BATS Theatre, Wellington

25/11/2011 - 03/12/2011


Production Details

The PlayGround Collective’s The Tinderbox is an epic adventure based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale of a soldier who comes upon a magic tinderbox. Can he resist the temptation to use it for evil? Will he find redemption and save the woman he loves? Or will he fall prey to those who will do anything to get their hands on the Tinderbox?

A visual and aural feast, the play creates a world where the enchantment of fairytales meets the horrific reality of war on a backdrop reminiscent of the Wild West – a place where revenge, redemption and courage rein. With extraordinary design, innovative and imaginative storytelling devices are used such as puppetry, shadow play and object transformation to create a work with poetic depth and emotional resonance.

The Tinderbox is a coming-of-age story as the soldier figures out how to live in the world, written by last year’s Bruce Mason award winner Eli Kent, and co-created with Robin Kerr, Gareth Hobbs, and Eleanor Bishop.

As director, Eleanor notes why the young theatre company were particularly interested in exploring the story: “The transition from being children to adults is an issue that we can relate to. We are all raised on fairy tales that promise the good life – ‘Happily Ever After.’ In the case of The Tinderbox it is in exchange for very little, simply for being a ‘good person’. So as a child we think we will grow up to be very important and rich, a hero. As we emerge from being children, we are struck by the realisation that reality is very different to the fairy tale promise.”

The creative process for The Tinderbox is hugely influenced by the feedback received from other creatives, invited guests and audience goers. The idea of the audience having open opportunity to influence a work is not a new one, however is rarely seen in Wellington theatre.

The first of the works three acts was developed in January 2011 as part of The Peek Party at the Gryphon Theatre. The audience and critical response to this first part of the work was tremendous, playwright Ken Duncum calling it  “funny, poignant and consistently inventive.”

Audience feedback will also be encouraged for the upcoming STAB season. Bishop says the reason for active feedback from the audience is “it shows them that the work is really a response to the world around us, and encourages them to make their own connections, and to think about what they are interested in or curious about”. Online blogs and a Facebook page, forms at the box office and discussions with company members after each show will be encouraged to collate the feedback.

From the collective that brought Katydid and the hugely successful The Intricate Art of Actually Caring to Wellington audiences, The Tinderbox promises to be another creatively innovative production that will harness the audience’s imagination. 

BATS Theatre
25 Nov – 3 Dec, 7:30pm
Tickets: $15/$20
To book: 802 4175 or book@bats.co.nz  

Soldier:  Richard Dey
Elvira:  Erin Banks
Leader/Old Man/Dog:  Gareth Hobbs
Cerberus Jones/Chassis Onassis/ Dog:  Robin Kerr
Chase K. Dillinger/The Queen/Top Dog:  Leon Wadham

Movement Director:  Luke Hanna
Set and Costume Design:  Alice Hill
Lighting Design:  Marcus McShane
Sound Design:  Andrew Simpson & Gareth Hobbs
Assistant Director:  Bop Murdoch
Production Manager:  Monique Webster
Stage Manager:  Olivia Mahood
Production Assistant:  Emma White
Set Construction:  Miki Glowacki
Puppet Design & Realisation:  Jon Coddington & Robin Kerr
Puppet Mentors:  Gina Moss & Nina Nawalowalo
Audio Engineer & Sound Operation:  Andrew Simpson
Lighting Operator:  Rowan McShane
Design Assistant:  Ana McGowan
Design Assistant:  Abby Rainbow
Projection Design:  Robin Kerr
Projection Realisation:  Lucy Stone
Fight Choreography:  Richard Dey & Luke Hanna
Script Advisor:  Ken Duncum
Youth Workshop Co-ordinator:  Stuart Henderson
Marketing Design:  Matthew Gleeson and Rob Appierdo for Storybox
Production Photography:  Philip Merry
Publicist:  Adrianne Roberts

A powerful production: don’t miss it

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 28th Nov 2011

The only real giveaway that the brilliant, brilliant production of Tinderbox is in a “development season” is that it is almost two hours long sans interval. However, despite a couple of restless moments it was still thrilling to be present at the premiere of this cautionary tale set in a nightmarish mythical 19th century town somewhere in the Badlands of the western USA: no country for either old or young men.

Hans Christian Andersen’s story has been given an epic sweep – a dark Odyssey – with the central figure, a morally troubled soldier (played with a disturbing emotional isolationism by Richard Dey), who is a deserter from a 1000-year war and who, when he rescues the tinderbox from an underground cave for a scrawny old man, is told that the tinderbox will assist him in becoming the man “you want to be.”

In his quest to become the man he wants to be he enters the nearby town to find it controlled by a pyromaniac bully and Chassis Onassis who is keen on catching and hanging deserters. The town is ruled over by an ageing arthritic Queen who runs the brothel and her young orphan Elvira (Erin Banks), a prostitute who dreams of a shining white knight coming to rescue her. And then there are the dogs that appear when the tinderbox is struck: masked, rapacious, frightening.

Beware what you wish for, the soldier learns, because heroism, love, wealth, fame lead only to killing in the morally parched landscape of the modern age so powerfully and simply suggested in this production: a bare raised stage with a trap door, a curtain onto which are projected from two overhead projectors a shadowy town, the occasional back projection of dark, blood-filling images, two walls covered with ropes and props.

The use of puppetry is superb: the brothel madam (Tennessee Williams could have created her) is confined to a wheel-chair and operated vocally (a memorable performance) by Leon Wadham, while scrawny old man is a scraggy puppet with an inverted billycan for a head. Chassis Onassis (Robin Kerr) is a hessian monster with glowing eyes. 

The lighting, costumes, sound, the stage fights, and the music and singing (particularly Gareth Hobbs), and Eleanor Bishop’s direction all combine to make this the start of a memorable production you would be foolish to miss. 


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Wondrously crafted production of great intelligence, wisdom and creative inquisitiveness

Review by John Smythe 26th Nov 2011

Billed as “a development season for a much larger work,” The Playground Collective’s Tinderbox offers a theatrically ingenious and dramatically compelling two-hour enquiry into the expectations and experiences of young adults as they confront the realities of life in the wake of childhoods conditioned by fairytales.  

The programme note reveals the starting point for the Collective’s Robin Kerr, Eli Kent and Eleanor Bishop was a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s early work, The Tinderbox, and “a shared desire to tell an epic adventure on a miniature scale.” As I recall it, the first act’s outing at ‘The Peek Party’ back in January – also involving Gareth Hobbs – displayed much inventiveness, with shadow puppetry, a billycan puppet and clever uses of overhead projectors (also used to great effect in The Intricate Art of Actually Caring).

Following the ‘peek’, they stepped back to address the bigger question of what fairytales had taught them as kids and how it impacted them now. “What, now, did we want to rail against? We thought about our generation, everyone in such a rush to be a success and make it happen, and the disappointment and betrayal we sometimes felt as grownups, looking back on the fairy-tale promise.”

All I remember about the Danny Kaye rendition of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox, heard often on 2YA’s Sunday Morning Request Session, is the three dogs with eyes as big as tea cups, saucers and dinner plates, who guarded chambers of copper, silver and gold coins. Reading the story now, albeit in English translation, I am shocked:

A soldier, returning from the war, accepts a “horrid looking” witch’s offer of as much money as he can carry provided he ventures down through a hollow tree to retrieve an old tinderbox for her. But when she refuses to say why she wants the tinderbox, the soldier – despite being laden with cash – beheads her with his sword and keeps the shabby tinderbox for himself (although because it is shabby, he quickly forgets it).

When he lives the highlife in town he is very generous with his wealth because it buys him popularity. It’s not until the money runs out and he’s living in a dark attic that he remembers the tinderbox, strikes the flint for light and discovers it summons the dogs to do his bidding. Thus, each night, he abducts the fabled princess imprisoned in a palace by her doting patents, so that he can gaze upon her sleeping form and kiss her hand.  

When he is found out and sentenced to hang, he gets a boy to retrieve the tinderbox from his attic (for tuppence), asks to smoke a pipe before he dies and gets the dogs to destroy the councillors, judges, king and queen – for which he is rewarded by being made king and taking the princess as his queen. (The princess gets no say in her fate but is said to like it “much better than living a prisoner in the copper palace”.)

No wonder Kent, Kerr, Hobbs and Bishop – now joined by Erin Banks and Ricky Dey – felt compelled to question the value systems inherent in such stories; not least the place of women and the nature of ‘heroism’. Eli Kent’s resulting script combines with Gareth Hobb’s haunting songs and Robin Kerr’s creative imagery (he designed and made the puppets with John Coddington) to pit the magic realism of folk tales against the universal realities of war, all infused with a ‘wild west’ ethos.

The enigmatic Soldier, played with compelling introversion by Ricky Dey, is a guilt-ridden deserter, escaping from the 1000-year war. He has “the stare of a child who has spent his life trying to become the hero in his own story.” The Old Man who asks him to retrieve his grandpappy’s tinderbox from down a deep hole is a puppet made from a billycan, torch and fabric superbly manipulated and voiced by Banks and Hobbs.

Coached by movement director Luke Hanna, the Dogs, unexpectedly encountered in the depths, are lithely played by Leon Wadham (just graduated from Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School), Kerr and Hobbs, with Wadham as the speaking Top Dog. The inspired use of gas masks to evoke their heads turns out to have special significance as we learn the Soldier escaped toxic gas at the expense of his mate; an act of self-preservation that now torments him. A clever inversion in a later scene sees the ‘Dogs’ choke while under the masks and breathe better when free of them.  

When the Soldier questions the validity of a deal based on a lie (i.e. the failure to mention the Dogs), the Old Man lunges for the tinderbox, the Soldier automatically defends himself with a knife, as per his training and – to the Soldier’s horror – the Old Man dies.

Top Dog explains the ‘three strikes’ principle: the Soldier will get three opportunities to summon the dogs to his bidding. In the process he needs to determine whether the man he wants to become is able to handle unbridled power by commanding the Dogs, who will exist only to serve him.

What follows is a series of challenges that invariably end in his having to kill – as heroes apparently do. Sure, the foes are bad guys: Cerberus Jones, the once-bullied pyromaniac who burned his own face off and now bullies a whole town; the malevolent Chassis Onassis, intent on hunting down deserters and hanging them publicly as an example.  Both are played with flair by Kerr, the latter as a gross hessian puppet.

Presiding over the town is a decrepit old Queen: a wonderfully crafted white puppet brilliantly animated and voiced by Wadham. And in her care is Elvira, taken in as a waif when she was 12 and ever since obliged to pay her way through prostitution. The ‘queen’ and ‘princess’ are the Kent /Playground take on what royalty amounts to in the context of a 1000-year war.  

Erin Banks’ Elvira is superbly pitched on the cusp of dependence and independence; feeling she owes her very life to the Queen while beginning to see she’s entitled to seek something less demeaning. Her relationship with the Soldier becomes central to the unfolding plot. She has, of course, sustained herself with dreams of a ‘knight in shining armour’ carrying her away to everlasting happiness …

What with her sordid reality and romantic fantasy, and his confusion over who he is and what will make him a man, they may or may not turn out to be good for each other. 

While some elements could be better clarified so that we get their significance in the moment rather than in retrospect, the production is already rich in allusion and metaphor. For example, when the Soldier claims his reward for vanquishing Cerberus Jones, and the Dogs give Elvira a mind-blowing experience (a truly astonishing sequence), he feels absent (i.e. overdoing the sex aids can do that to a relationship).

The Soldier’s final challenge to his would-be assassin does (ex)pose the central question: why do we equate fighting in wars with heroism? Will there ever be a time when such impertinence is no longer pertinent?

Production-wise the meta-theatrical mechanics – the puppets, three OHPs, ropes and pulleys, sound-effects and other devices – are manipulated in plain sight, except when they’re not. From time to time a back-projected image enhances a scene with the live drawing of white lines in a carbon-dust field to illustrate a point or idea: a somewhat mysterious and magical effect.

The costumes designed by Alice Hill are spot on. Her set design adorns the side walls of the performing space with old picture frames, tools, utensils and musical instruments. The raised stage allows for the well-utilised trap-door and elevates the central action from the peripheral support activity. Marcus McShane’s lighting design, and the sound by Andrew Simpson and Gareth Hobbs, complete this wondrously crafted production.   

I have no idea what the future plans are for Tinderbox but my recommendation is, don’t wait to find out. Catch this Bats/staB season now (the best value-for-money you’ll get in Wellington theatre) because if you see it twice, or see it again in its next iteration, I’m sure you will get even more from it.  

The Playground Collective has drawn together some of Wellington’s most exciting young talent to mount a show of great intelligence, wisdom and creative inquisitiveness. Thank goodness, then, that Bats and therefore this annual Stab season are set to live on, thanks to the generosity of Sir Peter and Lady Jackson (Fran Walsh) in buying the building and becoming Bats’ landlords (see news item and forum). 


Corus December 2nd, 2011

I'm sure that after so many accolades on a site that is overwhelmingly and in my view amateurishly positive, everyone will somehow survive my few lines of criticism. So no, I see no need to add positive comment to the cloying pile, even though I do enjoy most theatre that I see. 

Ensemble December 2nd, 2011

What bemuses me, Corus, is why you go to the theatre given how little you enjoy it - especially shows that don't spoon-feed you and trust you to bring something more than a jaundiced attitude to the experience.  Perhaps you could post a favourable comment, once in a while, when you see something you like, so we can understand you better. Or is that never likely to happen?

Corus December 1st, 2011

I'm thoroughly bemused by the reviews of this show. I had to check the name to make sure it was the same one I'd seen.  My friends and I found it thin and unfocused, not particularly original, and detected little of the promise or skill rhapsodised about here. I would be interested to hear if others felt the same. 

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