The Middlemarch Singles Ball

Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

05/10/2012 - 13/10/2012

Production Details

The Middlemarch Singles Ball has been running for many years. Famous in New Zealand, and even overseas, it was initiated to help lonely Middlemarch farmers find wives.

However, this year the committee has a problem. Tickets for the Ball have all been sold but, as the organisers discover to their horror, all the ‘singles’ who are coming are female. It seems that previous Balls have been so successful that there are no longer any Middlemarch farmers who are looking for wives.

But the town needs the money – for a new roof for the bowls club and a better (rat-free) kitchen for its community hall – so the Ball must go on. There is only one thing for it – the organisers have to find single males. Unfortunately the only men they can find who are willing to come are from Auckland – and are not exactly farmers…

The Globe Theatre: 104 London Street, 477 3274

Fri 5 Oct, Sat 6 Oct 7:30pm
Sun 7 Oct 2pm  
Tues 9 Oct—Sat 13 Oct 7:30pm   

Tickets $25/$20  
Regent Theatre TicketDirect
477 8597
Door Sales (Cash Only) 

PHYLISS:  Sarah Tregonning
GREG:       Dale Neil
JACK:        Warren Chambers
ROB:          Brook Bray

Performances in review

Review by Barbara Frame 08th Oct 2012

Is the famous Middlemarch ball a victim of its own success? Over the years, it’s found wives for the district’s young men, until one year the committee finds itself in the position of expecting hordes of prospective brides but having no potential husbands to offer them. There is, however some interest from an unexpected quarter. Might importing a few Aucklanders, giving them a crash course in farming skills and passing them off as locals solve the problem?

Ella West’s gentle comedy, directed at the Globe by Keith Scott, consists largely of a series of committee meetings in various places (one of which is Dunedin Hospital) and is strongly rooted in rural Otago. While the plot seems a little contrived and the action is sometimes sluggish, the play’s real strength is in its characters – country people who wear work boots and Swanndris, whose lives are governed by the seasons and whose talk is of utes, dogs, fences and drenching.

Far from being stereotypical, Phyllis (Sarah Tregonning), Greg (Dale Neil), Jack (Warren Chambers) and Rob (Brook Bray) are well-developed characters with cares and passions of their own, and whose lives develop an interest that eclipses the arrangements for the ball.

Last night’s performance was probably unique, incorporating a few unscripted moments involving a portrait of the Queen, a poorly aimed fist, broken glass and a red face, but mercifully no blood. The cast are to be commended for some handy ad-libs and their quick recovery from this mishap. A near-capacity audience enjoyed the play on the opening night of the Otago Festival of the Arts.  


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Needs tighter editing and quicker pace but it made Kevin cry

Review by Terry MacTavish 07th Oct 2012

Middlemarch. Quite apart from the George Eliot connection it just breathes rustic romance to me.  Amazingly dramatic landscape borrowed for Middle-Earth, the Rock and Pillar Range, a cafe called Kissing Gate, and the start of the Otago Central Rail Trail beloved of cyclists the world over.  And then the famous Ball to find wives for lonely farmers, the lovely image of clod-hopping lads with stiletto-heeled city gals! 

So I have been madly attracted by the title of Ella West’s play, hoping I suppose for a dramatisation of Baxter’s Farmhand, who yearns bashfully over the “girls like flowers”, too awkward for dancing and love-making, though he can “listen like a lover to the song of a new tractor engine”.

This must be real New Zealand theatre, a local writer describing an iconic local event. Sadly I missed the play reading of The Middlemarch Singles Ball given by our excellent Stage South, so I ordered the script from Playmarket and have to admit to some disappointment. Where is the dancing? How can you have a play about a ball without dancing?  So much talk. And the characters are not the fascinating young on the eternal quest for Romance, but merely the local committee hoping to make money from it.

In performance, however, the play has plenty going for it, and the audience, including a group from Middlemarch itself, respond enthusiastically. The premise is really good: the hard-up committee discovers to its horror that all the singles coming to the next ball are female: there are no wifeless farmers left.  So it is clear that men must be brought in, from the big cities if necessary, and to save Middlemarch’s reputation, they must be taught before the ball to behave like real farmers, hard southern men.

Plenty of opportunity for comedy there, especially as the Auckland accountants and lawyers will co-operate only if they can live out their own fantasies: drive round in old utes, drink beer by campfires and have sheep dogs that sleep by them. Under the stars.  Sort of Pygmalion in reverse, then. This is an ingenious device which leads the locals to think about who they are, and one of the funniest scenes is when we are treated to a demonstration of the Middlemarch Sheep Farmers’ Walk.

The four committee members are likeable and probably authentic local types. What the actors may lack in experience, they make up for in homespun credibility. Dale Neill plays tough Greg, who still has warm feelings for Phyllis, his childhood friend whose husband is a bit too interested in the local barmaid.  Phyllis is the prime mover, doing her best to make the ball a success while dealing with her personal problems. She is acted rather too emphatically but with sincerity by Sarah Tregonning.  Phyllis and Greg’s brief interlude chatting about farming over an old wooden gate has a laid-back charm.

Warren Chambers is affable Jack, whose second marriage is to a Singles Ball woman who is clearly unsuited to farming life. Jack’s nephew Rob is played by Brook Bray, who has a budding talent for physical comedy. The highlight of opening night was an accident caused by his exuberant energy, literally shattering, but hilarious and neatly covered. The audience rocks. “Shit, that was classic,” says a bloke behind me called, apparently, Kevin.

The play needs more such moments. The first half is far too static, the cast mostly seated round the metaloc table in the bleak community centre with its 1950s portrait of the Queen, where the committee meets. The second half is more visually interesting, including a lively hospital scene that again provides scope for Bray as gauche young Rob.

Under director Keith Scott the cast are given credible life, but the pace flags. As the publicity gives most of the plot there are not many surprises, and the committee’s planning sessions too often go over the same ground. Lines that are funny enough for quick-fire delivery don’t benefit from time for thought, and set changes, even though to Country and Western music, further slow the action.

The script poses various problems for staging, not least the final scene at the ball when the dancers can be heard but not seen.  Scott, however, has come up with a workable way of presenting this.  Phyllis’s climactic speech is more impressive than it reads in the script; in fact Tregonning makes it quite touching. The audience is subdued, and behind me a woman is asked, “Are you crying?”
“No,” is her whispered reply, “but Kevin is!”

Clearly the audience’s involvement and enjoyment are real, proving writer West has made a good choice to explore a New Zealand iconic event rather than the more usual historical identity. This is a genre well worth encouraging. We want our stories told, and with tighter editing and quicker pace The Middlemarch Singles Ball will be a welcome addition to our sense of ourselves. 


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