The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People

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

25/11/2023 - 17/12/2023

Production Details

Written by Rachel McAlpine
Directed by Robin Payne

A new play by writer Rachel McAlpine tackles with fun and courage a topic that bothers many people: “Is life worth living after 90?”

McAlpine was shocked to the core when her GP predicted she would live to 99. She reacted by doing copious research, tuning up her lifestyle, and writing a best selling book of poems, How to be Old. 

Last year, knowing little about advanced aging, she asked local nonagenarians for the inside story. Their revelations amazed her. “They blew the usual stereotypes to smithereens. They opened my mind to what extreme old age can be – and is for many people,” says McAlpine. “They all insisted they were lucky.”

The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People erupted from these conversations and five fictional characters characters over the age of 90 emerged from these multiple real-life stories. The characters share fascinating tales of heartbreak, heaven, and everything in between. Extreme old age certainly brings problems but it also brings unexpected delights.

CircaTwo, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington Waterfront
25 NOV – 17 DEC 2023
Tues- Sat 7.30
Sun 4.30
Extra Matinees, Saturdays 2.30pm
$30 – $55

Annie Ruth
Lloyd Scott
Anna O'Brien
Gary Young
Grace Hoete

Tolis Papazoglou

Alexander R Dickson

Rachel McAlpine

Theatre ,

90 minutes, no interval

Our elders honoured by telling their stories with love, dignity, humour and connection 

Review by Maryanne Cathro 26th Nov 2023

I’ve been thinking about feeling old lately. Which is to say, I don’t feel old at all but worry that maybe I ought to. I find the whole process fascinating, and so when the opportunity arose to review The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People, I jumped at the chance. Directed by the amazing Robin Payne who introduced teenage me to drama and theatre, it already feels like an honouring of the passage of time.

Rachel McAlpine wrote this play from interviewing many nonagenarians, and using their stories to create 5 fictitious characters.

The show opens with each actor introducing themselves, giving their current age (ranging from 43 to 81) before moving into their character who then introduces themselves. It’s a delightful way of framing the shift into playing older characters, which they all do with absolute credibility. This works because the age of the performer says more about how old the character feels, allowing us in turn to share their truth.

Peggy and Tom played by Annie Ruth and Lloyd Scott, are a married couple in a retirement home, content with where the journey of their lives together has taken them.

Gilbert played by Gary Young, is a retired economist and emeritus professor with a sharp mind still trying to solve the issues of the world.

Zinnia played by Anna O’Brien is a musician and free spirit with an eternally optimistic view of life.

Puti, played by Grace Hoete, is a writer and activist still embracing the challenge of writing a book.

They each speak directly to the audience, weaving past and present experiences into a fascinating telling of their lives. With subtle and sensitive lighting shifts (Design by Alexander R Dickson, operated by Niamh Campbell-Ward) the narrative passes across the stage. We are hooked from the very beginning, brought into their worlds through their words, the occasional singing, the poignant memories and hilarious recollections.

Joining our actors on stage are some guest appearances. 81-year-old Eric Gardiner who has been the stage manager at Circa for 37 years, also steps up at the beginning to introduce himself. And through the magic of video Des Kelly, Dame Kate Harcourt and Sunny Amey, all nonegenarians and powerhouses of theatre in Aotearoa, make insightful contributions.

Tolis Papazaglou’s scenography is simple and effective, and demonstrates his enduring genius in always delivering what serves the production without ego.

I am in danger of becoming repetitious because there are only so many ways one can express how well the elements of a production serve each other with such grace.

As Rachel McAlpine says in the programme, “The help of everyone named in this programme has been crucial” and this is indeed a culmination of a team with a unified commitment to honouring our elders and telling their stories with love, dignity, humour and connection. And it is an important telling; after all we’re all getting older and it is a comfort to know that old age is nothing to be feared.


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