THE SURPRISE PARTY
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington
18/01/2020 - 15/02/2020
A new summer comedy from the writer of The Motor Camp
Be careful who you vote for … they might get in.
Doug Moore has been the sole MP of his tiny left-wing party for nine years. But when Beehive scandals and social media disasters hit both major parties, Doug and his ragtag list of hopeless candidates – including a bus driver who hates passengers and a transport spokesperson who doesn’t drive – are in serious danger of winning power. Doug is horrified – he knows what they’re like!
Playwright and DomPost columnist Dave Armstrong and director Conrad Newport (Niu Sila, Rita and Douglas, Le Sud) reunite for this wildly entertaining satire of New Zealand politics today.
‘Dave Armstrong – a lefty Wellington lightweight and potboiler playwright’ — Sir Bob Jones
‘Armstrong’s ability to write a drama that is both contemporary and universal in its themes puts him at the top of the league table of Kiwi playwrights’ — Elspeth Sandys, Listener
CIRCA One, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington waterfront
18 Jan – 15 Feb
Preview 17 Jan
Tues – Thurs 6.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm
$25 – $52
By arrangement with Playmarket
CAST (in order of appearance):
Kura – Brownyn Turei
Doug – Alex Greig
Zoe – Danielle Meldrum
Leon – Vincent Andrew-Scammell
Sam – Sepelini Mua’au
Ailsa - Hannah Kelly
Set and Costume Design – Sean Coyle
Lighting Design – Tony Black
Producer/Marketing – Caroline Armstrong
Stage Manager – Olivia Chan
Operator – Niamh Campbell-Ward
2 hrs incl. interval
Provokes thought beyond the broad satire and acidic irony
Review by Aaron Alexander 21st Jan 2020
Dave Armstrong’s satire, much like Dave himself, contains trainspotter-level political knowledge concealed behind an approachably cheeky grin. The plot and performances of The Surprise Party may be cartoonishly over-the-top, but the satirical comedy has real teeth. Like a mash-up of Yes, Minister and early Simpsons, it’s unashamedly broad on the surface and unexpectedly deep below.
The story of a fictional minor NZ left-wing party’s unlikely rise to power is immediately relevant in our ‘anything can happen and probably will’ political age. Indeed, with the real-world ACT party launching a Make Aotearoa Great Again event in the same week, only to face blowback from their own more extreme supporters who are triggered into social media apoplexy by the word ‘Aotearoa’, modern politics increasingly feels like a satire of itself.
In some ways, that doesn’t leave much room to operate for the satirist. Much of what passes for political humour these days (memes, primarily) is used as stones thrown across the divide in a messy culture war. It doesn’t change minds so much as rile up the like-minded, and further entrench increasingly divergent partisanship. The Surprise Party is notable because in many ways its target and its audience are one and the same – an idealistic, uncompromising, and increasingly humour-resistant Left.
The truth is that taking the piss out of the Left in 2020 can be a risky business, particularly for a middle-aged, male Pakeha. There’s little doubt that if The Surprise Party had been written by someone without Dave Armstrong’s high-profile progressive credentials it would provoke outrage – with the emphasis on the second syllable. It may still. But coming, as it were, from inside the tent, one hopes that Armstrong’s warning – because broad parodies and winking jokes aside, that’s what it amounts to – will be given more than knee-jerk consideration by his fellow travellers.
The play begins in a small, dingy motel room where the motley top echelon of the Popular Front (or POPS) party are gathering to watch the election results come in. Their leader Doug (Alex Greig) has flown the party flag in Parliament on his own for nine years, thanks to a cosy electorate seat, but without much to show for it in terms of policy wins for the cause. Along with 2IC Kura (Bronwyn Turei), he’s feeling good about their prospects, with polling showing they may well get above the threshold, bring in a couple of list MPs and actually have a measure of influence. As it happens, thanks to a coincidence of failures by the major parties, their vote goes stratospheric, and the spectacularly under-qualified POPS are thrust into New Zealand’s driving seat.
The first act is one long joke, as Doug’s growing delight at the exit polls turns to horror as he realises how far down the increasingly unhinged party list he’ll be reaching to fill the seats they’ve won in Parliament. Looking at the ‘best of the bunch’; infantile millennial Zoe, paranoid conspiracy theorist Leon, hospo hipster Sam and union hardass Alisa (Danielle Meldrum, Vincent Andrew-Scammell, Sepelini Mua’au and Hannah Kelly respectively, all making their Circa debuts), Doug realises that his lifelong dream has come true – and it’ll be an absolute nightmare.
In the second and third acts, the POPS flex their policy muscle in the Beehive, experiencing the giddy joys of enacting their radical socialist utopia, complete with with a 30kph nationwide speed limit and no social media (except Weibo). Sean Coyle’s half-round set instantly evokes our distinctive corridors of power, while as a playing space has a timeless classical feel: a reminder that democracy and satire are twin siblings. The three-act structure is also very classical, providing a morality-play framework for all the silliness.
Performance-wise, director Conrad Newport has led the ensemble into a very intensely physicalised performance style, referencing the tradition of political cartoons and showcasing the boundless creativity of the cast. The four talented Circa debutants in particular are given licence to turn their characters up to eleven, and to reach though the fourth wall on occasion. All clearly relish the opportunity, with Hannah Kelly in particular lighting up the opening night with her outrageous bus-driver-turned-Minister-of-Foreign-Affairs, Alisa. Kelly gets many of the best punch lines and makes the most of every single one. She does a tremendous job of finding variation and subtlety of expression while maintaining that extremely animated performance style.
I must admit that early on, the almost grotesque caricature approach of the ensemble cast was a little off-putting, as it seemed like the script and the jokes would hold up with a much dryer delivery. But the consistency of style across the cast is the trick – they all inhabit the same world – and substantial credit for that must go to Newport, who has made a bold choice, then managed to deliver it successfully.
Meanwhile, Greig and Turei excel at doing the narrative hard yards up the middle that enable their cast-mates to express themselves ‘out wide’. With Doug the founder and figurehead, and Kura the heart of the party, there’s an interesting relationship that doesn’t really have room to develop in the running time, but they get just enough moments of connection at the right times to provide an authentic warmth to the world and the story.
The show is at its best when the cast is able to play as a team, bouncing Armstrong’s signature smart and snappy dialogue back and forth, and supporting each other to play off the audience’s laughter. A set piece in the first act where the characters re-enact their election night revelry to retrace a character’s steps and find a missing USB containing their tax policy is a prime example, and arguably the moment when they play really hits its stride.
I won’t spoil the final act, but from a production perspective its where Sean Coyle gets to showcase his skills in his role as costume (as well as set) designer. At a glance we see that after a year in power there’s been a fundamental change in the bumbling but lovably idealistic POPS team we met in Act One. Suffice to say it’s not pretty.
Tony Black’s lighting design is attractive, on the other hand, though he plays it fairly straight aside from when the POPS sing the glorious party song (also by Armstrong), an old-school revolutionary anthem. In these key moments, Black heightens the atmosphere with a fitting infusion of red, as the fists are raised and the harmonies soar.
The show is not without its flaws, naturally. The character of Zoe is so childish and brainless that it can seem she is pitched to chime with an older audience’s preconceptions of millennials, rather than an accurate satire of a generation who frankly seem pretty politically switched on – almost to a fault. However her final act transformation, very nicely played by Meldrum, rescues this somewhat. Alex Greig is a very skilled and highly watchable actor, but it’s hard to escape the notion that Doug was written to be played by a substantially older man. There are a couple of very nice riffs on the ‘OK, boomer’ meme in the script that are directed Doug’s way, but Greig is surely Gen X at most. In any case, he does a great job of a part that can be pretty thankless at times, with Doug often narratively stuck having to express 50 shades of frustration for extended periods in reaction to the others’ shenanigans. Doug’s clumsy attempts to engineer a sex scandal within the party, however, is a plot detour that doesn’t really pay off for the amount of stage time it takes, particularly as the internal logic of it all is a bit confusing.
In the final act Armstrong risks becoming didactic, particular when he gives Kura a line that virtually shouts ‘THIS IS WHAT THE PLAY IS ABOUT’. While it gives the excellent Bronwyn Turei a rare moment to take centre stage, I’m not sure it’s necessary. By that point, the script and the cast has done a great job of conveying the author’s message without it having to be spoken so baldly. But perhaps it’s an expression of Armstrong’s desire to be inclusive as a playwright – you get the impression he’d rather know everyone in the house got the point than be thought of as clever by political/theatre nerds.
Overall, it’s a highly successful comedy that’s far more thought-provoking that it initially appears. It asks us to consider our own relationship with progressive politics. Particularly in the chardonnay socialist heartland of central Wellington, it asks us if we really want transformative policy-making in New Zealand anymore, or if we’d honestly prefer a more comfortable, feel-good dose of “stable, radical change”. Most of all, it shines a satirical spotlight on the barely-discussed crisis of the contemporary Left: identity. Who are we? What do we stand for? Increasingly defined in opposition to authoritarian boogeymen rather than in favour of a progressive ideal, the Left is struggling to inspire.
Beneath the humour, The Surprise Party seems to be a cri de coeur from a lifelong progressive, desperate for the movement to be demonstrably more than just a collection of people who mean well. When the POPS sing “The Left is back and we’re right on track” with fists raised and invisible banners waving, vestiges of a glorious past, the irony is acidic.
That said, I don’t think Armstrong is calling for a new revolution. The play’s satire could work for either end of the spectrum. Essentially the play says that regardless of party colours, regardless of the high stakes and high drama, politics at all levels is primarily conducted by a bunch of schmucks faking it till they make it just like the rest of us. We shouldn’t be waiting for a heroic leader or party to solve all our problems. They’ll always let us down, because they’re only human. Enabling compromise is the only sustainable solution. Parliamentary democracy is not a contest to identify the best ideology and then do that indefinitely. It’s designed to formally enable different approaches to society’s challenges to influence each other, giving us the benefit of the full breadth of political thinking.
Armstrong’s play, if anything, seems to call for a return to commonality, a reminder in a divided age that we ultimately have more similarities than differences, and that the true founding principle of socialism is that we have to work together to stand a chance – and that includes with the people we disagree with.
That itself might be overly idealistic. But The Surprise Party reminds us that at the very least, in a darkened auditorium, we can always share a laugh.
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