The Raft

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

12/06/2009 - 04/07/2009

Production Details

A family adrift, will they sink or swim? 

Carl Nixon’s award winning drama The Raft comes to Downstage in June. 

Set over a rainy weekend in a West Coast bach, The Raft is a stormy emotional journey about a family stranded by the elements and forced to confront issues that threaten to tear them apart.

"The raft is a metaphor for not having any control over things, for being out there, pushed around by the currents." Carl Nixon

Originally written and performed for the Court Theatre in Christchurch, The Raft received reviews including: "gifted with Nixon’s highly workable dialogue, a powerful human story of insight, drama and compassion is assured." Lindsay Clark – Theatreview. The Raft adapted for radio by Dean Parker,  was recently awarded Best Dramatic Production at the 2009 New Zealand Radio Awards.  

The Raft will now make its Wellington premiere with the Downstage season opening on
June 12. Directed by Duncan Smith, the show has assembled a cast that includes Peter Hayden (The Daylight AtheistFootrot Flats), Heather O’Carroll (Guardians, Le Sud), Jason Whyte (Apollo 13, Year of the Rat) and Susan Curnow (Lovelock’s Dream Run, Shortland St). Surprisingly given the experience of the cast, all except Peter Hayden are making their Downstage debut. For Peter, it will be a long awaited return to Downstage after 30 years.

Award-winning writer Carl Nixon has already enjoyed significant success as a playwright with Kiwifruits and Crumpy. His first book Fish ‘n’ Chip Shop Song, a collection of short stories, was published last year and his first novel, Rocking Horse Road, written whilst Nixon was writer in residence at The University of Canterbury, will be in stores from July 6 this year. In 2007 Carl Nixon won the Katherine Mansfield short story award for My Beautiful Balloon.

Starring: Jason Whyte, Heather O’Carroll, Susan Curnow and Peter Hayden
Directed by Duncan Smith | Written by Carl Nixon
Set and Costume Designer: Andrew Foster | Lighting Design: Paul O’Brien
Duration: 110 min incl interval

The Raft
Downstage Theatre for a strictly limited season
12 June – 6 July,
6:30pm Tue-Wed;  8pm Thu-Sat.
Prices range from $20 to $42.
Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at (04) 801 6946
or in person at Downstage’s box office.
For up-to-date information, prices and bookings visit
Downstage is proudly sponsored by BNZ.  



Mark Alymer......................... Jason Whyte
Tonia Alymer........................ Heather O'Carroll
Shirley Alymer...................... Susan Curnow
Jack Alymer.......................... Peter Hayden
Liam Alymer......................... Bruno Smith

Set & Costume Designer ... Andrew Foster
Lighting Designer ................ Paul O'Brien
Composer.............................. Phil Brownlee
Sound Design....................... Phil Benge
Set Construction................... Iain Cooper, John Hodgkins, Eileen McCann


1hr 50 mins

Convincing performance

Review by Lynn Freeman 17th Jun 2009

It’s every parent’s and every grandparent’s nightmare, the death of a child. Worse still for the one responsible – guilt on top of grief.  It’s the kind of pain that will either bring a family closer together, or split it apart. 

In The Raft, Mark’s grief and bitterness, his refusal to accept his son’s death, is destroying his remaining relationships.  He is drowning his sorrows partly in alcohol but mainly in isolation and fury.

Carl Nixon has turned his short story into a play, but its literary bones still figure in a script that’s overly scripted in places.  With a cast like this the actors can be trusted to convey far more than the lines they’re given.  It’s dialogue heavy, action poor at times, though the water sequences are powerfully conceived and executed, as are Liam’s appearances to his father. 

Peter Hayden’s considerable acting experience shines through in his convincing portrayal of the Grandfather, stubborn and cantankerous, he’s shuffling and slurring as he recovers from a stroke in bloody minded fashion.  Heather O’Carroll makes us believe Tonia has the loving heart to stick with her impossibly erratic husband, played by Wellington’s specialist in playing characters right on and in fact over the edge, Jason Whyte.  Susan Curnow is made to wait to show what she’s made of as Mark’s mother, and her outburst towards the end is powerfully portrayed.

The production’s finale packs a huge punch, where all the script’s and this production’s strengths come together.  

Paul O’Brien’s lighting design is one of the real highlights of the production, it’s gorgeous work, and helps alleviate Andrew Foster’s disappointing set design.  While practical for the audiovisuals and masking Downstage’s structure, and despite its very clever sense of the lake’s edge, the set’s drab two-colour scheme (grey/brown) drains the production of life. Same for the similarly coloured costumes  (other than the grandmother’s welcome red cardy).
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Actors hold back until bleak play’s final scenes

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Jun 2009

The Raft is the Kiwi equivalent of a 1950s American back porch play; it is a bach play. A bach play is one where families come together to sort out their problems, whether comically or tragically, in a remote bach usually near a beach but in The Raft it is by a West Coast lake.

And like most bach plays, The Raft spends a great deal of time setting up scenes in which the events of the past can be revealed bit by bit, while dark secrets that change everything are withheld until the final scenes.

Metaphors and symbols tend to lurk about in back porches and baches. In The Raft, there’s a bird’s nest in the roof and then there’s the raft itself which, we are told in the programme, is a "metaphor for not having any control over things, for being out there, pushed around by the currents." Rafts have anchors and presumably the anchor, though it is not mentioned, is love and family ties.

Tonia (Heather O’Carroll) and her mother-in-law Shirley (Susan Curnow) have engineered a family gathering to bring together Mark (Jason Whyte) and his father Jack (Peter Hayden) who are both tortured by guilt, anger, depression, and overwhelming grief over the death a year before of Mark and Tonia’s young son Liam.

When Mark and Jack start in the second act to make some sort of tentative contact Jack asks "Shouldn’t we talk more?" Mark replies, "Christ, we’re not women." As you can see the two have a lot of ground to make up but it is all finally and neatly resolved in a well staged, dramatically lit (Paul O’Brien) action packed finale.

Duncan Smith’s slow, at times ponderous direction comes much more incisive in the second act, while his actors, who on opening night seemed to be holding back both vocally and emotionally, also took flight when action rather than talk dominates.

Andrew Foster’s bleak and dank-looking setting, which has to cater for indoor and outdoor scenes, adds to the general gloom, but it works wonderfully well for the fleeting images of Liam that race through Mark’s disturbed mind.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Humour and humanity modulate intense drama

Review by John Smythe 13th Jun 2009

In naming this play Carl Nixon has wrested ‘raft’ back from the bureaucrats who purloined it as a collective noun for issues, policies, procedures, solutions, etc. This raft is afloat – but only just.

There are two in the play. The literal raft, made of 40-gallon drums and timber, is corroding and rotting out in the West Coast lake where the likewise disintegrating Alymer family has long since had a bach. 

The human raft is Mark, 38, son of Jack and Shirley, husband of Tonia, father of Liam who died a year before the play is set. Mark is adrift. Anchorless, rudderless and lacking motive power, he has become a danger to others as well as himself.

His unresolved grief and pent-up anger has generated – dare I say it – a raft of knock-on effects: a marriage all-but washed up on the rocks, a mother in mourning for happier times, a father recovering from a stroke that is not disconnected from the contempt Mark has specifically reserved for him …

Who better to play this twisted soul than Jason Whyte? At his dishevelled best, he makes Mark test our tolerance to near breaking point ("Get over it, you self-indulgent prick!" I want to shout) before a seeping inflow of rationality lets him see and hear what actually happened on that tragic day, and how it has been for the others in the twelve months since.

This process is provoked because the women have conspired to bring it to a head, abetted by the West Coast weather which sees all four – plus a flitting, ghostly, audiovisual manifestation of Liam (Bruno Smith) – become trapped at the bach.

The ford is in flood, the lake level is rising, water drips through a light-fitting soaking the sofa and playing havoc with illumination, the bach is pungent with something rotten, the matches are damp and the fire won’t light … This is a symbol-rich play.

Heather O’Carroll makes palpable Tonia’s love for Mark and her despair at his inability to communicate before staking a claim for herself, at last. Her true persona comes out well in companionable scenes with Shirley, beautifully nuanced by Susan Curnow as her own very personal experiences, wants and needs become apparent.

Peter Hayden also revels in the slow reveal. Slight impairments of speech and movement suggest Jack has worked hard to recover from his stroke, and as the weekend progresses he navigates nicely from grumpy old fart, through the frustration of trying to chop wood, to a man of stature, albeit flawed.

Questions of Mark’s actual sanity aside – his obsessive communing with Liam puts him on the borderline – my already-challenged desire to feel compassion for him takes an almost mortal blow when he shapes up to his less-than-fit father for a fist fight. But he is exhibiting the emotional age of a child at this point, directly linked, presumably, to the age he was when he first felt abandoned by his dad. And the way the fight sequence unfolds does make for riveting drama.  

Developed as a play from a short story, The Raft is not only set inside and outside the bach but also at the edge of the lake, then on the surface and deep within the lake itself. This challenging creative brief is skilfully met by set (& costume) designer Andrew Foster and lighting designer Paul O’Brien (complemented by the musical composition of Phil Brownlee and sound design of Phil Benge, which they created originally for a Radio New Zealand adaptation).  [See Comments below for clarification – ed]

Dark wooden claddings completely conceal the pocked concrete facings of the Downstage end-stage and allow for fluid entrance and egress. Dead bracken hangs from the ceiling, signalling naturalism is not the mode. A stony shore brings us to the lake.

The mostly subdued and sometimes erratic (as scripted) amber lighting is dynamically contrasted by shafts of bright white cross-lighting, filtered to evoke the rippling lake and allow Mark to ‘swim’ to the raft. Clever lighting also allows the sofa to become the dinghy Jack sets out in to repair the raft … and it takes us into the deep as well (I’m not going to give away why).

The dramatic ending lets action speak louder than the words both blokes have difficulty finding, and it is a testament to director Duncan Smith and his whole team that such a scene can be so effectively staged.

I have some quibbles with one or two lines, not only because the visual action renders them unnecessary but more because they undermine the dramatic impact of key moments. Some lines also get lost when intense delivery vies with background sound. And a crucial question, about which I must be oblique: I want to know if the person who found Liam attempted CPR.

Overall, however, The Raft – with Smith (who also produced the radio play) at the helm – takes us on an intense journey that is judiciously modulated with naturally-occurring islands of humour and humanity.

On opening night a gaggle of schoolgirls (from Napier, I believe) in the back rows reacted overtly to the (anti-) romantic bits early on and texted avidly throughout the first half, distracting and irritating punters in the gallery. This provoked shouted demands for "No cell phones!" just before Act Two started, which apparently shut them down. Pretty exciting for an opening night at Downstage!

That this challenging young audience sector, with their short attention spans, went on to be riveted by the play speaks volumes for the strength and quality of this production.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 




John Smythe June 17th, 2009

Thank you for that clarification, Phil. I made an incorrect assumption based on Tom Cardy’s feature in the Dominion Post ‘Arts’ feature of 10 June (pD1). In this he quotes the director Duncan Smith relating the award-winning radio adaptation, which he also directed, to this stage production:

“The play really lent itself to radio, but it is going to be much better on stage. We are going to bring some of the atmospheric sound [from the radio adaptation] as the play goes into the world of the mind to some extent. Some of it can be reincorporated back into the play and to good atmospheric effect. It will really support the richness of the experience for theatre goers.”

Phil Brownlee June 17th, 2009

A small correction: the music and sound design were both newly created for this production, and are not same as were used in the radio version.

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