THE HISTORY BOY
17/03/2021 - 20/03/2021
17/03/2020 - 21/03/2020
All of history is just stories we tell each other to understand the world, and every story is at least in part about the person doing the telling. Performed by the award-winning Matt Powell (Awkward Threesome, Soap Factory) and inspired by the imperfect recollections of performer and audience alike.
Matt Powell is an improvisor, director, and writer with over 20 years’ experience creating and performing shows. He has been part of The Court Jesters Christchurch), PlayShop, WIT, and Soap Factory. He has been performing in the New Zealand Fringe Festival since 2014. The History Boy is his first full-length solo show, born from a development at Late Night Knife Fight (winner: September 2019).
“Powell brings forth intricate details and quick-witted responses that reward an intelligent audience’s attention.” — The Plus Ones, April 2018
Tapere Iti at Te Auaha, 65 Dixon Street, Wellington
TUESDAY 17 – SATURDAY 21 MARCH 2020
Price General Admission $20.00 Concession $15.00 Fringe Addict $14.00
Wheelchair access available
Theatre , Improv ,
Three stories invented and interwoven with cultivated wit
Review by Malcolm Morrison 18th Mar 2021
Matt Powell returns to The Fringe Festival as The History Boy after a seemingly cursed year of five cancelled shows due to Covid-19. The show itself is anything but cursed, as the history-buff Powell tells three brilliant stories with his solo-improvised show, directed by Jennifer O’Sullivan, and with the talented Sebastian Morgan-Lynch providing backing music on the Cello.
Powell starts the show by regaling us with a charming tale from his childhood explaining how he became obsessed with history and learning various facts. He conveys this with a soft spoken, yet intimate tone, drawing the audience in and then capturing our hearts with some healthy self-deprecating jokes. This culminates with his getting the pieces which inspire the rest of the show: interesting historical facts from the minds of his audience.
The show itself is made up with three stories, respectively inspired by three facts: barnacle penises being proportionally longer than any other animal; a type of buffalo uses a matriarchal democracy to decide things for their herd; a person named Hermes Trismegistus translated the stories of the Hellenic faith into Latin in 1463.
This part of any improv show is a delight and it is doubly so for The History Boy. Powell does a fantastic job drawing members of the audience into conversation to expand on their facts (despite us audience members struggling to think of non-animal, actual history facts). We then get to watch the cogs working as he tries to take the disparate but somewhat disruptive pieces of inspiration and come up with the direction of the show, which Powell does ingeniously.
The first story is a series of lectures – with some demonstration – of the mating habits of various species. One on Sloths screaming to get their mates to make the long journey from one tree to their own. Another beginning with “ads for hot cicadas in our areas who are single”. The final, a human courtship ritual: two people in a cinema, slowly trying to initiate physical contact in exactly the awkward tropey way that you are thinking. Powell – acting solo – plays into the further awkwardness of miming two people getting intimate to hilarious effect.
The second story follows the Democratic Buffalo Caucus as they perform rally speeches to their followers. Powell manages to make something as absurd as this into a very funny allegory of real-world political movements with some great physical comedy to boot. The Modern Republican Party and a reverse Suffragette Movement, being two examples of this.
The final story is the one that really blows me away. Powell tells the tale of Hermes Trismegistus’ life in the style of Ancient Greek theatre/texts. Accuracy of the depiction notwithstanding, the evocation of what we think is Ancient Greek is near perfect with the play told in third person like, “Sing, oh Muse, here lies Hermes Trismegistus.”
The real fun starts when Powell breaks character to make the audience into the chorus of this play. Whenever something good or bad happens we all need to yell out “Sing praise unto him!” or “Woe unto you, Hermes Trismegistus!” I don’t recall us ever getting either phrase right, or in time, which only makes the whole thing even funnier.
These three stories are cycled through, one scene per story at a time, which serves to make the whole show very well paced. Powell really gets to show off his cultivated wit and ability to think on his feet in this format, developed from decades of performing. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re having a good time and the performer makes it all look easy, then they are actually doing a really difficult thing extremely well. Powell personifies this tonight.
I highly recommend people to go and see The History Boy at Te Auaha this week. The show ends on Saturday the 20th, so there is still time. Powell is a household name in the Wellington improv scene and there is a good reason for it!
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A skilful humanising of historical events
Review by Patrick Davies 18th Mar 2020
Napoleon B (not a relative of Cardi B) said that “History is a set of lies agreed upon” and this show is about historical accuracy to it’s greatness and to its detriment, possibly.
Matt Powell has been on the scene for a long time, fixing his position as a quick-witted and intelligent performer, so it is no surprise that he’s read a lot of books. I mean a lot of books. You’ll hear how, out of this, grew a love of the stories of our history – and what is art if not a reflective look at the stories that make up our shared existence.
The History Boy is Powell’s first solo performance, ably directed by Jennifer O’Sullivan. The audience is asked to share factoids with each other and then Powell extracts threads from which he presents the unfolding scenes of those stories. It’s improvised and audience-dependent so, for last night only, Chinchillas, the 1915 Christmas miracle in ‘no mans land’ and the Cuban missile crisis are our fodder.
Armed with 3 red boxes, Sebastian Morgan-Lynch providing cello accompaniment and Flinn Gendall on lights, Powell takes his time to set up, evolve and furnish these characters and scenes. The characters are keenly observed, one of the crowd favourites being the nihilist German soldier stuck in a trench, his thoughts on Christmas being funny without losing the scene.
As a solo show (apart from music and lights) there is no-one else to bounce off, other than the other characters. At times the dialogue can become commentary; there’s description of the inside of the American submarine, where trusting in the spatial endowment would hold interest. While the trench scenes characters work extremely well, again, the environment seems lacking.
I feel all three performers could let a little more loose with their tools. Powell has a massive job to do and, on opening, sometimes it feels a little restrained due to ensuring the accuracy to what the audience has provided. His moves between characters in both the trench and submarine scenes are measured as if he’s placing chess moves on the board. While Morgan-Lynch goes further than simply playing the cello (the Christmas carol is a brilliant offer), it feels that a more percussive approach to the trench scene may add difference. The same with lights – there is difficulty when using a house rig, but I look for stronger different offers such as floor lights.
This is not to say Powell is not a good physical performer, as seen in his evolution of the chinchilla. If you’re going to start with single cell organisms and take us through the Earth’s epochs showing a wide variety of fauna in such an entertaining way, your physical abilities are going to get a work out. I’d like to see this ‘looseness’ inform the other scenes.
History is big and it’s a phenomenal task to use its breadth and depth as your jump off point. By getting the audience to provide the stories, and especially their take on it, Powell can manage to side-step discussion on authenticity while using his own knowledge to ensure that it’s as accurate as it can be. I wonder what discussions would occur after a night when there’s conflict over the viewpoints of an event, though Powell’s MC skills are formidable so there’s no worry there.
I’m extremely happy that after each night there is thehistoryboy.nz so that you can see what the victors have written up about the events used at your show and others.
It’s a skillful 40-odd minutes that humanises historical events, and a timely reminder that, just like traffic, it isn’t around us – it is us.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer