The Second Test

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

07/12/2010 - 23/12/2010

Fortune Theatre Studio, Dunedin

30/03/2011 - 17/04/2011

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland

15/02/2010 - 27/02/2010

BATS Theatre, Wellington

16/03/2010 - 27/03/2010

Dance Studio, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton

29/06/2012 - 30/06/2012

FUEL Festival 2012

Production Details

Iconic sporting moment meets theatre in The Second Test

In 1953, the New Zealand Cricket Team embarked on its maiden tour to South Africa, including 22 year-old fast bowler Bob Blair.

On Christmas Eve, disaster struck in the form of a lahar down Mt Ruapehu, the infamous Tangiwai disaster. Amongst the 151 victims is Blair’s new fiancé, Nerissa Love.

The Second Test tells Blair’s story, one of the most famed in New Zealand sporting history. In cricketing circles the tale is legendary, full of drama, emotion and bravery.

Jonathan Brugh is an actor, playwright and amateur cricketer. Best known for his comedy work, the Billy T Award Winner (1998) has combined his love of the stage and New Zealand’s summer game to create The Second Test.

“This story means a lot to the Cricket community, but I think it will resonate with any New Zealander who feels a sense of National pride,” Brugh says.

“It is for young people to see a slice of our history. It is for our seniors who will remember the tragedy of Tangiwai.”

After 18 months in development, the play will have its premiere season at the Aotea Centre’s Herald Theatre from 15-27 February as part of the 2010 STAMP at THE EDGE season.

Associate Director, Arts Programmes Craig Cooper says that The Second Test is a perfect fit with the STAMP mandate to present fresh theatre, dance and music with a distinctive Kiwi flavour.

“This is a piece of New Zealand history and bringing it to the stage in the height of summer makes absolute sense,” Cooper said.

“This is a story not just for cricket fans, but for anyone who loves New Zealand stories.”


It’s 1953 and the New Zealand Cricket Team embark on their maiden tour to South Africa. They farewell their wives and girlfriends and set off on their African adventure. For 22 year old fast bowler Bob Blair, traveling and playing alongside his childhood heroes Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid is a dream come true.

After a long sea voyage the team reaches its destination and their campaign commences in earnest. Then half way around the world tragedy strikes.

Christmas Eve, a lahar thunders down the Mt Ruapehu mountainside destroying everything in its path, including the rail-bridge at Tangiwai. Moments later, the overnight express arrives and hurtles into the void, taking nearly three hundred passengers with it into the Whangaehu River.

In Johannesburg the New Zealand team wakes to the news that 151 people have perished in the tragedy, among them Bob Blair’s fiancé Nerissa Love. And as events unfold over the rest of this day – Boxing Day 1953 – it will become the most poignant day in New Zealand sporting history…

Blair is excused from playing duties, and the flags at Ellis Park fly half-mast.

But the opposition shows no mercy to the shell-shocked tourists. On a dangerous pitch, two New Zealand batsmen are hospitalised by express-pace, short-pitched bowling. Several others are felled by sickening body-blows. As the casualty list grows (and with it, the bloodstains on the pitch) champion batsman Bert Sutcliffe returns from hospital with his head heavily bandaged, and goes back in to bat to save the test for his beleaguered team. But even Sutcliffe’s courage will be surpassed.

When the players turn to leave the field at the end of the New Zealand innings they’re shocked to see the trembling figure of Blair walking out to bat. Sutcliffe asks Blair what the hell he’s doing, and Blair replies, “Thought I’d better make myself useful.

The crowd watches in stunned silence as Sutcliffe escorts Blair slowly out to the middle, arms locked, and with tears streaming down their faces. Then, brought to their feet by this heroic and defiant act, they give the pair a tremendous and rousing ovation.

Out of the gloomy tunnel beneath the stand, into the clean white sunlight, Blair walked slowly, fumbling with his gloves, and as a man the spectators in the huge stand stood for him, stood in complete and poignant silence. Grown men, among them the New Zealanders in the pavilion and the South Africans on the field, shed tears at this moving moment, and they were not ashamed.” R.T. Brittenden

Despite Blair’s brave gesture, New Zealand went on to lose the Second Test, and the series. But it won the admiration of cricket-lovers everywhere.

The Second Test
15-27 February 2010
Herald Theatre
Aotea Centre
Tickets $20-25*at www.buytickets or 0800 BUYTICKETS
*Service fees apply 

16-27 March 2010
Bats Theatre
6.30 pm
$20 full / $14 concession
(No show Sun/Mon)

07 December − 23 December
Circa Two
Tue-Sat, 7.30pm, Sun 4.30pm 

Fortune Studio 
30 March – 17 April 2011 
Tues – Sat 7.30pm and Sun 4.00pm (no show Mon)
Tickets: $30 (full) and $20 (concession)     

Dance Studio, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts 
Fri 29 June, 7pm
Sat 30 June, 2pm & 7pm 


Unexpectedly funny rendition of a moving story

Review by Gail Pittaway 30th Jun 2012

It’s hard to believe this is a solo show as Jonny Brugh recounts the now famous story of the New Zealand cricket team’s first test match tour of South Africa at Christmas 1953 through the voices and actions of more than a dozen participants. In particular he gives the circumstances in which young fast bowler Bob Blair took up his bat to play for his side despite having just received a telegram saying he had lost his beloved fiancé, Nerissa Love, in the horrific rail disaster at Tangiwai.

The play starts with a dream, a cricketer’s nightmare, and ends with a nightmare reality, but Brugh plays down the high drama giving us instead a look at the way people interacted at the time; blokey exchanges, mundane touches of kindness, a sweet exchange between the sweethearts as Bob waits to hear his name announced in the team, gentle Kiwi irony, uncomplicated heroism. 

Among the other characters we meet are team captain Sutcliffe, players Reid, Millar and Overton who also bring us comedy, such as when the players debate whether to go in pouring rain for a photo shoot on the steps of parliament to meet Syd Holland, Prime Minister, and are finally persuaded by the promise of a bit of a spread.

There’s an entertaining build-up to the test matches as the team travels on ship, first to Melbourne then finally to Capetown, with more hilarity as the lads dress up for a shipboard party and Brugh delivers not only three drunken cricketers in dresses and heels planning a quick round of catch but also a strange woman looking for a bit of moonlight romance. 

Once the cricket tests begin things go badly for the team, the details of the first test being recounted with wit and imagination by a series of broadcast telegrams that radio listeners have to wait for painstakingly; also in a series of slow motion moves perfectly choreographed. Then, after receiving his fateful telegram after Boxing Day, Blair is naturally in a state of grief and not expected to play in the second test.

Enter villain of the piece, South African fast bowler Neil Adcock, who maims and removes player after player in the already depleted New Zealand side. At this point the story flashes back to Nerissa writing a letter that we know Blair will not receive until after the match is over, when she will have already died, in which she asks for him to hit a six as proof of his love for her. After the physicality and drama of the game the simple sad irony of this letter is powerful playing indeed.

With a minimal set consisting of a dining chair – serving as wicket and bed as well – an old valve radio and microphone, whose commentators tell an important amount of the story, Brugh weaves the tale with engaging charm and wonderful physical control. 

As well as delivering the cast in voice and gesture he also creates great sound effects: the pock of cricket balls on bats, the squeak of car doors, the splutter of reluctant car engines.

Directed by Andrew Foster, who is also credited as a co- writer, this fine production is supported by an intricate technical script of lighting and sound cues which are well judged. Any slight technical blips are managed by Brugh with panache and the play is enhanced most touchingly by the addition of home movie footage filmed by Guy Overton, one of the original touring players. 

This unexpectedly funny rendition of a moving piece of our history makes cricket into splendid theatre and Jonny Brugh an actor to look out for in future. 


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Production passes poignancy test in recapturing the past

Review by Barbara Frame 07th Apr 2011

Nearly an hour into the show, the moment arrives. 

It’s Christmas 1953, and batsman Bob Blair is touring South Africa as part of the New Zealand cricket team. His fiancée, Nerissa Love, has been travelling by train from Wellington to Auckland. Unlike Bob, we know about Tangiwai. 

Up until now, the play has rolled along pleasantly. Bob has been, painlessly it seems, selected for the team, said goodbye to Nerissa and enjoyed the novelties of sea travel and shipboard cricket practice. When the team starts to play in South Africa we hear news of the match, hilariously and astonishingly, being conveyed to New Zealanders by a radio announcer reading serial telegrams. And it is, of course, a telegram that brings news of another sort to Bob, and changes the tone of the play.

Written and performed by Jonathan Brugh, The Second Test captures not just a piece of New Zealand history but a more optimistic, less complicated time when even Auckland phone numbers had four digits, and international travel times were measured in weeks, not hours. 

Although there is just one person on the stage, plus a radio, a chair, a lectern and microphone, there is plenty to look at. Brugh, who has a Brylcreemed short back and sides and an engaging wink, seamlessly brings his characters to life and certainly persuades us that he’s playing test cricket. The big test, of course, is whether he can bring us to care about Bob’s tragedy, and the moment when the news is broken to him is painfully poignant.

The Second Test could do with a little trimming here and there, and I suspect cricket-lovers will get more out it than the rest of us, but the play’s humanity speaks to everyone. The season will run until 17 April. 
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Essence of the story and time authentically caught

Review by Sharon Matthews 01st Apr 2011

Written and performed by Jonathan Brugh, The Second Test is based on the true-life story of cricketer Bob Blair, whose fiancée Nerissa Love was killed in the Tangiwai disaster while Bob was on tour with the New Zealand cricket team in South Africa.

It was on Christmas Eve 1953 that the Wellington–Auckland night express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River at Tangiwai. Of the 285 passengers on board, 151 people were killed, in what was at that time New Zealand’s worst ever accident. 

I am delighted that this exceptional touring show has made it to the South Island, allowing us to experience a small but important piece of New Zealand history, and one presented by an outstanding comic writer and performer, within the intimate space of the Fortune Studio. The Second Test has previously played to sell-out houses in Wellington and Auckland; gaining a 2010 Chapman Tripp award nomination for Outstanding New New Zealand Play of the Year. 

The show is set in a long-gone time in New Zealand history, when men were men, and women made cups of tea. Brugh navigates his way skilfully between the Scylla and Charybdis which imperil dramatisations of heroic sporting moments in New Zealand history. This is neither an overwrought glorification (massed banks of children’s choirs, spot-lit silver ferns), nor a craggy uber-masculine representation that replaces emotion with number eight wire. This gendered aspect may, however, have had a greater impact upon me after seeing Drowning in Veronica Lake the previous week, another dramatic piece based on a real-life event and person, but The Seconds Test is its complete antithesis. 

Brugh succeeds by omitting all editorialising and playing it (sorry!) straight. His outstanding script evokes a gentler, simpler age; one in which a young man can ask his fiancée, without irony or innuendo, whether she would like to hold his cricket bat, and worries that his pictures of her (fully clothed, but sitting on his bed whilst holding the, ahem, bat) might be too racy. 

This one-man play showcases Brugh’s talent as an outstanding comic actor with an exceptionally expressive and elastic face. There are moments of sheer slapstick physicality, especially when Brugh re-enacts ship-board team practice. However, his comedic range extends from precisely calibrated characterisation, such as a National Radio Commentator who gives updates on every little detail of the team’s preparation (including detailing the number of socks they were issued!) through to a clever use of sound effects.

I was very impressed by his ability to capture an authentic sense of the 1950s New Zealand male psyche, and to portray it both subtly and with great affection. There is a wonderful scene in which the NZ Cricket team’s manager attempts to persuade a group of players to join a photo shoot. While they are reluctant to venture out into the rain just to shake Prime Minister Sydney Holland’s hand, they are eventually bribed by a hot cup of tea. 

I was worried, since the art of cricket holds no magic for me, that the scenes involving the test matches themselves would drag. I needn’t have been concerned. Brugh briskly re-enacts both the first test match and the beginning of the second test at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Christmas Eve.

Play is set to resume on Boxing Day, and it is early that morning that information about the Tangiwai disaster reaches the team. The scene in which the news is broken to Bob Blair is poignantly minimal. 

However, test matches wait for no tragedy. Brugh maintains a light tone while re-enacting the faintly ridiculous and frankly bloody opening wickets. Bert Sutcliffe and Lawrie Miller are forced to retire injured, and John Reid takes five balls in the ribs (without rubbing them!). Even though Miller and Sutcliffe, heavily bandaged, return to the wicket to continue the mighty battle, when Overton is dismissed the game seems to be over at 154 for 9. In a beautifully underplayed moment, Blair steps out on to the blood-soaked pitch to play. 

This production ends, as it began, with a lone man sitting on a chair on a bare stage. He wears a black cricket cap and holds a letter. 8mm colourised film images – shot by Otago player Guy Overton – play on the screen behind him. Happy, laughing young men are portrayed frolicking poolside, drinking cups of tea in the sun, and waving at the camera with their arms around beautiful young women. It is in stark contrast to the previously seen pictures of shrouded corpses being carried away after the Tangiwai disaster, and the still, lonely figure in front of me.

I cried.
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A nuanced blend of humour and gravitas

Review by Helen Sims 08th Dec 2010

The Second Test dramatises the New Zealand cricket team’s maiden test voyage to South Africa over the summer of 1953-1954. On the tour was a young fast bowler, Bob Blair. Before he leaves he shares his excitement of being selected to play with his “heroes”, Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid with his fiancée Nerissa Love. He promises to hit a six so she’ll know he’s thinking of her. Tragically, her life is lost along with 150 others on the overnight express to Auckland that plunges into the Whangaehu River on Christmas Eve. 

As the country wakes up to news of the Tangiwai Disaster delivered by Prime Minister Sid Holland on the radio, the New Zealand cricket team is asleep ahead of the second test against South Africa.  The Second Test becomes not just Blair’s story – but the story of a team, a tour and a national disaster back home. A tale of personal heroism is blended with sports folk lore and national pride in the face of tragedy.

The story unfolds mostly in a linear narrative, but many different methods are employed to tell it – sketches in which Brugh plays multiple characters, short monologues, radio announcements – we are, through one performer, offered a multi-faceted view of events.  The story is complemented by video footage shot by one of the player’s on the tour.  

Although the production was experiencing some technical difficulties on the night I attended, the videos are a nice complement to the work, rather than crucial to it.  Brugh’s understated performance is more than capable of carrying the show. The lightness of touch that is employed in the performance, direction and design signify a time of more simplicity and innocence, and means that a real emotional punch can be delivered.  The story also carries real truthfulness in the telling, which heightens its emotional impact. 

The play ultimately belongs to the character of Blair. Mercifully, Brugh does not expand on what motivated him to rise above his personal grief and take to the pitch after the team is decimated by ruthless South African bowling. But it also places Blair as part of a team who slog it out, spilling blood on the pitch but still coming back for more.

I was incredibly impressed by Brugh’s evident sense of responsibility to those whose story he is telling. His performance is a nuanced blend of humour and gravitas.  The result is a play that compellingly captures both a personal and historical moment, but leaves us to draw our own conclusions. If you missed it at Bats, I’d highly recommend getting along to the second season at Circa.
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Tribute to 1953 NZ cricket team

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 18th Mar 2010

There was blood on the Ellis Park pitch, all the New Zealand batsmen were injured, Bert Sutcliffe was stretchered off after facing two balls from South African fast bowler Neil Adcock, two were hospitalized and the entire team was in shock at the terrible news from home, while one player, fast bowler Bob Blair, was grieving for his fiancée who had been killed two day before on the train that crashed at Tangiwai.

The Second Test is a loving tribute to the 1953 New Zealand team and the most dramatic day in New Zealand cricket. Though New Zealand lost the game, it has been described as a victory. And in keeping with the guts, sportsmanship and love of the game displayed by the players, Jonny Brugh’s solo play only hints at their emotional turmoil but subtlety brings out their stoical attitude and thereby makes it quietly moving. It is also often a very funny play.

With just an old fashioned broadcast microphone, a radio, a chair and a screen to assist him Jonny Brugh acts out the drama from the team’s selection, its send-off by Sid Holland, the long sea voyage to South Africa, the first test, and the extraordinary events of the second test.

The heroic innings by Bert Sutcliffe, his head swathed in bandages and hitting sixes when he should have been in hospital, and then, when all seemed lost, the appearance of Bob Blair, who thought he should help his team out, is a story that if it weren’t true would be unbelievable. Jonny Brugh mercifully avoids, with his lightness of touch, his sense of humour, and his energy, turning The Second Test into a stolid monument to this historic game.

Instead, he turns it into a human comedy-drama documentary made all the more touching by the judicious use of film shot by team members themselves as they travelled to South Africa, visited a game park, and frolicked in a swimming pool. To add to the emotional undercurrents of the play on opening night at Bats cricketers and members of the team’s families were present.

Entertaining, fascinating, and celebratory The Second Test is not just for cricket fanatics but for anyone who enjoys good theatre and a true, gripping story in which the human spirit is shown to triumph without descending into either sentimentality or brazenness.
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A work of insight, humanity and great character

Review by John Smythe 17th Mar 2010

Capturing the character and mood of the times, Jonny Brugh plays his Second Test innings at a steady pace, somewhat in the rhythm of a game of cricket. And in the same way Kiwi men were (are?) circumspect about expressing emotions, he avoids overplaying the drama. Yet the drama registers strongly, amid the low-key comedy.

1953 is remembered for the young Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation tour, Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay’s conquest of Everest and the Tangiwai Disaster on Christmas Eve. Cricket aficionados will also know it as the year the New Zealand cricket team played its first ever test series on South African soil.

In simple cricket whites – on a stage simply set with a chair, a radio and a studio microphone – a relaxed and amiable Brugh starts the play telling us he, Bob Blair, is the second best batsman in the world next to Bert Sutcliffe. It turns out to be the cricketer’s version of the classic ‘naked actor’ nightmare: he’s at the crease without his trousers! (Blair was actually a formidable fast bowler, known for his ‘thunderbolts’, who batted well down the order; it would add value to the story for both points to be made more clearly.)

Slipping easily into each role, Brugh brings Blair’s fiancée, Nerissa Love, in through the bedroom window to hear the test team selection broadcast on the wireless. Blair is in (of course) and in this gently romantic scene Nerissa tells him that when she hears him hit a six, he will know that she’s his.  

The official function outside parliament in terrible Wellington weather, the attempts to keep fit and sustain shipboard practice aboard the Arawa spiced up with a touch of cross-dressing, and the arrival in South Africa, are all deftly sketched in. Although colour and mood are added by the 8mm film images (shot on tour, I take it, by Otago player Guy Overton), Brugh’s minimalist performance conjures more vivid ‘pictures’ in our imaginations.  

Scant attention is paid to the first test in Durban (in which John Reid scored a century). The second test begins at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Christmas Eve, and the first day is hilariously captured in a ‘commentary by telegram’ sequence (SA all out for 271). With Christmas Day off, play is set to resume on Boxing Day and it is early that morning that specific news about the Tangiwai disaster reaches Bob Blair: a distilled moment of great poignancy.  

But test cricket is no respecter of a whole country in mourning, let alone a team bonded in silent grief. The game must go on. We leave Blair back in the hotel with the drivers as SA fast bowler Neil Adcock mounts a brutal attack with bodyline bouncers. Both Bert Sutcliffe and Lawrie Miller are forced to retire injured; John Reid takes five balls in the ribs – without rubbing them! – before being dismissed for three.

Determined to avoid the follow on, Miller then Sutcliffe – his head heavily bandaged – return to the crease. But with one man down (and the 12th man not allowed to bat), when Overton goes for a duck it all seems to be over at 154 for 9 – until Blair steps out on to the blood-soaked pitch …

Directed in development by Andrew Foster then for its Auckland debut by Toby Leach, The Second Test chooses to ‘tell it like it was’ and leave us to consider and judge the value systems that underpin this exceptional day. Mostly that strategy works very well.

However, as I understand it (from New Zealand History Online), the Blair-Sutcliffe partnership included four sixes, of which Blair hit one. While I appreciate the avoidance of emotiveness and sentimentality, given the letter Blair gets from Nerissa asking “where’s my six” is judiciously included just before his innings, I feel the poignancy of his actually achieving it needs to register more strongly.

That said, it is a remarkable thing to come away from a one-man show feeling we’ve been in the presence of many characters and shared their extraordinary experience. As a play, its appeal reaches well beyond just cricket fans: it’s a work of insight, humanity and great character.
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Dan Slevin March 18th, 2010

And a decent contingent from NZ Cricket including international umpire Evan Watkin and former NZ selector Don Neely.

My review is here at Funerals & Snakes.

John Smythe March 17th, 2010

As a footnote: it was fascinating to see a very different opening night crowd at Bats for The Second Test, including Sir Ron Brierley and a large Blair family contingent, whose international travel fares he had apparently paid.

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Tragedy conveyed with humour and heart

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 16th Feb 2010

Jonny Brugh successfully combines his loves of cricket and theatre as he brings to life this stirring true story of courage in the face of loss. On the other side of the world and in the middle of NZ’s maiden test series against South Africa, player Bob Blair learns his young fiancé has been killed in the infamous 1953 Tangiwai train disaster.

The Second Test (written and acted by Brugh) also gives the audience a quaint and quirky historical glimpse of the social and political landscape and how life might have been in the simpler New Zealand of the 1950s.

Brugh milks his unique appeal as a comic actor to authentically capture aspects of the classic Kiwi male psyche of the time, very well. For example, a humorous scene involving Prime Minister Sydney Holland, the NZ Cricket team’s manager and a bunch of reticent players, reluctant to get their feet wet on a typical Wellington summer’s day just to shake the PM’s hand, is brilliantly played.

Brugh also captures the pace and preoccupations of life very well, in particular through a National Radio Commentator, who gives updates on every little detail of the team’s preparation (such as how many socks each team member is given). The ‘live’ commentary of the games, broadcast as the telegrams slowly came to hand, plus the fact that it took the players 6 weeks to travel to South Africa by boat, is a reminder that these were indeed, much slower times!

Anyone who knows Jonny Brugh, knows he’s bloody funny to watch on stage (he has a wonderfully expressive, elastic face) and that he is particularly funny when he endows himself with being a cricket player or fanatic. So while it’s impossible not to laugh at his many entertaining moments – from sound effects, to physicality, to vocal intonation – The Second Test is more than just a series of cricket gags and sketches. In fact, this one-man show demonstrates Brugh is a talented and convincing serious actor. 

With the guidance and direction of Andrew Foster (development season) and Toby Leach (premiere season), as well as invaluable primary research and quality time spent with the families of the cricket players who toured South Africa in 1953, Brugh plays out the heart-wrenching moment when Bob Blair receives the devastating news, with great reserve and honesty. Brugh has the rare ability of being able to communicate so much by doing so little.

During his time spent with the player’s families, Brugh was given the use of some original film footage, shot by Otago player Guy Overton. The use of the footage is a rare and wonderful treat, giving the audience an insight into a world that appears very white, well behaved and genial. Brugh’s inclusion of Overton’s reunion with his wife and children when the team arrives home is a cinematic reminder that Blair will not return to such domestic bliss.

For cricket fans, The Second Test – with references to NZ cricket legends such a John Reid, plus the unusual number of injuries that the NZ team suffered during this ill-fated game – is a precious piece of sporting history, re-born and thoroughly played out. The hype that surrounded the cricket series is well voiced through a South African taxi driver. 

I’m not a cricket fan, but I was drawn into this little gem, because it has wide appeal and heart.
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