The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep

Maidment Theatre, Auckland

14/03/2009 - 04/04/2009

Auckland Festival 2009

Production Details

Honey’s life is about to begin…  

Alison Quigan stars in THE WIFE WHO SPOKE JAPANESE IN HER SLEEP by Vivienne Plumb, Auckland Theatre Company’s contribution to the Auckland Festival 2009 which opens at theMaidment Theatre on March 12.

"Quirky, provocative, consciously flirting with the surreal and the bizarre." —Metro

Honey Tarbox is an ordinary Kiwi housewife with ordinary quarteracre dreams, until one night when she inexplicably begins speaking Japanese in her sleep. Immediately the wheels are set in motion for Honey’s extraordinary transformation from suburban housewife into sleep-talking media megastar.

"This author has a wondrous, fresh approach: her style is always direct and simple so you utterly

believe." —Sunday-Star Times

"THE WIFE WHO SPOKE JAPANESE IN HER SLEEP is a sort of a 21st century Antipodean Shirley Valentine," says Auckland Theatre Company’s artistic director, Colin McColl. "It’s about a woman and a city in a state of transformation. It’s about embracing change and celebrating diversity. It’s about the power of imagining and the joy of discovery. In her reworking of the original short story, Vivienne has made this as much a play about Auckland (though perhaps not quite Auckland as we imagine it) as it is about a middle-aged woman taking control of her life.

"THE WIFE WHO SPOKE JAPANESE IN HER SLEEP is an original. Here is a work that is serious, funny, touching, magical, domestic and satirical all at the same time; a work that celebrates the miracles we can find in ordinary life."

Vivienne Plumb is an award winning playwright, poet and diction writer. She has received both the Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award and the Hubert Church Prose Award for THE WIFE WHO SPOKE JAPANESE IN HER SLEEP – a short fiction collection that includes the story which is the basis for Auckland Theatre Company’s play. In 2001 she held the Sargeson Fellowship and has held residencies in Iowa and Hong Kong.

New Zealand Post is the Principal Partner of the Auckland Theatre Company. New Zealand Post Group Chief Executive John Allen said, "New Zealand Post is a passionate supporter of the arts and culture in New Zealand. Not only do we have a close association with Auckland Theatre Company, but for the first time this year we are the Principal Sponsor of Auckland Festival 2009. THE WIFE WHO SPOKE JAPANESE IN HER SLEEP – a magical story filled with metamorphosis – is sure to be a highlight of the Festival."

Alison Quigan, who is best known to contemporary New Zealand audiences for her role as Yvonne Jeffries on Shortland Street, is a veteran of New Zealand theatre with over 35 years experience as an actress, director and playwright.  "Honey is a fantastic role to play, she’s a kind of kiwi Shirley Valentine, except that she doesn’t go abroad to discover herself the world comes to her…in her sleep!"

THE WIFE WHO SPOKE JAPANESE IN HER SLEEP will reveal the magic lurking behind the manicured gardens of suburbia! Tickets can be purchased at Maidment Theatre, 308 2383 or

Presented in association with The Auckland Festival 2009
Auckland, Maidment Theatre,
12 March – 4 April,

Mon (16 Feb only) – Wed, 6.30pm
Thur – Sat, 8pm
Sun Afternoons, 4pm
Sat Matinee, 28 Mar, 2pm
Book: 308-2383 or

Alison Quigan — Honey Tarbox
Bruce Phillips — Howard Tarbox
Katlyn Wong — Muhabbat, Mrs Wong, Momo
Peta Rutter — Barb, Miss Florica, Housewife
Stephen Papps — Duggie, Reg
Andy Wong — Delivery man, Kenta, Gus
John Campbell — John Campbell

Director — Colin McColl
Set Design — John Parker
Lighting Design — Brad Gledhill
Costume Design — Nic Smillie
Sound Design — John Gibson
Camera / Editor — Theo Gibson
Translation — Morita Masako
Language Coach / Voiceovers — Yuri Kinugawa
Cultural Advisor — Rie Shabata

Production Manager — Mark Gosling
Technical Manager — Bonnie Burrill
Senior Stage Manager — Fern Christie
ASM — Birgit Lindermayr
Kurogo — Chye-Ling Huang and Jordan Mooney
Operator — Brodie Quinn
Properties Master — Bec Ehlers
Set Construction — 2 Construct
Patternmaker & Costume Construction — Sheila Horton

Choosing to celebrate change and opportunity

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 16th Mar 2009

Playwright Vivienne Plumb and director Colin McColl choose the ideal creative team to bring to life Plumb’s quirky tale, The Wife Who Spoke Japanese In Her Sleep: a surreal antic about Honey Tarbox, an ordinary house-wife who suddenly starts doing exactly what the title says.

In particular, the combination of Brad Gledhill’s dynamic lighting and audiovisual design, and John Parker’s clean stylised set design, is a winning combination.

Parker’s magnificent movable box of over-sized shoji screens which open and close with the assistance of two black-clad Kurogo (stage hands in the Kabuki convention: Chye-Ling Huang and Jordan Mooney), with strong upper thighs and very good timing, is fantastic.

Gledhill takes full advantage of this rice-paper canvas with inventive and suggestive design. Familiar wallpaper slowly fades and as a new Honey evolves, Japanese writing pulses through the old pattern and colours become more and more vibrant. Gledhill’s use of shadows and shapes is also very effective, extending Honey’s hitherto insular world beyond the inside of the established box.

John Gibson’s sound design is a wonderful perfectly-timed mix of timeless, inoffensive ‘mall muzak’; crisp suggestive oriental textures and tinkles, dotted here and there; and common kiwi sounds, such as the hum of a distant lawn mower.

Nic Smillie’s costume design is similarly a wonderful mix of cultural contrasts: Beige and boring gives way to detailed beauty and bold colour, all Japanese in design, as Honey’s metamorphosis takes hold.

Finally, the black and white yucca massacre, captured by cameraman/editor Theo Gibson, as Honey declares war on Howard’s garden and decides to make it her own, is suitably stylised and melodramatic.

As to the story itself, Honey’s transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is rich with Plumb’s accessible humour and knowing observations about how everyday people choose to deal with extraordinary circumstances. The opening scene in particular, is an effective juxtaposition of normality and surrealism.

Straight away we plunge into Honey’s mind, hear her night-time ramblings, as a nocturnal oriental dream sequence unfolds, with 4 white-masked singers appearing in exquisite traditional kimono. The next morning we meet a regular retired kiwi couple living a narrow existence, immersed in domestic routine and the little things in life, with weather reports on the radio as their constant companion.

Howard is patriarchal, referring to Honey as ‘the wife’, pedantic, racist, talks in a series of clichés and is largely out of step with Auckland’s modern cosmopolitan landscape. Yet he gets enormously excited about his plants, especially the yuccas and is very comfortable making the bed in his y-fronts and sewing his patchwork quilt.

Honey is not so content. She frets, is essentially quiet and submissive as Howard condescends, (though the GP says her blood pressure is rising). She scans the junk mail for daily enlightenment and has no interests of her own, except the local mall. The highlight of their week from his perspective is staying home to watch a DVD and eat takeaways to mark their wedding anniversary.

Plumb sets up a familiar world for many, then takes us on an amusing magic ride as a seemingly normal middle-aged woman takes control of her new found gift, and celebrity status as a kind of ‘guru’ or psychic, and turns her life, and her husband’s, upside down.

Performances are individually sound, yet collectively uneven and out of step with one another. And herein lies the issue I have with this production overall: Yes, we are willingly drawn into Honey’s story. Initially. Quigan and Phillips are every bit the ordinary Kiwi couple from the ‘burbs and yes, I do suspend disbelief when Honey starts "turnin’-Japanese-ah". However, when some of the supporting cast deliver performances that are less naturalistic, even dissolving into caricature at times, it is difficult to view the end result as little more than a larger than life farce or slapstick. No doubt it is a intentional device by McColl to fuse our (my) western expectation of acting styles and storytelling, with the two most prominent forms of Japanese Theatre, Noh and Kabuki, which are characterized by stylized movement and gesture. Certainly Rutter’s energetic moments do get laughs from the opening night audience.

But from my perspective, the outcome is that two key moments revealing the magic of Honey’s gift as some sort of trans-cultural suburban prophet are rushed and clumsy: first, when Miss Florica, played by Peta Rutter, hears a tape of Honey’s nocturnal ramblings; second, when Honey’s sleep-talking is observed by a wider group. The ‘larger’ acting performances simply eclipse the pace, flow and story of the lead character. For me, the diverse performances jar with the fantasy world Plumb and the creative team have successfully brought their audience to.

A stand out performance for me is John Campbell. His pre-recorded cameo is (sorry, can’t help myself) … marvellous. His effortless comic timing and understated reaction make for a totally believable on-screen performance, which received an applause on opening night. Similarly, Stephen Papps pitches both Dougie, the alcoholic lawyer who has fallen from grace, and Reg the towie, with finely tuned realism.

Quigan takes every opportunity to immerse herself in Honey’s new world and even executes an impressive marshal arts sequence. Bruce Phillips does an effective job portraying the undisputed patriarch who becomes a lost husband struggling to cope with his wife’s newfound celebrity status and confidence.

Kathleen Wong shows versatility playing stroppy receptionist Muhabbat, brash businesswoman Mrs Wong and the shallow shop-a-holic Momo. While Andy Wong’s portrayal of Gus made me cringe, his Kenta is solid.

Finally, finishing this comical ride with a surprise blast from Nina Simone feels like an over-sentimental way to end a comedy about choosing to celebrate change and opportunity over cultural cringe and suburban-neurosis. Though perhaps finding the path that makes you feel good is the ultimate message to be taken from this production.  


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Actors and effects jostle for centre stage

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 16th Mar 2009

Auckland Theatre Company’s festival offering is a delightfully surreal fable based on Vivienne Plumb’s award-winning short story about a timid middle-aged housewife whose life is transformed when she inexplicably starts sleep-talking in a language she does not understand.

The theme of metamorphosis is brilliantly realised in John Parker’s set design, which folds and unfolds like a piece of origami to reveal a succession of magical chambers and surprising vistas. The effect is intensified by Brad Gledhill’s stunning lighting and projection effects that have Japanese calligraphy popping out of the wallpaper while whole rooms are enveloped by blossoming flowers or falling petals. [More]


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