Laurie Dean. What a shame the environmental adventure house approach to the auditorium, through tiny tots’ art works, sets up a promise that isn’t fulfilled.
Bottom line: this birth was way too premature.


Tolis Papazoglou May 7th, 2006

Hi John Thanks for the reply. But I beg to differ. It does not matter WHO puts up the money for a production. Artistic Programming is not within the realm of the reviewer, within a review's parameters. If one disagrees about programming one could put up a comment in a Forum column. But leave the review alone. As for passion I'm all for it. Why do you think I write here? Fondly Tolis

John Smythe May 6th, 2006

Hi Tolis I certainly think it's a critic's role to question programming choices, especially where public funding is concerned. Producers are also accountable to their paying public so if, as in this case, I believe the potential of a new script is not realised or has been subverted, it would be irresponsible not to say so. As for 'unbridled anger' - I reject that charge. Misdirected, inintially, certainly. And a committed challenge, delivered with passion - just the way we like out theatre. Best wishes

Tolis Papazoglou May 6th, 2006

Hey John One question jumps out to me : Are critcs/reviewers supposed to challenge programming decisions of the theatres, as well as of the plays/productions.....? Rein in any unbridled anger, my friend. It's not helping. Warm regards as ever.

Danny Mulheron May 4th, 2006

too right

John Smythe May 4th, 2006

Danny No way do I see The Fundraiser as “a mosquito” or “a butterfly”. It’s a fully committed production scheduled for a 6-week season in the clear hope it will attract full houses. If it does, good luck to them but if it doesn’t (it was about 25 per cent full the Sunday I went, most from one group booking) someone will be looking for some answers. Where I did blunder was in assuming it was all the script’s fault – and that is dealt with above. Returning to your metaphor, the creative world – funding-wise – does seem to favour ‘emerging’ artists. Once you’ve shuffled off that chrysalis and become a butterfly, your days are numbered. “Out brief candle,” as someone said. Why? Because the butterfly flew too close?

Danny Mulheron May 4th, 2006

Hey John, I think you could be guilty of stretching a butterfly on a rack. You don't go after a mosquito with a blunderbus, whatever the quality of the play there are better opponents for your pen than The Fundraiser. You may be correct in what you say but now you have no editor to hold you back you might think to take a breath before your criticsms are merely seen as unkind. It is great to see you furious and there is a a lot to be justifiably furious about and unconstructive workshopping of plays might be one of them. The desperation of theatres to put on what they think will be popular hits may be another. We are reaping what we sow here. A large generation of thirty something writers have not been given the opportunity to have their plays produced and if they are it is in one theatre like bats which can not provide much of an income nor has the budget to hire actors. Wellington and especially auckland needs another designated theatre space that will serve a different generation of writers actors and directors in the same way that Circa did 30 years ago. kind regards Danny Mulheron

John Smythe May 2nd, 2006

Thanks Katrina – and my apologies to Cheryl for burdening her with more responsibility for the outcome of The Fundraiser than appears to be her due. The focus of my concern shifts if the script was workshopped to a point where it was deemed ready for production, then cut within an inch of its life in rehearsal while the writer was denied access to – let alone participation in – the process. While it’s dangerous to be too prescriptive about it, and it will always be true that the reality of looming production will inevitably throw up new challenges and opportunities for improvement, the playwright should not be excluded. I vote for the principle that where disputes arise, the writer – as ‘birth mother’ – should have executive authority on questions of edits and rewrites. If a producer, director and cast cannot convince the writer of the need for specific changes before opening night, they – the writer, or whoever they were in dispute with – should be prepared to learn the hard way. Many a time, to my certain knowledge, someone has said, in the wake of an opening, “I fought tooth and nail for (this or that) and now I see I was wrong. They were right.” My view of the shortcomings of The Fundraiser remains and hopefully those who were responsible for them know who they are.

Katrina Chandra May 2nd, 2006

Hi John, Thanks for this blog site it is a great place to come to for theatre dialogue.

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