The Perfect Image

Lot 23, 23 Minnie Street, Eden Terrace, Auckland

20/02/2024 - 24/02/2024

Auckland Pride 2024

Production Details

Sam Brooks – Director and writer

Smoke Labours

The Perfect Image is a stock image photo company with a difference: diversifying the stock image market by including models of colour. Brit, their star model, is mixed race and hates his job (but everybody’s gotta make a living, right?).
A wrench is thrown into Brit’s life when new hire Ryan joins the company. Ryan is charming, he’s attractive, and… he’s white. This new rom-com romps through the politics of passing, queerness and what it’s like to fall for someone you really shouldn’t (oh yeah, there’s that other problem: Brit already has a boyfriend).
The Perfect Image is a new queer rom-com by award-winning playwright Sam Brooks (Riding in Cars with [Mostly Straight] Boys, Burn Her). Starring Sean Rivera, Mark Chayanat Whittet, Michael Hockey and Amelia Reynolds.

Venue: Lot 23, 23 Minnie Street, Eden Terrace
Feb 20-Feb 24 2024
7pm-8:30pm (100 mins in duration with an interval)

Starring Sean Rivera, Mark Chayanat Whittet, Michael Hockey and Amelia Reynolds.

LGBTQIA+ , Theatre ,

100 minutes

An excellent script and delightful performances show Sam Brooks at his very best

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 24th Feb 2024

‘When Lexie likes, she goes hard out’.

An artist friend said this recently about my reviewing.

People seldom say anything much about my writing which is fine by me. In some ways though, it is a triple-edged sword: they’re silent because they like it, they’re silent because they hate it, or worse still, they’re silent because they think I have nothing to say. I’m pretty much OK with that too. What choice do I have? Best to just get on with it ~ but it is true, if I like something I do tend to say so. When modern people don’t like stuff, they invariably tell the world. I do that too, of course. It’s 2024 after all, and fragility, thy name is pronouns and rainbow flags and just about everything else people might choose to hate on.

Shout it loud seems to be the mantra.

I liked Smoke Labours’ The Perfect Image by Sam Brooks and I’m about to say so. Gird your loins. I’m sure you’ll cope. Think of rainbows and pronouns. That sometimes helps.

Reviewers (and artists) are notoriously thin skinned and the stories are often the stuff of histrionic fiction, but fictions, nevertheless, that retain a hint of truth behind the crocodile tears.

The late Mervyn ‘Proc’ Thompson did punch the late Harold Pointer in the eye after a particularly rugged review, the late Judge Mervyn ‘Sticky’ Glue was especially cross with still mortal me when ‘The Press’ subbies removed every mention of his magnificent Scrooge from my review of ‘A Christmas Carol’, and Paul Bushnell failed, intentionally, to mention my Hamlet when he was piqued by the less than perfect review seats he was issued for that long past opening night, not that it bothers me much, which is why I just happen to mention it here fifty odd years later.

Sadly though, reviewing does remain the infill housing of the writer’s art.

So, where’s this going?

Let’s, for a moment, step sideways and take a peek at LGBTQI representation in the performing arts over time. The Greeks were OK with it, on and off the stage, but for a couple of thousand years after Aristophanes, what records we have suggest it went deep underground in the western world with only the Lord Chamberlain having any fun, that is until the 1960’s when it began to slip imperceptibly into Off Off Broadway cafe culture with productions like The Madness of Lady Bright and a few other long-lost fripperies.

It wasn’t until 1968 that queer theatre really hit the mainstream and it did so with a bang when Emory entered on the first night of Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band with the best opening line ever: ‘who do you have to fuck to get a drink round here?’ The answer has echoed doggedly since, in such courageous work as M.Butterfly, Stop Kiss, Angels in America, Rent and Corpus Christi but never without staunch protest from the morality police, the ordinary police, and the evangelicals.

Seems, though, that while we’ll never be totally mainstream, we’re not leaving town anytime soon.

Here’s another diversion that really isn’t:

The Royal Court in London’s Sloane Square is a writers’ theatre. It describes itself as ‘a leading force for cultivating and supporting writers – undiscovered, emerging and established’. We don’t have a theatre like that in Aotearoa but if we did it would provide a home for contemporary writers like Sam Brooks, Nathan Joe, and Victor Rodger, theatre creators like Julia Croft, and in the recent past Peter Wells, Lorae Parry, Witi Ihimaera, and Renee, none of whom would be out of place in those hallowed halls.

While the Royal Court has provided a space and resources for luminaries such as Stoppard, Hare, Ravenhill, Kane, Churchill, and Ryan Calais Cameron, we have to rely on piecemeal, homemade productions, tagged onto festivals, staged in unsuitable rooms, and all self-funded if we want to expose our great queer writers – and others – to the audiences they deserve, and it’s always at the risk of financial loss and burnout.

We need festivals such as Auckland Pride to remain at the forefront of promoting provocative, rough, restless theatre, and we need them to continue to provide opportunities for our unheard voices who, through their outstanding writing, will change the ways we understand, feel, and see, just as Sam Brooks has done and continues to do.

It has to be said that, since its inception in 2013 – not 2018 as some would have you believe – Auckland Pride has enabled exceptional work to be made and seen – Teen Faggots Come to Life (2013), Mumbai Monologues, Queen, Songs for Guy, Legacy Project (2014), Girl on a Corner (2015), Night of the Queer, Vogue (2016), Legacy 4, Femslick (2017), Geish/Tuiga (2018), The Best is Yet to Come (2023), Redundant, Legacy 7, Sirens of the Silver Screen, and The Perfect Image (2024).

Outside of Pride, there has been other outstanding queer work, self-created and self-funded, such as Kopu, The Chosen Haram, Hello Darkness, People Like Us, The 21st Narcissus, Julia Croft’s magnificent If There’s Not Dancing at the Revolution, I’m Not Coming, a raft of exceptional work by Nathan Joe, and from Victor Rodger, Ranterstantrum (2002), My Name Is Gary Cooper (2012), Black Faggot (2014), and Club Paradiso (2015).

In anyone’s language, this is an exceptional portfolio of queer writing by some outstanding – and courageous – writers.

Yes, this is a review of The Perfect Image, but all that precedes it is context for the work of Sam Brooks, its outstanding creator. I’ve dropped some notable names – Stoppard, Hare, Churchill, Kane, Ravenhill – and, while I adore them all, Sam Brooks is, to me, their equal in every way.

His writing is like that of Churchill and Stoppard – those moments of outstanding wit (the ‘I wish I’d said that’ moments) but he’s brutally honest too, exactly like Churchill and Stoppard, but also essentially, and uniquely, himself. His scripts are easy to speak, have an inner lyricism that sings, they’re as quirky as an evening of cat videos, as unpredictable as pandas, and every bit as nourishing. His characters are rich and nuanced and there’s no flab, he writes enough but never too much, and there’s always truckloads for actors to bring to the table. What happens between his characters is painfully human, and he leaves nothing out. His work is crisp and delicate – it’s rom-com country after all – his audience is enraptured from the very first moment because he’s taken all the time he needs to make this gift for us complete, this very special gift for us.

Pride tells us that ‘The Perfect Image is a stock image photo company with a difference: diversifying the stock image market by including models of colour. Brit, their star model, is mixed race and hates his job (but everybody’s gotta make a living, right?). A wrench is thrown into Brit’s life when new hire Ryan joins the company. Ryan is charming, he’s attractive, and … he’s white. The Perfect Image romps through the politics of passing, queerness, and what it’s like to fall for someone you really shouldn’t (oh yeah, there’s that other problem: Brit already has a boyfriend)’ and Brit also has a secret.

It’s a great set up, and, at 90 minutes, quite a long evening, but the production never drags, and, while the onion does need to be peeled, it takes the time it takes and not a nanosecond more. The pace is sublimely managed, which when I think about it, suggests some tight direction of the four wonderful actors who are all on exactly the same page. It’s smart, collaborative theatre, and we love every moment. Technical things like cueing, timing, and pace are beautifully managed, and then exquisitely hidden.

The performances that deliver Brooks’ script are, without exception, delightful. Never a slip up, never off the pace, energy to burn, while, at the same time, charmingly understated. Brooks is the master of the undercut gag, and the result is laughter that is deep and rich and ripples on and on.

Sean Rivera is mixed-race Brit. He plays the long game, which is perfect because it underplays a theme that, if rushed or badly handled could have thrown up some awkward situations. His is a complex character and we don’t fully get what his issues are until quite late on. His is a nuanced performance, ultimately satisfying, and the quality of his relationships with his fellow actors’ helps pin the plot together.

Mark Chayanat Whittet play’s Brit’s partner Des with just enough jealousy, just enough love. Des articulates much of the mixed-race theme and keeps it on the boil. He struggles manfully trying to understand what Brit actually wants. Brit’s inability to articulate it himself doesn’t help Des, but it does help us, and we eat it up. What Brit wants does resolve itself and beautifully, no ugly dramas, which is pretty normal, given the nature of a rom-com plot which is, of course, anything but.

Michael Hockey plays Ryan. Ryan is charming, attractive, and white. We know that from the marketing blurb and we know it’s important. Ryan plays the ukelele. Not a lot, but enough. It’s like another character just when it needs to be. It does annoy Brit though, which is nice. Hockey is one of those actors who is empathic and easy to like, which is perfect casting, just like Rivera and Whittet are, but different. He’s just enough, never too much, and the subtext zings in his hands. It’s measured, subtle work, and we warm to him from the get-go.

If the casting is fantastic, and the script outstanding, the choice of venue is likewise. Lot23 is one of the largest soundstage film and photographic studios in Central Auckland. It’s a collaboration, a creative hub, but it’s also a meeting place for friends, family, neighbours, and creatives. It hosts a unique mix of activities on one site ~ from the gallery space within the cafe, to a studio space equipped for filming, photography, live music and mounting private events. The Perfect Image is played on the sound stage with wall-to-wall cyclorama and an infinity floor. It’s really appropriate for a show set in a photography studio. The Lot23 Café on site is jolly nice as well. Like everything else, it’s been perfectly thought through.

Amelia Reynolds plays the head of HR at the stock photo company. She carries messages from ‘corporate’ to Brit and Ryan, messages about the success or otherwise of the mixed-race scenes that the two men enact, each one punctuated by a camera flash, each a cog in an ever-evolving cacophony of visual absurdity. The more the men’s embryonic relationship comes into focus, the more disconnected their actual work becomes. Reynolds is outrageously funny and handles the non-linear nature of her role with absolute élan. In a production with a myriad of highlights her chook impersonation tops the lot.

Did my guests and I have a great night? Yes, we did. We laughed so much on the way home that we drove past the pizzeria we’d chosen and had to settle for pasta from the home pantry. It didn’t matter because we all knew that what we’d experienced was very special indeed.

While The Perfect Image was impressive, what keeps me awake at night is the burning question – what’s Sam Brooks got in store for us next? As my son noted ‘it’s bound to be good’ – and he hasn’t said that about anything theatrical for a very long time.

One thing I’d put my money on, it will be very good indeed.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council
Waiematā Local Board logo