Tiny Spectacle / Shitty Lyricism

BATS Theatre, Wellington

21/08/2012 - 25/08/2012

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

11/09/2012 - 15/09/2012

Production Details

Hello. These are two short shows (45mins each) that I have made over the last couple of years and am running together as a kind of ‘deluxe combo package’. 

The first show is called Honey. It is about love and won the award for ‘best newcomer’ at the 2012 Fringe Festival (the real one in Wellington). It features kissing and earnestness and backyard astronomy and leaps of broken logic and mice and cheese and easy-going colloquial language. 

The second show is called The Boy and the Bicycle. It is about depression and it won Playmarket’s Playwrights b425 Competition. It features live biking and spider-webs and muddied nostalgia and angst! angst! angst! and cellos and Sir Edmund Hillary.  

They’re attempts to express what it feels like to be a person who is alive and alone and surrounded by other people and maybe feeling trepidation but is alive nonetheless. They’re shows about contact and isolation; with people and one’s self and one’s astral plane.

I really hope you can find the time to come and see the shows.

Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
Tues 21 – Sat 25 August 2012, 8pm
$10 (concession) and $15 (regular).
Book tickets here: http://bats.co.nz/shows/tiny-spectacle-shitty-lyricism/ 

Thanks for reading
Joseph Harper 

Brazenly intellectual, expressionistic, blunt, emotionally rich and splendidly performed

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 12th Sep 2012

Tiny Spectacle/Shitty Lyricism is an evening of two short plays each written and directed by Joseph Harper. Honey comes first and is followed, after a 20 minute interval, by The Boy and the Bicycle. Both shows have been performed before but in Wellington so that doesn’t count.  

This season is performed upstairs – at the Basement – which sums it all up. Really, it does.  

There is an aura of sublime chaos about the evening which is both infectious and disarming. The writer/producer greets the audience – a full house – at the door to the studio and hands out what the programme itself describes as a ‘programme thing’ – a single sheet, ‘but only if you’d like one. You don’t have to take one, it’s up to you’.  I took one, and I’m glad I did.

It’s hand-written – a last minute thought, perhaps – on a scrap of lined paper and photocopied. It has witty little drawings – three of them – a mouse, something that looks like a globe and a bicycle. They remind me of something I might scratch out, not skilled but almost recognisable. The information has been hurriedly cobbled together but is all I need. All anyone would need.

At the bottom of the scribbled sheet there is a reminder, almost legible, that if we want ‘more information’ we should go to www.josephernest.blogspot.co.nz–which I did, but later.

I didn’t realise at the time but the evening had been beautifully encapsulated in this sweet-natured exchange.

The actor had connected with his audience – smart work. He now knew more about us than we knew about him. He’d eyeballed us and knew that we were almost as anxious as he was.

Somewhat heartening, I’m sure, as what was to come was, for Harper, more than a little autobiographical, exposing, and to us startlingly intimate.

He needn’t have worried.


After all, he knew what was coming and we did not.

I’d brought my family, a last minute decision, so my ten year old son was still in his karate gi. I hoped the decision would prove to be appropriate and it turned out it was.

Totally appropriate.

It was, in fact, a very happy choice.

It was clear from the outset that Tiny Spectacle/Shitty Lyricism had been staged ‘on the cheap’ but only as regards trappings and trimmings. Everything else it had ‘in spades’.

Later I found an anchor statement, written by Harper, for the season at Bats Theatre. He stated that the plays are “attempts to express what it feels like to be a person who is alive and alone and surrounded by other people and maybe feeling trepidation but is alive nonetheless.”

Specifically about Honey, he says “it is about love and won the award for ‘best newcomer’ at the 2012 Fringe Festival (the real one in Wellington). It features kissing and earnestness and backyard astronomy and leaps of broken logic and mice and cheese and easy-going colloquial language.”

He’s right about Honey – but not about the Wellington Fringe Festival being the real one. There are others …

Of both plays he concludes“they’re shows about contact and isolation; with people and one’s self and one’s astral plane.”


Honey opens with a scene featuring a mouse (Virginia Frankovich, the aforementioned ‘best newcomer’ from the Wellington Fringe).

Frankovich has been around the traps for awhile and is most impressive. She trained in physical theatre at the John Bolton School, has worked with ATC and already has a striking set of performance credentials.

Mouse appears intermittently throughout the 50 minute journey to tell us about the importance of cheese, how there is a place deep in her being where cheese rules and how life is about the uncontrollable urge to get the cheese even though you know that death is the probable outcome and that, ultimately, the odds are stacked against you. A life without cheese, she tells us, is no life at all. She digresses with descriptions of what she does with fluff and grass and we fall for her hook, line and sinker – but she never lets us forget that getting the cheese always comes at a price.

Mouse is dexterously fashioned and Frankovich is both likeable and a highly skilled and subtle artist. As an envoy for the play’s most powerful metaphor she completes the mission splendidly.

Harper and Frankovich then develop their central human characters with a transcendent naturalism, so sharp that, if we didn’t know better, we’d think they were making it up. Harper’s scripting is clever and richly textured and, for complex stuff, remarkably lucid.

Harper is a somewhat self-effacing performer who cleverly hides his significant talent behind a ‘not quite up for it, boy next door’ façade but we’re not really fooled. Not really, but we go along with it. For appearances sake, you know what I mean.

Each character has solo chunks of the action where the emotional revelations are personal, raw, intimate, funny and painfully real.

Harper’s solo, a self-described “black hole metaphor”, and his exploration of “spaghettification” are an expansive attempt to universalise everything because “it’s all a bit scary” but because of all this, there is actually no need to be afraid. It’s intelligent and intricate but delivered with an effortlessness that is commendable.

When the actors coalesce, quite literally, to dance Harper’s verbal pas de deux there are moments of pure magic. We learn what they fear from relationships, what they love about each other – bums, eyes, toothpaste squeezing – and we see them explore the ostensibly preposterous to solve the universal dilemma of remaining in a constant state of discovery, of finding ways in which love can be sustained forever, of having something good come to an inevitable end, of the tragic role played by compromise and, ultimately, of fathoming the unfathomable.

Honey is deep but deceptive.

It’s presented in a casual ‘take it or leave it’ style that’s contagious and illusory. It draws us in like flies to a honey pot and once we’re trapped it doesn’t let up until we think we understand, until we see eye to eye with Harper’s bizarre premise, until he’s got completely under our skin and we willingly agree with everything he proposes. He does this by knowing us, by fathoming who we are, by recording, with an uncompromising lyricism and never-ending good humour, our deepest fears and our most discontented hurts.

Frankovich and Harper are good singly, even better together, have a striking vehicle to communicate Harper’s untamed vision of the world (and beyond) and know how to work the room with integrity and panache.

Honey is thought-provoking work and, alone, worth venturing out on a spring night to experience. Harper’s script is stylish, challenging and witty, the material intimate yet universal, there are excellent performances and it’s just the right length.

It’s deceptive, though, very deceptive, and it’s sweet. Like the honey of the title. It sidles into your space and invades you. It resonates. Most of all, it resonates.


Followis Honey, after a 20 minute interval, is The Boy and the Bicycle: a solo work written and performed by Harper who, with Christopher Stratton, also directed the piece. It’s compelling theatre, raw, angry at times, disquieting yet irresistible

Harper describesThe Boy and the Bicycle as being about depression”. It features, he says, “live biking and spider-webs and muddied nostalgia and angst! angst! angst! and cellos and Sir Edmund Hillary.” Yes, it has all these.

Needless to say, while The Boy and the Bicycle has references to Hillary, the great man doesn’t actually put in an appearance. Even so I feel confident in suggesting that, had Hillary seen the production, he would have considered Harper to have well and truly “knocked the bastard off!”

The Boy and the Bicycle is a bit of a climb, make no mistake, but a worthwhile journey as was acknowledged when it won the inaugural Playmarket B4 25 playwrights competition in 2011.

Originally conceived by Harper as a UNITEC graduation piece, The Boy and the Bicycle is “a set of abstractions and parables”that aim to articulate his experiences with mental illness and, in particular, depression. Harper says the play features “big black dogs, adolescent misanthropy, outsider cello soundscapes, Sir Ed, post-spectacle ‘lighting’, and a talking bicycle.”

He goes on to say that “it’s a pretty subjective kind of thing but intentionally so. Expressionist or something. It’s a black comedy. Or a philosophical tragi-comedy or something. But it’s also helpful and can make you feel good, or like you’re a part of everything. Or at least not alone, y’know.”

He’s pretty much covered everything as anyone who has ever experienced severe depression will agree. It’s all there.

The studio upstairs at the Basement is the perfect venue for this work. It’s the classic ’70s black box, unadorned and unpretentious, and houses this dark work splendidly.

The set consists of a centrally placed ladder connected to the walls on either side by a tangled spider’s web of climbing ropes, a racing bike connected to a stand that enables it to be ridden without actually travelling anywhere, a palliasse and sheet on the floor.

A man (Joseph Harper) is attached to the ladder a few steps up. He is lit by a torch that he holds himself. Variously throughout he is self-lit by a lamp, lit by torch from the auditorium, lit by conventional lighting or simply working in the dark. It is clear from what he says that, initially, he cannot move.

He introduces the audience to the idea that he will share three stories – he thinks a lot, you see – and that these narratives will be colonized by people he has met, or perhaps they are simply memories, he’s not sure. Either way he’ll choose the most boring one and that, he says, is the point. His tone is dull to begin with, hesitant, but his voice becomes more authoritative, more performed, as his story progresses.

He tells us about his family, assures us from the saddle of the cycle that he was born on a bike, explains how, introduces us to his Grandfather, explains how Heenan’s Cycles, the first cycle shop in New Zealand and located in Hokitika, is now a WINZ office and how his family links to this. 

Then he talks about the family moving to Christchurch, his esteemed grandfather and his childhood. 

I zone in because, like Harper, I grew up in Christchurch, felt disconnected, hated school and had few friends. One of Harper’s great gifts is his ability to connect with individuals in his audience – both as dramatist and actor – without losing his connection to the universal. He rattles off a list of classmates and I knew them all, only the names had been changed to protect a different generational passage in time. 

‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘Christchurch. Now I understand’. I had grown up there, hated and feared my teachers, my classmates and my schools. So much so that, when I left school I became a teacher with the sole purpose of ensuring that no student in my care would have the experiences I had.

Ironically, I returned to Christchurch and, after 30 years, returned to teach at my old alma mater, Linwood College. I was gobsmacked to find that nothing had changed in all that time. The school was as hateful as ever and Harper’s personalised experience took me back to my time as a student, to my time as a teacher and to how I felt. It was a revelation.

Why mention that? Because good playwrighting touches the soul and Harper has real courage when it comes to publically facing his demons and enabling us, by proxy, to take ours out and have a safe peep at them too before returning them to wherever they usually, safely, reside.

Powerful stuff, without a doubt!

The Boy and the Bicycle script was crafted under the watchful eye of master playwright Gary Henderson (Skin Tight, An Unseasonable Fall Of Snow, Mo & Jess Kill Susie), himself from Canterbury, and it shows. The text is tight and angular, lyrical when required, poetic, and rough as guts with the pre-birth journey on the bike being exceptionally well written. While it doesn’t have Henderson all over it, it does share his admirably fearless approach and this I admired very much.

Perhaps my favourite – if favourite is the right word – cameo in the 55 minute traverse of this expansively expressionistic text is the faux duologue between Harper (as himself) and Dog (played by Harper). Lit from below by a single lamp, Harper resembles, in more ways than one, the late Sid Vicious; the spitefulness of the dialogue, while seriously upsetting, is mitigated by the sheer quality of the acting. Dog is the psycho-sociopath we all fear lies deep within us and with whom Harper has, at times, clearly had an intense relationship.

The Boy and the Bicycle is an extraordinary work performed by an extraordinary young actor but he’s not entirely alone. Virginia Frankovich provides a refined and minimalist percussion and Christopher Stratton affords us a gaunt and unpretentious cello. These facets of the production, while unobtrusive, contribute significantly to its success.

To tell you more would be to go too far because this is such a personal journey for audience and actor that it should really be experienced rather than read about. It’s very fine work written by a real talent and performed by an actor of serious ability. The fact that they are one and the same should give us all hope.

As an evening in the theatre these two works should almost be a ‘must see’. I’d certainly recommend them but with the following slight reservation. There is content in The Boy and the Bicycle that could be triggering for vulnerable folk so use your discretion. Personally, I found the productions affirming and stimulating and of a quality quite rare in that both works are brazenly intellectual, expressionistic, blunt and emotionally rich as well as being splendidly performed.

I can’t wait for Harper and Frankovich’s next outing – hopefully soon.

Admission is by koha as you leave – so take money!


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Intelligent writing, lively performance

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Aug 2012

Aucklander Joseph Harper’s Honey and The Boy on the Bicycle almost defy descriptions such is the existentialist nature of their writing.  But the intelligence of the writing and the laid back naturalistic style of delivery by Harper are such that both make fascinating and absorbing theatre.

In Honey, Harper is searching for love and wondering whether or not it goes on indefinitely. He and his partner Virginia Frankovich slowly come together physically and verbally, sharing and discussing their feelings for each other until eventually they turn into honey as honey “doesn’t go off”.

Harper also shares his ideas about black holes, the universe and things larger than life. In contrast to this is a third strand to the piece showing the minuteness of existence; a mouse talking about chesse, mouse traps and life inside her mouse hole.

But don’t be put off by all this as there is much humour in the piece and Harper being the performer of his own writing is able to take complete ownership of the work and infuse it with life in a way that makes it thoroughly engaging, aided by a consummate performance from Frankovich.

The second play of the evening, The Boy on the Bicycle, is a much darker piece about depression and is autobiographical – apparently Harper has experienced episodes of depression in his life. Initially it may seem, like depression itself, disjointed and confusing. The actual content doesn’t follow any logical through line; the various emotions associated with a mental illness such as anger, frustration, rejection, all surface to varying degrees.

The stage is dressed with two ladders and lengths of rope strung about like the tangled web of his life and of course the bike on which Harper has periods of pedalling furiously going nowhere, like his life.

No doubt for Harper this is cathartic and he is a brave soul to put all this out there for the world to see, but this is no indulgent, self-absorbing piece of angst. As with Honey, the piece before it, it is thoroughly engrossing and fascinating to watch, making both pieces a great if not readily comprehensible evening of theatre.  

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Buoyed with delight and excitement

Review by Maryanne Cathro 22nd Aug 2012

Tiny Spectacle/Shitty Lyricism comprises two shows: Honey, and The Boy and the Bicycle. I don’t understand the choice of name, but rest assured, these shows are neither a tiny spectacle nor shitty in any way.  

There is a quality to these shows that deliberately blurs the line between performer and writer. With them being one and the same, Joseph Harper comes across as being himself, but he is definitely performing. The style that alternates between conversations with imagined others, or with his co-performer Virginia Frankovich in Honey, and monologues to the audience, is refreshing, direct, and original.

I’ve tried to think of comparisons to other works, but honestly it just isn’t going to fly. Those conversations are for afterwards, not beforehand. For example, if I say Woody Allen, it is only because he too blurs the line between artist and artwork, and he is a bit quirky. But really, Harper is nothing like Woody Allen. So, we won’t go there – forget I mentioned it. 

The first play – Honey – deals with relationship. Sort of. Well, it has a boy and a girl in it, Harper and Frankovich, and they become an item. It also has Frankovich playing a mouse, with her own loves and obsessions. This play is a joy and a wonder, and charmed me completely.

What I particularly like about it is that you can access it at whatever level you feel like. Superficially, it is funny and quirky and entertaining. But under the surface is a taut and profound exploration of the nature of love, and its potential sustainability. And beneath that is an inquiry into the nature of ‘being’. Now if that lot doesn’t have the potential to get really pretentious, I don’t know what does. But that never happens; this play is way, way too real and honest and engaging. 

The second play is The Boy and the Bicycle – a solo piece devised by Harper with the able contribution of Chris Stratton. A play that starts with the protagonist lying up a ladder in the midst of a spider’s web … Is this some retake on Metamorphosis? The poster for a production of Kafka’s play is in the Pit Bar and I had just been musing on it. But no, nothing like; we’re quite safe.

I don’t really know what this piece is about. Harper tells us it is about his thoughts while living out a life paralysed in the web; thoughts about RomCom and Chase movies, and something else really boring. So we are warned, but the boring bit is just not true.

If I had to say what it was about, I’d say it’s about living with life; about dealing with depression, but also about the moments we all experience where life just will not fit together for us, and yet we just have to deal with it. 

Some of the text is beautiful – I remember this line in particular: “A sound that runs up and down your spine like a Venetian blind being flicked open and shut.” Something like that. Don’t we just know exactly what he means? 

I admit I walked into Bats knowing I wouldn’t have gone had I not been asked to review the show and hoping it was worth giving up an evening for. I walked out buoyant with delight and excitement at these plays and this new talent, talked about it all the way home and dreamed about honey. Now you can’t hope for better than that.  

[For reviews of previous separate productions, see Honey and The Boy and the Bicycle.] 


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