The Gods of Warm Beer

Court One, Christchurch

28/03/2009 - 02/05/2009

Production Details

THE GODS OF WARM BEER is a rip-snorting comic epic that deals with hypocrisy, alienation, betrayal, rugby, religion, sex, violence, politics and bad language. It’s Westport in 1951. On March 28 The Court Theatre proudly presents a comedy where, true to their West Coast roots, the characters are feisty, argumentative, passionate and aggressive. And so are the men.

At the heart of the play is the bitter sin of betrayal: the defection of a star player from union to league – an act of terminal treason against province, country and the lads in the pub. As the character-driven comedy unfolds, the "Gods of Warm Beer" – Sydney Holland, Joe McCarthy, Harry Truman and J Edgar Hoover – secretly manipulate the events of the 1951 Waterfront Strike for their own agendas. The result is one of Hawes’ most personal and political pieces – as he puts it "my attempt to write Tennessee Williams as if he had a sense of humour".

Artistic Director Ross Gumbley knew THE GODS OF WARM BEER was one that The Court Theatre had to do as soon as he read the script. "Peter Hawes writes plays of ideas, and he’s crammed this script with brilliant observations on humanity, politics and the gap between the two. It’s a phenomenally layered piece of theatre".

Playwright Peter Hawes initially set out to write a biography of his father, rugby player Bobby Hawes, who "defected" to league in 1950. As Hawes began his work, however, he was struck by the thought: "If only his contract had been signed in 1951 instead of 1950, I could have brought in the Lock-out." Thus the biography was abandoned and Hawes "happily got down to the business of creating truth."

Staging THE GODS OF WARM BEER was no light undertaking. Twenty-two characters are played by ten actors, all of whom are "at the top of their game for a two and a half hour tour-de-force", according to Gumbley. It also marks the return to The Court Theatre by veteran actor Alistair Browning.

The title refers to a saying of Hawes’ father: "Sometimes you go to the races and the beer is cold and the pies are warm, but sometimes the pies are cold and the beer is warm." The "Gods of Warm Beer", then, are the forces of entropy, ill-fortune: Murphy’s Law personified.

Gumbley believes that the comedy is "one of the great New Zealand plays" and that despite (or even because of) the coarse language and content, THE GODS OF WARM BEER has wide appeal. "This is our history, our people and our story. What happened on the West Coast back then has a resonance for all of New Zealand now."

Hawes agrees in his trademark way: "We were witty and wise back then in the fifties, people to be proud of and to remember. We don’t. Well here’s what them old-fashioned, cardiganedly uncool, grey-hatted inaweseome folks can be like when jazzed up with a bit of sex and violence".

Will Alexander, Tim Bartlett, Alistair Browning, Geoffrey Heath, Matt Hudson, Phil Grieve,

Steph McKellar-Smith, Sandra Rasmussen and Amy Straker

Venue: Court One, The Court Theatre, Christchurch  
Production Dates:  28 March – 2 May 2009
6pm Monday / Thursday;
7:30pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday
(no show Sundays).
2pm matinee Saturday 4 April

Adults $42, Senior Citizens $35, Tertiary Students $25,
School Children $15, Group discount (20+) $33
The Court Theatre, 20 Worcester Boulevard;
963 0870 or

Billy:  Will Alexander
Rory/Joe McCarthy:  Matt Hudson
Maureen:  Sandra Rasmussen
Sydney Holland/Max:  Phil Grieve
Pook/Ernie:  Gary Miller

Horace/Truman/Christ/ Sgt Udstrom/Ted:  Geoffrey Heath
Skin/Maddock:  Tim Bartlett
Rose:  Amy Straker
Holyoake/Perce/J Edgar Hoover/Dan:  Alistair Browning
Gloria/Mrs Ahern:  Steph McKellar-Smith

Set designer:  Tony Geddes
Lighting designer:  Geoff Nunn
Sound designer:  Brendan Albrey
Costume designer:  Jenny Cunningham

Production manager:  Peter McInnes
Stage manager (rehearsals):  Anna Dodgshun
Stage manager (show):  Charlotte Thompson
Operator:  Josh Major
Props:  Nicki Evans
Workshop:  Nigel Kerr

Funny, exciting and surprising

Review by Lindsay Clark 29th Mar 2009

If ‘New Zealand in the fifties’ were a prompt in a word association exercise, how often it would raise the response ‘dull’! There was the industrial unrest of course, the determined crushing of the militant unions by Sidney Holland’s new National government and there was the coming of rugby league, but somehow it had all gone rather blurry before the rampant imagination of Peter Hawes got hold of it.

Now this ebullient playwright tweaks together West Coast experiences of the time, which are brought to robust stage life by the strong creative talent at Court under the adventurous direction of Ross Gumbley.

As Hawes explains in the programme notes, he set out to write a biography of his father. There was indeed a football link and West Coast doings, but "factuality kicked to the curb and I got happily down to the business of creating truth." For the picture we are given of it all is the human perspective: people riding out the events and tensions of the day as best they can. Some drama, some comedy, some wickedly shrewd satire, hotted up with sex and violence for today’s appetite.

It is a bold move and for all its cleverness it takes a while to settle and for the threads to mesh. From a satirical glimpse of the gloriously bombastic Sid Holland, lined up with the likes of Harry Truman and J. Edgar Hoover, we tumble into the realm of reality: the Vatican – in Westport. In this pub begins the trail of conflicts and romance involving two local rugby heroes deserting rugby land for league contracts in Huddersfield.

Periodically we are back in the political scene where Sid bullies the plummy Keith Holyoake with wonderful relish. The final scene echoes the first so that Hawes’ overarching purpose, "to remind people", presumably about the absurdity of certainty in almost anything, is entertainingly realised.

Structurally the play is demanding. Most of the cast of ten have to play more than one role and the action bounces energetically from one ‘place’ to another. All is achieved with style and wit. Much credit is due to the set design from Tony Geddes which reinforces the isolation and insignificance of the action on a world playing field, allowing specific locations to be chalked up along with the bookies figures on the pub walls.

With the whole ensemble effort carrying the play so confidently, special mention should nevertheless be made of Alistair Browning’s contrasting characters in the embittered thuggish Perce, and desperately diplomatic Holyoake. All four characters in the romantic roles – the two footy heroes, (Will Alexander, Matt Hudson) and the women prepared to follow them,(Amy Straker, Sandra Rasmussen) – are well cast and perceptively played. The repercussions of their stories and the political framework in which they can be seen are filled out by colourful work from the whole cast.

As a production it is funny, exciting and surprising. As an analysis of New Zealand that was – and is? – it is even more satisfying.


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