The Great Storm of 1868

Smith's Grain Store, (not a specified venue)

08/12/2008 - 14/03/2009

Smith's Grain Store, Oamaru Historic Quarter, (not a specified venue)

14/11/2007 - 30/03/2008

Production Details

This presentation is the hub of our Living History experience. Step inside Oamaru’s world renowned historic quarter as the colonial Victorian world is brought to life by the Living History NZ.

The summer season runs every Wednesday to Sunday inclusive.

The Story
On February 3rd 1868, a great storm threatened Oamaru’s very existence. With a heavy loss of life, the storm offered a turning point in the young town’s life. The port – now in ruins – was the lifeline to new prosperity in trade with mother England.

Will the citizens of the devastated town pull together to rebuild it or will they decide brighter futures lie elsewhere?

Will individual courage and civic determination surface to keep alive their dreams of riches in this brave new world?

Will their plans for a truly grand white stone city be realised?

Experience the Living History Players’ dramatic story of life in early Oamaru as they take you on a journey through the town’s stormy beginnings…

Season #1
Wed-Thu-Fri-Sat-Sun 6.00pm
14th November 2007 to 30th March 2008
Living History Theatre,  
Smith’s Grain Store,  
Tyne Street,  Oamaru.

Season #2
Mon 01 Dec 08 – Tue 31 Mar 09, on Tue, Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, 6:00pm
Smiths Grain Store, 9 Tyne St, Oamaru Historic Quarter, Oamaru
region: Tickets available from:
Living History NZ – 9 Tyne St Oamaru; Oamaru iSite – 1 Thames St, Oamaru; and Top 10 Holiday Park, Chelmer St, Oamaru; or freephone: 0800 live history (0800 548 344).
Tickets include a ‘Meet the Actors’ after party.
Adults $20, Concession $18, Family $60 92 Adults, 2 children).
living history players

use the Bookings page or phone 0800 LIVE HISTORY (0800 548344)

Players (07):
Richard Bowering
Jodie Bate
Kristopher Bate 

Players (08/09)
Peter Coates
Julia Guthrey
Annie Smith

Unique enriching theatre

Review by Alison Begg 23rd Feb 2009

The philosophy of Living History NZ is to "create …storytelling touchstones that connect geographically and emotionally in bringing New Zealand history alive."  It is very fitting that one of their first forays should bring to life the fine building spaces of Oamaru’s renowned Victorian harbour precinct.

The play is performed in the historic Smith’s Grain Store, taking place in the covered thoroughfare built wide enough to accommodate a team of horses with their wagon-loads of grain.  The huge wooden doors at either end are closed for the performance to make an intimate performing area, the very sparseness of which can easily suggest the ad hoc stage of travelling players, the simplicity of an early settler interior, or the deck of a sailing ship.  Half a dozen versatile props and suggestive use of costume, lighting and sound complete all the tools needed by this ingenious group of actors to evoke the stories of our past.

The stories chosen by prize-winning playwright Michelanne Forster stem from two monuments, which can still be seen in Oamaru’s cemetery, erected to commemorate the tragic victims of the storm of February 2, 1868.  On that date a wild, gusting south-east storm caused a house and its occupants to be washed away, and a clipper ship to run aground in Oamaru Harbour.

The play interweaves the threads of both stories, but the spotlight falls mainly on the story of James and Amy Baker, recently arrived immigrants to the new colony from England, and the strains put on their relationship by the harsh conditions they found here.  As their hopes of easy prosperity dim and they suffer the death of a child, he resorts to the bottle and she determines to return home to England.  The tragic outcome is played out against the great storm.

Unencumbered by elaborate sets, the story is enacted at a fast pace.  With 14 roles to fill amongst three players in this new season, the current actors have to be, and are, extremely versatile, showcasing an impressive range of talents and skills.  Julian Anderson’s fine voice is particularly evident as impresario in the travelling players’ scenes which bracket the main play, and in the ringing tones of the Rev. Gifford.  Peter Coates’ ability to adopt a kaleidoscope of accents is exploited in the several bit parts he plays in addition to his main role as James Baker.  With her pretty, expressive Victorian face, Julia Guthrey touches us equally with her performance as young, orphaned Annie Smith and as Amy Baker, painfully emptied of hope and love by the hardships of a new land.

Amidst all the current hoop-la of the refurbished Opera House, I sincerely hope that visitors and residents of Oamaru continue to support the Living History Players at the other end of town, who, without a big budget, but with courage, enthusiasm, and the focussing effect of big and varied talents, have built a piece of enriching theatre absolutely unique to Oamaru.


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Immaculately presented, utterly engrossing retelling of Oamaru history

Review by Terry MacTavish 18th Jan 2008

A theatre angel clearly verging on archangel, entrepreneur/producer Scott Elliffe has embarked on a venture so perfectly realised that it should be adopted throughout the country. This impeccable dramatisation of Oamaru’s tragic 1868 flood and shipwreck celebrates today (18th Jan) its 50th performance, and still has two months to run, surely one of NZ’s longest successful seasons ever.

In the late 19th century Oamaru was an elegant wealthy town, rivalling San Francisco in population, and boasting astonishingly majestic buildings crafted from the local white limestone. Modern Oamaru has based its tourism around this rich heritage, and should be duly grateful to Elliffe for the inspired commissioning of a play to bring the era to thrilling life.

There could be no better choice for writer than Michelanne Forster, whose mastery of strikingly imaginative works based on historical fact is well established. Her plays on the Parker/Hulme murder (Daughters of Heaven) and Larnach’s suicide (Larnach) demonstrate an innovative blend of realistic and non-realistic elements, which Forster again employs to advantage in The Great Storm, revealing the lives and aspirations of the families doomed to suffer the storm’s effects most deeply.

Director Hilary Norris also directed Forster’s stunning My Heart is Bathed in Blood for the Fortune last year and knows precisely how to do justice to her style. The result is a richly rewarding seventy minutes of immaculately presented and utterly engrossing theatre.

Patrons, already in the mood from their stroll to the site through Oamaru’s historic precinct, the finest intact Victorian streetscape in the Southern Hemisphere, are greeted by a distinguished gent (Elliffe himself) in a grey top hat, and handed a facsimile of The Oamaru Times from the fateful day. The music and sound effects, ranging from sea-shanties to birdsong, and culminating in a truly shattering storm (eat your heart out, Lear) are designed by the brilliant James Dunlop.

The performance space, an old grain store with the fabulous Donna Demente’s bust of Queen Victoria suspended ominously from high rafters, is wonderfully atmospheric though challenging to director and cast. Norris, however, turns this to advantage with great panache, employing four sturdy sea-chests for the actors to gyrate over and around as they metamorphose from character to character, and play seemingly effortlessly to an intimate audience seated on bleachers to their north, west, and south. Lighting is used skilfully to suggest anything from a warm summer’s day on the farm to the eerie bedchamber of a child in the throes of nightmare. The props, especially the troupe’s handcart, are delightfully versatile, while the costumes are cleverly constructed for ease of changing as well as authentic appearance.

A barnstorming style of performance is perfect for the material and the site, so the ‘play within the play’ device is peculiarly apt. A troupe of exuberant Victorian travelling players introduce themselves briskly then as quickly transform into the first of the sixteen characters who make up the show. The characters who most engage our interest are eager English immigrants James and Amy Baker, and the suave Rev Gifford who welcomes them to Oamaru.

As Gifford, Richard Bowering is magnificently unctuous, with generous form and a caramel voice that he is rather astonishingly able to adapt to suit a plain-spoken Scottish matron from the Totara Estate ("To shit freely is a blessing"), while as a roguish Swedish painter his singing is glorious. Kristopher Bate is similarly proficient and extraordinarily energetic in his six roles, especially the intense, increasingly driven James Baker, a druggist too dependent on his own concoctions.

Most moving, though, is Jodie Bate’s interpretation of poor Amy Baker, struggling with the hardships of a new land and fated to lose her children to the violence of the storm. Gifted Bate is a dancer as well as an actor, and with her faultless movement skills she creates a completely convincing illusion of the storm-tossed ship on which she attempts to escape the colony. With great control Bate has shown the stoic restraint with which Amy meets life’s blows, only to release all in a soul-piercing shriek as she witnesses the loss of her sons.

Jodie Bate also displays skipping charm as a little orphan from the Totara Estate who has a premonition of the storm, but if the script has a weakness it is that this complementary story of the Totara flood is lost in the more stirring drama of the shipwreck. But this is a small quibble set against the merits of script, direction, performance and indeed the whole bold venture. Oamaru would do well to make the most of this vivid and exceedingly professional retelling of its history. As one of the travelling actors exhorts, "Spare a thought for the mens, womens and childrens who went before us". Thanks to The Living History Players, honouring the past has never been more entertaining.


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