Oamaru Opera House - Inkbox, Oamaru

06/02/2013 - 10/02/2013

Production Details

Written by Paul Baker
Directed by Patrick Davies

Small town. Big news.  

At 2.30 a.m. on February 10, 1913, two strangers arrive at the house of the Oamaru Harbourmaster. Their task is to secretly telegraph a grim secret from the Antarctic that will become immense international news.

That much is true. The Night Visitors then imagines both the comedy and the drama of this unique moment in Oamaru and New Zealand history.

How will the traumatized Polar explorers cope with their sudden return to ‘civilization’? And how will the Forresters – Mum, Dad and two kids, a typical New Zealand family with quite enough problems of their own – react to their unexpected night visitors?

During the wee hours of February 10, and over the next few days as the news of Captain Scott’s death becomes public, the phenomenon known as ‘Polar madness’ starts to emerge, while the fault lines in the Forrester family are comically exposed.

The Night Visitors explores an Oamaru and New Zealand of exactly one hundred years ago. Many conventions and beliefs have changed, but human nature seems constant. The play also takes the audience back to the stark tragedy of the Antarctic.

The Night Visitors was commissioned as part of the OamaruScott100 centenary commemorations of the Terra Nova’s clandestine visit to Oamaru.  Paul Baker’s previous play, Meet the Churchills, also balanced drama and comedy, and fact and fiction.  It enjoyed a critical and commercially successful season at Wellington’s Circa Theatre in 2011, and was nominated for several awards. A previous play, Conscience, was produced at the Court Theatre Christchurch in 2003.

Paul Baker was Rector of Waitaki Boys’ High School from 1999 to 2012. He is uniquely positioned to write The Night Visitors, having visited the Antarctic (with three boys from the school) and researched the New Zealand of a century ago for his doctoral thesis.

ODT InkBox Oamaru Opera House
Dates/ Times: 8pm Wed 6th to Sat 9th | 4pm Sat 9th | 1pm Sun 10th
Ticket Prices: Adult $37, Seniors $32, Children $20
Location: The Otago Daily Times InkBox, Oamaru Opera House
90 Thames Street
Telephone Bookings:  +64 03 433 0770 or 0800 224 224
Counter Bookings: OoH Box Office, iSite Oamaru, and usual Ticketdirect outlets
Online Bookings:

Oamaru Opera House Website:

Caroline Claver
Jon Pheloung
Nathan Mudge
Cody McRae
Francis Biggs
Richard Huber

Theatre , Comedy ,

A rich and satisfying theatrical experience

Review by Sharon Matthews 11th Feb 2013

I hate reviews that give the details of the plot away in the first paragraph, but given that The Night Visitors makes its premiere performance during the Oamaru Scott 100 festival, I think I can be forgiven if I reveal that the storyline pivots on Scott’s doomed bid to be the first to reach the North Pole.

According to the programme, The Night Visitors was commissioned especially for this festival, which commemorates the 1913 return of the ship, the Terra Nova, following the discovery of Scott’s death.

Although this play commemorates an actual historical incident, the return and the tragedy that precipitates it happen off stage. As in his previous play, Meet the Churchills (which premiered at Circa Theatre in 2011), playwright Paul Baker balances fact and fiction as he tells the story of a late night visit made by two members of the returning 1910 British Antarctic Expedition to the Harbourmaster’s house in Oamaru.

While that visit is documented, little is known about the actual events of that night or the people involved. Baker is thus able to weave a very intimate story of a fragmented and fractious family through an imaginative re-telling of an historical event that is firmly set in Oamaru.

On one level this play is a delightful comedy, with a tongue-in-cheek nod and wink to its specific audience. It was an astonishing experience to sit among a packed audience laughing uproariously at in-jokes aimed specifically – and proudly – at a regional audience. Just for that alone, Baker’s play can be considered a triumph of community theatrical story-telling, and one that the sold-out season attests has struck a real chord with his audience.   

On another, it shows the shattering impact, upon a sensitive young adolescent trapped in a society which values rugby over reading, of this contact with a wider world in which scientific discoveries and exploration are valued and encouraged. 

On another level, this is a play about religious belief: about God and the power of nature; about the commercialism of celebrity, and – most striking in a play rooted both literally and culturally in good Scottish Presbyterianism – about suffering and the “stench of martyrdom.”

Director Patrick Davies is to be congratulated for his skilful navigation of this complex layering. The pace never falters; snappy dialogue and strong characterisation make for a rich and satisfying theatrical experience. 

Perhaps as a result of this complexity, Baker relies, however, on some very conventional tropes of characterisation. The Harbourmaster’s wife, Mrs Enid Forrest, is an example of the monstrous mothers found so often in New Zealand literature whose narrow domestic tyranny and insistence on empty forms of religious convention constrains and deforms the emotional life of (mostly) her sons. See, for example, Maurice Gee’s In My Father’s Den, and most of the maternal figures in Frank Sargeson. Mrs Forrest is, however, played with such charm and verve by Caroline Claver that we forgive her for these qualities. As indeed, we forgive Captain Edgar Forrest – a robust and extremely professional performance from Jon Pheloung – for his equally conventional arc from hen-picked husband to figure of quiet authority.

In fact, all the performances are conspicuously good. Nathan Mudge (Master Jack Forrest) and Cody McRae (Master Cecil Forrest) are extremely believable as feuding siblings. The relationship between Jack and Surgeon Lieutenant Adams (Francis Biggs) is an especially complex one, and much of the impact of the second half relies on our recognition of the depth of Jack’s hero-worship.

A key scene in which Adams, who is deeply damaged by his traumatic experiences and his discovery of Scott’s body, draws Jack into his icy interior landscape is handled with great dexterity and supported by an excellent lighting and sound design (by Davies and producer Megan Peacock Coyle).

Mention must also be made of Richard Huber, whose Lieutenant Kerr does not subscribe to the hero worship of Scott, and consequently gets some marvellously acerbic dialogue.

While Baker’s dialogue is fabulously entertaining, and I particularly enjoyed the comic contrast between rough colonial society and ‘home’ (at one point a character calls Oamaru “a progressive new society … none of your old vices here”), I felt that there was some conflict between the domestic comedy and the intricate thematic density of this piece. Some sections could easily be cut, especially the “tit for tat” domestic wrangling between Captain and Mrs Forrest, as it dilutes the overall intensity.

These concerns aside, The Night Visitors is a significant piece of New Zealand theatre, written by a playwright of considerable skill. A recent Fortune Theatre newsletter indicates that they are also interested in producing this play.  I certainly hope so, as The Night Visitors fully deserves further opportunities and a much longer season.


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